by Linda Heaphy May 02, 2017

hanuman
Hanuman before Rama and Sita and attendant. Gouache drawing, date unknown. Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images

Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, is one of the most celebrated and worshipped figures in Indian religion, but mention him outside of India and you are likely to be met with a blank stare.  So who is Hanuman and what does he represent to the Hindu faith?

As is the case for many of India's gods, several stories are told explaining Hanuman's origin. In one interpretation Shiva and Parvati decide to transform themselves into monkeys and indulge in amorous games in the forest.  As a result Parvati becomes pregnant.  Shiva, conscious of his godly responsibilities and desiring to conform to the laws of nature, directs the wind god Vayu to carry the offspring from Parvati's womb to that of Anjana - an Apsara with the form of a monkey who has prayed to be granted a boy child. In another version of the story Hanuman is simply the offspring of Anjana and Vayu.  In yet another version of the story, he is the son of the King and Queen of the Monkeys.

Many stories are also told of Hanuman's childhood. As the son of Shiva and a monkey, Hanuman is variously described as spirited, restless, energetic and inquisitive.  One point all the major texts agree on is his mischievous nature.  As a youth Hanuman often abused his powers to pester the saints and holy men living in a nearby forest, with tricks such as beard pulling and the dousing of sacred fires.  However, it is as an adult that the monkey god Hanuman comes into his own.

Hanuman
Hanuman jumps over the ocean. Folio from the small Guler-Ramayana series from 1720. Attributed to the workshop of Pandit Seu in Guler, Himachal Pradesh, India. Museum Rietberg Zürich; Photo: Rainer Wolfsberger

Hanuman's tale as told in the epic Ramayana is renowned for its ability to inspire its readers to face ordeals and conquer obstructions in their own lives. At the time of the Ramayana, Hanuman is sent as an advance spy to Lanka, the capital of the mighty demon Ravana's empire.  Ravana has provoked Lord Rama by carrying away his beloved wife Sita in order to start a war.  During the epic times that follow, Hanuman brings hope and secret messages to the captive Sita, leads Rama's monkey army in the Battle of Lanka and single-handedly kills many demons including Lankini, champion of the demons.  During this time Hanuman is captured by the enemy, only to outwit them with cunning and the use of his powers.  He returns to find Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana themselves captured by the enemy and about to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali by the sorcerer Mahiravana.  In a tale of great daring, Hanuman outsmarts the evil lord into becoming the sacrifice himself, thereby earning the eternal respect of Kali.  She appoints Hanuman as her doorkeeper and today many of her temples are seen to have a monkey guarding their doorways.


hanuman antique temple paque
A carved relief image of Hanuman, marble, 18th century, from the Jain holy temple town of Palitano in Gujarat, northwest India. Photo credit: Kashgar

After the defeat of Ravana, Rama and Sita are crowned King and Queen of Ayodhya. Hanuman is offered a reward for his bravery and asks only to continue in service to him and to live for as long as men speak of Rama's deeds. He remains as Rama's favourite general to this day. 

Because of his bravery, perseverance, strength and devoted service, Hanuman is regarded as a perfect symbol of selflessness and loyalty.  Worship of Hanuman helps the individual to counter the bad karma borne out of selfish action, and grants the believer fortitude and strength in his or her own trials during the journey of life.  Hanuman is also invoked in fights against sorcery and protective amulets depicting him are extremely popular among his devotees.

References and Further Reading

The Life of Hanuman, Peter Marchand, http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_hanuman.htm

The Mystery of Hanuman - Inspiring Tales from Art and Mythology Nitin Kumar, 2004. http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/hanuman/

Hanuman. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanuman

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy


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