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The Messages of a Divine Monkey: A Review

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Date(s) - 11 Jul 2012
12:00 AM - 12:00 AM


Rafadi Hakim talks about Philip Lutgendorf’s lecture on Hanuman and popular culture held at S M Joshi Hall recently.

Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, delivered a lecture, The Messages of a Divine Monkey: Hanuman in Popular Culture, at the S M Joshi Hall, Pune, on July 11, 2012. The lecture is the second of a three-part lecture series on the Ramayana, Unraveling the Divine, which is part of Kiski Kahani, a project that aims to promote public knowledge on the diversity of Ramayana narratives across India. Lutgendorf, who is currently writing a full translation of the Ramcharitmanas for the Harvard University Press, has conducted text and field studies on Ram-katha traditions in North India for more than twenty years. With the help of a colorful slideshow, the talk centered on Hanuman’s bhakti, his role as a symbol of the perfect devotee, and his shakti, his supernatural feats, which contribute to Hanuman’s popularity across the subcontinent.

Earlier Western scholars believed that Hanuman’s fame stems from an ancient cult of monkey-worship, but Lutgendorf argues that it is the story of Hanuman that gives an elevated status to simian creatures in India, such as langurs in many north Indian communities.  Nonetheless, Hanuman has become an increasingly loved deity especially since the last one hundred years, with gigantic statues of Hanuman measuring between 25 to 135 feet in height constructed throughout the country since the late 1980s.  Hanuman’s half-simian, half-human character enables him to become an accessible and beloved representative of the divine. The numerous visual depictions of Hanuman as a leaping monkey, reaching upwards to the skies, which were shown throughout the talk, represent his status as a “middle-class” god that bridges the earthly and the supernatural, and straddles the human and the supremely divine.

Professor Lutgendorf quotes a passage from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, “My heart, Lord, holds this conviction: greater than Rama is Rama’s servant,” which summarizes the center stage taken by Hanuman in many different narratives of the Ramayana. In the Sundara Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is Hanuman who most vividly describes the love Rama holds for Sita. In the story of Mahiravana, a fearsome counterpart to Ravana, it is Hanuman who rescued Rama and Lakshmana from captivity in the netherworld. Hanuman, however, always has one foot in the realm of the sacred and another in popular culture. One audience member, who noticed that Hanuman’s story appeared in a 2005 feature-length animated film, commented that “he is our modern counterpart of Western superheroes.” India’s obsession with the stories of the Hanumayana, it seems, is far from over.

 What the press said:

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Rafadi Hakim is an undergraduate student at Carleton College, Minnesota, USA, majoring in sociology and anthropology and concentrating in South Asian Studies. He is now interning for Open Space’s Kiski Kahani Project after listening to different Ramayanas and the Mahabharatas in Indonesia, India, and the United States. In his spare time he enjoys classical music, reading the news, and more coffee.