Ancient Western and Indian aesthetics

Ancient Western Aesthetics

It could be argued that ‘ancient aesthetics’ is a term that belongs to a different era or period, since aesthetics as a discipline originated in 18th century Germany. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that ancient Greek and Indian philosophers discussed and theorized about the nature and value of aesthetic properties. They also undoubtedly contributed to the development of the later tradition because many classical theories were inspired by ancient thought; and, therefore, ancient philosophers’ contributions to the discussions on art and beauty are part of the traditions of aesthetics.

The ancient Greek philosophical tradition starts with the pre-Socratic philosophers. In most cases, there is little evidence of their engagement with art and beauty, with the one notable exception of the Pythagoreans. In the Classical period, two prominent philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, emerged. They represent an important stage in the history of aesthetics because the problems they raised and the concepts they introduced are well known and discussed even today.

Plato  Writer, Philosopher c. 428 BC - c. 348 BC (Classical Greece)  Books:  T he Republic

Plato Writer, Philosopher
c. 428 BC - c. 348 BC (Classical Greece)
Books: The Republic

Aristotle  Philosopher, Scientist c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C. (Classical Greece)  Books:    Nichomachean Ethics ,  Politics ,  Metaphysics ,  Poetics  and  Prior Analytics

Aristotle Philosopher, Scientist
c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C. (Classical Greece)
Books: Nichomachean Ethics, Politics, Metaphysics, Poetics and Prior Analytics

The history of ancient Greek aesthetics covers centuries, and during this time numerous nuanced arguments and positions were developed. In terms of theories of beauty, however, it is possible to classify the theories into three distinct groups: those that attribute the origin of beauty to proportion, those that attribute it to functionality and those that attribute the Form as the cause of beauty. Oftentimes, philosophers use a combination of these positions, and many original innovations are due to the convergence and interaction among them. Ancient philosophers were also the authors of some of the more notable concepts in the philosophy of art. The notions of catharsis, sublimity and mimesis originated in antiquity and have played a role in aesthetics ever since then.

Three Types of Theories about the Origin of Beauty

PROPORTIONS: The idea that beauty in any given object originates from the proportion of the parts of that object is one of the most straightforward ways of accounting for beauty. The most standard term for denoting this theory is summetria, meaning not bilateral symmetry, but good, appropriate or fitting proportionality.

FUNCTIONALITY: The theory of functional beauty is the idea that beauty originates in an object when that object performs its functions, achieves its end or fits its purpose, especially when it is done particularly well, that is, excelling at the task of achieving that end. In an ancient philosophical context, this idea is also often associated with the notion of dependent beauty, which means an object is beautiful if it excels at functioning as the kind of object it is.

FORM: Plato’s best-known argument, the theory of forms, has much bearing on his aesthetics in a number of ways. The theory posits that incorporeal, unchanging, ideal paradigms— forms—are universals and play an important causal role in the world generation. Arguably the most important way in which the theory of forms has bearing on aesthetics is the account of the origin of aesthetic properties. An object becomes beautiful by partaking in the form of Beauty. Plato in Hippias Major does, however, say that the form of Beauty has a special connection with the form of Good, even if they are not, ultimately, identical. The form is said to be everlasting, not increasing or diminishing, not beautiful at one point and ugly at another, not beautiful only in relation to any specific condition, not in the shape of any specific thing.

Unlike Aristotle, Plato saw potential dangers associated with mimetic activities. In Republic 5, “lovers of beautiful sights and sounds,” people addicted to music, drama and so on, are contrasted with true philosophers. The lovers of sights and sounds pursue only opinions, whereas philosophers are the pursuers of knowledge and, ultimately, beauty in itself. But perhaps the best-known argument criticizing art comes from Book X of the Republic. Here, the products of artistic activities are criticized for being twice removed from what is actually the case. Socrates uses the example of a symposium couch to argue that the painting of a couch is just a copy of reality, the actual couch. Yet the actual couch made by the craftsman is also just a copy of the true reality, the forms.

Another aesthetic term that originated in antiquity, but was made famous by subsequent adaptations, especially by Kant and Burke, is that of the sublime and its coinage has been attributed to Cassius Longinus, a Greek rhetorician in the 3rd century C.E. Fundamentally, the sublime as described by Longinus is a property of style, which pleases, pleases all and ever pleases. Longinus goes on to suggest the sources of sublimity - grandeur of thought, capacity for strong emotions, certain kinds of figures of speech, nobility of diction and dignity of composition.

Eastern Aesthetics

Art & life in India have been inextricably intertwined, from the ancient to the contemporary. Art, like in all great civilizations, has borne testimony to the socio-cultural milieu, and the high level of sophistication that developed in ancient India is a reflection of this. The arts, thus, strived to hone man’s intellectual sensibilities, raising him to the level of the transcendental, which in India is the Brahman or ultimate reality.

Art and aesthetics have an almost symbiotic relationship. Structure and Image are inherent, yet dualistic parts of ancient Indian art practice. Aesthetic enjoyment in Indian tradition is based on, and aimed at, an artistic experience that takes place in the citta – the creative center of man, where the appropriate shape or form of an image is determined. According to the Chandogya Upanishad, ­­­hridaya aakash – the ideal space – is the innermost core of ones being. When this is unified with the citta, ananda or spiritual bliss is obtained, and this then becomes synonymous with aesthetic bliss. Thus the term chidananda is referred to Shiva as an individual who has attained eternal bliss and is free of mind, intellect, ego or consciousness. To achieve this effect, the artist rendered a rhythmical flow of creative power into this work of art, for he had to see the object with the eyes of the atman – the self.


The core of Indian aesthetics and criticism originated in the Natyashastra that was written at the height of the Golden Age of Indian Art by Bharata in the sixth century AD. The theory of rasas contained in the treatise is based on the premise that all human emotions can be divided into delight, laughter, sorrow, anger, fear, disgust, heroism, and astonishment. These in turn, can be experienced through the reworked categories of saundarya (beauty, eroticism), hasya (comic), karuna (pathos), raudra (fury, anger), vibhatsa (disgust), adbhuta (marvelous, awe, inspiring), bhayanaka (terrible, odious), vira (heroic) and shant (silent, peaceful). As a result of this tradition, these nine emotions are believed to encapsulate the core flavor, the rasa, of all human experience, and by evoking these in the audience the artist can create a heightened dramatic and aesthetic experience.

Bharata also advocated that rasa, the aesthetic object, is essentially the product of dramatic art and is thus not found in the creations of nature. The ability to savor it is the reward for some goodness or meritorious act performed in the previous life. Acknowledged by many as the Fifth Veda, the Natyashastra occupies an unparalled place in the workings of art, its emotive content, its power, depiction, communication, inferences and connotations. Bharata mentions the importance of poetics, and describes the power of language, words and their meaning. The inter-relativity of the rasa experience and the poetic vision is exemplified in the words – ‘poetry is a sentence, the soul of which is the rasa’. Aestheticians, thus, studied poetics in accordance with the rasa theory, and developed the idea of the poetic experience as also being the rasa experience.

A true aesthetic object does not simply stimulate the aesthetic sense; it works to stimulate the imagination through the senses. As the aesthete rises from the level of sense to that of imagination, he/she reaches the second level of aesthetic experience. This new world is his own creation. In it he meets with the dramatic personality that is the focal point of the whole. It is the ideal, realized. Drawing from the bhakti literature, the epic hero is always in the image of the nayaka, who contains within himself every possible heroic quality or lakshana of a mahapurusha like Ram or Krishna. In this context, a point of departure from western traditions is that the nayaka exists in the image of man, in contrast to the ‘godly’ or the divine. Drama, therefore, improves the spectator morally – not through sermons, but by making him experience satisfaction and realize its superior value.


In comparison to Indian art, traditional Western art is more about codification. In the East, particularly in Indian tradition, art is about celebration. And it is in this context that we have navarasas, where through the nine main transient emotions, there is the complete celebration of life. While in the West art is more about visual, Eastern notions of the same are perceived at the level of mind, with the focus on looking inward as opposed to outward. Art in West is reactive to nature or forms, appealing the spectator to observe while art in East is more inviting, demanding utter indulgence of the spectator.

At the turn of the twentieth century, India had its own unique crisis of transition. While on one hand it was reeling under the impact of its colonizers, on the other it had to deal with its own desire of nationalism. Post-Independence Indian art has its own dilemmas of representation – traumas of establishing identities, the neurosis of post-colonial psyche and the challenges of a post-modern society.