Humour in Hinduism – Part 2

Criticism is inherent to Hinduism and hence the urge to mock arises but unlike other religions, it does not trigger damnation.

Humour in Hinduism – Part 2

Continued from Humour in Hinduism – Part 1

Political significance of Hindu satire

It is said that in order to see who has the power in a society, one should find out who one cannot make fun of and stay unpunished. The record shows that all through Indian history, making fun of the dominant classes, the Kshatriya aristocracy and the Brahmin priesthood, was a perfectly everyday matter with no threat of punishment attached. That doesn’t mean anything was allowed nor that there were no religious taboos, e.g. killing a cow entailed the gravest punishment. But the realm of the word, at any rate, was entirely free. The Buddha famously gave discourses or entered debates in which he made satirical allusion to existing religious practices such as animal sacrifice; yet he never incurred even the mildest form of persecution for this. The two failed attempts on his life were the consequence of intrigues among his own disciples, not by ideological opponents. At 80, he died peacefully in his bed from accidental food poisoning.

People from backgrounds where this culture of disagreement was less accepted, including those who espouse the Marxist assumptions underlying so much theory in the social sciences, often mistake criticism of specific Hindu beliefs for a “revolt” against or a breakaway from Hinduism. Thus, it is often said that the 15th century poet Kabir was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim because he criticized and mocked both Hinduism and Islam, or rather, both Hindus and Muslims. In the present context, we should not leave unquoted Kabir’s famous verse:

“When you were born, you cried while others laughed. Perform such deeds that when dying, you laugh while others cry.”

Since Islam is essentially defined by a set of specific beliefs, and since few if any Islamic authorities will join the Western sophisticates in deriding this “essentialist” view of Islam, you could say that the rejection of those beliefs puts someone outside the pale of Islam, i.e. certainly outside its definition in theory, and probably outside the community of Muslims in practice. Thus, Kabir’s rejection of Islamic animal sacrifice (Bijak 49, Hess & Singh 1983:87), which is a fundamental obligation in Islam, does pit him against Islam as such. But Hinduism has far more fluid boundaries: most things Hindu have been rejected at one time or other by authoritative thinkers whose inclusion in the Hindu category is not in doubt. Thus, it is claimed that Kabir rejected Hinduism because he taunted Hindu scholars about the mortality of the Hindu gods:

“Hey pandits, who didn’t die? If you find out, tell me. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva died, so many suns and moons died, Hanuman the bridgebuilder died. One, the original, didn’t die. No fall, no rise. Kabir says, that one never dies.”

(Bijak 45; Hess & Singh 1983:57) Yes, he refuses to exalt the Hindu gods to the status of absolute eternity. But this is a Hindu teaching par excellence, going back to the Mimansa philosophers’ deconstruction of the gods as mere name-tags in the subtle mechanics of the priestly ritual, and even to the Rg-Veda: “The gods are later than this world’s production.” (10:129:6) The same Vedic hymn posits a pre-existing “One” without qualities or personality, just as Kabir does several millennia later. Devotional worship of divine persons is Hindu, but so is a philosophical scepticism regarding the gods. Kabir’s relative originality lies in his combination of devotion with the conception of the object of devotion as faceless (nirguna, “without quality”) rather than iconographically distinct, but that doesn’t place him outside the Hindu continuum.

As a term introduced by Persian-speaking outsiders, “Hindu”  is not an identity to which one has to subscribe in order to be included in it. To the Arab and Turkic invaders, it simply meant “any Indian who is not a Zoroastrian, Jew, Muslim or Christian”. (Elst 2002:32-37) The term is not limited to any specific sect or caste, nor does it require espousal or rejection of any specific set of beliefs, but it denotes the whole commonwealth of mutually interacting Indian religious traditions. It is an ongoing conversation between many different viewpoints, and Hindus will deem you a member of the club once you take part in the conversation, as an accepted member of  any of the subsets of the conversing society. It is only a matter of course that as a participant located at a specific point in the broad spectrum of viewpoints, any Hindu voicing an opinion would thereby disagree with a great many other Hindus. So, making fun of anything Hindu doesn’t make you non-Hindu.

To its original Muslim users, the term “Hindu” definitely included Buddhists, tribals, later on also the Bhakti (devotional) sects, such as the Nanak Panth now known as Sikhism, and independent Bhakti poets like Kabir. The Buddhists adopted the Brahminical language Sanskrit and taught the Brahminical sciences such as grammar and astronomy in their universities, so in spite of their skepticism of the Vedas, they took part at the highest level in the conversation that was later to be called Hinduism, writing comments on non-Buddhist works as much as on those of the competing Buddhist sects. Likewise, Kabir was part of the same long-standing culture of debate and independent exploration, held together by actual interaction and by a common array of concepts. He taught quintessential Hindu doctrines like the virtues of vegetarianism (which all Hindus hold in high esteem, even the two-thirds who don’t practise it) or the philosophy of Karma, all while criticizing other Hindu practices such as untouchability or the reliance on ritual. His criticisms certainly did not put him outside the pale of Hinduism as understood then.

Rejecting identity labels such as “Hindu” or “Muslim” is entirely in keeping with the Hindu spirit. When Mahatma Gandhi said: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Sikh”, Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah didn’t understand this as a statement of apostasy from Hinduism in favour of some more inclusive identity. On the contrary, he snapped back: “That is a typically Hindu thing to say.” Scholars who place Kabir (or Sikhism founder Guru Nanak) as much outside Hinduism as outside Islam, may be suspected of projecting non-Hindu, mainly Christian categories of box-type religious divisions onto a civilization in which they don’t apply.

 For many centuries, debates between the variegated sects or schools within Hindu society had testified to Hinduism’s capacious openness to internal difference and dissent, even when expressed in sharp or irreverent language. This also explains why in the colonial period, when the British introduced modern politics and its concomitant culture of public debate, India could quickly develop a vivid native tradition of political satire, including the modern medium of the cartoon, as a cornerstone of an emerging democratic polity. (Hasan 2007)

Against this background, it is a pity that in recent years, Hindu activists have started making calls for banning offensive books and films. After successful Muslim and Christian campaigns for getting books like The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code banned in India, censorship which Hindus had at first tried to resist (as in Goel 1998), the communal competition for attention and “respect” that seems to characterize multicultural societies has led some Hindus to conclude that they too should respond to mockery with repression. During the commotion about the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party voted in support of a resolution in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly against the cartoons, thus establishing its unlikely pro-Muslim credentials and, most of all, preparing the ground for future bans on anti-Hindu publications. This flies in the face of the solid and age-old Hindu tradition of tolerance of criticism and satire. Hinduism is indeed under siege, as the BJP is wont to say, but the enemy is not always where you would expect him.

Yogic humour

Finally, humour is very prominently present in the discourses of yogis. This is a far more “serious” type of humour than satire and consolation humour, far more robust, for it is the very heart of the humorous disposition.

Before coming to the point, let us first discard the cases of false yogic accomplishment. Hindus are quite aware that many unemployed young men don the ochre robe and set themselves up as ascetics entitled to live off working people’s charity. So naturally, ordinary people and literary authors have thought up an array of satire about false ascetics, peddlers of deception or victims of self-deception.

Thus, it is related that when a queen once went out to offer a flower garland to a Sadhu sitting with eyes closed under a tree, she didn’t know the true story of his immersion in deep concentration. She recognized him as her former sweeper, who used to clean toilets in the palace, and she was impressed that such a low-born person could rise to such spiritual heights. What had actually happened, was this. In the cellar, where the droppings from persons on the ground floor relieving themselves fell, he had been at work when through the opening he got to see the queen’s buttocks. He was so impressed that when he walked home, he was thinking of nothing else but this magnificent marvel of nature. He just kept on going over this vision of beauty with his mind’s eye and couldn’t pay attention to the world around him anymore. So he sat down under a tree to concentrate on nothing else than the unforgettable sight of the queen’s buttocks. Hunger and thirst, heat and cold, the noises around him, the people who kneeled before him to get his divine blessings, none of it reached his attention anymore. Even when the queen approached him, he couldn’t see her face, for his mind was totally immersed in the blissful vision of her other side. (Callewaert 1991:149-150)

Now for the real thing. A talk by a yogi on spiritual matters, discussing both the benefits we should aspire to and all the hurdles that life or we ourselves put into our way, is typically very entertaining. Some outsiders are merely annoyed by that invincible smile on the faces of popular contemporary yogis like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Baba Ramdev, but to their followers, that smile is what blows away any suspicions against their media-savvy modernism. To Hindus, it is a touchstone for discerning a real and accomplished yogi from time-servers and wannabes: a true yogi is cheerful and communicates that mood to his audience. He can do so simply by his positive charisma, but in the context of a discourse, he will give the mood some flesh through ironies and light-hearted yet sharp observations on the human condition. This can be traced all the way back to the ancientmost yogic discourses in the Upanishads.

A classic little story used by gurus to demonstrate the superiority of practice over theory, is this one. A pandit was crossing the river in a ferryboat, immersed in deep thought. Suddenly he addressed the ferryman: “Hey boatman, have you studied grammar?” The illiterate boatman sheepishly signals no. Taking pity on him, the pandit comments: “Then a quarter of your life has been wasted.” After remaining pensive for a while, he asks the ferryman: “Have you studied philosophy?” “No”, the ferryman confesses. The pandit, now stern, flares up: “Then half your life has been wasted!” A while later, it is the ferryman’s turn to ask a question: “Hey pandit-ji, have you studied swimming?” “No” “Then all your life is wasted! The boat has been damaged and we’re sinking!”

Rival schools take distance from one another with mild or not so mild mockery. People are hopelessly attracted to false teachings, and the best way to help them overcome this attraction is to show the silly or ridiculous implications of certain doctrines or practices. Thus, I once heard Swami Hariharananda Giri reject the Hare Krishna teaching that one can attain liberation by endlessly chanting “Hare Krishna”. He explained: “It is like being hungry and expecting to get nurtured by chanting: ‘Bread, bread!’ What a waste that instead of turning inwards for meditation, they go around shouting ‘Hare’… harre horre horri horrible!”

The yogic type of humour is likewise found in Buddhism, which is paradoxical given that the Buddha started from the deeply pessimistic premise that “all is suffering”. Buddhists and Hindu yogis alike practise detachment and equanimity, a vantage point from which a humorous look at the affairs of the world naturally follows. A yogi without a beaming smile on his lips and in his eyes can’t be genuine, and so the Dalai Lama is always cheerful in spite of his dramatic situation as the exiled leader of a nation threatened with extinction. What he says is usually rather predictable, but his discourses are a joy to attend simply because of his good humour.

Though Hinduism has developed a crypto-Buddhist strand denouncing the world and preaching escape from incarnation in this vale of tears, the original Hindu outlook, shared by the mass of Hindus uneducated in philosophy, is actually quite enthusiastic about life, celebrating the natural times cycles in the festival calendar along with weddings and other rites of passage. This is not just the stereotypically Pagan worldliness, the lust for life, fame, gain, women and offspring that clearly underlies the “do ut des” Vedic sacrificial cult. It has a profound philosophical dimension.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, joy is described as the fundamental experience of being, in apparent diametrical contrast with the basic dogma of Buddhism. The inner quest as conceived in the Upanishads is not construed as stemming from a desire to break free from the chain of reincarnation, but merely as an endeavour to free consciousness from its self-oblivion and absorption in external objects. Then the Self rests in the Self, and this is good enough: it is not a step towards the goal of stopping the wheel of Karma. In its original understanding, Hindu yoga as articulated by Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra doesn’t require a belief in reincarnation, nor a denunciation of the joys of this world as ultimately amounting to suffering, though of course they pale in comparison to this supreme joy, the enstasis of consciousness in itself.

But the conceptual difference between the Hindu and Buddhist paths of meditation makes little difference to the actual experience of the fruits of meditation. These follow from practice, not from the explanations constructed around it. That is why practising yogis in both traditions will evince a similar joyful outlook. There’s no such creature as a depressed yogi.


Recently, Christian thinkers have started floating the unlikely claim that Christian doctrine has made possible not only science, human rights and democracy, but even humour. Indeed, it is asserted (as by Trio 2009, citing German psychologist Werner Lauer), that “the transcendental God concept” of Christianity created the mental space in which humour can flourish, namely by desacralizing the world, by breaking with the Pagan view of the world as sacred.

The desacralization or disenchantment of the world is nowadays used to buttress several claims on behalf of Christianity or monotheism, e.g. that the invention of “the individual”, of democracy and human rights, and even of science, are all somehow the fruits of Christianity. This desacralization is said to have made the world fit for scientific investigation by objectifying the world, even though a number of sciences are known to have been started well before the birth of Christianity and well outside the impact of any monotheistic religion. Indeed, when we look more closely, we find that ancient scientists not merely felt unthreatened by the world’s sacredness in treating it as an object for research; they actually favoured the study of precisely those domains of reality that were the most sacred to them. Thus, the Vedic seers worshipped language as a goddess, yet they invented grammar. The Pythagoreans saw numbers as divine, yet they developed number theory. Plato considered geometrical shapes as partaking of the divine, and in his academy, geometry was held up as the key to all other knowledge. The Babylonian priests worshipped the stars and planets in temples dedicated to Marduk (Jupiter) or Ishtar (Venus), yet they were the great pioneers of astronomy. By contrast, the first monotheists, the pre-Christian Israelites, were totally absent from the creation of sciences focused on the various domains of the disenchanted world. They too made their mark, though, but it was in studying the one part of their world that was still effectively “enchanted”, viz. their national history as laid down in their scripture, a marvel of ideologized historiography.   

So, the claim made on behalf of monotheistic desacralization as the key to free scientific enquiry is simply false. Likewise, the parallel claim that a transcendental God concept is what made humour possible, must also be rejected. Obviously, it is hard to sustain in the face of the observed near-universality of humour, among Greek comedic playwrights and ordinary Pagans of every nation. The Hindu experience also pleads against it.

Here is the world-sacralizing polytheistic idolatrous religion par excellence, and it has a tradition of humour as rich and variegated as its pantheon. Its gods are not radically distant or transcendental, they are close to man. Conceptually distinct from them, there is an impersonal principle of the Absolute, the Brahman, but it is nirguna, “without qualities”. It has no personality, no iconography, hence is not worshipped in temples nor made the object of jokes. Sanskrit comedy focuses its eye for laughter on its protagonists’ personality traits. The gods, by contrast, by having personalities, have a lot in common with man, so they are fit as objects of worship in theatrical temple rituals, and for the same reason they are fair game for humorists. There is plenty of frustration and suffering in Hindu society, and social taboos that are no laughing matter; but man’s relation to the gods is a realm of freedom where laughter is at home.

In Hindu religious sensibility, man is at the centre of the pantheon. In the Mahabharata, Krishna sums up his teachings thus: “I tell you this, the secret of the Brahman: there is nothing higher than man.” At a refined level of understanding, the gods are seen as only projections of the mind, so man’s own consciousness becomes the focus of religious attention in the different yoga traditions. Experience teaches that from the yogi’s establishment in the Self, humour flows naturally.
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, (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.)

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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