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  • Looking at Well-Crafted Objects
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

ramyāṇi vīkṣya madhurāṃś ca niśamya śabdānparyutsuko bhavati yat sukhito'pi jantuḥtac cetasā smarati nūnam abhodha pūrvaṃbhāvasthirāṇi jananāntarasauhṛdāni

  • ramyāṇi. beauties, beautiful objects

  • vīkṣya. having seen

  • madhurāṃ. sweet, honeyed

  • ca. and

  • niśamya. having heard

  • śabdān. sounds

  • paryutsuko. (bv. cmpd.) restless, stricken

  • bhavati. becomes

  • yat. he who

  • sukhito. content, happy

  • 'pi. (api) even

  • jantuḥ. man, person

  • tat-cetasā. with his heart

  • smarati. remembers

  • nūnam. now (here: perhaps)

  • abodha. without knowing

  • pūrvaṃ. previously, long ago

  • bhāva. emotions

  • sthirāṇi. stationed, established

  • janana-antara. (of a) former lifetime

  • sauhṛdāni. loves, companions [End Page 42]

Looking at well-crafted objectshearing sweet musiceven the contented persongrows edgypierced by unknown desires.Could it be deepin the heart one uncoversthe trace of a loverfrom lifetimes ago?

This poem occurs in Kālidāsa’s dramatic work The Recollection of Śakuntalā. Indian poets and critics have cited it for centuries, using it to get to the heart of rasa.

In the play, a young warlord on a hunting expedition encounters a girl, Śakuntalā, who has been raised in a cloistered forest ashram by her mendicant father. Prince and girl fall for each other and consummate their love in a wooded glade. By India’s old conventions, this is a “gandharva wedding”—a ceremony sanctified by the gandharvas, celestial musicians who watch over human love. The young couple strolls through the woods after their lovemaking and literally trip across a severe recluse, disrupting his meditation. In a fit of rage, the powerful yogin hurls a curse: when the prince returns home, no matter his vows, all memory of Śakuntalā will be obliterated.

In a subsequent scene, the warlord is back in his life of wealth and rank when he hears a strain of music drift through the palace. A former lover of his plays on a musical instrument in her far-off quarters, the song a subtle reproach for his neglect of her. His heart, unexpectedly pierced, becomes paryutsuka, troubled, full of longing, brimming with uncertain desire and regret. The audience knows that a trace of Śakuntalā, some thin strand of passion, runs through his body, too buried by the curse to rise into consciousness. It is at this moment in the play—most likely accompanied by ceremonial dance—he recites, ramyāṇi vīkṣya

For poets, the stanza is the perfect isolation of rasa, bedrock emotional territory that underlies our surface passions. The purpose of poetry is to access that subconscious material, to provide a “taste” of the underlying white-hot encounter with what’s real. To the philosopher this taste is a “foretaste” of spiritual liberation.

Most Indian accounts of the origins or the purpose of art have proceeded from the concept of rasa, ever since the Kashmiri poet-philosopher Abhinavagupta set down its metaphysical basis in the tenth- or eleventh-century treatise Abhinavabhāratī. The eight (or at times nine or ten) rasas are the names of emotional states: erotic love, humor, [End Page 43] grief, rage, revulsion, horror, heroism, and wonder. Laid out in a visual psychology, each has a color, a direction, a deity, a time of day or year, and many other associations. Originally meaning juice, sap, semen, rasa came to mean the essence or life-juice of anything, its “taste.” René Daumal translated rasa as saveur.

The questions raised by this poem edge into psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology, and ecology. What is the wild unnamed edginess a person approaches in art? Why should things of beauty provoke desire instead of allay it? How far does memory reach, and through it do we actually touch other persons? How is art able to make us feel as though we’ve brushed against former life memories?

The poem uses technical terms hard to match closely in English. Ramyāṇi are things that are gorgeous because they provoke bodily desire, from the verbal root ram, to make love. The bhāva-sthirāṇi are deep-seated personal emotions—almost “complexes”—at the core of the individual...


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