Event — IIAS Lunch Lecture

Bodhisattva in the guise of piśāca ('goblin')

A Lunch Lecture by Dmittri Komissarov, a J. Gonda fellow at IIAS from the HSE University in Moscow, where he teaches Sanskrit, Pāli and Buddhist literature.

This lecture will take place in the IIAS Conference Room from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm (not online).

We will serve lunch to registered attendees. Please register by 18 March to reserve a seat and lunch.

Everyone is welcome!

The Lecture

Before discovering the "middle path" and achieving enlightenment, Siddhārtha Gautama had performed severe penance in vain for six years. In some texts, the story of the Bodhisattva's austerities is suddenly interrupted by a strange episode: Siddhārtha's body being extremely emaciated and thin due to strict fasting, he was noticed by village children, who began to mock him and cruelly laugh at him. They threw mud at him, put grass in his ear holes, and called him piśāca ('goblin'). 

There is no doubt that this short passage shows the reader how the Bodhisattva's body had lost its former beauty, its śrī. However, in addition to this, it brings an element of comedy into the narrative, which appears to be alien to the story.

There are many examples in Sanskrit literature of how ascetics and monks are laughed at – not only for their actions and words but also because of their appearance. Thus, the ugliness of a Jain monk often becomes an object of ridicule in Sanskrit comedies. It seems that it has to do with the tradition of staying naked (if we are talking about Digambara monks), on the one hand, and, on the other one, with the practice of severe fasting, common in Jainism, which makes the monks' bodies look unsightly. In some texts, when characters laugh at an ugly ascetic, they call him piśāca

It doesn't appear accidental that the fasting Bodhisattva is called piśāca by children in Buddhist canonical texts, and Jain monks are also compared to piśāca in Sanskrit comedies. This lecture will attempt to show how this comic motif happened to find its way into the biographies of the Buddha and what meaning it bears in the story about the Bodhisattva's search for the "middle path".

The Speaker

Dmitrii Komissarov graduated from the Russian State Humanitarian University in Moscow in 2008 with a master degree in Indian Philology. At the same university in 2012, he defended his dissertation on “Lalitavistara as an example of Buddhist hagiography.” Currently he teaches Sanskrit, Pāli and Buddhist literature at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University, Moscow), he is also the head of the bachelor’s programme “Languages and Literatures of India”. His research interests include Buddhist hagiography, Buddhist canonical and narrative literature, and Sanskrit medieval comedies. For the last few months, Dmitrii has been working in Leiden as a J. Gonda fellow, researching the influence of the medieval Indian comedy tradition on the biographies of Buddha.

Registration (required)

All are welcome. Please register via the web form on this page so that we can reserve you a seat. Please register by 18 March if you would like to receive a lunch.