By Catherine Nelli

The Rāmāyaṇa is one of the two largest Sanskrit epics of Indian antiquity, its earliest known version dating back to sometime between 500 and 1 BCE (Sattar 1). In the plot which forms the basis of most versions, King Daśaratha exiles Prince Rāma to the forest for fourteen years at the behest of Rāma’s stepmother. Rāma’s wife Sīta and brother Lakṣmaṇa accompany him. The demon Rāvaṇa abducts Sīta, and Rāma quests to save her in the island fortress Laṅka with the help of a monkey army. They return to the city of Ayodhyā where Rāma questions Sīta’s chastity after the demon has kept her in the palace for so long. Sīta undergoes a trial by fire, and Rāma later abandons her in the forest. Years later, she and her two sons go to Ayodhyā. In many versions, Sīta undergoes a second trial by fire after Rāma questions her chastity once more, so calls on the earth to swallow her and then disappears into the ground.

In the seventh century CE, the poet Bhavabhūti composed what was likely the first dramatic adaptation of the story: Uttararāmacarita (Rama’s Last Act). The play focuses on the last part of the epic story when Sīta’s husband abandons her in the forest. Bhavabhūti’s work relates to the “philosophical concept of śabda-brahma-vivarta, the idea that all of human experience involves series of transformations (ultimately linguistic), in such a way that the boundaries between emotions…are not as clear cut as one might think they are.” People, unsure of what they are feeling, use language “which is supposed to be designed to talk not about real emotions but about the artistic representations of them. It is a view in which life ends up being lived as a kind of art form in itself” (Tubb 413). Bhavabhūti is concerned with a “reflexive appreciation of dramatic art itself and the place of art in making sense of lived experience” (Pollock 37). He uses meta-mimetic tools, such as a play within his play, an art gallery depicting the events the characters have experienced, and metafictional references to the dramaturgical theory of rasa (the essence or aesthetic flavor of an artistic work), to illustrate the power of drama itself to reveal truth. This literary theory is at first glance starkly opposed to that of Plato, espoused in Book X of the Republic. However, putting these texts in conversation reveals contradictions in Plato’s teachings and a richer picture of mimesis. A comparative analysis of ancient Greek and South Asian intellectual histories deepens our understanding of the connections between major Indo-European aesthetic traditions.

In The Republic, Socrates states that the imitator knows nothing of the thing they imitate, and their imitations are deceptive and unnecessary. Imitation is “a form of play, not to be taken seriously, and…those who attempt tragic poetry, whether in iambic or heroic voice, are altogether imitators” (827). Plato believes poetry has no place in the Republic because it is too far removed from the truth. There is the one ideal Platonic Form which is true, and then there are craftsmen who make representations of this singular idea. The third removed actor in this line is the painter, who can produce representations of these representations. The painter’s mimetic art can “produce everything, because it touches or lays hold of only a small part of the object and…a phantom, as, for example, a painter we say, will paint us a cobbler, a carpenter, and other craftsmen, though he himself has no experience in any of these arts” (823). Thus, a good representation, according to Plato, is deceptive. There is a loss of reality through artwork—visual, literary, musical—because everything can be produced, but only as simulacra. Plato forbids poetry in his Republic because it is a distorted shadow of the truth.

This view is sharply contrasted by Uttararāmacarita, in which Bhavabhūti draws attention to the constructed, self-referential nature of the play, demonstrating the ability of mimesis to reveal truths. Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock denotes “two principles dimensions to this reflexivity [about the power of drama itself]: one pertains…in the purpose and paradox of representation itself; the other to its content, which in traditional Indian dramaturgical theory largely means the problem of rasa” (38). In terms of the first principle, the play opens and closes with two representations of representations. In Act 1, Sīta, Rāma, and Lakṣmaṇa tour a picture gallery depicting what happened to them in the Rāmāyaṇa up to Sīta’s trial by fire. In Act 7, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa watch a play of what transgresses in the Rāmāyaṇa after they abandon Sīta in the woods. As Pollock notes, in Act 1 Sīta cries out when she sees one painting, saying, “Oh my husband, this is my last sight of you!” Rāma responds, “Now, now, there’s no need to be afraid of separation. It’s only a painting” (39). In Act 7, Rāma sees the actor playing Sīta ready to commit suicide after Lakṣmaṇa abandons her. He cries out, “My queen, my queen, look, Lakṣmaṇa is here!” (40). In both cases, there are truths held in the representations: in the art gallery, the characters “relive the past and confirm the truth of their experience”; during the play, they learn of Sīta’s innocence, thereby exonerating her from the accusations levied against her (40). Viewing this double mimesis of representations (characters) viewing representations allows the audience to glean the truth-revealing power of drama. Unlike Plato’s dismissal of mimesis as far removed from any trace of truth, Bhavabhūti demonstrates that life can best be understood through representations of it.

However, Plato is far closer to Bhavabhūti’s view of mimesis than may be apparent. In Book X, he admonishes Homer for using mimesis as a teaching tool. Socrates poses the question: “do you suppose, Glaucon, that, if Homer had really been able to educate men and make them better and had possessed not the art of imitation but real knowledge, he would not have acquired many companions and been honored and loved by them?” (Plato 825). Yet considering Bhavabhūti’s affinity for representation as a conveyor of meaning, it is apt to now question the very narrative of Plato’s writing. The Republic is a dialogue, a mimesis of a conversation to teach readers what the ideal state and citizens should be. 

Furthermore, in Book VII, Plato uses the mimetic device of a cave and light allegory inside a dialogue to explain the soul approaching the intelligible realm. He states that “in the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty” (1135). He relates the Good and Truth to light, stating that a person reaching it would “need time to get adjusted” before being able to “see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study things in the sky…more easily at night, looking up at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking up at the light of the sun” (1134). The light reflecting off the sun onto the moon is a representation of sunlight, and the light of the sun is a representation for Eternal Truth. Thus, this allegory of the cave is a mimesis inside of another mimesis: the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon. Plato calls attention to the mimetic nature of the image when Socrates states, “This whole image, Glaucon, must be fitted together with what we said before” (1135). Like Bhavabhūti, Plato knowingly uses simulacra to help listeners “grasp what [he] hope[s] to convey” (1135). Thus, Plato’s denouncement of mimesis is hypocritical, and his true use of the tool is far closer to that of Bhavabhūti. Bhavabhūti’s mimesis is not a metaphor so much as metafiction. He engages multiple layers of the text in dialogue with each other and therefore builds a dialogue within his work of which he himself is not a part. By choosing to present philosophical knowledge in the form of dialogues, Plato is framing his text in a form not too far off from Bhavabhūti’s.

To fully understand the mimetic quality of Bhavabhūti’s Uttararāmacarita, and therefore its relation to The Republic, rasa theory must be discussed. Rasa originally meant ‘sap’ or ‘juice’ but eventually gained aesthetic connotations to describe the sustained emotions a drama or literary piece produces in its audience. Though first a theological theory, Indian schools of dramaturgy developed parallel thought on rasa. The “earliest-known developed theory of rasa as an aesthetic concept is found in the Nātyaśastra composed between the fourth and sixth centuries CE” (Buchta and Schweig 623). The Nātyaśastra lists eight rasa, and karuṇa (compassion or pity) is the dominant rasa in Uttararāmacarita (Pollock 42). According to J.L. Austin, saying something “will produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience” (Austin 101). A successful perlocution persuades its audience. The goal of evoking rasa in an audience forms a leading role in the performative speech acts of dramaturgical pieces. However, most Sanskrit literary critics agree that “in developing a rasa the writer must, among other things, refrain from actually naming it in the literary text” (Pollock 42). Bhavabhūti writes contrarily to this belief by having characters constantly mention rasa. At one point in Act 3, for example, a character states: “How complex a plot this is. There is only a single rasa— / pity—but it takes different forms / since it changes in response to circumstances that are changing, / just the way that water forms / into whirlpool, bubble, or wave / though in the end it all remains / the same: nothing but water” (Bhavabhūti trans. Pollock 229). Rasa is developed in layers to generate meaning, and this metonymic development builds up the mimetic effect of a work. Bhavabhūti constantly disrupts the suspension of disbelief by pointing to the constructed nature of the play. Through a metafictional awareness, the drama draws the audience’s attention to the ways art evokes real emotion and real insight.

Like Plato’s dialogues, Bhavabhūti’s Uttararāmacarita demonstrates that “representation can sometimes be the only way the real and the true come to be known” (Pollock 40). Bhavabhūti acknowledges this power of representation and draws attention to it through rasa and meta-representation. While Plato dismisses mimetic value, he nonetheless uses an allegory of a cave inside an allegory of a conversation to reveal philosophical complexities. A comparative study of intellectual thought allows us to view how multiple traditions across the world use mimetic representations to reveal real-world ethical stakes—even when they profess the contrary. It appears, then, that mimetic art does indeed help to make sense of lived experiences. 

Catherine Nelli is an undergraduate student at Brown University studying Comparative Literature in Sanskrit, French, and English, as well as International and Public Affairs. Her research interests include divergences between colonial French and English and contemporary Sanskrit reception of classical Indian texts, poetics, aesthetic theory, the history of knowledge, and the politics of antiquity.

Featured Image: “Lakshmana at the hermitage, folio from a Ramayana,” ca. 1690-1710. Opaque watercolor on paper, 21.6 × 32.1. Source: Smithsonian Institute.