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.
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.
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.