Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
“Now, kindly expand upon häsya-rati, the attachment causing the mellow of humour.”
Gosvämé, “Häsya rati appears when funny words are spoken, when the dress looks odd, when actions are caricatured, and so on. Opening of the heart, widening of the eyes, flaring of the nostrils, trembling of the lips and cheeks, characterise this mellow.
Jaiva Dharma (philosophical yoga text)
“I support your war of terror!”
In the more advanced and esoteric texts on yoga philosophy, descriptions of the soul’s liberation involve complex and continually evolving phenomena with the divine being which can be experienced in the transcendental realms.
Humor, laughter, comic relief is one of these. Since humor is inherent in the nature of the soul it is naturally present in our present day consciousness. Our current consciousness (at least for most of us) however, is mired in the transient material world (or for some in the mystical.) Consequently, we are forever, seeking relief, respite, and recreation in the temporary. We turn to transient phenomena to fill our need for pleasure and distraction.
Yoga teaches us to seek satisfaction in the eternal realms of the soul’s origin. Modern life teaches us to seek it out the priceless moments that are afforded us by having the right credit card.
The question is how one pursues the lofty spiritual ambitions suggested by yoga when we are surrounded by the temporary phenomena of the material and mystical world. One possibility suggested by Yoga is dovetailing. Dovetailing is redirecting an activity or a resource from an ego gratifying experience to a spirit raising experience.
Humor is an experience that can be easily dovetailed and we can use this review of the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as an example of this.
Humor is a valuable part of yoga’s history there are many examples of it. There is the funny story of how sometimes Kåñëa would sneak into the houses of the village women, or gopés, and steal their yogurt and butter. Then He would run off to a hidden spot to enjoy His booty and share it with the monkeys from the nearby forest. Together they would eat so much that even the monkeys would start to feel ill. When the I would catch Kåñëa in this mischief, He’d feign innocence and say, “Why do you call Me a thief? Do you think butter and yogurt are scarce in My house?” Confronted with the evidence—the remains of the stolen butter and yogurt—Kåñëa would chide the gopés: “That butter and yogurt are useless,” then pointing at the monkeys nearly passed out from over eating he’d add, “Even the monkeys won’t eat it.”
Humor comes in many forms and flavors. How you grade humor tends to be a very subjective process. My personal standard for humor is originality or imagination. Charles Bukowski once said the only sin is being unimaginative. This would be an excellent standard for evaluating comedy.
Borat on this scale get a good rating. His new mockumentary is original and imaginative in the genre of cinema parody. He follows a tradition of other imaginative classics such as Spinal Tap and the Ruttles. In this tradition the artist holds up the mirror to our egoism and our self righteousness. In doing so we are forced (sometimes in dismay) to laugh at ourselves.
This is intelligent comedy using intense parody and physical comedy (honoring and incorporating comic predecessors from Charlie Chaplin to Andy Kaufman.)
This is also dangerous comedy. I do not mean physically dangerous (although it appears actor Sacha Cohen did risk personal injury on multiple occasions.) I mean dangerous from the possibility that some people might miss the joke and champion the idiot. Borat is making fun of us, the American people, by comparing us to a culturally backward and economically disadvantaged country in his mostly fictionalized rendition of Kazahastan.
The genius of the film is his dead pan humor and his Groucho-Marx–vaudevillian act, of the back water goon, anxious to learn about the US and A. In this way Borat effectively demonstrates that even with our economic, cultural, and political advantages we are just as backward, racist, superstitious, self centered, as the Kazaks he uses as comic foils in the movie..
Some people won’t see the incisive victory of Borat’s searing critique of America. Just like the viewers who failed to get the joke year after year during the Seinfeld era. While Mr. Seinfeld was busy rubbing our collective nose in the self absorbed, self centered, bourgeois nature of everyday Americans; audiences actually identified with the parody players and saw them as champions of the modern man. So badly was the point missed that in the final episode Mr Seinfeld had to put the four players on trial and effectively indict them and ten years of their antics for criminal superficiality and callousness as members of the human race.
The beauty of Borat is that it not only holds up the mirror to our foibles as a racist, homophobic, misogynistic nation. But it does it in a very intelligent way. This should be appreciated in a time when the staple of American humor has been remarkably unimaginative. Just when it seemed that Howard Stern’s brainless humor had all but lobotomized the craft by rendering comedy that makes you think (like the work of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin) into comedy that tells you what you are already thinking. We need comedy that makes us think thoughts we have not had since the 6th grade. We need comedy that makes us more humble, not more vicious. Sacha Choen has certainly stepped up to this challenge.
What does all this have to do with humor in a spiritual context?
A huge (and often overlooked) aspect of spirituality is self discovery or facing the hidden demons and shadows of the heart. Humor can help with this. Especially intelligent humor like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. If we appreciate it for what it is showing us, we can enjoy a self deprecating laugh that will also remind us not only not to take ourselves too serious, but also to look deeply into the American mirror and recognize that we have me the redneck, and it is us.