Stick-figure Web-comic Sanskritology

The popularity of "xkcd" explained, courtesy of a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text.


Andrew Leonard
March 24, 2008 9:16PM (UTC)

There are geeks and then there are geeks. Some amuse themselves color-coding their to-do lists and spending far too much time poring over the mileage statistics recorded by their bike computers.

Others deliver masterful analyses of stick-figure Web comics by drawing upon the lore of ancient Sanskrit texts. I think most connoisseurs of geekdom will agree: That's seriously geeky.

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The stick-figure comic is xkcd, which describes itself as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," and has inspired mass acts of senseless fandom. (A particular favorite of mine can be found here.) The Sanskrit text is the Natya Shastra, which Wikipedia describes as "the oldest surviving text on stagecraft" in the world, and possibly "the foundation of the fine arts in India."

The analysis is provided by Neha Natalya Pandey, a student of computer science and Sanskrit at the University of Michigan, and presented in the blog Givvup Only Are There. (Thanks to DesiPundit for the link.)

Appreciating the analysis requires some math and possibly some familiarity with Sanskrit texts, two areas in which How the World Works is deficient. But the gist appears to be that the Natya Shastra decrees that there are 512 possible emotional states, and xkcd, which has so far published 400 strips, is well on its way to exemplifying each one. Thus its popularity.

Emotional states [rasas] don't arise spontaneously, but are stimulated by bhavas. The Natya Shastra describes how the first eight rasas can be stimulated within the audience by the suitable expression of corresponding bhavas. While the Natya Shastra focuses on the use of body language, sign language, facial gestures, and music to convey bhavas, it's obvious that any artistic medium, including stick figures is capable of projecting bhavas.

Including stick figures! To a "normal" person, such a declaration might be controversial. But to a true geek, it is self-evident.

UPDATE: Alas, it turns out to be too geeky-good to be true. How the World Works has failed its readers.

Aadisht Khanna writes:

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I'm Aadisht Khanna, and I write at Givvup Only Are There, which you linked a while ago. In the interests of truth, transparency, and the Saivite neo-Edwardian way, I should point out that Neha Natalya Pandey is not a real person. She is a joke character created to spoof the "everything was originally there in the Hindu scriptures" attitude. While my regular readers would recognize this from the references to her being Dr. Acharya Somuchidononanda Pandey's daughter, Salon's readers probably wouldn't. You might want to update the Salon post pointing out that the GOAT post is a spoof.

How the World Works feels appropriately abashed. But it's still funny.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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