Hinduism has always incorporated a healthy dose of humour in its writings, with even gods not being spared.
In an overview of the history of Hinduism, we find humour very prominently in many places. The bookish approach encounters plenty of it in the mythological lore of the Vedas and Puranas, and in the fable collections. Their composers were uninhibited in highlighting the human side of both gods and men, including quite a bit of bawdy explicitness. In secular literature, various sectarian and caste groups came in for satire (some of it revived in Bollywood movies), most of all the Brahmin caste, to which most writers themselves belonged. Finally, humour is very prominently present in the discourses of yogis, and even counts as a touchstone for discerning accomplished yogis from time-servers and wannabes: a true yogi is cheerful and communicates that mood to his audience, directly through his charisma as well as verbally through witty similes.
Making fun of the gods
In an overview of Hindu history, we find humour in many places, not as an underground counter-current against a dour orthodoxy but with full citizen’s rights. There is so much of it that we can afford to start by skipping a large part. Insiders thoroughly at home in the Sanskrit language could indeed think of the numerous puns and other forms of language humour which formed an intrinsic part of the teaching of Sanskrit grammar and literature. These are alas hard to translate, so we will not consider them in this paper. Outsiders who only know Hinduism through second-hand sources and translations may approach the subject through mythology, where mild humour as well as satire are often employed. In that case the starting-point is logically the Rg-Veda, the oldest Hindu text by far.
Some of the speculative hymns of the Rg-Veda, like those on creation (10:40, 10:129), a topic of heavy interpretative efforts by medieval Indian and modern Western scholars, may have been intended as more light-hearted than we tend to presume. The Vedic poets already express an early skepticism there against all (then too probably already prolific and competing) belief systems about the origin of the universe. Often the poets are really painting philosophical panoramas, but just as often they seem to be enjoying their word-play rather than trying to fit profound messages into verse. Such lighter interpretation is itself speculative too, but it should be kept in mind, because it is of one piece with the atmosphere of large parts of the Vedic corpus where the meaning is quite unambiguous.
Hindu reformists and other uptight modern apologists who try to impose a prohibitive seriousness on the Rg-Veda in an effort to make it more respectable, the Rishis (seers) who composed the Vedic hymns were uninhibited in highlighting the human side of the gods they worship. In between solemn cosmological myths, they offer jocular variations on the gods’ characters. This is probably true of most polytheistic religions, we know at any rate the similar tendency among the culturally related (fellow Indo-European) ancient Greeks. In particular, there is quite a bit of bawdy explicitness which many Christian commentators and modern Hindus deem inappropriate in a sacred text. The Victorian translator Ralph H. Griffiths concealed it from lady readers by giving the afflicted verses a Latin rather than an English rendering, and Hindu modernists try to explain them away in contrived symbolical interpretations.
In at least one case, important religious developments in the Vedic-Brahmanical religion can be followed from one funny anecdote to another. The thunder-god Indra, just like his counterparts Zeus and Thor, is the protagonist in a few profound cosmological myths such as his slaying the dragon; but also in little stories of illicit love. He is a great consumer of psychedelic brews (which his priests pour into the sacrifial fire so as to “feed the gods”) and both he and his wife Sachi flaunt their sexual prowess. She describes hers, after Indra’s friend the monkey has tried to court her, thus: “There is no woman more fair-assed than I, nor better lubricated, nor more counterthrusting, nor a better thigh-spreader…” (RV 10:86:6, tra. Puhvel 1987:60) Stories of Indra’s affairs, like those of Zeus in Greece, may well be experimental variations by later poets exploiting the god’s well-established character to entertaining effect. But in the end, the fun turned into destructive mockery: a revolution in religious history from Vedic to classical Hinduism, symbolized by the enthronement of the semi-historical figure of Krishna as deity, sees Indra drowned in humiliating comedy.
In the Itihasa-Purana literature (“History” and “Antiquities”, first centuries BC and AD), core part history and larger part myth, Indra is reduced to a pin-pricked old glory. Thus, in one story he is magically castrated by a vengeful cuckolded priest, only to be restored to his manhood with the help of a pair of pig’s testicles. In another, he is cursed to have a hundred vaginas, suddenly appearing all over his body. As magical curses cannot be revoked, Brahma whom he asks for help, settles for the second-best solution, viz. filling each vagina opening with an eye. Here, the ancient imagery of a god as hundred-eyed (referring to his omniscience or, more physically, to the heaven with its numerous stars) is given a new satirical twist. At any rate, after all this discomfiture, Indra seemingly lost the authority to serve as an object of worship, and he disappeared from the pantheon, though in some ways the now-popular gods Shiva and Ganesha are heirs to his characteristics and symbolism.
But loss of authority due to mockery, as in Indra’s case, is very much the exception, not the rule. Generally, mockery and worship go together. Often Hindu myths are given grave interpretations by modern Hindu moralists and by Western scholars, but when you see them declaimed or enacted before an audience of ordinary Hindus, you will see they don’t mind acknowledging the lighter side and taking a candid laugh at the same gods whom on other occasions they sincerely venerate. Thus, the Mohini myth tells us how god Vishnu once saved god Shiva from his enemies by taking the shape of a seductive woman, Mohini (“enchantress”), who distracted and then eliminated the enemies; but next the relieved Shiva loses his proverbial self-control upon seeing “her”, so they have sex, and Mohini bears a child called Ayyappan. The Hindu public grins at the risqué twist in the story, yet many of them do go on pilgrimage to Sabarimalai where Ayyappan is worshipped.
The elephant-headed Ganesha is already funny by his iconography, as a pot-bellied sweet-tooth riding a rat, yet he is a very important god, being invoked at the start of all worldly enterprises and religious rituals. He is called the “laughing god”. He is expected to make us carefree by removing obstacles, the way an elephant can uproot young trees to create a path through the forest. In his case too, a clear distinction can be made between real myths and ad hoc variations with little more purpose than entertainment. Thus, it is commonly said that his elephant head was a replacement for the human head chopped off by mistake when he as a dutiful son had denied all visitors including his father access to his mother Parvati during her bath. That story is obviously artificial and not at all commensurate with the elephant symbolism’s importance. In a culture that so easily associated animals into the pantheon, it would be downright bizarre if the mighty elephant had not been given a place along with the monkey-god Hanuman or the lion-god Narasimha. The idea of an elephant-god clearly has deep prehistoric roots and precedes the head replacement story. That the strongest animal, endowed moreover with a charming gait and two brainy knobs on his forehead, should become the laughing god, is logical: he is the unassailable one and can afford to be carefree and to laugh at what to others are menacing dangers.
The two Epics, which form the actual focus of living Hinduism (as contrasted with the Vedas, to which lip-service is paid but which few people really know), are also full of humour; or at least one of them is. The Ramayana, about the liberation of the abducted Sita by her husband Rama, is comparatively serene and disinclined to laughter in spite of its happy ending (happy at least in the original version; later an extra “final chapter”, Uttara-khand, was added in which the happy gains made are lost again, culminating in Sita’s suicide). By contrast, numerous humorous or hilarious episodes dot the Mahabharata, the lengthy epic about a feud between princely cousins for the throne, in spite of its tragic theme and its predominantly tragic ending, with victory turning sour for all members of the nominally victorious Pandava party.
There may well be a causal link between the tragic Hindu view of history, with successively more sombre eras (the Mahabharata war marking the fall from the second-worst to the worst and most lawless of the four eras), and the punctuation with this story of decline by hilarious episodes. Pure comedy is found, for example, in the scenes set inside the magical palace created by the demon Maya for the Pandavas. Their Kaurava cousin/enemies are invited to the palace, and when (among other incidents) they enter a room that seems to be a plain floor, they suddenly find themselves stepping and falling into a pool of water. Getting up, they move into another room, which looks like a pool of water, and they walk gingerly with their clothes hitched up, to everyone’s amusement, when it is actually just a plain floor. (There is a similar story in the Targum Esther, 2nd century AD, and therefrom also in Quran 27:42, about the Queen of Sheba lifting up her dress when walking on the glass floor in King Solomon’s palace. The Targum and the Mahabharata were edited at about the same time, and both contain older oral traditions, so I refrain from speculating on the direction of borrowing, if any.)
Many other incidents follow, but for those who have seen the film versions, it will not always be clear which ones are actually in the text and how many are modern embellishments,– that’s what you get with a truly living tradition. Indeed, a lot in the Itihasa-Purana literature reads like it was made for cinematic adaptation. Polytheism and idolatry deeply appeal to the human appetite for colour, variety, visual stimulation and entertainment.
A very popular theme elaborated by later poets is the private life of the Mahabharata hero Krishna (later deified as an incarnation of Vishnu), starting with his first heroic feats when still a baby, then his amours as a youth and his husbandly problems later on, esp. in resolving the mutual jealousies of his wives. Thus, Krishna once gives Rukmini a parijata flower, and when Satyabhama throws tantrums, he presents her with a whole parijata tree (which he has wrested from Indra in heaven, symbolic of his dethroning Indra as the central deity). But all the flowers from this tree then fall into Rukmini’s garden, or how jealousy is never rewarded…
Jealousy also befalls young Krishna’s beloved cowgirl Radha, in the most popular love-affair of Indian literature (though it is not in the Mahabharata). The cowherd-prince is, after all, the beloved of each and every milkmaid, including married women. Once he walked by the riverside, where he saw the girls bathing. He grabbed the clothes they had left ashore and installed himself in a tree with an excellent view of the girls, who now had no choice but to appear naked before him. Modern Hindu moralists, like the reformist Arya Samaj movement and Mahatma Gandhi, are annoyed at such scenes and their popularity. But more seasoned Hindu preachers give them a spiritual twist: the girls are the souls of all sentient beings, the girls’ infatuation with Krishna is the souls’ longing for God, their nakedness before him is God’s knowledge of our most intimate thoughts, the infidelity of the cowherd wives is the souls’ renunciation from their worldly involvements.
There are also many episodes of humour when the Pandavas are living in disguise in the court of king Virata, where they are obliged to stay in hiding from the Kauravas for a year. Masquerades and cross-dressing are, of course, endless sources of comedy. Krishna and his beloved Radha, too, once cross-dress as each other, signifying that they actually become one another: the ultimate consummation of their love. Or as the Bonzo Dog Band ca. 1970 would sing: “Kama kama kama sutra with me! In position thirty-one / it was terrific fun. / In position seventy-two / you were me, and I was you.”
Humour is overwhelmingly present in a large body of literature which a Westerner might classify as semi-religious at most, or just plainly secular, but which to Hindus is dharmika, a term often translated as “religious” but more precisely referring to the proper way of dealing with any entities jointly making up the universe, gods and supernatural beings as well as fellow-men and animals. Morality and savoir-vivre are the subject-matter of the famous fable collections, such as the Pañcatantra, the Jâtaka tales and the Hitopadesha. Animal characters are used to illustrate human foibles and sometimes their remedies. The narrative framework of the all-important Pañcatantra is a comedy in itself: the stories are told to three princes who are too dull for conventional schooling, so they have to learn statecraft with the help of animal stories. The genre (along with its format of stories within stories) has had a deep influence on Arabic and European literatures, so that many of the stories are well-known in the West and no longer recognized as Indian. Still, in the originals we can discern a typically Hindu flavour.
It is helpful to keep the comical or ironical intention in these stories in mind so as to avoid inappropriately serious interpretations. Thus, in contemporary India, countless public speakers, both political and religious, pompously claim as the core of India’s heritage the motto: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, “The whole world is one family.” Apart from the utter banality of this one-liner, which could just as well be claimed by Christianity or Islam or indeed any religion that teaches all creatures as children of the one Creator, it is also a very unfortunate choice as an authoritative motto because of its original context. (Tiwari 2008) The quoting worthies usually don’t know the scriptures to which they pay lip-service, and they assume that the one-liner is from some prestigious text like the Rg-Veda or the Bhagavad-Gita. It is in fact from a fable collection, where its thrust is rather different from its surface meaning.
In the Hitopadesha, a jackal is trying to befriend a gullible deer in order to ultimately devour it, but a crow warns the deer, telling it about what happened to animals past who took strangers into confidence without checking out their true intentions. When the crow is about to dissuade the deer from going out with the jackal, the jackal interrupts him with a sardonic appeal to the oft-cited phrase: “‘Beware of strangers’, such is the talk of narrow-minded people. To magnanimous people, by contrast, the whole world is one family.” The deer then rejects the crow’s warnings, invites the jackal, and later on gets attacked by the jackal, only to be saved by the crow’s intervention. Sarcastic lesson: the one who believes that “the world is one family”, is a fool bound to get into trouble; the one who disbelieves it, is wise; and the one who propagates it, is a knave whom you should avoid like the plague.
Another large corpus of religion-related humour is the satirical treatment of priests and ascetics in Hindu theatre, in poetry and more recently in novels. Sanskrit drama, right from Kalidasa onwards, has an inevitable “jester” or comedian, and this tradition has persisted through the ages right down to the present time. Every folk-drama tradition (the Yakshagana of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Chhao of the East, Kathakali of Kerala, Tamasha of Maharashtra, Bhavai of Gujarat, etc.) has a mandatory jester or jesters; and jokes are cracked at the expense of almost every god, king and sage. Hindi and regional language mythological films and commercial dramas also keep up this tradition of humour and comedy. In fact, so strong is this compulsion that, like the inevitable song-and-dance sequences, at least one comedian is a compulsory part of almost every Bollywood film, including even horror films.
The tradition of Hindu humour is so strong that even Moghul rule was countered by the invention of Akbar and Birbal stories, Muslim emperor Akbar’s Hindu minister Birbal being cast in the role of the witty court jester. Some of the Birbal stories are interchangeable with those of Nasruddin (styled Effendi or Hoja), the Turkic jester, and given the Moghuls’ part-Turkic origin, we seem to be dealing with a confluence of two comedic traditions.
From Rg-Vedic times onwards, with the erotic dialogue between the seer Agastya and his wife Lopamudra (RV 1:179, in which she implores him to come down from the heights of philosophy and give her wifely satisfaction), romantic dialogues of divine pairs have been a major source of comedy. Till today, in the Chitrapur Math at Shirali, Karnataka, during the annual car-procession, there is a regular ritual performed by a couple famous for such dialogues, for the entertainment of tittering and giggling devotees, where the woman representing goddess Parvati refuses to open the door for her husband, representing Shiva, who has come home late at night after, or so she accuses him, a tryst with another woman. Her accusations, though never explicit, consist of persistent veiled hints, to which he pleads innocence, all in typically rustic Konkani dialogues, all laced with humour, until at long last he convinces her and is allowed in, to the sound of conches and drums.
Kirtan, the popular traditional form of musical religious discourse, also has the kirtan-kara continuously interjecting both musical interludes as well as satire and comedy throughout the kirtan program, which often continues for hours into the nights in village and community temples. This includes references not only to gods, kings, demons, sages, and the heroes, villains and comedians of the Puranic tales they are relating, but also to contemporary politics, personalities, trends and events. The most popular kirtan-karas are those who manage to entertain their audience the most with their wit and jokes. This tradition is continued by most of the popular modern god-men and god-women who give similar discourses at largely-attended satsangs and on the religious TV channels like Aastha, etc.
Humour in secular Hindu literature (which has received an authoritative introduction in Siegel 1987) forms the upper end of a continuum with popular jokes of the “ethnic joke” type: Sikh jokes, Brahmin jokes, Bania (merchant) jokes, Kayastha (bookkeeper, tax collector) and Sadhu (renunciate) jokes. These can take the form of laughing at others (satire) and laughing at oneself or one’s own community (the narrower meaning of “humour”). Both in literature and in real life, there is plenty of self-relativizing through jokes about the idiosyncratic traits of one’s own group. At the vulgar level, jokes about sects or castes often merely impute stupidity to the group held up for mockery, as in Pollack or Belgian jokes. But the better-quality jokes bring out the specific characteristics of the group, just as a Scot is mocked for other traits than a Jew. Thus, a Brahmin may be shown as making a fool of himself precisely by being too clever, or a Sikh by being too energetic.
In theatre, the renunciate, particularly the Buddhist monk, became a standard character, embodying prudery and hypocrisy. Thus, he may be shown as cheating on his ascetic vows, then to declaim a pious sermon about the evil of jealousy to soothe the layman whose wife he has consummated. His usual self-labelling as “indifferent” to pleasure and pain will be given a twist, viz. as being indifferent to the concerns of others. A playwright shows a monk as getting a girl pregnant and then washing his hands of his paternal responsibilities by invoking his renunciation of all worldly concerns, solemnly citing the abstinence precepts of his Order. (This is actually more or less what the Buddha himself did: abandoning wife and child to withdraw into his spiritual quest.) But not to let his satire harden into plump condemnation, he lets the narrator ambiguously observe that Buddhism must be great since it remains pure in spite of its countless debauched representatives, just as water in the holy river remains pure regardless of whatever floats in it. (Siegel 1987:211)
Today, this type of satire is being permanently enriched in popular media. Let’s consider a few contemporary Brahmin jokes doing the rounds on the internet. Sometimes, the target is the Brahmin’s air of authority, of always being believed at his word: “A neighbour came to Pandit [scholar] Vajpeyi, asking to borrow his cow. ‘It is out on loan’, the Pandit replied. At that moment, the cow snorted loudly inside the stable. ‘But I can hear it snort, over there’, said the neighbour. ‘Whom do you believe’, asked Vajpeyi, ‘me or a cow?’”
Universal jokes may be adapted to the Brahmin stereotype, which requires some foreknowledge of Hindu society. Thus, a joke about a Brahmin and a Rajput having a theological debate presupposes that the reader knows of the Rajputs’ belief in their descent from the Shaka or Scythian invaders, who were sun-worshippers (the Hindu sun-god Surya is depicted with boots on, like a Scythian horseman). So: “The Rajput extols the supremacy of the Sun and hence the need for Sun-worship. The Brahmin listens to his words, and finally replies, ‘The Sun is not as powerful as you think, indeed it is of even less power than the Moon.’ Astonished, the Rajput asks, ‘How can that be?’, to which the Brahmin replies, ‘The Moon shines at night, when it is needed. The Sun only gives light during the day, when there is no need of it at all!’”
Born Brahmins who are not that gifted yet have to perform the role of the scholar, often start out as nerds, obediently applying the lessons learned without necessarily understanding them. Thus: “Mishra heard that his best friend’s mother had died. When he asked his father how best to offer his condolences, the old man told him to say: ‘What a loss! She has been a mother to all of us.’ And so he did. Some time later, another friend was grieving: his wife had died. Having learned his little lesson well, Mishra let him know: ‘What a loss! She has been a wife to all of us.’”
In spite of their reputation for being the most religious people on earth, Hindus have a healthy scepticism of religion, and some Brahmin jokes deride those people whose immersion in religion makes them strangers to the realities of this world. For example: “Pandit Vajpeyi gets on a bus and asks the conductor, ‘How long is the trip from Kolkata to Varanasi, Mr. Conductor?’ ‘About 8 hours’, says the conductor. ‘Okay’, says Vajpeyi, ‘Then how long from Varanasi to Kolkata?’ The conductor gets irritated: ‘It’ll still be about 8 hours, man. Why do you think there will be a difference?’ ‘Well’, says Vajpeyi, ‘Only 18 days after Dassehra [a religious festival in October] comes Diwali [one in November], but it’s a very long time from Diwali to Dassehra!’”
Brahmin jokes acquired a serious and downright nasty edge in the 20th century, when anti-Brahminism became an important political and social movement, with striking similarities to anti-Semitism in Europe. It has left traces in the satirical twists in many Bollywood movies, though these often escape the notice of non-Indian viewers. Whereas a Padre or a Mullah will be shown as a dignified character, a Brahmin priest is usually “an ignorant pot-bellied buffoon, cowardly and mean, lustful and greedy”, or so Hindu observers complain. (Tilak 2008:195)
Yet, just as Jews tell the best Jewish jokes, the best Brahmin satire has been produced by Brahmins themselves, such as the playwright Kalidasa, and can be traced all the way back to the priests’ self-mockery in the Vedas. Thus, the Chandogya Upanishad (1:12) describes a sacrifice by dogs, ritually compelling the gods to shower them with food, as a satire on the tall claims made by Brahmins for the effectiveness of their rituals. Later the anti-religious Lokayata philosophers would use this satire as a serious argument against rituals: if you can feed the gods by burning some foodstuff in the sacrificial fire, why not likewise burn foodstuff right here with the effect of providing food to your brother travelling far away in the desert?
One of the oldest Vedic hymns (RV 7:103) likens chanting Brahmins to lowing cows, bleating goats and most of all to croaking frogs. On the first day of the rainy season, around summer solstice, after the slow months of deadening heat, the Brahmins celebrate Indra, the god of the monsoon-breaking thunder. At that time, “the music of the frogs comes forth in concert”, for the amphibians too rejoice at the arrival of the rains. Why try to deny it, that frogs’ croaking and Brahmins’ chanting do sound very alike? The comparison of Vedic chanting with frogs’ croaking frequently recurs in literature down the centuries. But it is benevolent irony, not denunciatory satire, for the hymn asserts that, funny as they may sound, these Brahmins with their chanting ensure good divine vibrations and hence prosperity to society: “The frogs give us cows in hundreds and lengthen our lives.”
Some Vedic chanting does indeed consist of not-human language, viz. as an imitation of bird song. (Staal 2008:205-213) In this connection, there is reason to suspect a similarly subhuman explanation for the famous Vedic syllable Om, or Aum. A deeply philosophical hymn, definitely one of the most important of the Rg-Veda (1:164), repeatedly discusses “the syllable” as well as invoking the image of cows and calves lowing at each other. In later writings, from at least the Mandukya Upanishad onwards, Aum is given profound explanations, e.g. that it represents the three forms of targeted consciousness (waking, deep sleep, dreaming), or that it is the humming sound which yogis hear in deep meditation. But it may well originate as a human vocalization of the sacred cow’s natural sound: mooh. By ancient Hindu standards, this irreverent idea does not detract from the syllable’s spiritual significance: the one does not exclude the other.
Continued in Humour in Hinduism – Part 2
References / Footnotes
– Callewaert, Winand, 1991: Mythen en verhalen uit het oude India, Leuven: Davidsfonds.
– Elst, Koenraad, 2002: Who Is a Hindu?, Delhi: Voice of India.
– Trio, Werner, 2009: introduction to interview with Prof. Hans Geybels on Flemish radio Klara, 28 February 2009.
– Goel, Sita Ram, ed., 1998: Freedom of Expression: Secular Theocracy versus Liberal Democracy, Delhi: Voice of India.
– Griffith, Ralph T.H., 1889: The Hymns of the Rgveda, 1991 reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
– Hasan, Mushirul, 2007: Wit and Humour in Colonial North India, Delhi: Niyogi Books.
– Hess, Linda, and Singh, Shukdev, 1983: The Bijak of Kabir, Indian edition from Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.
– Hoch, Hans Heinrich, 2007: An Early Upanishadic Reader, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
– Kashyap, R.L., and Sadagopan, S., 1998: Rigveda Samhita, Bangalore: Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture.
– Narasimhan, C.V., 1965: The Mahabharata, 1996 reprint, Delhi: OUP.
– Puhvel, Jaan, 1987: Comparative Mythology, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
– Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, 1951: The Principal Upanisads, 1992 reprint, New York: Humanity Books.
– Rajagopalachari, C., 1951: Ramayana, 1987 reprint, Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
– Siegel, Lee, 1987: Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India, University of Chicago Press.
– Staal, Frits, 2008: Discovering the Vedas, Delhi: Penguin Books.
– Tilak, Srinivas, 2008: Reawakening to a Secular Hindu Nation, Charleston SC: BookSurge.
– Tiwari, Sarvesh, 2008: The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, 30 August 2008, www.bharatendu.com (and many other sites).
For some personal input, my gratitude is owed to Dr. Lokesh Chandra, Prof. Bharat Gupt and Shrikant Talageri, 2009.
(Paper read at the conference Deus Ridens, University of Antwerp 2009, published in Walter van Herck & Hans Geybels, eds.: Humour in Religion, Continuum, London 2011.)