On “Much Ado About Scripture”Csaba Dezső

When I came to Oxford in 1998 to do a PhD I had very vague ideas about the subject of my future thesis. The only thing I knew was that this subject should be connected somehow with both religion and humour. I knew from my readings in Classics that although argumentation, reasoning, and the logical refutation of philosophical theses were very important components of the polemic discourse among various religious schools, sometimes the rhetorical weapons of satire and invective were also put into action.

So I spent my first year in Oxford with the pleasant task of reading various pieces of Sanskrit satirical literature, from comedies to short poems. As an illustration let me quote here an anonymous quatrain which is a kind of distillate of the stereotypical insinuations ('heavy drinking, overeating, casual sex with ill-reputed women') directed against Buddhist monks in classical Indian literature. This stanza appears to have been relatively popular among medieval authors. A Kashmirian text in which we find this verse denouncing a certain monk is the comical section of Vállabha·deva's Subhāṣitāvali (No. 2402):

Bhikṣo, kanthā ślathā te. nanu śapharavadhe jālik” âiṣ”. âtsi matsyāṃs?
te ’mī madyāvadaṃśāḥ. pibasi madhu? samaṃ veśyayā! yāsi veśyām?
dattvārīṇāṃ gale ’ṅghriṃ. kimu tava ripavo? bhittibhett” âsmi yeṣāṃ.
cauras tvaṃ? dyūtahetoḥ! katham, asi kitavo? yena dāsīsuto ’smi.

'Monk, your rags are loose!' 'Surely, as it serves as a net for killing carp.' 'You eat fish?' 'It is a side-dish to go along with wine.' 'You drink wine?' 'When together with whores.' 'You go to whores?' 'After putting my foot on the throat of my enemies.' 'You have foes?' 'Those in whose wall I've made a breach.' 'You are a burglar?' 'Because of gambling.' 'What? You are a gamester?' 'Since I am the son of a servant-maid!'

The hero of the poem declares, somewhat proudly, or at least as if speaking about the most natural way of life, that he has actually broken all the fundamental moral precepts that are compulsory even for lay disciples, not to speak of monks. And the way this 'confession' blossoms out is also very Buddhistic: the necessary concatenation of ‘meat—wine—sex—poker—villainy’ forms a mock-causal sequence parodying one of the pillars of Buddhist philosophy: the theory of dependent origination. Just as we arrive at ignorance as the 'basic root' of all other factors, in the same way, after peeling off the outer layers to get to the kernel, our monk finally announces the fundamental cause of all his vices: 'I am the son of a slave'. The audience (naturally anti-Buddhist, and accepting the orthodox Brahmanical values) laughs at the monk: 'Of course he is a rogue, what else can you expect from a lowborn?' And what else could you expect from a religion that admits such lowborn rascals?

This leads to an important question: who is this monk? Put differently: who is the target of satire? Is he just an ordinary rascal, a pseudo-monk, who put on the red robe just as a disguise? Or is he rather a real bhikṣu, even a prototype of all Buddhist monks? 'If a satirist presents, say, a clergyman as a fool or hypocrite,' writes Northrop Frye, 'he is, qua satirist, attacking neither a man nor a church. The former has no literary or hypothetical point, and the latter carries him outside the range of satire. He is attacking an evil man protected by his church...' (Anatomy of Criticism, 1990: 228.) Still, precisely because the Buddhist saṅgha gives protection to such 'evil men', the religion itself is attacked as well. Moreover, the stanza also insinuates that having addressed any loose-robed member of the saṅgha we may well realise after a few sentences that he is just the same type of rogue. The strategy is not too complicated: take a characteristic figure of the religion you are aiming at, and show his roguishness while using the way of reasoning or some fundamental ideas connected with the doctrines of that very religion. This way you can make a laughing-stock of both its followers and their tenets.

After reading many similar examples of Sanskrit satirical literature, time came to put one work at the centre of my research. Both my supervisors, Prof. Alexis Sanderson and Dr. Harunaga Isaacson, suggested that the intellectually most rewarding choice would be the play of Bhatta Jáyanta, the ninth century Kashmirian philosopher, one of the fixed stars (beside Dharma·kirti and Kumárila) on the sky of classical Indian philosophy.

Jáyanta's play, entitled 'Much Ado About Religion', is about the career of Sankárshana, a young orthodox philosopher and (later) statesman. What starts as a glorious campaign against heretics ends in a great festival of tolerance and compromise. When we meet Sankárshana in the first act, he has just finished his Vedic studies, and his ardour knows no bounds: he is eager to find someone who dares to be an 'enemy of the Veda' in order to stamp him flat with the ram of reasoning. First and foremost among those who abuse the Veda, Sankárshana wants to 'punish like thieves these stupid disciples of Shuddhódana’s son', i.e. the Buddhists. But first he decides to take a good look at the nearby Buddhist monastery with his student. What he sees amazes him:

GRADUATE: (looking) Clearly this is not a seminary for ascetics, this is a royal garden! O tempora o mores!
The rich, being robbed by their rakish guides and having completely lost their way on a 'commendable' path, throw away their various riches on unsuitable things.
Even if this religion is not authoritative, what is the use of this wealth of means of enjoyment which befit those who have not peace, for people who have allegedly turned away their mind from sensual pleasures, who are devoted to the repeated cultivation of meditation and who sustain their life in whatever way?

BOY: Sir, look, look, in the tower of this whitewashed mansion, which completely fills the ten quarters with masses of fragrance of perfume, flowers, and incense, these Buddhist adherents seem to be ready for the meal.

GRADUATE: Well observed. So perhaps these monks would feel that they should restrain their behaviour if they noticed us. So now we shall observe their practice for a second right here in this bower of creepers, unnoticed by them.

(They do so.)

GRADUATE: (looking full of expectation) Goodness! None of them has even taken a bath, eager to have the meal of the convent.

BOY: Let alone bathing, they haven't even changed their clothes!

GRADUATE: (looking carefully) Even their procedure for purification by sipping water is the same as that of shudras! Golly! People from the four estates and even those from the mixed estates are all eating in one and the same row! How pleasant is the observance in this ashram!

BOY: Sir, there is more than that! Look, these attending maidservants with their plump breasts, who are ready to serve the food, cast their glances with various amorous gestures on the faces of the monks! And here some drink is being served in a spotless jar.

There is wine here concealed behind the name 'fruit-juice' and pretended to be something else, and there is meat free from the three conditions of impurity. Oh, how painful is this asceticism!

BOY: Sir, look, look, this monk
Although thirsty, is not so much drinking the beverage, in which a water-lily is whirling, with his tongue as the open-eyed faces of the maidservants with his glances.

GRADUATE: All right, we have seen the monastic discipline of those who are free from passion.

Living in pleasure-gardens, drink and food both easy to obtain, no trouble caused by restrictions: lucky are those who become adherents of Buddhism.

Then Sankárshana systematically refutes in front of distinguished and 'unbiased' umpires a venerable monk's arguments about‚ “Universal Momentariness” and “Consciousness as the Only Reality”. Thus he scores his first victory against the depraved logicians who try to undermine Vedic order, and summons the Buddhists to stop deceiving themselves and others with the promise of a better afterlife for those who follow the Buddha's doctrine.

In the second act Sankárshana lets another heterodox teacher, a Jain monk, slip, not considering him a significant threat to the established socio-religious order. The debauched behaviour of the sect of the Black-Blankets, however, requires instant measures, as do the shady practices of the antisocial Shaiva adepts. Problems start to emerge for our hero in the third act of the play, when he has to refine the circle of those sects whose presence in the kingdom is unwanted. In fact, Sankárshana is ready to form an alliance with the Saiddhántika Shaiva professor against the irreligious Charvákas, represented by the arrogant Vṛddhāmbhi who outlines a clear program:

'I am going to take this opportunity to do away with God, set aside the world-to-come, demolish the validity of the Vedas, and thereby turn this king back from this wrong path and establish him on the right track, so that he, concentrating on worldly prosperity, can enjoy his kingship for a long time.'

Sankárshana and the Shaiva professor defeat their Charváka opponent with an exemplary division of labour: the former proves the existence of the soul, transmigration, and God, while Sankárshana keeps his own counsel. But he immediately hurls himself into the fray when the authority of the Veda is to be established, while the Shaiva professor keeps in the background. The moral is that, notwithstanding a few doctrinal differences, the conservative Shaivas and the orthodox should join their forces to defeat the heretics and thereby prevent the king from ruling in an inordinately materialistic way.

The prelude preceding the final act makes it clear that Sankárshana has lost the trust of Vedic Brahmans:

‘Shaivas, Pashu·patas, Pancha·rátrikas, Sánkhyas, Buddhists, Sky-Clad Jains and other [heretics]: all of them have remained as they were. Shame on the useless learning of the graduate!'

This lamentation of the Vedic officiant makes a sharp contrast to the entrance verse of Sankárshana in the first act, in which he took an oath to humiliate all the enemies of the Veda, and thereby to make his learning fruitful. 'But, my friend,' explains the (perhaps older and more experienced) Vedic instructor to the officiant, 'he has become the king's man by now. And the king is supremely devoted to Shiva, so Sankárshana has to be completely focussed on propitiating Him. For in a monarch's vicinity his men keep repeating his words, but, eager to increase their own influence, they do not distinguish between good or bad, like echoes.'

Sankárshana is indeed in a great dilemma: either he should enter into a debate and prove the falsity of the teachings of the Váishnava Bhágavatas, a religion supported by the queen and another member of the court, just as he did in the case of the heretics, or he should defend them, in which case he would completely lose his face before the followers of orthodox Vedic religion. Sankárshana cannot resolve the tension between his devotion to Vishnu and his duty, as an orthodox Mimámsaka, to reject all non-Vedic scriptures. It is the great Naiyáyika scholar, Dhairya·rashi, who smoothes all differences away as the arbitrator appointed by the court in the debate between Váishnavas and Váidikas. Sankárshana's only task is to give tacit support, which he happily accepts.

Dhairya·rashi’s mission is not to enter into a controversy or to defeat anybody in a debate; on the contrary, he comes to pour oil on troubled waters. Accordingly he delivers a long lecture instead of discussing things, and his overwhelming authority gives even more emphasis to his words. He proves to be "one who holds the validity of all religious scriptures": for him the criterion of validity is not so much the veracity of propositions in a given scripture, but rather the degree of its recognition and its inherent possibilities of overthrowing social order. This was probably fitting in the broader 'Religionspolitik' of the ruling king of Kashmir, Shánkara·varman.

Bhatta Jáyanta's play stands out as unique among the works of Sanskrit literature. It is a curious mixture of fiction and history, of scathing satire and intriguing philosophical argumentation: a work of a true genius and a rewarding read for everyone interested in the culture of classical India.