Hanuman and the Living World of Hinduism by Professor Vamsee Juluri Novelist, author and professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.
Hanuman is the heart of Hinduism. He is the missing link, so to speak, not just between the world of gods and humans (or “animals,” as one might say), but really between history and mythology, between reality as we think it is, and just reality.
Hanuman’s love, after all, is something we know easily to be true. In our hearts, what we find in Hanuman’s story is not just a god’s love but God’s Love. There is something inimitable about the adoration we find ourselves with before Hanuman, that does not quite seem like the devotion we feel before any other deity. But that is subjective; to each his or her own sense of devotion.
There is, however, a more objective, academic exercise that Hanuman requires from us now. That is simply the question of who is Hanuman, or as the narrator asks in the beautiful, poetic William Buck Ramayana, “who is this monkey, Hanuman?”
He is Rama’s, and Rama is his.
Rarely in culture has a servant been the subject of even greater glory than the master.
It is a fine Hindu sentiment, though not often seen in practice. In theory though, in our culture of myth, legend, art, and worship, it is embodied deeply. It is the idea that the divine, God with a Capital G, the formless One, the One, exists not only independently of everything but also in all of us, in all things, and in all living things, in particular. In theory, everyone is an avatar, so to speak; but since most everyone hardly lives up to the ethical expectations of a deity, only some of us get that exalted status of being called avatars or mahatmas.
But Hanuman, somehow, is different. We revere the devotees of the gods as saints, but Hanuman is no mere devotee. It is as if God is playing the role of one, just to show us how its done; just to show us how a life-form that is often an object of ridicule, a term of contempt, can be so self-mastered as to humble us before His Love. Hanuman over-whelms his devotees with something; we can call it strength, wisdom, courage, selflessness, austerity, brotherhood, or trust. We can elevate his birth-story with avatar interpretations, as many recent animated tales are doing, that he was no mere monkey, but an incarnation of the mighty God Shiva himself.
But all stories are just stories we propose before the impossibility of the yearnings that inspire them. Hanuman is wind; not just speed, or force, the terms on which a modern mind accords respect; like the powers of a superhero. Hanuman is wind, like air, like life itself. He is something; or as we say these days, he is something else!
What we feel will always be more than what we presume to theorize, when it comes to matters of spirit, and none more so than the case of the worship that attends Hanuman.
Yet, in an age of discourse and debate, in a time when the world has shifted from silence and contemplation to media -noise and argument, theory is a useful pursuit too. The problem, of course, is that theories about religion and the academic discourse have become the new Religion with an imperial capital “R.” Though academia likes to think it is the cutting-edge of free-inquiry, the bastion of noble thoughts and modern ideals like freedom and democracy, some of its less free quarters have proved undemocratic and intolerant in the extreme.
Hinduism studies, in particular, have, in the hands of some over-privileged scholars, turned into an abomination not just again Hinduism, but against the whole spirit of scholarship too. By ignoring Hindus, and most importantly, what Hinduism means to Hindus, hiding behind high ideals like fighting caste and hierarchy, a small but over-glorified group of writers have gone one a crazy mission to the end, where it seems only sanity or their arguments will be left standing (for more on this, please visit my article Hinduism and its Culture Wars in an earlier issue of Live Encounters LINK).
Perhaps the only thing they will have to say about Hanuman is that he represents the oppression of native Indians by invading Aryans.
Or, in time, they may even say that Hanuman’s legend implies that ancient Hindus ate monkey-brains.
The opposition to such furious and absurd mendacity has been growing. In recent years, Hindu Americans, and younger, educated Hindus in India, and their friends and supporters from around the world, have stopped and wondered if the absurdities of certain Hinduism “experts” are really a response to the rise of identity-politics in India as they claim, or just a continuation of old prejudices under new labels. The anger against this brazen disdain for their subject of study, for the fact that some scholars literally feed off the carcasses they have made of our living culture and art, has grown. Some Hindus, lash out in the language of our times, and get labeled as “fundamentalist,” maybe even going so far as to throw an egg at a Hinduism scholar they don’t like. Others though, are taking a longer view, holding on to their values, in equal measure Hindu and secular, tolerant and assertive, and one might say, devotional, and academic.
It is in that new space, of those who wish to understand Hinduism historically and academically, but also in a way that is true to their cultural roots, that Hanuman now rests, like on the flagpole of Krishna’s chariot.
Much of the debate about Hinduism today, and much of the acrimony that has come, has to do with history. Until very recently, till the 1980s or so, most Hindus did not pay attention to how their history was being written or taught in schools, in India, or in the United States. This reticence was not indifference or cowardice, or some noble Nehruvian secularism either, but just a continuation of a colonial-era strategy of silence.
Hinduism survived colonialism, a force that effectively destroyed the native faiths and cultures of almost every land on earth, through a very Hindu approach of adjustment. In its every day form, it meant getting on with life and worship, and agreeing with whatever the colonizers wanted or wanted to say. In its most sophisticated form, it was Gandhi’s Satyagraha; the translation of the Hindu belief in the oneness of divinity into a political movement that as Cesar Chavez would later say, stop the victim from being a victim, and the executioner from being an executioner too.
However, in that long period between Gandhi and the present, when India’s independence did not turn out to mark any major social investment in the study, promotion, or modernization of the interpretation of its enormous intellectual history and culture (save for the Amar Chitra Katha comics and the mythological movies of NT Rama Rao), Hinduism remained in limbo, so to speak. We lived it, as our parents did, and we also accepted its changes, positively, especially, on issues like democratization and caste. But for a younger generation, educated, confident, more globally exposed, working and interacting with peers from all around the world, a better story about Hinduism became essential. For them, Hinduism became a civilizational story. They noticed what the history books were saying about their religion, and they began to speak up.
This is where we must turn to Hanuman.
The present effort to better understand the history of Hinduism cannot go very far if we keep looking at history as the account of wars, conquests, or even cities, roads, buildings, seals, wheels, spears and other inventions. We need to look at the living world, the world of animals, birds, fish, plants, and even the invisible life-forms such as viruses and bacteria which in the days before microscopes we knew anthropomorphically as forms of the “goddess” when we got cholera or small-pox. We need to recognize that Hinduism, perhaps more than any other culture, has for the most part refused to participate in a very recent, very specific, assertion in human history of man’s voice over that of all of nature’s.
We need to respectfully understand therefore that Hanuman does not represent the conquest of native Indians (or “Dravidians”) by some fair-skinned invading “Aryans.” That, as another cool figure from more recent mythology might say, just an opinion.
Hanuman has to be understood- in the academic context that is- more accurately as a part of Hinduism’s long-standing pact with nature. For that, we must first learn to critique just how much our present worldview is steeped in not just Eurocentrism or Orientalism, as we know these days, but frankly, in speciesism and anthropocentrism as well. This tendency is a fairly recent one in human history. It was elevated into science (or pseudo-science) and some religion in recent times, but somehow, in Hinduism, it did not fully replace an earlier sensibility that may have been specific not just to India, but perhaps far more universal as well. It is for historians to debate just how much and how widespread it once might have been.
But for now, we need to recognize at least one thing: there is a problem today with not just Hindu history, but really with history more broadly too. We need to go back and unpack exactly when, where and how, the voice of man rose to silence the voice of non-human life all together.
This does not mean that we have to accept that the Ramayana’s talking monkeys and vultures and bears are literal truths (nor should we have anything but reciprocal laughter for uninformed skeptics who try to assert that talking animals are common to the Ramayana and to Disney cartoons so they’re both the same). What it does mean though, is that we need to go beyond human history, in every sense of the word, from now on. We need to go beyond wondering whether Hanuman was from a tribe whose totem was the monkey, or whether animals represented subaltern voices in the hegemonic texts. We need to look at Hinduism in the face, as it stares at us to this day, in the form of Hanuman, more than anyone else, and listen, once again, to the world of life that he represents; and to the fact that no matter how much noise, how much harm, we humans make, all of life is still bigger than us, in some ways better than us, and is looking at us now, impatiently, and in the form of Hanuman, perhaps, still kindly.
We need, most of all, to get over what our culture has taught us for several centuries about animals and humans, and very simply, listen to what they are saying again.
And maybe, among all the chatter, when we look only into their eyes, into their souls, and when we overcome our doubts whether we are perhaps only anthropomorphizing them, imputing our thoughts to their dumb faces, we will realize the one question they are asking us: You, Hanuman’s people, you whom we have watched rise from the dawn of time to an upright, biped walking position; why do you do this now to us?
Some Reading Suggestions:
The life and legends of Hanuman are beautifully captured in Vanamali’s Hanuman. Philip Lutgendorf’s Hanuman’s Tale is a densely researched historical account of Hanuman in Indian scripture and literature. Devdutt Pattnaik’s Hanuman combines some of both approaches and is richly illustrated by the author. For a critique of speciesism in our thought and culture today, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant Eating Animals, and also Peter Singer’s classic Animal Liberation. For an account of the “silencing” of animals, so to speak, parts of Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution are very useful. Nanditha Krishnan’s Sacred Animals of India is a wonderful compendium of the many names and meanings of animals in Indian religious cultures.
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies and Asian Studies at the University of San Francisco and an author, novelist and columnist.
His books include:
-Saraswati’s Intelligence: Part 1 of The Kishkindha Chronicles, a fictional trilogy set in prehistoric India inspired by the monkey god Hanuman (Westland, 2017)
-Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2015) www.rearminghinduism.com
-Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema (Penguin India, 2013)
-The Mythologist: A Novel (Penguin India, 2010)
-Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (Peter Lang, 2003)
His articles and columns have been published in Foreign Affairs, San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, Indian Express, The Hindu, The Times of India, Swarajya, and Hinduism Today magazine.
He has been a guest or media expert on Hinduism and Hindu cultural politics, India, Indian diaspora, and Bollywood and Indian media for KQED’s Forum, PRI’s The World, Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service, NBC News Asian America, and other media, and has also been quoted in the Washington Post, Guardian and elsewhere.
Professor Juluri teaches classes at USF on Global Media, Indian Cinema, Gandhi, and Media Violence. He is currently working on a book on American media representations of Hinduism from 1928 to the present.
© Professor Vamsee Juluri