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Om Sweet Om

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.

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