Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXIV: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part I
May 8, 2018
Humans receive two types of messages. Internal messages of hunger, thirst, love or grief are felt in the body and contribute to our experience. External messages about the environment, objects, weather or social scenes, etc. are perceived through our senses and contribute to our knowledge. Dissection and comprehension of the sensory knowledge occur through our intellect and help us in navigating our life in the universe. We realize that our senses are limited, so we use our previous knowledge as an analyzer in any new action.
We have various types of couriers for sending messages. It has been traditional to dispatch romantic messages through a trusted friend, be it an animal, bird or a person. Then we have official messages: the announcement of royal decrees by the messengers, or the delivery of communication through trusted court messengers. A messenger in the royal court remains knowledgeable about the state secrets and takes the role of a trusted adviser to the king. Books of Indian statecraft enumerate the special characteristics and the skills of a messenger - these include sharp intellect, unfazed patience, sweet eloquence and quick wit. Unemotional delivery is the characteristic of a good mail messenger.
Then there are military messengers. In quarrels, fights and wars, rivals create strategies to trick or trap the opponents. The strategies work best if they are kept hidden from the other side. Each side may then employ “spies” to gain information on the inner working of the other side. Through a common protocol, the spies do not carry weapon with them, hence are not killed if they had not done any untoward act. Some modern spies carry poison to commit suicide instead of suffering possible torture in the enemy prisons. A “spy” has the mission of demarcating the target and scoping out the strength of the opposing forces. Returning with the information without being detected is considered as the successful completion of the spy work.
Hanūmān appears in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa story as the counselor to the vānara king Sugrīva, who had been ejected from his home by his elder brother Vāḻī and was living in fear. Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa appeared at Paṁpā lake area being instructed by the demon Kabandha. Sugrīva got mortally scared to see the men walking with bow and arrow, but Hanūmān stayed cool. The first task for Hanūmān in the story is to meet Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa and interrogate them on their intentions. Hanūmān had great impressions with his first meeting possibly because of Rāma’s compliments on his words and eloquence. Rāma knew how to make a good friend!
Though his task was simply to check them out and report back, Hanūmān offered to shoulder the brothers on his back to help climb the mountain to reach Sugrīva. Hanūmān briefed Sugrīva at length and convinced him that the brothers could be of value to him in helping to regain kingdom from Vāḻī. Sugrīva invited friendship to Rāma and they made alliance. Hanūmān kept alert on Sugrīva’s commitment to Rama. After Vāḻī was killed and Sugrīva assumed the kingdom, it was Hanūmān who counseled Sugrīva not to neglect the commitment of searching for Sītā. In such act, Hanūmān is characterized as a conscience-keeper of the person he serves.
Sugrīva had an intuitive feeling that Sītā was most likely in the southerly direction. He had seen an aircraft moving towards south earlier in the year. He asked Hanūmān to go with Aṅgada in looking for Sītā in the south and tasked them to explore every spot that could be considered a location. In their search, they got lost in a cave and could not return to report back in a month, the time limit ordered by Sugrīva. Aṅgada was depressed and was scared to return to Kiṣkindhā, but Hanūmān counseled him on positive thinking. He knew that he was accountable to Sugrīva as his counselor.
They happened to meet the eagle Sampāti, the older brother of Jaṭāyu, who informed them of Sītā in Laṅkā, eight hundred miles away, in the ocean. All the monkeys in the troupe expressed their inability to cross the long distance on water. Hanūmān, too, did not volunteer until he was nominated. He apparently was waiting for a possible brave company. With no one else coming, he was solitary in his mission. He became a messenger to locate a person in a land where he had no address. He had no prior sight of Sītā and was armed only with the cursory information that she was a princess with good moral character.
Hanūmān’s journey to Laṅkā and his adventures there in meeting Sītā forms the contents of the much coveted Sundarakāṇḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki. Hanūmān is mission-oriented, but he has his own physical limitations. He needed to overcome the fatigue and subdue obstacles on the way. He traveled through the coast line hopping over the shallow waters until he found the mountain Maināka in the sea where he grounded himself for a moment. Without taking time for a longer rest, he shot forth over the deeper ocean only to be captured by the large ocean creatures. He managed once to escape from a beast by reducing his own size and from another by bursting out from its belly. These are not typical tasks or the travails of a messenger!
Disguise for non-identification or operation through assimilation are among the required skills of a military spy. Hanūmān had been operating as a military spy for Sugrīva to protect him from the ferocious wrath of Vāḻī. While gentleness and proper articulation are necessary skills, Hanūmān had cultivated the skill of reducing or expanding his own body. Vālmīki characterizes Hanūmān as a vānara, a hybrid between a man and a monkey. He carries the intellect of a man and the anatomy of a monkey. This facility makes him suitable to be undetectable on occasions while observing the scene completely, like a modern drone!
Spies work in darkness. Hanūmān entered Laṅkā in the evening. Riding over the perimeter wall, he was overwhelmed to see the opulence of the city and its tight military organization. Reporting such sight itself would be enough of a message for a spy, Hanūmān however kept courage to see more. He was confronted by the city guard in the night and managed to overpower her. Here he was lucky. The guard happened to be one of the enemy who did not like the aggressive nature of the ruler. Instead of calling people to stop the intruder, she allowed Hanūmān to enter the city. Apparently good intent can invoke good luck!
Hanūmān is a messenger since he carried the signature ring from Rāma for Sītā. But where should he deliver it? Where was Sītā? How did she look like? These questions are normally asked when a messenger commences his or her journey, but Hanūmān had no such information. He needed to use his own faculties to locate Sītā, assuming she existed in the island. Hanūmān is a spy and a messenger bundled in one. He is a spy on behalf of Sugrīva and a messenger on behalf of Rāma. Messaging is his added responsibility.
Hanūmān entered Rāvaṇa’s harem in the dead of the night. The intense smell of liquor and flesh bothered him, but he kept his patience. He checked many sleeping faces by examining close by. He guessed correctly that none of them could be Sītā. Then he saw the large frame of a massive man sleeping amidst many young women. He guessed the man to be Rāvaṇa, but had doubts if any of the women could be Sītā. He consoled himself that his journey must have value. If Sītā has fallen into such pitiable conditions, his efforts would be meaningless. Confidence in one’s purpose is a signature of a messenger!
Hanūmān got lost in the cavernous hall and moved out to get some fresh air. His activity began again the next day evening. Then he happened to see a stream with nice gardens built around. The messenger has wishful thinking: “Surely Sītā will wander out in the evening to the stream! Sītā is a princess, she must love the beauty of the forest and will certainly show up! I have heard that Sītā loves the animals in the forest. She will appear to tend the animals in the evening! Since Sītā is god-like in nature, she will certainly come for her evening ablution!” Wishful thinking brings joy in mind. Hanuman continued his wishful thinking!
All messengers want to succeed. Diligent efforts with wishful thinking bring success. Hanūmān did encounter a woman, but how would he know that she was Sītā? We continue with Vālmīki next time.
Let Sai bless all!