Hasya and Hinduism: laughing at (and with) the gods

Despite what Hindu nationalists may want you to believe, satire and mockery has always been one way through which Hindus have related to their gods and goddesses. In fact, for most Hindu traditions, the philosophy and expression of bhakti (devotion) is actually incomplete without humor (hasya).


Earlier this year, in the weeks leading up to the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, a legal complaint was filed against Indian celebrity hair stylist Jawed Habib under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for “insulting and demeaning” Hindu deities. Habib is the owner of a nationwide chain of beauty salons, some of which ran newspaper advertisements depicting the goddess Durga and her family enjoying a day at the salon in preparation for the festival.

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Kartikeya, Ganesha, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati enjoying a day at the salon. Source

Right-wing Hindus and Hindu extremist groups objected to this advertisement, and extremists soon vandalized at least one salon in Uttar Pradesh. Following massive backlash on social media, Jawed Habib publicly apologized on Twitter and ordered all franchise locations to retract the advertisement.

Why was this cartoon so controversial? The fact that a Muslim-owned business released a cartoon depicting Hindu deities would, of course, be an immediate source of anger for many conservative Hindus. However, many Hindus also described the advertisement itself as “derogatory and insulting”; they felt that depicting Hindu gods and goddesses engaging in the mundane activity of visiting a salon was an insult to their faith.

Yet, whether or not Jawed Habib’s advertising team was aware of this, such “blasphemous”, lighthearted depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses have been a surprisingly common way through which the Hindu pantheon has been approached by devotees and nonbelievers alike. In fact, the very idea of bhakti (devotion), as it has been formulated and expressed in many Hindu traditions, is actually incomplete without humor.

Humor in South Asian literature

The earliest traces of humor in South Asian literature can be located in the Ṛg Veda, which contains verses comparing Vedic chanting by brahmins to the croaking of frogs; other Vedic texts abound with riddles and “verbal games” (Gerow 173). Yet, for the most part, South Asian literary traditions have been dominated by śṛṅgāra, the rasa (aesthetic flavor) corresponding to romantic and erotic love. Despite this primary focus on the experience of love, humor also had its place in the south Asian artistic and literary imagination.

The Nāṭyaśāstra (2nd century BCE to 5th century CE), the foundational text of Indian aesthetics, defines eight dramatic rasas (aesthetic flavors), one of which is the comic rasa (hāsya-rasa). According to the Nāṭyaśāstra, just as different ingredients combine to produce a dish with a unique taste, a work of art or literature allows a connoisseur to experience a specific rasa through its depiction of various emotions and dramatic effects (Pollock 50-51). The comic rasa is linked to the emotion of amusement or mirth (hāsa).

Throughout history, śṛṅgāra has been upheld as the most important of the rasas, such as the tenth-century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta. However, the Nāṭyaśāstra itself makes an interesting claim about the relationship between the comic and erotic rasas; it states that hāsya arises from śṛṅgāra, as a parody of love (Pollock 51). It is this mockery which is “the essence of the comic sentiment” (Siegel 32). To paraphrase Abhinavagupta, “the ‘comic’ is found in counterfeiting something ‘serious'” (Gerow 176). Just as hāsya is found in the “counterfeiting” of the “serious” experience of love, perhaps hāsya can also be found in mockery directed at gods and goddesses, who are arguably the most “serious” subjects of all.

Wendy Doniger argues that if we divide the vast, interconnected web known today as Hinduism into textual, “pan-Indian” traditions on one hand, and oral-based “village traditions” on one hand, “village traditions and local folk traditions … in fact constitute most of Hinduism and are one of the main sources even of the so-called pan-Indian traditions,” not least because most Indians live in rural areas (Doniger 382). It is in “village Hinduism”—in oral folktales, festivals, and rituals—that “we will find the comic vision of the common people, glorying in Hinduism’s ability to laugh at its own gods, defying the piety of the more puritanical members of the tradition” (Doniger 382). One such folktale, popular even today in south India, is the story of Tenali Rama and the goddess Kali.

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A sketch of Kali nursing a cold, based on the Tenali Rama story. Artist: my friend Anjali!

When were stories poking fun at the gods first told, and when did they begin to be written down? It’s quite likely that throughout history, people have delighted in the humorous aspects of their gods and goddesses. The dilemma faced by historians is that the majority of surviving premodern texts come from elite settings; in the Indian context, this means most premodern texts were authored by upper-caste men in royal courts or wealthy temples. Generally, it wasn’t considered proper for courtly poetry to depict aspects of life connected to villages and the “common people”; thus, many of these writers were rather distant, both physically and through literary conventions, from the humor of “village Hinduism”.

What is clear, however, is that by the “medieval period” of South Asian history, a number of written texts began to demonstrate how “Hindu gods (even uppercase Gods, like Siva and Visnu) [began] … to become not merely human but banal” (Doniger O’Flaherty 72). This article focuses on how two particular types of literature use humor to approach the gods: Sanskrit muktaka poems and Telugu ninda-stutis.

Humanization of the gods in Sanskrit muktakas

In Sanskrit poetry, muktakas are defined as one-stanza poems which stand on their own and are not part of longer narratives. The following muktaka comes from a 12th-century anthology, the “Treasury of Well-Turned Verses” (Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa) compiled by Vidyākara, a Buddhist monk who lived in what is now northern Bangladesh. Vidyākara attributes this poem to Bhāsa, one of the earliest known Sanskrit playwrights (3rd-4th centuries CE); it would have been recited at the beginning of one of his plays.

yuktaṃ mānada mām ananya-manasaṃ vakṣaḥ-sthala-sthāyinīṃ
bhaktām apy avadhūya kartum adhunā kāntā-sahasraṃ tava
ity uktvā phaṇabhṛt-phaṇāmaṇi-gatāṃ svām eva mantvā tanuṃ
nidrā-cchedakaraṃ harer avatu vo lakṣmyā vilakṣa-smitam

“That’s good, I must say, husband,
when I think of only you and cling to you and love you,
to cast me off and take a thousand other loves!”
Thus Lakṣmī cried, seeing her body multiplied
in the serpent’s jeweled hood.
May her ensuing laugh, embarrassed at her error
and breaking her husband’s sleep, so prove your aid.

(Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa 6.35, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls)

The setting of this muktaka is the classic image of Viṣṇu reclining on the coils of the serpent Ādiśeṣa, who floats upon the surface of the cosmic ocean. Lakṣmī, goddess of prosperity and Viṣṇu’s wife, is pictured as massaging her husband’s feet while he rests in a deep slumber. Ādiśeṣa is traditionally depicted with a thousand heads, and a common trope in Indic mythology and literature is that cobras carry a jewel in their hoods.

 

This poem depicts a moment when Lakṣmī glances upon her reflection in the thousand jewels of Ādiśeṣa’s hoods. She mistakes her reflection to be that of a thousand other women, and is suddenly overcome with jealousy; she angrily cries out that Viṣṇu has “cast [her] off and [taken] a thousand other loves,” even though she is wholly devoted to him. Just as quickly, Lakṣmī realizes she is simply staring at her own reflection, and laughs out of embarrassment, accidentally waking up her husband out of his cosmic slumber in the process. Bhāsa ends this poem—which is a prayer to Lakṣmī herself—by saying, “May her ensuing laugh … so prove your aid.”

Just as the Nātyaśāstra described incongruity as the essence of humor, it is incongruity that makes this poem funny: the depiction of Lakṣmī, a goddess, as a jealous wife who makes an embarrassing mistake. This type of poem is described by Lee Siegel as “The Sacred Sit-Com,” in which “the gods take part in a domestic comedy” (Siegel 393). Jealousy and embarrassment are part of every human relationship, and using these emotions to paint a vignette of Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī’s married life humanizes Lakṣmī to anyone who reads or hears this poem.

In addition, Lakṣmī’s sarcastic exclamation to her sleeping husband that “That’s good, I must say, husband … to cast me off and take a thousand other loves” is reminiscent of stories about Viṣṇu’s incarnation Kṛṣṇa and the jealous gopīs of Vṛndāvan. Although Rādha didn’t become a popular figure until many centuries after Bhāsa, there are many poems and songs in which she expresses a similar frustration with Kṛṣṇa’s unfaithfulness. A similar element of “mistaken-reflection” humor can also be found in the epic Mahābhārata, when Draupadi laughs at Duryodhana’s clumsiness in a hall of illusions (māya-sabha), as he accidentally falls into a reflective pond decorated to look like part of the hall’s floor. Even if the poet did not originally intend for the audience to make these connections, they certainly enhance the humor and depth of this poem.

Another muktaka from the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa humanizes the gods through the lens of family life rather than marital issues. The subjects here are the divine couple of Śiva and Pārvati and their younger son Guha (also called Kārttikēya or Murugan).

mātar jīva kim etad añjalipuṭe tātena gopāyitaṃ
vatsa svādu phalaṃ prayacchati na me gatvā gṛhāṇa svayam
mātraivaṃ prahite guhe vighaṭayaty ākṛṣya saṃdhyāñjaliṃ 
śambho bhagnasamādhiruddharabhaso hāsodgamaḥ pātu vaḥ

“Mommy, tell me, what is that
in the palm of Daddy’s hand?”
“That’s jujube fruit, my little darling.”
“He won’t give it to me!”
When his mother said, “Go and get it,”
Little Guha forced open the hands clasped in twilight meditation;
Śiva’s trance was broken,
thoughts were interrupted,
and he laughed.
May the burst of his laughter protect you!

(Saduktikarṇāmṛta 1.8.3; Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa 4.30, translated by Lee Siegel)

Śiva and Pārvati’s family lives on Mount Kailāsa in the Himālaya mountains. While Śiva is deep in meditation with his palms clasped together in the añjali mudra, the young Guha innocently asks his mother, “What is that in the palm of Daddy’s hand?” Pārvati ostensibly knows that Śiva is not holding anything in his hands, but she indulges her son’s question and tells him his father is holding a tasty fruit. When Guha complains that his father will not give him the alleged fruit, his mother playfully tells her impatient son to go take it himself. However, when Guha pries open Śiva’s hands, there is no treat hidden inside. Śiva is distracted out of his meditation, and he simply laughs at his young son’s curiosity and boldness.

This muktaka‘s humor isn’t based on mockery or satire. Rather, in four short lines, the poet paints an charming family scene. This poem humanizes Śiva’s family through the ways it describes each family member’s personalities: Guha’s inquisitive and bold nature (fitting, as he is the military general of the gods), and Śiva and Pārvati’s parental indulgence of their son’s curiosity. Śiva, who is famous for his short temper, is depicted here as a doting father; when Guha interrupts his meditation, Śiva is simply amused, not angry.

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Popular depiction of Shiva and Parvati’s family. Source

Guha’s quest for the fruit in his father’s hand might also remind a south Asian audience of a popular Puranic story about the monkey god Hanumān. As a child, Hanumān chased after the sun after mistaking it for a giant mango, sending the cosmos into a panic. It was this incident, and Indra’s violent response to Hanumān’s childish curiosity, that gave him his name: hanumantā means “disfigured/prominent jaw” in Sanskrit.

Interestingly, the poet does not use grandiose epithets to describe any of the figures in the poem; Śiva is Śambhu (“the kind one”), Pārvati is simply “mother” (mātar), and Guha is referred to by his name. Śiva could easily be described as candraśekhara, “he who bears the moon on his head,” Pārvati could be described as jaganmāta, “mother of the world”, and so on. The poet’s conscious decision to avoid these embellishments allows the audience to easily project human emotions onto these divine beings.

Similarly to the previous poem, this one also ends in a prayer, this time to Śiva: “May the burst of his laughter protect you!” It’s interesting to note that in these poems, the audience aren’t the only ones laughing; the gods themselves laugh at the humor of their situations. In both muktakas, it is the gods’ own experience of hāsya— Lakṣmī’s embarrassed laughter, Śiva’s amusement at his son’s curiosity—that the poet prays to for protection. This focus on the laughter of the gods as a positive, benign force is quite interesting. The ability to laugh at oneself is a very human trait, and when applied to the Hindu gods and goddesses, it humanizes them in the eyes of a devotee.

Satire in Telugu nindā-stutis

In contrast to Sanskrit muktakas, which end with the gods laughing at themselves, the genre of nindā-stuti revolves around the devotee laughing at and making fun of the god. The Sanskrit compound nindā-stuti means “blame-praise”, or more eloquently, a “song of praise by way of sarcasm” (Jackson 367). Nindā-stutis are defined by their cheeky, irreverent tone rather than by their form; they exist in many languages and in various formats. Some connect nindā-stuti to the conventions of “śleṣa-kāvya, literary composition laden with double entendre” in which “apparent insults actually represent great compliments,” as well as dveṣa-bhakti, “devotion expressed through hatred and enmity” (Khanna 205, Doniger O’Flaherty 73).

The “familiarity and humorous disrespect” of nindā-stuti lends itself naturally to compositions for music, drama, and dance, and as William Jackson points out, it is in south India, particularly in medieval Telugu and Tamil literature, that the genre was most fully explored (Jackson 367). Nindā-stuti compositions are still a popular component of the repertoire for south Indian music and dance, for example.

According to Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, the śatakamu (also śataka) makes up the largest genre in Telugu literature. Śatakas are made up of around one hundred verses addressed to a particular subject, ranging from a deity, guru, friend, courtesan, to even a beloved pet. While earlier śatakas were mostly devotional in nature, the flexibility of the genre allowed it to become a vehicle for “deep personal feeling, social criticism, political satire, jokes, curses, and so on” (Narayana Rao 245).

The following stanza comes from the Āndhra-nāyaka-śatakamu, dedicated to the form of Viṣṇu worshiped at the Srikakulandhra Mahavishnu temple in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district. The poem was composed by Kāsula Puruṣottama Kavi, a poet at the zamindar estate of Challapalli in the same district as the temple, who lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

ālu nirvāhakurālu bhūdēvi yai yakhilabhārakun̆ ḍanunākhan̆ decce
niṣṭasaṁpannurā liṁdira bhārya yai kāmitārthadun̆ ḍanna ghanatan̆ deccen̆
gamalagarbuṅḍu sṛṣṭikarta tanūjun̆ḍai bahukuṭumbakun̆ ḍanna balimin̆deccen̆
galuṣa vidhvaṁsini gaṅga kumāri yai batita pāvanun̆ ḍanna pratibhan̆ decce
āṅḍrubiḍḍalu deccu prakhyātilēvi
modaṭinuṅḍiyu nīvu dāmōdarun̆ḍave
citra citra prabhāva, dākṣiṇyabhāva,
hata vimatajīva, śrīkākuḷāndhradēva!

Your wife, the Earth, is the stable one.
Because of her, they say you can bear anything.
Your other wife, Goddess of Wealth, gives what people want.
Because of her, people say you are generous.
Brahma, who creates the world, is born out of you.
That’s why people think you’re a big family man.
The Ganges, who washes away evil, is your daughter.
She’s made you into someone who redeems the fallen.
It’s your wives and children who bring you fame.
In yourself, god of many miracles, from the beginning
you’re a good-for-nothing.

(Āndhra-nāyaka-śatakamu stanza 26, translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman)

According to Puruṣottama Kavi, the powers of Viṣṇu’s wives Bhūdevi (the earth) and Lakṣmī (goddess of prosperity) are what allow people to praise him as capable of bearing any hardship and as being generous. Brahma, the creator god, is born out of a lotus that emerged from Viṣṇu’s navel, so in a way he is Viṣṇu’s “son.” Devotees may praise Viṣṇu as a “big family man,” but it is actually Brahma who is sṛṣṭikarta, the one who creates everyone and everything in the universe. Finally, the Ganges river is said to be the daughter of Brahma, having emerged from his water-pot. Thus, the goddess Gaṅga, whose purifying waters “[wash] away evil”, is another child (or grand-child) of Viṣṇu. It is simply the combined power and glory of his “wives and children” that makes Viṣṇu famous; he himself is a “good-for-nothing.”

Where does the humor in this nindā-stuti come from? In his deconstruction of the deity’s power and glory, the poet speaks in a cheeky, irreverent tone. The “punch-line” of this poem is the phrase “In yourself … from the beginning you’re a good-for-nothing.” Narayana Rao and Shulman note that in colloquial Telugu, dāmōdara means a “good-for-nothing” in addition to being a name for Viṣṇu. This clever pun adds another dimension to the poem, building on its “tone of taunting and upbraiding the deity” (Narayana Rao 248).

For all its humor and sarcasm, this poem does not necessarily humanize Viṣṇu or indeed any of the other deities mentioned. Here, they are not portrayed with human emotions in the same way one would see in a Sanskrit muktaka. Puruṣottamakavi uses fairly typical epithets to describe the gods and goddesses—“one who redeems the fallen” (batita pāvanun̆) and “one who fulfills desires” (kāmitārtha)as he deconstructs Viṣṇu’s glory while simultaneously maintaining his status as a deity. By the end of the poem, Viṣṇu’s status as a god hasn’t changed, and the refrain reminds the reader that he is āndhradēva, “God of Andhra.” The humor of the nindā-stuti comes from the way the poet deconstructs the god from behind-the-scenes, all while leaving the “façade” of the god intact. The audience is left to ponder this paradox, which usually ends in laughter.

The final poem comes from the one of the most celebrated composers of Carnatic classical music: Tyāgarāja, who lived in the Tanjore district of what is now Tamil Nadu from 1767 to 1847. His songs, most of which are dedicated to Rāma, make up a significant portion, if not the majority, of the Carnatic concert repertoire today. Tyāgarāja’s kṛtis span a wide range of moods, from abject longing and despair to ecstatic praise. Quite a few of his compositions also fall under the category of nindā-stuti, including this one, set to Madhyamāvati rāga:

aḍigi sukhamul-evvar-anubhavinciri-rā?
ādimūlamā rama

saḍalani pāpa-timira-kōṭi-sūrya
sārvabhauma sārasākṣa sadguṇa ninnu…

āśrayinci varam-aḍigina sīta
aḍaviki pōnāye
āśa haraṇa rakkasiy-iṣṭam-aḍuga-
nappuḍē mukku pōye ō rāma ninnu…

vāsiga nārada mauni varam-aḍuga
vanita rūpuḍāye
āsinci durvāsuḍ-annam-aḍuga
appuḍe mandamāye ō rāma ninnu…

sutuni vēḍuka jūḍa dēvakiy-aḍuga
yaśōda jūḍanāye
satulella rati bhikṣam-aḍuga vāri vāri
patula vīḍanāye ō rāma ninnu…

nīkē daya puṭṭi brōtuvō brōvavō
nī guṭṭu bayalāye
sākēta dhāma śrī tyāgarāja nuta
svāmi ēṭi māya ō rāma ninnu…

What did you give them?
The happiness they asked for?

You are called “Sun who dispels the darkness of sins!
“Handsome lord of all!” “Possessor of good qualities!” Yet…

When Sīta asked for a boon,
she had to go to the forest.
When the demoness desired you,
she ended up losing her nose.

Nārada sought understanding,
and he was turned into a woman.
Durvāsas wanted food,
and lost his appetite.

Devaki asked for a son,
and Yaśoda got one.
The cowgirls begged for love,
and they had to leave their husbands.

Who knows if you’ll give or not?
The secret’s out. Why play games?
Tyāgarāja sings for you.

(translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, with my own translation for the second stanza, saḍalani…)

In this song, addressed initially to Rāma but later more broadly to Viṣṇu himself and his incarnation as Kṛṣṇa, Tyāgaraja sarcastically asks, “Who has received happiness by asking you for anything?” He points out that despite the god’s many grandiose titles, he has not actually granted anyone that which they asked him for. To bolster his argument, Tyāgaraja cites a number of incidents from epics and mythology, exposing Viṣṇu’s sheer incompetence. Quite simply, Viṣṇu ended up complicating peoples’ lives and making things more stressful for everyone involved. The kṛti ends with Tyāgarāja posing another set of questions, and in an almost-exasperated tone, he asks, “Lord, what is this illusion?” (svāmi ēṭi māya).

This song, similarly to the śataka verse, doesn’t humanize the god by downplaying his divine qualities. Tyāgarāja’s point is that even though Viṣṇu may be powerful enough to turn Nārada into a woman or vanquish Durvāsa’s appetite, the issue is that neither sage asked for that! Tyāgarāja is targeting Viṣṇu’s incompetence, not his divinity. In a way, Viṣṇu is an unreliable supplier who consistently messes up his customer’s orders, inevitably delivering something they did not ask for. This is, of course, in tension with the belief that the god knows best, and gives devotees what they need, rather than what they may want. Tyāgarāja, a staunch devotee of Rāma, probably shared this belief, but he seems to have also seen within it the possibility for humor and sarcastic questioning—in short, the possibility for nindā-stuti.

Blasphemy and bhakti

Each poem featured here approaches the Hindu pantheon through humor. However, there are significant distinctions in the way each poem influences one’s view of divinity. The muktaka poems humanize gods and goddesses by depicting them with human emotions, engaged in the ups and downs of married life and the joys of parenting. The humor in these poems comes from the incongruity that is created by transporting divine beings into the mundane world of human relationships. In some ways, muktakas almost downplay the divine, supernatural aspects of the deities. However, they never let the reader completely lose sight of divinity. Both of these muktakas concluded by invoking the grace and protection that is latent in the laughter of these almost-human gods.

Nindā-stuti, on the other hand, uses humor to portray the gods and goddesses in a rather different light. Unlike muktakas, in nindā-stuti the devotee is just as prominent as the deity. These compositions, whether they are śatakas to be read or kṛtis to be sung, create a dialogue through which the god or goddess can be questioned, and made fun of. The humor in nindā-stutis do not humanize the Hindu pantheon in the same way a muktaka does. Part of their humor comes instead from the “shock value” that comes with their irreverent tone. In these compositions God is not necessarily brought down to earth; rather, the devotee ascends to poke fun at the deity, almost as an equal.

The very existence of these compositions also begs the question: why were they not seen as blasphemous? Was it really acceptable for poets to mock gods and goddesses in these ways? In today’s south Asia, where blasphemy-related incidents frequently show up in news headlines, it is rather remarkable that the question of blasphemy simply did not interest intellectuals in premodern times as much as we would expect. Although the ninth-century Kashmiri critic Ānandavardhana argued in his treatise Dhvanyāloka (“Light on Implicature”) that “if … an emotion that should belong exclusively to a human were presented as being located in a divine being, or the reverse, it would be inappropriate” (Pollock 93), this clearly did not have much of an effect. Throughout most of history, blasphemy did not seem to warrant significant attention in the eyes of Indic religions—although, as the Jawed Habib controversy made clear, things seem to be changing now.

Anyone who is familiar with the Hindu deities, even if they are not themselves religious, can appreciate the humor of these poems. But for the religious devotee, who has faith in these same gods and goddesses, how do these humorous works interact with bhakti (devotion)? I doubt that even the most religious Bharatanatyam dancer would refuse to perform a nindā-stuti like Nadamadi Thirindha on grounds of blasphemy. So, does humor serve a theological purpose?

I would argue that approaching the Hindu gods through humor—whether through the charming scenes of muktakas or the unapologetic tone of nindā-stutis—was not seen as blasphemous or offensive because humor, and its underlying roots in incongruity and paradox, play an important role in the idea of bhakti (devotion) for many Hindu traditions.

Many scholars argue that satire and humanization of the Hindu gods through humor allows the devotee to relate more intimately to the deity. Lee Siegel writes that the “belittling process of the cosmic poem can be a religious affirmation, a proposition of a way in which to understand divinity. That the gods are human makes them all the more accessible” (Siegel 378). Wendy Doniger argues that “the humor and disrespect with which the deities are treated served to relieve various tensions … On a cosmic level, too, humor in myth serves to highlight some rather serious theological components: dimming the opposites, the inverse effect, subjective reserve, the grotesque…” (Doniger O’Flaherty 74). Writing specifically on the mockery of Śiva in precolonial Bengali literature, France Bhattacharya says that “revilement humanizes Śiva by underlining his weakness and failures … It is a relief for simple, ordinary men to see the great god as one of them” (Bhattacharya 67).

Certainly, it is through humor that the gods become more human and thus more approachable to a devotee. However, humor can also be seeing as having an opposite effect, making the devotee more aware of the power and ultimate incomprehensibility of the deity. This is due to humor’s roots in incongruity and paradox.

In the Nāṭyaśāstra, Bharata identifies incongruity as the basis of humor. Both muktakas and nindā-stutis can be defined by a paradox: they represent the gods and goddesses as fallible, mundane, almost-human beings, while at the same time ultimately acknowledging their power and divinity. In her analysis on paradox in the Tamil Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition (which I’ve written about in a separate blog post), Vasudha Narayanan suggests that “paradox still remains one very important way in which Hindus have historically related to, understood, enjoyed, and lived their traditions” (Harvard). She describes nindā-stuti as such: “devotees decry God, or show their displeasure, all the while knowing paradoxically that he is supreme.”

France Bhattacharya writes similarly on satire of Siva; it “can be understood as a way to present Śiva’s divine nature that is beyond human understanding … it [also] emphasizes the unresolved contradiction between the opposites present in his nature” (Bhattacharya 66). For Hindus, these paradoxes are never fully resolved, and “like bifocal glasses, we hold multiple visions simultaneously, moving from one to another seamlessly” (Harvard). Perhaps Narayanan phrased it best: “When it comes to conjunctions, we Hindus have, in general, preferred ‘and’ to ‘or.’”

Satire and mockery of Hindu gods has been a prominent (and beloved) part of south Asian literature and art for centuries, despite what the Hindu nationalist groups who opposed Jawed Habib’s cartoon may argue. The Sanskrit and Telugu poems discussed here represent a minuscule portion of the satirical literature that was produced throughout the subcontinent. The portraits they offer of the gods and goddesses—a jealous Lakṣmī, an incompetent Viṣṇu, an unabashedly curious Kārttikēya—are of course entertaining, but they also offer insights into an aspect of Hindu devotion that is increasingly becoming threatened by Hindu nationalism and right-wing efforts to stamp out diversity within Hindu traditions. It is our responsibility to highlight this diversity, and the ways in which differences in worldviews and opinions can only enrich, not weaken, our own.

Humor and satire make the gods more accessible to the human devotee; they are enmeshed in the paradox of viewing divinity both as mundane and supernatural. This paradox is at the heart of bhakti, and it is made manifest by humor. In this world that is seen by many Hindu traditions as both the play of the gods (līla) and an illusion created by the gods (māya), perhaps the most logical thing to do is laugh.

I’d like to end this with another funny piece by my friend Anjali Shenai (check out more comics like these on her website).

kaunhaiyeh

Bibliography/Additional resources

  • Bhattacharya, France, “Satire in Pre-Colonial Bengali Literature: Śiva, an Object of Revilement and Praise.” In Indian Satire in the Period of First Modernity, ed. Monika Horstmann and Heidi Rika Maria Pauwels. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.
  • Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. “The Shazam Syndrome: The Banalization of the Hindu Gods.” In Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, 65-76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Gerow, Edwin. “Why the Fish Laughed, and Other Matters Relating to (the Indian Sense of) ‘Humor.’” Studia Orientalia Electronica 94 (2014): 167-180.
  • Harvard Divinity School, “Paradoxology: the Art of Praising the Deity.” YouTube video, 1:29:14, April 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocjKWs8GV9k
  • IANS. “Jawed Habib Salon Vandalised in Uttar Pradesh.” Times of India, September 9, 2017. Accessed November 16, 2017. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/jawed-habib-salon-vandalised-in-uttar-pradesh/articleshow/60436001.cms
  • Jackson, William J. Tyāgarāja: Life and Lyrics. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Khanna, Madhu, “The Bhagvata Mela at Melattur: Traditional Theatre and Public Arenas.” In Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society, ed. M. D. Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2004.
  • Narayana Rao, Velcheru, and David D. Shulman, trans. Classical Telugu Poetry: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Pollock, Sheldon. A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  • PTI. “Case Registered Against Jawed Habib for ‘Insulting’ Hindu Gods.” The Hindu, September 8, 2017. Accessed November 16, 2017. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/case-registered-against-jawed-habib-for-insulting-hindu-gods/article19644025.ece
  • Siegel, Lee. Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Srividya. “Ninda Stuti.” RadioWeb Carnatic. January 30, 2016. Accessed December 1, 2017. http://radioweb.in/programs/ninda-stuti-0
  • Vidyākara. An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry: Vidyākara’s Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa. Translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls. Harvard Oriental Series 44. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Vidyākara. The Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa. Edited by D. D. Kosambi and Vasudeo Vishwanath Gokhale. Harvard Oriental series 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. [Retrieved from: GRETIL]
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3 thoughts on “Hasya and Hinduism: laughing at (and with) the gods”

  1. This indeed was an enlightening and well-researched – and cited – article. This was precisely the nuanced perspective on Hindu ‘blasphemy’ that I wanted to find.

    Liked by 1 person

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