Category Archives: Philosophy

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!