The Pali word samvega is often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience. In other contexts the root vij, with or without the intensive prefix sam, or other prefixes such as pra, “forth, ” implies a swift recoil from or trembling at something feared. For example, the rivers freed from the Dragon, “rush forth” (pra vivijre, Rg Veda X.III.9), Tvastr “quakes” (vevijyate) at Indra’s wrath (ibid. I. 80.14), men “tremble” (samvijante) at the roar of a lion (Atharva Veda VIII.7.15), birds “are in a tremor” at the sight of a falcon (ibid. VI.21.6); a woman “trembles” (samvijjati) and shows agitation (samvegam âpajjati) at the sight of her fatherinlaw, and so does a monk who forgets the Buddha (Majjhima Nikâya, I.186); a good horse aware of the whip is “inflamed and agitated” (âtâpino samvegino, Dhammapada 144); and as a horse is “cut” by the lash, so may the good man be “troubled” (samvijjati) and show agitation (samvega) at the sight of sickness or death, “because of which agitation he pays close heed, and both physically verifies the ultimate truth (parama saccam, the ‘moral’)1 and presciently penetrates it” (Anguttara Nikâya II.116). “I will proclaim, ” the Buddha says, “the cause of my dismay (samvegam), wherefore I trembled (samvijitam mayâ): it was when I saw peoples floundering like fish when ponds dry up, when I beheld man’s strife with man, that I felt fear” (or “horror”), and so it went “until I saw the evil barb that festers in men’s hearts” (Sutta Nipâta, 935938).2

The emotional stimulus of painful themes may be evoked deliberately when the will or mind (citta) is sluggish, “then he stirs it up (samvejeti) by a consideration of the Eight Emotional Themes” (atthasamvegavatthûni) (birth, old age, sickness, death and sufferings arising in four other ways); in the resulting state of distress, he then “gladdens3 (or thrills, sampahanseti, Skr. hrs, ‘rejoice’ etc.) it by the recollection of the Buddha, the Eternal Law and the Communion of Monks, when it is in need of such gladdening” (Visuddhi Magga, 135). A poignant realization of the transience of natural beauty may have the same effect: in the Yuvañjaya Jâtaka, the Crown Prince (uparâjâ) “one day early in the morning mounted his splendid chariot and went out in all his great splendor to disport himself in the park. He saw on the treetops, the tips of the grasses, the ends of branches, on every spider’s web and thread, and on the points of the rushes, dewdrops hanging like so many strings of pearls.” He learns from his charioteer that that is what men call “dew.” When he returns in the evening the dew has vanished. The charioteer tells him that that is what happens when the sun rises. When the Prince hears this, he is “deeply moved” (samvegappatto hutvâ), and he realizes that “The living constitution of such as we are is just like these drops of dew;4 I must be rid of disease, old age and death; I must take leave of my parents, and turn to the life of a wandering monk.” And so it was that “using as support of contemplation simply a dewdrop (ussâvabindum eva ârammanam katvâ) he realized that the Three Modes of Becoming (Conative, Formal, and Informal) are so many blazing fires ... Even as the dewdrop on blades of grass when the sun gets up, such is the life of men” (Jâtaka IV.120122).

Here it is a thing lovely in itself that provides the initial stimulus to reflection, but it is not so much the beautiful thing as it is the perception of its evanescence that induces recollection. On the other hand, the “shock” or “thrill” need not involve a recoil, but may be one of supersensual delight. For example, the cultivation of the Seven Factors of Awakening (to Truth), accompanied by the notion of the Arrest (of the vicious causes of all pathological conditions), of which the seventh is an Impartiality (upekhâ)5 that issues in Deliverance (vossagga = avasarga), “conduces to great profit, great ease, a great thrill (mahâ samvega) and great glee” (Samyutta Nikâya V.134).

In it there is “much radical intellection, leading to the fullawakening aspect of delight” (pîti) or “contentment (tutthi) with the flavor (rasa) of the chosen support of contemplation that has been grasped”; body and mind are flooded or suffused; but this joyous emotion, aftereffect of the shock, is a disturbance proper only to the earlier phases of contemplation, and is superceded by equanimity (Vis. 135145).

We are told that Brother Vakkali spent his days in gazing at the beauty of the Buddha's person. The Buddha, however, would have him understand that not he who sees his body, sees himself, but “only he who sees the Dhamma, sees Me”; he realizes that Vakkali will never wake up (na ... bujjhissati) unless he gets a shock (samvegan âlabhitva); and so forbids Vakkali to follow him. Vakkali seeks to throw himself down from a mountain peak. To prevent this, the Buddha appears to him in a vision, saying, “Fear not, but come (ehi), and I shall lift you up.” At this, Vakkali is filled with delight (pîti); to reach the Master, he springs into the air6 and, pondering as he goes, he “discards the joyful emotion” and attains the final goal of Arahatta before he descends to earth at the Buddha’s feet (DhA, IV.118ff.). It will be seen that the transition from shock (that of the ban) to delight (that of the vision), and from delight to understanding, is clearly presented. Vakkali, at last, is no longer “attached” to the visual and more or less “idolatrous” experience; the aesthetic support of contemplation is not an end in itself, but only an index, and becomes a snare if misused.7

So far, then, samvega is a state of shock, agitation, fear, awe, wonder or delight induced by some physically or mentally poignant experience. It is a state of feeling, but always more than a merely physical reaction. The “shock” is essentially one of the realization of the implications of what are strictly speaking only the aesthetic surfaces of phenomena that may be liked or disliked as such. The complete experience transcends this condition of “irritability.”

It will not, then, surprise us to find that it is not only in connection with natural objects (such as the dewdrop) or events (such as death) but also in connection with works of art, and in fact whenever or wherever perception (aisthêsis) leads to a serious experience, that we are really shaken. So we read that “The man of learning (pandito = doctor)8 cannot but be deeply stirred (samvijjetheva, i.e. samvegam kareyya) by stirring situations (samvejanîyesu thânesu). So may an ardent master monk, putting all things to the test of prescience, living the life of peace, and not puffed up, but one whose will has been given its quietus, attain to the wearing out of Ill”: there are, in fact, two things that conduce to a monk’s wellbeing, contentment and spiritual continence, viz. his radical premise, and “the thrill that should be felt in thrilling situations” (Itivuttaka, 30). We see from this text (and from Samyutta Nikâya V.134 cited above) that the “thrill” (samvega), experienced under suitable conditions, if it can still in some sense be thought of as an emotion, is by no means merely an interested aesthetic response, but much rather what we so awkwardly term delight of a “disinterested aesthetic contemplation, ”—a contradiction in terms, but “you know what I mean.”

Now there are, in particular, “Four sightly places whereat the believing clansman should be deeply moved (cattâri kulaputtassa dassanîyâni samvejanîyâni thânâni); they are those four in which the layman can say ‘Here the Buddha was born!’ ‘Here he attained to the Total Awakening, and was altogether the Wake!’ ‘Here did he first set agoing the incomparable Wheel of the Law, ’ and ‘Here was he despirated, with the despiration (nibbâna) that leaves no residuum (of occasion of becoming)!’ ... And there will come to these places believers, monks and sisters, and layfolk, men and women, and so say ... and those of these who die in the course of their pilgrimage to such monuments (cetiya), in serenity of will (pasannacittâ) will be regenerated after death in the happy heavenworld” (Digha Nikâya II.141, 142, cf. Añguttara Nikâya I.136, II.120).

As the words dassanîya (darsanîya) “sightly, ” “sightworthy, ” commonly applied to visible works of art (as sravanîya, “worth hearing” is said of audible works), and cetiya,9 “monument, ” imply, and as we also know from abundant literary and archeological evidence, these four sacred places or stations were marked by monuments, e.g. the still extant Wheel of the Law set up on a pillar in the Deer Park at Benares on the site of the first preaching. Furthermore, as we also know, these pilgrim stations could be substituted for by similar monuments set up elsewhere, or even constructed on such a small scale as to be kept in a private chapel or carried about, to be similarly used as supports of contemplation. The net result is, then, that icons (whether “aniconic, ” as at first, or “anthropomorphic, ” somewhat later) serving as reminders of the great moments of the Buddha’s life and participating in his essence, are to be regarded as “stations” at the sight of which a “shock” or “thrill” may and should be experienced by monk or layman.

Samvega, then, refers to the experience that may be felt in the presence of a work of art, when we are struck by it, as a horse might be struck by a whip. It is, however, assumed that like the good horse we are more or less trained, and hence that more than a merely physical shock is involved; the blow has a meaning for us, and the realization of that meaning, in which nothing of the physical sensation survives, is still a part of the shock. These two phases of the shock are, indeed, normally felt together as parts of an instant experience; but they can be logically distinguished, and since there is nothing peculiarly artistic in the mere sensibility that all men and animals share, it is with the latter aspect of the shock that we are chiefly concerned. In either phase, the external signs of the experience may be emotional, but while the signs may be alike, the conditions they express are unlike. In the first phase, there is really a disturbance, in the second there is the experience of a peace that cannot be described as an emotion in the sense that fear and love or hate are emotions. It is for this reason that Indian rhetoricians have always hesitated to reckon “Peace” (sânti) as a “flavor” (rasa) in one category with the other “flavors.”

In the deepest experience that can be induced by a work of art (or other reminder) our very being is shaken (samvijita) to its roots. The “Tasting of the Flavor” that is no longer any one flavor is, as the Sâhitya Darpana puts it, “the very twin brother of the tasting of God”; it involves, as the word “disinterested” implies, a selfnaughting—a semetipsa liquescere—and it is for this reason that it can be described as “dreadful, ” even though we could not wish to avoid it. For example, it is of this experience that Eric Gill writes that “At the first impact I was so moved by the (Gregorian) chant ... as to be almost frightened ... This was something alive ... I knew infallibly that God existed and was a living God” (Autobiography, 1940, p. 187). I have myself been completely dissolved and broken up by the same music, and had the same experience when reading aloud Plato’s Apology. That cannot have been an “aesthetic” emotion, such as could have been felt in the presence of some insignificant work of art, but represents the shock of conviction that only an intellectual art can deliver, the bodyblow that is delivered by any perfect and therefore convincing statement of truth. On the other hand, I must confess that realism in religious art I find only disgusting and not at all moving, and that what is commonly called pathos in art generally makes me laugh; and I dare say there is nothing unusual in that. The point is that a liability to be overcome by the truth has nothing to do with sentimentality; it is well known that the mathematician can be overcome in this way, when he finds a perfect expression that subsumes innumerable separate observations. But this shock can be felt only if we have learned to recognize truth when we see it. I can give one more example, that of Plotinus’ overwhelming words, “Do you mean to say that they have seen God and do not remember him? Ah no, it is that they see him now and always. Memory is for those who have forgotten” (Enneads, IV.4.6). To feel the full force of this “thunderbolt” (vajra)10 one must have had at least an inkling of what is involved in the Platonic and Indian doctrine of Recollection.11 In the question, “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” there is an incomparably harder blow than there is in “Only God can make a tree, ” which could as well have been said of a flea or a cutworm. With Socrates, “We cannot give the name of ‘art’ to anything irrational” (Gorgias, 465A); nor with the Buddhist think of any but significant works of art as “stations where the shock of awe should be felt.”

  • 1. The ultimate significance (paramârthasatyam) as distinguished (vijñâtam) from the mere facts in which it is exemplified (see Pañcavimsa Brâhmana X.14.5, XIX.6.1 and Chândogya Upanisad, VII.16, 17 with Sankarâcârya’s Commentary).
  • 2. We also feel the horror; but do we see the barb when we consider Picasso’s Guernica, or have we “desired peace, but not the things that make for peace”? For the most part, our “aesthetic” approach stands between us and the content of the work of art, of which only the surface concerns us.
  • 3. A learned preacher’s discourse is said to convince (samâdapeti), inflame (samuttejeti) and gladden (sampahanseti) the congregation of monks (Samyutta Nikâya II.280).
  • 4. The dewdrop is here, as are other symbols elsewhere, a “support of contemplation” (dhiyâlamba). The whole passage, with its keen perception of natural beauty and of its lesson anticipates the point of view that is characteristic for Zen Buddhism.
  • 5. The upekkhaka (upa+[root] îks) corresponds to the preksaka (pra+ [root] îks) of Maitri Upanisad II.7, i.e. the divine and impartial “looker on” at the drama of which all the world, our “selves” included, is the stage.
  • 6. On levitation (lightness), see Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, 1943, n.269, to which much might be added. Other cases of levitation occasioned by delight in the Buddha as support of contemplation occur in Vis. 143144; the same experience enables the experient to walk on the water (J. II.III). A related association of ideas leads us to speak of being “carried away” or “transported” by joy. In Matthew 14:2728, the words, “Be not afraid ... Come” are identical with the Pali ehi, mâ bhayi in the DhA context.
  • 7. “O take heed, lest thou misconceive me in human shape” (Rûmî, Dîvân, Ode XXV). Similarly, Meister Eckhart, “To them his [Christ's] manhood is a hindrance so long as they still cling to it with mortal pleasure”; and “That man never gets to the underlying truth who stops at the enjoyment of its symbol” (Evans ed., I, 186, 187; cf. p.194), and St. Augustine, “It seems to me that the disciples were engrossed by the human form of the Lord Christ, and as men were held to the man by a human affection. But he wished them to have a divine affection, and thus to make them, from being carnal, spiritual ... Therefore he said to them, I send you a gift by which you will be made spiritual, namely, the gift of the Holy Ghost ... You will indeed cease from being carnal, if the form of the flesh be removed from your eyes, so that the form of God may be implanted in your hearts” (Sermo CCLXX.2). The “form” of the Buddha that he wished Vakkali to see, rather than that of the flesh, was, of course, that of the Dhamma, “which he who sees, sees Me” (S. III.120). St. Augustine’s words parallel those of the Prema Sâgara, chs. 48 and 49, where Srî Krishna, having departed, sends Udho with the message to the milkmaids at Brindâban that they are no longer to think of him as a man, but as God, ever immanently present in themselves, and never absent.
  • 8. Docti rationem componendi intelligunt, etiam indocti voluptatem (Quintillian, IX.4.116, based on Plato, Timaeus 80B). Nam, qui canit quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia ... Non verum facit ars cantorem, sed documentum (Guido d’Arezzo).
  • 9. On the different kinds of cetiya, and their function as substitutes for the visible presence of the Deus absconditus, see the Kâlingabodhi Jâtaka (IV.228) and my “The Nature of Buddhist Art” in Rowland and Coomaraswamy, Wallpaintings of Central Asia, India and Ceylan, Boston, 1938.
  • 10. “The ‘thunderbolt’ is a hard saying that hits you in the eye” (vajram pratyaksanisthuram), Dasarûpa I.64. Cf. St. Augustine’s “O axe, hewing the rock!”
  • 11. Cf. Meno 81C and Phaedrus 248C.