Saturday, October 08, 2011

Looking for the real Hanuman

Preface

Everyone knows the most popular versions of Ramayana that have been high on our mythology diet in India. The whole feud between good versus evil and the thousands of back stories, sub plots, lessons of the moral kind and of course divinity. Yes – we've heard it all. But even as a child, one of the most fascinating characters from this epic I often found myself wondering about was Hanuma (or Hanuman). That brave and fiercely devoted vanara chief who spent most of his adult life passionately serving the exiled Kshatriya prince Rama. With time, Hanuma quickly became a symbol of strength, morality, friendship, devotion, honesty and even a representation of the Almighty. Almost every street in India has a temple honoring him. He even went on to become a huge media darling with everything from a full blown television series to children's animated features to advertisements being dished out under his name. For all intents and purposes, his image with Indian kids (and quite possibly a lot of adults too) is that of a gentle giant, a 'desi' Superman of sorts but without Lois Lane given his bachelor status. All of this we know.

But this piece isn't about the superhuman, the God incarnate, the divine entity in Hanuma. It is actually about that person, that individual, who for whatever karmic purposes was present in that channel of time to be immortalized as one of the many Gods the Hindu pantheon is always dizzy with.

So where do we begin? Let us imagine that if I were to get into a time machine and transport myself back into Tretayuga what would I see that isn't connected to any magic, any miracle, any well edited computer graphic generated spectacle? That is what this piece is all about. An attempt to smear the age old photograph of unbridled and mostly unquestioned devotion with the paint of some reasoning in an attempt to hence arrive at its by product – respect.

Starting Point

I began my research with trying to find out about what the word 'vanara' actually meant. From what I understand the vanaras were a group of forest dwellers (sort of like adivaasis) who lived in the then known region called Kishkindha (roughly present day Karnataka). On further examination I learned that given the description of their physical appearance, they were quite possibly at the final stage of evolution into complete humans. Hence the word 'ape-like humanoid' is used everywhere. What might this mean? Well, they weren't humans yet (conceivably because of their genetic coding being of a different nature, geographical reasons) but weren't mere apes either. They were, for the lack of a better word, ape-people. They could speak, gesture, reason and even emote like normal humans. Sort of like the euhominids (maybe a root word for humanoids?) They were very mischievous, quite aggressive, extremely curious, had a generous appetite for fruits and nuts and were physically well built with an extremely strong presence of mind.

With this image established I ventured further. Tracing Hanuma's birth wasn't too hard. His mother was Anjana and father was the tribal chief Kesari. There are various versions of Hanuma's birth and the most popular one (and the reason he is called 'son of the wind God' or Vaayuputra) was because Shiva's 'essence' began falling to earth during the great churning (Manthan) on seeing the bewitching damsel Mohini. The wind God, apparently, fearing some big catastrophe if Shiva's essence were to hit the ground captured it and later, when the time was right placed it in Anjana's womb. Thus making Hanuma an avatar (reincarnation) of Shiva. The other version is that Anjana and Kesari performed intense prayers to Shiva over a very long period of time and were granted Hanuma as a boon by a pleased Shiva. One more popular version is that when Dasharatha (Rama's father) was performing a grand Putrakarma yagna at Ayodhya to beget children, a part of the payasam (sweet pudding) from that prayer which was to be distributed among his three wives was accidentally picked up by the wind and put into Anjana's lap. She consumed it and Hanuma was born thus making him indirectly Rama's brother and hence also explaining the extreme regard he had for Rama.

All these versions lend themselves unarguably towards the inclusion of supernatural elements of boons, curses and other divine interventions. The simpler, most likelier, version could just be that given the exemplary nature of Hanuma's strength his comparison to both Shiva and Vayu could be nothing more than well placed metaphors. It could be that Hanuma had an absolutely natural birth from Anjana (Kesari being his biological father) but even as a child he was so unbelievably strong and different from other vanaras that the comparisons were inevitable. So basically it was Valmiki's way of peppering the story with ingredients that made for excellent reading.

Flight to Lanka episode

With this shaky backdrop I ventured further. The one incident that begs explanation was when Hanuma reportedly flew to Lanka to try and find out more about the abducted Seeta. In the Valmiki Ramayana there is an entire section dedicated to just how huge he grew in size, how the rocks and stones of the mountain he stood on began shivering and how he soared into the skies, tearing apart the clouds and surging forward amid the delirious cacophony from the other vanaras. On closer inspection it is revealed that he must have taken off from Dhanushkodi at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and landed in Thalaimannar on the Lankan shores. The distance between the two is roughly about 27- 30 kms. When I zoomed in on this area on Google maps I noticed small islets peppered between these two spots. Now I know these images are from recent times and obviously the sea must have looked quite different 5000 or even 10000 years ago. But is it not possible that these islets were much bigger, more obvious back then and stood out pretty clearly along the sea's horizon? Given that global warming is now being proven as a real happening water levels were bound to rise across the planet and not surprisingly the islets were bound to submerge under water as we now see them. Hypothetically then, knowing Hanuma and the kind of ceaseless energy he is said to have had, is it not conceivable that he traveled from one such islet to another – sometimes jumping, swimming at other times, resting for a bit in places until eventually he managed to reach Lankan shores? It is not mentioned anywhere in Valmiki Ramayan that he took 'x' number of hours to reach Lanka. What is mentioned of course are the various mythical creatures he encountered on the way. Since we are on a mission to try and keep things as non-mythical as possible let us assume for the sake of an argument that these 'creatures' could have been wild animals or other aadivasi tribes in the area who might have lived on these remote islets? And since they understandably saw Hanuma, the vanara stranger, to be a threat they might have attacked him. He, being the strong and confident vanara chief that he was, took on their challenge and killed them without hesitation. This approach also might help in the story of Makaradhwaja who is known as Hanuman's son. The myth version of it is that a drop of Hanuman's sweat/seed fell into the sea which was consumed by a sea creature (perhaps now extinct) making it pregnant. The creature was then caught by Ahiravana's men and when its stomach was split open the part creature part vanara offspring was found who later went on to become one of the main guards for Ahiravana's fort. So was this episode an example of how a euhominid was somehow compatible with whatever species that sea creature was? Lot of interesting possibilities emerge.

So if this indeed were the case then why glorify this effort by Hanuma then? Simple – it was a way to honor his courage and strength in the face of something as unknown and potentially life threatening as going into the kingdom of the lord of three worlds Ravana. It also was a testament to his fiercely growing devotion to Rama in whom Hanuma had begun to see a reflection of the divine. Today we do extraordinary deeds for those we consider friends. Things we ourselves are surprised by when seen in hindsight. So it should be no surprise that Hanuma would have done something similar for someone who he believed was the true image of a good, just and ideal human being. Someone to look up to. Someone to worship selflessly his whole life. Someone worthy of being worshiped.

Flight to the Himalayas to save Lakshmana

The other incident that begs for some insight is when Meghnad, Ravana's son, injures Lakshmana badly in the war. Sushena, the medicine man in the vanara camp, advises that only the Sanjeevani herb (Selaginella bryopteris) can cure Lakshmana's wound. He also adds that the only place this can be found in is the Himalayas all the way in the northern part of the Indian peninsula. Now we can safely assume the war was taking place somewhere in/around northern Sri Lanka. Obviously the distance between there and the Himalayas cannot be covered in a matter of hours. Yet in Valmiki Ramayana Hanuma is said to have become a giant and soared through the skies to Himalaya and back. Also, because he couldn't figure out the right herb he is said to have broken off a chunk of the mountain he was on and brought the entire fragment back. An image that has plastered itself all over the nation for centuries now. Once the medicine had been administered he is said to have taken the mountain back as well. This whole episode takes only a few verses in the 'Yuddha Kanda' of Valmiki Ramayana. So how do we try to put a rationale here? I thought about this for a while and I have two theories of what could've possibly happened if we discount the flying factor.

Theory 1: Hanuma was a siddha. What that means is he was an individual who had gone beyond the 'aham-kara' stage (ego) and attained a higher level of yogic power. His control over the mind has been used in several contexts despite being a vanara who are often portrayed as unruly and easily distracted. In fact it was he who introduced the concept of Pranayama yoga to the world. So if we assume that Hanuma was a top level siddha then mind travel would not have been a very hard thing for him. In fact I am pretty sure that in the tribe that he was, there were very few vanaras (excluding Angad,Sushena, Nala and Neel who were the architects of the group among others) who were as mentally astute and precise as he was. So one possibility is that he used a flying creature (perhaps a variation of the Jatayu bird that could communicate in some form? Humans have always had a way to speak with animals and birds for eons so maybe Rama too knew this lingo and hence was able to get details of Sita's kidnapping?) and trained it to fly to Himalayan region. There is also the chance that the bird did actually bring back the medicine on time and without confusion. But it was still Hanuma's extreme mental prowess that helped in this Herculean process. Hence making the whole episode a grand metaphor for 'Hanuma bringing the medicine from the Himalayas'.

Theory 2: Fine, so there were no birds or such involved. That might still seem much in some ways. Let us examine this alternative then. Hanuma actually did go to the Himalayas himself and bring back the Sanjeevani. But how long did it take him? A week? A month? A year? We know he was a force to reckon with and so he definitely used his sense of direction to lead him. This also explains his alleged fight with the drunken asura kings in the middle of the jungle one night. In fact Valmiki Ramayan also states that it wasn't just Lakshmana who was injured. Rama went down too. Sushena, the great medicine vanara, used a concoction to revive Rama instantly but was unable to bring back Lakshmana. So is it possible that Sushena then went on to preserve Lakshmana in some state of coma as Hanuma took a week, maybe even a month or more, to return with the right medicine? Given Hanuma's unquestionable strength and will power (because he was a siddha) this does not seem impossible. Ravana was in no hurry to the end the war since it wasn't he who had initiated it. So we have no reason to believe he was in a rush to finish things off with Rama. So could there not have been a brief period's pause in the war as Lakshmana struggled for life? Even here Hanuma did actually bring back the medicine albeit not by supernatural skills but yes – via extraordinary mental and physical power – which is almost akin to something supernatural.

Other incidents of shape shifting etc.

There are many such incidents in the Ramayana that narrate Hanuma's ability to reduce and increase his body when needed. This includes incidents where his tail shrunk and grew at will for various events to take place. All of these, when seen without the glasses of mythology, do lend themselves to some sort of reasonable explanation. Being the highly accomplished siddha purusha that he was, using his mental prowess to hypnotize people, create an illusion, appear and disappear like a magician would not have been very hard for him. These incidents, given their complex nature, somehow might have made Valmiki to simply drown the pen in the magical paint of divinity and etch down what was not really false but wasn't a 100% accurate either. A middle path of sorts that oscillated between fact and fiction and to some extent simplified the whole thing.

Inference

The reasons for why Valmiki might have taken this route is pretty clear. Given the effect epics like Ramayana have had on the civilization cannot be undermined. It tells the tale of honor, of being good human beings, of respecting relationships, of loving your family – all ideal values for an ideal society. But the sad consequence has been the over glorification and tragic misinterpretation of these texts. Today we see people cut each other's throats in the name of Rama and Hanuma. They use these epics as a way to terrorize factions that don't agree with their point of view. My take simply would be to honor these epics for the human values they present and not the divine. Yes, Hanuma was an immensely passionate individual who saw the divine in his friend Rama. Who stood by him every step of the way even as Rama made questionable decisions about his wife even after she was rescued. So what? All of us have people in our lives we look up to and try to idolize don't we? Despite their shortcomings? Then why build a temple for Hanuma then? Simply put – to respect him for being committed to all his relationships. To recognize him as being that brave vanara chieftain who weathered good bad and ugly in a bid to win what he was convinced was the war against evil. To symbolize his existence as not just an extremely fit forest dweller who accidentally happened to be connected to one of the biggest epics ever told but for his role as a devoted son, brother, leader and friend.

I do not know how much of all this really happened and quite honestly at the end of the day I don't even think it matters. This blog was an effort to try and explore the human side of a deity who millions worship across the world but may not fully understand why. If in this process I have encouraged you to see a side to Hanuma that goes beyond the glossy high definition color photographs sold in the market for a dime then I shall consider my attempt a worthy one.





Other recommended reading:
In search of Mayasura


Other sources - 3D sketch of Hanuman used from CGTantra.com




7 reflections:

Sunil Charan said...

Interesting Read...Thanks for Sharing!!

Sai said...

Good stuff mate.. Nice logic all over. So, was it intentional to avoid the discussion of Hanuman being offered the position of Bramha. I'm not very sure if that would be mythology or not.

ഇഡ്ഢലിപ്രിയന്‍ said...

Good analysis. I read a book in Malayalam few years back, the title was something like Anajaneya Vicharam/Puranam, which provides a psychological analysis of Hanuman the person, which would nicely fit in to the Yogi attribute you mentioned.

Narahari said...

Interesting take! But I always wonder why do we try to offer present day solutions to ancient texts and scriptures. Is there a part of us that is trying to convince ourselves that "it" happened or it is the intellectual curiosity that drives us. Most of your article is based on conjecture and not fact based evidence.

My opinion is that you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Educated in the present age, living in the present age, it is very hard to demonize something that happened 5000-10,000 years ago. After all we are shaped by just today's intelligence. What is to tell that our ancestors (Rama, Hanuman) may have been brilliant scientists (to use the present day terminology) and invented/ perfected some ancient art that enables them to fly. As I said you are trying to explain the happenings of yesterday with the knowledge of today. That is where my grouse is. Nevertheless it is a brave effort.

ShaK said...

@Narahari

Firstly, thank you for the insightful comment here. And secondly, allow me to explain the rationale behind such an attempt. Whilst I certainly agree with you that this was indeed an effort to fit a square peg in a round hole the bigger reason, at least for me, was to try and understand the person called Hanuma. I have absolutely no qualms with the possibilities of things like Rama or Hanuma being an extremely intelligent scientist who must've probably designed a flying machine. In fact, I was recently reading an article by David Hatcher Childress called 'Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India' which points to this. But I am sure you'll agree that we live in a day and age where cynicism is becoming a lifestyle rather than an emotion. People, not without reason, are quickly losing any hope of a divine being who oversees our existence and comes to our aide when needed most. In a time as dire as this, we turn to our epics for some respite. There too, we are met with magical happenings and science fiction seeming events. In such a scenario, with today's knowledge and my extremely limited vision, this was my way of clarifying to myself, more than anyone else, the events that Hanuma must have gone through. If someone sees this perspective and through this finds a way to respect deities like Hanuma, then what harm is there in that? Not once have I implied that he did not do any of the feats we are told he did. I merely underline some 'alternative ways' in which he might have done these. This serves two purposes - 1) it perhaps brings some sense of belief, despite its speculative nature, to the cynic and 2)it adds more, and much needed, human value to a story that seems to be largely about mortals much larger than life than us. By demystifying their grandeur, I think we pay them more respect than by thinking of them as mere caricatures without a context we can relate with. I hope this brief helped in explaining my point of view on things. :)

Cheers,

SK

Anonymous said...

hello,

Just adding some points (via some not shady websites) to the debate.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam%27s_Bridge#Geological_evolution
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombolo
http://www.lankalibrary.com/geo/prehistory.htm

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the second post, but a small addition
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhanushkodi#cite_ref-4

 
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