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On Beauty: the human, the divine – I

What comes to mind when an Indian text tells us, for example, that the goddess Tripura is beautiful? To be sure, from the perspective of practice at least, we cannot help but associate such statements with our own culturally-based conceptions of what constitutes beauty. But it helps, I feel, to know something of the social milieu from which these works sprang forth – its ethos, its ideals and aspirations, its cultural mores. What follows is the first in a series of posts in which I will try and explore Indian concepts of beauty, and how they relate to tantra practice and in particular, to the Saundaryalahari. This opening post is very much a general introduction, outlining some of the key concepts.

To encounter premodern Indian visual and literary culture is to enter a world populated by kings and queens; goddesses and gods; heroes and lovers. It is an idealised world of exquisite sculptural decoration, finely-crafted paintings, and an elaborate literary corpus with highly sophisticated rules of vocabulary (Sanskrit is infamous for its seemingly infinite number of synonyms) and stylised conventions. In this world, the well-formed human body is the touchstone against which comparisons were made. This is a world where men and women, kings and queens, courtly lovers, courtesans and heroes are young, beautiful and powerful. As Vidya Dehejia remarks: “Youth, beauty, and the ability to attract others translated into power and authority, whether in the earthly or the divine sphere”. 1 The world conjured up by Tantric texts, with their extensive lists of the ideal qualities of consorts (the Kulārṇava Tantra for example, stresses that the ideal woman should be young, beautiful, pious, devoted to guru, always smiling, pleasing, and lacking jealousy 2) sometimes shares this same vision. It is worth remembering that, despite popular representations of tantric actors being marginal to mainstream Indian culture, many tantrikas were highly educated, courtly sophisticates. Moreover, the body-centred practices for which the tantric traditions are famous did not develop in isolation; we should, I feel, consider them as part of a continuum of ‘body culture’ – to use Daud Ali’s apt phrase – which encompasses not only visual and literary representations, but also the performing arts, aesthetics, and the world of the royal court, together with yoga, dance traditions, etc. As Stella Kramrisch points out: “The art of India is neither religious nor secular, for the consistent fabric of Indian life was never rent by the western dichotomy of religious belief and worldly practice.” 3

This is a world whose subtleties were intended for the pleasure of social elites: royalty ; courtiers; officials; the sophisticated connoisseur – the nāgaraka. (see Lecture notes: On the Kamasutra – III for related discussion). Court poets wrote eulogies glorifying their masters, and in doing so, immortalised themselves. Mastery of language; eloquent speech; sophisticated discourse were highly valued. The poet Daṇḍin 4, in his Kāvyādarśa (‘Mirror of Poetry’) says:

“It is thanks solely to the speeches of the cultured scholars that everything is flourishing. This whole cosmos would be blind darkness if the light of the world had not shone from the beginning of time.”

It is within this courtly milieu that ideals of beauty were standardised and codified by aestheticians and rhetoricians, building on earlier conceptions of the body and its virtues. The idea that virtue could be read as a bodily sign has a long history in Indian thought. Buddhist texts such as the Lakkhaṇa Suttanta for example, refer to the thirty-two lakṣaṇa (literally, ‘marks’) of auspiciousness and attractiveness which appear on the body of a mahāpuruṣa (‘great person’) who is destined to become a future Buddha or monarch. Such signs were held to be the results of virtuous actions in previous lives. Thus a well-formed, healthy and beautiful body was both a sign of, and a result of moral perfection. Varāhamihira’s sixth century Bṛhatsaṁhitā (‘Great Compendium’) contains extensive typologies of bodily characteristics and qualities which could indicate a person’s moral worth, as well as their future or past.

Sanskrit has over a hundred words and phrases for denoting beauty, attractiveness and loveliness. Common terms include saundarya – “beauty”; sundara – “beautiful”; sundari – “beautiful woman”; a slender young woman might be described using the feminine noun, taruni – “creeper”. Words like kānta (‘beloved’); cāru, (“beautiful, attractive”); lāvaṇya, (‘beautiful’) were used to describe both men and women. Rūpa – ‘form’ or ‘body’ has associations (depending on context) with auspiciousness, grace, splendour and so encompasses not only the body – but also a person’s comportment, clothing, adornment, etc.

Daniel H.H. Ingalls, in an insightful essay published in 1962 5 pointed out that whilst beauty as conceived by Sanskrit poets usually begins with an appeal to the senses, it does not rest there, and the affect is broadened out into wider significations. Ingalls comments that ‘the Indians never developed a Platonic division of the universe into beautiful and non-beautiful. Sanskrit … has no word for spiritual beauty; it speaks instead of spiritual truth’.

Beauty is not only about physical appearence, but also relates moral or ethical qualities, and auspiciousness. Auspiciousness is an wide-ranging category in Indian thought – including not only persons and objects, but also events and omens. Auspiciousness (śubha, maṅgala) is contrasted with inauspiciousness (aśubha, amaṅgala) As Ronald Inden points out 6 “in Indic thought there is nothing inherently auspicious or inauspicious” – it is highly context-dependent.

Another important category of thought which relates to ideas of beauty is rasa (see wiki note: Rasa theory). This is a vast topic in its own right, and later developments of aesthetic reception by Ānandavardhana (9th century) and Abhinavagupta (10-11th century) became very influential in the tantric traditions. I will have more to say about rasa in a future post.

As Daud Ali points out, beauty was considered not merely as a set of attributes, but also “a capacity, partly bestowed by birth, which was to be realised through individual agency. It was deemed beyond the aspirations of common people, but, within the society of the good, it formed a ceaseless and life-long vocation” 7

A woman may be noble, she may have good features. She may have a nice complexion, be filled with love, be shapely. But without ornaments, my friend, she is not beautiful. The same goes for poetry.
Keshavdas, Kavipriyā

Another category I want to introduce is ornamentation – alaṅkāra. Beauty must be cared for; it must be cultivated – and central to the cultivation of beauty was the discipline of alaṅkāra-śāstra ‘the science of ornament’ (alaṅkāra can be translated as “to make sufficient,” or “to strengthen”). Such ornamentation encompasses not only poetics and the visual arts, but also bodily refinements such as wearing jewelry, clothing, hair styling, cosmetics, perfumes, posture, gesture, deportment, etc. At least fifteen of the sixty-four knowledges (aṅgavidyāḥ) given in the Kāmasūtra (again, see Lecture notes: On the Kamasutra – III for related discussion) cross over into the domain of ornamentation – both bodily ornamentation and the ornamentation of place. In this post I noted that ornamentation can also be considered as a form of worship in itself. To be adorned is to be cultured; socially acceptable; auspicious. Thus, as A.K. Coomaraswamy points out, adornment or ornamentation is an integral component of ideals of beauty. To adorn something is to complete it, to magnify and empower its presence. Indeed, not to be so adorned was considered to be inauspicious and disordered, and is associated with mourning and death.

In the next post I will take a closer look at some idealised representations of men and women – in particular, kings and queens – and conventions of beauty as expressed in literature, sculpture and inscriptional eulogies, and delve deeper into the poetic school of alaṅkāra.

Daud Ali Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Ronald Inden, ‘Kings and Omens’ in, John Braisted Carman, Frédérique Apffel Marglin (eds), Purity and Auspiciousness in Indian Society (Brill, 1985)
Vidya Dehejia The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (Columbia University Press, 2009)
Daniel H Ingalls An anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1965)
Meera Kachroo The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Stella Kramrisch, The Art of India: Indian Sculpture, Painting, and Architecture (Phaidon, 1965)
June McDaniel, ‘Does Tantric Ritual Empower Women? Renunciation and Domesticity among Female Bengali Tantrikas’, in Tracy Pintchman (ed) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Martha Ann Selby Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India (Oxford University Press, 2000)
David Shulman More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Annette Wilke, Oliver Moebius Sound and Communication: An Aesthetic Cultural History of Sanskrit Hinduism (Walter de Grutyer GmbH, 2011)


  1. Dehejia, The Body Adorned, p29
  2. see McDaniel, in Women’s Lives for discussion.
  3. Kramrisch, The Art of India p10
  4. 7th-8th century CE
  5. “Words for beauty in classical Sanskrit poetry” in Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown American Oriental Society 1962.
  6. ‘Kings and Omens’, p30
  7. Ali, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India p143.