Mythology for the Millennial: The image of 'angry Hanuman' does a disservice to his vast and varied mythology
You can't divorce Hanuman's simian nature from his godliness. In fact, the very thing that makes him such a perfect ally to Ram in the Ramayana is his monkeyness; his long tail, his ability to leap great distances.
Why did we start associating this god — the ultimate devotee — with aggression and not with service?
From curious child to mischief maker to loyal friend, the 'angry Hanuman' image does a disservice to the rest of his mythology.
“Oh dear, you've got one of those angry Hanuman sticker cabs,” my friend said to me as I was leaving her house. Sure enough, the Wagon R I had ordered bore the outline of the very recognisable monkey god, black outline against saffron orange, his eyes frowning, his mouth set into a scowl — that is if monkey faces can be said to scowl. “Text me when you get home,” my friend said, nervously.
The angry Hanuman phenomenon has been written about elsewhere. To quote from one of the articles: “ [..]the celibate Bhakt, becomes an apt symbol for the new and aggressive variety of macho in India that is already denying privacy and freedom of speech to women vehemently through fringe groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Ram Sene.” But I've been thinking more about the origins of Hanuman, the god who didn't hate women, far from it, who should be lurking as a protector on taxi cabs instead of that image of “don't f*ck with me”. Why did we start associating this god — the ultimate devotee — with aggression and not with service?
You can't divorce Hanuman's simian nature from his godliness. In fact, the very thing that makes him such a perfect ally to Ram in the Ramayana is his monkeyness; his long tail, his ability to leap great distances. In natural history terms, he'd look a little like a grey langur, but in the same way, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle looked like a turtle. Grey langurs are also called Hanuman langurs (and allowed free access into a lot of the temples dedicated to the god). They can leap twelve to fifteen feet horizontally and up to 40 feet downwards. That's about the distance from our third-floor balcony all the way to our car parked downstairs, so pretty superhuman already.
Hanuman himself was a special sort of langur from the start. His name is popularly attributed to the shape of his face: “hanu” for “jaw” and “mant” for prominent, but there's a lesser known Sanskrit theory that says the etymology of his name could also be “han” for destroyed” and “maan” for “pride,” basically, one who is selfless, which works with his character in general — the loving brave soldier who risked his life for the people he loved. Hanuman's also celibate, though there is a story that tells otherwise.
Apparently, Hanuman was studying really hard under Surya, the sun god, and realised there was one bit of his reading material that was only accessible to married men. But Hanuman was into the idea of celibacy by then, so Surya picked one of his daughters, a woman called Suvarchala, who was devoted to penance herself. They got married and then went their separate ways — the first marriage of convenience in mythology.
This celibacy is confined only to the Sanskrit texts however. In Hanuman myths in other countries, and also in Jainism, refer to him as married at least twice to human princesses.
Hanuman was born to an apsara called Anjana, reborn as a vanara princess, literally “forest dweller.” Unclear on where the monkey myth came from, but in the following centuries, vanara, as you probably know has come to mean “monkey.” Just to be clear: there's no actual mention in previous Vedic literature about them being animals. But the Ramayana gave them human politics and characteristics as well as fur and a tail. So, y'know. (Insert shrug emoji.)
Anyhow, so Anjana was married to a vanara prince called Kesari, and one day she was sitting at her prayers when a stray wind dropped some rice pudding into her cupped hands. Seeing it a sign from god, she ate it and nine months later, or thereabouts, Hanuman was born, fathered by the wind god, Vayu, since he had dropped the pudding in the first place. Fun fact: the rice pudding was actually from Dasharatha's puja, where he was distributing it to his three wives, from which puja Ram, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrugan were born. So Hanuman was sort of tied to their destiny from the moment he was conceived.
Another Hanuman story you've probably heard is the one where he leaps up towards the sun, mistaking it for a fruit. Much like Icarus in the Greek myths, he is punished for trying to get too close. (Icarus' wings melt, Hanuman is struck by Indra, king of the gods, with a thunderbolt to the jaw). Vayu, Hanuman's godly bio-dad is furious at this treatment of his son, so retreats to a cave, holding the corpse of his sun. Everyone starts to suffocate after a while with no wind, so the gods persuade Vayu to come out, give Hanuman back his life and a bunch of boons besides. This coming back from the dead can be seen in another of Hindu mythology's animal/human deities: Ganesh.
There's one last story about Hanuman I like, because it's sort of like an epilogue. Millennia after the Ramayana, Hanuman is sitting in a forest, he's immortal and a demi-god, so I like to think of him as just chilling, recalling the good old days etc, when his half-brother from another mother, Bheema from the Mahabharata, comes strolling in. Hanuman decides to pretend to be an old feeble monkey and when Bheema asks him to get out of the way, he says, weakly, “Why don't you just move my tail out of the way instead?” Bheema tries, and fails, and then Hanuman reveals himself and tells Bheema that there'll be a war soon, and that he, Hanuman, will personally fly on Bheema's standard, as an emblem of strength. I think that's where the angry Hanuman image comes in, but it's doing a disservice to the rest of his mythology, vast and varied, from curious child to mischief maker to loyal friend. I'd root for that Hanuman to be back in fashion again.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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