The Place of the Performing Arts in Indian Religions: Abhinavagupta’s “Soteriology of Art” and Its Contexts

Responsible for the postdoc project: Dr. Elisa Ganser
Funded by: URPP Asia and Europe
Project duration: May 2014 – October 2015
Research Field: Concepts and Taxonomies

Project Summary

The project aims at exploring the idea that the practice of the performing arts (acting, instrument playing, singing and dancing) is conducive to religious merit and can even lead the performer to liberation (mokṣa). The latter idea finds expression, within the prescriptive literature on the arts, in Abhinavagupta’s (10th-11th century) commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra, the Abhinavabhāratī, and is further developed in medieval treatises on the arts. Since the 19th century the view of Indian art as religious or spiritual has become dominant in the reception and study of Indian art in general, including the performing arts. However, the precise historical and structural link between the performing arts and religious practices has not been thoroughly investigated for the earlier period. Moreover, the emphasis on Indian art as religious has resulted in downplaying the socio-political contexts in which the performing arts were cultivated and received patronage (e.g. at the temple, at court, at festivals), the differences between the religious groups which adopted or rejected the arts as part of their ritual practices (ascetics, lay followers, bhaktas etc.), and the impact of intellectual discourses that aimed at integrating religious and artistic practices. This project aims to trace the genealogy of Abhinavagupta’s “soteriology of art” in Sanskrit sources belonging to the classical and early medieval period. The focus will be on texts belonging to different philosophical and religious traditions and on other normative texts (smṛti, śāstra) that variously deal with the relationship between the performing arts and religion. In general, two conflicting perceptions of the performing arts and their religious efficacy emerge in these texts. On the one hand, the merit of the arts and their patronage is viewed with scepticism in texts advocating Vedic ritualism. On the other hand, the arts are praised, as epitomised in Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra but is already present in nuce in earlier texts expressive of ascetic ideals and devotional religious values and practices. Through the identification of the different sources, motives, and contexts which inform Abhinavagupta’s idea of a liberating art, this study is expected to provide new perspectives on the connection between performing arts and religious practices in medieval India. Furthermore, it aims at reconstructing the historical, political and social contexts in which the different perceptions of the performative arts are embedded.