PURUSHOTTAMA BILIMORIA and ALEKSANDRA WENTA (eds):
Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems.
x, 287 pp. New Delhi: Routledge, 2015. ISBN 978 1 138 85935 7.
Emotions have a history in South Asia, if hardly anything like an adequate historiography.
The editors of this book agree: “much more work . . . needs to be done to
improve our understanding of emotions in India, especially with regard to historicaldevelopment of emotional experience and the methods of its conceptualization” (p. 1). Any such history will have to be twinned with the history of what we, not always helpfully, call religions, tracked in this book as species of a genus the editors call “Indian thought-systems” in the title, and “pre-modern Indian traditions of knowledge” in the preface (p. ix). The vast South Asian corpus of theoretical literature affords us one of the best sources for the contested descriptions under which emotions can be seen to come into view and change. To that end, this book represents what the editors call “a modest step” (p. 1). Along with love – surely the best studied emotion in South Asia – the book includes desire, fear, heroism, awe, anger, disgust and “modern” despair. Severally, the papers address many traditions, in not a few languages, periods and places. The step may be modest but the stride is wide.
The path from conference to publication risks a book uneven in focus and unevenly successful. A collection of nine essays stemming from a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Shimla in 2012, this book does not escape the limitations of its genre. The essays that do succeed, however, recommend the book to any serious student of South Asia and emotions in general.
The contributions by Rafaele Torella, Bettina Sharada Bäumer and Aleksandra Wenta are uniformly rewarding, combining exacting philological rigour with sophisticated interpretations. In these essays tantra is revealed to be something of a new paradigm for religious praxis and sensibility, with the trans-valuation of emotion in general, and the revaluation of particular emotions, partly constitutive of that paradigm. These essays are profitably read together with Andrea Acri’s excellent “Between impetus, fear and disgust”, where the familiar yet difficult word saṃvega is tracked across Buddhist, Yoga and Śaiva traditions for the subtle nuances in the meanings the word comes to express and the increasingly prominent role of theology in reframing the meanings of emotional experiences. The essay on love in Sahajiyā Vaisṇạvism in colonial Bengal by Delmonico and Sarkar is a gift of rare material (a practitioner’s notebooks!) and sensitive commentary. They valuably underscore in closing that the experience of love is here oriented towards the achievement of “becoming fully human” (p. 175). Collocate the insights of Delmonico and Sarkar with the resonating convictions the eighth-century playwright Bhavabhūti gave Rāma to express in verse 1.39 of Rāma’s Last Act for an indication of how a history of the emotions ought to include the history of literature in South Asia.
It is unfortunate that the history of aesthetics, whose long and perhaps unique investment in cataloguing the emotions as such, and whose developing concern with a hermeneutics of emotions was pivotal for many Indian scriptures and communities, is only weakly represented here. For a more balanced diet, see Sheldon Pollock’s “From Rasa seen to Rasa heard” in Caterina Guenzi and Slyvia d’Intino (eds), Aux Abords de la clarière: Études indiennes et comparées en l’honneur de Charles Malamoud (Paris: Brepols, 2012), 189–207. More generally, as the work of Lee Siegel and Daud Ali among others has shown, without the intimately related disciplines of pleasure and power, no history of Indian religions is complete.
More worryingly, “Pre-modern India” in this book, however unintentionally,
excludes Islam. One loses thereby the kind of climate of thought and feeling which informed bhakti in North and Central India, and obscures from view more finely grained stories of possible connections and continuities, such as that of the Jain layman Banarsidas of the fifteenth century, firmly in love with love as expressed by a Sūfi (Ardhakathānak 171a–b) long before he invested himself in experiments with new forms of Jaina spirituality (adhyatma). Happily, the work of many, such as Aditya Behl and Francesca Orsini, can be used to make up for such omissions. In the long run, any history of the emotions will have to be promiscuous with respect to disciplines, traditions and archives. One outstanding contribution this book makes lies in the introduction where the editors, by way of “theorizing emotions in India”, provide a veritable genealogy of what one might call the history of philosophical anthropology in India (10–47). Covering some of the same ground as Rafaele Torella’s essay in the book, the editors’ genealogy explicitly builds on Alexis Sanderson’s path-breaking “Purity and power among the Brahmans of Kashmir”, in M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes (eds), The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 190–216. Together, such genealogies valuably suggest that the way in which emotions have been understood and valued in South Asia varies with the ways in which personhood has been valued and conceived. If what we call “emotions” have in South Asia at times been conceived as being more or less bound up with categories such as unconscious dispositions, experiential memory and praxis, while at other times being treated as more-or-less of a piece with what a phenomenology of consciousness might disclose, such decisions matter. Can we make sense of the possibility of being, like Bhavabhūti’s Rāma, angry, or in pain for a long time without knowing it? At least, any history of emotions in South Asia will have to consider such questions if it is to make use of the editors’ insight that the essays in this volume can show how “the emotions . . . contribute to the praxical modes of religious ‘being-in-the-world’”(p. 36).
Ironically, this book’s attempt to think with South Asia’s theoretical pasts has convinced me that a history of emotions would do well to think with a less monolithic category than the modern “emotion”. Pre-moderns, whether in Europe (as Anastasia Philippa Scrutton has long argued) or South Asia, typically had recourse to far more diverse, nuanced and flexible vocabularies. We ought to understandt hem better.
University of Virginia