Maria Christopher Byrski

Examiner's Report on "Abhinavagupta's Conception of Humor"

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From: Prof. Maria Christopher Byrski

Subject:       Thesis Report: Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humour

Date:            14 September 1984

Opinion:       Recommended

The ancient Indian civilization is surprisingly homogeneous. Its structure on and on reveals deep logic and compactness, where each and every aspect fits well into the general framework. There can be no doubt in this context that the pivot which supports this magnificent edifice is the Veda or more strictly speaking the Vedic sacrifice. It is therefore perfectly understandable that the attitude of referring everything to the Veda, which until recently had been considered solely a touchstone of the Hindu religious orthodoxy, now becomes also a guiding principle of modern scientific research in Indology. The remarkable thesis under review is yet another attempt to see from this angle a problem [that] so far has been avoided by the Indologists, either because it was considered insignificant or too elusive. Yet while the second adjective might still be considered valid, the first one will have to be once and for all abandoned, thanks to the profound research undertaken and conducted to a very successful close by Mr. Suntharalingam, and since the subject of humor dealt with [by] the young scholar is indeed most elusive, the credit that goes to him will have to be proportional to the degree of difficulty that he had to face. The thesis at hand is an admirable attempt to collect all that Abhinavagupta said on the subject and to interpret it in terms of its relation to the general sacrificial context. The Author achieves this purpose most evidently while analyzing the figure of the vidūṣaka and also while investigating the vīthyaṅgas. Thus his remark made already at the very beginning of his study (see p.1) that “perhaps in the enigmatic folly of the laughing vidūṣaka was hidden the founding discourse of the very culture that laughs at him” is amply justified by all that is being said subsequently.

The very Introduction maps clearly the problem that the Author intends to tackle and convincingly shows the depth of what otherwise could have seemed to be a rather limited problem without far reaching consequences. What strikes one while reading these pages is that the Author seems to take the sacrificial context of classical Indian theater in particular for granted, what I for one wholeheartedly endorse, but maybe a handful of main arguments could have been restated in order to convince the doubtful. In Chapter I the author comes to grasp with the general definition of humor and manages to offer what appears to be an altogether expert and most viable appreciation and criticism of all hitherto important theories of humor. The postulated separation of humor and laughter is to my mind most convincing and the remark that humor “the most trivial emotion is in fact the most deceptively complex of all” acquires great weight and opens many new vistas for further research. Now in Chapter II, Gurdjieff’s bisociative theory of laughter is presented in a very clear fashion and the integral attunement of this theory to the general context of Indian thinking is not only well pinpointed but also made specially apparent by referring to the excellent work of M. Biardeau.

The following Chapter III was meant to clarify the theory of bisociation, since it tries to show how laughter and bisociation go together. Indeed, we find in this part of Mr. Suntharalingam’s study remarks, mainly drawn from A. Koestler’s works, which substantially broaden our understanding of the problem. Some of them open interesting possibilities of looking for purely Indian categories of apprehending this aspect. For instance, “…‘the sudden dissociation of intellectual and emotional state, the rupture between knowing and feeling, is a fundamental characteristic of the comic’ (Insight and Outlook, p.65)” (p.89). Could we say that the comic is generated by a sudden dissociation between the dharma-sphere (intellectual, knowing?) and the kâma-sphere (emotional, feeling)? Consequently a question could be asked whether it is necessary to look for suitable notions to analyse humour outside the pale of traditional Indian set of references. We shall return to this problem in our concluding remarks again. Meanwhile we would like to say that although initially the further discussion of Gurdjieff’s theory is presented very clearly—as before, further on the argument specially concerning Freud’s theories loses its sharp contours and clarity amidst a mass of somewhat too prolific information. “Laughter and distress” is the title of Chapter IV, which gives some very convincing instances of the viability of the bisociation theory. It may be specially stressed that the interpretation of Abhinavagupta’s text in the light of this theory makes real sense. Thus the thesis that pain, distress and sorrow are component parts of hāsa may be considered established and the particular correlation with the counterparts well accounted for by the theory of bisociation.

The problem of suddenness inherent in humor in general and in jokes in particular constitutes the content of Chapter V. The following words taken from it very pointedly sum up, exactly in the light of the bisociative theory, the main purport of this chapter: “in other words, it is not the unexpectedness of the total joke-content when heard for the first time that is responsible for the surprise, but the sudden juxtaposition of two associative contexts that are habitually never brought into relation with each other in this particular manner” (p.165). Although on the whole there is a feeling that it fits well the Indian context, yet certain doubt persists as to the precise way it should be related to what could be termed a particular set of Indian references. It seems again that the starting point of our Author’s investigation, i.e., Gurdjieff’s theory which after all [lies] outside the Indian sphere of culture, may be to a certain extent blamed for the difficulty to make the Indian relevance of the discussed ideas more explicit. This remark concerns also Chapter VI on “Bisociation and Incongruity.” Although the Author right from the start introduces the Sanskrit term, i.e., vikṛti, yet later on the main discussion is couched in what may be termed Western idiom and, we presume, therefore, the releveance of this very detailed discussion to Abhinavagupta’s theory of humor does not strike us as fully apparent. The more so that at places (i.e., when discussing the riddle of the cookie and the wafer) it tends to leave an impression of slight incongruity with the main import of the thesis.

The next Chapter VII does not make for easy reading. Yet, it is finally quite clear that the Author managed to clarify the nature of hāsa as the sthāyin and hāsya as the rasa. This [?illegible?] theory. The problem certainly deserved that much toil, especially when seen from outside the precincts of the classical Indian culture, looking wherefrom certain doubt as to the right of hāsya to claim the status of a full-fledged rasa could be entertained. The multifaceted enquiry of this chapter should remove finally all doubts in that respect contributing also many detailed, interesting observations among which the most striking seems to be the one concerning the differing nature of various rasas. Now, it appears obvious that they are not generated in an identical way although such a suspicion could arise. Technically speaking, all of them have been described, right from the Nāṭya-Śāstra down to the Sāhityadarpana, in almost identical terms. Since the Author apart from hāsya speaks only about śṛṅgāra and karuṇa, there certainly the need to tackle the remaining ones is felt. This may be done in a separate study for the present one is already a bit too extensive. Chapter VIII that follows brings in a rather unexpected topic of the role of hāsya in śṛṅgāra. The Author fully substantiates the need to consider separately this peculiar relationship between love and humor. He shows in the course of a very detailed study the exact way these two are intertwined and what is the import of their union for the sahṛdaya. All the while the theory of bisociation stands him in good stead, explicating convincingly the functioning of humor also in the context of love-in-union (sambhoga-śṛṅgāra). This chapter also very forcefully argues for the perfect utility and psychological validity of the traditional Indian aesthetical notions and terminology. Indeed it seems at times that Western thinking on the subject to certain extent can be considered deficient without the notions of vibhāva, anubhāva, vyabhicāri-bhāva, et. al. The argument in this chapter is very well substantiated by the methodical analysis of chosen examples from the Sanskrit kāvya and mainly from Amaru.

Chapter IX is one of the richest in content and implications. It touches upon many problems in a manner that provokes enthusiastic comments. The Author is at his best when he discusses the vidûṣaṇa of the vidūṣaka. The argument is clear and direct. Among others it is a very important contribution to our understanding of Omkāra’s role as the patron deity of the vidūṣaka. One only wonders when for the first time Omkāra appears in Indian mythology. The answer to this question could contribute towards finding the date of the mythological account found in the Nāṭyaśāstra. Now the main problem tackled in this chapter, i.e., the rasābhāsa-hāsya is clear. But after careful and repeated reading of the relevant passages (especially p.322 and 323) there remains a doubt as to what exactly the Author wants his reader to understand under the term hāsyābhāsa. Is it a process which begins with somebody’s laughter and only then something that initially did not appear as a vibhāva of hāsya is perceived as such? Chapter X also abounds in very interesting and often altogether novel observations. A very convincing integration of the hāsya aspect of the vidūṣaka with his ritualistic role as visualized, among others, by Kuiper belongs to this category of problems. The masterly analysis of the vīthyaṅgas showing—in the words of the Author himself—“how an elitist vīthī draws inspiration from a traditional ritual milieu (connected with the verbal contests of the sabhā?)"—also belongs here, as well as connecting wit and humor of the Sanskrit drama with the bráhman-enigma of the Vedas. This should also be considered a very weighty contribution of Mr. Suntharalingam to our knowledge of the roots and nature of classical Indian theater. On the whole the Author rightly sees the problem as a kind of “transformation of sacrificial ritual into profane drama” (p.424), which to my mind is the most proper perspective. The concluding remarks of this chapter show very clearly how important it is to look for the Vedic undercurrents in the entire classical art in order to discover its deeper meaning and multidimensional implications.

The Conclusion of the entire study that follows pinpoints again remarkably well all the most important contributions made in the present thesis. At times it even manages to give sharper contours to some such arguments which tend to lose their sharpness amidst the detailed discussion in the main body of the thesis. The problem of hāsyābhāsa may be pointed out here which now has been very clearly restated in the last sentence of the first paragraph on page 438. Appreciating the figure of the vidūṣaka with reference to the esoteric sphere as contrasted with the exoteric one (pp.436-37) also belongs to the same type of sharply redefined arguments. Besides the Author formulates here very striking thoughts as for instance that the transgressive praxis recognized by Abhinavagupta qualifies him to recognize the transgressive function of the vidūṣaka (pp.438-39) or that the vidūṣaka reinforces by his laughable negative example the hierarchical order of the puruṣārthas (p.444) as well as the observation that the vidūṣaka is a mediator between the sacred of interdiction and the sacrality of transgression (ibid.). The bibliography that follows the conclusion may be unhesitatingly called stupendous. It certifies to the fact that the Author did not spare himself in trying to reach all relevant sources both in the Indological field and outside in the field of Western psychology and theory of humor.  It should be regretted that the entries are not numbered. The supplement that follows the bibliography contains very fascinating material certainly deserving publication. But at the same time it creates what is sometimes called “the information noise” that contributes somewhat adversely to the clarity of the main argumentation.

From the technical point of view the thesis on the whole has to be judged positively. Checking at random the translations from Sanskrit I have not found any serious shortcoming. Further, so far as a non-English-speaker may say, the language of the thesis is correct and readable. Some minor defects have been marked on the margins. The layout of the essay strikes me as very thoughtful, logical and coherent. Yet there is one aspect of it that provokes a difference of opinion. The thesis is at times overburdened with argumentation and information not always directly useful towards the understanding of the main points. The footnotes here and there grow unnecessarily into independent essays. The supplement crowns this tendency. We think that the Author should emulate here the Indian sūtra style or/and lecture on the subject which will certainly have a salutary effect in this regard. All this does not mean that the thesis should be changed before publication. All the material that it contains should appear in print and the present thesis is not meant to be a handbook for students, so it may be published as it is.

To conclude: after careful reading of the thesis of Mr. Suntharalingam, I am sure that his work complies with all the conditions laid down for such a study to merit the award of the Ph.D. degree. It is certainly an example of novel approach towards the interpretation of the way the problem of humor had been so far treated in the classical Indian thought. The work betrays a very wide reading of the Author not only within the broad precincts of Indology but also outside them in the world literature dealing with the problem of humor from different angles of psychology and philosophy. It is therefore certain that Mr. Suntharalingam thus gave a new turn to the research not only in the narrower sphere of Indian aesthetics but in general to the way that we have understood so far the basic trends that have contributed towards the making of classical Indian culture.

Warszawa, the 3rd of May 1984

doc. dr. hab. M. Christopher Byrski

Oriental Institute

University of Warsaw

Warszawa, Poland.


P.S. While typing my report I omitted one important point announced earlier in the report.

My enthusiastic opinion of Mr. Suntharalingam’s thesis does not mean that I see eye to eye with him all the problems tackled. Here I would like to challenge one important aspect of his approach, not because I consider it to be invalid but because it impresses me as construed upon, so to speak, external premises. This is so because the general tendency of the Author’s argument seems to be to confirm in terms of modern Western psychology all what Indian aestheticians and in particular Abhinavagupta propounded. Commendable as the attempt is, it does not make the inner coherence of the Indian cultural system without calling for the help of external props (i.e., Gurdjieff’s theory, for instance) its sole starting point. The corresponding theories from outside the indigenous system should be referred to only after the case is independently established within it. As it has been already said, the method adopted by the author is valid and it is here challenged because of different, we would say, “Weltanschauung.”