The attempt to make what is serious business something that is not serious or at least something that need not be taken seriously, at the beginning at any rate, is rather doubtful of success. But Philosophy is neither so serious as it is sought to be made out nor so trivial as any attempt at cheap teaching of it may make it. I am therefore to explain this difficult situation which is indeed humorous. Humour is precisely the situation which to an observer appears to be nonsensical, ridiculous but to the subject absolutely serious. A philosopher accordingly appears to many as a figure that is cut out for humorous reference. He has been included under a general class comprising poets and fools. But there surely is a difference. A philosopher not only looks at things but also at himself and looks at others from their own points of view as also looks at himself from others points of view. A poet may do this imaginatively, a fool rather inconsistently, but a philosopher does this systematically and hopes to be able to ascend back to the height. He appears to revel in paradoxes, and paradox is the soul of wit, but these paradoxes may puzzle the uninitiated, appear as just play of words, and pose. A comic philosopher may thus enjoy himself in this constant exercise of logical subtleties. I have seen people amused at the very important question ‘what supports which – the ghee the vessel or the vessel the ghee?’ This humour is often interesting and yet serious. Behind every paradox and behind every view there lurks problem which could be approached with the attitude of a seeker after truth. Every humorous situation has a serious purpose – the Discovery of Truth.
Similarly every serious occasion has a humorous side, the human side. Therefore is it possible to approach the problems of Philosophy from the more human and humorous side and reveal the nearness on the problems which the more serious minded men have made remote and abstract. That is being done in literature and in arts. Socrates had shewn the vast problems of truth to lie near our very door through his dialectical questioning and jest cleverly turned to yield a sense of humour in the audience. The exploitation of the dialectical method and mythology in the teaching of Philosophy is undoubtedly a necessity for it makes the teaching of Philosophy homely, suggestive and lively. The secret of Ancient Hindu thought lies in this essential homeliness of its understanding even when soaring into the realms of highest fancy.
The modern age has many novel features. It breaths the air of freedom and propagates the cult of liberty and egalitarianism. The freedom from limitations of space and time and want are all worthy features of our age. With this growth of the sense of freedom it has also devised the significant apparatuses of reason, rationalism and rationalization which are said to be adequate means for the attainment of such worthy ends. All these have become commonplace opinions if not sentiments of the ordinary citizen, since science has promised and achieved tremendous spectacular successes. The humanities such as the study of thought and activities of human individuals had in singular contrast not offered any such freedom from limitations. On the other hand with their emphasis on rightness and law, the humanities have laid limitations on the freedom that can be won in the fields of science. Humour has apparently nothing to do with this aspect of the interestingness of the humanities or of science for the matter of that. The real humour, rather grim indeed, lies in the fact that searching for freedom from limitations of space and time, man has become a creature of want and wealth, desire and comfort; and the joy that came with the opening of the Pandora’s box has been smothered by the cry of anguish at letting loose the Furies. So much so we have begun to ask whether freedom can be won at all and if won whether it is worthwhile. Just as the facts of science are limitations on theory, so too human nature and ideals have been limitations on theory, so too human nature and ideals have been limitations on human conduct. Striving for freedom paradoxically means getting bondage and the philosopher suggests whether striving for bondage man cannot become free. It is precisely the discovery of the limitations of science and philosophy that gives a sense of humour which is the knowledge of the unpredictable and chance in human affairs, what Hindu thought designates by the term daivam – the transcendental.
The everyday man somehow does not like seriousness. He would like to take a holiday from hard thought and consistent conduct. There is however a delight that could be extracted from the study of such men. Even today men ask the same questions that men two or three thousand years ago had asked. Even today the same answers are being given with but such changes of language or variations of jargon adapted to the audience trained in different modes of thought. The climate of opinion and fashion has changed only the form and not the substance of either the questions or their answers. For example, in ethics the question is asked why a man should speak truth and not a lie. Obviously because a lie cannot be made universal conduct. A lie works only as long as all others are truthful or honest. The old story of deceit practiced by some merchants of a town to worship God with milk taking water instead deeming that others would bring milk and so their deceit would not get detected, is a story of teaching this by humour. So too with all vice. This approach of showing up the ridiculousness of incorrectness with living examples is an instance or humour teaching truths.
Or let us take another example. It must be confessed that the one freedom that the modern mind has secured for itself with such violence, propaganda and war for liberty, equality and fraternity is the freedom from thinking on things that matter. The modern Age of Reason is governed by mobilized opinion; and opinion is never a sure guide to good life or thought. The ancient parable of an old man, his son and the donkey shews with peculiar flavour the humour of the situation. Common man – alas he is a fiction – is governed or rather tossed by a multitude of cross opinions albeit apparently helpful. In philosophy this illustrates the danger of accepting opinions however well-intentioned. If opinion is to be accepted it must have to be well attested and dependent upon the character and equipment and intelligence of the attestor. This is the meaning of aptavacana. How much depends upon the informant’s character is illustrated by such humorous episodes found in any number in the Panchatantra which is glorified as a book of wisdom both philosophical and practical.
Or again take the problem of knowledge when approached from the point of view of ordinary sensations. We are all subject to illusions; we see a post and mistake it for a man; we see mirage in a desert or an asphalted road; a rope is mistaken for a snake; we see the whirling fire-brand as a circle; an oar dipped in water appears bent and so on. All these are capable of making men behave ridiculously and have formed subject-matter of jests. Perverted minds have perverted visions and perceptions. This truth has with classic perfection been presented with grim humour by the great Vyasa in the Sabha-parva of the Mahabharata – the poor perverted ones like Duryodhana fell into illusions the most humorous. Bilvamangal who caught hold of a huge python mistaking it for a rope suspended by his thoughtful beloved and ascended to the terrace of her house is indeed a humorous situation. Infatuation has no eyes. But what underlies this illusion? The discovery of the laws of Matter gives a heightened interest to this undependability of the senses and perhaps yields a new field for creative minds for creating illusions as modern Cinematography is doing. And yet when some philosophers declare that all sense-reports are illusion and maya due to ignorance that is an occasion for showing that generalizations of thought on the basis of a few instances are erroneous and fruitful sources of humour. Just as a partial truth can be source of error, a partial untruth can be a source of truth.
All this shows that living approach to the ever-renewing problems of Philosophy that willy nilly affect all minds is a necessity. They are not always amenable to solutions from any single point of view. It is the essential quality of a humorous approach to look at things upside down or downside up. Either men must think so or imaginatively create or construct this situation. This the philosopher has made into a perfect technique and shares the purpose of the humorist. G.K. Chesterton had made this technique a perpetual enlivener of his paradoxes in his essays and stories; to many they appear humorous and ingenious if not silly, but to him it was the most arresting and direct way of presenting high seriousness in comic from, and through this comic form teach the high seriousness of philosophical wisdom. Shaw once remarked that one of the most humorous facts about the Soviet Philosophers or Dictators is their lack of humour or rather the habitual pose of high seriousness. Ancient wisdom however delighted in the exploitation of paradoxes and in the lightness of humour that reveals the colours and contrasts and objective reactions of the observers. It combined this with subjective seriousness in the pursuit after total comprehension. This double view gave Indian Philosophy its concept of Lila, which is neither mere illusion nor meaningless play but an essential quality of self-revelation, self-power and self-illumination in terms of opposites and contrasts which need each other for a perennial that it almost left this lightness of vision of contrasts poets and psychologists. Much of the despair and fright caused by modern academic philosophers is certainly due to their abstract idealism and pursuit of abstract consistency which humorously or paradoxically enough betrays inconsistencies and straight-jacketedness of which they are sublimely unaware. It is again the failure of some philosophers to arrive at the peak of sympathetic intuition or awareness of other aspects that makes them either extremely forbiddingly serious or sceptics and doubters. But scepticism when it is seen to be humour turn-serious half-way, becomes a living avenue to truth. What is needed is the artist’s touch that makes doubt and scepticism living and dynamic attractions to the soul yearning for infinite comprehension.
A dynamic return to the problems of philosophy then can be undertaken since they are not foreign to the life of the ordinary man. He indeed confronts them but is lost in the confusion of its contrasts and contradictions, and variations. These can be shewn to be the sources of humour and with when men are unable to adapt themselves to them. The philosopher does not stop at the affective result of humour but goes boldly forward exploring the possibility of their wherefores and whys. If men even young can be made to be interested in the growth of a flower, the hoots of an owl and the movements of bats, and if the greatest attempts in history have to do with the growth or individuals and groups, Philosophy then can be shown to be the human interest in the multiple-sidedness of experience. Taught in the language of unsophisticated human experience, Philosophy will always have an abiding quality of interest underlining science and art, for it is their synthesis and culmination.