Monday, 4 July 2011

Hanuman's Mythology

Hanuman's Mythology

by Mantra & shlokas on Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 4:46pm

Revealing himself to Rama
When Rama (right) and his brother Lakshmana were searching for Sita (Rama's kidnapped wife), they were advised to seek out the monkey king Sugriva.  Hanuman was one of Sugriva's ministers, and when he first met the duo, he disguised himself as a brahmin.
After talking with them for a little while he could bear the deception no longer, and so he revealed his true form, fell and Rama's feet, and received Rama's blessing.  From there, he led them to meet Sugriva.

 Here Hanuman is carrying Rama and Lakshmana while rescuing them from the demon Ahiravana (also known as Mahiravana). This story does not appear in early Ramayana versions, but is so well-known that has become part of the "story."  Ahiravana was a demon magician, who was called by Ravana (his father) for help in the struggle against Rama's army.  Ahiravana kidnaps Rama and Lakshmana, whom he intends to offer as human sacrifices to the Goddess.  The divine brothers wait passively to be rescued by Hanuman, who is this story's real hero.
This story points to Hanuman's growing role in popular piety, and also his popularity as an intercessory deity for the majestic but all-too-distant Rama.
I am indebted to Philip Lutgendorf for this identification.  For more on the Ahiravana story, see his "Hanuman's Adventures Underground: The Narrative Logic of a Ramayana Interpolation," in Mandakranta Bose's The Ramayana Revisited (Oxford U. Press, 2004).

All of Sugriva's monkey subjects began to search for Sita, and in this quest Hanuman leaped over the ocean to Lanka (again using his prodigious strength).  On the way he encountered a demoness named Surasa, who demanded that he go in her mouth before she would let him pass by (in the usual cases, she would eat those who entered. 
<span>Hanuman made himself very large, and Surasa opened her mouth wider and wider to accommodate him.  Hanuman then made himself very small, and dashed in and out of her open mouth.  Surasa was pleased with his ingenuity and courage, blessed him, and allowed him to continue on his way.</span>

Defeating Lankalakshmi
When Hanuman landed at Lanka and came to the gates of the city, he was met by Lankalakshmi, the city's guardian deity.  She blocked his path into the city, and demanded to know who he was and what he was doing (fulfilling her role as a guardian).
Hanuman's answer was to strike a blow that knocked her over, after which he strode into the city.   His ability to defeat the city's guardian deity foreshadowed that the city's ruler (Ravana) would soon lose power.

Burning Lanka

Rama searched the whole city for Sita, and finally found her in a grove of Ashoka trees.  He reassured her that Rama would come to rescue her, and then set about testing the city defenses by making a ruckus.
He was eventually captured and brought before Ravana, who decided that Hanuman would be tortured by having his tail wrapped in oil-soaked cloth, and set on fire.  Hanuman used his powers to make his tail enormously long (so that a lot of flammable material was tied to it).  After the cloth was lit he slipped his bonds and jumped all through the city, setting it on fire, before jumping into the sea to douse the flame.

Bringing the Sanjivani Herb
This may be the most famous episode in Hanuman's mythology, and it exemplifies both his power and his devotion.  Rama's brother Lakshmana (lying prone at the bottom of the image) had been mortally wounded in battle, and the only thing that could save him was the Sanjivini ("life-giving") plant, which grew far away on a mountain in the Himalayas.  Rama was disconsolate at this news, and lamented his brother's approaching death, but Hanuman assured him that he would get the plant.
Hanuman flew to the Himalayas and found the mountain, but was unable to find the plant (or in some other versions, he forgot what it looked like).  Undaunted, he lifted the entire mountain and brought it back to Lanka, where the physicians quickly located the herb, and brought Lakshmana back to health.  As in the Ahiravana story above, here Rama is passive (he spends the whole time lamenting his dying brother), and Hanuman is the hero who gets things done.
This picture shows the moment when Hanuman returns to Lanka with the mountain, with Rama and his retinue anxiously clustered around Lakshmana.  The two small images at top left and right refer to an incident that happened en route.  As Hanuman was passing over Ayodhya, Rama's brother Bharata saw him and mistook him for a demon.  Bharata shot an arrow that brought Hanuman down to earth, but when he learned the nature of Hanuman's errand they embraced in love, and Hanuman went on his way.

Humbling Ravana
<span>This story comes from the account of the war between Rama's army and Ravana's army.  In one of the battles, Hanuman knocked Ravana to the ground, snatched his crown, and escaped unscathed.  Since (as in many cultures) the crown was one of the symbols of kingship, losing this foreshadows that Ravana's days in power are numbered.</span>

Opening His Heart
This is an extremely common image in modern India, and to the best of my knowledge is not found in the Ramayana but reflects popular piety.
According to the story, Hanuman was having an argument with someone that Sita and Ram were everywhere (as we can see from the forms behind him).  When his adversary challenged him to show how Sita and Ram were inside him, Hanuman tore open his chest, to reveal the divine couple in his heart.
This is an image of Hanuman as the model devotee, who is so devoted that the deities have literally found a home in his heart.

Leading  Kirtan
This is another extremely common contemporary image, and one that also reflects popular piety.  According to popular tradition, Hanuman is not only the greatest devotee in terms of loving Rama, but also the greatest in worshipping him, particularly in the devotional chanting known as kirtan.  According to popular belief, Hanuman is present wherever Rama's name is sung, since taking part in this is his highest bliss.
This image also shows Hanuman as a devotee, holding the hand cymbals that are used during kirtan as rhythm instruments; Rama and Sita are seen outlined on his chest, indicating his total devotion.  This peaceful, devotional image stands in marked contrast other martial images, and  Hanuman's personality has this complex mix of power and devotion.

Rama's Court
This shows the "happily ever after" scene near the end of the Ramayana, when Rama has returned to Ayodhya, been restored to his throne, and initiated a long period of just and harmonious rule (Ramrajya, "Rama's reign").
Here Rama and Sita are seated under the canopy, surrounded by other figures from the Ramayana and Hindu mythology.  As is proper, Hanuman is at Rama's feet, expressing both his closeness and his subordination.
Other figures in the picture include the royal guru, Vashistha (with the long white beard), the god Ganesha (for prosperity and good fortune), the divine bard Narada (holding the musical instrument), Rama's brothers Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna (behind the throne), and the monkey-prince Angada.  Angada was the son of the monkey-ruler Bali, whom Rama slew in battle, but Rama then protected and took care of Bali's son, showing his merciful nature.

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