For the past few thousand years, the Indian Epic Ramayana has been among the most important literary and oral texts of South and Southeast Asia. Every autumn, Lord Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana is celebrated through plays and dances in towns and villages across India. The central theme of the Ramayana is the victory of good over evil. Lord Rama’s serenity in the face of success and tragedy is viewed as the very example of dharma. In fact, Lord Rama is considered to be an ideal role model. He enjoyed life yet was detached from earthly desires, and he was kind and just to everyone – even to those who opposed him.
Putting himself in the service of Rama is the divine monkey Hanuman who is a hero in his own right. Stories of Hanuman’s heroic deeds have been passed down through generations for thousands of years.
The original Ramayana arrived to Southeast Asia from India along with Hinduism, but its retelling there also suggests Buddhist influence. Intricate carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat depict a scene from the Ramayana date back nearly a millennium. Statues of the heroes were worshiped in temple sanctuaries, akin to the wall paintings at Cambodia’s Royal Palace and Wat Bo.
In this period, Hanuman became a godlike figure in Cambodia history, featuring predominantly in the Cambodian epic poem Reamker (“Glory of Rama”), based on the Sanskrit’s Ramayana epic. In his depictions in Thailand, Hanuman appears wearing a crown on his head and armor to protect himself from demons. These depictions not only highlight the importance of Hanuman in South and Southeast Asian mythology, but also reintroduce the ancient and far-reaching symbols he represents – symbols that reach many cultures from Ancient East Asia to South America.
Anjana was an apsara – a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology – who was reborn on earth as a monkey due to a curse. She married Kesari, a monkey king. Longing for a child, Anjana and Kesari performed intense prayers to Shiva for twelve long years. Pleased with the couple’s devotion, Shiva granted them a son, Hanuman, the incarnation of Shiva himself. This, of course, is only one version of the legend of the birth of Hanuman.
A more famous legend is that although Hanuman was known as the son of monkey King Kesari and apsara Anjana, he was actually the son of Vayu, the god of wind. One day, Anjana was roaming in the hills when Vayu saw her and became captivated by her beauty. She willingly submitted to Vayu’s advances and, as a result of this union, Hanuman was born. Like his divine father, Hanuman had the powers to fly and reach any part of the earth.
These special abilities on a young child, understandably, made little Hanuman very mischievous. As a child, Hanuman flew up to catch the sun and angered the king of heavens, Indra. Indra threw his thunderbolt at Hanuman and broke his jaw – an event which led to his name “Hanuman”, which came from the Sanskrit words Hanu (“jaw”) and –man (or -mant, “prominent” or “disfigured”). Therefore, his name means “the one with prominent or disfigured jaw”. Another theory says that the name derives from the Sanskrit words Han (“killed” or “destroyed”) and maana (“pride”), thus implying “the one whose pride was destroyed”. However, some Jain texts mention that Hanuman spent his childhood on an island called Hanuruha, which became the origin of his name.
The story then moves to Ramayana where king Sugreeva, a monkey king and friend of the heroic prince Rama, sent a mission to search for Sita, wife of Rama, who had been kidnapped by demon Ravana to Lanka. The monkey party headed by crown prince Angad, Hanuman and others reached the ends of the worlds and faced the sea, across which was the island of Lanka. They despaired to see the intervening sea. However, Hanuman assumed a great size and flew to Lanka to rescue Sita. He went on to do many more heroic deeds such as bringing Sanjivini herbs from the Himalayas for the revival of Rama’s brother, Lakshmana.
Hanuman in a significant enough character to be mentioned in both Ramayana and Mahabharata. He came to be regarded as an avatar of the god Shiva by the 10th century CE, although this development possibly started as early as in the 8th century CE. Hanuman is mentioned as an avatar of Shiva or Rudra in Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagvata Purana, the Skanda Purana, the Brhaddharma Purana and the Mahanataka among others. The 17th century work Rasavinoda by Dinakrisnadasa mentions that the Hindu trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) combined to take to the form of Hanuman.
In Mahabharata, Hanuman is considered to be the paternal brother of the second Pandava brother, Bhima, on the basis of both of them being sons of Vayu. His role in the Mahabharata has evolved to be that of a teacher, as during the Pandavas’ exile, he appeared disguised as an aged monkey to Bhima in order to subdue his arrogance. At Bhima’s request, Hanuman also enlarged himself to demonstrate the proportions he had assumed in his crossing of the sea as he journeyed to Lanka. Hanuman said that he would serve as the Pandavas’ protector when the war came. According to legends, Hanuman is one of the four people to have heard the Bhagavad Gita from Krishna and seen his divine form— symbolizing his own wisdom and redemption.
Hanuman became more important in the medieval period, and came to be portrayed as the bhakta (“ideal devotee”) of Rama. His characterization as a lifelong brahmachari (“celibate”) was another important development from this period as this aspect is not mentioned in the original Ramayana. The belief that Hanuman’s celibacy is the source of his strength became popular among the wrestlers in India.
A few centuries later, another legend of a famous monkey was born in East Asia through the first Chinese novel Hsi-Yu Chi (“Journey to the West”). The story is based on a Buddhist monk who journeyed to India in search of Buddhist sutras from 602-664 CE. Protecting him on his journey, according to the book, are four companions led by the divine monkey Sun Wu Kong.
The beginning of the Journey to the West describes the young monkey’s revolt against Heaven. Like Hanuman, young Sun Wu Kong was so mischievous and vain that he angered the ruler of heaven. Sun Wu Kong was then cast out of heaven and later redeemed himself by helping the hero of the story, the monk Xuan Zang, on his pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist scriptures— much like Hanuman helping the hero Rama in Ramayana.
The Buddhist influence added another dimension to the divine monkey, as the monkey is often shown riding the horse in Chinese and Japanese art. This symbolism also stems from Journey to the West, in which the Jade Emperor appoints the Monkey to the post of “Protector of Horses” to pacify the monkey’s desire for power and recognition. The Japanese Saru no Soshi (“Scroll of the Monkey”) in the late 16th century describes the marriage of the daughter of the monkey head-priest of Hiyoshi Shrine to a monkey from Yokawa, where two monkey attendants discussed the proper way to carry a quiver. This is significant as the covers of Japanese quivers were actually made of monkey hide. This monkey-hide covering was believed to protect the warrior’s horse against illness and injuries.
In the various tales about the divine monkey in Hindu and Buddhis mythology, the monkey was originally portrayed as foolish, vain and mischievous. In each tradition, the monkey learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes and gains redemption. The monkey, in Asian traditions, thus embodies the themes of responsibility and devotion, as well as the promise of salvation to all who sincerely seek it. This symbolism is still common in Buddhism as practiced today. In modern meditation practices in many Buddhist sects, one must first subdue the “monkey mind” before meditation can yield results. The purpose of this exercise is to overcome the restless monkey mindset— that is, to stop jumping from branch to branch, grabbing whatever fruit comes into sight and being fooled by mere appearances.
Among the hundreds of tales in the Jataka, in one of the oldest extant collections of Buddhist folklore originating in India and Sri Lanka around the 3rd century BC, the historical Buddha was said to have lived many prior lives in many different forms before attaining enlightenment. In the Jataka tales, he often appears in the form of a monkey, other animals, human, and god. Throughout his incarnations, he practices generosity, courage, justice, and patience until finally achieving Buddhahood. The Pali Jatakas record 123 of Buddha’s past lives as an animal, 357 as a human, and 66 as a god.
Changes and redemption are two such important parts of monkey mythology of Asia that there are also cautionary tales of what would happen if the monkey does not achieve them. The Chinese story, Yuanhou Zhuyue from c. 1 – 2 CE, tells of a group of monkeys who attempted to catch the moon’s reflection, but all are drowned in the effort. A monkey chieftain saw the bright reflection of the moon in the water below his tree. Thinking that the moon had died and fallen into the water, and also fearing that the world would slip into darkness, the monkey called together his underlings and commanded them to join tails to pull the moon out of the water together. However, as the monkeys attempted this task, their combined weight was too great, thus breaking the branch making the monkeys fall into the water and drown.
The simple moral of this story is not to recklessly attempt impossible tasks. However, on a more philosophical level, the image of the monkey attempting to grasp a reflection of the moon is a metaphor for the unenlightened mind deluded by mere appearances. The theme was often depicted in Japanese ink paintings. 16th century screen paintings by Shikibu and Hasegawa Touhaku (1539-1610) represent this tale. Another interpretation of the parable’s meaning is: “When the unwise have an unwise leader, they are all led to ruin.” This is significant as, although they are both servants of the heroes in their respective stories, both Hanuman and Sun Wu Kong are depicted as leaders.
The connection between the divine monkey, leadership and the sun/heavens did not confine itself to Asia. In the Maya script a spider monkey head or full body can substitute for other forms of the glyph known as ahaw. The word ahaw means “lord, master, ruler, owner” in many Mayan languages. This association between the concepts of “monkey” and “ruler” in itself indicates an association with notions such as “divine” or “sacred”, as there is many in Maya iconography which indicate that the ruler was viewed as a divinity on earth. Also in the Mayan script, a full figure image of a howler monkey represents k’in (“sun” or “day”). As the Mayans perceived the sun to represent a very important deity.
At this point we can see that there are at least two representations of monkeys in the Maya script which clearly indicate associations of the monkey with deity and sacredness – ahaw (“ruler”) and k’in (“sun”), and a third glyphic representation that has been viewed by many as a “monkey faced god” is even more explicit in its connection with deity and sacredness in meaning.