A to Z: Hanuman

Published April 9, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Today, we’ll be looking at Hanuman, the monkey god of India.  (And other places strongly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist traditions.)

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Hanuman appears in a lot of the MegaTen games.  I’ve got two versions of his demon compendium text.  From Devil Survivor Overclocked:

A heroic monkey god of Hindu descent who is renowned and popular.  He is extremely nimble and has extraordinary knowledge.

He is known to have helped Vishnu in the guise of Prince Rama and performed many heroic deeds in the Ramayana.  His name means “jaw,” and he has golden skin, a red face that shines like a ruby, and an extremely long tail.  Since he is the son of the wind god Vayu, he can fly and change shape into many forms.

And from Shin Megami Tensei IV/Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse:

A hero of Hindu descent.  He can transform into anything, fly, and has great strength.  He performed many heroic deeds in the Ramayana.  He is depicted as a monkey.

Again, image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

(His Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne appearance, above, is more like his other portrait, but since I’ve actually encountered him in Nocturne, and didn’t get far enough in the original Shin Megami Tensei to meet him, I thought I’d use the 3D version.)

As to the original Hanuman, there’s a lot there to talk about.  Hanuman is one of the major characters in the Hindu epic the Ramayana.  I have actually read a translation of that, many years ago, but mostly all I really remember about it was how much Hanuman reminded me of Sun Wukong (Son Goku in Japan), from The Journey to the West.  (Despite that I haven’t actually read the latter.  I’ve just read a lot about it.  Because it’s very, very long.  And hard to find in translation unless you want a butchered version from the 1940s.)  According to Wikipedia, I’m not the only one to see the similarity between Hanuman and Sun Wukong:  it says that “scholars” say unreservedly that Hanuman absolutely was the inspiration for Sun Wukong.

A sculpture of Hanuman in Singapore.
Photo by Urban Kalbermatter – SriKrishnantemple2, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59680914

First off, before I get into stories about Hanuman, one nit-pick with the game text.  No, two.  First, the matter of Hanuman’s paternity.  His mother’s name is Anjana and his father Kesari, but Vayu is also given paternal credit, because of legends associating Vayu with Hanuman’s birth.  Primarily, these legends seem to be one tying him to Prince Rama (an avatar of Vishnu) from before his birth, as they have Vayu aiding in Hanuman’s mother getting a small share of some sacred pudding that Rama’s father had obtained for a ritual that would lead to his three wives having Rama and his two brothers.  But Hanuman is not the son of a mortal father and a divine father the way that, say, Theseus was the son of both Aegeus and Poseidon.

The second nit to pick is about his name.  While one possible etymology does involve the word “jaw”, it’s only one possible explanation, and it’s not the whole meaning of the name.  (That would be like taking the “lipless” false etymology for Achilles and then saying that his name means “lip”.  Okay, no, it’s not quite that bad, but having thought of it, I had to go ahead and say it.)

So, what does Hanuman mean?  Seems scholars can’t quite agree on that.  The etymology referenced in the game, “one having a jaw (hanu) that is prominent (mant)”, is actually built into the Ramayana, which to me seems like a sure sign of a late, false etymology.  (Or maybe that’s just me incorrectly applying the same logic that I use in looking at the etymologies built into late texts about Greco-Roman mythic figures?)  In the Ramayana‘s version, when Hanuman was little, he was hungry one morning, mistook the rising sun for a big, red fruit, and tried to jump up and grab it.  Indra was outraged, and struck him down with a thunderbolt, making Vayu leave in fury, which took away not only the wind, but the air itself.  That was no good, so the god of life, Prajapati, revived the young monkey, but didn’t restructure his jaw where the thunderbolt had hit him, leaving it misshapen.   The Wikipedia article also mentions another (possibly older) version which it compares to Icarus, in that Hanuman is burnt to ashes by the sun, and the ashes are lovingly gathered up in order that the poor monkey can be revived, but part of his jaw wasn’t found, leaving it disfigured when he’s brought to life again.  (Personally, that puts me in mind of how Isis couldn’t find one of the pieces of Osiris after Set tore him to pieces…except for which piece it was…)

There are other possible meanings, though, described by Wikipedia thusly:

A second, less common interpretation is that the name derives from the Sanskrit words Han (“killed” or “destroyed”) and maana (pride); the name implies “one whose pride was destroyed”. This epithet resonates with the story in the Ramayana about his emotional devotion to Rama and Sita. He combines two of the most cherished traits in the Hindu bhaktishakti worship traditions: “heroic, strong, assertive excellence” and “loving, emotional devotion to personal god”.[11]:31–32

A third conjecture is found in Jain texts. This version states that Hanuman spent his childhood on an island called Hanuruha, which served as the origin of his name.[11]:189

And what is Hanuman like?  He’s super-strong, intensely loyal to Rama, extremely clever, capable of shape-shifting, and described as being ugly on the outside and beautiful on the inside.  He’s the go-to guy to get anything out of the way.  (I feel like he’s somehow the distant inspiration for Puss in Boots, but I have nothing to back that up with.)

Though there are other texts, the big one for Hanuman is the Ramayana.  It’s a major epic and the summary on Wikipedia is about 2,000 words long, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not trying to give a full summary here.  I did do a pretty full summary of it two years ago, though it mostly left Hanuman out, because I was supposed to be talking about Sita, Rama’s wife.  The core of the story is that Rama should inherit his father’s throne, but his father’s second wife is jealous and has him exiled so her own son can inherit.  He wanders for fourteen years in exile with his wife and other half-brother, and go through many hardships, especially concerning the abduction of his wife by a demon, and the war he has to fight to get her back again.  Hanuman doesn’t actually show up until after Sita is kidnapped, because it’s only when he needs to fight a demon to get his wife back that Rama needs an immortal, super-strong monkey god on his team.  (Er, okay, that’s not actually the reason, but…)

Of course, no post coming from me on the subject of Hanuman could leave out a few pop culture references.  (Because honestly, how many American pop culture ventures mention Hindu mythic figures?  (Other than a demonized version of Kali, anyway…))

I’m sure most everyone reading this has seen Black Panther (and if you haven’t, go see it right away!), so you probably caught the rather jarring reference to Hanuman, in which he’ s named as the patron god of the ape-themed Wakandan tribe.  (I was okay with the references to Bast, because at least Egypt is on the same continent as Wakanda, even if it’s half the continent away.  But India?  That’s really, really pushing things.  Like, a lot.  Though, as my dad pointed out, that was probably a genuine reference from the comics, which started in the late ’60s, so…just mentioning a real monkey god at all was pretty impressive…probably…)

But how many of you remember 1994’s live action The Jungle Book?  For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s got no real connection to either Kipling’s book of short stories or to the animated movie aside from lip service of some names and the basic conceit of a boy being raised by wolves, but it’s a really fun little adventure picture, and definitely elevated by its terrific cast.  (As long as you’re able to overlook a Chinese-American playing an Indian.  Alongside actual actors from India.  I mean…better than a white guy, but…well, he’s hot and I like looking at him with his shirt off so I guess I shouldn’t complain…)  Anyway, in that movie, there’s a city called “Monkey City” by Mowgli, but called the lost city of Hanuman by the local scoundrels who are the henchmen of the film.

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