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Ethics, Emotions, and Aesthetics: Insights from Classical India

Maria Heim, George Lyman Crosby & Stanley Warfield Crosby Professor in Religion and Chair of Religion at Amherst College. Photo: Amherst CollegeThe English-language term emotions, as it is used today, is only about one hundred and fifty years old. Before it came into use, English speakers used words like passions, humors, affections, or sentiments, none of which exactly capture the meaning of emotions as we conceive of the word today. We tend to understand emotions as a natural kind: something innate and prelinguistic in humans. But this may not be the case; neuroscientists increasingly favor the view that a set of basic emotions are not universals hardwired into the brain, and should instead be thought of in terms of neuroplasticity. This information was just one of the tools which Maria Heim, Professor and Chair of Religion at Amherst College, used to broaden the perspectives of her audience regarding emotions.  

On Monday, October 10 in Washinton Hall, Professor Heim delivered an incredible lecture focusing on a threefold approach to the conception of emotions in classical India, drawing on her book Words for the Heart : A Treasury if of Emotions from Classical India. The first arm of the lecture featured a lexical approach to emotions, in which Dr. Heim discussed emotional granularity (the richness and nuance of emotion-terms in one's lexicon can determine their emotional experience) in classical Indian thought. The concept of a treasury, which she uses in her own book, is one she borrows from classical India; a treasury is a collection of literature or words. In Words for the Heart, she collects and examines 177 emotion-like words from literary, poetic, philosophical, medical, moral and epic texts in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit. In this arm of the lecture she noted the intense granularity of emotion in these texts; she gave the example of anurāga (envy) and how it yields 12,228 varieties, each one incredibly specific. In the second arm of the lecture she took a systems approach, looking at rasa (taste, savor) theory. Rasa theory springs from Bharata's Treatise on Dramaturgy, and contends that art and literature aim to produce rasa in their audience; Dr. Heim noted that tragedy, for example, is the savoring of grief. Rasa theory, she pointed out, deals with the underlying philosophical anthropology of emotions; their experience depends on the one experiencing them.

The third and final arm of the lecture also consisted of a systems approach, this one dealing with emotions in the Buddhist tradition, particularly in the Pali Abhidhamma, which analyses emotional experience to a very fine grain. Dr. Heim touched on two main practices of the Abhidhamma: 1) it disaggregates moment-by-moment conscious experiences (cittas); it breaks apart what seem to be wholes into many parts, and generates lists and definitions of phenonmena (dhammas) that generate emotions, and 2) it explores how these phenomena are causally linked to one another; how they are mutually conditioning and constituative. She gave the example that this practice is like tasting a spoonful of water and being able to tell which river each drop came from. The lists generated from the Abhidhamma, we must remember, are not reductive, but proliferative; emotions cannot be broken down into irreducible parts, but only separated into infinitely more granular varieties. 

The lecture was followed by a robust question and answer session. The two main directions taken in this time were the practical applications of this non-reductive, non-universal approach to emotion, particularly with children, who are still in a formative stage regarding the development of emotions and an emotional lexicon, and the ways in which the English term emotions differs from the classical Indian concept, and the distinctions between emotions and feelings.