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Becoming Self-Aware In Words: A Sanskrit Lexicon of Emotions

Sophus Helle

Literacy begins with lexicons. An ancient Egyptian text named The Onomasticon of Amenope opens with a splendid promise: it is the place to begin “for clearing the mind, instructing the ignorant, and learning all things that exist…” But what follows it may disappoint some readers: it is a list of words. While these words are arranged in interesting ways, few today would feel that a lexical list would clear their mind or lead them understanding. But the Onomasticon is just one example of the surprisingly crucial, and sometimes surprisingly emotional, role that lexicons have played in literary culture all over the world.

When writing was invented—in the form of the cuneiform script that was developed in what is now southern Iraq in the mid-fourth millennium BCE—it was immediately put to this use: the earliest surviving texts are either records of trade (essentially Sumerian IOU’s) or lists of words and signs that established order in the newly invented system. Lexical lists became the backbone of cuneiform culture for the next three millennia, shaping the literature, religion, and science of the Babylonians and Assyrians through the linguistic structure that they imposed on the world.

The listing of words has been an engine of insight for thousands of years and from Chinese courts to European cathedrals. But at some point during Western modernity, lexicons lost their luster, becoming associated instead with uninventive and dreary scholarship. Think of the “pale usher” who provides the etymologies for “whale” with which Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick begins: “threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars . . . it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” Lexicons still seem able to clear the mind and soothe the heart, but more dismally so.

But if one were to fall back in love with lexicons and rediscover there the joy and jumble that comes from long list of words, then Maria Heim’s Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India would be a good place to start. The book consists of 177 alphabetically arranged entries about words for emotions and emotion-like states culled from the Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali languages. Just as the title promises, it is a “thesaurus” in the etymological sense of the word: a treasure trove of gems.

Each of the 177 entries, which range in length from a single paragraph to a few pages, is a miniature essay, unpacking the appeal of each word. These explanations are peppered with scenes and quotations from the classics of Indian literature, such as the mighty epic Mahabharata or the ethical reflections of Jain monks. The result is a hybrid genre: the book is like a peddler of emotional spices that has set up shop at the crossroads of philology and psychology, essays and encyclopedias, lexicons and life advice.

Maria Heim. Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India. Princeton University Press, August 16, 2022. pp 376. $35.00, hardcover.

Under “A,” for example, we meet such terms as abhaya, fearlessness understood not as courage, but as a gift we grant other creatures so that they need not fear us; abhimana, the conceit of thinking of oneself as distinct from the world or as identical with one’s body; anannatannassamitindriya, the faculty or spiritual force that drives us to know what is yet unknown to us, serving as a “bridge from delusion to wisdom”; and atihasa, an excess of hilarity that has no apparent cause or reason. As this list shows, the terms gathered in Heim’s book range from grand passions like wrath or desire to what Sianne Ngai would term “minor feelings”—subtler slivers of the emotional spectrum.

The book’s blend of listing and philosophizing is itself an homage to the Sanskrit tradition, where thinkers often parse the concept under study into long series of subdivisions. While this penchant for thinking-by-listing has been adapted in Heim’s book to modern Western tastes, especially through the lighter touch of the essayistic form, it remains a good sample of Sanskrit literature and philosophy, that will, I am sure, whet many appetites for more writings from and about classical India.

Part of the joy of delving into the world of classical India is the wealth of traditions—both literary, philosophical, religious, and political—that gather there, from the great Hindu epics through Buddhist polemics to Jain moral musings, all of which illuminate the inner life of our emotions differently. Most words in Heim’s book come from Sanskrit, but due attention is also paid to Prakrit, Sanskrit’s “vernacular” sister-language, and Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism.

The best entries are often those that juxtapose different conceptions of the same word. Take abhimana, which I glossed above, with the Buddhist commentators, as the conceit of being different from the world. But other Sanskrit theorists read it differently: as a self-awareness that forms the foundation of aesthetic enjoyment, since it allows us to sense ourselves sensing the world.

Or consider ingita, the outer expressions that allow one to deduce an inner feeling, and whic are crucial to the craft of both spy and seducer: the first is described in the Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft, the other in the Kama Sutra, the famous treatise on desire. The target audience of both books must learn the subtle art of deducing what emotions lie behind appearances, but their aims could not be more different—death and sex, respectively.

So can the format of the word list then succeed at “clearing the mind”—that is, at offering some kind of clarity about the welter of thoughts and feelings that go on inside us? One would, at first, think not. The format of the lexicon seems to be the antithesis of what emotions feel like: the lexicons seems too sterile, strict, and structured to capture the obscure and ever-changing inner landscape that we call emotions.

In reality, however, lists are better than many other formats at teaching us about emotions, because of their constant potential for proliferation. Lists allow for endless additions and for the creation of lists within lists that bring further nuance to the slipperiness of feeling. What seems at first like the pedantic hair-splitting of psychological states turns out to be an open-ended repository of affective possibilities, driving the reader from minutiae towards multiplicity.

The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, concludes his analysis of erotic nail-scratching with a sentence that could easily serve as a method statement for both his book and Heim’s: “Because the things people can imagine are infinite, and there are infinite kinds of dexterity, and one can learn anything by practice and repetition, and passion is at the very heart of scratching with nails, who could survey all the forms?” A list can only gesture at the infinity of the world; an emotional lexicon reveals nothing so much as the possibility of other emotions.

One question that Heim leaves largely open is the degree to which words actively shape our emotional experience. For sure, learning the word “hangry” has changed my life, by giving shape, and suggesting a remedy, to a recurring problem: since I began always carrying snacks with me, my emotionally outbursts have dramatically declined. In the eighth-century play Rama’s Last Act, one character remarks that the existence of the word cakshuraga, “eye-love”—vaguely equivalent to our “love at first sight”—proves that the feeling must be real as well. Having linguistic containers in which to fit our experiences helps those experiences feel more real, and so they become more real.

But that doesn’t make Heim, or her Sanskrit interlocutors, a linguistic determinist. One of her favorite words (besides “horripilate,” which I enjoyed less) is “inflect.” She asks, for example, whether language inflects what it is possible for people to feel. Inflect is less strict than “determine” and more forceful than “influence,” but most tellingly, it is a grammatical metaphor: one inflects verbs for tense and nouns for number, changing their meaning somewhat, but not completely. That seems like a good analogy for how grammar in turn affects our experience: somewhat, but not completely.

There is one question that keeps recurring in the book. It is a question that has been foundational to both Western and Indian aesthetics, taking pride of place in both Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BCE) and Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra (of unclear date, estimates vary from 500 BCE to 500 CE). The question is this: Why do we enjoy unenjoyable emotions when they are depicted in literature or art? Why do we like to witness the suffering of epic heroes, why do we relish the pain of tragic lovers, and why would anyone watch a horror movie?

While they pose much the same question, Aristotle and Bharata Muni reach different conclusions—though neither of their answers is clear-cut, and the differences and overlaps between them have been much debated. But it seems that Aristotle’s answer has to do with mimetic distance: the “distance of representation” that separates the pain we witness on the stage from our immediate lives, and so allows us to pour our difficult emotions into that represented event, thereby achieving catharsis, the release of repressed feeling.

Bharata Muni’s answer, meanwhile, has more to do with ingestion than distance. The keyword for him, and for all subsequent Indian aestheticians, is rasa, meaning “juice, taste, flavor, essence.” This rasa is distinct from bhava, which means (roughly) an emotional state. When playwrights create a rasa in their stories, they allow the audience to savor a given bhava: the tragic rasa savors grief, the rasa of horror savors fear, the erotic rasa savors desire, the heroic rasa savors willpower, and so on. In most plays, according to Bharata Muni, various rasa’s are brought together in elegant combinations, but one will dominate.

It is this distinction that yields Bharata Muni’s answer to the fundamental puzzle of aesthetics: a deeply unpleasant bhava may yield an enjoyable rasa, as with the relation between fear and horror (the genre). But just as with Aristotle’s mimesis and catharsis, this account raises just about as many questions as it answers, leading centuries of Sanskrit scholars to ponder the matter further.

A particularly telling example is karuna, the rasa of sorrow—what we in the West call “tragedy.” As Heim asks: “how is it that we can find aesthetic pleasure—the tragic—in sadness?” The answer provided by the ninth-century literary theorist Anandavardhana is that karuna, the tragic rasa, is the sweetest of all rasa’s (along with the similar rasa of separated lovers), because “in these cases the heart is softened to a great degree.” What we find in the savoring of sorrow is thus our own vulnerability—the vulnerability of all humans to affliction.

As is typical of the Sanskrit tradition, Anandavardhana’s elaboration on Bharata Muni’s theory in turns receives further elaboration, in the commentary by Abhinavagupta. He notes that “the sensitive audience,” upon witnessing a tragic story, “abandons its natural hardness, its imperviousness, its liability to the flame of anger and its passion for the marvelous and for laughter . . . in the relish of karuna the heart completely melts.”

Heim concludes that the tragic gives us pleasure because it nudges us out of emotional ruts, “levels our passions, makes us porous to the world, and melts down our rigidities.” If that does not clear your mind, I don’t know what will.


Sophus Helle is a translator and cultural historian. He works on ancient literature in general, and the Babylonian epics in particular. His translation and study of Gilgamesh is out now with Yale University Press.


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