Angry Hanuman: Narendra Modi has put finger on buzzer; Hinduism continues to remain pincushion for 'liberal' bigotry

Trust Narendra Modi to set the terms of the debate. As I have argued earlier in these columns, the prime minister is a master communicator adept at shaping the narrative. So it is that during an election rally on Saturday he applauded Karan Acharya — the Mangaluru-based graphic artist whose stylised version of Hanuman has become ubiquitous in India — for his creativity and talent. But Modi didn't stop there. He went on to criticise the Congress and its "ecosystem" for dragging the young artist's creation into controversy.

"I want to applaud artist Karan Acharya whose image of Hanuman ji has become wildly popular across the country and has set a trend. He deserves high praise for his creativity. I noticed all TV channels have queued up for his interview. This is the triumph of his art, talent and imagination. He is the pride of Mangaluru," Modi said during a rally at Nehru Maidan, adding a swipe: "However, there are some who seem to be very uncomfortable with the turn of events".

"The Congress’ ecosystem cannot tolerate even the magnificent art of Karan Acharya whose Hanuman ji has captured the country's imagination. Unable to digest its popularity, the Congress tried miring it in a controversy and defaming it. There is not an iota of democracy in the minds of the Congress members… Such a party does not deserve to rule Karnataka even for a day more," he said.

By now, many are aware of the details of the vector graphic which Acharya had created in 2015 to cater to the demands of a local youth club. The image of a pensive Hanuman, furrowed brows and intense eyes, soon became a rage across India, taking even its creator by surprise.

The 'Angry Hanuman' poster. News18

The 'Angry Hanuman' poster. News18

The graphic, done in saffron and black, now adorns T-shirts, rear-view mirrors, windshields, motorbikes, smartphone displays, accessories and so on. In an interview to Hindustan Times, the 28-year-old artist said he is now being called as "Hanuman ji ka artist" and is apparently getting a lot of work offers.

Modi's allusion to 'Congress ecosystem' and its attempts to "defame" the creation stems from recent references that have called Acharya's artwork an 'angry' reflection of 'militant Hinduism'. The frown, saffron-and-black shades have become the reinforcement of political Hindutva that seeks to propagate 'naked majoritarianism'. Hanuman, apparently, is no longer a "benign" bhakt of Lord Ram but the symbol of religious chauvinism, and its viral representation in popular culture the ostensible "proof" of BJP's political and cultural dominance.

It hasn't stopped there. The interpretation has led to "secular" activism from rootless "progressives" whose actions reflect the very intolerance that they claim to despise. The wings of Hinduism have been clipped, its pluralism reduced to a binary and its totems and symbols subjected to Abrahamic demonisation. And this illiberal interpretation of a liberal religion has become a project for 'liberalism' aided by strong moral overtones. If this isn't reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), one doesn't know what is.

A much-discussed article in The Wire refers to the viral artwork as 'Hanuman 2.0" and a symbol of "militant Hinduism". "Hanuman 2.0 is not benign. The smile on his face has been replaced with strong frown lines. He radiates mean energy against a black and saffron background. His thunderous expression spells danger, and makes it clear he is no longer a server but a destroyer," it contends.

Some articles call it the "angry Hanuman" and try to trace how it "became a rage" in India.

“I completely understand that symbols can be interpreted in various ways but it is so hard to not relate this to politics and political ideology. The fact that it is black and saffron and already the new face of outfits like Bajrang Dal is very scary,” one journalist is quoted, as saying in a News18 article. The piece also quotes a content writer, as saying: "Every time I see these stickers, I am reminded of two things — the expression of saffron nationalism. And not just by a nationalist, but by an angry ‘mard’ (man)," said Sharma."

A Kerala-based writer and activist said she would boycott all public vehicles that flaunt posters of the "angry Hanuman". According to an article in the News Minute, J Devika made the statement while participating in a panel discussion for a TV channel, "In Thiruvananthapuram, there are so many autorickshaws that bear posters of the rudra Hanuman. I will not get into any such auto, even if I have to walk for 2 kilometers. Moreover, I will not engage with anyone who bears symbols of extreme Hindutva, and I refuse to help in making profits for any organisation that bears such marks."

Her statement that she would "boycott anyone or any organisation using the ‘Angry Hanuman’ symbol" was apparently endorsed by many on social media. Some have suggested shunning cabs from taxi aggregators.

Deccan Herald reports that Resmi R Nair, an activist and Bengaluru-based model, has posted on Facebook against cabs with the Hanuman sticker, describing it as a symbol of aggressive Hindutva. She said she wouldn’t board such cabs or pay cancellation charges.

The problem seems to be that it is an expression of aggressive Hindutva centred around a culturally appropriated image of Hanuman that is apparently "far removed" from its benign roots. To begin, it isn't clear why the image is being called "angry", or "rudra".

The artist himself has clarified that his unsmiling Hanuman isn't "angry". He has no clue why it is being called so. Acharya says his Hanuman has "attitude".

But since this is art, it is open to interpretation. Professor Philip Lutgendorf, author of Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey, was quoted as saying by Scroll that “the rise in devotion for Hanuman has been going on for quite a few centuries and has gotten intensified in the 20th century, probably in the same way that just about all religious activity in India has gotten intensified.. None of this (is) specifically tied to a kind of Hindutva or anti-minority message, but it can easily be. I don’t argue with the possibility that it gets interpreted that way.”

A group that distributes food to the poor uses Hanuman stickers because "it is different and gets your attention". For 'Balaji Kunba — a family against hunger', Hanuman is angry, but its ire is directed towards hunger and poverty, according to a report in The Times of India.

Even if we consider the artwork as an expression of "anger", it isn't clear why that should trigger calls for boycott. In the article that discovers 'militant Hinduism' in the image, what strikes one is the fallacy in taking one avatar of a Hindu god as the reference point. Hanuman is benign, docile and submissive but he is also a ferocious warrior, a soldier, a fearsome destroyer whose rage cannot be contained and whose one roar is enough to make the three worlds tremble. Evil vanishes at the utterance of his very name, writes Tulsidas in Hanuman Chalisa.

Aapan tej samharo aapai/ Teenhon lok hank te kanpai
Bhoot pisaach Nikat nahin aavai/ Mahavir jab naam sunavae

All of this is "true". It isn't just misinformation to reduce such a ferocious warrior who burnt Lanka down to cinders to a one-dimensional, "benign" creature. It is worse, because the writer misses the very first point of Hinduism which encourages plurality and multiplicity of views, not adherence to one view. There is no 'one truth' in Hinduism, there are 'many truths'.

Or maybe the discomfort lies with the assertiveness of Hindutva because it militates against the notion of a benign, non-proselytising religion that is expected to roll over and make space for Abrahamic faiths and the unsmiling Hanuman verily looks as if he ready to fight that eventuality?

The issue, ultimately, isn't whether the imagery is "angry", pensive", or "benign". It is about the vilification of a religion and its practitioners based on an ill-informed and mischievous interpretations. The poster of Hanuman has not been associated with any acts of crime or violence, and therefore, to call for boycott of public vehicles that display the image is intolerance, elitism, bigotry and cultural chauvinism all rolled into one.

As senior journalist Charmy Jayasree Harikrishnan, protesting against these unjustified calls for boycott has written: "India is still a free country and there is nothing to suggest that all those who display a particular poster of Hanuman belong to a group that harass or rape women… And stop insisting that Hanuman should be smiling. You are displaying the worst traits of those whom you claim to oppose. You are not only trying to establish mob justice and calling for subversion of freedom of expression, but this also amounts to blatant discrimination and denying employment due to prejudices…," according to a report in The News Minute.

These misappropriations have also led to lopsided cultural wars. One VHP functionary was rightly condemned for tweeting that he had cancelled a ride from a taxi aggregator "because the driver was a Muslim". His misdemeanor has been called out by many. In righteous indignation, some have called for Abhishek Mishra, the VHP member, to be punished for his hate speech

Yet, this condemnation was singularly missing when it came to censoring Resmi Nair, the Bengaluru resident who was openly discriminatory against cabs which had the temerity to display the "angry Hanuman" picture even though, as has been pointed out, that image has not been associated with any acts of violence or crime. This prejudice has slipped through gaping holes of our collective consciousness.

The unfortunate conclusion is that Hinduism and its practitioners continue to be at the receiving end of 'liberal bigotry' — a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing of moral uptightness. Modi has put the finger on the buzzer, yet again.


Updated Date: May 07, 2018 19:45 PM

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