Om Sweet Om

Om Sweet Om


Hindu Humor?

posted by Vineet Chander

Recently, a reader included this concern in his or her following comment to one of my earlier posts:

Lastly, I do want to mention that I am not sure that the title of the
blog refers to the sacred mantra Om in a respectful manner.
When I lived in a (Bhakti Yoga) ashram, we were specifically instructed
not to use holy names in this kind of joking context. Namaste

I can certainly sympathize. I too have been taught (and believe) that a mantra (sacred sound) like Om should be afforded all respect. And, as I noted in my post about President Obama’s uttering the name of Lord Rama, I come from a tradition that teaches that ultimately the holy names of the Divine are identical with the Supreme Himself. Such sound vibrations should definitely not be mocked or used in a disrespectful manner.

At the same time, I recognize that religious humor can be a, well, funny thing. It is, like beauty, in the eye and the ear (and the belly laugh) of the beholder. One man’s “hilarious” is another’s “offensive.”

pitka_mike_myers.jpgI’ve written about this tension on Beliefnet before; when some Hindus were complaining that the Mike Meyer’s movie The Love Guru was anti-Hindu, I argued that the film was not unfairly targeting Hinduism and that it may even have something to teach our faith community about how to educate others with taking ourselves too seriously. (To clarify: I wrote that article before the film actually was released and subsequently bombed at the box office. I did see the movie, and found it to be one of the most crude, asinine, poorly made films I’d seen. However I maintain that, repugnant as the film was to my good taste as a moviegoer, it wasn’t anti-Hindu per se.)

I have a good friend — a fellow Vaishnava-Hindu — who is my comedy hero. This friend — lets just call him Yadunath Das Joe — happens to be a professional comedian. (By the way, being friends with a professional comedian is not nearly as hard as it sounds; despite what you might expect he doesn’t tell knock-knock jokes incessantly or keep slipping on banana peels or anything like that.)

A few months ago, Joe and his wife — lets call her Beth Beth — co-wrote and performed a skit at our temple’s Krishna Janmashtami celebrations. The piece (a dialogue between a daughter and her mother, where Joe-in-drag played the mother) was hilarious– silly enough that the audience was roaring with laughter, but not so silly that it compromised the sanctity of the occasion. Afterwards, I was discussing the skit with a mutual friend, and we both began to appreciate Joe’s ability to walk that line and do everything with class and good taste. “Of course,” the mutual friend said with confidence, “he’s a man of substance.”

That idea struck me then, and continues to strike me now: that good humor (as opposed to Good Humor) is necessarily intertwined with the character, integrity, and substance of the joke-teller.
   


uncle joey.jpg

San Francisco area comedian Joey “Uncle Joey” Gladstone struggled to be a man of substance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He retired shortly after his “cut…it…out” tour was boycotted by the special interest group, Americans Against Circumcision  

It turns out that when our kindergarten teachers told us things like
“its the thought that counts” or “laugh with someone, not at them” they
were actually on to something. As with most things, the intention and
method in which the gag is perpetrated are key.

So is a joke just a joke? That depends.

For
me, Joe is an example of humor-done-well. I’ve seen him consistently
take the moral high road. Whether in a skit at the temple or at his
regular gig doing improv with Chicago City Limits, New York City’s longest-running show
of its kind. In fact, in the context of improvisation that is
especially astounding: to get suggestions (some of them pretty bawdy)
from the audience and then make a split-second decision as to where to
go for maximum laughs is hard enough as it is, but Joe also makes sure
that where he goes is not compromising his spiritual values or creating
harm to others. Of course, he probably doesn’t consciously make that
judgment call; by now its part of his hard-wiring. It comes from his
integrity– literally, his integration of his beliefs, principles, and
actions. Or, as our mutual friend put it, his being “a man of
substance.”

On the other hand, I’ve seen some painful examples of religious humor that was not
okay. One example comes to mind: I was attending a convention of South
Asian journalists, and the awards dinner opened up with a comedy act.
The comedian, a young Indian-American, was billed as edgy, smart, and
above all else funny. Unfortunately, he was none of the above. His
gimmick seemed to involve mocking his own Hindu faith (he made sure to
point out that he was Hindu) by using an over-enunciated Indian accent
and picking on the most outlandish or exotic features of the faith
(things like multi-armed deities, cows, or the caste system). It was
seeking out the lowest common denominator to cash in on some cheap
laughs. It got so bad that a few attendees got up and left, and one
heckled him, demanding he got down from the stage. “Hey man,” the
defensive comedian replied, “lighten up. It’s just a joke.”

Hinduism
is no stranger to comedy. In fact, even the sacred texts and narratives
involve a good share of humor. (It is a vast subject, and in future
posts I hope to explore this and maybe offer some examples.) In the
Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhakti (the path of
devotonal service) is su-sukham, extremely joyful. Its okay to smile… maybe even laugh!

Which
brings me back to the question about the title of the blog, Om Sweet
Om. Obviously, its a pun that plays on words (“home sweet home” is an
American colloquial expression, made popular by the 19th century song of the same name).
And yes, it is meant to be a little cheeky. But it also conveys a
certain truth, I hope. It helps me to express the fact that for me my
faith is home, and that it is sweeter than the sweetest. It
also helps me to share a side of the faith — a playful, slightly
irreverent, but ultimately genuine side — that has been especially
meaningful to me.

There’s more that I can say about the back story to Om Sweet Om, but I am wary of committing the cardinal sin
of comedy– explaining a joke too much. So for now, here’s to laughing with one another, and not at anything anyone holds sacred.

Please share your thoughts (or maybe your favorite joke) below.

Namaste.



  • beth

    Beautifully said.

  • Your Name

    It is nice to see that the leaders of the
    Hindu faith know how to take a joke. I do believe that laughter is good for the soul, as long as it is not at the expense of an other. Peace be with you…

  • Anan E. Maus

    On a personal level I am sorry if my comments gave you concern and worried you enough to quote them.
    I am an American, who lived in a Bhakti Yoga ashram. I am also a former performing stand-up comedian. So, I think I have some reasonable grasp on the subject. Not necessarily some kind of perfect expertise, but some reasonable input.
    I am aware of prejudice from both sides. I have heard the kinds of vicious comments about Hindus that people would not have shared with me, had they known that, while I look “white,” I am actually Hindu.
    While I think that perhaps, in India, this kind of joking would be an “in” joke and acceptable, I think that in America, that kind of joking…and Mike Myers movie…just really feeds a fundamental prejudice against India and Hinduism.
    I think it is still too early in America’s growth regarding prejudice to joke in this manner to a largely American audience.
    I am a bit older than you, close to 50…and remember a different time. In my childhood, in the 60′s it was still quite common for public comedians to make overtly (very) racist jokes about Chinese and Japanese folks (as an example, see Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s)…jokes about women and African-Americans…in a way that just doesn’t exist today.
    It took a very very long time and hard work to break those stereotypes. And the way common American humor exists today about India and Hinduism…is still a throw-back to that time. We see mocking of meditation and mysticism in TV commercials…it is still too early for America to “get” a joke about Aum.
    The anti-cult movement in American is still quite strong. This kind of humor does still feed the neo-fascists among us, who want to eradicate everything that is different from some kind of ludicrous Ozzie and Harriett world (that, of course, never existed in the first place).
    I think that if you were an American and older, you would understand that there is still quite an undercurrent of hate and derision of all things Indian…and, again, I don’t think America is quite ready for this kind of joking.
    I think America still needs to learn basic lesson about what Hinduism is. About Gandhi, about the beautiful poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, about the plays of Kalidasa.
    Robert Bly and Coleman Barks have done this kind of wonderful work in helping the West discover the beauty of Rumi and the Sufi poets (and, by the way, they have also started introducing some of the Hindu poets)…
    There is so much basic work still to be done for people to start to understand the culture….an “in” joke is still too way over the heads of people.
    People still don’t know that the Judeo-Christian “amen” is the same spiritual consciousness as the Hindu “Aum” and that when the Jewish Hasidim chant “amen” it sounds quite like Hindus chanting “Aum”.
    “Aum” as the seed sound of the third eye…and the Hasidim chant “amen” while having a small leather box right over their third eye.
    These basic forms of recognition of similarity still don’t exist in our culture. I think they need to be more firmly established before the jokes are understood as kidding, instead of arrogant, disdainful mocking.

  • Sandi

    My home yoga studio is called No Place Like Om, both to play on the American phrase and also to create the atmosphere of warmth, sanctity, humor, and seriousness. I love reading your articles… :-)
    Namaste…

  • Sandi

    My home yoga studio is called No Place Like Om, both to play on the American phrase and also to create the atmosphere of warmth, sanctity, humor, and seriousness. I find the same combination in your wonderful articles… :-)
    Namaste…

  • John

    I like to think of humor as just another gateway to God. My Guru, Baba Neem Karoli, has done many things as a human which I originally struggled with. But over time I began to see his humanity as permission for my own. With that realization, I can see his diving smile. It is like the sacred “Ah….” and human “Ah Ha!” in one.
    I believe that what is important is what is in your heart. Who and what is being served by this? For me, the somewhat subtle humor made me feel closer to you and that we were more alike.

  • Gauri

    I like to read your blogs and find them very interesting. You mention about the comedian who was cracking jokes about multi-armed Hindu deities and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my brother in law. He is English, a computer Geek, not a church-goer and has a kind of attraction towards Lord Ganesh. He puts Lord Ganesh’s little idols wherever he finds some room. Once he was helping me fix my garage door opener. Standing on the ladder, during the work he commented, “I wish I had two more hands to hold this thing while I tighten the screws”. My extempore reply was “probably that’s why Lord Ganesh has four, or may be they indicate multi-tasking”. He replied that he had never heard this kind of explanation.
    I always wondered about the reason Hindu Gods-Goddesses have multiple arms. If one watches closely, each arm of a God or Goddess has a different weapon or tool. So does the number of arms imply number of activities they are responsible to handle or how many tasks they can handle simultaneously? While our children were small how many of us haven’t wished for having two extra arms to get things done?
    Om Shanti-Shanti-Shantihi

  • Your Name

    I was the one who posted the original comment.
    In addition to having lived in a Bhakti Yoga ashram, I actual was a performing stand-up comedian.
    So, I think my input into the matter is reasonable.
    I am an American. Perhaps within the Indian Hindu community, this kind of joke is fine. However, as an American, I would suggest that the sense of mockery of India and Hinduism is still quite profound in our society…and I do not think America is ready for jokes like Om and “home.”
    I think it feeds the mockery that already exists in society.
    And, as someone who has performed comedy onstage, I think I have a reasonable handle on when you are feeding some ignorance in your audience and when you are merely making an in joke that doesn’t truly bother anyone.
    There is humor even in the Vedas. I believe the line is something like, “O Lord, if I were Thou and Thou were I, thy prayers would have immediate fulfillment!” Paramahansa Yogananda included some joking in Autobiography of a Yogi.
    Sri Ramakrishna was said to have told a ribald joke in order to disperse some worldly people in order to have a room alone with his disciples.
    I get it.
    And even though I get it. I still think this joke feeds mockery of religion.
    Respectfully…

  • Killian

    I read that person’s original comment, and their comment right now, and I still don’t see ANYTHING wrong with “Om sweet Om”.
    I thought it was clever and cute. It doesn’t say anything negative about Hinduism. It doesn’t even IMPLY anything bad.
    Americans love humor. (As an American comedian, the poster should know that!) Maybe a title like Om Sweet Om is just what it takes to pull in an American curious about Hinduism, and let them know that hey, this religion isn’t brimstone and hellfire. It’s people like you and me who are at ease with themselves, light-hearted, and can joke around. I can’t even fathom how such a title would be offensive!
    I also don’t see Hinduism mocked too terribly much in America. Indians are, unfortunetaly, more often than anyone would like. But not many people actually know much about Hinduism, at least in my experience. (Finding a Hindu in southern USA is, in my experience, like finding a needle in a haystack.)
    Anyway. I’m not offended. I don’t think there’s a reason to be.
    But hey, each to his own.
    Laughter is a healing power and essential to the well-being of any person. When the joke is malicious or blatantly in bad taste, it’s a different story.
    But like I said, “Om Sweet Om” is a-ok in my book.

  • Sojourner

    I take no offense to this title. In fact, one of my favorite tee-shirts, seen at cafepress.com, says “Ganesha is my Om Boy.” A similar, playful use of words that I personally think can only help increase America’s curiosity and understanding of Hinduism.

  • Mogen-Yogan

    I enjoyed reading the blog and all comments. It’s a fascinating subject. I decided to comment because I remembered a joke which I’ll relate and then consider if it might be offensive. Maybe the truth lies in what seem to be two broad, maybe contradictory, guiding principles, As in: (short version) “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” which allows one the be creative and just let it go. The other is perhaps the broadest guidance – which likely captures the best of all faiths, simply stated… “Kindness”. Because some humans hold prejudices against certain groups, and hateful expressions are ‘with us,’ we have all been taught to avoid such humor. I don’t think I need to continue this line of thought… except to say… it seems OK to make fun of one’s own people, but at least questionable to do so to others. That said, have you heard the one about this Indian guy who stops a passerby on the street in New York City and asks (in my best Indian accent … and mine is good):
    “Please excuse me kind sir… Can you please tell me how to get to Grand Central Station? Or should I just go f___ myself again?”
    (And, I must add… I consider you (Sudesh, Somesh, Vijay, Dipti, Sanjay, et.al.) my people. Om Shanti & Namaste

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  • http://www.itvproductions.net Nrsimhananda das

    Krishna’s friend Mandhumangala was a jokster. Prabhupada was very funny. Prabhupada: I’ll recite another very nice story… The story is that one poor man was informed by his friend that “Money draws money.” That’s a fact. If you have got money, you can draw money. So he went to the bank, and the cashier was counting huge amount of money, and he threw his coin on the cash…, [laughs] and he was waiting: “When the whole money will come to me?” Then the cashier saw this man is standing: “What is the…? Why you are standing?” “Sir, I heard that money draws money, so I had one coin. I have dropped with your money. I am waiting when it will come to me.” So he [the cashier] said, “No, no. The fact is that, money draws…. Now my money has drawn your money.” [laughter]

    I watched Yadunath prabhu on the Dandavats.com site (http://www.dandavats.com/?p=9875); he has a very funny KC routine that he performed in Utah temple. I commented:
    Some of the best preaching that I’ve seen/heard since I last talked to somebody. No, really, prabhus, this is funny stuff, and Caru’s proximity to the mic gives a clear signal that he enjoyed every joke, too, or was he just being polite? I disagree with the reviewers that Hindi subtitles would have made the jokes more understandable though Sanskrit with diacritics would have lent some authenticity. When my children grow up, I’d like them to take initiation from Yadunath. After all, a parent just wants his kids to be happy. I’m looking forward to Yadu’s appearance on what should be an upcoming talent competition – America’s Got Standup. I’m sure that he’ll take the house down and make it into one in which everybody can live. He can’t help but be more successful than we were with Iskcon. Hard to believe that he writes all of his own material; he must get the bulk of his inspiration from his guru. He did capture the essence of devotional service – it’s joyfully performed. And he did look like he was having a good time despite no shots of the audience. Was anyone else laughing or even there? Maybe this was the rehearsal? My favorite part was about his wife. Apparently, she was too shy to appear on stage with him or was busy in prayer: “Please, Krishna, make people laugh.” Like any good performer, he left me wanting more – but, apparently, he wasn’t able to give it. Anyway, he had me in stitches; thank God for the Bhaktivedanta Hospital. He delivers his lines like a seasoned sankirtan devotee. Check how much you’ve changed after the show. I would be available to write more material, but, on principle, I can’t. I only do spiritual. In conclusion, a big round of applause for the best male comedian in Iskcon – in fact, the only one. :) :) :)

  • http://Somuchforreligioustolerance Rohan

    “A true religious (or spiritual) path has a lot to do with a situation where our spiritual connection with the “divine one” doesn’t have to have anything with us having to convince anybody else to believe exactly what we believe in!” – in other words, my understanding (for which some religious freaks will call me an atheist)!

    Let me start by saying that an adverse reaction to any perceived insult to GOD or our concept of it (No, it isn’t a “him” or a “her”!!) is an act of absolute ignorance!!

    To bring forward something I have learnt over the years (although I’m just 28)- True religion is that connect between yourself and the “source” that many of us call “GOD”! It has nothing to do with our screwed up (yet convenient)versions of “God”.

    The reason “google” brought me here is the fact that I was looking to see if anybody had already used the term “Om Sweet Om” (as a copywriter, I have to look for originality!). That being said, there’s no less stupidity or irony in a statement or idea that restricts humour in any “religious” context. It is this notion that distinguishes sanity from fanaticism – the ability to find humour in divinity is a divine gift that not all of us have or will be able come to terms with.

    Back to Hinduism, the syllable “OM” is a sound! That’s all there is to it! Beyond that, the chanting of “OM” is the very vibration that enables us to connect with “our divine selves”. Shiva, Vishnu and Bhrahma are (or were) people who were (at one point of time) just like us. They are who they are today because they are no longer like us only because they overcame this ignorance! The same goes for Buddha, Christ and Mohamed (May “God” have mercy on most of their ignorant followers) – They’re different because they weren’t small-minded like most of us are!

    Let me end this by stating any fear of God is the highest form of ignorance. If the “source” did really exist, it wouldn’t restrict humour – human expression in its purest form. This is what leads to intolerance of any other form of belief!

    May “GOD” save our souls from the intolerance of humour, and above all, from these freak-show hypocrites that call themselves “Stand up comedians” and yet call for restriction of speech!

    NOT TO BE PUBLISHED:(Note to author/ owner of this blog/ website – Please don’t try to make money by selling my personal information – you won’t be any different from the so called @comedian@ who inspired this post)

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