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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Ocean of Mirth
Reading Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ
of Jagadēśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya,
A Political Satire for All Times

ed. by
Jyotirmaya Sharma

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the authors

To purchase The Ocean of Mirth

Title: The Ocean of Mirth
Editor: Jyotirmaya Sharma
Genre: Drama
Written: ca. 14th-17th cent. (Eng. 2020)
Length: 82 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Ocean of Mirth - US
The Ocean of Mirth - UK
The Ocean of Mirth - Canada
The Ocean of Mirth - India
  • Sanskrit title: हास्यार्णव प्रहसनम्
  • Translated by Jyotirmaya Sharma
  • With a Foreword by Aishwary Kumar
  • Previously translated by Ram Dayal Munda and David Nelson, as Hasyarnava: The Ocean of Laughter (1976)
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Sanskrit text

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Our Assessment:

B : broad humor; black satire; fascinating little oddity in a nice edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Wire . 9/1/2020 Manu V. Devadevan

  From the Reviews:
  • "His irreverence towards received wisdom is evident in the book under review, which is a slim volume containing a translation and a penetrating study of one of the most lurid political satires in Sanskrit, Jagadesvara Bhattacharya's Hasyarnava Prahasanam. (...) The play revels in the disorder of the world without offering an apology for this state of affair. It holds out no promise for a restoration of order. (...) If the Introduction is instructive in more ways than one, the translation that follows is no less marked by erudition. The satire comes out with great force and vibrance in Sharma's rendering. The ease with which he brings verbose Sanskrit lines to English shows his great sensitivity towards the poetic heart of both languages. It will not be an exaggeration to state that future translators rendering literary works from Sanskrit to English will find a formidable challenge in the standards that this work has set. Jyotirmaya Sharma has given us a wonderful little book to relish and reflect upon." - Manu V. Devadevan, The Wire

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hāsyārṇava ('The Ocean of Mirth') is a two-act drama by the otherwise unknown Jagadēśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya, presented here in the original Sanskrit, Jyotirmaya Sharma's English translation, and with an Introduction by Sharma. The piece is not entirely obscure -- it has been previously translated and, as the Introduction makes clear, figures in discussion of Sanskrit literature -- but is a bit of an odd man out. Indeed, it is (surprisingly) difficult to even place in the literature (and political-historical context), its dates still uncertain; in his 'A note on the text and translation', Sharma points out that: "It is now safe to say that Hāsyārṇava could have been composed any time between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries".
       Hāsyārṇava stands out -- or apart -- in the world-view it presents, and this is also what makes it of particular interest -- and, as Sharma, suggests, relevance, especially today. If other Sanskrit drama is often also ribald, little is as direct as this play. More shocking, however, is the world-view on offer here: if not for the many comic elements and turns, this would be a bitterly cynical play; as is, it is stinging and unredemptive satire.
       Hāsyārṇava presents a world that is entirely chaotic: instead of establishing and providing order, the ruler of the country depicted here fosters and revels only in disorder. (Sound familiar ?) Remarkably, it also does not offer a way out -- and doesn't even try to. As Sharma notes in his Introduction:

Unlike almost all known political satires in India, this text offers no apologies for the chaos that lies at its heart. In its unabashed celebration of disorder, Hāsyārṇava seeks no return to a Golden Age or to the rule of an iconic king. Neither does it announce the arrival of a wise sage or a learned brahmin to reinstate an ideal order. There is no promise of a saviour or an incarnation either. It is a political farce that ends without any denouement in sight.
       The beginning already is all physical indulgence, the prologue opening with Śiva and Pārvatī: "Bound together by vine-like arms in sexual union" -- more explicitly describing the sweaty scene than the 1976 translation by Ram Dayal Munda and David Nelson (which only goes as far as: "the mutual pleasure of Shiva and Pārvatī" -- though capturing the eroticism as well; it's hard not to; the passage drips with it).
       Sharma provides transliterations of the characters' names at the beginning of the play, but in his translation uses descriptive English versions. Some are plain -- Naṭī is simply: 'Principal female actor' -- but most reflect the characters' character, most obviously with the "universal monarch among the roguish", King Anayasindhu, presented as: 'Ocean-of-Disorder' (Munda/Nelson have it as 'Ocean-of-Misrule', but Sharma wants to emphasize the chaotic nature of his (mis)rule). Others include 'Tumour-of-Strife' (Kalahānkura), "the ultimate embodiment of terrible sins", and the royal physician -- naturally nothing less than: 'Ocean-of-Diseases' personified (whose father was the equally medically unhelpful 'Death-of-the-Afflicted').
       The king is introduced as someone who is essentially indifferent to matters of state. At the beginning, the Principal Female Actor has matters of governance to discuss with the king, but complains that he: "invariably confines himself in the women's quarter of his palace". He's not ashamed of it either, acknowledging his priorities:
(D)ay and night I think of ways to have sex with wives of other men. This is the reason why for a long time now I have not been able to inquire into the affairs of the people of the city.
       When now he finally does pay some attention it is not to set things right; instead, he decides the appropriate action is: "I am going to prescribe punishments". The chosen locale is not the seat of government but rather a bordello, run by Bandhurā -- Inclined-Vulva ((Munda/Nelson choosing the more decorous 'Many-Husbanded'), who is already rather advanced in age (and at one point nicely described as one: "who keeps count of paramours by counting the wrinkles on her body"). The attraction here is the much younger Mṛgāṅkalekhā, 'Streak-of-the-Young Moon's-Crescent' -- but first the king is confronted with a veritable rogues' gallery. Far from meting out appropriate punishments, he enjoys and indulges their outrageous behavior -- for example Joy-in-Blood, the barber (who admits: "The moment I handle a razor to shave, humans lose all hope of living").
       Things are really not going well in the kingdom however, magistrate Tormentor-of-Righteous describing the situation and his (typical for all those who are part of the regime) reaction:
Sword-wielding thieves have created turmoil in the whole city. That is why, filled with happiness, I have come to meet a prostitute.
       A fool-character, World-Buffoon, comically comments and offers advice to the king throughout, but in this chaotic realm hardly seems more or even differently outrageous than the other characters. So, for example, in discussion of what might be done about the lawless marauders in the city, it is Protector-of-Folly, one of the ministers, who tells the king, in a suggestion that could as easily come from the mouth of the fool:
The army ought to be equipped properly. Once that is done, first and foremost I ought to be protected, then the Queen and then finally the palace ought to be made secure.
       The first act closes with the king briefly suggesting actual concern -- "I am worried about the turmoil brought about by the thieves" -- but he's easily distracted by a fight between his fool and his minister (over Streak-of-the-Young Moon's-Crescent).
       The shorter second act is notable, among other reasons, for the king's complete absence. Set again in Inclined-Vulva's house, it largely features a back and forth over winning over Streak (and not getting stuck with Inclined-Vulva ...), two new men on the scene -- the brahmin Blind-with-Passion and Wild-Cock -- also competing with the World-Buffoon and Tumour-of-Strife. Blind-with-Passion puts it most bluntly in describing how: "The hollow of the loins of the fawn-eyed Streak will function as the altar for her sacrifice". Even the Mighty-Censurer gets into the act (and neatly manages to throw a wrench in the others' plans and expectations).
       Sharma's thorough Introduction suggests the continuing relevance of this unusual play. Beyond that, it is also striking as a literary work, with its ridiculously indulgent characters and a world that is, indeed, as Sharma emphasizes, all disorder. The characters actually thrive in this disorder -- and with the black humor of the play Jagadēśvara forces his audience to laugh along with them. If some characters get something of a comeuppance in the final resolution, the play as a whole nevertheless does not even entertain the possibility of moral or correct outcomes: those responsible have abandoned the world (and themselves) to their worst and basest instincts -- and revel in them, come what may. It is a dark world-view on offer here -- all the more disturbingly so for being such a comically entertaining one as well; it's hard not to laugh along with the situations (when of course one should be outraged by them). Jagadēśvara's audacity, in both vision and presentation, is remarkable -- and successful.
       The Ocean of Mirth is an uneven and in parts messy play, in plot and presentation, but it's a fascinating piece of work, too, and much of the drama is excellent. Sharma's Introduction convincingly suggests a place for it in our times -- and also in (re)considering the past -- and the importance of this stand-out (in a variety of ways) work; it is, indeed, more than just a literary and historical curiosity.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 February 2020

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The Ocean of Mirth: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Little is known of Jagadēśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya (जगदीश्वर भट्टाचार्य), beyond that he composed Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ.

       Jyotirmaya Sharma teaches at the University of Hyderabad.

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