Kamban calls Hanuman as ‘the one who removes the loneliness of dharma’. For the Indic, he is the embodiment of practical Vedanta in action, and the pan-India deity embraced in our continuing loneliness and togetherness in dharma.
On National Highway 47, from Nagercoil to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of mainland India, a virgin goddess stands in penance to win Shiva of the Himalayas. A few kilometres down the highway, there is a small hillock particularly green with vegetation. In the fast modernising surroundings, one would also notice that almost all hillocks have become stone quarries, but not this. The reason is that this hillock, which we locals call Marunduvalmalai or the hillock where medicinal herbs are found, is considered sacred. Tradition has it that it was a pebble that fell from the Sanjeevini mountain that Hanuman carried.
Today, botanists have estimated that this small hillock at 800 feet elevation is home to 113 species of plants, many of which are medicinal herbs extensively used in local medical systems. The hillock is untouched because of the veneration for Hanuman for whom there is a temple at the top along with a Shiva shrine.
Here, Hanuman as a living presence serves Mother Earth protecting her biodiversity — after all, is not Sita his mother, the daughter of Mother Earth?
South India has a special place for Hanuman in its collective conscience. Azhwars had mentioned Hanuman setting fire to Lanka. Periyaazhwar (Vishnusiddhar circa sixth century) had written devotional hymns that praise Rama through Hanuman’s description of the lord to Sita. The azhwar says that if a person sings these hymns, which are the words of Hanuman to Sita, they would attain liberation. An important literary dimension to this was added by Kamban or Kamba Nattazhwar, also hailed as Kavi Chakravarthi — emperor of poets — in his Ramavatharam (Ram-avatar). Composed in the thirteenth century, this version of Ramayana is considered as an unsurpassed peak in Tamil literary history.
Here, in this epic, the invocation verse for Hanuman, attributed to Kamban, has since then become the most favourite Hanuman prayer of all Tamils:
He who was born of one in the five, jumping across that which is one in the five, and
Speeding through the medium that is one in the five, for the cause of noble one (Ram),
Saw the daughter of one in the five and set that alien land on that one in the five.
Let that one provide and protect us.
He was born of the wind (one of the five elements); jumped across the water of the ocean (another one of the five elements); speeded through space (another one of the five elements) to see Sita the daughter of Earth (yet another one of the five elements); set Lanka on fire (again one of the five elements).
Although Kamban’s portrayal of Hanuman is faithful to the spirit of Valmiki, he also incorporates the way Hanuman has been venerated. In his very first meeting with Hanuman, Rama recognises his intelligence, particularly his ability to convey information with precision and in the shortest possible words. This efficiency in verbal communication earned Hanuman the title, ‘the master of words’ from Rama. Kamban consistently portrayed Hanuman as the symbol of dedication, of intelligence, and, as he is, of strength. More than the astonishing physical prowess displayed in the adventurous deeds of Hanuman, his multidimensional intelligence, communication skills, ability of discernment and above all his commitment to dharma, become central in Kamban’s work.
Kamban calls Hanuman as ‘the one who removes the loneliness of dharma’. Rama is, in a way, a lonely person because he adheres to dharma. His life shows that nothing is dearer to him than dharma. He forsakes the kingdom for dharma; he forsakes his wife for dharma; later he forsakes even his dear brother Lakshmana for dharma. Sita loves Rama as her husband; Lakshmana loves him as his brother; people of Ayodhya love him as a great king; Dasaratha as his dear son. But the commitment to dharma that Rama has, overrides all the love at one point or another, leaving Rama in magnificent loneliness. Kamban considers Hanuman alone as the one who understands Rama as the embodiment of dharma and loves him through that vision.
Almost every scholar of Kamba Ramayanam does not fail to contrast the way in which Hanuman communicates to Rama the success of his mission to Lanka. In Valmiki Ramayana, it is Sri Rama, who approaches Hanuman to find out where Sita is, even as the vanaras indulge in jubilation over the success of Hanuman, to which Hanuman makes a salutation to the southern direction, thus conveying where Sita is imprisoned. Kamban eliminates the unruly celebration by the vanaras, and it is Hanuman, who conveys the message to Rama by making salutations to the southern direction — indicating the direction where Sita is.
Then he makes the famous statement, “saw the jewel of chastity”. Here, Kamban unconventionally inverses the sentence, putting ‘saw’ before ‘Sita’, to bring out Hanuman’s sensibilities. The reasoning behind this is, the very first word of Hanuman’s statement conveying Sita’s whereabouts must give hope, and anything other than that can cause agony to Rama, even if it is for a split second, about what her condition in Lanka is. Hanuman didn’t want to prolong even by seconds Rama’s distress over Sita’s whereabouts.
Even beyond the literary texts, there seems to have developed in South India quite an independent veneration of Hanuman through television serials. Consider, for example, the now famous version of Hanuman meeting Ravana in the latter’s court. Almost every screenplay of the episode speaks of how Ravana refused to offer a seat to Hanuman and Hanuman created a seat for himself with his tail, which rose above Ravana’s throne. Both Valmiki and Kamban do not mention this incident. After all, Hanuman had been captured for destroying Ashoka Vana, and hence he would not have expected a seat. Nevertheless, this interesting version has become part of common pan-Indian Ramayana episode.
In the Lokeshvara-Virupaksha Shiva temple built by Chalukya queen Lokamadevi to commemorate the southern military campaign of Vikramaditya (733-44 CE) her husband, the inner pillars are lavishly sculpted with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The episode of Hanuman sitting on his tail-made-throne before Ravana, is shown here. That this became part of an eighth century temple sculpture shows that this should have been in vogue for at least a few centuries preceding it. Perhaps, like the story of the squirrel, this was a contribution from South India, which has now become a part of the common Ramayana narrative.
The flexibility and imagination with which local traditions in South India treated and created Hanuman legends is a tribute to the freedom and richness of the Hindu mind. In southern Tamil Nadu, temple sculptures depict an interesting variant of Hanuman’s encounter on his way to Lanka with Suarasa, the mother of snakes.
In the usual accounts, in order to stop Suarasa from swallowing him, Hanuman enlarges his body, but Suarasa also grows in size and swallows him. Then Hanuman shrinks himself and whizzes out of her mouth. But in the temple sculptures of southern Tamil districts, Hanuman enters the mouth of Suarasa and exits through her ears. On his way across the ocean in search of the divine feminine, Hanuman encounters three types of women and with each, he deals in a specific way.
With Suarasa, the serpent goddess, there is respect. In the case of shadow catcher Simhika, Hanuman falls, battles her and arises victoriously to pursue his mission. Then, he encounters Lankini — the protector of Lanka, whom he vanquishes, and in effect, freeing her from the bondage of servitude to the demonic state. These encounters of Hanuman and his eventual meeting with Sita, perhaps form an epic in their own right and more importantly an Indic odyssey into the deep psychology of a seeker. The Sundara Kanda recital being made important for people to tide over their difficulties may be one of the most effective psychotherapeutic exercise created by Hindu culture.
Hanuman is said to have felt humbled in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. Perhaps, this is the only time he felt humbled and how! Rama wanted to worship Shiva to atone for the sin of killing Ravana, who was after all, a great Shiva devotee. So, Hanuman was asked to bring a Shivalinga from Shiva himself by visiting Kailash. Hanuman agreed. As the appointed auspicious time for worship was nearing, there was no sign of Hanuman. So, as a contingency, Sita volunteered to create a Shivalinga with the sand of the Rameswaram shores. As she completed making the Shivalinga, Hanuman appeared with the Shivalinga from Kailash. Hanuman was hurt because they did not wait for him.
Rama told Hanuman that he could remove the sand Shivalinga and place the one he had brought. But Hanuman, who could move mountains like a child’s play, could not move the sand Shivalinga. He tied the sand linga with his tail and pulled. But alas! The tail snapped and Hanuman realised his folly, and Sita helped to attach the tail of Hanuman. Today, both the Shivalingas are worshipped in Rameswaram. The place where the tail got severed is called Hanumankund Teertham. It was forsaken for at least five decades, and was revived by the natural resources development project of Vivekananda Kendra.
Another famous deed of Hanuman in South India is the story of Mahiravana. It appears in the Assamese Ramayana written by Ananta Kandali (fourteenth century), and in South India it became very popular. In Tamil Nadu, the Mahiravana is called Mayil-Ravana or peacock Ravana. This story is quite interesting for here Mahiravana, who has extraordinary occult skills, deceives Hanuman and takes Rama and Lakshmana to the nether world, to sacrifice them before Kali. In this story, it is Hanuman who becomes the hero and rescues Rama and Lakshmana, who were transformed into dolls.
Hanuman also rescues Rama from being seduced by Chandrasena, a maiden kept captive by Mahiravana. She considers Rama as her husband and tries to garland him but Hanuman thwarts it. Later, in folk versions, she is born as Satyabhama, one of the eight principal queens of Krishna. Mayil-Ravana has five horcruxes in the form of five beetles, which should be killed — all at once. So even as Rama and Lakshmana battle Mahiravana, Hanuman takes the panchamukha, or five-faced form, and kills all the five beetles simultaneously.
This draws quite a lot of associations. It should be remembered that Hanuman has connection to vedic deities — Maruts the wind or storm gods. He is called Maruti. Maruts are also Rudras because they are born to Rudra. Thus, the Shiva connection to Hanuman is an ancient one. Skanda Purana is one of the earliest sources to speak about Anjaneya as ‘a part of Rudra on the surface of the earth’. Agni Purana also speaks of this association.
Today, it is common knowledge among all Hindus that Hanuman has the aspects of Shiva. So the five faces emerging from Hanuman may be yet another association with Shiva.
However, all the five faces are associated with Vishnu — Varaha (boar), Garuda (Vishnu’s mount), Hayagreeva (horse-faced Vishnu hailed in Vaishnava tradition as the giver of wisdom), Narasimha (the ferocious lion avatar of Vishnu) and Hanuman with his own face. Perhaps, this is yet another instance of emotional and devotional syncretism between Shiva and Vaishnava traditions. Today, the five-faced Hanuman is worshipped widely in South India as a popular and powerful deity for removing obstacles.
When naming Mahiravana as Mayil-Ravana, the collective mind seems to have also asserted another important strand in Hanuman tradition. Hanuman being the son or an aspect of Shiva also has parallels with Skanda-Muruga. Looking at the mischiefs of infant Hanuman, the seers got angry and cursed him to forget his powers. When as an infant, Hanuman was looking at the divine plays of Skanda-Muruga, the devas became so afraid and mistook him for a demon and came to fight with Him. Mayil or peacock is the form soor, the asuric embodiment of ego, took in the final battle with Skanda. Of course, Skanda subjugated the demon and made him the mount. So by calling Mahiravana as Mayil-Ravana, the local Tamil traditions apart from adding extreme magic-fantasy element to Ramayana war also reinforced the Murugan-Hanuman association.
Hanuman, thus, played a wide spectrum of roles in shaping the south Indian spiritual culture and psyche. During the Islamist invasions, he became the symbol of Indic resistance to monopolistic religious expansionism. The Indologist specialising in Tamil, Kamil Zvelebil, links the immense popularity as “direct reflection of the last and deadly struggle of Hindu India against Islam in the South”. While this is very much true, as we have seen this alone cannot explain the immense popularity of Hanuman. Later during the colonial subjugation, Swami Vivekananda invoked Hanuman as an ideal for Indian youths, emphasising his Rudra aspect:
You have now to make the character of Mahavira your ideal. See how at the command of Ramachandra he crossed the ocean. He had no care for life or death! He was a perfect master of his senses and wonderfully sagacious. You have now to build your life on this great ideal of personal service. Through that, all other ideals will gradually manifest in life. ...The Damaru and horn have to be sounded, drums are to be beaten so as to raise the deep and martial notes, and with "Mahavira, Mahavira" on your lips and shouting "Hara, Hara, Vyom, Vyom", the quarters are to be reverberated. ...Through the thunder — roll of the dignified Vedic hymns, life is to be brought back into the country. In everything the austere spirit of heroic manhood is to be revived. In following such an ideal lies the good of the people and the country. If you can build your character after such an ideal, then a thousand others will follow. But take care that you do not swerve an inch from the ideal. Never lose heart. In eating, dressing, or lying, in singing or playing, in enjoyment or disease, always manifest the highest moral courage. Then only will you attain the grace of Mahashakti, the Divine Mother.
Tamil Nadu has two very famous Hanuman idols: one at Nammakal and the other at Suchindrum, near Kanyakumari. The Hanuman idol at Suchindrum temple is 22 feet tall. In the eighteenth century, Chanda Sahib, a Muslim marauder invaded Travancore. The people of Suchindrum village, as it was custom during Islamist invasions, hid all the valuables of the temple inside secret chambers. They also buried this Hanuman idol in a special pit and made a small stone pillar like protrusion outside.
After the raids were repulsed and peace restored, the Hanuman idol was however forgotten. Over a period of time, there used to be unusual amount of petty accidents, and, the feeling of a presence around the protruding stone pillar. So, the Travancore king consulted the court diviners, who suggested that the area around the pillar should be excavated and a deity would be found. Sure enough, they found the gigantic Hanuman. His posture was related to his assuming — the cosmic form before Sita at Ashoka Vana. Hanuman at Suchindrum is a sculptural marvel that combines extraordinary strength and extraordinary humility, simultaneously.
The ritual experts suggested that the Hanuman idol be installed without the usual rituals as it was suggested, otherwise Hanuman would assume superiority over the main deity who is the combination of Sthanumalayan (Sthanu-Shiva, Mal-Vishnu, Ayan-Brahma). The feet are buried under the ground and only 18 feet of the Hanuman sculpture is visible. Even without ritual installation, Hanuman has almost become the principal deity of the temple.
From protecting biodiversity to theo-diversity, spiritual seeking to serving the nation, Hanuman has emerged as the pan-Indian deity. ‘The monkey god’ they call him, but for us, he is the very embodiment of practical Vedanta in action in whatever domain we choose, throughout our history, within and without.