General Election 2019

The Cult of Hanuman

Kaveree Bamzai is an author and senior journalist
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Political masculinity gets a divine mascot

THERE WAS A time, not so long ago, when Ram’s bow and arrow were ornamental, when Sita stood demurely by his side, and Hanuman sat at their feet, his head bowed, hands in prayer. That was before Hindutva iconography, reflecting the militant Ram Janmabhoomi movement, transformed Ram into a lean, keen Kshatriya warrior, with an angry (ugra) visage, which scholar Anuradha Kapur noted, did not address the viewer, but looked away. Soon Sita sang the blues and turned into the warrior princess of Mithila, thanks to a retelling of India’s many Ramayanas by bestselling writer Amish Tripathi. It was only a matter of time till Hanuman, the devoted daas (servant) and the veer vaanar (brave monkey), acquired a more combative image to suit the newly muscular Hindutva. Out went the lowered gaze, and in came the direct stare; poof went the benign expression, replaced with an angry, rudra look, epitomised by Karan Acharya’s Angry Hanuman vector, leading to the young graphic artist being acknowledged by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Karnataka last year as the “pride of Mangaluru” and the image finding itself replicated on car stickers, backs of scooters and even screen savers.

Once an inclusive god, worshipped by both Shaivites and Vaishnavites, Hanuman now finds himself slowly being drawn into the political heat and dust of Uttar Pradesh elections and acquiring different identities. From Lord Ram’s faithful helper, happy to fetch and carry for the great God, suddenly Hanuman has become a hero unto himself. Late last year, at a rally in Alwar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath referred to Hanuman’s Dalit origins, calling him a forest dweller who worked to connect communities together, from north to south and east to west. It was enough for Mayawati to pounce upon at a recent rally for candidate Dharmendra Yadav of Samajwadi Party in Badaun: “Ali and Bajrangbali, both are our own. That’s why we want both Ali and Bajrangbali.” Yogi Adityanath was also seen marking his presence at a Hanuman temple in Lucknow on April 15th, underlining his reliance on backward-caste voters while facing the onslaught of a Dalit-Yadav-Muslim combine in the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance. He was followed almost instantly by the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath Singh.

Hanuman’s politicisation is no accident. Long-time Uttar Pradesh analyst Sharat Pradhan says realisation has dawned on the BJP that the Ram Janmabhoomi issue has outlived its vote potential. “Marking Hanuman as Dalit looks like a naive attempt to garner votes, but there is a certain emotional momentum to it,” he says. Add to it Prime Minister Modi’s Other Backward Class origins which subtly played out in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 too and you have the rise of a subaltern Hanuman who is no longer a mere gentle giant and selfless devotee but a leader of an army, general of a Hanuman Sena, a Super- Sevak who protects the idea of a Ram Rajya.

So who is this Monkey God as US president Obama described him when explaining to an interviewer in 2016 why he was carrying a statuette of Hanuman in his pocket (along with rosary beads given by the Pope and a Coptic cross by someone in Ethiopia)? Is he, as Yogi Adityanath and Mayawati would have us believe, a Dalit? Parvez Dewan, founder of, who has published three books on Hanuman and has just completed a 450-page definitive biography using the Valmiki, Kamban, Tulsi and regional Ramayanas, says, “Nowhere in Valmiki’s Ramayana or any other traditional Ramayanas has the word Dalit been used to describe a caste or hereditary class of people. Nor is there the slightest indication that Hanuman was downtrodden in the caste hierarchy or was ‘untouchable’ in any way.” The theory that Hanuman might have been a Dalit is based on two premises, one of them manufactured recently. Hanuman called himself a daas of Ram. “The word daas has sometimes been used in ancient texts for what, today, is known as the Dalit community,” he says.

“All Lord Hanuman had to do to revive his strength was to remember it. It was that simple. India is just like that. We are actually a very powerful country. And yet, we behave like we are powerless,” says Amish Tripathi, author

There is a fake anecdote, notes Dewan, which says on one occasion when Ram walked towards him with extended hands, Hanuman stepped back and did not let Ram touch him. It is argued that he did so because he felt that it would be improper for the upper-caste Ram to touch a ‘low’ caste like him. Those who have spread this story and this interpretation have not cited the kaand and verse when this incident occurs, he says. In contrast, during their first meeting itself, once Hanuman divined Ram was ‘prabhu’ (God) he fell at his feet. In many versions of the Ramayana, Ram then lifted Hanuman from the ground and embraced him warmly. By the end of that first meeting, even according to Valmiki, Hanuman placed Ram on one of his enormous shoulders and Lakshman on the other and started moving towards the Malay hill.

In fact, Kavita Kane, who has studied and written popular fiction based on the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, points out that Hanuman is considered an avatar of Shiva, the son of Kesari (a vaanar chief), Anjani (an apsara reincarnated as a vaanar princess) and Pavan, the Wind God, the spiritual father who played a role in his birth. None of them can be termed ‘low’ caste, ‘low’ birth or Dalit. Hanuman, she says, has no caste attributed to him. He is a vaanar—essentially a forest dweller with supernatural abilities, so created by Brahma to help Ram in his mission against Ravan. This enables him to carry mountains and to open his heart for all to see Ram and Sita inscribed there.

The Hanuman Chalisa, written in the late 1500s, seems to suggest Hanuman is a Brahmin, saying he wore the sacred thread on his shoulder (‘kaandhe moonj janeu saaje’). Statues in Hampi, sculpted around the same time, too, show him wearing a janeu. However, it is not certain that the vertical thread leading from Hanuman’s necklace to his loincloth in the Hanuman statue (CE 922) in Khajuraho could be called a janeu.

Dewan says according to a tradition, Hanuman once told Bharat, Lakshman and Shatrughan about his family: ‘We are not born naked. Not only are our bodies covered with hair and clothes, we come with our own sacred thread, club, helmet, jewellery and even prayer beads.’ The Valmiki Ramayana does not mention Hanuman’s caste or the existence of caste among vaanars. However, on many occasions Hanuman ventured out of Kishkindha dressed like a Brahmin, for instance, when he first met Ram. The Filipino Hikayat Sari Ram says that when Hanuman first met Sita he was dressed as an old Brahmin. When he first met Vibhishan, too, it was as a Brahmin. When Ravan started doing badly in the war against Ram, he decided to organise a yagya. The Argal Stotr and the Adhyatm Ramayan tell us that Hanuman joined this prayer as a Brahmin in order to subvert it and turn it around.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has claimed that Hanuman was a Dalit, visited a Hanuman temple in Lucknow on April 15, underlining his reliance on backward-caste voters

Dewan’s verdict: Hanuman had a Brahmin persona, especially when dealing with non-vaanars, but he was not a Brahmin most of the time.

The reason why Hanuman could not have been born, say, as an Ayodhya Brahmin, Swami Keshavananda Saraswati argues, is that in that case Ram and Lakshman ‘would never have allowed Hanuman to carry them’. (Brahmins cannot act as porters to others.) The vaanars were not bound by ‘Vedic injunctions of caste and order and stages of life’ and, therefore, there were no barriers to their serving Ram, he adds.

THE VALMIKI RAMAYANA clearly mentions that Hanuman, then in his Brahmin guise, switched back to his vaanar persona before carrying Ram and Lakshman up the hill. This leaves him happily open to all sorts of interpretations, in the best traditions of Hinduism.

But what explains the sudden interest in Hanuman, our very own flying superhero? There was even an exhibition late last year of Hanuman as depicted in folk art since the 17th century at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, relying on the personal collection of artist KC Aryan and put together by his daughter Suhasini. His diversity in art mirrors his newly reinterpreted multiple identities. There is the devoted but controversially naked Hanuman of MF Husain which enraged Hindu right-wingers, as well as artist Vivek Vasalini’s middle-class God Maruti/Hanuman juxtaposed with the middle-class aspirational symbol, the Maruti car, and a body-builder with a Kathakali mask. It embodies the combination of post-liberalisation consumerism with creeping Hindutva.

Some early muscular images of Hanuman were influenced by pehelwaans or body-builders like Gama the Great, in pre-Independence India, who won several international competitions and “was an expression of Indian strength and masculinity”, according to noted Hanuman scholar Professor Philip Lutgendorf. The ‘HH Hanuman’ or ‘Hairless Humanised Hanuman’, as Lutgendorf calls these images, begin to appear only in the 1930s and 1940s, by which time the only signs of his monkeyhood are his lower simian face and tail. Post-liberalisation, with body-building and gyms replacing akhaadas, Lutgendorf says in an article on Scroll, ‘‘You begin to see Hanuman that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger with really exaggerated muscle. Is this connected with Hindutva machismo? It can be, if you want to read it that way.”

Not everyone is buying the theory of Hanuman as the newly anointed embodiment of brute force. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni thinks it is wonderful that Hanuman is becoming an icon for India today. But she cautions, “Let’s just make sure to depict him in his wonderful complexity and his gentleness, affection and respect for women. Let’s revere him rightly, not use him for our purposes.” This gentler, more reasonable reinterpretation giving more centrality and agency to the simian king—his renunciation, self-effacement and humility—has won him fresh devotees too. Only three days ago, for instance, he inspired Uma Bharti to give up ‘all the facilities and trappings of power. Hanumanji fought for everything and won and then sat at the feet of Ram’, she explained. It is this aspect emphasised in Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments which tells the Ramayana from the point of view of Sita. Hanuman is Sita’s succour during her darkest hours, when he finds her in the Ashoka forest in Lanka. As Sita writes in The Forest of Enchantments: ‘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.’ Their relationship is playful yet pious, devoted yet spirited, one between a mother and son, and though she regards him as a monkey, often patting his furry head, she senses he is more than just that. As she writes: ‘The light emanating from him was so brilliant that I had to close my eyes.’

Responding to BJP's claims, BSP chief Mayawati said: “Ali and Bajrangbali, both are our own. That's why we want both Ali and Bajrangbali”

So while many in India see Hanuman today as the great warrior and upholder of Hindutva, Divakurni focuses on an aspect which is ignored—but which she has focused on in The Forest of Enchantments. He reveres Sita but also listens to and respects her (a woman’s) reasoning and wisdom. As Divakurni says, “Look at how, together, they decide on what he should do next. He wants to carry her away on his back and free her from her misery at once, but she says Ram is the one who needs to rescue her because that is the right and necessary action—and he agrees.”

And later when Sita says (in response to Ram stating he cannot take her back to Ayodhya) that she wants to light the fire and end her life with honour, this great warrior, the scourge of the raakshasas,weeps and begs her to reconsider. “It shows his heart,” she points out.

And even later in Ayodhya, we see his naughty side when he jokes with Sita, asking her to feed him, but when she serves him curries and goes to get the rice, he eats all the curry. And when she goes to bring more curry, he eats all the rice. Until she finds a way to trick him.

THE ADULATION FOR HINDU deities is cyclical, notes Dewan. Hanuman’s popularity revived in the 1300s, beginning with Vijayanagar, and has never seen a downturn after that. Towards the end of the Mughal era, urban citizens formed Mahabir Dals and Bajrang Dals in several towns. In both cases devotees began to emphasise the martial side of Vir Anjaneya, rather than, say, the humility that Cholas had played up.

Deities and temples become popular when people start believing that prayers offered to them are answered, says Dewan. “For this reason, around 1831 Tirupati-Tirumala and around 1986 the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage suddenly started becoming all-India phenomena, which they were not before that. Shirdi is the third similar 20th century phenomenon. Christians like my friend Kevin queue up at a central Delhi Hanuman temple every Tuesday because their prayers have been answered, and not because of consistent political effort.”

And that, according to Kane, is Hanuman’s biggest attraction, setting aside narrow, myopic notions of caste and class. His goodness, valour and wisdom are his identity. “Not his birth but his priceless worth not just in the eyes of his lord, Ram, but all his followers today for whom he is the God of Strength, Knowledge and Bhakti; Lord of Celibacy and Victory; Supreme destroyer of evil; and protector of his devotees.”

Jai Hanuman gyaan gun saagar’, as the Hanuman Chalisa puts it, he is the Ocean of Wisdom and Virtue, and maybe now the Ocean of Notions too for a political class desperately seeking divine assistance.

The last words perhaps belong to Amish Tripathi, one man who has done most to resurrect our gods as living icons. He believes the immense popularity of Hanuman today is poetically emblematic of India today. As he says, “Legends hold that Lord Hanuman, one of the most powerful immortals ever, had been cursed by various sages to forget his strength. But here is the interesting thing: all Lord Hanuman had to do to revive his strength was to remember it. It was that simple. India is just like that. We are actually a very powerful country. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world [third largest by Purchasing Power Parity], a flourishing albeit raucous democracy, have capable armed forces, and a vibrant industrial and services base. And yet, we behave like a powerless country. We do not adequately exercise our own global strength for the good of our people. We just need to revive the memories of our ancient culture and our old strength, when for most of human history, we were the richest and among the most powerful lands on earth. Like Lord Hanuman, if India can remember, we will be strong again.”