Before discovering the "middle path" and achieving enlightenment, Siddhārtha Gautama had performed severe penance in vain for six years. In some biographies of the Buddha (e.g. Lalitavistara and Saṅghabhedavastu), 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. 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. Most of these examples can be found in comedy plays. In one of these plays – Prabodhacandrodaya – a Jain monk named Kṣapaṇaka, is several times compared with piśāca, just like Bodhisattva during his fasting period. In a certain context in the play, it is obvious that this comparison comes to other characters’s minds because the ascetic looks so ugly on the outside. The ugliness of a Jain monk becomes the subject of ridicule in other comedies too, like Laṭakamelaka. As for Buddhist monks, their bodies are not perceived in comedies as ugly, other characters do not laugh at the body of a bhikṣu, but they jest his monastic attributes – a bald head, robes, etc. It seems that the ugliness of the Jain ascetics, which the characters of Sanskrit comedies talk about, has to do with the tradition of staying naked (if we are talking about Digambaras), 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.

It doesn’t appear accidental that fasting Bodhisattva is called piśāca by children in Buddhist canonical texts, and Jain monks are also compared to piśāca in Sanskrit comedies. This fact raises a number of questions of both specific and general nature:

  • Why could a Jain monk and Bodhisattva exhausted by fasting cause laughter in ancient Indians?

  • What religious ascetics could claim to be identified with piśācas?

  • What could Bodhisattva performing penance and Jain monks from Sanskrit plays have in common?

  • Could piśāca really cause not only fear but also laughter in ancient Indians?

  • Why does the episode with the village children mocking Gautama appear in the life stories of the Buddha? How does this episode complement the description of Bodhisattva exhausted by penance?

  • And finally, if the body of Bodhisattva – who renounced fasting and was approaching the attainment of enlightenment – was beautiful, radiant, adorned with the main and secondary signs of a “great man”, then what was the body of the Bodhisattva like during his fasting time? In other words, what is the "theological" sense behind Siddhārtha's emaciated body, resembling that of a hideous piśāca?

I hope to find answers to these questions through this research project.