Sarcasm and Humor in Sanskrit Literature

 By Kollengode   S   Venkataraman

Beyond devotional hymns, mantras for pujas, Yogasutra and Kamasutra, there is more to Sanskrit — such as treatises on grammar, music,  dance, astronomy, geometry, medicine, surgery and statecraft. When all these heavy subjects are in Sanskrit, humor and sarcasm cannot be far behind.

Here is an example of sarcastic wit in classical Sanskrit one finds in Economics of Lord Mahavira by Acharya Mahaprajna (Publishers: Jain Vishwa Bharti, Rajasthan, India, 2001). The Acharya’s thesis is that simply correlating wealth accumulation and consumption with happiness is a wrong way to assess progress. He avers that this is sure to lead to personal disenchantment. When accumulation of wealth leads to high material inequities as it is now globally, we can infer that it can also lead to social strife.

While pleading for moderation and social responsibility, the Acharya makes it clear that poverty is a curse. Sannyasam (renunciation) becomes a problem if not done with the correct attitude. Otherwise the sannyasis (renunciates) — and married priests as well — become parasites since they expect married lay householders to support them. We see this in all religions. In making the case against poverty, the Acharya uses biting wit to convey his message.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the siddhis (accomplishments) for an adept yogi is that the yogi can make himself so small that he invisible to others.  This siddhis is called aNimaa.  This, the yogi accomplishes, after a long and strenuous practice of what Patanjali calls Samyamas.

The Acharya, quoting a Sanskrit verse, says in sarcastic humor that without having to go through all the arduous Yoga practice, one indeed becomes invisible in society when afflicted with poverty. Acharya Mahaprajna is referring to the reality of successful/famous people not even recognizing their poverty-stricken relatives and friends in social gatherings (such as weddings).

Here is the Sanskrit verse dripping in Sarcasm, composed by an unknown poet afflicted by poverty, who had seen better days:


O Poverty!  Pranaams (Salutation) to you.  Because of your boon, I am a Siddha now!
I see everyone. But [because of my poverty] nobody recognizes me, wow!!

In the October 2011 issue, we had published a medieval Sanskrit verse composed in the 16-syllable Anushtub-chandam like most of the verses in Bhagavadgita. We deliberately did not give the meaning, hoping that a few readers would ask for its meaning.  And a few of you did.  Here is the original verse in the Devanagari script:

Here is the translation of the verse addressing a Vaidya, or a doctor:

O, Doctor, the brother of Yama (Death)!  Salutations to you.
Yama only steals [people’s] lives.  But you, doctor, steal [people’s] lives and money as well.


So, the contentious relationship between doctors (and the healthcare industry) and patients we see today in the US and in India is nothing new.  ♠

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