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Mimesis re-examined in the light of Aristotle and Abhinavagupta.

Art standeth firmly fixed in nature, and who can read her forth thence, he only possesseth her. The more closer they work abideth in life, so much the better will it appear, and this true


The present paper is devoted to an analysis of the role of mimesis in poetic drama with special reference to Aristotle and Abhinavagupta. The choice of this topic may sound odd to many readers because the significance of comparative philosophy is perpetually contested and one can see the reasons behind this resistance against it. One may contest the possibility of comparing ideas that have originated in different cultures because the context in which these ideas arise are quite different. But I think that despite the variety of cultures, the human emotive experience has certain universal dimensions. The joys, the sorrows, sensuous pleasures and pains experienced by us in our lives have certain common features. All of us experience the pain of parting from loved ones or the pleasure of communication and love, similarly all of us experience fear and insecurity. It is another matter that what we find painful or pleasant may vary according to the tradition that has influenced our way of life. Thus although the dramatic and poetic traditions of ancient Greece and India were quite different, yet the problems of aesthetics generated by these art traditions had many common features. That is the reason behind this comparison between Aristotle and Abhinavagupta on the problem of representation in art.

If there is any aesthetic concept that has been constantly reiterated as well as repudiated it is mimesis. The relationship between art and nature has been a constant preoccupation of both practicing artists and art theorists. This relationship is broadly categorized in terms of mimesis--a term that has a wide range of meanings that vary between literal imitation and representation. The variation of meanings is also due to the variety of art media and the different trends in the art traditions of the world. It is well known that nature has been a great inspiration for artists that is the major reason of the significance of mimesis as an aesthetic concept. However, those who want to highlight the creative uniqueness of art reject the idea of mimesis. The rendering of mimesis of nature also varies according to the art medium. It is only in drama, painting and sculpture that mimesis is taken as an imitation of apparent forms, in dance, music and poetry it can only be understood as an attempt to capture the inherent nature of the phenomena represented.

In the Greek tradition, from where this term originated, mimesis has different overtones of meaning. In its original sense mimesis referred to dance, mimicry and music, it was only later applied to the visual arts. This shows that in its original sense it did not refer to the copying of the outward manifestation of things but to their inherent character. The Sanskrit terms associated with mimesis are anukarana and sadrsya which are translated as imitation and similitude.

Both in classical, Greek and Indian poetics this concept is the subject of debate that has led to the elaboration of details associated with it. These details are interesting because they give an insight into the nature of artistic creativity.

In philosophical discourse this term was first used by Plato in his dialogues. In his writings he mostly used it in its narrow literal sense as copying of appearances by artists Plato drew a contrast between artists and philosophers, he held that only the latter have access to knowledge of reality, the former are merely trapped by their opinions and fancies. Plato's other reason for criticizing artists was their superficiality and hyper emotionality. He held that the creativity of poets is simply born of inspiration and not out of knowledge.

Aristotle continued with Plato's concept of art as mimesis but he gave a new orientation to the concept of mimesis. As Butcher puts it:
 "to imitate nature", in the popular acceptation of the
 phrase is not for Aristotle the function of art. The actual
 object of aesthetic imitation are threefold ... the characteristic
 moral qualities, the permanent dispositions of mind, which reveal
 a certain condition of the will, ... the more transient emotions,
 the passing moods of feeling... actions in their proper inward
 sense ... that art seeks to reproduce is mainly an inward process
 incidents, events, situations being included under it so far as
 these spring from an inward act of will or elicit some activity
 of thought or feeling. (1)

This shows that for Aristotle the objective of art was not imitation of ephemeral situations per se but to render universals inherent in the particular episodes. Poetic drama communicates universal truths through the medium of plot and characters. Poetry shares with philosophy its medium of communication--both use language but while the former uses it to present the human situations that evoke an emotive response, the latter uses language to elaborate a system of concepts regarding the individual and the world.

Aristotle gives two sources of origin of poetry: the natural tendency in humans for imitation and the inherent pleasure of imitation. Situations that are painful in real life become enjoyable when imitated. Contrasting history with poetry, Aristotle makes it clear that while history focuses on facts, poetry does not confine itself to facts but delineates what is possible:
 The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one
 writing prose and the other in verse ... it consists really in
 this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the
 other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something
 more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its
 statements are of the nature rather of universals whereas those
 of history are singulars. (2)

Aristotle explains the sense in which the term universal is used here. Through a particular theme the poet imitates actions to show how a certain kind of individual is likely to act. Thus the individual qua individual is not imitated here but each action imitated is representative of a type of actions. The sequence of events rendered have a causal connection, they are not chance happenings that have no rationale behind them. Aristotle makes it clear that actions in poetic drama have a strict unity which is not necessarily present in real life. He refers to three unities--of space, time and action. The unity of action is the most significant of these three unities, the unities of space and time are contrived according to the unity of action. Aristotle was very critical of episodic plots in which there is no probability or necessity in the sequence of episodes.

Aristotle's emphasis on the unities in plot and the necessity of contriving probable situations rather than simply reporting actual happenings as is done in history shows that he looked upon mimesis more as representation than as bare imitation. He compares tragic poet to "good portrait-painters, who reproduce the distinctive features of a man and at the same time, without losing the likeness, make him handsomer than he is." (3) This citation clearly sums up Aristotle's view of imitation.

There are interesting parallels between the views of Aristotle and Abhinavagupta regarding their attitude towards mimesis. Both see poetry as a manifestation of universals through particulars. They hold that the language of poetry is different from ordinary language. Both see the characters rendered in drama as representatives of certain types of beings and not as imitations of particular individuals.

In Indian Poetics, the discussion of mimesis begins with Bharata's delineation of the origin of drama (natya) in the Natyasastra. Brahma created drama at the request of the Gods to create a fifth Veda to help people to live a virtuous life in times of moral degradation. Brahma created Natyaveda and gave it to Indra. Indra realized that Gods are not capable of theatrical performance only sages are capable of it. He thus asked sage Bharata and his hundred sons to bring it into practice. For the roles of female characters Brahma created celestial damsels proficient in the art of dance and drama. They were asked to perform the first play on the festival of flagstaff celebrating the victory of Mahendra over Asuras and Danavas. The Asuras came and obstructed the dramatic production as they saw it as an insult to them. Brahma tried to appease the Asuras and told them that "the Natyaveda has been evolved to portray both the good and the bad things that befall all whether Gods or Daityas (4) This is the occasion in which Bharata defines Natya, he says:
 The drama as I have devised, is a mimicry of actions and
 conducts of people, which is rich in various emotions and
 which depicts different situations (5)

This is the first use of the term anukarana, the Sanskrit synonym of mimesis. In the Natyasastra there is an interesting debate regarding the status of anukarana in art.

In his commentary on the Natyasastra Abhinavagupta also gives his own definition of Natya and expresses his attitude towards the status of anukarana in Natya. Abhinavagupta says that natya is different from ordinary mundane situations and its experience is different from a) imitation, b) reflection, c) picture, d) resemblance, e) superimposition, f) effort, g) similitude, h) dream, i) illusion and j) deception. (6)

Through this passage Abhinavagupta makes it clear that natya is not a mirror image of life that appears to the viewer either as a dream or as an illusory object that generates deception Abhinava highlights the suigeneric character of art and also shows clearly that the epistemic status of aesthetic experience is also unique. It cannot be either categorized as valid knowledge, as doubt, or as unclear and indefinite experience. It is an experiential object that needs the participation of the spectator. Here he highlights the extraordinary (alaukika) character of art. By rejecting the literal concept of imitation Abhinavagupta actually underlines the fact that neither the art object nor its experience is comparable to mundane phenomena. However, this does not mean that Abhinavagupta completely rejects mimesis. For him the poet's creation follows the divine creation. He cites a managalacarana written by Bhatta Nayaka which is indicative of Abhinavagupta's attitude towards the world as the creation of the divine creator. It says I bow to Siva--the poet--the creator of three worlds who from moment to moment creates the world theatre for the connoisseurs


The poet follows the paradigm of the divine creator not by mimicking the apparent forms of nature but by capturing its essential character. The themes chosen by poets are selected with the objective of inculcating the four purusarthas in the spectators. These themes manifest the relationship between actions and their consequences and give a direction to the lives of the readers and spectators. The spectator gets to know the kind of consequences the choices of Ravana and Rama generate. Since these characters are of by gone days their actions are not imitated in the drama but their generalized essential features are rendered through the combination of different elements of dramatic work. For instance the character of Rama is dhirodatta so the actions associated with him are not of the dhira lalita type. In the Dasarupa, Dhananjaya explains the distinction between dhira lalita and dhirodatta heros. He says:
 The self-controlled and light-hearted (hero) (dhiralalita) is
 free from anxiety, fond of the arts (songs, dance etc), happy
 and gentle.

 The self-controlled and exalted (Hero) (dhirodatta) is of great
 excellence, exceedingly serious, forbearing, not boastful,
 resolute, with self-assertion suppressed, and firm of purposed
 Thus all of Rama's actions would be presented to manifest his
 type of character.

The main feature which determines the different aspects of artistic representation in any dramatic or poetic work is rasa according to both Bharata and Abinavagupta. It is the rasa which determines the particular choice of vibhava (determinants), anubhava (consequents), vyabhicaribhava (transitory emotions) and sthayibhava of the dramatic work.

Abhinava's idea of dramatic representation as a rendering of generalized characters and emotions does not underplay the creativity in the poet's imagination. In this context he highlights the role of rasa and dhvani which generate endless possibilities in the poet's composition. Referring to poet's creativity Anandavardhana states in Dhvanyaloka:
 By use of the rasas, things that have been long seen appear
 as if new, like trees at the coming of spring. (8)

Abhinava comments on this citation of Anandavardhana by saying that one interpretation of this verse would be that it forms a new karika as the endlessness of dhvani has not been adequately explained by the author of the karikas although it has been stated by the author of the vrtiis. The second interpretation would be to see it as a summary stanza (sangrahasloka) as Abhinavagupta says:
 And now, although it has been stated time and again, the point
 is repeated because it is so essential . While words are capable
 of a varied relationship of suggestor and suggested and this
 is the source of their infinity of meaning, the poet who seeks
 to obtain an original meaning should concentrate his efforts on
 one relation which achieves rasa. For all original poetry is
 achieved by a poet whose mind attends closely to a suggested
 sense consisting of a rasa bhava, or the false or improper
 correlate (abhasa) of one of these, and on the suggestors as we
 have described them, in the form of words, sentences, texture
 (rasana), or complete works. And so it is that in such works as
 the Ramayana and Mahabharata the battle scenes etc. although they
 occur repeatedly, always appear new. Furthermore, one primary rasa
 being woven into a work, gives it special meaning and extra
 beauty. (9)

The nine rasas--srngara, hasya, karuna, raudra, vtra, bhayanaka, vjbhatsa, adhbhuta and santa together exhaust the different kinds of emotive experiences of human beings and individually they are connected with the four purusarathas. The manifestation of these rasas in natya is closely connected with the particular form of life (loka vyavahara) of a specific culture. The rendering and experiences of rasa follows this form of life which is shared by all the three--the poet, actors and spectators. Another aesthetic concept that is significant to highlight the importance of the unity of different elements in poetry is aucitya--fittingness. The primary feature that determines the relevance and irrelevance of features is rasa. If a poet creates a plot of srngara rasa then his choice of plot diction, characters vibhava, anubhavas, vyabhicaribheivas and sthaynbhava have to synchronize with the srngara rasa. All these elements generalize the aesthetic emotions rendered--they cease to be any particular person's emotions and yet they are in a sense emotions experienced by everyone. It is due to this generalization of emotions that Abinavagupta substitutes the term "anukirtanam" for anukaranam. Rejecting the mimicry of actions in drama Abhinava says:


This specific form of creation which is known as natya should not be mistaken as anukanam because seeing the actions of the actor one does not feel that he has copied the prince or someone else. Those who indulge in mimicry are not actors (natas) but bhandas (buffoons). Those actions generate comic distortions in the spectators. Keeping this in mind Bharata muni says imitating others' gestures generates laughter.


Abhinava states that anukarana cannot be of generalized (sadharanikrta) emotions becuase one can only imitate the particular (visesa). However he states that inspite of not being an imitation (anukarana) in its primary sense, if it is stated that because natya follows the forms of lived world it can be called an imitation (anukarna) in a secondary sense then there is no harm in it.


What then is the nature of dramatic representation? The two terms given by Abhinavagupta to characterize the presentation of situations in drama are anukirtanam and anuvyavasaya. He says that natya is in the form of anuvyavasaya and anukirtanam and free of the experience of vikalpa.


They highlight the fact that situations are rendered in terms of their generic characteristics not to generate in the viewer an illusion of reality but to capture the essential elements of an emotive experience through he different kinds of dramatic elements like determinants consequents and transitory emotions.

The combination of these elements creates an extraordinary situation. The poet's creativity follows the paradigm of cosmic creation. Thus even though the poet does not imitate the apparent forms of nature his creativity is essentially inspired by it. Like the divine creation human art is born of play and not out of any need or desire. This freedom from desire generates the inherent joyfulness of the aesthetic experience despite the intermix of pain and pleasure that marks all our emotive experiences in real life.

Aristotle and Abhinavagupta see representation of art as a creative act and not as a mere mimicry of nature. By their emphasis on the manifestation of universal through artistic representations their theories are free of the dichotomy that was later created by the realists and expressionists. White the realists see art essentially as a mirror image of nature, the expressionists underline the role of artist's intuition in the creation of art. Aristotle and Abhinavagupta in their own unique ways, see artistic creativity as a harmony between faithfulness to nature and artist's emotive vision of the world.


(1.) S.H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art: With a Critical Text and Translation of the Poetics, Dover Publications, New York, 1951, pp. 122-23.

(2.) Aristotle on the Art of Poetry, translation by Ingram Bywater, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1920, p.43.

(3.) Ibid, p.57

(4.) Natyasastra, ch. 1, sloka 112.

(5.) Ibid

(6.) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Abhinavabharati, ed. Dr. Nagendara, Delhi University, Delhi, 1969, ch.1, karika 1, p. 20.

(7.) Ibid, karika 1, p. 36.

(8.) The Dasharupaka by Dhanamjaya, translation by George C. O. Hass, Delhi, 1962, Book Two No. 3 and 5, p 41 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Dhvanyaloka, 4th Udyota, 4th karika.

(9.) Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana with Locana of Abhinavagupta, translation by Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, M.V. Patwardhan

(10) Abhinavabharati, karika 107, p. 187

(11.) Abhinavabharati, karika 107, p.188

(12.) Ibid, karika 107, p.200

(13.) Ibid. loc. Cit.



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Author:Jhanji, Rekha
Publication:Creative Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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