Laughter can intoxicate, delight, illumine, and sing; it can signal kinship, irony, recognition, and play. Laughter can impart wisdom, as the many teachers who have used it as part of their pedagogy attest, such as the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (396-286 BCE), the Greek philosopher Diogenes (412-323 BCE), and the legendary tenth-century Chinese monk, Budai, who became known as “the laughing Buddha.” In addition, countless teachers have used humorous teaching stories, such as the tales of Sheikh Nasruddin, to edify with wit.
Philosophers, poets, scientists, and thinkers of all stripes have tried to plumb the depths of the origins of the human propensity for laughter and the role of humor in human affairs. “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” the English writer William Hazlitt said almost 200 years ago. Since then, scientists have found evidence of laughter not only in our closest mammalian relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—but in other species as well. Those looking for the evolutionary origins of laughter and humor are left to speculate, as history shades into prehistory. Pre-history means there is no story, no direct evidence, no testimony as to how laughter was experienced by homo sapiens as they emerged as a distinct species some 300,000 years ago.
But of such speculation, there is an abundance! Laughter, it’s been proposed, is a near-universal form of communication (chimps and other apes do it), a preverbal instinct in humans (babies do it), a means of coping with all that is fraught (the laughter that arises in extremis), and a means of creating and deepening social bonds.
One thing we can say for certain is that laughter is part of the endowment of life on planet Earth, and in choosing it as the theme of the Birthday Bliss celebrations of June 24, 2018, Gurumayi placed us in the context of the unity of life on this blue sphere, our Earth, as well as in the context of that which transcends it. For, as our opening quote continues: “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” In other words, laughter arises from a place within that is beyond the circumstantial, a place imbued with knowledge of that which “ought to be”—a standard derived from the witnessing Self’s own unconditional imperatives. The day of celebration – June 24, 2018 – seemed designed to lead us into this awareness.
Stand back and take in the day as a whole, and it looks very like a work of art, the energy taking shape and whirling around a formal opening and closing: the Morning and Evening Arati in Bade Baba’s Temple. At the heart of this swirl of activity and succession of events lies a deep stillness and peace, arising from the very heart of the celebration.
Back in tenth-century Kashmir, the Shaivite sage and teacher Abhinavagupta identified nine rasas, or flavors, as characteristic of works of art. One of the nine is hasya-rasa—the comic rasa. (Some of the others are vira-rasa, the heroic, and adbhuta-rasa, the marvelous.) Each one of the nine is an essential element of both aesthetic experience and the experience of life itself. Each rasa arises from, is infused with, and leads back to the experience of the ninth rasa—shanta-rasa, the rasa of peace and tranquility, the flavor of the Self. Shanta-rasa is the tonic in which all the other rasas, taken to their utmost, resolve. A similar term, familiar to Siddha Yogis from Gurumayi’s Message talk for 2018, is satya-rasa—the taste or flavor of the Truth. The truth of the experience of the Self—the unmoving pivot which animates and witnesses the swirl of daily activity—underlies both shanta-rasa and satya-rasa.
Standing back, taking in the day, we can say that the Birthday Bliss 2018 celebration was cast in the dominant key of hasya-rasa, the comic rasa. The thread on which the teachings of the day were strung was the most direct physical manifestation of the sense of the comic: laughter. Gurumayi said “presenting laughter” would be the theme of the Birthday Celebration. Laughter—that which unites us as a species, as a collective, as a sangham, and that which gives us access to a transcendental perspective on all the vicissitudes of life.
Laughter was invoked, provoked, and evoked. It was abundant throughout the day and throughout the satsang, unfolding like the theme of a sonata, with an initial exposition followed by developments and recapitulations, all in various registers—laughter in its gross and subtle forms, moving through the levels of speech like a fine fountain of healing waters. The “bliss” in “Birthday Bliss” was anchored in laughter and gave us all a taste that day of exactly what we were celebrating: atma-jnana, knowledge of the inherent nature of the Self; and the one, the teacher, who bestows that knowledge through the depth of her own love; we were celebrating Gurumayi’s birthday, Birthday Bliss.
And the bliss of Birthday Bliss, heard in the crescendos of laughter that were the rhythmic pulse of the day, was subtly suffused with the flavor of satya-rasa, which pervaded every element of the celebration, and into which every element of the celebration resolved: the ultimate reality of being, consciousness, and bliss known as sat-chit-ananda. Satya-rasa, taking form in the person of the Siddha Guru, embodied in Gurumayi, was both the reason for and the means of celebrating Birthday Bliss, June 24, 2018. Happy Birthday, Gurumayi!