chapter  3
30 Pages

The Concept of Purification in the Greek and Indian Theories of Drama

ByKeijo Virtanen

Aristotle’s concept of the effect of tragedy as explained in the Poetics is well known to Western academics. This has not always been the case: after Aristotle’s death the Poetics was not considered to belong among his important writings. It began to have an influence on Western culture only gradually, during the Renaissance when it became known to Italian classical scholars.1 During the period when Aristotle’s Poetics was unknown in Europe a noticeably coherent theory of drama and poetry was developed in India, which focused its attention mainly on the analysis of the effect which art has on the spectator. Both Aristotle and Indian theorists emphasize the purifying effect which drama can have and on which the meaning of art can (and must) be based. In order to examine below in more detail the differences between these two theories (section 2), we must start from the main points of Aristotle’s concept of tragedy. My aim is to show that in principle both theories expose a similar concept of the purifying effect of art, but that Aristotle’s concept is much more limited, not being applicable as a general aesthetic principle, as is the case with Indian concept of rasa, with which the analysis of purifying effect in Indian literary and aesthetic tradition is connected. In the Poetics Aristotle declares tragedy to be the most important genre of

poetry.2 Tragedy is the imitation of a complete action of serious importance. Aristotle considers those plays dealing with misfortunes and crimes as being tragedies. An essential trait in tragedy is that the hero’s circumstances are changed from a state of happiness to a state of miserableness in the events represented. Though unhappy endings are not necessarily the rule in Greek tragedies, there being tragedies which move from misfortune to good fortune, Aristotle claims that well-written tragedies are those which conclude in the misfortune of the hero. In the following discussion of katharsis he discusses only what he considers the best examples of tragedy. The emotions which tragedy arouses are not the same emotions as when

they are experienced in daily life: tragedy produces pleasure, when the

representation is properly constructed. In such a case even that which is normally unpleasant can appeal to us. This is proved by a certain effect, katharsis, which a well-made tragedy can bring about. In the Rhetoric3

Aristotle says that understanding and wonder give pleasure, when connected with imitation – ‘mimesis’, which of course is connected with what in general is pleasurable in art, also mentioned in the Poetics. This imitation can be pleasurable even if the object is not pleasant. Katharsis meant the removal of disturbing and painful emotions from the

human being – which in antiquity meant the discharging of poisonous substances from the body. Aristotle adapts the term to mean the purifying and healing effect which tragedy brings about through the feelings of pity and fear.4 Apparently Aristotle takes this principle from the long-known use of music to calm nervous or mentally abnormal persons, which can be seen in his treatise on politics.5