Rasa: A Framework for the Aesthetics of Interreligious Engagement, by Michelle Voss Roberts

Editors' note: This paper was part of the panel conversation on interreligious aesthetics; its author here shares her abstract, information about her forthcoming book, and additional resources for those interested in further study.

Religious texts and performances exert rhetorical force. They offer visions of reality, inspire emotional responses, and model behavioral transformations appropriate to those realities. They can exert these effects not only on the intended audience but on outsiders as well. India's aesthetic and religious traditions have a long and distinguished history of theorizing affect through the category of rasa. This paper argues that rasa is not only a descriptive category for the affective dimensions of religious experience across faith traditions, but it is also a theological category that assesses how such experiences mediate the divine.

After tracing the religious significance of rasa for Hindus, this presentation proposes that rasa bridges the gap between experience and critical reflection. Rasa theory elucidates how aesthetics mediate interreligious engagement--how, in other words, people can understand and appreciate one another through religious art, worship, and text. Rasa illuminates how persons connect on an intuitive, embodied, human level; but it also accounts for culturally specific layers of expression by analyzing the excitants, indiactors, and accompanying emotions of religious performances that might initially seem strange. Because rasa covers the range of human emotion, it also covers a range of religious experience. This work suggests that persons can understand the aesthetics and theology of another faith tradition if they become appreciative and cultured spectators (sahrdayas) of its religious emotions. Here we give examples of this phenomenon in relation to the religious dispositions of peace, love, and prophetic anger, and conclude with a note on the critical function of reflection on emotion.

Finally, the 2014 panel on "Aesthetics in Hindu-Christian Studies" will be published by the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies in late November 2015. Their website is here.

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