8. Hanuman: Shakti, Bhakti, and Brahmacharya
Chiken Pahalwan’s uncle Sarabjit was a great wrestler. He was a very devout believer in Hanuman. He would sit at the akhara temple and worship for two hours straight. He only did 200 bethaks per day but was a great wrestler. He was a Hanuman pujari and from this he derived his strength. He would worship with such feeling that tears would come to his eyes.
Largely because of his prominent role in the epic Ramayana drama, Hanuman is a popular deity among North Indian Hindus. When verses from Tulasi Das’s version of the Ramayana are sung, the most common and popular tell of Hanuman’s exploits: his leap across the ocean to Lanka, the grandeur of his body as revealed to the captive Sita, his singlehanded destruction of Lanka, his journey to the Himalaya and his flying return with the mountain on which grew the medicinal root that would cure the mortally wounded Lakshman.
In addition to his great popularity as an epic hero, Hanuman—Mahavir (the great courageous)—is worshipped in countless temples and shrines. In Banaras alone one can go hardly two hundred meters in any direction without coming across a place which is sacred to him. These places range in size and significance from the great Sankat Mochan mandir in the southern part of the city, where thousands of people come to worship on Saturday evenings, to the small roadside shrine which may appear to be nothing more than a vermilion plastered stone set into a niche at the base of a tree. Regardless of size or aesthetic appeal, every shrine dedicated to Hanuman is the object of someone’s devotion. Every Tuesday and Saturday morning at dawn a group of women bathe, garland, and clothe the image of Hanuman at a crossroads near Naisarak in the Chaitganj area of Banaras. An older man sits reading the Tulasi Ramayana on a small ledge near a Hanuman shrine in the crowded Chauk Bazaar. A family pushes its way through the crowded courtyard of the Sankat Mochan mandir. Unable to get close enough to the images of Hanuman therein, a man lifts his son onto his shoulders and instructs him to throw a garland of flowers in the general direction of the main shrine. A rickshaw driver leaves hold of his handlebars to bow his head and fold his hands as he passes a flower-bedecked shrine from which emanates the aroma of incense and marigolds and the recorded music of devotional hymns. Entering a tea shop a man touches the feet of a faded calendar image of Hanuman around which hang the flower garlands of other suppliants.
For many who live in Banaras, and to a lesser but still significant extent throughout north-central India, Hanuman is regarded as a tangible deity. Though phenomenal in a supernatural, heroic mode, his exploits make sense on the pragmatic level of everyday life. As anyone I asked was quick to reply, Hanuman stands for two things: strength (shakti/bal) and devotional adoration (bhakti). These two aspects of his character are clearly interrelated. Hanuman’s great strength is a direct reflection of his devotion. The more perfect his bhakti, the greater his strength; the more fabulous his strength the greater the magnitude of his bhakti.
Despite their eminently human qualities, deities like Ram and Krishna stand for abstract, divine grace. They inspire an aura of respect based on the fact of their ultimately incomprehensible divinity. While it is true that Krishna is the object of devotional worship in the tradition of bhakti (Singer 1963) and is therefore tangible in a purely mystical sense, his characterization in and through the Bhagavad Gita is much less personal. In this text Krishna is the construct and constructor of abstract theology. Hanuman, on the other hand, does not represent some metaphysical absolute nor advocate a particular ontology. Rather, in his relationship to Ram, Hanuman represents spiritual devotion. To the extent that Ram represents ultimate spiritual realization, Hanuman represents the method through which that spirituality is realized: the adoration of bhakti. Hanuman is certainly supernatural, but his power is that of a divine agent rather than a transcendental being. In this regard Hanuman is perhaps unique in the Hindu pantheon insofar as he represents a spiritual method rather than a spiritual goal. He provides a model for living a virtuous life.
Every akhara has at least one shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman and his worship is an important part of every wrestler’s daily regimen (see plate 11). In this chapter I will show how Hanuman serves as a model for the construction of the wrestler’s identity. This identity is based on three basic themes: the relationship of shakti (energy) to bal (strength), the concept of brahmacharya, and the nature of devotion as bhakti. Before looking at each of these themes it is necessary to outline briefly some points regarding the nature of Hanuman’s divinity.
Hanuman: An Overview
It is surprising that although Hanuman is one of the most popular deities in North India there is very little written about him in the academic literature (cf. Bulcke 1960; G. Rai 1976; and Wolcott 1978 for notable but still marginal exceptions). Even in the commentaries on the Valmiki Ramayana and Tulasi Das’s Ramacaritamanasa(cf. Allchin 1964) there is scant attention given to an analysis of Hanuman’s epic role.
In contrast to the academic literature, which seems to be biased towards incarnate gods like Ram, Lakshmi, Krishna, Shiva, and Kali, there is a wealth of popular literature devoted to an elaboration of Hanuman’s exploits. Hanuman Charit(Gotham 1980) tells the story of Hanuman’s life and deeds in forty-one separate episodes. Hanuman Jivan Charitra,published under the auspices of Randhir Book Sales (n.d.), provides a similar rendition in forty episodes. Two different books with the same title, Hanuman Upasna (Rajesh Dixit 1978; S. Shastri 1986), combine a telling of Hanuman’s life story with commentaries on selected verses from Tulasi Das’s poems. These two volumes also give detailed instructions on the mechanics of Hanuman worship: an itemized list of ritual tools and ingredients, a description of when and how to sprinkle water on the image of Hanuman, how and with what to prepare prasad, what mantras to recite in what order, and how to perform arti (special puja with fire). Hanuman Rahasyam(S. M. Shastri 1982), Hanuman Jyotish(J. S. Shastri n.d.), Shri Hanuman Stuthi(P. Sharma 1985), and Ekmukhi, Panchmukhi Hanuman Kawach (Dehati Pustak Bhandar n.d.d) also provide detailed outlines for the performance of specific types of worship. In addition to these volumes, designed for use as practical handbooks for the propitiation of Hanuman, religious bookstores often publish selected verses from Tulasi Das’s corpus of works. One of the largest publishers of works in Hindi, the Dehati Pustak Bhandar, annually reprints a collection of verses from the Ramacaritamanasa, Hanumanbahuk, Hanuman Chalisa, Sankatmochan, and Hanuman Arti. These are collectively entitled Hanumanbahuk (n.d.a). Dehati Pustak Bhandar also publishes two other pamphlets, Hanumansathika (n.d.b), and Bajrang Ban (n.d.c).
This literature bears witness to Hanuman’s tremendous popularity. The fact that there is a considerable market for such religious “self-help” manuals is indicative of the fact that Hanuman remains a folk-deity in a modern context. He is accessible not only by virtue of his practical appeal but also because his worship is not regarded as esoteric or privileged. It is populist, available for mass consumption. The implications of this are significant. Publication of detailed manuals in Hindi effectively makes anyone who is able to read an expert religious functionary. The publication of knowledge also serves to personalize the nature of one’s interaction with Hanuman. By no longer being dependent on ritual specialists with esoteric knowledge, one can appropriate for oneself the methods and means for worship. Although the public worship of Hanuman through the agency of temple priests and specialists remains a mainstay of religious life, I have found that among wrestlers, at least, there is a deeply felt private identification with Hanuman on a personal level. This is not, I might add, the kind of ecstatic identification found in various bhakti cults. As we shall see, this personal identification with Hanuman takes many forms. On a manifest level, however, it is evident in the daily routine of the wrestler’s worship.
In the morning wrestlers clean Hanuman’s shrine with buckets and buckets of water, sometimes scrubbing the marble floor until it shines. Old flower garlands and stubs of incense are removed and the image of Hanuman is bathed with fresh water. Vermilion and ocher paste are prepared and the whole image of Hanuman is painted so that it radiates with a red-orange brilliance. Flower garlands are placed around the image, incense is lighted, and Hanuman is clothed and made comfortable. Although occasionally specialists are called into the akhara to perform a ritual of grand proportions, such as Nag Panchami, usually wrestlers themselves do the puja. In response to my persistent questions on the role and importance of religious functionaries I was told that everyone in an akhara is qualified to perform puja. It is not regarded as a specialized skill. It is a public obligation based on private devotion.
Hanuman is generally regarded as the son of Anjana, a nymph who was cursed with a simian appearance, and Kesari, a high-ranking warrior in Sugriva’s monkey army (Bulcke 1960: 394). However, in many mythic versions of Hanuman’s birth, paternity is ascribed to Vayu, the wind. Vayu is accused of surreptitiously impregnating Anjana. Acknowledging his paternity, but in recompense for undermining Anjana’s moral fidelity, he bestowed a boon of windlike speed and strength on Hanuman, his unborn son.
Hanuman’s relationship to Vayu is significant on a symbolic level. Through association with prana (vital breath) vayu is regarded as the purest of all elements. It is also thought to be the root substance from which fire, water, and earth are derived. Following the Yogashastras, Aryan suggests that the vital energy of Brahma is manifest in the air, and that the power associated with air—omnipotence and immortality—is transferred to Hanuman through the wind’s paternity (n.d.: 72). All of this, of course, relates to the general yogic principle encoded in wrestling vyayam where breath and proper breathing is regarded as an essential act of devotional exercise.
Hanuman is also regarded as the eleventh incarnation of Shiva (Bulcke 1960: 399; S. Shastri 1986: 13). According to one mythic version, Anjana was impregnated with Shiva’s seed. In answer to Kesari’s request for a child, Shiva took his seed (previously spilled at the sight of Vishnu in the guise of beautiful Mohini) and poured it into Anjana’s ear. According to Aryan it was Vayu who impregnated Anjana through her ear (n.d.: 73). In any case, from this seed Hanuman was born (Gotham 1980: 7–8). Hanuman is commonly regarded as the incarnation of Shiva’s Rudra form. Rudra is the manifestation of both creative and destructive cosmological forces and is often associated with fire (Aryan n.d.: 69). In this regard, Hanuman is often associated with the color red, and some wrestlers have told me that for this reason red is the color best suited for a wrestling langot. The earth of the pit is often referred to as “red,” and there is a direct correlation between the wrestler’s earth-besmeared body and the red ochre paste used to beautify images of Hanuman. Hanuman is similarly associated with fire and the color red in various mythic contexts: by trying to eat the sun, being a student of the sun, burning Lanka, and through the radiant brilliance of his own fiery body.
Two stories explain the nature of Hanuman’s supernatural power:
In this way all of the gods gave to Hanuman either a portion of their power or else protection from their power. One version of the story concludes with Brahma making the following sage remarks:
Once when he was young, Hanuman flew into the sky to catch and eat the sun which he mistook for a piece of fruit. The sun only just managed to escape from Hanuman’s grip and asked Indra the sky god for help. Indra agreed to help, and when Hanuman tried again to catch the sun Indra hit him on the chin and broke his jaw. Hanuman fell wounded to the earth. Angered by Indra, Hanuman’s father Pavanadeva (or Vayu), the wind, stopped all life by making it impossible for anyone to breathe. To appease the wind, Brahma used his power to heal Hanuman, and in addition gave him a boon of immortality and divine knowledge. On account of breaking his jaw, Indra gave Hanuman his name: Hanu meaning chin or jaw. Indra also gave Hanuman a boon of incomparable strength. In his turn the sun bestowed on Hanuman a boon of unsurpassed wisdom, radiant brilliance and the ability to change form at will. Yamraj gave to Hanuman a boon of perfect health. Kuber bestowed on him victory in all battles. Varuna promised that Hanuman would never suffer any harm from water. Vishvakarman gave Hanuman the boon of long life and protection against all kinds of dangerous weapons. In his turn Shiva gave Hanuman immunity from his trident. Yama bestowed on Hanuman a boon of unchanging youth (Rajesh Dixit 1978: 31).
One of the most striking features of Hanuman’s character is that he appears to be the essence of all divine power manifest in one form. He has the speed of the wind, the radiance of fire and immunity from water. As the essence of virility, he is able to bestow fertility on barren women and potency on men. He can tell the future and cure diseases. He is a master musician, a sage interpreter of the shastras, and a great grammarian (Bulcke 1960: 397). He is a warrior par excellence: immortal, tireless, and strong beyond compare. He is also capable of fervent and absolute devotion. Essentially he is all-powerful and all-loving. Each of his manifold abilities is regarded in different instances as more or less important than others. It is together, however, that they constitute an aura of generalized supernatural power. This generalized aura of shakti—inclusive of bhakti and brahmacharya—is an essential component of Tulasi Das’s poetry.
“Now hear this Pavanadeva, this son of yours will have the quickest and sharpest mind of all, he will be faster than anyone can imagine and he will be able to change his form at will. He will have tremendous courage and will be known by everyone. During the time of the battle between Rama and Ravana he will take on the form of Rama’s true and devout bhakta [one who performs bhakti]. In this form he will satisfy the spiritual needs of his own bhaktas by filling their hearts with adoration” (ibid).
One important event presages Hanuman’s role in the Ramayana. While growing up, Hanuman enjoyed playing in a garden near a sannyasi hermitage. He played tricks on the hermits by spilling their holy water, pulling their beards, and disturbing them while they tried to meditate and perform yoga. Frustrated, the hermits cursed Hanuman (some versions say on the instruction of his distraught father and mother) by making him forget that he possessed phenomenal strength. Only when reminded of his abilities by someone else is Hanuman able to exercise his divine mandate of strength, speed and changing form.
The majority of stories about Hanuman derive from one or another version of the Ramayana. In summary Hanuman’s role is as follows. As a devout Ram-bhakta, Hanuman goes in search of Ram’s princess bride, Sita, who has been abducted by Ravana, a demon king from Lanka. Hanuman finds Sita in Ravana’s garden where he gives her Ram’s ring as a sign of good faith. He is captured by Ravana’s guards and after engaging in a lively debate with the demon king, an oil-saturated cloth is tied to his tail and lighted. Turning this torture into a weapon of destruction, Hanuman lays waste the city of Lanka by jumping from roof to roof setting every house on fire. Hanuman returns and tells Ram of the situation. Accompanied by Sugriva’s army of monkeys and bears, Ram attacks Lanka. After numerous great battles in which Hanuman defeats many of Ravana’s great warriors, Ram’s brother Lakshman is mortally wounded. Hanuman is sent in search of a root which will cure Lakshman. Not being able to distinguish the correct root, Hanuman carries back the whole mountain on which the root is said to grow. Lakshman is cured and Ram finally kills Ravana and everyone returns to Ayodhya where Ram is crowned king. Hanuman remains at his side as servant, suppliant, and warrior.
In all stories about Hanuman, two features stand out as the most important aspects of his character: his strength, and his devotion to Ram. Although brahmacharya is not often mentioned with regard to Hanuman’s epic role, it too is an integral aspect of his character, a requisite condition for both his strength and his devotion.
The primary connotation of the term shakti is the life force that maintains the universe. Woodroffe (1929) has provided a complete analysis of the concept through a theological interpretation of scriptural references. It is not my purpose here to enter into a discussion of the theological nature of shakti and shakti worship. My concern is with the wrestlers’ conception of shakti as manifest in Hanuman.
Although shakti denotes a purely metaphysical concept of divine power, it is also used to articulate more basic human experiences. Shakti can refer to the abstract aura of cosmic creation and the attendant metaphors of divine procreation reflected in the union of Shiva/Shakti. More often it is used as a generic term to refer to any form of energy or power. In her discussion of shakti in village ritual life, Wadley has made this point clearly. Anything which is regarded as capable of exerting a force over human actions is thought to have shakti. What distinguishes shakti from bal (brute force and raw strength) is that shakti transcends the merely physical nature of power (1975: 55).
Wadley uses an unfortunate analogy to illustrate the distinction between shakti and bal. She says that bal is like a wrestler’s strength, whereas shakti is a divine quality (ibid: 59). While in principle the distinction holds true, in fact many wrestlers associate their strength with the latent and pervasive power of divine shakti. Wrestlers often make a distinction between their strength as shakti and the mundane bal of a manual laborer such as a rickshaw puller or construction worker. As one wrestler explained, shakti is like a latent resource upon which one can draw for strength. Bal, on the other hand, is purely active energy in the sense that it is manifest only in an actual event in which force is exerted. Trying to explain the nature of shakti, J. K. Pathak, a wrestler and one-time professor of physical education at Banaras Hindu University, used the analogy of horsepower. Shakti, he said, is the potential energy of any object. Shakti can be reflected as bal, but bal is only a fraction of the sum of an object’s total potential energy. Shakti itself is made manifest on those occasions when the purely physical is transcended or when bal is so great as to have supernatural proportion.
Wrestlers often use the term shakti very loosely, largely because from their perspective strength is never a purely physical property. For instance, a strong wrestler is said to have great shakti. A person who eats large amounts of ghi is also said to have shakti by virtue of his abnormal capacity. Nevertheless, when the term is used explicitly and self-consciously to describe a phenomenal event, it is clear that shakti is regarded as emanating from a confluence of physical strength, devotion, self-realization, and self-control. Shakti-shali is used to describe the radiance of a wrestler’s body, the gleam in his eye, his passive and devout disposition and also the size of his neck, arms, and thighs. A strong person who does not lead a good and moral life is not regarded as having shakti. Thugs, bullies, and gang leaders—anyone who makes a spectacle of his strength or who uses strength to advance selfish interests—is regarded as physically strong but morally weak, as having bal but not shakti. (Bal is not necessarily pejorative, merely mundane.) Conversely, one does not have to have great bal to have shakti. A relatively thin wrestler may radiate shakti by virtue of his devotion to Hanuman.
Hanuman is regarded as a manifestation of shakti (Wolcott 1978: 58), and in this regard he reflects many of the vital forces associated in other contexts with Nag. Hanuman is the essence of strength and virility. In temples and shrines Hanuman’s image is often found in association with lingams which are clearly symbols of shakti as a creative life force.
The notion of shakti associated with Shiva lingams is somewhat abstract. Lingams represent the cosmic and metaphysical nature of shakti as the agency through which the dynamic force of the universe is maintained. In response to a question on the nature of this shakti, one wrestler simply took me over to a shrine and wafted the air in my direction, asking if I could feel the energy. Beyond the overt sexual symbolism of the phallic lingam—which is itself abstracted to a high degree—there is not much in the way of tangible common sense meaning associated with it. The symbolism of the lingam does not evoke a set of meanings which are easily comprehensible in terms of everyday life.
In contrast to the metaphysical and somewhat opaque nature of the energy symbolized by lingams, Hanuman evokes a notion of concrete, manifest shakti. This is not to say that Hanuman’s shakti is different in kind from that of Shiva’s (for Hanuman is in fact his incarnation); Hanuman’s shakti is simply more tangible on a number of levels. For instance, by virtue of his boon of wisdom, Hanuman makes comprehensible the incomprehensible knowledge of Brahma. He reflects a fraction of the sun’s power, thus making what is beyond compare comparable. By being as fast as the wind he gives form to what is formless. Hanuman’s power falls on a liminal plane between the supernatural and the merely human. His feats are superhuman but still natural. What this means is that Hanuman functions as a mediating symbol through which human actions can be regarded in terms of divine shakti. For the wrestler this is very important. Through Hanuman he can see the divine nature of his own strength.
Hanuman is often depicted as a strong-bodied warrior-bhakta, mace in one hand, mountain in the other. Popular calendar art shows Hanuman in graphic, technicolor detail, with a golden-red, muscled body of larger-than-life proportions striking terror into the hearts of Lanka’s rank and file. Wrestlers identify with these visual representations, but more than anything else it is the popular verses from Tulasi Das’s Ramacaritamanasa which evoke the meaning of shakti.
One morning at Akhara Bara Ganesh I was introduced to a young man who performed the duties of temple priest by offering prayers and prasad and bathing and clothing Lord Hanuman. A few of the members sitting with me under the pipal tree next to the well called the priest over and asked him to sing a few verses for them. One man explained that the young priest had one of the best voices in the area and could sing praises to Lord Hanuman like no one else. The priest obliged with a rendition of some verses from the Ramacaritamanasa. As he sang the wrestlers reclined on the cement dais around the pipal, and, massaging one another and rubbing off the akhara earth from their bodies, receded into the revery of a vision invoked by the priest’s vibrato voice. Every time the priest stopped, pleading voices asked for more, until he was finally able to make his escape. Still singing softly, now to himself, he went over to where a small gada lay and started swinging it steadily, allowing each pendulum swing to punctuate the meter of his verse until the exertion took its toll and the hymn faded into the exercise and strength that it recalled in deeds glorified by visionary poetics:
For the wrestler listening to these and countless other verses, Hanuman’s shakti is both fabulous and yet fundamentally comprehensible in terms of everyday notions of strength, courage and bravery. As Hanuman uproots a mountain, so a wrestler lifts up his opponent. As Hanuman’s body radiates with a sun like glow, so the wrestler imagines his own body to be a lustrous icon of strength. As Hanuman battles with the demon-generals of Ravana’s army, so the wrestler pits himself against his opponents.
Says Tulasi, in the sky with that
great tail extended shone he,
Seeing him the warriors gibbered,
he was as terrible as Death,
As a treasury of Brightness,
as a thousand fiery suns,
His claws were terrifying,
his face all red with anger.
Thereupon, Hanuman became as huge as a mountain, with a body of golden hue and splendid majesty like that of a second mountain king. Roaring like a lion again and again, he cried, “I shall leap across the salt ocean; it is child’s play to me! When I have slain Ravana and all his allies, I shall come back here with Mount Trikuta uprooted” (Kishkindha 4. 29, in Wolcott 1978: 658).
A wrestler can never hope to become as strong or courageous as Hanuman. Nevertheless, through him the terms of strength and courage are made manifest in graphic detail. Hanuman represents the translation of abstract supernatural power—the cosmic notion of shakti—into more accessible but no less dramatic terms. Hanuman’s strength, while it may appear to be purely physical, is, in essence, the direct result of devotion and self-control.
Like shakti, bhakti has a general meaning from which the wrestlers derive specific significance for their everyday lives. Broadly defined, bhakti is a form of spiritual devotion which entails a mystical or ecstatic experience of divine love. It is a dominant theme in Tulasi Das’sRamacaritamanasa (Babineau 1979: 133–192; R. K. Tripathi 1977: 125–140). Since bhakti is a highly individualized form of adoration which involves a mystical and ineffable union with god, it is difficult to say what the experience of bhakti means to the enraptured devotee. In general, however, ultimate bhakti, like the experience of mystical bliss, is total absorption into the godhead; an experience of total release and total dependence on divine grace. A bhakta takes great pleasure in singing the praises of god. Tulasi Das enumerates nine frames of reference for the bhakta: 1) fraternity with sannyasis; 2) concentration on the lila (play) of the god; 3) service to the guru; 4) singing god’s praises; 5) reciting the name of god; 6) self-control and abnegation; 7) seeing the world as part of god, god in the world, and honoring the saint as greater even than god; 8) contentment with one’s lot; and 9) complete, blissful but emotionless surrender to god (R. K. Tripathi 1977: 133).
What is most significant about bhakti is that it articulates a spiritual attitude which goes beyond mere supplication and ritual to define a whole religious personality. One is never just occasionally a bhakta: bhakti is a way of life. In the Ramacaritamanasa, Lakshman, Bharat, Vibhishan, and Sita are all said to have devotional love for Ram. However, it is Hanuman who most deeply personifies a pervasive attitude of pure bhakti (Raghaveshananda 1980; Sridattasarma 1966).
As Wolcott has pointed out, Hanuman’s shakti derives directly fromhis adoration of Lord Ram (1978: 660). In the Tulasi Ramayana, Hanuman attributes everything—his jump to Lanka, his skill as a wrestler-warrior, and his wisdom—to Ram. On their first meeting in the Kishkindha forest, Hanuman falls at the feet of Ram and vows his undying devotion. Throughout the Ramacaritamanasa Hanuman is described as “thinking on Ram” or “keeping the image of Ram in his mind’s eye” before embarking on any task. Perhaps the most telling depiction of Hanuman’s bhakti is the following well-known story from the Ramayana: Sita gives Hanuman a garland which she had been given previously by Ram. Examining the gift, Hanuman finds that Ram’s name is not inscribed on the garland. He proceeds to tear the garland apart and eat it. When asked why he did this he explains that nothing is of use to him unless inscribed with the name of Ram. Asked why he does not then abandon his body, Hanuman tears open his chest to reveal Ram and Sita seated in his heart.
In another scene from the Ramayana, as interpreted by Rajesh Dixit (1978: 81), Hanuman falls at Ram’s feet after returning from his sojourn to Lanka. Wanting to embrace Hanuman, Ram tells him to get off his feet. But Hanuman refuses saying that he would not risk the pride that such an act would foster in his heart. He would rather remain a humble suppliant at the feet of his Lord.
For the wrestler, the lesson of Hanuman’s bhakti towards Ram is very clear. Just as Hanuman is helpless without the shakti he derives from his love for Ram, so the wrestler is powerless without a similar commitment of devotion to Hanuman. Hanuman’s relationship to Ram provides a model for the wrestler’s general attitude of adoration towards Hanuman.
For many people Hanuman provides a conduit through which they may experience Ram’s love. For the wrestler, however, Hanuman is himself the primary object of devotion and prayer. Although there are wrestlers for whom Hanuman worship is the express focus of single aspects of their lives—singing hymns, performing puja every morning, fasting on Saturdays—for the vast majority of wrestlers, bhakti is adopted as an integral but unselfconscious aspect of everyday life. It is neither restricted by time or place, nor limited to event or institution. What this means may be explained as taking on a devotional attitude towards the routine of life: a mundane, bhakti personality. The wrestler seeks to live his life as though every thought is of Hanuman and every breath a devotional prayer. However, he must do this as he goes about his daily routine: walking to work, working, exercising, resting, and eating. As previously indicated, wrestlers must keep the image of Hanuman fixed in their mind’s eye when they exercise. As one wrestler explained, this gives one “peace of mind.” Thinking of Hanuman, there is almost nothing that a wrestler cannot do. But should he not hold the image of Hanuman in his heart, exercise and training will be of no use. The same principle holds true for other aspects of life.
A wrestler who owns a business must conduct his affairs in a way which is in keeping with a general attitude of bhakti. For example one wrestler who owns a pan stall has transformed his shop into a quasi-shrine by painting it a holy ochre tint and filling it with pictures of Hanuman, Shiva, and other gods. More importantly, he sings hymns as he conducts his business. Other wrestlers do not affect a formal religious attitude to this extent but they do point out that as they go about delivering milk, selling coal, or trading buffalos they try to keep their heart and mind focused on Hanuman.
Bhakti entails contemplation of Hanuman’s character, and Hanuman’s character is revealed through his deeds as described in the Ramacaritamanasa. Just as Hanuman’s superhuman strength provides a model for the wrestler’s physical aspirations, Hanuman’s bhakti provides a model for contemplation. To “think on Hanuman”—as wrestlers are want to say—is to think of the power of his love for Ram. While ecstatic bhakti entails the fervent singing of hymns, the bhakti of the wrestler’s everyday life revolves around the recitation of memorized verses from the Ramacaritamanasa or the popular Hanuman Chalisa. It is common to hear wrestlers and other bhaktas reciting poetic stanzas under their breath as they sit in their shops or go about their business. The recitation of poetic stanzas not only articulates the bhakta’s devotion, the verses themselves often underscore the nature of Hanuman’s bhakti:
Enraptured in Lord’s deeds fore e’er thou art, Dwelling in Ram, Lakshman and Sita’s heart.
All that on earth one finds hard to do, Simple becomes when one is blessed with you.
All suffering and all anguish of deep pain, End when one dwells on mighty Hanuman’s name.
Distress shall end, all anguish cease as well, When on mighty Hanuman your mind will dwell.
Hanuman’s bhakti not only provides a model for the wrestler’s general attitude towards his everyday life, it also provides a model for his relationship to his guru. As pointed out previously, the guru-chela relationship is paramount in the akhara. A wrestler must surrender himself to the service of his guru. Service of this sort—rubbing his feet, washing his clothes, running his errands—is not intended as an obligation but as an act of devotion. There are many stories of Hanuman’s exploits which illustrate his bhakti-service to Lord Ram. One in particular will serve as an example.
Hanuman’s service to Ram was so complete that Lakshman, Sita, Shatrugan, and Bharat found themselves unable to do anything for their Lord. They were unable to show their devotion. They decided that to be fair everyone would be assigned a particular duty through which they could serve Ram. As the duties were divided up, Hanuman was left off the roster. Sita asked him how he felt about this and Hanuman said, “It is service enough that I should sing the praises of Ram whenever my Lord yawns.” Everyone agreed to this. Because no one could tell when Ram would yawn, Hanuman had to stay with him at all times, a situation which pleased Hanuman to no end. The others were disgruntled since Hanuman was in the enviable position of not only being with Ram at all times but right in front of him, looking into his face to be sure that no yawn went unnoticed. Lakshman, Bharat, and the others told Hanuman that this would not do. Rather than protest, however, Hanuman went and sat in a corner of the palace and started endlessly singing Ram’s praises. When asked what he was doing, he explained that since he no longer knew when Ram would yawn he simply had to sing Ram’s praises all the time in order to perform his duty. Seeing Hanuman singing with such devotion, Ram was moved to tears and could not ask his bhakta to stop. When Lakshman and the others asked Hanuman to desist, he replied saying that he would comply only if no restrictions were put on his service to the Lord. The others had no option but to agree to this bhakti blackmail.
Like Hanuman and his compatriots, wrestlers compete for the honor of being of greatest service to their guru. A wonderful story is told about how, as a young disciple, Guru Ram Singh served his own guru. One day Ram Singh’s guru needed some special dal and asked his ward to go and fetch half a kilogram from the market. Ram Singh dashed off and searched every store in the market but was not able to find the required item. He was told that such dal was only found in Calcutta. Off went Ram Singh to the train station and bought a ticket to the city. He returned three days later, half a kilogram of dal in hand, and went immediately to his guru’s house. His guru, not a little perturbed, asked what had taken so long, and Ram Singh explained. Rather than being rebuked for his impertinence at having wasted time and money for such an insignificant amount of dal, Ram Singh was praised by his guru for having provided such selfless service.
Although service manifests itself in practical ways, it is also reflected in less tangible form through living a moral and righteous life, coming early to the akhara, and hanging on one’s guru’s every word.
Since the persona of the guru is divine, service to one’s guru is indeed an act of supplication, a religious duty. Just as the wrestler is enjoined to keep the image of Hanuman in mind, so must he think upon his guru. One wrestler went so far as to say, “As we worship Hanuman, so we worship the guru. It is the same thing.” This is, in fact, understandable, since Hanuman is not only the wrestler’s ishta devta (primary deity) but also his sat guru (true or great guru). From the suppliant’s perspective, the distinction between guru and deity is simply a matter of degree. In every instance that puja was done in front of the Hanuman shrine at Akhara Ram Singh, a framed portrait of the founding guru was brought out and placed next Hanuman’s image. The two figures comprise an indivisible pair.
In general, Hanuman’s devotion to Ram provides a clear and pragmatic model for the incorporation of bhakti into everyday life. Hanuman embodies many of the devotional virtues to which wrestlers subscribe.
From the wrestler’s perspective, Hanuman’s most important character trait is his brahmacharya, his complete celibacy and self control. As one wrestler said: “Hanuman is the form of brahmacharya. If wrestlers are brahmacharis then they will do well. This is why Hanuman is manifest in the akhara.” In one way or another every wrestler I asked about his devotion to Hanuman explained his reverence in terms of Hanuman’s brahmacharya. Self-control is an arduous task, and wrestlers look to Hanuman for both guidance in how to remain celibate and also for a general validation of the virtue of brahmacharya.
While the attributes of shakti and bhakti define the largest part of Hanuman’s character, his brahmacharya is taken for granted. It is only occasionally mentioned in myth and folklore. In one story (Bulcke 1960: 400; O’Flaherty 1984: 95, 96) Hanuman is approached by a demigod named Matsyaraja, otherwise known as Matsyagarbha, who claims to be his son. Hanuman protests, saying that this is impossible given that he is celibate. Matsyaraja’s birth is explained, however, by the fact that drops of Hanuman’s sweat were swallowed by a fish while Hanuman was bathing in the ocean. The sweat impregnated the fish and Matsyaraja was born. The only other overt mythic reference to Hanuman’s chastity is found in the Ramayana. While in search of Sita, Hanuman finds himself in Ravana’s queen’s dressing chamber. The power of his brahmacharya is so great, however, that he is not distracted by desire (Bulcke 1960: 401).
Stories of Hanuman’s conception and birth are also evidence of his celibate character. Many versions say that Anjana was impregnated through one ear and that Hanuman was born through the other. He is thus said to have had no direct contact with sex as such (cf. Wolcott 1978: note 661; Aryan n.d.: note 73).
To some extent these explicit statements of Hanuman’s self-control are beside the point. For the wrestler there is no question but that both Hanuman’s shakti and his bhakti derive directly from brahmacharya. Every reference to his strong body and incomparable devotion is a tribute to his absolute celibacy. The reverse logic applies as well. Shakti and bhakti enable Hanuman to be a perfect brahmachari. One wrestler made the following observation: “Unless one is always a brahmachari—which is to say always have a ‘tight langot’—one will never do well. Only then can one be strong. In order to remain a brahmachari one must be a bhakta. If a person is not a bhakta then one’s mind will wander from the goal of brahmacharya.”
Shakti, bhakti, and brahmacharya constitute a powerful tautological conundrum: a spiral of ever-increasing virtue and strength based on moral control and devotion. Hanuman represents the confluence of these forces. His exploits demonstrate the veracity of their interrelationship.
Brahmacharya is taken for granted as the underlying basis for much of what Hanuman does. But while shakti and bhakti are given a concrete form in Hanuman, the concept of brahmacharya remains somewhat abstract. It is alluded to through the sexual symbolism of virility manifest in the color red and in the phallic mace which Hanuman carries, but aside from these specific signs, brahmacharya is not explicitly coded in temple images, popular art, or mythic poetics.
The rules for the practice of brahmacharya, discussed previously in the context of body discipline, complement and often underscore the devotional prescriptions for bhakti. A theme which emerges consistently in any consideration of brahmacharya, is the need to keep one’s mind focused on pure and moral virtues. To sing the praises of god and to “think on god” are the best ways to insure that one does not dwell on sensual, worldly gratification. The complementary natures of bhakti and brahmacharya are clearly manifest in Hanuman. Insofar as Hanuman is completely absorbed in the contemplation of Ram, the world of sensory satisfaction pales in comparison to the invigorating bliss of service and devotion.