Laughter is Power
Feature Articles

Laughter is Power

October 8, 2020

By Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik – Author, Speaker, Illustrator, Mythologist

On the day of Rama’s coronation, in the middle of the royal court, Lakshman started to laugh. Everyone wondered who was Lakshman laughing at. Was he laughing at Ayodhya, victim of Palace politics who had to bow before a pair of footwear for 14 years? Was he laughing at Kaushalya who always wanted to see her son crowned king? Was he laughing at Kaikeyi for all her plans to become queen mother had failed? Was he laughing at Bharat for letting go of an opportunity to be king?

Was he laughing at his mother Sumitra, and his brother, Shatrughna, who would always be servants no matter who was king? Was he laughing at Sugriva who got Ram to kill his brother to be king or at Vibhishan who became king because he sided with his brother’s enemy? Was he laughing at Jambuvan because the bear was too old and so was overshadowed by Hanuman? Was he laughing at Hanuman who set his own tail aflame to save Ram’s wife and got nothing in exchange? Was he laughing at Sita who had to prove through a trial by fire that she was chaste when she was liberated from Lanka? Was he laughing at Ram for ending up with a wife of soiled reputation?

But Lakshman was laughing at no one. He was laughing at a tragedy that was about to unfold. He could see Nidra, the Goddess of sleep, approaching him. He had requested her to leave him alone for 14 years so that he could serve Ram. The 14 years were up and he had to keep his word, fall into deep slumber exactly when he was about to see the one thing he desired most in life – his beloved brother, Ram, being crowned king.

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Why did Lakshman’s laughter make people insecure? It is because laughter is power. When we laugh at someone, we feel safe, secure, unthreatened, even powerful. However, when someone laughs at us, we feel insulted, humiliated, uncomfortable, even powerless.

The many comedy shows on television and internet make us laugh because they make fun of others, usually those who we want to mock: Politicians, Bollywood stars, macho men, feminists, gays, lesbians, the rich, the glamorous, the beautiful. We often do not see the power dynamics involved in laughter. Neuropsychologists and philosophers believe humans first laughed to express shared relief at the passing of danger, when the prey gave the predator a slip, or a predator, after days of hunger, finally found food. It had to do with feelings of security and trust. This is the reason that everyone laughs when the boss laughs, and we crack jokes about the boss only behind his or her back.

Those who laugh at themselves, or let others crack jokes about them, are seen as sports; they allow others to feel powerful at their expense. But sometimes jokes hit too close to home and strike our deepest insecurities. And then, we snarl. 

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