Satirical Humour in Modern Sanskrit Literature – 1

The credit for the first ever literary characterization of humour as a Rasa (hāsya-rasa), and according it, its rightful place, goes to the Sanskrit ālaṅkārikas, scholars who specialize in the study of literary embellishments and undertake critical investigation of literature. The Nāṭya-śāstra of Bharata was the first and primary work of this kind. According to it, hāsya-rasa is revealed from hāsa (a bout of laughter). Feelings are all personal and culminate in happiness or grief. Rasa, however, is universal and is nothing but ānanda (supreme bliss). Thus, rasa is beyond personal likes and dislikes; it is the peace-giving tranquil abode accessible to all genuine connoisseurs.

In Sanskrit and Kannada, it is rare that we come across the words denoting ‘bhāva’ (feeling, emotion) and ‘rasa’ (art experience, aesthetic relish) bearing phonetic similarity. In the matter of hāsya, however, we see an exception. Hāsya-rasa, and the source from which it springs forth, hāsa, given their etymological relationship—hāsyasya bhāvo hāsyam—literally sound similar. (In fact, in Sanskrit, ‘hāsya’ is that which is begotten from ‘hāsa,’ laughter). This is not without reason. Although most of the natural emotions common to the world at large are experienced in a personal manner, the way laughter is felt, is a little different, and special. This is owing to the fact that there is not much of a difference between real life and art when it comes to the manifestation and enjoyment of laughter.

The reason for this is simple: In order to laugh out loud, we need to be detached from the concerned context. Isn’t any involvement a mental distraction! Laughter is possible only when we separate ourselves from the concerned circumstances. For example, if someone walking in the street with a royal swagger, suddenly trips and falls over a banana peel, those who respond with involvement feel sympathy, anxiety, and concern. However, for someone who is uninvolved, this episode would—at least for the first few moments—evoke laughter. This is akin to the saying ‘Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.’ Perhaps, when we are uninvolved, whatever we see comes across as comic. Due to the fact that there is a touch of rasa in the emotional plane itself, to enjoy hāsya, it does not require any special training. He, who is able to laugh with gay abandon in the worldly plane, does not require dedicated formal initiation to enjoy humour even in the realm of art. That is indeed why hāsya has been identified as the rasa which everyone, regardless of whether they are ascetics or householders, wise or otherwise, old or young, can equally take delight in. Just as the ‘emotion’ of laughter has a touch of ‘rasa,’ it is equally true that that the rasa, hāsya has an emotional touch. It follows that hāsya-rasa, despite best efforts, rarely becomes sublime or profound. That is why, perhaps, no great work of epic proportion has been written with hāsya as its aṅgi-rasa (primary rasa). Needless to say, human life itself doesn’t yield to this possibility! This is the reason why critical investigations into Indian poetry have classified hāsya not as a janaka (primary) rasa, but as a janya (secondary) rasa. “Hāsya is born of Śṛṅgāra,” avers Bharata – “śṛṅgārāddhi bhaveddhāsyam.” This might raise our eyebrows and make us wonder how possibly the two could be connected – aren’t they as different as chalk and cheese?

Śṛṅgāra can be denoted as the resting place of esteem and the root of desire. Isn’t śṛṅgāra, after all, the representative of the puruṣārtha called kāma! Even for humour, expression would be impossible, unless the pride within us is roused. It is the irony of a situation or person or behaviour that causes laughter. In order to react with laughter, one has to feel a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the situation. This is the root of śṛṅgāra as well. Thus, hāsya is born out of śṛṅgāra. Also, for śṛṅgāra which is suffused with pleasure, hāsya, which has a dimension of rest and mirth,

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is a perfect partner. Even then, hāsya of this type is classified as ‘Parastha-hāsya’ (laughing at others), rather than ‘Ātmastha-hāsya’ (making oneself as the subject of humour and laughing, and in turn making others laugh).[1] The recognition of the fact that ātmastha-hāsya is the higher form of humour is a trait of good culture. If we examine closely, it becomes evident that parastha-hāsya is predominantly emotional in nature, while ātmastha-hāsya clearly assumes the higher form of rasa itself. In ātmastha-hāsya, pride melts and then transcends the differentiation between oneself and the world, and finally rests in the realm of egolessness. Thus it can be mapped to the way a liberated selfless enlightened individual carries forth himself or herself. That is the reason for its close proximity to śānta-rasa. Perhaps, Purandaradāsa exclaiming “ನಗೆಯು ಬರುತಿದೆ, ಎನಗೆ ನಗೆಯು ಬರುತಿದೆ” (I’m about to laugh, indeed, I’m about to laugh), or Dante naming his magnum opus La Commedia (‘The Comedy;’ later called La Divina Commedia, ‘The Divine Comedy’) was really in this sense. All our philosophers depicted in traditional sculptures, veritably bear the countenance of a benign smile. The same is true with all our deities as well. In all of devotional literature, we see liberated souls being picturized often as bursting into peals of hysterical or childlike or impish laughter.

The only rasas directly related to the puruṣārthas are, vīra (to dharma, artha), śṛṅgāra (to kāma) and śānta (to mokṣa).[2] Thus these are ‘aṅgi’ (fundamental) rasas. Hāsya is an ‘aṅga’ (auxiliary) rasa. Further, it is an aṅga-rasa from another perspective too. Humour is a satirical imitation of a literary work. In a way, it is an activity which takes place at the secondary level. It is an inappropriate presentation of an appropriate circumstance. Thus it requires a model of imitation. This is especially required for parastha-hāsya (laughing at others). It follows that since such humour inflates the ego, there is more scope for further extension and expression, giving more space for connoisseurs. However, since ātmastha-hāsya—where oneself is the subject—cuts ego to size, it rapidly touches the horizon of peace, and cannot grow or expand thereafter. The magnitude of ātmastha-hāsya is less, but it has more soul.

Karuṇa-rasa (pathos, empathy), adbhuta-rasa (wonder, amazement), bhayānaka-rasa (horror, fear), etc., are reactions to raudra-rasa (anger) and vīra-rasa (valour).[3] Their connection to puruṣārthas is faint. However, if we were to classify Karuṇa-rasa into parastha and ātmastha, it is apparent that parastha is superior and takes the form of empathy.[4] It is a counterpart of ātmastha-hāsya. It is but he who can genuinely laugh at himself that is moved at the afflictions of others. Thus, parastha kāruṇya quickly comes close to śānta. It can be termed as a close relative of dayā-vīra and dāna-vīra (heroism in compassion and magnanimity).

Nāṭyaśāstra says that in accordance with the stage-needs, the irony in attire, behaviour, conversation, and enactment cause the characters to bring about humour. It goes even further and provides intricate details like how humour comes to the fore in a variety of ways – smita (smile), hasita (laughter), vihasita (fit of laughter), apahasita (in mock laughter), atihasita (uncontrollable laughter), etc. All these are relevant for stage acting, but not for critical investigation into humour. Likewise, it is not correct to limit hāsya as a derivative of śṛṅgāra. [It is possible to demonstrate that śṛṅgāra is the amalgamation of all rasas. A corollary that follows from this is that hāsya-rasa, a derivative of śṛṅgāra-rasa, is the satirical fusion of all rasas.] Humour is a satirical imitation of all the emotions of the whole world. That is why Abhinavagupta has said anaucitya (inappropriateness) is the root of humour. Still, it must not be forgotten that there needs to be a certain aucitya (appropriateness) to humour because the highest logical dimension of any art is aucitya. All that lies beyond this is the experiential dimension of rasa.

Let us study, using some examples—with the background of what we have discussed about Indian (Sanskrit) literary critical investigation—the ways in which humour has issued forth in modern Sanskrit literature. The body of work is exhaustive, but the space here is limited. Thus we can only delve into this to a limited extent.

It can be said that classical Sanskrit literature cultivated its sense of humour from the Ādikavi—the ‘First Poet’—Sage Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. Those interested may refer to N Ranganatha Sharma’s book, ‘ವಾಲ್ಮೀಕಿಮುನಿಗಳ ಹಾಸ್ಯಪ್ರವೃತ್ತಿ’ (Sage Vālmīki’s Sense of Humour). In the poems and plays of greats like Bhāsa, Kālidāsa, Bhaṭṭa Śrīharṣa, and Śīlāditya Harṣavardhana, we see a flow of humour healthy in expanse, akin to that of an Autumn stream. We can see an overwhelming monsoon-like deluge of humour in the works of poets like Śūdraka, Śyāmilaka, Vararuci, Mahendra-varma, Vatsa-rāja, Bhallaṭa, Kṣemendra, Nīlakaṇṭha-dīkṣita in the genres of prakaraṇa (social play), bhāṇa (farce), prahasana (comedy), anyāpadeśa (allegorical epigram), viḍambana (satire), and parihāsa (ridicule). Here, humour further expands into different types like satire, sarcasm, gibe, wit, epigram, imitation, etc. It is not an exaggeration to state that perhaps until the eighteenth century CE, in Sanskrit literature, we see such dimensions of humour as can quite capably go toe to toe, and in fact, in several ways, do one better, vis-à-vis all the flavours of humour in western literature extant at that time.

Modern Sanskrit literature has grown by modelling itself after the best works of classical Sanskrit. Additionally, it has cross-pollinated these very flavours with the new experiences acquired from the western world. It needs to be mentioned here that there is something special about Sanskrit, which other languages cannot boast of. In general, the term ‘modern,’ in the context of Indian literature, is applied to the body of work which came into existence following western (English) contact. In the West, however, this term applies typically to the literature of the post industrial revolution era. This transformation can be observed in different languages in not only the choices of subject-matter, methods of criticism, and genre of literature, but also in grammar and audio-visual aspects. In Sanskrit, however, it is not so. From a grammatical and lexical perspective, Sanskrit has had in place a solid structure for about two to three thousand years. Insincere snobs, who lack the discerning ability, have maligned this as stagnation, death, blind conformism, and so forth. This is incorrect. As the great Kannada poet Kuvempu says, ‘completeness is not death.’ Furthermore, Pāṇinian grammar and other sage cultural graces from times immemorial have endowed Sanskrit with an exhaustive, self-sufficient, and complete-in-itself system that is potent enough to flourish for all time. For this very reason it has proven itself to be timeless, not outdated. The Sanskrit language has instilled classical consciousness in all kinds of poets – ancient and contemporary. Consequently, mock-heroic or mock-sublime compositions in Sanskrit are easy, natural, and impactful. Particularly, metre (rhythm) and figures of speech, with the aid of poetic conventions that are full of life, can masterfully break the bubble of seriousness and cause humour to gush out.

Among the types of humour, Parody—in spite of not being the best form of literature—is matchless because of the punch, edge, and mirth caused by the riot of laughter it evokes. Compared to this, Satire is sharper and has a societal outlook. But it requires more creativity and sensitivity. In modern Sanskrit literature, we see a predominance of these two qualities. That which the western world identified as ‘light humour’ and developed mainly in prose in the genres of novels, essays, travelogues, and dialogues—which has gained ground in our regional languages—has not seen much growth when compared to other forms of humour in the modern Sanskrit literary arena. The reason for this is that the literary works of light humour are best made in prose and they expect more volume. Furthermore, it arises out of the run-of-the-mill existence and expects the simplicity to relate right away to the joys and miseries of everyday life. For this, an appreciation for matters of daily life is a must for both authorship and readership. These automatically rear their head as the news industry grows. Although the Sanskrit newspaper industry has a history of more than a century, good times are here especially for prose based on light humour, thanks mainly to the recently established newspaper Sambhāṣaṇa-sandeśa, which can be deemed to be the mouthpiece for the movement on conversational Sanskrit. Also, there is a plethora of individual efforts outside of institutional framework in this direction. Let us now delve a bit into all these facets.

Compared to the rest of the Indian languages, among the many modern hurdles faced by Sanskrit, although the noteworthy one is the absence of its own linguistic region (or state), the fact that there is a place of honour for it in all the regions (states) and that it is not completely alien to the people of any of them, is an advantage.

To be concluded.

This is the first of a two-part translation of a Kannada essay by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh titled ‘ಆಧುನಿಕಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಸಾಹಿತ್ಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಹಾಸ್ಯ’ from his remarkable anthology ಹುಡುಕಾಟ. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.


[1] Although Bharata has given these two classifications of hāsya, his explanation is quite different. Here, the present author has given his own explanation of it.
[2] Abhinavagupta—though converging to a great extent—differs here and there on this issue. Thus the whole approach here, in spite of relying much on him, is significantly different.
[3] Abhinavagupta tries to match raudra with artha at one place.
[4] Again, such an approach is entirely that of the present author.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Srishan Thirumalai is an Electronics Engineer who holds a senior position in the IT industry. He is passionate about Indian classical music and literature.

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