Wednesday, September 17, 2014

He Who is Swift as the Mind

I know John said no blogs this week, but I had already written this one, so you guys get it anyway (albeit on the wrong day)! Today, someone writes in to say Hanuman seems awesome. Let's hear about him! You are so right, friend - Hanuman is awesome!

Hanuman is a badass monkey warrior god who cannot possibly be anything but a barrel of fun. He's hard to classify; you can't really call him "god of X specific thing" the way you can some other deities, because depending on which scriptures he appears in and what area he is worshiped in, he might be considered a god of guardianship, of warfare and athletics, or of religious devotion as exemplified by his dedication to Rama, his bosom companion and an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Regardless of exactly what you consider his most important representation, he is undeniably popular, with legends of his exploits retold and reenacted with great verve all over India and in Hindu communities worldwide.

As far as what Hanuman does, he is a delightful mix of simian mischief and righteously pious spiritualism. Sometimes he is doing ridiculous things such as you would expect of any super-powered monkey, like trying (and almost succeeding, much to universal consternation) to eat the sun because it looks like a delicious mango or repeatedly blowing up the bridges built by the hero Arjuna until the latter decided he might have to commit suicide thanks to his substandard bridge-building capabilities. But at other times he is being the holiest and most pious of people, allowing himself to be intentionally captured and tortured in order to get information and deliver messages from Rama and forcing Shani, lord of misfortune, to allow all who worship Hanuman devoutly to escape his malevolent influence.

There are a ton of stories about Hanuman doing awesome stuff, so we'll have to pick and choose, but let's start with his conception and birth. Although there are a few different versions of his parentage, he is popularly considered to be the son of Vayu, god of wind, air and breath, who responded to the prayers of Anjana, an apsara woman who had married a monkey chieftain, to help her conceive. It's also very common to consider Hanuman to be an avatar of Shiva, god of destruction, who incarnated on earth in order to help out his fellow god Vishnu's avatar Rama, so occasionally it's said that Shiva directed Vayu to grant Anjana's wish in order to make sure his avatar was born. Just as Vishnu and Shiva are often inseparable and helpful to one another, balancing each others' powers as they do, so Hanuman and Rama need one another to succeed and form an unbeatable team of heroism.

But not yet. First, Hanuman has some serious growing pains to get through, starting with his solar escapades, which begin when, as a child, he sees the sun in the sky and mistakes it for a ripe, juicy mango. He decides to dedicate himself to eating that mango, and in his quest to grab it collides with Rahu, the disembodied head of an asura who is the lord of eclipses, whom he then beats thoroughly for trying to keep him away from his treat. When Rahu complains to Indra, king of the gods, that the scheduled eclipse he was supposed to cause now isn't happening because of this troublesome monkey child, Indra strikes him with a thunderbolt and permanently scars him in order to punish him.

Unfortunately for everyone in the universe, Vayu responds to this attack on his son by withdrawing all air from the world, which begins suffocating all life in very short order. Indra is forced to take his thunderbolt back and allow Hanuman to return to consciousness to prevent everyone from dying of asphyxiation, and then furthermore he and all the other gods have to provide Hanuman with magical gifts and boons to convince Vayu that everything is okay now and everyone should be allowed to have the privilege of breathing again. Among other powers, Hanuman receives invulnerability and incredibly long life, immunity to fire, water, lightning and all weapons, the ability to change his size at will, super speed, and the ability to cross oceans without any kind of aid.

As you might expect, however, no one is really thrilled about having an adolescent monkey god on the loose who not only already tried to eat the sun but is now basically indestructible and impossible to stop, so he is also cursed by the sages of his home forest to have no knowledge of his own ridiculous powers, so that he only whips them out in times of dire need or when someone reminds him that he can use them.

Hanuman's obsession with the sun doesn't end there, however; after giving up on eating it, he decides that he should instead learn from it, since with his newfound powers of wisdom he realizes that the sun god Surya is a teacher of near-infinite wisdom. Surya wants nothing to do with Hanuman's shenanigans and refuses, saying that he has to be constantly driving the sun in his chariot and couldn't afford the time to stop so that Hanuman could have proper lessons, which Hanuman responds to by making himself the size of the entire sky so that Surya can always be teaching him no matter where he goes. This is the beginning of Hanuman's shift toward responsibility, however; Surya is so pleased by his persistence (and his ability to use his powers for clever problem-solving) that he agrees and teaches him all his wisdom, and thereafter Hanuman is greatly enriched and becomes the divine advisor to Surya's son Sugriva, who is also one of the monkey sages of the woods and eventually becomes king over them.

This is all backstory to the most well-known stories of Hanuman, which are the tales of his friendship and service with Rama, avatar of Vishnu and demon-slaying hero-king. In Ramayana, he immediately recognizes Rama for the divine power that he is and dedicates himself to supporting and aiding him, starting with getting the rest of the monkey people on his side to help him in the coming war and most importantly helping Rama to rescue Sita, his wife and the avatar of the goddess Lakshmi, who has been kidnapped by the evil rakshasa king Ravana.

Since everyone is looking far and wide for Sita, Hanuman is with a group of his own people when he finds that the trail leads to a vast ocean which no one can cross. Thanks to his curse, he's depressed because he feels that he can't possibly succeed now, until the other monkeys remind him that crossing oceans is actually one of his powers. Once he realizes this, he heads across the ocean, encountering several obstacles including the sea monster Surasa who challenges him to fly into her gaping mouth before he can continue on and then says she was only joking when he makes himself incredibly tiny so he can dart in and out of her mouth without being caught, until eventually arriving in Lanka, kingdom of the rakshasa.

Once he makes it to Lanka, Hanuman finds Sita and attempts to rescue her, but is thwarted when she refuses to leave, explaining that it would be a blow to Rama's pride as a man if he weren't the one to rescue her. Hanuman has to content himself with instead waging an extensive terrorism campaign throughout the capital city, killing rakshasa, blowing up buildings and generally wreaking havoc, until one of Ravana's sons manages to corner him with the legendary Brahmastra, a weapon that destroys even the local environment when discharged. Of course, Hanuman is immune to weapons so he is totally unfazed by the nuclear bomb of the ancient Hindu epics being pointed at his face, but he figures that since the rakshasa don't know it won't hurt him, he can play along, be taken prisoner on purpose, and see if he can do anything useful from within the palace. Once "captured" and taken before Ravana, he informs him that Rama demands Sita's return and will agree to forgive him if he does so with no further fuss.

Of course, Ravana doesn't do so with no further fuss, and has his soldiers set fire to Hanuman's tail in order to punish him for being insulting (although they have a very difficult time of it, since Hanuman keeps secretly growing his tail longer so that they can't find the end of it or make much headway in burning it). Eventually he allows them to set it on fire, but only so he can then run through the streets of the city burning everything down with it, which is probably not what Ravana had in mind when he pronounced the sentence.

Hanuman's devotion to Rama and Sita is among his most legendary qualities; even later, after they are reunited and everyone is having a good time celebrating, he continues to impress everyone with his undying fixation on them. When, at Rama's coronation, Sita gave Hanuman a necklace of beautiful beads to thank him for helping them, he immediately broke it and then spend several minutes peering carefully into each bead; when the other guests asked him what on earth he was doing, he told them that he was checking to make sure Rama and Sita were inside each bead, because if they weren't, the gift was totally worthless to him and everyone else on earth.

And when, as you might imagine, the other guests didn't believe him and said he was being ridiculous, he ripped his own chest open so everyone could see Rama and Sita living inside it in his heart, because if there is one thing Hanuman does not joke about, it is how much he is all about loving and supporting these two people. And then he went home and carved the entirety of Ramayana and all the deeds of Rama on the Himalaya Mountains. With his fingernails.

There are so many more stories of Hanuman, including the ones where he pranks his brother in Mahabharata or gets on the sun's case again when a prediction that a friend of his would die when dawn occurred caused him to tackle Surya and hold him down until the guy could get medical attention to prevent the sun from coming up, and many more beyond those as well. He's endlessly entertaining as well as spiritually powerful - if you're ever looking for a template for successful Herohood, Hanuman is a perfect one to start with!