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Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humor

Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humor (Introduction)
By Sunthar Visuvalingam

Published with author’s permission from: http://www.svabhinava.org/hasy-abh/Thesis-Intro.html

This thesis was originally planned in three parts, of which I am presenting here only most of the materials originally intended to constitute the first part entitled: “Bisociation: The structure of hâsya-rasa,” with only a few fragmentary indications of some of the materials that ought to have gone into a second part entitled: “Virûpa: the symbolism of the Vidûshaka,” and hardly any reference to the third part entitled: “Vishuvat: the role of the Middle (madhya) in Tantric praxis (sâdhânâ).” This was unavoidable for otherwise the thesis would have grown out of all proportion; but it has nevertheless resulted in giving the present work a somewhat lop-sided impression which calls for some explanation.

This contribution to the psychology of humor and laughter and to the aesthetics of hâsya was primarily conceived of as a stepping stone to a total understanding of the function and significance of the vidûshaka who, though the prime focus of hâsya on the Sanskrit stage, has always been criticized for not serving this function adequately. His stereotyped traits in all the classical plays and the inexplicable and seemingly unconnected prescriptions laid down by the dramaturges with regard to him point insistently to some other function than a comic one, and this has led Prof. F.B.J. Kuiper in his magnum opus to assert that his original role was a non-comic one rooted in certain fundamental metaphysical and mythological representations of Vedic cosmogony. Though Kuiper has brought forth powerful arguments for identifying him with Varuna, there are so many other features that this identity is (admittedly) unable to account for and which moreover tend to assimilate the vidûshaka to other real or symbolic figures (Brahmâ, purohita or brahman-priest, brahmacârin, Vrshâkapi, Pâshupata, Ganesha, etc.) outside the theater, some of whom are characterized by comic elements absent in Varuna. The problem before me was to isolate the central non-comic function that would not only explain the imbrication of all these disparate identities in thevidûshaka but also accommodate his hâsya aspect so that one does not negate the other. Abhinava’s attribution of a mere semblance of hâsya (hâsyâbhâsa) to the vidûshaka, whose hâsya-function he nowhere denies, convinced me that I was on the right track. Moreover, his total silence as to what this non-comic function was, made me suspect that its nature must be such that its indiscrimate revelation would dangerously compromise the hâsya function, which alone should dominate the consciousness of the majority of his classical audiences. At the same time, it suggested that somehow this profound non-comic function was nevertheless being effectively vehicled by the comic function itself. How it could serve both exigencies becomes intelligible only the light of the bisociative theory of hâsya implicit in Abhinava’s analyses of its mechanisms and social functions. Why it should serve both exigencies becomes intelligible only within the theory of a central esoteric tradition in the history of Indian culture defeined by the violation of socio-religious taboos that are nevertheless rigorously observed in the exoteric social domain. As the crowning theoretician of the Tantric systems, wherein the radical violation of such taboos is unilaterally valorized within exclusive circles accessible only through a gradation of initiations, who is also the greatest commentator on a dramaturgist tradition relatively open to an exoteric public where the norm reigns supreme, Abhinava must have been certainly better placed than anyone else  to recognize the need for reconciling the two contrary but equally valid exigencies and ensuring some mode of mediation between them even while they are scrupulously kept apart.

In delving into the complex symbolism of the vidûshaka, more and more of his features show themselves to refer back, directly or indirectly, to a central function of being the institutionalized transgressor of brahmanical norms and taboos, especially founded on the pure/impure opposition which sustains the Hindu socio-religious hierarchy (cf. L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus). The vidûshaka is a comic figure precisely because he re-enacts this transgressive function, in a purely symbolic mode, before an exoteric audience in the public social setting of the Sanskrit drama, where these taboos still have all their binding force. Since a unilateral valorization of beach of taboo is ruled out under these circumstances, there is instead an ambiguous expression that permits the spectators to participate, indirectly and partially—almost unconsciously, through sympathetic identification with the vidûshaka—in these violations; yet, at the same time, the spectators disassociate themselves from his actions under the contrary impulse of fear, shame, disgust and other negative emotional attitudes. “Torn by internal contradictions and the ambivalent character which marks it, the violation of taboo, when sensed, wavers on the threshold of consciousness. Most perilous of all acts, its mere evocation is deranging, and therefore deserving to be suppressed. The tendency is to minimize its effect, so that to focus public attention on it seems uncalled for. Above all, as it should be realized, even though undertaken in the interest of the group, the violation of taboo is an individual act, singular and exceptional. The stability of the social order, resting as it does on the observance of taboos, would be jeopardized should the act of transgression be committed by the group as a whole, or with their approval….it is necessary that the breaker of taboo should be vewed as acting alone, even if for the benefit of all. It is necessary that he should be conceived as ‘the other,’ in opposition to the group, even when he acts on their behalf. That is why when participating in ritual, the clown appears as an individualist—independent, asocial, non-integrated” (L. Makarius, “Ritual Clowns and Symbolic Behavior,” p.54). It is this “bisociative” structure (in a sense akin to that given by Arthur Koestler to the term) of the exoteric perception of the vidûshaka, that is responsible for humor and laughter (hâsya and hâsa); and because laughter is so pleasurable and relaxing, we are prepared to tolerate the absurd, non-integrated asocial behavior of this avaidika buffoon. “In tribal society a clown becomes a clown only in a subsidary way, the origins of this figure going back to a complex of causes having little to do with the jocularity assumed to be his unique purpose to arouse, but which overlays and conceals the true nature of his original role” (ibid., p.45). This observation is wholly valid for the clowing of the Pâshupata brahmin ascetic, obliged to laugh and provoke laughter for ritual reasons; however, in the aesthetic setting of the Sanskrit drama, the hâsya function of the vidûshaka undergoes secondary elaboration to serve the requirements of rasa, plot and characterization so much so that it acquires an independent status of sorts and completely overshadows the underlying metaphysical and ritual transgressive function. Though this is facilitated by the transformation of the very symbols of transgression, like his deformity, omnivorous appetite (sarvabhakshaka), shûdra-like traits of impurity, contrary speech, etc., into comic symbols provoking humor (hâsya), their stereotyped canonical exploitation and their mode of integration into the aesthetic framework of the play reveals that this hâsya is a mere ‘semblance’ (âbhâsa) serving as vehicle for the exteriorization of the hidden transgressive dimension and the esoteric doctrines centered on it. So intimately is hâsyalinked, by its very structure, to transgression that ultimately any kind of comic behavior (or even tickling in the Amerindian myths of the “Repressed Laughter” analyzed by Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le Cuit. Pp.128-40) comes to symbolize the liminal situation where the esoteric valorization of taboo-violation intrudes into the purview of an exoteric gaze determined by the system of social interdictions that it has interiorized (cf. Makarius, “Les Jaguars et les Hommes,” pp. 228, 224).

On this basic point our findings on the vidûshaka are in accord with the conclusions of the French ethnologist, Laura Makarius, who has specialized in ritual clowns and the trickster myth as a universal phenomenon to arrive at a theory of transgression being the foundation of the original Sacred, and has systematically related this complex of ideas and practices to the institution of the divine king. That the vidûshaka is supremely sacred, despite or rather because of his transgressive dimension, is evidenced by his being protected by Omkâra and bearing symbolical attributes of Brahmâ (the god of the Vedic ritual), and by his supreme (mahâ-)  brahmin-hood, which enjoys the privileged adhesion and even submission of the king/hero (nâyaka) with whom we identify ourselves wholly to enjoy the principal sentiment (rasa)—as a rule love (shrngâra)—of the play. The same problem of the conjunction of inherent sacredness and transgression poses itself also in the case of Brahmâ’s fifth head (cf. Kantawala, 1958) and also in the case of Abhinava’s supreme divinity, the Tantric Bhairava who commits a brahmanicide by lopping of this very head (cf. Stietencron, 1969). Since all kinds of transgressions of brahmanical norms of purity are symbolically assimilated to brahmanicide in the Hindu law-codes (dharma-shâstra)—and this is the significance of Bhairava using his left thumb-nail in all the versions—the vidûshaka as a (mahâ-) ‘great;’ brahmin (brâhmana) with impure traits befitting an outcaste (candâla) is, as it were, his own brahmanicide (brahma-hatyâ). The dialectic behind this transgression in archaic and ‘primitive’ societies has been lucidly expounded by Georges Bataille (Théorie de Religion; and to some extent by Roger Caillois, who collaborated with him) drawing his inspiration largely from the structure of Vedic mythology unfolded by Dumézil (especially in Mitra-Varuna) and from the theory of brahmanical sacrifice (Sylvain Lévi and Marcel Mauss). In this dialectic, transgression does not contradict the rigorous observance of taboos but presupposes and completes it even while transcending it. The access to the sacred impure (represented by Varuna) that is the basis of transgression is mediated by the sacred pure (Mitra), which latter alone is the explicit model of profane society. The brahmin vidûshaka, by incarnating both these poles in himself, may be assimilated (and is in fact often assimilated) to the royal chaplain (purohita) or the brahmán-priest, whose mythical prototypes like Vasishtha and Agastya were incarnations of the twin principle represented by the Vedic god Mitra-Varuna.

Unless this dialectic is recaptured in its dynamic movement, the curious conjunction of extreme purity and impurity, chastity and sexual transgression, brahmin and outcaste, total devotion to the hero and characteristic betrayals, and so on, privileged position (pradhâna-pâtra, Abhinava) and scapegoat function, and so on, will remain forever insoluble and a stigma on the creative skill of the Sanskrit poets (kavis) who have depicted him. It is this movement that later finds theoretical expression in the Trika distinction between the two logically successive movements of sankoca and vikâsa. In sankoca (retraction), Consciousness isolates itself from all objectivity (including body, mind, etc.) until it transcends the latter through a process assimilated to a gradual ‘self-purification’ (it is here that the continuity—evident in the Pâshupata—between brahmanical purity and yogic asceticism must be sought). In the vikâsa(‘expansion’) stage, there is a universalization of Consciousness, whereby the latter assimilates all objectivity, including the lowest most impure aspects, to itself (visvâtmatâ), implying the transcendence of the pure/impure distinction. According to Abhinava, the totalization that marks the culmination of the vikâsa process necessarily presupposes (logically) the inner purity that constitutes the limit of the sankoca process. In the vidûshaka, this totalization is symbolized by his all-devouring appetite, the dramatic transposition of the ‘all-devouring’ (sarva-bhakshaka)  form of Agni-Consciousness in myth (to verify this, one need only compare the detailed description of (the god of) Fire (Agni) during the ‘Burning of the Khândava Forest’ episode of the Mahâbhârata: brâhmano bahu-bhoktâsmi; cf. Scheuer, chapter IV 1-3).

This theory immediately ties up the loose ends in Kuiper’s manner of posing the vidûshaka = [the god of the Vedic underworld] Varuna equation for it accounts for all the symbolism of the god [of Vedic ritualism] Brahmâ (Omkâra, kutilaka, brahminhood), which Kuiper has been unable to integrate satisfactorily into his theory, by posing the equation Brahmâ = (the dual divinity) Mitra-Varuna often repeated by Coomaraswamy. Moreover, it restores the coherence that holds together the scapegoat Varuna incarnated in the vidûshaka of the play (by virtue of his physical resemblance to the ritual scapegoat jumbaka representing Varuna in his ‘evil form’ papa-rûpa), the cosmogonic Varuna who through the vidûshaka of the Three Men’s Talk (Trigata) of the ritual preliminaries (pûrva-ranga) of the theater disrupts the cosmic order represented by the assistant (pâripârshvika)  impersonating the king of the gods Indra (Varuna and Vidûshaka, p.192), and the majestic awe-inspiring Varuna of the Rig-Veda who initiated ‘poets’ (kavis) like Vasishtha and Kâvya Ushanas in the netherworld (“The Bliss of Asa,” p.110; Varuna and Vidûshaka, p.96). Most of all, it confirms the embryogonic foundation of Rig Vedic cosmogony insisted upon by Kuiper (“Cosmogony and Conception”). Heesterman has shown (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” “Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer”) that the consecrated pre-classical sacrificer (dîkshita) in his embryonic regression into the realm of Varuna is laden with impurity and evil which he sheds, while emerging from his initiated or consecrated state (dîkshâ), into Varuna’s element, viz. the water of the avabhrtha rite (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” pp.12, 14; The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration, pp. 167, 169 note 12). It is clear that the jumbaka’s deformity (in the cleansing avabhrtha ritual of the Horse Sacrifice or Ashvamedha) is no more than the tangible expression of the purely negative aspect of the dîkshita’s own impurity and evil or, rather, the transgression implied in his return to the chaotic prenatal state, for the opposition of shapeliness (rûpa) and deformity (virûpa) is the visual transposition of the opposition between order/chaos, interdiction/transgression, etc. (cf. Caillois, L’homme et le sacré, p.143 ; Held, pp.117-20). In regressing to the womb, the dîkshita transgresses the socio-religious order that he has interiorized in the course of his growth to adulthood and this is why he is hemmed in by a wall of taboos, even within the formalism of the sacrifice, to protect this order from his ‘dangerous sacredness.’

If the vidûshaka bears the features of the Varuna-jumbaka, we suggest that this is because he represents the (pre-classical) dîkshita-aspect of the hero (nâyaka) himself as the sacriificer (yajamâna; compare especially Kuiper, Varuna and Vidûshaka, p.222), and this alone can satisfactorily explain his obligatory obscene and incoherent language and his cooperation-cum-contest with the hero. The vidûshaka’s ‘perversity’ is constantly referred to by himself or others especially though the adjective ‘wicked’ (dushta-) in compounds like dushta-batuka ‘wicked lad’ (in Kaumudî. and especially Mrcchakatikâ, cf. Parikh, p.16), or by assimilating him to a ‘wicked monkey’ (dushta-vânara; Ratnâvalî II), or through the assimilation of his inseparable ‘crooked stick’ (kutilaka) to deceit or evil (Parikh, p.33). The scapegoat aspect is easily derived from the transgression, and Makarius has likewise demonstrated that the ritual clown (like the trickster) is a scapegoat precisely because of his primary function of violating taboos (MT, pp.41, 25). This is why he is presented as a somewhat crazy, stupid fool who is ridiculed and even manhandled by the maids and lower characters. “Like the tricksters, he is only fiction; unlike the tricksters, however, they have to introduce in full tribal milieu the materiality of an act that society refuses and that the consciousness represses. When the clowns enter the scene, they come to bear witness to a disquieting reality that the spectators resist by their mockeries” (p.289)…”Like the trickster, the clown finds impunity only in the appearance of irresponsibility. That is why this depositary of the great ritual secret is teasing, farcical, crazy and stupid, in a word he is a clown (Makarius, Le Sacré et la Violation des Interdictions, p.291).

Again, Dumézil (Mitra-Varuna) has shown that whereas Mitra presides over the exoteric sacerdotal hierarchy maintained by the socially orthodox brahmins, Varuna presides over the secret initiatic societies (which he explicitly compares to those in ‘primitive’ societies studied by L. Makarius in relation to ritual clowning; Mitra-Varuna, pp.33, 36, 38) whose members have been mythically projected into the Vedic Gandharvas who specialized in the creative arts like dancing, singing, and music. Names of these Gandharvas, onomatopeic and of irregular inflection, like Hâhâ and Hûhû, suggest that they must have preceded the later brahmin Pâshupatas (who also specialized in these arts forbidden to orthodox brahmins, cf. Mitra-Varuna, p.45) and resembled their Roman counterparts (the Luperques, Mitra-Varuna, p.31) in being characterized by explosive ritual laughter, the same that marks the vidûshaka. In a cultural seting where the loudest laughter is attributed to the basest characters and the highest characters barely smile (Nâtya Shâstra, GOS, VI, 54-59; Hyers, pp.33-51; cf. Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le Cuit, p.130), such loud ritual laughter can only mark the violator of taboos (a similar significance should, in our opinion, be attributed to the Prakrit speech of the vidûshaka  which serves to distinguish base characters in the drama). Specially relevant is that these Gandharvas are, like the Luperques in Rome, responsible for unleashing the brief but recreating ‘sacred disorder’ of end-of-the-year saturnalia (Mitra-Varuna, p.40), which is the social counterpart of the cosmogonic chaos reintroduced by Varuna on the mythical plane (Kuiper, Varuna and Vidûshaka, pp.23-24, 42). This brief period, when all fundamental taboos are temporarily abrogated and complete license reigns, is especially allotted to the intercalary period at the end of the year which is conceived as containing the rest of the whole year in itself (Caillois, L’homme et le sacré, pp.143-44).

The thirteenth month is considered the ’embryo’ of the entire year (Heesterman, The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration, pp.33, 36) which it regenerates, and corresponds in the temporal transposition of the sacrificial symbolism to the embryonic state of the sacrificer through which he gains possession of the ordered cycle of the whole year (and with it the whole universe), symbol of the totality. This is why the vidûshaka who represents the embryonic state of the dîkshita can nevertheless be associated with saturnalia through names suggestive of the spring season (Vasantaka, Kaumudagandha, Kusuma, etc.; cf. Bhat, pp.81-82) or be depicted celebrating the spring-festival of Kâma in riotous fashion with the maids (in the Sanskrit play, Ratnâvali), or bear reminiscences of the solstitial Mahâvrata rite (Keith). Whereas the socially orthodox brahmins devoted to the religious law-books (dharma-shâstras), the recitation of the Vedic texts and the assimilation of the commentaries would have fulfilled the role of conservation that Dumézil attributes to Mitra, the classical poets (kavi) would have been the inheritors of the Gandharva tradition of creative freedom and projected its values into the vidûshaka who is depicted not only dancing and singing but claims to be an expert in the Gandharva-Veda (the vidûshaka Cârâyana; Bhat pp.182, 267, 270). The purohita, often identified with Mitra (Gonda, The Vedic God Mitra, pp.28-30) is by his privileged position beside the king as the pivot of the social order a crucial link between these two opposing yet complementary (Mitra-Varuna, pp.39, 84-85)  dimensions of brahmanical tradition presided over by Mitra and Varuna respectively. It is in the vidûshaka that the hidden Varunic dimension, carefully suppressed in the exoteric public image of the brahmán-purohita, would have been exaggerated to the point of eclipsing the Mitra aspect so much so that some have been able to see in him a comic ‘caricature’ of the learned purohita (Upadhye, 1945, pp.26-27′; Bhat, pp.85-86: “combination of two roles in one person”).

A further gain of this theory is that it easily explains the cooperation-cum-rivalry of the vidûshaka with respect to the hero (nâyaka; Varuna and Vidûshaka, pp.206-10, 222), whereas the Varuna-identity can account for the rivalry alone and not for the greater cooperation. The Varuna-vidûshaka of the Three Men’s Talk (trigata) of the ritual preliminaries to the theater (pûrva-ranga)  is wholly opposed to the Indra-assistant (pâripârshvika) whose propositions he disfigures and refutes and it is the stage-manager (sûtradhâra)  as Brahmâ who operates the synthesis of thesis and antithesis so as to tilt the balance in favor of Indra and the cosmic order (Varuna and Vidûshaka, pp.192-93, 209). In this respect, the vidûshaka of the play proper resembles the Brahmâ-sûtradhâra in that he primarily cooperates with and serves the legitimate life-aims (purushârthas) of the hero (nâyaka), for example, by aiding him against the villain in the Sanskrit play called ‘The Little Clay Cart’ (Mrcchakatikâ); this is why his occasional betrayals are so striking and have rendered him something of an enigma to modern scholarship. Much of the symbolism invested in the ‘consecration’ (dîkshâ), as revealed by Heesterman, points to the dîkshita standing in the relationship of enemy, or at least of rival, to himself as ‘sacrificer’ (yajamâna)  before, after and outside the duration of the dîkshâ: the dîkshita while girdling himself with the mekhalâ (= Varuna’s noose) should think of his enemy (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” note 36, p.12); the ‘gifts’ (dakshinâs), through which he sheds his impurity by distributing his old self, are occasionally prescribed to be given to an enemy and so too the antelope skin at the purificatory ‘ritual bath’ (avabhrtha)  that marks the end of the dîkshâ; the property of the Vrâtya ascetic (who occupies a role equivalent to the dîkshita’s) is also given to an enemy in certain texts (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” p.25 and note 71; cf. “Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer,” p.6). There are ritual formulas which sometimes correlate the opposition Mitra/Varuna to that of friend/enemy, self/other or similar pairs of the same order. The hidden rivalry of the vidûshaka with regard to the hero would be simply because the former represents the dîkshita aspect of the latter as ‘sacrificer’ (yajamâna). Hence, the clown Cârâyana’s ‘joke’ in the Sanskrit play Viddhashâlabhañjikâ II: “I’ll just shut up…after all, I’m a dîkshita!” (dîkshito’ham khalu maune tishthâmi).

This would also account for Cârâyana’s big (‘basket-like,’ Bhat, p.265, 54-55) ears for the latter is a womb-symbol (Ancient Indian Royal Cosmogony, p.19). The source of the vidûshaka’s ‘perversity’ is the same as that of his infantilism (Parikh, pp. v, 15-19, 40), and though these two aspects may be distinguished in him through separate sets of symbols and gestures, they sometimes converge to fuse inextricably as in the appellation ‘wicked brat’ (dushta-batuka). The infantile stage attained through the dîkshâ thereby reopens (at least theoretically) all those possibilities contrary to the alternatives that the sacrificer has effectively chosen and crystallized in his normal person, and to that extent the dîkshita  will necessarily appear as the enemy or rival of his normal self. But since the rejuvenating dîkshâ is undergone by the sacrificer for his own benefit, this rivalry is only an element of a larger cooperation. As these two poles have been split in the drama-sacrifice into the figures of the vidûshaka and the hero (nâyaka), the former is seen to serve no purpose whatsoever of his own but only selflessly furthers the legitimate life aims (purushârthas) of the hero and within this cooperation, presented as an inseparable friendship, is comprised an element of opposition that shows through as a perversity of will or bungling stupidity (or a curious combination of both). The infantilism of the vidûshaka merely states that he is the undifferentiated substratum from which is differentiated the organized but limited adult personality of the hero; his perversity however (compare the psychoanalytic characterization of the child as a ‘polymorphous pervert’) emphasizes

1) Through his rivalry, that he is simultaneously the substratum of the villain’s personality (hence their hidden affinities) or simply of the forces opposing the purpose of the hero, and

2) Through his transgressions, that he is opposed to any kind of order including that inherent in the hero’s design.

Yet, paradoxically enough, if the hero’s purpose is accomplished, this is only because he integrates within himself all that the vidûshaka represents, something which is expressed through his submission to the contrariness of the latter, his unswerving attachment to him. (A concise illustration of this paradoxical relationship is to be found in the patâkasthâna at the end of Act I of the Mrcchakatikâ which prefigures the betrayal twice-over of the jewels by the vidûshaka; cf. Bhat, pp.160, 235). It is through his Mitra-aspect that the Varuna-vidûshaka of the ritual preliminaries (pûrvaranga) would, in the play proper, have become the chief resource of the hero (compare on the mythical level, Renou, L’Inde Fondamentale, p.60; Kuiper, “The Avestan Hymn to Mithra,” pp. 46, 50, 53, 57-58).

This identification of the vidûshaka with the dîkshita aspect of the (nâyaka) hero-sacrificer (yajamâna) during his embryonic regression can be easily reconciled with his brahmán (purohita) identity proposed above, when we recognize that this splitting of roles has been already dramatized in the agonistic pre-classical sacrifice in the cooperative rivalry of the couple sacrificer/brahmán priest. Heesterman’s studies reveal that the brahmán-purohita not only assumed the scapegoat function (like the jumbaka) in taking over the impurity and evil of the dîkshita but was also, like the dîkshita, the rival of the sacrificer (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” pp.28-29; “Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer,” pp.4-5). It is the psychological (rather ‘psychoanalytic’?)  reality of the dîkshita being the rival other within the very self of the sacrificer that is translated in the sacrificial drama into the brahmán-rival. “The idea of the rebirth of the sacrificer out of himself is not in opposition to the idea of rebirth out of bráhman sacrifice. The equation of the sacrificer with the sacrifice is well established; Prajâpati, the first sacrificer, is at the same time the sacrificial victim while he is also interchangeable with brahman. Moreover the king (…) is proclaimed a brahmán as is also the common sacrificer in the dîkshâ. In the legend (of Shunahshepa) the two aspects of the ritual birth are expressed simultaneously. Thus we may view (…) the brahman as that part of the sacrificer’s own personality from which he is reborn ‘out of himself’. For the brahman as half the self, half the body of the sacrificer, cf. Aitareya Brâhmana 7.26.4…in the ritual the king sacrificer is born out of himself as brahman, on the other side the brahman is the womb of the king-sacrificer” (The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration, p.161 and note 25; cf. also ibid., pp.56, 78, 137, 160). There are frequent instances not only of the vidûshaka attributing his own actions to the king or the latter’s characteristics to himself (hence, a deliberate ‘confusion’ of the two roles) but also of his assimilation to the purohita. The theory behind this ‘confusion’ of roles is best expressed in the hero Avimâraka’s glowing tribute to his vidûshaka: “Comic in (sportive) assemblies, a warrior in battle…undaunted before foes; my heart’s great festival….but these word bubbles are enough! ‘Tis my body in two divided” (goshthîshu hâsyah samareshu yaudhah…dvidhâ vibhaktam khalu me sharîram); cf. Bhat, pp.206, 211; Parikh, pp.8-9: “second self” and p.9, note 1.

If in the place of the sacrificer, “the brahmán priest (or the purohita), who is ‘half the self’ of the sacrificer should consume the sacrificer’s part; thus the sacrificer eats his portion in a ‘hidden way’ (parokshena)” and “a like solution is given by the Aitareya Brâhmana to the problem of the king’s partaking of the Soma: the king drinks the Soma in a ‘hidden way'” (The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration, p. 192), this would be because access to the rejuvenating Soma is possible only through the embryonic regression of the dîkshita, represented in the ritual by the brahmán and in the drama by the vidûshaka. It is this Soma that, in the form of the rounded sweetmeat (modaka), is the choice item in the latter’s Agni-like omivorous (sarva-bhakshaka) appetite for, like the large-eared pot-bellied Ganesha (Mahodara, like the vidûshaka in the Sanskrit play ‘The Marvelous Mirror’ Adbhuta-Darpana), he too is a lover of modakas (modaka-priya). The central Vedic symbolism of the hidden Agni-Soma, whose mythico-ritual personification Bergaigne has recognized in such ambivalent figures as Vrshâkapi (the ‘Virile Monkey’ of the Rig-Veda)  and Kutsa closely associated with Indra (Rig-Veda II, pp. 272, 336, 338), has in this way been retained in this (‘great’) brahmin (mahâ-brâhmana)  of a vidûshaka.

Heesterman has argued that “the Soma sacrificer—and a fortiori the royal sacrificer—becomes identical with king Soma…the identification: N.N., king of the Bhâratas—Soma, king of the brahmins, though not made explicit, lies near at hand. The ultimate identification is surrounded by silence in the same way as the final word of the brahmodya [enigma-contest]. Far from being a document of the brahmin’s supposed independence from or even superiority over the king, it implies the glorification of the royal sacrificer and…(later on)…the four chief priests proclaim the king seated on his throne as the brahmán par excellence” (The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration, pp.77-78). Although Louis Dumont and others have argued, against Heesterman, for the early secularization of the kingly function in India, the ‘confused’ king/vidûshaka relation suggests that, despite the apparent secularization, the pre-classical magico-religious conceptions surrounding kingship have been retained in the vidûshaka-purohita. It is by participating, through the mediation of the purohita, in the paradoxical dialectic of the pure and the impure (of transgression) that the king (who could come from any caste; Marglin 1981, p.178 citing Kane), would have had access to the brahmin-hood par excellence. It would seem that it is only in so far as he is identical with the purohitathat he is Soma, king of the brahmins. It is in this sense that we would interpret the clown Mânavaka’s assimilation, in the Sanskrit play ‘Winning the heavenly nymph Urvashî through Prowess,’ of the Moon (Soma), the king of the twice-born, to a modaka (sweetmeat: khanda-modaka-sashrîka udito râjâ dvijâtînâm), and to the king’s grandsire before communicating (in his capacity as a brahmin) the latter’s message to the king (brâhmana-sankrâmitâksharena te pitâmahena abhyanujñâtah –Vikramorvashîyam III 6.2). At this, the king jokingly remarks that “everything is food for the glutton” (sarvatraudarikasya abhyavahâryam eva vishayah; it may be pointed out that the Khândava-forest in the Mahâbhârata is likewise the equivalent of the modaka-Soma, see above).

Finally, the approach being outlined here which focuses on the coherence of the symbolic universe mediated by the (nâyaka) hero/clown (vidûshaka)  couple (as embodyng a structural relation; cf. Kuiper, Varuna and Vidûshaka, pp.209-10), rather than on the genetic one-to-one identity of the vidûshaka alone, opens the way to other symbolic assimilations excluded by Kuiper’s Varuna equation. Heesterman has elaborately demonstrated that “the brahmacârin [‘brahmin student’] corresponds to the dîkshita; not only are their observances and dress similar, but the connection between brahmacârin and vrâtya and between vrâtya and dîkshita suggests that they are originally variants of the same basic type (…In my opinion both vrâtya and brahmacârin belong to the pre-classical stage in development, where the meaning of brahmacârin was certainly not yet limited to that of a young man learning the Vedas…)” (“Brahmin: Ritual and Renouncer,” pp.24-25, and note 45). Moreover, though the Vrâtyas appear no so much as prototypes of the yogin (Hauer) or of the Saivite ascetic (Charpentier), but rather as the genuine predecessors of the shrauta sacrificer and dîkshita” (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” p.34), Heesterman leaves open the possibility of connecting lines between this vrâtya- brahmacârin-dîkshita complex and the “shamanizing techniques” (p.36 note 103) of these later movements like the Pâshupatas. The implication is that the shrauta ritual itself is the formal translation of certain shamanistic type experiences and serves in turn to facilitate the same experience at least virtually in those who interiorize these ritual structures and mechanisms by active participation in the sacrificial drama (cf. infra, Eliade cited in chapter X note 4). If this total system has somehow been retained, even if only at the cost of radical transformations and reworkings, in classical Hinduism, it is not difficult to conceive how the vidûshaka, even while representing the dîkshita aspect of (nâyaka) hero-sacrificer (yajamâna), could still retain features of the brahmacârin of the Mahâvrata rite (Keith, The Sanskrit Drama, pp.24, 39, 51, 73; Parikh, pp. iv, v, 15-19, 34-40), whom Heesterman relates to the “brahma-bandhu—representing the classical brahmán priest” (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” p.33), juxtaposed to features of later ascetics like the Pâshupatas and later divinities like the elephant-trunked Ganesha.

Heesterman has especially shown how the impure pole of the pre-classical sacrifice and of the pre-classical dîkshita and brahmán-priest has been systematically eliminated from the classical sacrifice (“Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer,” pp.1-4, 16; “Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” pp.18-29) leaving the pure pole alone as its center, so much so that “the ritual universe and its bráhman guardians came to be viewed as pure as against the impure profane world” (“Vrâtya and Sacrifice,” p.19). But a careful comparison of the symbolic universe vehicled by the vidûshaka with that of the pre-classical sacrifice seems to reveal an intentional conservation by the classical poets (kavis), in the very midst of the purified classical milieu, of the ideology underlying the pre-classical dualistic sacrifice, though its expression has been understandably mitigated and adapted to conform to the changed ambiance and the aesthetic exigencies of the dramatic medium governed by its own laws. The profane impurity relegated to the lower levels of Hindu hierarchy (the shûdra is, as we know, excluded from the classical sacrifice)  and overflowing beyond the borders of Hindu society, has retained a certain ambiguity and ambivalence that makes it possible for it, given the necessary conditions, to assume the function of the sacred impurity involved in the act of transgression. It is this, it would seem, that has made it possible for the Varuna-vidûshaka, whose traces we find in the Nâtya Shâstra, to reappear in the classical plays under the hilarious aspect of a Vedic brahmin (as his name—cf. Bhat, pp.82-83—and other features testify) whose ‘profanations’ are justified by his being wholly outside the pale of the Vedas (a-vaidika). How exactly the pre-classical impure pole has been retained side-by-side with, yet scrupulously apart from, the purified classical sacrifice would require further elaborate research, but it would seem that it should be sought for in the poetic fraternities assembled around the king and especially the purohitas, to whom Goudriaan attributes a considerable role in the first formulations of the Tantric systems (Hindu Tantrism, pp.29-30). Mythical projections of the brahmán-purohita, Maitrâvarunis (progeny of Mitra-Varuna) like Vasishtha and Agastya, play an important part in the legendary prehistory of Tantrism as founders of extreme left-hand currents like the Mahâcînakrama with extra-Hindu (even extra-Indian) elements (ibid., p.14) and they were the repositories of the Atharvanic lore of the Atharva-Veda which “was often claimed as the Vedic source of the Tantric tradition and the earliest Tantric text ‘avant la lettre’ (Woodroffe; Renou, Destin du Veda, p.11)” (Hindu Tantrism, p.16). It would seem that it is through their Varunic dimension, so exaggerated in the ‘non-Vedic’ (avaidika) vidûshaka, that the purohitas had reworked the prolongations of the impure pole of the pre-classical sacrifice into the developing currents of ‘left-handed’ (vâmâcâra) Tantrism. Thus Râjashekhara, in his play Karpûra-Mañjarî, is also able to juxtapose in open collaboration the vidûshaka-purohita Kapiñjala (= the Soma-drinking head of Indra’s tricephalous purohita Vishvarûpa; the vidûshaka acts as officiating priest at the king’s wedding for which his fee is a hundred villages) and the Kaula adept Bhairavânanda who extols the transgressive practices of left-hand tantrism.

Our ultimate intention is to understand the total discourse of the vidûshaka as a coherent whole especially in relation to a body of esoteric psycho-physical practices involving a crucial transgressive dimension. Wherever his relations to various prototypes and parallel figures have been examined, this has been done primarily with the aim of better elucidating the profound sense that hides itself behind the apparent nonsense of his discourse and to determine in what way and to what extent these other figures too participate in this discourse. Given this background to the transgressive dimension of the vidûshaka, it is easy to understand Abhinava’s reticence, which makes him stop short at casually labeling a mere semblance (âbhâsa) the secondary elaborations of its hâsya-effects to better serve his aesthetic function in the drama, which alone dominates the consciousness of the exoteric gaze intent on enjoying an imaginary spectacle. In this thesis, we are merely interested in establishing the bisociative structure of hâsya and exploring how precisely it permits it to effectively vehicle a non-comic function in the vidûshaka and how, to some extent, even this hâsya function itself comes to signify something independent of it. Thus, wherever we make incursions into various aspects of the vidûshaka’s symbolic behavior, it is primarily with the view of determining how it has been adjusted and accommodated to better serve his hâsya-function and we postpone to a later work an elaborate exploration and justification of the various details of this symbolism, which will not only transport us completely outside what could properly be called the “psychology of humor” but also into domains only remotely connected to the Sanskrit drama understood as an autonomous domain goverened by purely aesthetico-literary, at most social, criteria.

In fact, one of our aims here is to question the validity of a purely “psychological” approach to the problem of humor and laughter drawing inspiration from primarily biological models based on analyses in terms of function/norm or at most fom social models based on analyses in terms of conflict/rule. Our intention is to shift the emphasis to a linguistic model that, though accommodating the above perspectives, is based primarily on analyses in terms of signification/system. It would be ridiculous to insist on explaining the Pâshupata’s comic behavior and his explosive laughter (like the attahâsa of his divinity Rudra) in psychological terms of reacting to incongruous laughte-stimuli or of an inherent comic personality; just as a sociological interpretation in terms of an expression of non-conformism will leave wholly unexplained the ritual behavior that accompanies these comic elements and why such non-conformism should be even more rigorously and explicitly prescribed than the conformist purushârtha-oriented conduct of the man-in-the-world. Our method is to show how the basic bisociative structure, rooted in the physiology and functioning as a safety-valve for superfluous energies in the organism, inevitably lends itself (by its very structure) to social exploitation of laughter as a censure-mechanism against the transgression of socio-religious norms. This situation is exploited in inverse by a religious current valorizing taboo-violation to the point that it prescribes a generalized comic behavior (even independently of specific modes of transgression) for its adherents. Likewise, since laughter as an uncontrolled “natural” waste of energies is frowned upon by cultural norms that recommend its repression, the taboo-violator who seeks to transcend the nature/culture opposition laughs freely and loudly (een when there is nothing to laugh at) because such sacred laughter has thereby come to signify his transgressive function (for attahâsa as a combinatory variant of the sacred syllable Omkâra, cf. S. Kramrisch, The Presence of Shiva, p.159; and for Omkâra itself as laughing hasamâna, cf. Kâsîkhanda 31.31, cited by Kuiper, Varuna and Vidûshaka, p.175, n.174; see infra chapter X, n.1), which is greeted by society with profane laughter (for the distinction between “profane” and “sacred” laughter, cf. Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le Cuit, pp.101, 105, 140). We see then that the dialectic of the profane and the sacred in laughter follows that of the pure and the impure in the general movement of sankoca and vikâsa. What needs to be noted here is that a signifying function (worked into a rigorous system of representations) derived from the psychology and sociology of laughter begins to react in turn upon this psychology and sociology not only interfering with their regular functioning but also considerably modifying the latter so that, under certain conditions, it is ultimately the signifying function that becomes primary and comes to determine and reorient these “infrastructures.” Thus, the reason for he Pâshupata’s clowning is to be sought for not in his individual “psychology” but rather it is his “psychology” itself that is being shaped by a clowning that has been adopted for the extra-cosmic significations invested in it. Likewise, it is not that society has through its laughter excommunicated the involuntary non-conformism of the Pâshupata; rather, it is the Pâshupata who has willfully adopted a comic behavior because it underlines the deliberate non-conformism necessarily involved in a systematically transgressive spirituality. Thus, it is not in the “sociology” of laughter that one should seek the causes of the Pâshupata movement but it is this surrounding “sociology” itself that is being inflected and modified by comic behavior and laughter adopted by the Pâshupata precisely to transcend the system of interiorized social norms that otherwise govern his psychology.

Though the validity of the above analysis is easily recognized for the Pâshupata, whom no one could claim to reduce to a mere clown, it is bound to meet with resistance and skepticism when applied to the vidûshaka whose presence on the stage we would be unable to tolerate if he were not to engross us with his humor (hâsya) function exploited for aesthetic effects. Yet till now the vidûshaka has valiantly resisted all attempts by modern scholars to reduce his role to that of a mere buffoon, companion of the hero. Prof. G.K. Bhat, who tries to explain everything in terms of “literary characterization,” “plot development,” and “comic effect” (Bhat pp. 235, 237-78, 106, etc.) or “social function” (ibid., pp. 42-43, 157-58) is nevertheless unable to account for the curious combination of wisdom and stupidity (Maitreya) exploited alternatively at will by the dramatists nor for the hero’s total submission to this bungling brahmin of confirmed unreliability and the privileged status beside the king nevertheless enjoyed by this mockery of the brahmin caste. Bhat suggests that the follies of the vidûshaka have been used “as deliberate devices for plot-development” (p.235), which is introduced as a deus ex machina to justify an essential contradiction which has been exploited for the purposes of, hence presupposed by, the plot-development. The over-familiarity with the traditional typology of the vidûshaka has led modern critics to concentrate on the derived secondary contradictions generated by the individual plays instead of squarely confronting the apparent contradictions already involved in the matrix of traditional prescriptions (explicit or implicit) out of which all the plays have been generated (compare Kuiper’s criticisms of Bhat, Varuna and Vidûshaka, p.207). Though unlike the French structuralists (cf. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, p.230) we do not wholly reject the notion of ‘character,’ we nevertheless subordinate it to the permanent structures, determined primarily by extra-psychological considerations, which define the parameters within which his character varies from play to play.

Here too, we propose, it is the signifying function of the vidûshaka’s comically symbolic behavior that is primary and it can best be established by reintegrating it into the total non-comic system of the symbolic universe in which both he, the dramas, their creators and their audiences likewise participate. Since this esoteric significance is defined by an essential transgressive dimension, the comic effects have been integrated into the social function of the drama by presenting him as a stupid, ridiculous scapegoat, the caricature of the brahmin caste or even the purohita (Upadhye). In this way on the sociological level, the conflict between the esoteric valorization of ritual transgression and the exoteric valorization of socio-religious norms is resolved by the rule of comic behavior, whereby our chastising laughter at the incorrigibly blundering non-Vedic fool is matched by the transgressive laughter of this brahmán protected by Omkâra, the quintessence of the Vedas. On the psychological level, the same comic effects are secondarily elaborated and justified by the primarily aesthetic function of being the prime focus of the enjoyment of humor (hâsya) and thereby the social non-conformism, psychic aberrations and meaningless interventions of the vidûshaka are erected into a dramatic norm. Yet the signifying function transpires through the irregularity, often stereotyped, of his comic interventions (over-insistence on food, brown monkey-like appearance, crooked stick, obscene abuse of the maids, contrary speech, etc.) on the aesthetic level, which leaves us with the inevitable impression of a certain poverty of wit and lack of creative imagination in the dramatists. It also transpires through the peculiar, otherwise inexplicable, valorization—equally prescribed—of his status (addressing the king as ‘friend’ vayasya, access to the harem, ‘joking-relationship’ with the king and queen, etc.) on the sociological level, which secretly suggests that the dramatists have sought to conserve in him an indispensable and positive cultural function other than that of a mere negative example (cf. Keith, The Sanskrit Drama, p.66; and Bhat, pp.14-15 for an attempted refutation, hardly valid after Kuiper’s recent contribution).

The vidûshaka has been inserted into the organization of the play in such a way that it is impossible for the exoteric gaze, despite all its rationalizations, to reduce his role to a purely aesthetic and sociological one. What is important finally is that under the guise of the aesthetic appeal and social chastisement of humor (hâsya), the signifying system—even if its coherence as a system remains as yet unrecognized—is implanted through repeated exposure in the hearts of the spectators, leaving open the possibility—by providing the very space of that possibility—that at some time, when all the necessary inner conditions are fulfilled, an esoteric gaze will sprout forth therein that will self-consciously recognize and appropriate this hidden signification. With this recognition, the humor (hâsya) of the vidûshaka reveals itself to be a mere semblance. Until then the exoteric gaze still participates—even if only unconsciously and despite itself—in the symbolic universe that the classical poet has consciously projected through the mediation of the vidûshaka.

This then is the general framework and project—no doubt to be corrected, modified and refined as we proceed—within which this evaluation of Abhinavagupta’s contribution to the psychology and aesthetics of humor and laughter must be replaced in order to be properly appreciated. Such an interpretative framework, postulating in the vidûshaka the deliberate intrusion of a central but esoteric transgressive dimension of Indian tradition into the purview of an exoteric public intent on entertaining themselves through the ‘profane’ spectacle of the Sanskrit drama, would easily account for the superposition of humor (hâsya) and its ‘semblance’ (hâsyâbhâsa) in a single figure. This implies a conception of play (drama) as mediating between the sacred and the profane, as a vehicle of ritual and metaphysical structures and motifs within a medium saturated with profane contents, that is sufficiently coherent at its own level of representation in terms of purely aesthetic and literary criteria. But no doubt, this questions the very basic presuppositions with which we approach not only the vidûshaka but the total discourse of brahmanical tradition.

In order to establish the possibility of the vidûshaka’s humor (hâsya) function simultaneously, and without contradiction, vehicling a profound non-comic one, it is not sufficient to demonstrate that Abhinava had an implicitly bisociative conception of hâsya that would have permitted it to serve both exigencies; it has to be further shown that this conception corresponds to reality and reflects the basic structure of humor and laughter as a universal phenomenon. It is hardly probable that the comic elements of the Pâshupata praxis or such non-comic exploitation of the vidûshaka’s humor (Bharata speaks only of hâsya and does not mention its ‘semblance’ hâsyâbhâsa), and almost impossible that the comic appeal of ritual clowning in ‘primitive’ societies were adopted on the basis of some explicit theory of laughter. Rather laughter has lent itself by its very nature and underlying structure to such exploitation and the tacit awareness of this structure is reflected in the observable concrete forms in which this exploitation has become culturally institutionalized. The theory of laughter (or humor) comes through subsequent reflection upon these established usages illuminated by personal introspection into one’s own experience of laughter and humor. At a later stage, the positivist and empirical methods of science have been introduced to further clarify the factors, variables and mechanisms involved. Yet much of this research into pre-scientific modes of classification of the emotions (and sensory impressions) and their organization into mythical, ritual, dramatic or musical systems (etc.) finally only contributes towards confirming—in a laboriously systematic, controlled and experimental way—what was already known intuitively by the ancients and revealed in the manner in which they organized these sensory and emotional data into a “logic of the concrete” in their objective representations and practices (cf. Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée Sauvage, chapters I-II; Le Cru et Le Cuit, pp.246-47).

Here, I have restricted my efforts to the following tasks:-

  1. To show that humor-and-laughter remains an unsolved problem of Western philosophy, psychology, aesthetics and sociology, and that the variety of conflicting approaches and theories should warn against scholars of Indian aesthetics and literature—especially students of thevidûshaka—from mechanically applying some ready-made Western conceptions to the problem ofhâsa/hâsya or to evaluating the comic exploitation of the vidûshaka in the Indian context (ch. I, III-IV). What is needed is to analyze Indian theory and practice in terms of each other and in the light of the discussions of the problems involved by native commentators like Abhinava (Jagannâtha, etc.), not hesitating to draw upon parallel Western notions wherever these are able to clarify the more obscure points of treatment of the comic in Indian tradition. In this way, whatever is specific to the latter and its tacit inner unity, however complex, will not be lost in the attempt to arrive at a universally valid definition of humor and laughter.
  2. To bring together in a single work not only all of Abhinava’s more significant remarks directly touching uponhâsaand hâsya (chs. IV, VII, IX) but also other relevant passages and some examples of his literary criticism (ch. VIII, X) that may contribute towards clarifying his insights thereon. Special care has been taken to show, by internal criticism and by replacing it within his total aesthetics of Rasa, the inner coherence of Abhinava’s pronouncements from different points of view on hâsa and hâsya.
  3. To show that coherence can be restored to Abhinava’s scattered insights on incongruity, superiority, role of pain, social-censure mechanism, identification, pan-emotionalism (ofhâsya),rasâbhâsa, hâsyâbhâsa, etc., only on the basis of an implicit bisociative theory, which can provide the framework for synthesizing whatever is of value in the sociological, psychoanalytic, behaviorist, etc., approaches to humor, and is moreover capable of accommodating recent ethnological data on the comic aspects of ritual clowning.
  4. Since Western theorizing on humor and laughter is far more explicit and offers a variety of systematically constructed models, each accounting for specific aspects of the phenomenon, we have found it much more convenient to arrive at Abhinava’s implicit bisociation-theory by starting off from a presentation of Gurdjieff’s model which is not only explicitly bisociative but finds this structure at every level (intellectual, emotional, motor-instinctive) from which laughter may spring (ch. II). We then proceed to refine this basic structure with the help of the conceptual tools (“operative fields”, “selective operators”, “bisociative junction” etc.) contributed by A. Koestler and show how it alone can simultaneously accommodate Bergson’s theory of laughter as a social censure-mechanism and Freud’s theory of jokes (and the laughter provoked) as vehicles of repressed tendencies and pre-logical modes of thought (two theories which are otherwise difficult to reconcile with each other)—ch. III. The remaining three chapters are devoted to showing how the results of experimental psychology bear out this theory of bisociation, which alone again accounts for the role of variable negative emotions in the genesis of laughter (ch. IV), for the differing roles of suddenness in laughter (Hobbes, etc.) and in surprise (ch. V), and for the validity of the incongruity principle, central to the Indian aesthetics of hâsya and to the comic function of the vidûshaka, despite the criticisms of Bergson, Freud and some contemporary behaviorists (ch. VI).
  5. To propose that from the point of view of aesthetics, Abhinava’s principal contribution to modern humor-theorizing would lie in his having provided the necessary theoretical framework for distinguishing betweenhâsaas worldly self-subsisting emotional bisociation provoked by common stimuli and its transformation into the transcendental relish of hâsya which is delicately sustained through aesthetic identification with others (âshraya)  presented as reacting emotionally incompatible ways to stimuli that are peculiar to them alone (ch. VII). Through a literary criticism of several verses overflowing with hâsya in terms of the psychology of the characters represented and the mode of participation of the connoisseur (sahrdaya), it is argued that this theoretical distinction merely reflects the techniques for evoking hâsya exploited by the poets in actual practice (ch. VIII). The analysis relies primarily on Abhinava’s own critical comments on the aesthetic techniques utilized in these verses and comes to the conclusion that the rasa-aesthetic privileges above all the “emotionalcenter” in its treatment of hâsya (also intended as a correction of Koestler’s version of bisociation which restricts it primarily to cognitive strategies resulting in the spilling of non-bisociated emotion).
  6. To propose that from a socio-religious standpoint, his originality would have consisted in advocating the exploitation ofhâsyaas a means of reinforcing the (proper pursuit of) the purushârthas through negative example, even while dropping some discreet suggestions that it could simultaneously serve the diametrically opposite function of permitting the exteriorization of an esoteric transgressive dimension within an exoteric milieu where it would otherwise be unacceptable ch. IX). The important difference from Bergson would be: i) the explicit role of partial identification with the butt, and ii) the possibly emotional nature of this partial identification, both of which Bergson was unable to reconcile with the chastising effect of ridiculing laughter. Also, wherever this social function and the enjoyment of laughter gains the upper hand, as in the farces (prahasana) of the vidûshaka, over the purely aesthetic dimension, the distinction between hâsa and hâsya loses its relevance. Though through its social function hâsya becomes ancillary to all the four primary purushârtha-oriented rasas, it nevertheless stands in a specially privileged symbiosis with (sambhoga‑)  srngâra and kâma on account of the cathartic pleasure it affords.
  7. To merelyoutlinean application of this bisociative theory to the vidûshaka’s hâsya (cf. esp. Conclusion) by showing how this fundamental structure, exploited differently in his aesthetic and social functions, lends itself to a signifying function that though derived from the psychology and sociology of hâsya, surpasses, modifies and reorients the latter functions in the service of a non-comic intention. This is demonstrated by showing that neither the norms governing the aesthetic function nor the rules regulating the situation of sociological conflict are explicable in terms of hâsya alone, which implies that hâsya here is simultaneously serving as the vehicle of a non-comic function and intent. This is supported by a consideration of some of the comic symbols invested in the vidûshaka so as to restore their hidden signification by replacing them in the total signifying system of the symbolic universe of Indian religious life where they recur in non-comic context. To an esoteric vision, that has assimilated and largely mastered the total system of these symbolic equivalences and correspondences by virtue of which the vidûshaka reveals his signifying function, his hâsya function, though not negated on the aesthetic and social level of the play, will reveal itself to be a mere semblance. It is in this way that Abhinava’s casual remarks on the vidûshaka displaying the “semblance of hâsya” are reconciled with the hâsya function that he nowhere denies. It also suggests that these hidden significations are centered around a fundamental transgressive dimension, supremely valorized from the esoteric as opposed to the exoteric standpoint, which is symbolized not only by the combined effect of specific comic symbols but also by his generalized comic behavior and explosive laughter. It is again the bisociative structure of hâsya that is at the root of its natural capacity to signify transgression. This approach is shown to be not only in harmopny with Abhinava’s personal values and understanding of the Indian esoteric tradition but it also perfectly accountys for the guarded rerticence that holds him back from commenting further on the true import of his observation on the vidûshaka’s hâsya being a mere semblance.
  8. To argue that the “ready wit” (pratibhâ, prescribed by theNâtya Shâstra) of thevidûshaka should not be sought for in the psychological subtleties or social satire hardly to be found in his largely incoherent and irrelevant remarks, but in the esoteric correspondences and allusions invested in the enigmatical utterances of this bearer of the brahman-enigma. This alone can explain not only his being protected by Omkâra and bearing the kutilaka but how the exoteric incoherence of his utterances have contributed towards transforming him into a fool. This is harmonized with his transgressive function by stressing the innate link between transgression and the solution of the enigma (per the Rigvedic formula: sato bandhum asati niravindan). The classical poets would have transposed the riddle-mechanisms of the Rigvedic style, tending to the brahman-enigma, onto the classical drama, esp. the incongruous speech of the vidûshaka, in a fragmented and discontinuous mode by exploiting especially its hâsya possibilities. Our critique of the incongruity-resolution theory of humor as applied to comic riddles (ch. VI) provides the principle underlying such transposition: the intricate network of bisociations, imbricating apparently incompatible domains and planes of reference so as to constitute the brahman-enigma, can only render the connections (bandhu) highly incongruous to the exoteric gaze thus provoking hâsya, which howver reveals itself to be a mere semblance to the esoteric gaze that restores the hidden coherence by resolving these incongruities on a plane other than the aesthetico-literary one. This hypothesis is justified through an elaborate analysis of the seemingly arbitrary definitions of the thirteen elements of the vîthî, which is thereby shown to have originally been a comic exposition of enigmas by a single person or a comic wit-combat between two contestants characterized chiefly by the use of riddles. Abhinava’s interpretation of these definitions suggests that, despite his obligation to inflect them so as tolegitimize their subsequent purely aesthetic exploitation which he also abundantly illustrates, he was certainly aware of their original function. The comic exploitation in Sanskrit of these vîthyangas by the vidûshaka during the cosmogonic verbal contest of the ritually determined pûrvaranga-trigata bridges the non-comic ritual exploitation of such mechanisms in the archaic brahmodyas and the late diversion of their use for purely literary effects in the plays proper. The above results will have to be tested by systematically applying them to our inventory of the vidûshaka’s irregular but stereotyped comic utterances and interventions in all the plays in order to determine to just what extent the original motivation behind the scheme of vîthyangas has been conserved in this esoteric personage. Indications of how this may be done have been given by us on the basis of a few examples, and the difficulties pointed out.
  9. To no more than suggest that certain esoteric psycho-physical techniques of Tantrism and the doctrines elaborated around them, especially in the Trika (hathapâka, etc.), may be useful in interpreting not only certain aspects of thevidûshaka’s symbolism but also parallel motifs recurring in epic, Purânic and Vedic mythology, ritual ideology of the brahmanical sacrifice, Hindu iconography (Ganesha, etc.) and spiritual praxis (Pâshupatas, etc.). The successful application of such later “keys” would in turn suggest that these techniques and the experiences induced by them musty have long pre-existed their late elaboration, in an altered milieu, by the Tantric currents proper and finding “philosophical” formulation in the Trika. Ultimately, it would only go towards showing Tantrism itself to be largely the reworking and conservation of fragments of a larger body of practices with a central transgressive dimesnsion, which in the Rigvedic period would have been far more rigorously integrated into the entire life of the society.

It would be useful to mention here itself the names of those whose work has greatly contributed to the intellectual framework underlying this thesis either by way of points of departure for my own enquiry or as subsequent confirmations of its results. To Prof. Madeleine Biardeau, I owe the approach to Hindu civilization and culture as a total system governed by a coherent if complex hierarchy of values (cf. chapter IX, note 24, infra)  derivable from the earlier brahmanical tradition—which still remains at the ideological center of Hinduism—as founded especially on the sacrifice, through a series of socio-religious transformations that can be reconstructed by modern scholarship. And to Louis Dumont, I owe the fundamental insight that Hindu social hierarchy is ultimately determined by the opposition pure/impure which places the orthodox brahmin at the top and the servile caste (shûdra) at the bottom: it is this hierarchy that the vidûshaka seems to simultaneously fulfill, transgress and transcend with the equation ‘great brahmin’ mahâbrâhmana = cândâla ‘outcaste’. To Laura Makarius, I owe abundant confirmations from the field of (non-Indian) ethnology of my thesis that the vidûshaka as ritual clown, is primarily the institutionalized brahmin violator of brahmanical taboos, and the recognition (over-exaggerated by her) of the magical dimension of such taboo.

To Prof. Jan C. Heesterman‘s remarkable work on the pre-classical brahmanical sacrifice, I owe the discovery that the vidûshaka’s impure, ‘profanatory’, ‘non-Vedic’ (avaidika) dimension is only the transformed prolongation of the sacred impure eliminated systematically from the classical reworking of the same sacrifice. Moreover, the recognition that the relationship between the hero (nâyaka) and the vidûshaka (clown) appears to be modeled on that between the sacrificer (yajamâna) and his own consecrated condition (dîkshita = yajamâna/brahmán or king/purohita) in the pre-classical, as opposed to the classical, sacrifice. It is this framework that permits the application of the theory and practice of ritual transgression in the late Trika tantrism of Abhinavagupta to the understanding of the vidûshaka’s role in the classical dramas whose underlying structures have been determined by Vedic mythology and ritualism. To Georges Dumézil, I owe confirmation that the opposition in Hinduism between the exoteric socio-religious hierarchy founded on the supremacy of the pure and the esoteric transgressive dimension of Tantrism founded on the supreme valorization of the impure has its roots in the Vedic socio-mythico-ritual opposition between Mitra presiding over the sacerdotal order conserved by the orthodox brahmins and Varuna presiding over the equally sacred creative disorder of the initiatic societies of the Gandharvas. To Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, I owe the recognition that both these opposing poles of Mitra and Varuna are synthesized in the figure of Brahmâ, the mythical projection of the purohitas and brahmán-priests par excellence like the Maitrâvâruni-Vasishthas. It is this equation that has permitted me to come to the conclusion that the vidûshaka of the play proper, unlike the vidûshaka of the ritual preliminaries (pûrva-ranga)  to the play proper, is not merely Varuna but Brahmâ with an exaggerated Varunic aspect; which accounts for the ‘confusion’ of the Brahmâ and Varuna symbolism in the vidûshaka.

To Roger Caillois, I owe the recognition that this antithesis of Mitra and Varuna (or Brahmâ and Bhairava in the Tantric era) has its counterpart in other archaic and ‘primitive’ societies in the opposition or alternation between the pure sacrality of order and interdiction and the impure sacrality of chaos and transgression, the latter expressing itself especially in the end-of-the-year saturnalia. And to his colleague George Bataille, I owe the lucid exposition of the dialectic of transgression whereby the access to the sacred impure (Varuna) is mediated by the sacred pure (Mitra) which alone is the explicit model of profane society. His analysis of how the elimination of the sacred impure from the formal limits of the sacred (as happened in the transition from the pre-classical to the classical from of the brahmanical sacrifice per Heesterman) results in transgression acquiring the ambiguous/ambivalent status of being both profanation and the means of access to the (original) impure sacred, provides the solution as to how the vidûshaka could simultaneously be a ‘non-Vedic’ (avaidika) profaner to the exoteric vision and the incarnation pas excellence of the sacred to the esoteric gaze.

To Prof. F.B.J. Kuiper, I owe the recognition that in India (and probably elsewhere too), this transgressive dimension is an integral and essential component of a larger complex of ideas and practices centered on the controlled embryonic regression to the womb for regaining the hidden Agni and Soma, and that the late Tantric practices and the earliest Vedic mythology must be read together as forming a single coherent system rooted in esoteric psycho-physical techniques for the rejuvenation of life and the expansion of Consciousness. With Mircea Eliade, I share the conviction that the entire system of the symbolic universe incorporated into the religious life of the Indians is ultimately only the conscious projection into every domain of activity—with an almost uncontrolled profusion of secondary elaborations weaving these domains together—of the lived ‘shamanistic-type’ experience of certain privileged beings. With Kuiper, I believe that this experience often involved a conscious regression to, or anamnesis of, a prenatal embryonic condition but also believe, for my part, that this was relived as a mode of transgression (which would account for the prominence of the incest-symbolism in the ‘consecration’—or ‘initiation’ dîkshâ—, Brahmâ’s fifth head, vidûshaka, etc.). Conversely, the assimilation and total ‘interiorization’ of this symbolic universe greatly facilitates the reproduction of the same basic experience in others who otherwise participate only indirectly and unconsciously in it.

To Louis Renou, I owe the confirmation that the system of esoteric correspondences and the complex variety of riddle-mechanisms that have served to exteriorize this lived supra-rational (even ‘superconscious’) inner experience into the sacred Vedic hymnology and the cosmo-ritual verbal contests of the brahmodyas, have also served as models for the classical exploitation of ambiguity (and ambivalence) with a pronounced esoteric incidence in the later poetical language. The difference would be that whereas the Rigvedic (poet-) priest wove together inextricably the sacred and the profane by transforming the objets and activities drawn from the diverse domains of profane life into signifiers of a religious experience expressed in an overtly enigmatic sacerdotal literature, the classical poet (kavi) would have done the same by reintroducing hidden sacrificial notations into the profane contents, motifs and themes of the classical vidûshaka-dramas enacted as a transparent aesthetic spectacle for a likewise profane audience. To Renou and Liliane Silburn, I also owe the recognition of the crucial role of the bráhman as the depositary of this symbolic universe.

Huizinga had identified play and the sacred on the basis of their formal similarities, going so far as to derive the sacred itself from play. Caillois, criticizing him, has stressed the doubly profane character of play when viewed in terms of its contents, intention and the attitudes of the participants involved. In the ‘Veda of Dramatic Representation’ (nâtya-veda) as the ‘plaything’ (krîdanîyakam) of all the levels of Hindu society, the comic vidûshaka would have been the privileged locus for the exteriorization of the structures and hidden significations of the sacred before a profane audience intent on enjoying an aesthetic spectacle far removed from the mundane concerns of life.

[This concludes the Introduction to Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humor]