Humour in the Upanishads

Religious and philosophical works tend to be relatively free of humour. This is a pity, for many a solemn tract on the meaning of life could be improved out of all recognition by a few carefully-timed knock-knock jokes. Observe:

“Knock, knock”
“Who’s there?”
“You who?”

No? Didn’t work for you? Perhaps Uddalaka should have hit Svetaketu with a stick? Or mooed? Crude, I know, but it’s the very essence of Tao and Zen parable, and they do get a lot of laughs.

I recently went through Max Müller’s two-volume translation of the principal Upanishads, and found that it ran true to form. Several brilliant passages, which were more than outnumbered by long dreary marches through featureless wilderness, like the Aitareya Aranyaka. However, I did encounter two pieces of humour so unexpected that they made me laugh out loud. I will reproduce them here as a public service.

The first is a delicious piece of satire in the Chandogya Upanishad, called the Udgitha of the Dogs.

1-12:1. Now follows the udgitha of the dogs. Vaka Dalbhya, or, as he was also called, Glava Maitreya, went out to repeat the Veda (in a quiet place).
1-12:2. A white (dog) appeared before him, and other dogs gathering round him, said to him: “Sir, sing and get us food, we are hungry.”
1-12:3. The white dog said to them: “Come to me to-morrow morning.” Vaka Dalbhya, or, as he was also called, Glava Maitreya, watched.
1-12:4. The dogs came on, holding together, each dog keeping the tail of the preceding dog in his mouth, as the priests do when they are going to sing praises with the Vahishpavamana hymn. After they had settled down, they began to say Hin.
1-12:5. “Om, let us eat! Om, let us drink! Om, may the divine Varuna, Pragapati, Savitri bring us food! Lord of food, bring hither food, bring it, Om!”

There is, of course, the question of whether the translator has been kind to us and given us a joke where none existed. Indeed, other translations tend to smooth out the really funny bit (each dog keeping the tail of the preceding dog in his mouth).

Now Max is a great guy – I took an instant liking to him on reading the preface of the first volume – but he’s the very archetype of the relentless and scrupulously correct German scholar. Neither his best friend nor his severest critic would accuse him of levity. So one can be reasonably sure that any funny bits which filter through his very technical translation were intended in the original.

The second is perpetrated by Yagnavalkya, whose dialogues with other Vedic worthies form much of the Brihadaranyaka.

3-1:1. Ganaka Vaideha (the king of the Videhas) sacrificed with a sacrifice at which many presents were offered to the priests of (the Asvamedha). Brahmanas of the Kurus and the Pankalas had come thither, and Ganaka Vaideha wished to know, which of those Brahmanas was the best read. So he enclosed a thousand cows, and ten padas (of gold) were fastened to each pair of horns.
3-1:2. And Ganaka spoke to them: “Ye venerable Brahmanas, he who among you is the wisest, let him drive away these cows.”
Then those Brahmanas durst not, but Yagnavalkya said to his pupil: “Drive them away, my dear.” He replied: “O glory of the Saman,” and drove them away.
The Brahmanas became angry and said: “How could he call himself the wisest among us?”
Now there was Asvala, the Hotri priest of Ganaka Vaideha. He asked him: “Are you indeed the wisest among us, O Yagnavalkya?” He replied: “I bow before the wisest (the best knower of Brahman), but I wish indeed to have these cows.”


Yagnavalkya, ladies and gentlemen – peerless in the knowledge of Brahman, and owner of a thousand cows!


4 responses to “Humour in the Upanishads

  1. The knock-knock joke was very good, and the Yagnavalkya joke was simply awesome!

    I didn’t quite get the benzene-ring-of-dogs joke, though – but I’m willing to bet money that someone reads this and immediately comes up with “Kekule was inspired by the Upanishads” (if it hasn’t already been said).

    P.S: How do you get the Umlauts and the Accents? I’ve been trying, but I’m not particularly good at remembering unicode sequences.

  2. K – I have gone the Way of the Mac, so putting accents is a straightforward job. alt-u u gives ü.

    The dog one was simple satire, I think. Human nature doesn’t change a whole lot, and I bet quite a few of the priests of those days were no better than the samples of our time. There is a gang of priests who occasionally infest the ancestral household, going through the motions without a trace of seriousness, grinning and exchanging silent jokes and backslaps while the svahas are in full blast. After which they sit down to a sumptuous lunch, patronize the patron and go their merry way. The description in the udgitha fits them to a T.

  3. This is hilarious. I’ve had the Radhakrishnan translation sitting on my shelf but have never had the time to dive in. You seem to be diving very deeply into this stuff, plus other ancient myth stuff (cf: your comment on Paula’s guest post on ribbonfarm).

    The problem of classifying the Upanishads (among many others on my shelves) as “retirement reading” is the Black Swan probability that I’ll discover something in these heavy-duty old classics at age 70 that makes me go, “holy crap, my life has been a total waste.”

    Let me know if you discover any such life-retrospective-altering philosophical booby-traps in your obscure readings.

    • Venkat – I’m not really diving deep. Like you, my strategy is to dive deeper than the average person, but not to the bottom.

      “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” – Kurt Vonnegut

      Life is short, and there is so much out there, that the only course for a prudent chap is to first do a broad, shallow trawl to see if there is anything which will repay a deep dive.

      So far, I’ve found ancient philosophy to be interesting, but not illuminating. With regard to metaphysics and the nature of the universe, you have to admire the questions they ask and the answers they put forward, but – alas for scientific progress! – though imaginative, not very useful today. Where they are true, they are often misleading or completely useless.

      I don’t mean to be patronizing: an intellectual dwarf – like me – standing on the shoulders of modern science is going to see further than the tallest ancient standing on the ground.

      There is more in common between Upanishadic thought and Greek philosophy than I thought. The essentialism of Plato has its counterpart in the essentialism of the soul and Brahman. In Phaedo, Socrates delivers a piece on the immortality of the soul and its reincarnation according to your good and bad deeds and freedom from this cycle attained by the soul of the true philosopher, which would feel quite at home in an Upanishad or Buddhist tract.

      With regard to politics and human nature, however – human nature in individual and aggregate hasn’t changed much, and a couple of thousand years of civilization were enough to run through the gamut of possible org models. The Greeks of the Socrates-Plato timeframe had direct experience of most of the forms of government, and lived next door to big-empire (Persia) and god-king theocracy (Egypt). So their theories of forms of government, their strengths and weaknesses and their evolution are pretty nuanced and worthy of study.

      That’s why I think Plato’s Republic and the Arthashastra will have more “useful” stuff to sink your teeth in.

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