Category Archives: c. Vaisnavism

Visnu

Visnu is one of the most important deities in the Hindu religious system. In western culture many people are aware of Visnu, even if they do not understand who or what he is in Hindu literature. He has even been mentioned and parodied on “The Simpsons” speaking volumes to how Visnu has permeated culture and pop culture all over the world. Hindu deities are often given very human characteristics. As in western religion Hindus tend to attribute more human characteristics view of their gods’ psychology, while still acknowledging their divinity (Barrett 608-615). In studies described by Barrett participants were asked to what degree they saw Visnu to be beyond normal human attributes. Even though most people thought that Visnu had supernatural powers, they still were more likely to remember more human attributes in stories about him. For example, they were more likely to remember Visnu moving from place to place rather than being in more than one place at a time. They also saw him as needing to be near a source to see or hear it, rather than show him as being able hear or see everything around him (Barrett 615). Visnu is often depicted as blue, associating him with the sky or the clouds. He is depicted as human like in appearance but with four arms. In his arms he wields a conch shell, a club, a discus and a lotus flower (Rodrigues and Robinson 167). Visnu also has a divine consort, Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune (Rodrigues and Robinson 155). [For more information on Laksmi see Solomon].

Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India

The worship of Visnu is, of course, not just a modern development. Visnu was worshipped as the supreme deity by the Vaisnava communities of the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas of ancient Northern India (Reddy 1) and is still worshipped as the supreme god by vaisnavas today. Worship via images and rituals are very important, and many of the rituals performed by the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas are very similar to the way that worship is done in the modern Vaisnava Temples. Vaisnava image worship is very important. Visnu is typically thought of to have 5 forms, each representing a different aspect of the deity (Reddy 4); para refers to the “all pervading” (Reddy 4) nature of Visnu. The vyuhas are emanationsfor the cosmological functions of creation, preservation, and dissolution” (Reddy 4). The vibhava are depictions of Visnu in a form of one of his avatars. The antaryamin depictions are those that appear within humans. Finally, there is the arcavatara form, which is Visnu in statue form. This final form is incredibly important to idea of image worship of Visnu as it is believed that the deity actually exists within the Statue. In this way by worshipping an image, you are directly worshipping the deity himself (Reddy 4). Sometimes images are worshipped as Visnu by Hindus, doubles as an image of the Buddha to Buddhists, such as those at Bodhgaya. This can, understandably, cause tension between the two groups (Kinnard 35). Another important part of worship, as described by the Vedas, is sacrifice. The sacrifice is an important task because, in a way, the sacrifice feeds the god. The sacrifice to Visnu by humans helps maintain the cosmic balance (Gonda 22). Perhaps the most important aspect of Hinduism concerned with Visnu is the Literature concerned with him. The legends and literature concerned with the deities are the best show of their power and their interaction with the mortals of this world. In these stories, the deities often are represented as “guardians of order and morality” (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). With their supernatural power and knowledge, the gods protect and restore the balance to a position of Dharma (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). As the preserver, Visnu is especially important in this task of protecting and preserving the karmic balance. The Vedas often identify Visnu with the sacrifice, showing his importance in the literature, and that he must be a figure of considerable power and notability. (Gonda 22) However, Visnu’s role in the Vedas seems to be secondary in comparison to other deities such as Indra or Soma, where in later texts he is the protagonist of the story (Syrkin 8). In the puranas, Visnu is a member of the trimurti where he is the preserver of creation, Brahma is the creator and Siva is the destroyer (Bailey 152). Visnu is represented as the “heroic force” in the trimurti. [For more information on the trimurti see Bailey]. A number of texts, including the sastras, state that all kings on earth were born with a bit of Visnu within them, illustrating the quality of Visnu’s character and power (Bailey 152). In the Mahabharata Visnu appears as Krsna, a very important character who helps to restore the Dharmic balance to the world. The Ramayana deals with Visnu as Rama and speaks of his righteous actions in the face of adversity (Buck 234).

As hinted to earlier, Visnu has a number of Avatars.An Avatar is a physical manifestation of Visnu.This physical manifestation occurs by Visnu’s own choice, as he is not bound to this form by karma. He uses these Avatars to fulfill a specific purpose in this world, often restoring the cosmic balance (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions ). Essentially these Avatars show Visnu’s true role- preservation of creation and righteousness. Visnu has ten major avatars associated with him, but there are others as well, depending on the tradition. In some traditions even the Buddha is an avatar of Visnu (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). The ten main avatars of Visnu are Matsyavatara, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama, Krsna and Kalki. Matsyavatara (1st avatara) or the fish, rescues Manu, the ancestor of humanity (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Kurma (2nd avatara), also known as the tortoise, was an important player in the Legend of Amrita, essential to the immortality of the gods. The Varaha avatar (3rd avatara) also known as the Boar, was a form assumed by other gods, but Visnu took this form in order to “raise the earth from the Cosmic Ocean” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Visnu’s Narasimha (4th avatara) form is a man-lion and battles the demon Hiranykasipu (Flick 238). Visnu’s Vamana avatar (5th avatara) used by Visnu to trick the demon king Bali, before defeating him (Flick 238). [For more information on Narasirhha and Vamana see Flick]. Parasurama (6th avatara) was a brahman destined to live a warriors life. Rama (7th avatara) was the hero of The Ramayana, a very important epic in the modern Hindu world. Rama’s wife in the Ramayana is Sita, who is also divine. [For more information on Sita see Singaravelu]. Although Rama is a prince, he goes into exile to serve the dharmic balance. While in exile he accompanies Visnu’s true purpose, the slaying of the demon, Ravana (Buck 239). [For more info on Rama see Buck]. Usually the 8th avatar is said to be the Buddha and that Buddhists have just misunderstood the message given by him. The Buddha is viewed as a great teacher with great vision providing a path to enlightenment that anyone can follow, which is often attributed to Visnu. However some have a problem viewing the Buddha as an avatara of Visnu because of the differences in religious belief between Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. These people view Balarama as the 8th avatara The Balarama and Krsna(9th avatara) avatars of Visnu are linked. Balarama is the elder brother of Krsna (Oxford), where Krsna himself is a very important character in the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, within which Krsna advises the Heroes of the story about how to correct the adharmic balance of the cosmos. Within the Mahabharata is the set for the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the most important pieces of Hindu literature. Within in it Krsna reveals to Arjuna his divine nature in an attempt to get him to fight to restore the balance to a Dharmic position. Krsna describes himself as “as the ultimate Purusa, higher even than Brahman” and it is within the Bhagavad Gita that Krsna reveals the 3 Yogas, as well as other revelations (Gier 84). The final avatar of Visnu, Kalki is usually depicted as a warrior who will punish the evil doer, and is seen as the next avatar of Visnu to come (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions).

Bibliography and Related Readings

Bailey, G. M. (1979) “Trifunctional Elements in the Mythology of the Hindu Trimurti.” Numen, Vol. 26, No. 2

Bowker, John(2000) Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Barrett, Justin (1998) “Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 37, No. 4

Buck, Harry (1968) “Lord Rama and The Faces of God In India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 3.

Flick, Hugh (1993) “Book Review: The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1

Gier, Nicholas (1995) “Hindu Titanism.” Philosophy East and West Vol. 45, No.1

Gonda, J. (1983) “Vedic Gods and the Sacrifice.” Numen Vol. 13, No.1.

Reddy, Prabhavati (2006) “Vishnu’s Universe In Ritual Space: The Abhisheka Ceremony of Penn Hills’ Venkatesvara.” Journal of Ritual Studies 20 (2).

Robinson, Thomas, and Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers,.

Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 41.

Syrkin, A. (1988) “The Salutary Descent.” Numen, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Solomon, Ted (1970) “Early Vaiṣṇava Bhakti and Its Autochthonous Heritage.” History of Religions. Vol. 10, No. 1.

Valk, Ulo and Lourdusamy, S. (2007) “Village deities of Tamil Nadu in myths and legends: the Narrated Experience.” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol.66

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Avatara

Arjuna

Balarama

Bhagavad-Gita

Kalki

Kurma

Krsna

Laksmi

Mahabharata

Matsyavatara

Narasimha

Parasurama

Rama

Ramayana

Sita

Vaisnava

Vamana

Varaha

Vasudeva

Credible Websites for Further Investigation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visnu

http://www.hindunet.org/avatars/index.htm

http://www.hindunet.org/god/Gods/vishnu/index.htm

http://www.hindunet.org/god/trinity/index.htm

http://hindu-texts.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_puranas_and_the_trinity

http://www.koausa.org/Gods/God3.html

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/hinduism/17537

Written by Adam Lazzaretto (Spring 2008), who is solely responsible for its content.

Krsna (Birth and Childhood)


According to his mythology, Krsna first appeared on this earth 5000 years ago (Bhaktivedanta xii) and was considered to be an incarnation (avatara) of the Vedic god Visnu (Preciado-Solis 1). There are a number of ancient Hindu texts which are important sources for the mythology of Krsna, including the Harivamsa and the Puranas. In the Harivamsa, Krsna is portrayed to the greatest extent in heroic human colors as opposed to the Visnu and Bhagavata Puranas which places emphasis on his divinity (Sheth 43). At the request of Brahma, as described in the Harivamsa, the great god Visnu attends an assembly of the gods where he is informed that the demon Kalanemin was born again into the human form of the wicked King Kamsa, who is harassing people on earth. According to this myth, Kalanemin could only be destroyed by Visnu as the demon fears only him (Sheth 7). Deciding to kill Kamsa, Visnu disguises himself with his yogic power and descends into the house of Vasudeva (a former sage born again as a cowherd) and his two wives Devaki and Rohini (Sheth 8). There are slight variations between the Harivamsa and the Visnu and Bhagavata Puranas regarding the knowledge Kamsa receives from the sage Narada, but both agree that the evil king knows he will be killed by the eighth child of Devaki, his father’s sister. In some versions Kamsa is informed the eighth child will be an incarnation of Visnu. In others, Kamsa already considers every child born of Devaki to be Visnu (Sheth 43). Since Kamsa plots to kill every child Devaki bears, Visnu made Devaki’s first six born be the reborn demon sons of Kalanemin. The Harivamsa tells how Devaki’s seventh child was extracted from her womb by the goddess Nidra, and transposed into the womb of Rohini. The seventh child born was called Sankarsana (Balarama), the brother and companion of Krsna in his future heroic exploits (Sheth 8).

Born as the eighth child of Devaki, Visnu is immediately interchanged at birth by Vasudeva with Nanda and Yasoda’s (husband and wife who herded Kamsa’s cattle [Sheth 8]) daughter who had been born at the same moment (Preciado-Solis 103). According to Vaisnava devotees, at that instant, there was in all directions an atmosphere of prosperity and peace as the planetary systems automatically adjusted for the auspicious birth of Krsna (Bhaktivedanta 23). The Puranas also describe the arduous journey of Vasudeva across the river (Jumna/Yamuna) to save his new baby from being destroyed by Kamsa, who had killed several of his other children. Leaving the prison where he and Devaki had been confined by the wicked king, Vasudeva placed the baby Krsna into a winnowing basket (supa), which he then carried on his head, and descended into the flooding river to cross to the opposite bank. The great snake deity Sesa is said to have traveled in front, driving away the heavy water with his many hoods. The Bhagavata Purana explains that Vasudeva crossed the river safely and reached the village of Gokula (Preciado-Solis 103). Once the babies are divinely interchanged, in the Harivamsa account, Kamsa then notices the baby girl beside Devaki and smashes her head against a stone. The daughter of Yasoda was actually a goddess, who rose up into the sky and took her divine form, terrifying Kamsa, and leading him to believe she is the one who will take his life. Oblivious to the exchange of baby Krsna, Nanda and Yasoda regard him as their own son and Krsna is raised as a humble cowherd (Sheth 8-9).

Another discrepancy between the Harivamsa and the Puranas is whether or not Vasudeva and Devaki are ignorant of Krsna’s divinity. In the Harivamsa, Krsna’s parents have no vision of his divine form, whereas in the Puranas they are blessed with such a vision. Krsna is then praised as the almighty Visnu, but out of a relentless fear of Kamsa, Vasudeva and Devaki request their son to withdraw from his celestial form. With the greatest emphasis placed on his divinity, the Puranic texts make Krsna’s identity as Visnu recognized by even King Kamsa (Sheth 44-45).

Certain textual variants portray Yasoda’s daughter as the goddess Nidra (Sheth 8), Durga (Bhaktivedanta 32), or Katyayani (Preciado-Solis 55). In one account, when the goddess Katyayani rose up into the sky she announced to Kamsa that he killed Devaki’s first six sons in vain as his real killer had already been born and was safe (Preciado-Solis 55). The terrified Kamsa, now aware that his evil plot had been a failure, began to plot once again the murder of Krsna and summoned his demonic allies to destroy the child at any cost (Preciado-Solis 55-56).

The first demon to attempt to kill baby Krsna was by the bird-demoness Putana, similarly depicted in both the Puranas and the Harivamsa. According to the majority of scriptures, Putana disguised herself as a beautiful woman and entered the house of mother Yasoda in the middle of the night (Bhaktivedanta 43-44). The demoness took baby Krsna onto her lap and pushed her poisonous nipple into his mouth for him to suckle. Putana was immediately killed as Krsna sucked the milk-poison, as well the life air, from her (Bhaktivedanta 45).

Referred to as the Miraculous Child by his followers, Krsna killed many more monsters while he was a mere child (Preciado-Solis 67). The Bhagavata Purana describes an episode in which Yasoda leaves baby Krsna, just a month old, sleeping under a cart while she journeys to the river. Left feeling thirsty and hungry, the child began crying, thrashing his arms and kicking the cart with such force it tipped over and broke numerous pots and pans. The Purana accounts explain that there was a supernatural being involved. Specifically in the Balacarita (an ancient Hindu text), the supernatural being is a demon called Sakata, who had taken the form of the cart and had been crushed with a single kick (Preciado-Solis 67-68).

A second episode of Krsna’s childhood is described as the Yamalarjuna incident. There are numerous depictions of the episode; however all variations agree that it was due to a number of pranks by Krsna which lead Yasoda to tie him to a mortar (Preciado-Solis 69). This was an attempt to keep him from wandering, but with his power, the young Krsna uprooted two trees known as yamala arjuna (Bhaktivedanta 177) by hauling the mortar in between them (Sheth 11). The texts either depict this incident as an account of a young boy’s extraordinary strength or as a marvel achieved by a young god. Krsna’s most devoted followers perceive the two trees as supernatural beings, specifically the demons Yamala and Arjuna (Preciado-Solis 69).

In another myth told in the Harivamsa, one day while playing with Sankarsana, Krsna came across the river Yamuna. The waters and the surrounding area were polluted by venom from the powerful serpent-king Kaliya. In order to render the water pure for the use of cowherds, Krsna decided to subdue the five-hooded monster. When he jumped into the lake, Krsna was immediately engulfed by the serpent’s hoods, which strove to render him immobile. An angry Sankarsana shouted advice to his brother Krsna to restrain Kaliya. The young god snatched a hold of the serpent’s middle hood, danced upon it and thus subdued the evil monster. Kaliya was then expelled to the ocean and the waters of Yamuna were purified (Sheth 11-13).

Before his childhood comes to an end, Krsna is depicted as vanquishing many other demons. Krsna ripped apart the beaks of the demon Bakasura and threw the evil Vatsasura into a tree (Bhaktivedanta 177-178). The demon Arista, taking the form of a bull, was killed by Krsna with the beast’s own left horn. Also, the carnivorous horse-demon Kesin could not escape being slain (Sheth 14-15).

During the latter part of Krsna’s childhood, the Harivamsa tells how King Kamsa was informed by the sage Narada that Vasudeva had interchanged Yasoda’s and Devaki’s babies at birth. Learning of Krsna’s valiant deeds, Kamsa suspects his divinity and fears that Krsna is the one who will destroy him. Fabricating another plot to murder Krsna, Kamsa ordered Nanda and his family to Mathura to participate in a bow-festival. Upon entering the arena, Krsna slew a charging elephant and, unable to resist a challenge, slew two formidable wrestlers, Canura and Tosala. Furious from seeing these victories and the cheering audience, Kamsa ordered Krsna and Sankarsana to be banished. He also ordered Nanda to be chained, Vasudeva to be murdered, and the entirety of the cowherd’s wealth to be seized (Sheth 17). Hearing Kamsa speak in such a way, Krsna leaped over the high guards and seized the evil king with great force. The crown was knocked off Kamsa’s head and he was dragged from his throne into the wrestling arena. Straddling his chest, Krsna began to strike Kamsa repeatedly and the evil king was finally slain (Bhaktivedanta 277-278).

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Bhaktivedanta, A.C. (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Massachusetts:

Iskcon Press.

Bimanbehari, Majumdar (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Hardy, Friedhelm (1983) Viraha-bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotion. Delhi: Oxford.

Kinsley, David (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash

Jain.

Redington, James (1983) Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krsna. Delhi: Motilal

Banarsidass.

Sheth, Noel (1984) The Divinity of Krishna. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt.

Ltd.

Sullivan, Bruce (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda: Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa in the Mahabharata.

Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Balarama

Kamsa

Devaki

Visnu

Narayana

Hare Krsna

Bhagavad Gita

Hindu deities

Mahabharata

Harivamsa

Visnu Purana

Bhagavata Purana

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna

http://www.harekrsna.com/

http://vedabase.net/k/krsna

http://www.geocities.com/jayakesava2001/

http://www.krsna.org/

http://www.sanatan.org/en/campaigns/KJ/birth.htm

http://www.avatara.org/krishna/lila.html

http://krsnabook.com/ch3.html

Article written by: Shelley Baker (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ramlilas

The city of Banaras is considered to be the holiest city in the Hindu tradition. Millions of people make pilgrimages to the holy city every year in hopes of fulfilling their spiritual desires. The religious importance of the city is not only recognized by the people of India but also by scholars, anthropologists, sociologists and the likes from all over the world. Many come to study the city while others come to bask in its spiritual and cultural offerings (Kapur 209). The city itself is actually considered by believers to be the dwelling place of all Hindu deities (Hertel and Humes 1). For pious Hindus this grants enormous importance to many of the city’s major festivals. It can be said that Banaras is most proclaimed for its festivals and traditions, one of the most notable of which is the Ramnagar Ramlila. The Ramlila at Ramnagar is an event that takes place every year and is the celebrated victory of Ram over Ravana, from the epic Ramayana.

There are many Ramlilas in Banaras. Ramlilas (play) are a way in which a Hindu tales are recreated for audiences in the city. The during the Ramila season there can be up to sixty neighbourhoods that participate by hosting the play on their block (Parkhill 104). The importance of these plays is immense because it sets out to recreate the “epic story of Lord Rama” (Eck 269). Rama is a highly regarded figure in Hinduism. He is considered to be the reincarnation of the deity Visnu. Visnu is one of the highly regarded deities and is widely worshipped across Hindi speaking northern India. This makes the Ramlilas an important and integral element of the city. Many of the roles in the Ramlilas are played by children (specifically boys). This also has an underlying spiritual connection because when the children are playing the role of Rama, or his wife Sita or Hanuman his devotee [For more information on Hindu deities, see Hertel (1998)], they are said to become temporary residence for the deities, during the presentation of the Ramlila (Parkhill 104). During this time there are many pilgrims who also come to the city hoping for a chance to view a Ramlila. Their visits add to the reputation of Banaras as a site of pilgrimage, which already attracts many because of its large number of deities and their temples.

The grandest Ramlila is the one that takes place at Ramnagar. It is a thirty one day theatrical event that attracts hundreds of people from all across the country (Schechner 20). The immensity of this Ramlila is greater than any other in terms of the crowds is attracts and its longevity. Despite its popularity the Ramlila is not strictly meant for entertainment purposes, as we in the west might go and see a theatrical event. It has significant spiritual importance that is not compromised, because all Ramlilas especially those of Ramnagar are “celebratory performances tracing the footsteps of Vishnu” (Schechner 20). The Ramlilas typically enact how Rama suffered when Ravana the demon kidnapped his wife Sita and took her away in hopes of wooing her into marriage. The Ramlilas use ritual and drama to demonstrate how Rama rid the world of Ravana and finally returned to Ayodhya [The city or kingdom to which Ram returns after his victory. See Schechner (1998) for more information] in triumphant victory (Schechner 41). The significance of the story and victory is displayed not only by its performers but also by the spectators who take part in their own rituals that they deem an important part of the Ramlilas. For example, some spectators will not walk on the ground where the Ramlilas are being held in their shoes, because they consider those sites to be like temples, and one would not walk into a temple with shoes on (Schechner 32). The Ramlilas therefore are not merely plays put on by the town people simply for entertainment. They have a strong religious significance for most Hindus. Particularly because Rama, who is regarded as an incarnation of Visnu, is held in high regard. As one scholar remarked, the Ramlilas are “carefully crafted enactments of a narrative transmitting information and values concerning sacred history and geography, social hierarchy, ethics and the personalities of god, heroes, and demons” (Schechner 22).

The epic story and the Ramlilas are significant because of their importance in the Hindu tradition. However they have also been significant in the shaping of Indian life and culture. The Ramnagar Ramlila has been shaped by many years of influence from the Maharajas [Maharajas were the ruling royalty in India until its Independence in 1947; they still exist but have no ruling power. See Schechner (1998)] of Banaras who gathered scholars, poets and theatre practitioners and guided the Ramlila (Schechner 24). The first of these was Maharaja Balwant Singh who ruled in the seventeenth century. Later on Maharaja Ishavari Prasad Narain Singh who ruled in the eighteenth century also played a significant role (Schechner 24). The present Maharaja of Banaras has had no political power in India since its independence in 1947. However he is highly active in his role and participation in the Ramnagar Ramlila because it has been such a tradition for previous kings that his royal identity is now dependent on his involvement in the festival drama (Schechner 37).

Since the kings’ roles in the Ramlila have evolved, it raises the question of how the Ramlila itself has evolved through the ages? Of course the text from which the Ramlilas’ performance is derived has been mostly unchanged for centuries. However, there are some significant changes that have occurred in India culturally and structurally. For one, the power and grandeur of the Maharaja has declined which has led to far less glamorous shows, with only half the materials once used in previous Ramlilas (Schechner 51). There are also some more obvious changes that have occurred as well. The most significant of these is the growth in population of India. This has limited the theatre space available for the Ramnagar Ramlila; in an area where there were once trees and grass, there are now vast amounts of housing and people. Another shift has been in some of the innovative advances that have been introduced in staging the drama. Circumstances now allow production officials to use electrical lighting and other technical innovations (Parkhill 108). However, this creates a spilt between those who want to keep the Ramlila traditional and those interested in using modern innovations. The issue is emotionally charged; many consider the innovations improvements while others see them as tools for corruption (Parkhill 111). Still some feel that the message and value is in the rituals and practice themselves and not the aesthetics of the presentation.

Even with such changes over the centuries in the Ramnagar Ramlila, the sheer magnitude and importance it enjoys today has still not diminished. The story of Rama and Sita is one that has been told for centuries by Brahmins [Brahmins are the priestly caste in Hindu society. See Parkhill (1998)], scholars, and parents to children and will certainly continue. The Ramnagar Ramlila is an event that can only grow in stature. No matter what elements are introduced to enhance its performance the ritual enactments will continue as they have for centuries. As one scholar notes the “Ramlila is not reducible to single meanings or experiences” (Schechner 48). Rather it is an event that can offer something to everybody, from the performers to spectators and even the poor of the city who benefit from offerings by the Maharaja.

REFERENCES

Eck, D. L (1982) Banaras the City of Lights. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, R. Bradley., and Humes, Ann Cynthia (eds.) (1998) Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kapur, Anuranha (1990) Actors, Pilgrims, Kins and Gods: The Ramlila at Ramnagar. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Parkhill, Thomas (1998) Whats Taking Place: Neighborhood Ramlilas in Banaras. Eds. Bradley R. Hertel and Cynthia Ann Humes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schechner, Richard (1998) Crossing the Water: Pilgrimage, Movement, and Environmental Scenography of the Ramlila of Ramnagar. Eds. Bradley R. Hertel and Cynthia Ann Humes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Topics

Gods and Goddess:

Sita

Rama

Vishnu

Ravana

Hanuman

Devi

Krsna

Ganesa

Surya

Texts:

Ramayana

The Vedas

The Bhagavad-Gita

Upanishads

Mahabharata

Rg Vedas

Dharma Sastras

Dharma Sutras

Manu

The Aranyakas

Related Websites

http://www.gkindia.com/worldreligions/hindusm.htm

http://www.stthomasu.ca/~parkhill/lila.htm

http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/16apa_uk.htm

http://www.up-tourism.com/fair/ramlila.htm

http://www.sacredsites.com/asia/india/banaras.html

http://www.4to40.com/discoverindia/places/index.asp?article=discoverindia_places_banaras

Written by Osman Shah (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Hanuman

Hanuman is one of the many deities of the Hindu tradition. He is regarded as the monkey-general of a mythic monkey kingdom, known as Kiskindha. In Hindu tradition, Hanuman is most commonly known for his role in the Ramayana [A Sanskrit epic featuring the characters of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, and Laksmana], in which he is a great ally to Rama and Laksmana [Rama is the central character of the Ramayana epic; Laksmana is his brother who accompanies Rama during his banishment from his kingdom]. The Ramayana describes how Hanuman was devoted to Rama and willingly set off to Lanka [Many people believe Lanka to be the location of today’s Sri Lanka] to search for Sita. Rama is unable to go himself; he had been expelled from the city for his 14 year exile. Earlier in the Ramayana, Rama had said that “[e]verywhere, even among the animals, can be found good creatures that follow the ways of righteousness, that are brave and provide a sure place of refuge” (Regier 995). This statement fits the description of Hanuman, for he is a loyal and virtuous being, and he is willing to endure the risk of crossing into Ravana’s land to save Sita. Hanuman does find Sita, but she refuses to return with him because of her loyalty to her husband. She is unwilling to touch another man, and believes that it is Rama’s duty (dharma) to save her himself (Regier 995).

Hanuman also demonstrates a few great powers that are useful in his role in the Ramayana epics. In the Sundarakanda [5th book of the Ramayana], Hanuman becomes a major character, with a talent for jumping extremely far distances. This is demonstrated in his jump between Mount Mahendra to Lanka’s Mount Trikuta His duality as a monkey-hero is demonstrated in this leap between the two territories and his search for Sita. Hanuman’s essential presence in the story is indicated by “the fact that the poet devotes nearly two hundred verses to the description of his jump” (Goldman 13). Hanuman further demonstrates his unique powers by his ability to change his size at will, for example during Hanuman’s leap to Lanka “he takes on a size that is said to be immeasurable. As he flies along, his shadow on the sea below is said to measure ten leagues in breadth and thirty in length” (Goldman 44).

Hanuman demonstrates that his moods are constantly changing. “[I]n some ways parallel to Hanuman’s vast and sudden changes in size are his sharp swings of mood throughout the first half of the Sundarakanda” (Goldman 47). Hanuman begins his journey to Lanka with lots of enthusiasm and optimism, but when faced with difficulties he “lapses into gloomy thought” (Goldman 47). After finding Sita, Hanuman decides to cause mayhem in Lanka. Ravana sends his forces after Hanuman, but all are unsuccessful in restraining the monkey. Ravana finally sends out his son, a powerful warrior, Indrajit, who soon realizes that he too is unable to kill Hanuman. However, he was able to acquire a “divine weapon of the god Brahma” which was able to impede any further destruction caused by Hanuman (Goldman 10). The Ramayana never directly says that Hanuman was immortal, but

“both accounts of his birth , one in the Kiskindhakanda and one in the Uttarakanda, indicate that his is to be no ordinary life span. In the former, Jambavan reports that Indra had conferred on him the great boon of being able to choose the moment of his death. In the latter Brahma foretells that he will be long-lived” (Goldman 54).

If it is then true that Hanuman is able to decide when he will die, this may account for Indrajit’s realization that even as a mighty warrior he will never be able to kill Hanuman. This demonstrates that Hanuman is not like the other monkeys in the monkey kingdom, although he has a beast-like quality when it comes to his rashness and spontaneity, like the other monkeys. He demonstrates his god-like quality with his powers, his personality, and his being the first to find Sita.

Hanuman (The monkey god Hanuman serves as a guardian deity and flanks a palace entrance in Bhaktapur, Nepal)
Hanuman (The monkey god Hanuman serves as a guardian deity and flanks a palace entrance in Bhaktapur, Nepal)

According to Goldman, Hanuman is presented in a “dual nature” (47). He is represented as a monkey with monkey instincts, but is also represented as a hero in the way that he is continually attempting to save someone. His continual changing in size emphasizes this duality. He can appear in a gigantic size, representing his heroic/divine qualities. Or he can shrink down to a size that is smaller than the average human. The dual-nature of Hanuman can be compared with Rama’s contrasting personality,

“[If] the liminal nature of the avatara and the particulars of its associated boon-motif account for the ambiguity of Rama’s nature as a god-man, then the same factors would appear to determine the ambivalent status of Hanuman as both god and beast.” (Goldman 47)

Hanuman’s behaviour, and his powers are the result of his parentage. He is the “mind-born” son of Vayu, the wind god, and Anjana. It is said that he can move with the swiftness of the wind as a result of his family line. In the Sundarakanda, it is said that his father helps him leap between the two kingdoms on his search for Sita (Goldman 41).

Although the Ramayana is the text through which Hanuman gained his popularity, it is not the only epic in which he has appeared. In the Mahabharata, in the Kadali forest Hanuman meets his half-brother Bhima; the two are both sons of the wind god, Vayu. The two met when Hanuman was sleeping over a path on which Bhima was travelling. Bhima requested that Hanuman move out of the way so that he could pass. Hanuman replied by asking Bhima to move his tail to one side. Bhima, though the strongest of the Pandava Brothers, could not budge Hanuman’s tail. Hanuman then introduce himself to Bhima in the form that he took while crossing the ocean to Lanka (Nagar 386).

Hanuman is a widely worshipped deity in India; “[h]is images are smeared with the sacred colour vermilion, to denote the estimation in which he is held, and the universal admiration of his devotion as a model faithful servant” (Monier-Williams 140). He is looked up to, and is admired for his faithfulness to Rama. He went to rescue Sita a woman that he had never met, nor seen before, without any thought for his own well-being. Located in Delhi is the Sri Hanuman Maharaj (Great Lord Hanuman) temple, a building made of white marble dedicated to Hanuman (Lutgendorf 311). “According to many Hindus, the popularity of Hanuman—who in narrative often expands his physical from—has itself been steadily expanding in recent decades. Certainly its iconic manifestations have been growing, as groups of prominent patrons vie with one another to erect larger and larger murtis of the great monkey in highly visible locations” (Lutgendorf 312). “He [Hanuman] exemplifies both ‘sakti and bhakti’—briefly ‘power’ and ‘devotion’” (Lutgendorf 315). For this reason he is widely admired, and well-liked.

Hanuman is also widely popular because of his deviant childhood. Hanuman’s childhood stories appeal to many people because of its human-like quality. As a child he ascends towards the ‘rising sun’ in an attempt to grasp it. However, the god Indra sees this as a threat and sends him plummeting back down, breaking Hanuman’s jaw; hanu means jaw, giving Hanuman his name. Hanuman’s father Vayu then threatens the entire cosmos. To make up for what happened to Hanuman, each deity grants him with a unique boon, giving him his particular powers that are useful in his adventures during adulthood (Lutgendorf 317).

Hanuman played a key role in the Ramayana and other stories featuring him. He is widely well known in Hinduism, and by many other people around the world. Hanuman’s incredible dedication is what makes him an ideal character to respect and support.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Lutgendorf, Philip. “Monkey in the Middle: The Status of Hanuman in Popular Hinduism.” Religion 27.4 (1997): 311-332.

Monier-Williams, Monier (2003) Hinduism and its Sources Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.

Nagar, Shantilal (2004) Hanuman: Through the Ages Vol. 2. India: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Regier, Willis G. “The Ramayana of Valmiki. Volume 4. Kiskindhakanda.” The John Hopkins University Press. 112.5 (December 1997): 994-998.

The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India (1999) Vol. V Sundarakanda. Trans. R. P. Goldman & Sally J. Sutherland-Goldman. Princeton: Princeton University Press:

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Rama

Ramayana

Laksmana

Sita

Ravana

Lanka

Sundarakanda

Indrajit

Kiskindhakanda

Uttarakanda

Avatara

Mahabharata

Bhima and the Pandava Brothers

Vayu, the wind god

Sri Hanuman Maharaj

Dharma

Mount Mahendra

Mount Trikuta

Jambavan Reports

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_hanuman.htm

http://www.webonautics.com/mythology/hanuman.html

http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/aa052801a.htm

http://mywebpages.comcast.net/scottandrewh/hanuman.html

http://www.dalsabzi.com/Wisdom_Scrip/sankat_mochan_hanuman.htm

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/hanuman

http://hinduwebsite.com/hanuman.htm

Article written by Kristin Barry (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Iconography of Hanuman

The epic story of the Ramayana plays an important role all over South Asia. Many different versions exist, among these is the Valmiki Ramayana written somewhere before 600C.E. (Nagar 85). In this epic drama of over 20,000 verses, there are numerous characters idealized by Hindu society, including the god Hanuman. Known by many names, Hanuman, Maruti, Pavanakumara, Vayu-tanaya, Anjaneys… is an anthropomorphic monkey god whose divinity represents the divine within the human and animal kingdoms (Channa 33, Nagar 41). While Rama and Sita are seen as the ultimate icons of the ideal man and woman, Hanuman is the ultimate example in loyalty and servitude, displayed by his devotional relationship with Rama, an avatar of visnu.

Hanuman is the son of the wind god Vayu, and a langur monkey; thus he has a monkey face with an upright human-like body. As myth has it, Hanuman’s mother and langur monkey, Anjani, was standing in human form at the edge of a riverbank. When Vayu blew by and saw Anjani, he was captivated by her beauty, and with a strong gust of wind which blew off her clothes, she became pregnant (Channa 33-34). Various sections of India claim to be the birthplace of Hanuman, and thus it is unknown. Hanuman as a child was quite mischievous and knowing his incredible superpowers, was extremely brave and in a way, arrogant. He could not be tamed until a group of sages, angry with his conduct cursed him to forget his powers only to recover his memory when someone reminded him (Nagar 42). This someone would eventually prove to me Rama. Hanuman lives his life loyal to his master, playing a large role in the Ramayana. Later he appears in the Mahabharata, since thought his father Vayu, he his brothers with Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers (Nagar 89).

Hanuman possesses many mystical abilities, which include the ability to expand or shrink his invincibly strong body to the size of a mountain or that of a thumb and super strength (Nagar 237). These were awarded to him by other gods when Hanuman was a small child (Nagar 41). Often Hanuman is depicted displaying these abilities in service to Rama (Channa 33). At one point in the Ramayana, Hanuman is sent to get medicine from a mountain in the Himalayas. Upon arrival at the mountain, Hanuman forgets what he was sent to retrieve, so he enlarges himself to a size big enough to pick up the whole mountain and carry it with one hand back to Rama. As a result of this incredible act, pictures of Hanuman carrying a mountain in one hand are common. Another tale of the Ramayana, Hanuman jumps across the ocean from the tip of southern India to Lanka in search of Sita. Upon locating Sita, she insists Rama rescue her because it is his dharma to do so. Hanuman respects this, leaving Sita to destroy much Lanka. Ravana eventually captures Hanuman, and sets his tail on fire to humiliate him. Upon release, Hanuman lights the whole city ablaze with his tail. (Channa 33). It is important to remember that Hanuman displays such power in service to Rama. Given this fact, another common image of Hanuman is one in which he is opening his chest with both hands to show Rama and Sita that they are deeply loved within his heart. Hanuman’s strength is divine, and his service to Rama defines his character, he is depicted to emphasize these key attributes.

Hanuman is worshiped within Hinduism as the protector of evil forces. His name has even come to be known as SankatMochan which means “The one who delivers from all troubles.” Worshiped for good luck in any venture and also good health (Channa 34), Hanuman is worshiped commonly for gains of a materialistic nature as well (Aryan 88).

It should be noted that Hanuman is typically depicted at the side of Rama. Generally, Hanuman is standing in front and a little on the right side of Rama, only as tall as Rama’s hip or chest. By and large these images are sculpted, with Hanuman having two hands. One hand hangs down to his knees, representing the respectful manner servants should have towards their masters. The other hand, as a symbol of devotion to Rama, is raised up and placed over Hanumans mouth. Hanuman’s stance is intended to suggest to the onlooker empathy for Hanuman, should remind people of the faithfulness of Hanuman to Rama, and the willingness to serve (Nagar 250 Hanuman normally carries a golden gada or club, and may also have a golden crown on his head (Channa 34). He is sometimes depicted with hair all over his body. This hair is described as being yellow or golden. At other times, Hanuman is shown with no hair at all, and looks like he simply has a plain human body. Hanuman’s monkey face and complexion are described in various texts, suggesting color from bright white, golden yellow or copper red and usually is compared to sunlight (see Nagar 241). Hanuman has incredibly muscular shoulders, arms and chest. This is evident for the reason that typically he is clothed in a basic loin cloth (Channa 34). His face is described as incredibly beautiful with eyes said to be various colors varying from yellow to red, with the “sparkle of heated gold”. Hanuman also has a long tail, which when raised, looks like a flag (Nagar 245-248).

Hanuman is one of Hinduism’s most extraordinary deities, whose divinity is celebrated by millions of people. His role as faithful messenger and servant to Visnu’s avatar Rama has led Hanuman from being a semi-divine langur monkey, to the highest state of divinity to be worshiped among mainstream deities within the Hindu tradition. Not only does Hanuman rise up into his divinity with the help of Rama, he also shows that divinity is not only found within the human race, but the animal kingdom as well. Hindus have dedicated countless pieces of art to the monkey-god depicting Hanuman’s bravery, strength and supernatural powers. This may be what led people to worship him as they do, but Hanuman is more than power. He is a perfect icon of loyalty, devotion, servitude, honor and morality within Hindu culture. As the epic story of the Ramayana lives on in the hearts of Hindus, so will the great monkey god Hanuman.

References

Aryan, K.C. (1994) Hanuman Art, Mythology & Folklore. New Delhi: B. Nath for Rekha Prakashan.

Channa, V.C. (1984) Hinduism. New Delhi: National Publishing House.

Ludvic, C (1994) Hanuman in the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Ramacaritamanasa of Tulasi Dasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Nagar, S (2004) Hanuman Through The Ages. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Further Recommended Reading

Rao, T.A. G. (1914) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Madras: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Related Topics

Arjuna

Bhima

Brahma

Dharma

Durga

Forms of Hindu Worship

Ganesa

Ganga

Hindu Art

Indian Temples

Krisna

Kauravas

Laksmana

Lakshmi

Mahabharata

Maya

Moksa

Pandavas

Parvati

Rama

The Ramayana

Ravana

Sita

Siva

Surpanakha

Yoga

Vayu

Visnu

Notable Websites

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/hanuma.asp

http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_hanuman.htm

http://www.dalsabzi.com/Wisdom_Scrip/sankat_mochan_hanuman.htm

http://www.webonautics.com/mythology/hanuman.html

http://home.att.net/~s-prasad/ramimage.htm

http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/prani/animals.htm

http://www.indiantravelportal.com/temples/

Article written by Carling Nugent (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.