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HANUMAN KOSA (by S.K. Ramachandra Rao) – BOOK REVIEW
By Neela Ranganathan

Hanumān is all-pervasive in our world, from large size etchings on boulders, to sculptures, to bells, to calendars, stickers on vehicles and our screen savers, he is so omnipresent that we almost take him for granted. When I saw these two volumes, I bought them instantly, wanting to know more about this ever-present deity. ‘Hanuman Kosa’ here means, as the blurb says, an encyclopaedia of Hanumān. And like all of Professor S.K Rāmachandra Rao’s books, they are a treasure trove of information.

Professor Rao’s is a finely balanced view that will appeal to more and more of us contemporary Indians, wanting to deepen our roots. His writer’s lens combines the historical perspective and Indian traditional knowledge, with a refreshingly positive and constructive approach to Indian culture. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff is a talent that he passes on to his readers.

In chapter one, aptly titled Jana Devata, we learn that Hanumān was a folk-deity whose worship was popular for thousands of years, even before he entered the VālmīkiRāmāyaṇa!

There is no known beginning of the worship of this deity, it appears to have always been there. There is no village, hamlet town or city in the country which does not house a shrine for Hanumān … and the worship is always simple, direct and earnest.

Although the form of the god is that of a monkey, or rather an ape, (Vānara meaning ‘maybe a man, ‘almost human, ‘near human), the spirit that is invoked is of an all-powerful and supremely wise spirit.

Not only is Hanumān popular in India and in greater India, but we learn that he appears in various ancient civilisations too with different names. The Chinese have their Monkey God – Sun, the Egyptians had Thoth, a baboon with a face of a dog, Africans the Bakatta-the sacred monkey, Mayas and Aztecs too.

Our own Indus valley civilisation which he says should more properly be described as Saraswathi river civilisation has terracotta figure evidence of this deity.

As a popular grāma devata, and as part of the more sophisticated Tantric and Vedic traditions, Hanumān’s presence is ubiquitous. Though very elaborate modes of worship have evolved around him, a simple prostration too will suffice.

He has invoked tin banners (patāka), amulets (maṇi), mystic designs (yantra), magical spells (mantras) and also in significant rock shapes (śila). Just a call would be enough to ensure his presence; a mere cry of distress and appeal would materialise his assistance. He is easy to placate and is within the reach of all.

I cannot help thinking how the words mantra and yantra are non-translatable, somehow magic spells and mystic designs do not fit well enough and we could as well use the original.

We are presented a guided tour of Hanumān in our traditions under various headings some of which I try to enumerate.

Vedic background

This was indeed interesting, it has been suggested, not without justification, that the origin of Hanumān is to be found even in the hymns of the Ṛigveda. There are verses in the Ṛigveda which relate the wind -god (Marut) with Agni, Rudra, Indra, and Vishnu and contain other pieces of details which the Purāṇas avidly took over and utilised to construct or reconstruct Hanumān’s career.

In the Light of the Purāṇas

Professor Rao tells us that Vālmīki introduces Hanumān in the middle of the Rāmāyaṇa abruptly, without telling us anything about his birth, parentage, growth, or association with Sugriva. Vālmīki perhaps did not think a background was necessary because Hanumān was already a popular deity.

There is more information of Hanumān in the Uttarakāṇḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa, but Professor Rao says that the Uttarakāṇḍa itself was foisted upon the Rāmāyaṇa at a later date, perhaps influenced by the Purāṇas.
Listed are the various Purāṇas with their chronicles of Hanumān and his childhood. This is followed by an exploration of the close connection or identification of Hanumān with Rudra.

The Purāṇas took off from where Vālmīki left.The Purāṇas took a popular folk-god and elevated him to the sophisticated pantheon and identified him with Siva, Rudra or Nandi and made him an associate of Vishnu.

Also referenced are regional variations of the Rāmāyaṇa including of course the Ramcharitamanas by the saint Tulsidas.

Has playing a secondary role to Rāma diminished Hanumān? As an answer, in a quotation from Rāma-RahasyopaniṣadHanumān himself says this to the sages,

Rāma is to not be resorted to when people are troubled by anxiety or concerned about work in normal life. Rāma should be approached only for final emancipation from worldly existence. When people are beset by stresses and troubles, however great, that are common and human, I am there to help out. I am after all Rāma’s servant and I am ever-alert to do the job of Rāma. They should think of me if they are devotees of Rāma. I will do what they want

No wonder Hanumān appeals to us. The rarefied world of moksha seekers is too cryptic for most of us. We want aid and support in the here and now, which Hanumān promises to provide.

In the Light of the Tantras

This part makes for the most fascinating read about Hanumān as a Tantra Devata.

The Sid’dha cults of the north and South identify him as Ṣiva. This tradition believes that Hanumān has attained Vajra Kāya through yogic practices and has become immortal, living to this day in the mountainous abode of Kim-puruśa.

Here are some beautiful lines to savour,

The Tamil Siddha Vakkiyar speaks of Rāma in several songs. Rāma here means ‘Svatma-Rāma’(being happy in his own spirit) a mystical experience of one’s soul being one with Ṣiva (sivanubhava). Hanumān residing in Kimpuruśa -varsa, adoring Rāma,

should be taken in the sense of his merging his own individual self in the absolute and universal reality.

The classical Ṣaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava denominations, as well as the devotional movements of the middle ages, find a place for Hanumān as the principal exemplar of sadhana, he is in a peculiar position among folk-deities to reconcile the Veda with the Tantra and all the various denominations.

We see here Hanumān’s role as a great unifier among all traditions and all of them consider him their own!

Further, this chapter describes the various mantras addressed to Hanumān, and their meaning including the bīja mantra and its origins. Then come the innumerable mystical designs or yantras used in Hanumān worship.

The story Yantrōd’dhāraka – Mukhyaprāṇa, installed by ŚrīVyāsaTīrtha in Hampi, is riveting. Hanumān here sits in meditation inside a powerful yantra.

He got carved and installed as many as 732 stone-icons of Hanumān in the domain of the then Vijayanagar empire!

Describing the popular Pan̄camukhiĀn̄janēya the author says that, more than a syncretic form of Vishnu, it appears to be a 2 innovation of the Vīrān̄janēya variety. From the upāsanā mantras it is more plausible that these faces represent the 4 elements, he says. The Hanu-bhairava, prevalent in Nepal and Tibet, is a similar five-headed form of Hanumān but with twelve or twenty arms and three eyes on each head! One more five-headed Hanumān is worshipped as a manifestation of Kali!

If you ever asked why Tuesdays and Saturdays are considered sacred for Hanumān worship, we are provided with at least eight references from the Tantras which designate these days as the ones when Hanumān was born /appeared on the earth.

His name

The etymology of Hanumān and his various names are explored in detail with purāṇic references. Bajrang Bali (Vajranga-Bali) one of his most popular names means one with an immutable body. It is the war-cry of one of the battalions of our soldiers facing the Chinese at the border too! Among the other popular names are, Lal-langotivala, Jagate-vir and of course Pavanputra. He is even fondly called Balaji which was new to me and I am sure is to many South Indians!

The author reasons that the story of Hanumān getting his name because of being injured in the chin may be folklore because intriguingly none of the iconographical prescriptions of Hanumān supports this. As already mentioned, the Rāmāyaṇa describes him as ‘Sundara’.

A more edifying meaning of Hanumān stems from the fact that Hanumān was born on earth as an aspect of Agni as a Vānara but had Vayu (of the mid regions) his parent, and Surya (or the sky) as his mentor. Thus, he had free movement in all three realms. This unimpeded movement is signified by the expression ‘hanu’ (gatyartha). Such easy access to all three realms also implies unclouded wisdom.

The chapter- At the feet of Sri Rāma, and volume 2, include a series of sojourns into the charming world of the Rāmāyaṇa. The last part of both volumes concludes with various shlokas(in Devanagari) dedicated to Hanumān including the procedures of worship.

Man, or Monkey?

In a separate chapter of Volume – 2, Professor Rao tries to solve the “baffling mystery”, – was Hanumān a man or a monkey?

The poet (Vālmīki) no doubt employs the expression ‘kapi’ (a well-known one for monkey) quite frequently, but he makes it clear that it was a ‘rupa’ (an appearance)

And when Hanumān first met the Rāma Lakshmana brothers, he ‘cast off his monkey form’ – Kapirūpaṁparithyajya. How could he have done that if he were not already human in form? The poets’ language says his tail is worn, tied to add to the beauty of form; like all folk- deities he too has a core that is rooted in facts although embellished by fancy. Vālmīki’s epic-poem as well as later literature bearing on Rāmāyaṇa invariably describe Hanumān as a human being, an extraordinary one at that in body, mind and heart. Even in physical appearance, he is praised as extremely handsome(sundara)

Consider this – did he fly across the oceans or swim? Professor Rao’s explanation says that Vālmīki himself uses words that say that he swam, which is indeed a great feat, but not impossible given the geographical context.

Then how does one explain his many other magical feats, like assuming any form and size, uprooting trees and lifting mountains? These come from his Tantric background is Professor Rao’s explanation.

Elsewhere in his book ĀdikaviVālmīki Professor Rao says the Vānaras could have been a forest tribe south of the Vindhyas.

Whatever the explanations, somehow the riddle seemed unsolved even after reading all this! What I did gather is that Hanumān’s form is the way it is since the monkey/ape is associated with wisdom all over the world in all ancient cultures.

Hanumān’s personality

Hanumān is the most impressive character in the whole of the Rāmāyaṇa, so much so, that it can “easily be called the Hanumāyana”. He is charming, handsome, and wise. Right at the first meeting with Hanumān, Rāma is completely impressed by his exceptional diction and remarks to Lakshmana that this must indeed be a very erudite person.

Hanumān chooses to speak in different languages, Sanskrit to Vānara to Manuśya, on different occasions, deliberately and prudently.

Rāma says that he could not have defeated Rāvaṇa and rescued Sita if it were not for Hanumān and he remains ever indebted to him. Rāma treats him always as a friend and with gratitude, though Hanumān treats him as a master.

Accomplished but ever modest, aggressive on the battlefield while being a competent minister to Sugriva, these facets of HanumānKoṣa’s personality are laid out, becoming an appetizer to the Rāmāyaṇa Hanumān’s Iconography

His association with the Rāmāyaṇa has added new dimensions to his personality, he has even acquired a cultic significance, a literary armour and a spiritual aroma.

This has introduced a large variety in his iconography. They range from large etchings on boulders to sophisticated icons “carefully sculpted and imaginatively stylised.”

The descriptions of Hanumān forms are a treat. Sample this ślōka,

The Sun and Moon are his feet; wears the strip of loincloth and the girdle of scared grass; clad in fine silken garment; wearing the sacred thread. He holds in his two hands a book (scripture -text). Earrings and necklaces adorn him; He has a pleasant countenance.

More than 31 forms of Hanumān as represented in iconography are explained throughout the book with photographs of various shrines in India and her neighbouring countries. Some of them include, Parivārān̄janēya (Hanumān included in Rāma’s family), Vīrān̄janēya (one carrying a mountain in one of his hands), Bhaktā’ān̄janēya (one with folded hands, also seen on the handles of brass bells in our homes), Pan̄camukhiĀn̄janēya (one with five heads) and the long list goes on. When I read about Vīrān̄janēya and his significance the calendar images we have been worshipping all along acquired a new layer of meaning.

Hanumān is always shown as single, though curiously one text says he is married to Suvarcala daughter of Sūrya!

In conclusion, even though we all know Hanumān in our own way through our family traditions, this book expands our knowledge of him through the eyes of different streams of worship. Perhaps this is what is meant by diversity in unity. These volumes certainly will whet your appetite to read more and know more and meditate more, on Hanumān.

HanumānKoṣa is a gift for us and our families. Just like Professor Rao’s scholarship, the information in this book is so vast, that it must be read thoroughly to be enjoyed; no amount of review will suffice of course.

I must add though, that tighter editing in the structure of the two volumes and relevant labelling and location of all the sketches and images would have helped the reader.

Whatever be the current structure of the book, reading and rereading parts of the Rāmāyaṇa with emphasis on Hanumān is a treat that must not be missed.

Published by Sri Sat Guru Publications, HANUMAN KOSA
Courtesy: Pragyata