Recalling Hanuman’s gentleness in a world riven by conflict

If nations are to live in peace, they must learn to be human and humane.  As Hanuman Jayanti approaches on 23 April it is time to reflect on one of the central characters in the Ramayana, the redoubtable Hanuman and his impact on the minds of millions of Indians. A few years ago, on the […]

If nations are to live in peace, they must learn to be human and humane. 

As Hanuman Jayanti approaches on 23 April it is time to reflect on one of the central characters in the Ramayana, the redoubtable Hanuman and his impact on the minds of millions of Indians.

A few years ago, on the Algebra podcast journalist Shoma Chaudhury invited well-known mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik to discuss Hanuman. In her own words, prior to reading his book on Hanuman, Shoma a self-acknowledged Macaulay Putri, had been contemptuous of the deity. After reading Pattanaik’s book Shoma was suffused with shame and guilt at being overly westernised and too easily dismissive of Indian sensibilities. Whereas earlier she had dismissed Hanuman as a ‘loyal little monkey’ after reading Pattanaik’s book she began to think of him more as a ‘philosopher king.’ Shoma realised, somewhat late in her life, how ignorant she was of Indian culture, history and mythology.

Writing for The New York Herald Tribune on 25 June 1853 Karl Marx had been similarly dismissive. Anthropomorphic vanity and other biases evident in his style and tone, the great thinker wrote of how in India there was a ‘brutalising worship of nature.’ Today, the world, especially those in the nature-conquering West, realise and accept that only a much belated reverence for nature can possibly save the planet from hurtling towards multiple catastrophes and destruction. An example of how India exhibited its degradation, Marx further wrote, lay ‘in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey.’ Marx’s misspelling of the name indicates how little he knew or understood of this great land.

‘Religion is the opium of the masses,’ Marx also wrote little realising that he himself and his writings would, in time to come, be considered as infallible as the gods and religions he was critiquing. If wars have been fought in the name of religion, they have also been fought externally and within nations in the name of ideology. Witness the massacres of millions of people ordered by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

In the podcast Pattanaik spoke of Hanuman’s wisdom, strength and unselfishness. He spoke also of the millions of Hindus who derived strength from him and from a recitation of Hanuman Chalisa. Despite his great strength Hanuman had little personal ambition and wished to help Lord Rama for no personal gain whatsoever. Hanuman’s reputation as a wise warrior has spread far and wide. Indian tourists to Thailand will find his statue in many places in the country, including in Bangkok itself with ordinary Thais kneeling and praying to him. Hanuman’s statues can be found in Malaysia, Indonesia and even in Trinidad and Tobago. Carvings of Hanuman have been discovered in China.

Not only is Hanuman a great warrior, but, according to S Jaishankar, in his latest book ‘Why Bharat Matters,’ he is also a remarkable diplomat. ‘As Lord Rama’s emissary to Lanka,’ writes the foreign minister, ‘Hanuman’s cleverness in gaining critical intelligence about an adversary, and even access to the confined queen Sita, were crucial developments.’

Hanuman’s assessment of Ravana’s brother Vibheeshan as an ethical person who discerned his brother’s faults was also crucial to ensuring Lord Rama’s ultimate victory. The foreign minister observes that ‘it is Hanuman’s certification of his integrity that encouraged Rama later to welcome Vibheeshan after his defection from Ravana.’ Jaishankar also lauds Hanuman for his persistence. His fellow monkeys would have given up on the search for Sita but Hanuman persists and ultimately finds her. Unlike the foreign minister, men from a military background may see a great general and military strategist in Hanuman.

Sad to say many politicians have tried to make political capital out of Hanuman. It is foolish if not ridiculous to see Hanuman through the prism of caste. In this regard there are those who argue that he was a brahmin because of references to him wearing a sacred thread.

Other politicians assert that he belonged to a backward caste given that he spoke of being a ‘das’. Talk about taking words out of context. Hanuman himself is far above and beyond such foolish and short-sighted attempts to try and appropriate him for narrow political gains.

A person of immense strength and, in modern parlance, a ‘shape shifter’ Hanuman creates panic when he sets Lanka on fire with his tail. He even offers to take Sita back to Ram if she would consent to sit on his shoulder. She declines that kind offer pointing out that doing so would reflect poorly on Lord Rama’s valour and prowess.

Hanuman is not only strong and wise but he has a third, hugely important quality especially relevant in these turbulent times – that of gentleness. What better person to speak of this than a novelist? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of The Forest of Enchantments writes from Sita’s perspective as follows: ‘His love was simple and unequivocal, unlike human love and a powerful bond had been forged between us. He was the only one who really knew what I’d gone through.’ Sita knows he is much more than a monkey and speaks of how ‘the light emanating from him was so brilliant that I had to close my eyes.’

Millions of Indians will remember Hanuman as his birthday approaches but we should also perhaps specially remember him for the values he upheld in a world that is riven by endless conflict.

There is no shortage of strength and military prowess in the world be it the Americans, the Russians or the Chinese. What our selfish world evidently lacks today is foresight and wisdom. It is a good time to remember Hanuman not only for his strength but also for his unselfishness, wisdom and gentleness. If nations are to live in peace, they must learn to be human and humane. Important lessons can be learnt from Hanuman in this regard.

Rajesh Talwar, the author of forty books spanning multiple genres, has served the United Nations for over two decades across three continents. His most recent book is titled ‘What Great Religions Can Learn From Each Other: A Hindu Perspective.’