He's the god people all over India look at with fond indulgence. A brother to some, protector to others, and often revered as a healer, Hanuman is ubiquitous in India, especially in the northern and western parts of the country. He is worshipped in akhadas, hailed for his celibacy, which is in sharp contrast to the public perception of Hanuman in South East Asia.
The post-lunch audience on the fourth day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which had settled into somnolence needed a spirited session as the one featuring Arshia Sattar, Philip Lutgendorf and Subha Vilas, all three writers with a long and intimate connection to the monkey god.
Sattar and Lutgendorf, who both met at Chicago university, are scholars of the Ramayana, among other texts. "Back in the day, Philip would ride a bike around the campus and greet me with Jai Bajrangbali," Sattar said by way of introduction about Lutgendorf. "He's my Bajrangi bhaijaan."
Sattar's affinity with Hanuman, as her mother would say, she explained, began as a three-year-old, when she was bitten by a monkey. Years later, she ended up writing a PhD dissertation on Hanuman. Even more curiously, after she had prepared her now acclaimed (and definitive) translation of the Valmiki Ramayana, a monkey came over to bless the manuscript as it was lying on the dining table of her Bengaluru residence, waiting for the courier to pick it up.
Vilas, who is a writer of mind, body spirit books and an inspirational speaker, recalled listening, as a child, to his father reading the sundara kanda of the Ramayana to the family. He had a picture of Hanuman in the room where he read every evening and, after each reading, he would put a dot on Hanuman's tail. When the tail became filled with the dots, the family would have a festival. "When I was a child, Hanuman was the god who would bring in much merriment to our house every few days," he said.
Lutgendorf came to India from the US in 1971, fell in love with the culture here, returned in 1975 to study Hindi, and read the Ramayana for the first time in Chicago. He learned to recite the text in a traditional style, which he regaled the audience with a recital of.
"I spent a year in Benaras between 1982 and 1983, studying the performances of the Ramayana. It was during this time that ideas of Hanuman bhakti and popularity became clear to me," he said. A Ramayani who was a guru to him one day whispered to him — "chupke, chupke" — that the most popular character in the Ramayana was not Ram but Hanuman. The thought set him off on a 16-year research project, which later culminated into a book.
Hanuman, as Vilas explained, is a combination of opposites: strength and sweetness, humility and gravity, tradition and innovation. Recollecting an anecdote involving Ram and Narada, he described how the former held Hanuman as one of his closest devotees, whose name he remembered constantly.
"Hanuman is the repository of both shakti (power) and bhakti (piety)," Lutgendorf pitched in, to which Sattar added that he is also "always contemporary". "He's funny and hugely popular," she said. "In most performances of the Ram Leela, the biggest applause is always reserved for Hanuman."
Hanuman's multiple parentage and their possible explanations and his healing powers, especially of mental illnesses, also came up in the course of the conversation. Vilas added some intriguing twists to Hanuman's character, explaining to the audience his possible virtues as a professional, someone who could be driven but also humble at the same time.
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