We had recently been asked to weigh in on a rather recurrent matter of Hindu … well, iconography and understanding – namely, whether Hanuman is appropriate to depict as an ‘ape’ or ‘monkey’ style figure.
The reasoning for this being at issue is that one can potentially interpret the name of Hanuman’s clade, the Vanaras, as being ‘Vana – Nara’ … which one might choose to understand as ‘Forest Man’, and therefore as suggestion that some forest-dwelling arboreal (indeed, ‘aboriginal’, perhaps ) human group being intended instead.
That was certainly what happened when our associate shared some recent AI-generated art of Hanuman to a Bengali group, and found himself with such ‘corrections’ being opined upon in the comments thereof.
So here’s my response:
There are several things I would say.
First and foremost, the ‘Simian’ iconographic saliency for Hanuman is NOT something that the AI that had generated this art came up with.
Nor is it something that is some kind of Western / Euro imposition.
It is an authentic & endogenous Indian / Hindu understanding.
We all know this.
So, at the very least, what Nirjharaḥ Mukhopādhyāyaḥ has presented here is an AI that has produced an image in keeping with the customary understanding for Hanuman in our own religion. Nothing wrong with that.
Now, having said that … there is an interesting question, occasionally, upon just what is being communicated via ‘symbolic language’ in any Hindu scriptural text.
A good example of this is the language used to describe the Vajra wielded by Indra in the RV, along with other symbolic approaches to same.
We find various different descriptions – and it is quite difficult to say that these are all … well, the same thing, if we were to take them literally. Some have an arrow with many many points, for instance ; other approaches instead would render the Vajra more as a ‘club’, a per-cussive weapon.
Who’s right? Well, in a way, it is missing the point to argue. Because all of these are merely symbolic shorthands for the actual concept itself. And in the poetic language of the scriptures, we find ourselves being communicated with in .. well .. just exactly that – poetic terms, and ‘shorthand’, that gets across succinctly something for us that would be difficult if not impossible to meaningfully encapsulate more fully.
Hence in part why we find multiple Hymns, multiple different recountings of various episodes to bring into the fore different features, you get the idea.
Now, how does this pertain to Hanuman and the ‘species identification’ thereof?
Well, for a start, you can potentially regard ‘Vanara’ as being a bit of a ‘symbolic shorthand’ itself when somebody insists upon literally monkeys. And that is in no small part because we also encounter Bears being presented as Vanaras.
However – what it is symbolic shorthand for … well, that is another question entirely.
I am not sure that I would agree that ‘euhemerization’ down to .. well .. ‘just’ some human subrace (viz. the commentary around H. Floresiensis , for instance) is a very good idea.
There is no shortage of ‘Forest Tribes’ of humans to be encountered in the Hindu textual canon.
If a literal … well .. ‘forest human’ of just that caliber had been meant, then I would presume that that would be just what was rather directly stated.
And as applies the situation of Vana + Nara … well, ok, that’s not necessarily a bad way to enquire, but the trouble is that ‘Nara’ does NOT only mean ‘Man’. Its ‘shade of meaning’ quite pointedly incorporates ‘Hero’, ‘Heroic’. Hence its use in various relevant contexts to our purpose.
So, ‘heroes of the forest’? A bit awkward, but given the great strength and other such characteristics of the Vanara clades, perhaps not inaccurate-ish (contingent upon how broadly one wishes to interpret the word ‘Hero’). Certainly rather more remarkable than merely ‘humans’. Potentially, anyway.
Now, where we get into ‘interesting waters’ is when we consider the relevant comparative theology.
And that goes in two directions.
‘laterally’ and ‘longitudinally’ [so to speak.
As applies the former: Hanuman is an expression of the IE ‘Striker/Thunderer’ deific in various particulars. I have written about this extensively elsewhere so won’t re-indulge all of the elements in question. But you can see this quite directly viz. the “Bajrangi’, the parentage, the weaponry, etc. etc.
Another expression of this deific complex is Thor of the Nordic sphere. Why do I mention Thor? Because Thor is described in the Grimnismal as being a ‘Curious Ape’. Literally, that’s … like I know it’s surprising, but yeah, in Old Norse it’s right there – the term for ‘Ape’.
Now, it’s possible that what’s happened there is there’s a very archaic PIE term surviving – and ‘Ape’ in its PIE origin may have referred to a sort of Water/Sky spirit [‘Apsara’ may in fact be something of a cognate] … but whatever its roots, it has been understand to mean, well, ‘Ape’.
A ‘Curious Ape’, an ‘Unwise Ape’. Sounds a bit familiar in the earlier days.
As applies the ‘longitudinal’ element – here I mean going back in time to the Vedic sphere.
Because it has long been our supposition that Hanuman is resonant with, and in at least some part ‘carries forward’, the Vrsakapi encountered in RV X 86, and stated to be ritually co-equivalent with Indra [Striker/Thunderer deific complex again].
Now, Vrsakapi is also conventionally interpreted as being the .. well Ape[-headed] deific. So you see how things fit together.
I do not dispute that there are other interpretations possible for just about everything.
But I personally do not have an issue with Hanuman being depicted in Ape or Monkey-like fashion ; and would be very cautious about going too far in attempting to ‘euhemerize’ things from a narrative like the Ramayana (or, for that matter, the broader legendarium) to .. just .. other varieties of ‘mundane’ humanity etc.
Robs the ‘mythic’ element, I feel.
Although we can always debate over symbolism, etc.
However one chooses to understand and to visually perceive / represent Him – on Tuesday in particular, the most important thing is, of course,
Jai Sri Ram.
Bajrang Bali Ki Jaye !