Hanuman is undoubtedly one of the most popular gods of Hindu India, where all you need to open a shrine to him is a little hump of red or saffron rock with vaguely simian features carved onto it. There are gazillions of such shrines all over the land and they multiply in geometric proportion every day. The simian features are the most obviously striking aspect of Hanuman and people have been too quick off the mark to describe him as a Monkey-god. Hanuman is not a monkey but a Vaanara, a special class of semi-magical, semi humanoid beings with sorcerous powers but having developed a civilization and culture which were, if truth be told, at a higher state of social advancement than the human societies of the time. The Vaanaras are usually larger than humans, with simian features and tails but they are not monkeys. Monkeys represent Hanuman, and are accorded far more tolerance than their nuisance value warrants, but they are not worshipped or considered divine.
In any case Hanuman is as much above the average human as the human is to the monkey. He is one vast compendium of virtues, with nary a flaw or fault in him. He does not have the usual Vaanara weakness of jumping to conclusions, as he is the epitome of the wise counselor, preaching moderation and temperance in all things. Hanuman is perhaps the most intelligent and knowledgeable being in Indian mythology. His intelligence and wisdom are part of his divine status and he must be the only god in existence who is a favorite amongst the eggheads as well as amongst the jocks, for Hanuman is also the exemplar, the veritable pinnacle of strength, both physical and spiritual. He is a great musician and singer, a formidable scholar of the scriptures and the ultimate diplomat - entrusted with all missions that require charm and panache. His powers of askesis and spiritual discipline are unmatched and his speech so melodious and impactful that even Rama, God Himself, announced that his speech revealed a perfect being. He is also immortal and destined to be the next Manu or proto-Adam in the next Cycle of Creation. Hanuman, as can be seen from all this is not the ape of popular misrepresentation.
His birth took place in unusual conditions. His mother was an apsara (see our glossary) named Punjikasthala, who fell foul of the powers of heaven and was punished by being reborn as a Vaanara female named Anajana. The God of the Wind, Vayu, observed her walking on a hill and rather like Jupiter enveloping Io, he swiftly impregnated her. Gods will not be denied in such matters, but he was essentially a decent god and made it up to her by explaining to her husband that she was not to be blamed and showering the child with magical powers, chief of which were the ability to fly and titanic strength. The boy was called Anjaneya after his mother and his Vaanara father was Kesari, one of the more unusually evolved beings judging by his classy behavior to this unexpected child. The little child soon became a formidable force in the universe. Once he felt hungry, and with the imperious will of all babies, he decided to reach out for the biggest fruit in his vision. That unfortunately happened to be the Sun, who was led a harrowing chase by this swiftly flying baby. Indra, King of the Gods, hurled his weapon at him and smashed his jaw, earning him his famous name, Hanuman, 'The Broken-Jawed'. Vayu went on strike and the worlds began to choke to death because the air had become stale and stultified. The panicky gods covered Hanuman with a torrent of blessings, amongst which was invulnerability to all weapons, (hence his famous name Bajrangbali, or to be precise Vajra anga Bali - thunderbolt-body-hero!) and an ability to be always the best at whatever he took a turn to.
Naturally a little boy with so much power would become a hellion. Hanuman became the terror of all who passed by his impish gaze, until one day he made the mistake of trying pranks on the Sapta Rishis, or great sages. Realizing that the boy was a menace they decreed that he would lose knowledge of his strength and superhuman abilities until they were needed for the world - and until he had learnt some wisdom! Hanuman calmed down and he rapidly became a favorite at the court of the Vaanara Kingdom of Kishkinda, where his father was a courtier. He very soon established himself as the right hand man of Sugriva, the king's brother, and it was his advice to flee that saved that unfortunate prince when his brother, King Vali, attempted to kill him. Hanuman displayed his famous loyalty in preferring the miseries of exile with his master instead of the rewards of defection, for nobody would have been foolish enough to turn him away. While grimly waiting for a turn in fortunes, the Vaanara exiles saw Rama and Laxmana wander into their turf searching for the kidnapped Sita. It was the upturn of fortune for all of them.
Hanuman goes to determine if the visitors are friends or assassins but the shining virtues of Rama soon clear away any doubts. From that moment onwards, it is Rama who has the heart of Hanuman. So great is his devotion that he is referred to as the junior servant of Hari, (Vishnu) the senior servant being Garuda, the mount of Vishnu. Rama helps Sugriva in removing his brother from the throne and the Vaanara armies set out in search of the kidnapped Sita. In this endeavor, Hanuman is clearly the best hope of success for he has been everywhere and knows all lands. Rama entrusts him with his signet ring so that Sita would have no doubts about his credentials. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman becomes the real hero of the epic from that point onwards. Rama becomes a leader and is active only when there is a deed to be performed that is impossible for anybody else.
At the seashore beyond which lies Lanka, where they learn Sita is captive, the Vaanara remind Hanuman of his long suppressed strength and abilities. He grows to colossal size and his body blazes like the sun while he emits roars that cause all living things to flee. Valmiki rises to a frenzy of inspiration as he describes that awesome transformation and then Hanuman makes the most famous leap in Indian myth, a spectacular jump across the water into the demon city of Lanka. He has finally come into the full stature of his Hero destiny. Typical of the mythic structure is his first encounter with the supernatural. A giant female water dragon looms in front of him with colossal maw open and a request that he please enter! Hanuman, always courteous to women, but never a fool, instantly diminishes his size, flies though the open mouth and tells the abashed water dragon that he has kept his word. She blesses him with success for having dealt out defeat in such a gentlemanly manner. Another female dragon tries to kill him outright by her power of being able to clutch onto shadows and drag the owners of the shadow to their deaths. Hanuman is not amused and he loses his temper, rending the monster into many tiny pieces.
In this context it is worth noting that Hanuman is eternally celibate and his many encounters with threatening female energy are triumphs for him precisely because he does not get beguiled like most men would. His lack of a sexual predatory gaze has made him one of the heralds of the goddess Kali, who has very low tolerance for males around her. His huge reservoir of creative spiritual energy as a result of this unbroken celibacy has made him a Tantrik icon too; they practice sexuality too well not to understand the immensity of his achievement. There has always been a sneaking regret in the Indian mind however, conditioned as it is towards progeny, that Hanuman has no children. Some versions of the story, written much later actually have a peculiar episode connected with his flight. A beauty of the nether world had risen to the surface of the sea to witness the spectacular flight of the Vaanara. The hot sun had caused him to perspire and driblets of sweat were dropping into the water. Realizing that an eternal celibate's secretions are potent at all times she swallows it and becomes pregnant! Thus she gets the stature of being the mother of Hanuman's child, a boy he meets up with only many years later in a minor series of adventures when he descends to the underworld. The tale and tradition are not really authentic, but it is revealing as to mindsets.
Landing in Lanka, he encounters the female (again!) guardian spirit of the city and answers her threats and rudeness with one backhanded blow that sends her sprawling. This was theoretically impossible and she realizes that the destiny of the Demon city was on the down turn and abandons them. Hanuman meets up with Sita and offers comfort that she will soon be rescued. He could have taken her back himself but she wanted her husband to do it. He then proceeds to destroy the royal gardens of Ravana and single-handedly kills thousands of demons before he lets himself be captured. Ravana is impressed and infuriated with this amazing being. He asks Hanuman if Rama's glory can compare to his and Hanuman makes his famous reply that Ravana is indeed a full moon as compared to the
Hanuman flies back, and soon returns with Rama and the Vaanara army. He performs many deeds of valor and slaughters many demon heroes. One of his more endearing tricks was to inflate his body and then perch Rama on his shoulder so that the great archer got a dominant position to let his shafts fly. When Indrajit, son of Ravana, uses magical weapons to render Rama and Laxmana unconscious, he flies to the Himalayas in search of the Sanjeevani, the universal panacea for all ills and wounds. Unable to identify the specific plant, the great hero uproots the mountain itself and flies back with it, an action that is much beloved of Indian art to this day as a theme for depiction. He has a run-in before that with Kalanemi, uncle of Ravana, who disguises himself as a hermit and advises Hanuman to wash in a nearby lake before he touches the magical plant. He is attacked by a crocodile that has just made the biggest mistake of its life. The slain crocodile turns out to be an apsara, the female tempter motif again, who is thus released from a curse. Warned by her against Kalanemi, he hurls the demon back to Lanka before setting off himself. On the way he is reputed to have established three Shiva-lingams in Kerala, which grew to be the famous temples of Ettumanoor, Kaddathirithi and Vaikom. They are all exactly eleven Indian miles from each other in a dead straight line with Kaddathirithi in the middle, supposedly planted by Hanuman with his mouth, as both his hands were full and the auspicious time for the establishment of the icons was swiftly passing by. We also get to understand that his wingspan was a good 22 miles!
The rest of the Ramayana has Hanuman take on the familiar role of Rama's man for all seasons. He has become an ideal now, the wise epitome of strength, and in most cases he is too well known for there to be any trouble, he merely has to turn up for it to be defused. In one famous instance he rashly promises assistance to a king who has insulted Rama's guru and finds himself opposing his master in battle. Incredibly Rama loses as he uses weapons and Hanuman merely repels all attacks with the divine name - which is "Rama!" His great love for Rama has resulted in a tradition, which states that wherever the Ramayana is read, Hanuman is the invisible participant. His being immortal sees him pop up in ages and times that are not his own, the most famous being his encounter with his half brother Bhima in the Mahabharatha, also a son of Vayu and another epitome of strength. Hanuman was distressed to observe that Bhima, usually the most humble of men was developing a swollen head and demonstrated, rather humiliatingly, that the concepts of strength Bhima held were feeble by his standards.
In India today Hanuman is greatly popular but he is never regarded as the Supreme God. One tradition states that he is actually an emanation of Shiva, being his Eleventh Rudra. As already mentioned he is a Tantrik favorite too. In the popular imagination he is best known as Sankat Mochan, the destroyer of danger and trouble and he is much called upon to save the faithful from ghosts and spells and other things that go bump in the night. He is also the patron of wrestlers, traditionally regarded as the opposite of intellectuals. Such effortless blending of opposites is not least amongst the powers of Hanuman.