By Philip Lutgendorf (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Primates are our animal cousins, but most of us know them only on a photo-album basis. In India, people and monkeys live cheek by jowl, and relations are strained. Monkeys are dirty, aggressive pests, pelting pedestrians with nuts and climbing into open windows to grab anything not nailed down. Yet one of the subcontinent’s most beloved divinities is the monkey-god Hanuman. The hero Rama’s sidekick in the national epic Ramayana, Hanuman is revered in his own right in temples and household shrines throughout India.
Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, has written a fascinating study of Hanuman. Unlike traditional scholars of Hinduism who focused on theological texts, Lutgendorf is interested in everyday religious experience, where so-called “minor gods” such as Hanuman often loom larger than major ones (such as Shiva and Vishnu). Lutgendorf pursues the monkey-god through religious practice but also films, television, comics, and the garish Technicolor prints that small businesses distribute as complimentary wall-calendars. (One of these adorns the book’s cover.) He also includes Hanuman’s biography from popular legend, analyzing the many variants of each episode. According to one version, when the infant Hanuman decides to swallow the sun, the earth is cast into darkness until he coughs it up. In another version, he swallows it and is destroyed, but the gods reassemble him from tiny pieces, and in a third he puts it in his mouth but spits it out because it tastes like meat and he is a vegetarian. (His powers extend to his monkey-mother, who destroys a mountain with a jet of breast-milk.) At times, Hanuman seems an Indian version of Godzilla, a fearsome, destructive, but lovable creature, blurring the boundary between animals, humans and gods. Hanuman’s Tale brings him in his many forms to a western audience.
Jeremy Ravi Mumford teaches at the University of Michigan.