In Sanskrit, a kosha, or treasury, is a storehouse of gems. But the term can also refer to a collection of words, poems, and literary passages. Since the fifth century, Indian poets and scholars have compiled treasuries of words to catalog different aspects of human experience, treating each entry like a jewel.
With her new book, Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India, scholar Maria Heim continues in this tradition of treasuries, focusing on words used to describe and evoke emotions within classical Indian texts. Drawing from a variety of genres and traditions, Heim presents 177 terms for emotions in three languages: Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit. In addition to six different kinds of compassion, Heim’s storehouse of emotions includes simmering wrath (manyu); the afterburn of remorse (pashcattapa); too much laughter or hilarity without reason (atihasa); the heart’s soft core (hridayamarman); and dispassion and disenchantment with the world (vairagya).
Tricycle sat down with Heim to discuss some of her favorite terms for emotions, how language can shape our capacity to feel, and how classical Indian texts can expand our understanding of what it means to be human.
The book includes 177 words with passages from a variety of languages, genres, and traditions. How did you select which words to include and texts to draw from? First, I gathered up words and passages I had worked on and noticed in the past. Since most of my work has centered on Pali Buddhism and the Abhidhamma, I plunged into Pali lexica and texts for how they list and meticulously describe the phenomena of experience. At the same time, I wanted to cast a very broad net that would embrace all literary works and systems of Sanskrit knowledge—philosophy, medical texts, literature, aesthetic theory, moral and political thought, and so on. So I read everything I could get my hands on. In fact, this was the best part of the project—mining texts for emotion words and how they were used. I read so many wonderful texts and recent translations. It felt like an indulgent privilege.
You mention that you included some entries simply because you found them delightful. What are some of the emotional states that surprised you? I like piti, the blast of joy that reportedly lifted up a young woman in ancient Sri Lanka and flew her through the sky. She had been left behind when her family went to a moonlit mountain shrine of the Buddha because she was heavily pregnant, but as she gazed from her doorway at the mountain and thought of the Buddha, she became so transported that she “soared through the air” to the shrine and wound up getting there before everyone else.
There’s also pamojja, the delight of being free of regrets. This experience is conditioned by behaving morally, and when it is present, all sorts of good things cascade into being. From the delight of being free of regrets, one gets a calm body. Then they feel happiness. Then they can concentrate, and with concentration they can see things as they really are. Then they begin to become disenchanted with ordinary things and start to become free.
I especially appreciate the astute characterization of omāna, a kind of conceit of thinking that you are the very worst—what I call “the conceit of self-loathing.” There are lists of the different varieties of pride and conceit, and this one is a kind of amplification or projection of self that constructs it as the worst: I am the worst, truly despicable. No really, I am. I must insist. The very worst. Ever.
I also like that the Buddhist texts notice the “zeal of the convert” (ussuka) and regard it with suspicion.
But really, there are a lot of words in the book—177—and these are just a few of the ones that I found fun.
Barrett thus urges that we develop increased emotional granularity, or the ability to notice and name the nuances of experience with a richer emotional lexicon.
You write that the concept of “emotion” is relatively recent. Can you share some of the history of the evolution of the word’s meaning? The term emotion as we think of it today is less than 200 years old. Before that, English speakers used passions, sentiments, affections, even the “humors” of Galen, to describe how they felt. These words mean somewhat different things than what we mean today by emotions. In other languages, there is no single word that does exactly what emotion does.
At the same time, English speakers, including psychologists and neuroscientists, have tended to assume that our modern English categories are universal and refer to “natural kinds.” As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has shown, however, emotions like anger, sadness, and happiness are not hardwired into our brain. They don’t have a single essence, nature, or expression prior to culture and language. This counters the influence of earlier scholars like Paul Ekman, who tried to show that there is a small list of basic and universal human emotions. Barrett shows that emotion concepts are constructions emerging out of the extremely complex interplay between brain, body, culture, and language.
In fact, emotion terms can actually create the capacity to feel emotions. Understandings of neuroplasticity suggest that the way that a given culture talks about emotional experience shapes the brain’s capacity to feel and notice those emotions. Barrett thus urges that we develop increased emotional granularity, or the ability to notice and name the nuances of experience with a richer emotional lexicon.
You describe your approach as ecological. What can we gain by thinking about emotions ecologically? I use the ecological metaphor to think through the complex and mutually conditioned nature of emotion and context. Emotions cannot be properly understood stripped away from the contexts in which they occur—and which, in fact, produce them. As we learn more about forest ecology, it’s becoming clearer that trees are not self-standing individuals but are connected to, and even composed of, other trees, the forest duff, mycelial networks, and so on. Where does a tree end and its environment begin?
I think emotions are like this. They are only ever part of, and created by, a situation, story, biographical context, narrative, or discussion. In writing this book, I wanted to capture emotions in their ecologies—to show that they are inextricable from a context or situation. The paradigms of modern psychology treat emotions like interior states. But this doesn’t actually work with how we think about or talk about emotions—or how they show up in these ancient texts. Emotions exist in specific contexts, and they also spread between people. If we only think of emotions as a hardwired inner state, then we won’t be able to account for these richer emotional ecologies.
You focus on what you call classical Indian languages. What does the term “classical” mean to you? For me, a classic is a text that sticks around and continues to be a source of intellectual, aesthetic, and personal nourishment for people far removed from the text’s original context. The scholar Sheldon Pollock writes that classics “provide access to radically different forms of human consciousness and thereby expand the range of possibilities of what it has meant or could mean to be human.” In other words, classics can speak to us across time and space. But this isn’t necessarily because they evoke some universal experience that all human beings share. In fact, they confront us with different experiences. In the process, they make us think about what it means to be human in new ways.
Sometimes people resist the idea that India could have a classical past despite the fact that its literatures and philosophical texts have been carefully preserved for millennia and continue to speak to readers in fresh ways. I have never understood the chauvinism of the idea that only the West can have a classical tradition. We are fortunate that the world has held on to ancient texts from many cultural contexts and that they are increasingly translated and available.
The Theravada tradition can sometimes be characterized as austere or lacking in emotion. Yet so many of the passages you pull from Pali texts suggest a nuanced awareness of the vast emotional range of human experience. How can we move toward a richer understanding of the Theravada tradition? In his last book, Wisdom as a Way of Life: Theravāda Buddhism Reimagined, the late scholar Steven Collins pointed out that the really bad translations that we have of the Pali jatakas [stories of the Buddha’s past lives] have set us generations behind where we should be in terms of understanding Pali narrative. If we had access to more readable, enjoyable translations that spoke to us in a direct way, we wouldn’t view the Theravada tradition as so emotionally flat and austere. Recently, Naomi Appleton and Sarah Shaw have translated many of the jataka tales, and I think their translations will shift our starting point for understanding the Pali tradition.
Beyond the jatakas, there is an extraordinary amount of Pali narrative that is hardly read, and it really does explore every corner of human experience. Even if you just read the suttas, they’re so alive with emotion. I hope that as people read better translations of the suttas and the jatakas, these stereotypes of texts as flat will fall away.
What are your hopes for the book and how it contributes to our understanding of emotion? It will be enough for me if readers take pleasure in some of the entries and if the book suggests new ways of feeling and thinking about experience—new, that is, for modern readers, since these words have been around a very long time.
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