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.

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A Conversation Between Desire and Delight: the Poetry of Nanne Choda

As a kid, I loved reading about mythology: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, you name it. I grew up reading the Percy Jackson books alongside Amar Chitra Katha comics. What I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) most about mythology was the richness, diversity, and depth of its characters, and the ways in which modern authors were able to flesh out and humanize these gods and heroes in so many different ways. Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) had a very different take on the Greek pantheon than Kate McMullan (the Myth-o-Mania books). Similarly, Indian authors today have been exploring the literary possibilities in Hindu mythology and epics; I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s women-centric retellings, like Palace of Illusions.

However, the more I learn about South Asian history and literature, the more I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. People have been playing with mythology and sacred narratives, emphasizing different aspects, changing up the settings, and adding totally new details and characters, for as long as these narratives have existed! This may seem obvious to everyone else, but it’s been quite a revelation to me. I want to share a wonderful passage from classical Telugu poetry, written around nine hundred years ago, that illustrates this exact phenomenon. But first, some background…

Nanne Choda, a forgotten poet

The poet whose work I want to feature in this post is Nanne Choda; I came across his writing in an anthology of classical Telugu poetry spanning a thousand years, translated by David Shulman (whom I interviewed earlier this summer) and Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Very little is known about Nanne Choda; in fact, his poetry had been lost to history until one of his works was discovered and re-published in the early 1900s by the scholar Manavalli Ramakrishna Kavi (1866-1957). Ramakrishna Kavi claimed that Nanne Choda actually lived before Nannaya, who is generally believed to be the first Telugu poet. While Shulman and Rao acknowledge that “there is an archaic quality to his verses,” they tentatively place Nanne Choda in the twelfth century AD, a century after Nannaya.

He seems to have been the ruler of a small kingdom called Orayuru, which some people associate with the city of Tiruchirappalli in the center of Tamil Nadu. Modern Telugu poets have given Nanne Choda the title of Kavi-raja Shikha-mani (“Crest-Jewel of the King of Poets”), but Shulman and Rao write that “his book seems to have disappeared from the horizon of literary discourse already in medieval times; later poets never mention him.”

The Birth of Kumara

The only surviving work of Nanne Choda is his epic poem Kumara-sambhava, “The Birth of Kumara.” Kumara (also called Skanda, Murugan, Kartikeya, Subramanya) is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and younger brother to Ganesha; he is the god in the Hindu pantheon who symbolizes courage and valor. “The Birth of Kumara” is about the intricate sequence of events that led to Kumara’s birth.

In composing his Telugu narrative of Kumara’s birth, Nanne Choda seems to have taken inspiration from the much more well-known Sanskrit Kumara-sambhava that was composed by the legendary poet Kalidasa (fifth century AD) around seven hundred years prior. Kalidasa’s Kumara-sambhava is considered by some to be “the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language.” Although I don’t think Nanne Choda’s work has been given such hyperbolic praise, hopefully the following selection will surprise you in a number of ways.

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In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam

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Students honoring their teachers at a Guru Purnima function in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Source
This past weekend, many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in the Indian subcontinent and around the world celebrated the festival of Guru Purnima. In the book Memory and Hope, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan writes:

“The Hindu calendar, in fact, sets aside a special day each year, Guru Purnima, for remembering one’s religious teacher. It is an occasion for visiting the teacher, expressing gratitude and honoring him with gifts. It is a time also for the renewal of one’s commitment to the wisdom received from the guru.

Guru Purnima, although holding special meaning for the religious teacher, is extended in meaning to include teachers of all subjects. Remembering our indebtedness to teachers is meant to awaken our own generosity to share knowledge with other and to support those who seek and impart wisdom.”

The Guru Ashtakam (“Eight Verses for the Guru”) is a poem attributed to the eighth-century Hindu philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara, who is credited with a number of other Sanskrit texts and devotional compositions. This composition emphasizes the importance of one’s guru in the spiritual journey. Without devotion to one’s teacher, all of one’s achievements, knowledge, and possessions are essentially useless, the text tells us.

Of course, this text suffers from some limitations and caveats that we have to acknowledge today. As with many of Adi Shankara’s other compositions, the Guru Ashtakam is clearly addressed to an upper-caste man. In the third stanza, Adi Shankara mentions that a student may have knowledge of the Vedas and Vedic disciplines. However, at the time of the Guru Ashtakam’s composition (and even today, to an extent), lower-caste men and women would simply not have access to those scriptures. Additionally, in the text, one’s wife is placed in the same category as one’s wealth and fame. Finally, although Adi Shankara exhorts us to be fully focused and devoted to the guru’s feet, we have to remember that today many so-called gurus are shamelessly using religion and spirituality for the purpose of generating personal wealth and exploiting their followers. We shouldn’t let blind devotion cloud our judgment and critical thinking.

To me, the main take-away of the Guru Ashtakam isn’t blind, unquestioning devotion to a guru. Although it emphasizes the importance of the guru, it also outlines the most essential qualities of a student: humility and gratitude. To me, this is what Guru Purnima is all about. After all, as Dr. Rambachan writes, “If we forget that we are receivers [of knowledge], we will not be generous givers.”

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The doomsday fisherman

One of my goals for this summer was to post more frequently, and to get rid of the thirty-some incomplete posts I have lying around in my drafts folder. With only a week left before I go back to college… I guess that was more of a long-term goal. Anyway, in this post I just want to share an eerie and fascinating Sanskrit poem I came across a few weeks ago.

This poem belongs to a genre of Sanskrit poetry called subhashita. In Sanskrit, the prefix su means “good” and bhāshita means “spoken”, so subhashita literally means “well-spoken”. Subhashitas are typically short poems of just two or four lines following a specific meter. Subhashitas have been composed on a wide variety of subjects, but what distinguishes all of them is their brevity, wittiness and creativity.

Before getting to the poem, though, we need a little context. This subhashita makes reference to a number of Hindu religious figures, mainly the dashavataras: ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu incarnates when evil is on the rise in the universe and dharma is in danger. It’s believed that so far, he’s incarnated nine times, with the tenth avatar to come near the end of this world.

Without getting too much into the details, here are Vishnu’s ten incarnations:

  1. Matsya, a fish
  2. Kurma. a turtle
  3. Varaha, a boar
  4. Narasimha, half-man, half-lion
  5. Vamana (also called Trivikrama), a Brahmin dwarf
  6. Parshurama, a pretty violent Brahmin
  7. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic
  8. Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities
  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
  10. Kalki, the doomsday savior-to-come

It’s also common to see the Buddha replaced in this list by Balarama (brother of Krishna), especially in south India.

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Painting of the dashavataras in the traditional Kalamkari style from Andhra Pradesh. Top row (left to right): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana. Bottom row: Parshurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna, Kalki.

We also need to make note of one more character (the main character of the poem, actually). Bhairava is the scariest form through which the god Shiva is worshiped. The name literally means “terrible, frightful” in Sanskrit (he’s also called Kalabhairava, “frightful time”). I’ve written previously about an 8th-century Sanskrit poem on Bhairava, so take a look if you’re interested. Bhairava is often depicted as a black-skinned beggar surrounded by dogs (which sadly don’t get much love in Hinduism). Also, his begging bowl is the skull of the creator god, Brahma. Cheery, right?

Finally, I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of Hindu cosmology, but I’ll just say that Hindu mythology looks at time on a very, very large scale. According to the Puranas (composed mostly during the first millennium AD), the universe goes through cycles of creation, dissolution, and rebirth, existing during the day of Brahma (whose day lasts 4.32 billion human years), and in dissolution during Brahma’s night (also 4.32 billion years long). After a hundred years of Brahma (over 300 trillion years!), Shiva steps in and destroys everything, including Brahma. After another hundred years of Brahma, Brahma is reborn and the process repeats infinitely. So, if you’re still with me, this poem is set at the end of a kalpa: one day of Brahma.

Finally, the poem! This subhashita comes from page 21 of an online copy of the Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (meaning “Treasury of Subhashita-Gems”) a collection of over ten thousand subhashitas that was published in 1952. The author and date of composition aren’t given; however, if anyone is interested and finds out, please let me know. Here it is:

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