Katherine Mayo had described a Goddess’s palm as a hand raised to strike. A Hanuman sticker has now become a ‘symbol of Hindutva extremism’
A recent report on an online portal (2018) expressing concern about a sword-carrying Hanuman Jayanthi procession in Noida led to a formidable social media backlash centered around the hashtag BajrangiTwitter. At the centre of this controversy was the characterisation of a now ubiquitous image of Hanuman by the author of the report (and others before) as an “angry Hanuman”, a sign of Hindutva extremism and militancy. The tweets that followed disagreed with this and sought to reassert various meanings of Hanuman in Hindu life: from the philosophical and ethical to the martial and political.
Given the ubiquity of what might be called ‘religious’ icons and symbols in India, especially from the teeming pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, it may be useful for commentators to occasionally check if their assumptions about what these representations mean are accurate. The main problem with the journalist’s claim about Hindu militancy in Noida after all, was not so much about whether the procession was a sign of extremist militancy, but her centering of a popular, contemporary car sticker icon as one, thereby demonising thousands of innocent users of the same with little basis. The key question to ask, even before one debates whether it is indeed a sign of militancy or oppression or resistance, is simply whether the image is indeed an ‘angry’ one.
There appears to be a strong divergence between popular perceptions and the claims of some journalistic and academic observers on that count. The characterisation of the image as “angry Hanuman” seems entirely to be the work of a few journalists, rather than either the artist or consumers and fans of the image. The report, for example, leads in with the claim that “Hanuman 2.0 is not benign” and “he radiates mean energy against a black and saffron background”. Some months ago, a public Facebook post on the same image by a Delhi University professor claimed, rather colourfully, that Hanuman was now a “bloodthirsty monster” with “sinister savage eyes” and a “killer of the ‘other’” and ready for “holy war”.
Even allowing for the fact that many recent images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in popular culture tend to reflect influences from graphic novels, science fiction comics and other global sources resulting in more muscular, dark and action-oriented interpretations, it remains to be seen if this popular Hanuman is indeed an “angry” one. For one thing, the artist has referred to his creation as an “attitude Hanuman” rather than an angry one (and “attitude” has been a common phrase among creative people to describe the aesthetics of youth culture in India since the early days of Channel V and MTV, and hardly an indicator of aggression, much less against “others”).
In addition, most of the tweets that appeared with #BajrangiTwitter seemed to suggest that the dominant interpretation among fans and devotees was not quite “anger” at all. An informal poll on Twitter answered by about 260 users from among my followers and their friends showed that an overwhelming 95 per cent of them saw the Hanuman as “intense” rather than “angry”. There were also several related observations that the image conveyed “ekagratha” (one-pointed concentration), and determination rather than blind anger as such. One tweet referred to him as “sundara murthi”, an embodiment of beauty, and that he could not be angry for such anger would devour the universe itself!
These responses, and the broader outpouring of voices in support of Hanuman’s diverse but deeply felt meanings among Hindus, should be taken seriously by all those who presume to comment on Indian public culture without the slightest clue about things. The professor who posted about the new Hanuman’s “sinister savage eyes”, for instance, believes that Hanuman’s depiction before was as a “nice, cuddly dimwit … who set Lanka on fire by mistake” (emphasis added).
I doubt that any child growing up in India, even in the present generation with all its cultural distractions, would be so off the mark in thinking of Hanuman in such a manner. Even if Hanuman’s loyalty and humility are what are held up as virtues for us to emulate, it is impossible to find any popular or religiously significant cultural text that denies or demeans his intelligence; whether it is the Hanuman Chalisa, or the beloved Amar Chitra Katha comic (and even the animated TV serials and movies on Hanuman do not make the mistake of depicting him as a “dimwit,” as far as anyone can tell).
That professional commentators on India could be writing with such little education about the place and people they claim expertise on, and indeed, such little attention towards the nuances of their cultures and lives, is a distressing statement about what our educational system, particularly in the humanities, is producing. Indian universities and even schools need to re-examine their assumptions about the country they live in quickly, for what they are perpetuating is little different from what eugenicists and racists like Katherine Mayo did nearly 100 years ago.
Mayo was given to describing a goddess’s raised palm (a sign of blessing as anyone in India knows), as a hand raised to strike, not unlike how a bushy eyebrowed Hanuman now appears to threaten violence against non-Hindus to commentators today. There are indeed examples, sadly, to speak about intolerance, extremism and militancy in India’s public culture, but to do so with such a brazen lack of regard for reality, and indeed the actual lives of human beings innocently affixing Hanuman images on their vehicles, is disturbing and dangerous. This is not commentary, but a pervasive and pernicious project of demonisation, nothing less. -Courtesy India Express
Professor of media studies and the author of Nine Days in Kishkindha, a memoir about Hanuman, Hampi and his father