Karuna – A Touch of Compassion

“Compassion sooner or later triumphs.” – Sir Chinmoy.

Today’s blog post is about the most benevolent of all emotions, which is Compassion. In the Indian context of rasas it is called “Karuna rasa.”

The Sanskrit word Karuna means “Sadness”, representing grief and compassion. This rasa finds expression in many forms of art, literature, and theatre in India. The feelings of unspeakable tragedy and despair, hopelessness and heartbreak, the sorrow caused by parting with a lover, the pain caused by the death of a loved one are all Karuna.  However, in its highest form, Karuna rasa depicts compassion or sympathy.

Some examples of Karuna  are a mother’s reaction while seeing her son’s body returning home after being killed in a war, Sri Krishna’s reaction to Abhimanyu’s death during the Kurukshetra War and most of the Shakespearean tragedies.

Mastering Karuna means transforming ignorance for a person or situation into compassion. Karuna is also very empathetic and makes one relate to the others’ state of unhappiness. Pity and sadness are consequences of ignorance and attachments. When we feel sad for all who do not see through suffering as a result of their ignorance, then we experience Karuna. Karuna not only transcends the world, it also transcends the self for it is the bridge to one’s higher self and the thread that binds every human being to the other as well as the mystery of creation.

Karuna is not a negative emotion. It is a positive feeling of empathy and understanding for others in response to their suffering, accompanied by a desire to help. Compassion when based on rational notions such as fairness, justice and interdependence is beautiful. Karuna Rasa takes birth at the sight of death, murder, torture, or anguish and is depicted by the color grey.

While sadness is the key ingredient of Compassion, true Compassion goes beyond sadness to an unending kindness that doesn’t taste like sadness at all but transforms into love and truth.

True Compassion is without discrimination and can be felt for humans as well as for animals, plants, or enemies. It makes us a kind person, extending loving kindness to every being we meet. Real Compassion is a divine quality that makes a person a real human being. This Karuna polishes our consciousness of the Divine, making it stand out more clearly and beautifully. It is the cause of many spiritual thoughts and ideas and promotes religion very well.

Buddha and the Dalai Lama are examples of Compassion. The former did not feel pity for the suffering of others but for the ignorance that causes suffering and that is why he set himself on the path of self-realization. Compassion plays a very central role in Buddhism, where the term “Karuna” is much more directly translated as Compassion, rather than Sadness. The Christian cross is also a powerful symbol of Karuna, as it represents suffering that has emerged out of Compassion for others.

Depiction of Karuna through Art

Buddhism and Christianity have been the most widely used vehicles of art for Karuna, hence Compassion, the Buddha being the most common subject.

Jesus and Buddha (Karuna)

Among some of the greatest works depicting empathy and compassion are those by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt who has created some sensitive representations of maternal empathy and compassion in oil paint and pastel.

Another unique representation of Karuna rasa and a rather abstract one at that is an acrylic painting by Tiril Benton, simply titled, Karuna (Compassion). In the artist’s own words, “my work is a testament to my understanding and experience of Consciousness, the Divine, God, Source.  A mystery.  A known mystery.  The external experience serves as the catalyst for the internal striving to comprehend the connectedness of all on an energetic level. Is it not the quest of the human journey to balance the life of matter to the life of spirit. The ego to the true self. The experience of the painting is the microcosm of this eternal struggle. Facing the tension between illusion and reality.” His use of colors like red, black, blue, white, violet and green break the conventional norms of the color grey associated with Karuna rasa.

Karuna (Compassion) – Tiril Benton

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most popular subjects for expressing Karuna is the Buddha and one set of artworks that do so beautifully are Karuna II and III by Jazmin Angeles. In the former, the Buddha epitomizes compassion and the action taken by him to diminish the suffering of others is translated into “compassionate action.” The latter is a more abstract representation of the act of compassion.

 When individuals experience enlightenment, they perceive all beings as one and extend compassionate action to everyone without distinction. Because of the oneness of all beings, it is understood that Karuna is not only extended to others out of love, but also because it is an entirely logical thing to do. It is also stated in the Buddhist literature that Karuna must be accompanied by wisdom in order to have the right effect.


Karuna is the motivating quality of all enlightened beings who are working to end suffering on Earth. They continually send an unlimited amount of healing energy and guidance to us, but not all are receptive to it. As you develop Karuna in yourself, not only are you helping others, but you also become more receptive to the Karuna that is being sent by all enlightened beings. Thus your healing is quickened as well.

Sometimes compassion can be depicted by the least expected artists. So I was pretty surprised when I can across Reinaldo Dennes, a murder convict on death row. He has been painting his visions in meditation and dreams since 2003 using original means (watercolors, oil paints and brushes are not available in the prison shop), such as broken crayons, diluted in water, chalk, toothpaste, hair made into brushes. All pictures are painted on cardboard (thick cardboard) 38.5 x 51 cm.

 Death row inmates are not allowed to have paints so he mixes all painting materials together himself. He crushes colored pencil lead and blends it with shaving cream or shampoo or whatever is available to create the color and consistency desired. All the more astonishing are his paintings, full of life, love and truth.

Among his many though provoking artworks are two paintings that are stunningly beautiful depicts of compassion. The first one is titled Door of compassion and this is his description for it –“The blond lady with black baby = Doors of compassion. In America when a white woman is left alone with a black baby she is condemned and stoned to death in their hearts (no compassion, door is closed). In the second door a little compassion some give her a little money but no help. The greatest love shown to her is from a stranger older couple who take her home and care for her. The more compassion more love.”

The second painting by Dennes is titled Karuna itself and is also a warm representation of compassion.

Then there is Compassion by Tammera MalickiWong, which is equivalent to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood. There is an aspect of compassion which regards a quantitative dimension, such that individual’s compassion is often given a property of “depth,” “vigour,” or “passion.” According to the artist, is a virtue—one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness and humanism.

Compassion by Tammera MalickiWong

Compassion, an original painting on canvas using acrylic paint by Toadeng, shows a woman with a sad face and a tear trickling down her face and a caressing gesture of her hand.

Compassion by Toadeng

Two more artworks based on the subject of Compassion have been created by the artist Raajendran V and are titled Compassion Drawing and Compassion Painting respectively.

Karuna or Compassion is not just a subject of inspiration for artists but the artists themselves become the means of improving the world through feelings of kind-heartedness, sensitivity and love for one and all. There have been several women artists who have been witness to this and have been propagating compassion through their art.

One such artist is Kate Langlois, who has created a painting of a woman artist as the healer of the world. According to her, “Where healing and creativity meets we connect to the world. This is how we give voice to compassion with creativity. Cultivating compassion often begins from nurturing love for our own self.

Generally we find by reaching out to others in need, we feed our own seeds of compassion. Reaching outside of our own experiences helps us move beyond ourselves, finding connection to our larger circle in the world community. Inclusive of all abilities, creativity is truly for all of us.

Renewing hope in ourselves and others, art has the capacity to lift us up. Not simply a coping mechanism, art has proven to also be a tool to transform.”

As an artist and teacher, she’s part of a growing art movement that uses the concept of Intentional Creativity as a way to shift through life experiences. Creating with paint and writing, she has processed through personal tragic events as well as those of others, thereby witnessing firsthand powerful transformations toward healing.

Applying this same method to world events, the subject matter she’s following in her current art works on canvas are human rights issues. She believes that discovering the bridge between these larger world events and ourselves is a powerful way to invite the resonance of compassion.

She also says that “just as a sick heart can lead to the death of a body and all the other organs in it, the sickness of any of our earthy parts is detrimental to the whole.” Bringing visibility to social injustices and sharing the voice of those who are suffering is what she wants to bring into the world through her art.

In all of the pieces she imagines what the situation would look like if it was whole, healed, shifted. She tries to connect with the emotional feeling of that shift she wants to see as if it’s already happened.

She painted about artist and poet Liu Xiabo who continues under house arrest in Beijing, China as the threads that follow back to herself as of both isolation and freedom.

In her painting of Saudi women human rights activists Ms. Wajeha al-Huwaider and Ms. Fawzia al-Oyouni, she seeks out how women view each other in both the East and the West. She discovered even though the perspectives may contradict how we view ourselves, we ultimately desire the same over-arching freedoms.

While working on a painting about home and displacement that spans between Iraqi refugees fleeing to Mount Sinjar to the issues of U.S. immigration, she echoed her own family’s eviction and her community’s housing crisis in the City of San Francisco, California, U.S.

Here are images of some more paintings depicting Karuna rasa.

Karuna Rasa through my Art

My Depiction of Karuna Rasa

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― 
Albert Einstein.

This quote by the scientific genius Einstein has greatly inspired me while depicting Karuna in my artwork titled Karuna – A touch of compassion.

We refer to our planet as mother earth as she nourishes us with all her treasures in the form of the environment, just like a human mother who nourishes her children. Life in all forms on earth is interlinked, forged out of the same ingredients of origin. Not only is this the fundamental truth of all existence, it constitutes a delicate balance and interdependence between nature and all life forms. Mother Earth gives us the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and healing herbs to cure our ills. Every breath we inhale contains our planet’s nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and trace elements. 

As man evolved, he learnt and gained much from his technological and scientific advances leading up to modern times, but this knowledge has now become his bane as his most recent discoveries are proving to be more of a curse than a blessing. Mother Nature is finding herself drained and helpless, pleading for all of humanity to awaken to its responsibility of taking care of this precious planet and all living creatures. The Earth and all species on Earth are in real danger.

Yet if we can develop a deep relationship with the Earth, we’ll have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change our way of life. The ultimate solution is undoubtedly to show compassion for the one home we have, from which all life originates and on which all life eventually depends.

This artwork is an attempt to depict two sides of the same coin. While one side shows how fortunate we are to have Nature’s blessings in the form of her beautiful flora and fauna, the other side opens our eyes to how we are destroying this beautiful gift by polluting our environment. This is my appeal to stop pollution and thereby show “Karuna” (Compassion) towards our magnificent planet and its captivating inhabitants.

The right half of the painting displays what we are doing to our beautiful planet and Mother Nature. Not only are we destroying our soul provider, but also its inhabitants which include us. This is evident as human decay in the form of the skeletal hand I have portrayed in the painting. The cigarette between the crooked bones of this hand represents the toxic poisons we are exhaling into our atmosphere through our industrial chimneys. Not only does this smoke symbolize the industrial infection that we are spreading but also the impending doom of nuclear warfare. The skeletal and decomposing remains of the elephant represent the consequences of our ignorance resulting from selfish acts like poaching, deforestation and our greed for more.

The left side of the artwork shows what Mother Earth will look like in her full glory, if we give her the chance to live. The foliage of green leaves with a scattering of blossoms, the lush green grass and the robust image of the elephant set against a bright blue sky all bear witness to the Earth’s masterful creativity. Mother Nature has always been there for us, offering us everything we need for our nourishment and healing – the miraculous grains to quell our hunger, the refreshing streams to quench our thirst, the fragrant forests, the majestic snow-capped mountain peaks and the joyful birdsong at dawn to satiate our senses. All we have been doing is taking from her and have brought her to the point where soon she will have nothing left to offer.

 The time has come to contemplate on both halves and realize what lies in store for us and what we can do to stop it before its too late. We need to apply each and every advancement of our scientific progress towards the betterment of this wondrous planet. Only when we’ve truly fallen back in love with the Earth will our actions spring from reverence, and the insight of our interconnectedness. I have symbolized this love for Mother Nature through the hand on the left, which epitomizes the hand of compassion.

As is mentioned in the image, this is a mixed media artwork where I have employed every medium ranging from oils, to acrylics as well as impasto and decoupage. I have achieved the visual effects for the elephant’s head through acrylic pouring. The text on top is actual newspaper cuttings which have been fused with the acrylic pour backdrop with the technique of decoupage. The various 3D effects providing texture to the foliage and the elephant tusks have been achieved with the help of the hot glue gun. I have taken special care to highlight the difference between a healthy tusk and a decaying one by depicting the latter in a mangled and fragmented state. The remainder of the painting has been rendered with oil paints.

I hope to invoke Karuna for our Mother Earth and her environment through this portrayal of the rasa and would like to sum up my message through the following quote and some self composed poetry thereafter:

“To be conscious of enriching the environment and not polluting it is a spiritual principle, a social responsibility and a natural expression of compassion. We need to treat the earth with respect, for we are dependent on her. There is also a proper method to utilize nature and not exploit nature.”

Pollution – The Man-made Infection

Silently it stalks us, craving to prey.

Belching clouds of noxious fumes , turning our skies gray.

A host of demons it holds inside, longing to be set free.

Ready to unleash their lethal force, onto our land, air and sea.

Effortlessly it glides through, sinking its fangs deeper.

Aggressively it spreads its venom, making its victims weaker.

The winds of change brought more harm than good.

Our misguided science failed to do what it should.

Our bright blue skies are forever a haze.

Our earth gets scorched by the raging sun’s blaze.

Crystal clear seas have lost their gleam.

White ocean floors are littered with plastic streams.

Where are the tall grasses? Where are the trees?

We  chopped them down and replaced them with industries.

The crops and the flowers are overdosed with sprays.

The animals and the birds with their lives have to pay.

The grasslands are littered with plastics and tins.

Our world has become a global garbage bin.

The ground is parched, longing for rain.

The oceans are drying, the fish perish in disdain.

The beaches and streams are covered with tar and foam.

Smoke and  smog choke the streets and our homes.

About the ozone layer and greenhouse effect I need not linger.

The air smells fowl and the earth has become warmer.

But who created this monster? Whose is he to tame?

We brought him to life, we have none else to blame.

Is this the legacy to our future generations we leave?

They deserve a cleaner world than what they receive.

They’ll have no tomorrow, unless we pay heed,

And slay this monster created by our own greed.

So let’s clear up this mess, before it’s too late.

Or we’ll have no option left, but to give them this fate.

Let’s keep the air fresh and Reduce our waste.

Reuse and Recycle, with plenty of haste.

Let’s plant more trees and make our rivers clean.

LIVE AND LET LIVE, let’s make the earth green.

(Self composed).

DISCLAIMER – All the information, data and imagery in this blog post is for informational and educational purpose only. While there may be copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner, I have only made it available with the sole effort to stimulate artistic progress and enrichment. However, some images may have been taken from the links included below and I give full credit to these websites/pages, thereby in no way claiming them to be my own. I have also used these links for reference purposes and collection of data for this post, therefore I give full credit to the respective web pages for their data. Most of the data in this post is based on my personal experiences and opinions and I am not responsible for any material that is found in the links at the end of this post.

Sources and Photo Credits –

The Navrasa of life

https://jasleenvohra.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/navarasas-the-karuna-rasa/

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https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-greatest-works-of-art-that-depict-empathy-and-compassion

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