In India, it is now openly acknowledged that the state is capitalist. That it is also male may not be openly stated as such, but is getting clearer by the day. And now a new belligerent face of Hanuman, replacing the earlier one of a genial monkey god, erupts through this fissure. According to reports, Karan Acharya, a 29-year-old graphic designer from Kerala now based in Mangaluru, generated this image of an angry Hanuman playfully and for free for his friends. And yes, he was very pleased when he heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appreciated the new-look Hanuman at an election rally in Karnataka earlier this month.
Created in 2015, the Angry Hanuman is everywhere now – on buses, windscreens, public walls and T-shirts. Acharya clarifies that this angry makeover is aimed at making the humble, ever servile image of a Bhakt appear powerful, not oppressive. But man is still the measure of most things in India and power remains central to a man’s definition. As general belief goes, celibacy in a male will further increase this precious power manifold. So Hanuman, the celibate Bhakt, becomes an apt symbol for the new and aggressive variety of macho in India that is already denying privacy and freedom of speech to women vehemently through fringe groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Ram Sene.
Hanuman, according to mythology, is the illegitimate son of the wind god Vayu and the apsara Anjana. Vayu was formally married to the daughter of the divine architect Vishwakarma but that did not stop him from bedding other females. He tried to entice a hundred daughters of King Kushnabh and when rejected, cursed them to become hunch-backed crones. He went on to sire another illegitimate son, Bhima, with Kunti, the teenaged princess married to an impotent husband (Pandu) who prayed to the virile Vayu to oblige her with a child. From his volatile macho father, Hanuman inherited the ability to fly, and an enormous appetite that he shared with his step-brother Bhima. Legend has it that the new-born Hanuman was so hungry that he tried to gobble up the sun thinking it was a fruit. He was made to cough out this glowing morsel when Indra shot a thunderbolt and destroyed his chin (Hanu), hence the name Hanuman.
But despite his gifts of flying and great physical stamina, Hanuman seems to harbour many childhood anxieties and a deep sense of insecurity as a son alienated from his father. He remains celibate and content to follow his band of simian brothers into the forests. It is his mentors Angad, Jamvant and ultimately Ram who restore his self-esteem and awaken him to his real powers. Tulsidas’ Ramcharit Manas portrays Hanuman as a gentle giant who rose to be a reliable, selfless and humble devotee and ally to his lord. He risks life and limb to cross the seas to Sri Lanka to bring Ram news of his wife being held captive there. As the battle rages in Lanka, he helps fetch a magic herb from the Himalayas to save the life of Lakshmana, and curls up with embarrassment when praised. Aggression is thus excised from the image by Tulsidas to focus on a Bhakt’s principled defence of the just cause and during that course, demolishing a predatory beast.
Masculinisation of Hanuman
Tulsidas’ liberal view of a true Bhakt, however, expresses the feudal male view that the state and its laws, as they exist, are rational. So Ram, according to the laws, kills the Dalit Shambook for practising tapas (penance) and Bali for daring to take away his (presumed dead) brother’s wife, and exiles Sita, and the Bhakt accepts it. Valmiki’s Sita sees that masculine mores of male kings relate to a specific moral code that forgives Caesar but not his wife. That male power exists and sex equality does not.
The angry masculinisation of Hanuman is not contesting gender injustice or waging a war against rapists and the abusive kin of women. It is going to be used next year to sell another kind of war. A war that depends on a certain kind of young men you will find all over history, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Nellie, Muzaffarnagar and Kathua, where ethnic and civil wars have been started. Young men who revere the milch cow as Mata, who swear by the honour of their mothers and sisters but will hunt and rape and kill men and women who do not fit their culturally defined familial categories, who for pleasure need an angry avenger, not one who is as Tulsidas said “gyan gun sagar” (a sea of wisdom and goodness).
Among the military fraternities of ancient tribes, all young males were initiated into the art of killing anyone perceived as a threat to the tribe. Such ceremonies followed rituals whereby the young men stripped and dressed in animal skin (often also donning a fierce animal mask) and worked themselves into a bestial rage. Rage removes inhibitions. Rage alone makes the gentle, genial young man next door who listens to film songs all day suddenly go berserk and join a mob as killer of the perceived enemy. Bearskin and Berserk, the two words incidentally are synonymous in German. The question is, how do you awaken the killer instinct in a male turning even a laid-back herbivore into a blood thirsty predator?
Before Angry Hanuman, Warrior Ram
Similar to the Angry Hanuman transformation, in the 1990s, the familiar Ram holding his bow and standing casually next to his happy family became a lone militant warrior, all flying hair and drawn arrow. The Rath Yatra followed, replicating this motif, and as it reached its crescendo, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by a self-proclaimed Vaanar Sena (monkey army) wielding trishuls. In the Angry Hanuman, we may well be seeing a genial, well-loved icon being transformed into a militant killer, a hominid that might have shared a cave with his now enemy for long. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote in a notebook, “The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman.” The first fratricidal weapon, as Bruce Chatwin reminds us, was seen around 10,000 BC, when Cain the brother now turned farmer crushed a hoe through his brother Abel’s skull.