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.