Professor Sarachchandra the philosopher
Posted on August 15th, 2010

By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe*

The 14th death anniversary of Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra that falls on August 16 is an opportune time to focus attention on some of the lesser appreciated aspects of the life and works of arguably the greatest ever Sri Lankan intellectual.

 Apart from a publication entitled  “ƒ”¹…”Sarachchandra : Philosopher and the Artist’, (2004) by Dr R. D. Gunaratne, Professor Sarachchandra’s public image among Sri Lankans is built almost entirely on the foundation of his creative output, Maname and Sinhabahu in particular, and a few other less celebrated stage plays and a few English and Sinhala novels written by him.  

 Such focus limited to his creative output alone overlooks the significance of Professor Sarachchandra’s advanced “ƒ”¹…”professional’ knowledge of the Buddhist and Vedic concepts relating to the nature of human consciousness, and more particularly, his expert utilisation of the Hindu and Buddhist expositions of the effect of the fine arts in exciting or stimulating human emotions. The evidence is clearly visible when his creative work is viewed through the prism of his academic background.

 Professor Sarachchandra earned his first degree, in 1936, in Sinhala and Sanskrit. His life was a prime example of an academic born in to the peripheries of the most sophisticated analytical knowledge base on every aspect of human existence the world has ever seen, Vedic literature, later enabled to dive deep in it through exposure to Sanskrit.

 As has been well documented, Sarachchandra had been greatly influenced by the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, and Uday Shankar, brother of Ravi, who revolutionised Indian classical and folk dance by incorporating western elements. He spent a year at Santiniketan (1939) and the evidence suggests that he became enchanted by Bengali music and dance; Sarachchandra returned in 1940, deeply influenced by Indian, more particularly Bengali influence. His life and work can be seen as a portrayal of this influence, combined with his own advanced research on the Buddhist Psychology of Perception which earned him the PhD degree at the University of London in 1949.

 His contemporaries such as Martin wickramasinghe “ƒ”¹…”lamented’ in Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature, Sinhala Sahityaye Negima, and Sahitya Kalava, the effect “ƒ”¹…”ornate and verbose’ Sanskrit alamkara had exerted on the indigenous “ƒ”¹…”Buddhist’ poetic tradition during the Anuradhapura period, as evident in works such as Muvadev Da Vata. Sarachchandra, who had translated Sinhala Sahityaye Negima to English, and wrote Sahitya Vidyava (1949) however, showed no such antipathy.

 While Wickramasinghe’s point about the typical Brahmin excesses associated with Sanskrit alamkara tradition may be well founded, Professor Sarachchandra’s fuller knowledge of the centrality of the Sanskrit language to the dawning of the Indian civilisation probably shaped his opinion.

 Careful examination of the literary attributes of Sarachchandra’s much acclaimed work shows his expert utilisation of the principles of the Buddha’s theory of the human consciousness and the Indian literary aesthetics theory as enunciated in Natyashastra, (a minute aspect of the Buddhist theory which Buddha had enunciated nearly 500 years previously), to generate the powerful emotions that have immortalised his name amongst art lovers.

 Buddhist theory of perception and bhavanga

 The Buddhist theory of perception is an extremely sophisticated description and explanation of the psychological mechanisms that form the foundations of the central elements of Buddhist philosophy such as anatta (no-soul), anicca (impermanence), and paticca samupphada (dependent origination). It is the most sophisticated analysis of the human mind and thought processes known.

 According to the Buddha, each thought and emotion is caused by a cyclic chain of events that begins with the unconscious or neutral state of the receptive psyche, bhavanga, that becomes “ƒ”¹…”disturbed’ by the reception of stimuli from the external world.

 In the case of an object that is “ƒ”¹…”seen’ for example, light waves from the object enter the eye and this stimulus (sparsa) is transmitted through the “ƒ”¹…”mind-door’ “ƒ”¹…”manasikara‘, with critical implications for the types of conscious states that arise. The receipt of the stimulus at bhavanga “ƒ”¹…”excites’ it to a calana state and then become arrested in its normal passive flow. The three bhavanga states (original, vibrating, and arrested) are the continuum that forms the underlying stream of events in a conscious being.

 Buddha’s explanation, which obviously was not intended to serve as an explanation of, or was limited to, the psychological response to artistic endeavours dealt exhaustively with 52 types of “ƒ”¹…”states of mind’ (citta) that could arise, that fall in to three sub-classes: annasamana (13), akusala (14) and sobhana (25), based on the nature of thought processes they give rise to.  

 Sarachchandra’s contribution to this area of philosophy can be summed up as drawing attention to the congruence between the concepts of “ƒ”¹…”self’ in Vedic philosophy and the Buddhist theory of bhavanga, which he surmised was an alternative explanation for the phenomenon of human consciousness which formed the basis of “ƒ”¹…”self’ in Vedic philosophy, which Buddha found to be the barrier to personal liberation.

 It is an acute observation due to the Buddhist exposition of the illusion of “ƒ”¹…”self’ that is born out of ignorance (avidya) as the centrally important “ƒ”¹…”root’ of samsara.

 Sanskrit aesthetic theory

 The pre-historic Indian civilisation, in common with all the other intellectual inquiries in to the intricacies of the human condition, was the first to investigate the reasons for, and the mechanisms of, the genesis of human emotions, with particular emphasis on the effect of literary activities.

 Natyashastra, a Sanskrit compendium of 6,000 sutras systematised in to 36 chapters, written at least 300 years after Buddha’s parinibbana, on the subject of theatre production including stage design, acoustics design, makeup and costume, and music, theorised that the effect of fine arts on the human mind is produced by the action of eight types of rasa, defined as “ƒ”¹…”That which is relished’.

 The author of Natyashastra, a sage known as Bharata Muni, identifies eight types of rasa (shringara-love, vira-heroism, karuna-compassion, adbhuta-wonder, hasya-humour, bhayanaka-fear, vibhatsa-disgust and raudra-cruelty) that produce mental states referred to as bhava, as the basis of effect of fine arts on human emotion. Bharata considered shringara as the apex of all rasa, and everything that was ‘sacred, pure, and worthy for eye’, to be representing some aspect of shringara.

 Bharat referred to the human psyche as ‘bhava-jagat’, or the individual’s “ƒ”¹…”world of emotions’, consisting of eight sthayi-bhava (latent sentiments) which inspire eight corresponding rasa: rati “”…”shringara;  hasa-hasya; shoka-karuna; krodha-raudra; utsaha-vira; bhaya-bhayanaka; jugupsa-vibhatsa; and vismaya-abdhuta. Other emotions subordinate to sthayi-bhava were identified, consisting of 33 sanchari-bhavs– temporary emotional bearings, and a number of vibhava (the stimuli) and anubhava.

 Rasa is said to arise when the sthƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾«-bhƒÆ’-¾va in the individual is awakened by his perception of the vibhƒÆ’-¾va, such as the story, the stage and the actors that comprise the two kinds of vibhƒÆ’-¾vas: ƒÆ’-¾lambana vibhƒÆ’-¾va – the basic stimulus capable of arousing the sentiment, and uddipana vibhƒÆ’-¾va – the enhancing stimuli, the environment in which the basic stimulus is located.

 Rasa is the cause as well as effect of the delight which re-creates in the mind of the spectator (sahrdaya), through visual, auditory or other perception the display of emotion by a performer (or writer, painter etc). The ultimate aim of all artistic enterprise is, through competent  performance, to generate a variety of rasa and to mould them to “ƒ”¹…”formless’ enjoyment which can best be described as “ƒ”¹…”joy’.

 The purpose of Natyashastra being to serve as a “ƒ”¹…”manual’ for dramatists, Bharat prescribes ten conditions of good writing – guna– and ten faults – dosha, that affect the capacity of a literary work to excite the senses and aroused emotions, creating rasa. As is evident from the concise description provided above, the two theories are congruent, with the Natyashastra displaying the influence of Buddhism, just as much as the post-Buddhist Upanishads do.

 Professor Sarachchandra was extremely familiar with these theories and importantly, his work demonstrates his genius in utilising these concepts to powerful effect. That explains the “ƒ”¹…”timeless’ nature of his work.  

* The writer holds the degree of Master of Fine Arts (Hindustani Vocal) from the Viswa Bharati Universty at Santiniketan.

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