Bal Ram Singh
9 min readApr 16, 2022

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Understanding Hanuman as a Vanara, Not Monkey Through the Lens of Culture of Symbolic Traditions

Bal Ram Singh, School of Indic Studies, Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, MA 02747, USA

Introduction

Animals have been used extensively in India for depicting characters, wisdom, and action. This involves representing some deities, such as Hanuman, Ganesha, Garuda, etc. However, taking them to mean literally as animals is false, and brings contempt and shame in today’s world. I received a communication from a good friend, Dhiru Shah, regarding the monkey face and tail of Hanuman ji, a revered deity throughout India, and beyond. He had felt asking for a response in view of a message circulated on the Whatsapp groups by another common friend, Dr. Deen Bandhu Chandora, from Atlanta.The article is a response to that.

A Note from Sri Dhiru Shah, Treasurer, World of Association of Vedic Studies on April 16, 2022

Namaste Balramji

Most of us have read & believe that Hanumanji was of Vanar jati animal & had a tail. However, the following analysis seems to be reasonable in arguing that Hanumanji belonged to a jungle tribe called Vanar. Could you please throw some light on it. Thanks

(The Note circulated by Dr. Deen Bandhu Chandora, Founding member of the World Association of Vedic Studies)

चैत्र पूर्णिमा, 2079 विक्रमी संवत तदानुसार 16 अप्रैल 2022 ईस्वी श्री हनुमान जयंती है। श्री हनुमान जी माता अंजनी और पिता पवन कुमार के संयोग से उत्पन्न हुए। वह चारों वेदों के विद्वान, नीतिज्ञ और बुद्धिमान वानर जाति के श्रेष्ठ मानव सिद्ध हुए। सीता की लंका में खोज, रावण को उसके दरबार में तर्क संगत चुनौती, लक्ष्मण मूर्छा के समय संजीवनी बूटी लाना जैसे अद्वितीय कार्य भी किए। श्रीराम ने उनको भरत समान भाई कह कर सन्मानित किया.. ..परन्तु हिन्दू समाज ने अज्ञानता वश उनको बन्दर की आकृति में पूजना शुरू कर दिया. जो कि उनका अपमान है… आइए इस हनुमान जयंती के अवसर पर प्रतिज्ञा करें कि श्री हनुमान जी की पूंछ वाली फोटो को फारवर्ड नहीं करेंगे।

Vaanar/वानर गण वन के वासी होने के कारण वानर कहलाए। वानर समूह के स्त्री गण अन्य महिलाओं की तथा साडिये पहनती थी और उनके पूँछ भी चित्रों में नहीं मिलती, अतः इनकी स्त्रीये भी मानुष जैसी दिखती है बंदर जैसी नहीं। अतः हमारे बुद्धिमान पूर्वजों को आदर से मनुष्य के रूप में हाई दर्शित करे तो उनकी गरिमा भी बढ़ेंगी और साथ साथ हिंदुओं पर लोग हंसते है वह भी बंद हो जाएँगे।

कभी आपने सोचा की बंदे की पत्निये मनुष्य की आकृति और नर बंदर की आकृति तो यह हास्यप्रद स्तिथि के जनक हम हिंदू ही होंग़े। दीन बन्धु चंदोरा

[Chaitra Purnima, 2079 Vikrami Samvat, falls on April 16, 2022, which is Sri Hanuman Jayanti. Shri Hanuman ji was born by the combination of mother Anjani and father Pawan Kumar. He proved to be a scholar of the four Vedas, a moralist and the best man of the intelligent Vanara clan. He carried many unparallel tasks, such as searching for Sita in Lanka, rationally challenge to Ravana in his court, bringing Sanjeevani Booti at the time of Lakshmana’s unconsciousness. Shri Ram honored him by calling him brother like Bharat. But the Hindu society started worshiping him in the form of a monkey out of ignorance. Which is an insult to them… Let’s take a pledge on this Hanuman Jayanti that we will not forward the photo with the tail of Shri Hanuman ji.

Vaanar / Vanar Gana is called Vanar because of being the inhabitants of the forest. The female members of the Vanar group used to wear other women’s sarees and are also not shown with tails in the pictures, so their women also look like humans and not monkeys. Therefore, if we show respect to our wise ancestors as human beings (by not showing them as monkeys), then their dignity will also increase, and at the same time people laughing at Hindus will also stop.

Have you ever thought that if the female figure of a human and the figure of a male is that of monkey, then we Hindus will be the architect of this funny situation. By Dr. Deen Bandhu Chandora].

Reply from Professor Bal Ram Singh, Member, Board of Directors, World Association of Vedic Studies, April 16, 2022

Thanks for your query, Dhirubhai!

Here is my take on this very important topic, not just for Vanara vs. Bandar, but for the antiquity of such symbolisms amply present in the Indian culture and traditions.

He (Dr. DB Chondora) is right that they were humans, not animals. It is also true that women looked normal human beings, quite wise actually, like Tara and Anjani. Anjani was wife of a prominent village Chief, Kesari, Hanuman ji’s father. One has to look at the story of Hanuman at various levels of human sociology, psychology, prevailing traditions, and current situations.

Hanuman State

Hanuman state of mind is that of someone who is bereft of ego and arrogance. “Hanu” means to kill and “maan” means the ego. That is why one sees and hears about Hanuman being very powerful yet always seen with folded hands and humble in service. There are stories about him getting a curse so that he would forget his power. However, given the Hanuman state of mind it will in fact be considered a boon. Certainly going by his great accomplishments and virtues, and the following even today, his traits can easily be considered as footsteps of success.

Hanuman Syndrome

Hanuman ji’s humility and determination are considered part of his real character that led him to win any mission he embarked upon. In the infinite states of consciousness, most people are focused on only a limited tracks of the consciousness, and are in fact not aware of the existence (ego) of the other domains of their consciousness until they are reminded of by someone they believe and trust, such as parents, teachers, guru, etc. (Singh, 2018)

One could easily see that children and students are particularly vulnerable to the hidden capacity and potential unknown to them. This is the Hanuman syndrome that the whole humanity suffers from. This syndrome is treated by only wise and caring teachers or elders, who remove the syndrome with inspiration and infusion of courage through a series of steps to build confidence via knowledge and practice. This is what was done by Jamvant, represented by as a Rikshraj and mansputra of Brahma, the creator of the universe. Jamvant is not an ordinary bear, rather an individual with power and adaptability of a bear. He along with Hanuman and Parasuram have distinction of being present in both Ramayana and Mahabharata time. In other words, for Hanuman syndrome to be removed, an extraordinary teacher or guru is needed, by awakening the hidden consciousness.

It is believed that Hanuman ji was quite adventurous since his childhood. He used to play with Rishis during his childhood, sometime bothering in their meditation. According to one story, one such Rishi cursed him to lose his powers. His mother, Anjana regularly interacted with sages in the forest, and arranged for Hanuman Ji’s education, including getting the curse modified to the effect that he will not remember his power until someone reminds him.

Young Hanuman with Mother Anjani

Vanar, Forest Dwellers, and Monkey

Hanuman was son of Kesari, a vanar king of Sumeru, for which there are several claimants in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, and Anjana, a wise woman with divine background. This Vanar/Vanara does not mean bandara or monkey. It is a problem of etymology and symbolism. Vanara simply means people living in vana (forest). There are still tribes living in the forest, who are known as vanara (men of vana or forest, vanjara (people who dwell in the forest), and vanamanush (humans of vana). Up until 3 years ago, a family of Vana Manush lived in my village, next to our house, for more than hundred years. They made living out of their skills in forests, such as climbing trees, making plates of out of forest tree leaves, and selling wood collected in the forest, and collecting honey from wild honey combs, etc. There was a clear practice and mutual understanding that we were part of each other’s family. If there was anything monkey about them, it was their forest and tree climbing skills, which may have been picked up to call them as bandar or monkey.

It is known that Hanuman was born with blessings from Shiva and Parvati, and also was helped by Vayu devata. All of them are well grounded in mountain, forest, and air. In other words Hanuman was influenced mostly by the nature and was connected to native people with wisdom from nature. They used to have kings and queens in the forest communities also, just like rest of India. India was always ruled locally, although they all thought globally not only to humans for to the entire nature.

The Question of Mask and Tail

The question is why male members, be Bali, Sugriva, Kesari, Hanuman, or Angad wore monkey mask and displayed a tail. It seems that was to show their identity and display their natural skills. They chose their symbols wisely reflecting their motto and qualities. This was more like a competitive sports mascots in USA today. Here we have falcons, badgers, panthers, bears, etc. In those days they had monkeys (Vanaras-Hanuman), bears (Bhalu-Jamvant), vultures (Giddh-Jatayu). The outfits were also protective gears in conflicts, in addition to recognizing their own soldiers from those of enemies. It is like putting on different types of jerseys for different teams today. In some sports different t-shirts or sash is assigned by the referees if their outfits are too close to each other.

British and several other militaries in the world keep animal mascots today for morale boosting and for good luck. This tradition apparently started in 18th century. Although there is no mention as such in any of the literature or historical descriptions animal mascots were clearly used during Ramayana time in India, as is evident from the story of golden deer for which Ram went out, followed by Lakshamana, before Sita was abducted by Ravana. This was particularly true for the tribal groups, such as Jatayu, Jamvant, Bali, Sugriva, etc. Even on the Ravana’s side Kumbhakarana used to animal horn on his head. During the Mahabharata war, all the major warriors had symbols on their chariot flags, most of them as animals, such as Arjun had monkey, Duryodhan had cobra, Sahadeva had swan, Nakula had deer, Ashwatthama had lion tail, and so on. Given the European people originally migrated from India (Singh, 2021; 2022), this culture of animal mascot may in fact be a continuation of that lineage.

Taking the concept of mascots literally is a lackadaisical action by Indian intellectuals, including those who claim to be spiritually inclined, unfortunately.

Symbolism is the most ancient form of communication, which is found quite frequently in animals from whom humans have evolved and to continue to remain behind in evolution. In the times of Ram and Sita such knowledge was given to students in Gurukulas. Sita ji was expert in communicating with nature so much so that she is considered to born from the planet Earth. Hanuman ji was supposed to know many languages of animals and plants (the Sanjivani story).

The latest evidence of this knowledge is when in 2004 Tsunami hit India, Sri Lanka, etc. in 2004 you, not a single tribe member died in Andaman Nicobar whereas thousand perished in the beaches of Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, not a single animal was reported to die in Sri Lanka National Animal Park, as animals had better sense of Tsunami (Mott, 2005) than the cell phone wielding humans at the beaches!

This goes a long way to show the symbols in Indian culture, be it in deities or in language, have great values, of course, only when understood appropriately!

So, Dr. Deen Bandhu Chandora’s is half right about Vanaras being humans but is half wrong for advising Hindus to stop depicting vanaras or Hanuman ji in their mascot form. It will lose the communication value. Of course, it needs to be properly propagated for its authentic value.

References

Mott, B. (2005) Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming? National Geographic, January 4, 2005 (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/news-animals-tsunami-sense-coming).

Singh, B. R (2018) Hanumān Approach after Overcoming the Hanumān Syndrome. VediWAVES Blog, https://vedicwaves.wordpress.com/2018/03/31/hanuman-approach-after-overcoming-the-hanuman-syndrome/, Published on March 31, 2018.

Singh, B. R. (2021) A New Narrative of Ayodhya as the Nanihal of Humanity, VedicWAVES Blog, https://vedicwaves.wordpress.com/2021/08/06/a-new-narrative-of-ayodhya-as-the-nanihal-of-humanity/, Published on August 6, 2021.

Singh, B. R. (2022) Making of the Indian Subcontinent and the Himalayas, as a Way to Become Nanihal of the Humanity, https://vedicwaves.wordpress.com/2022/04/13/making-of-the-indian-subcontinent-and-the-himalayas-as-a-way-to-become-nanihal-of-the-humanity/, Published on April 13, 2022.

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