With the Hindu festival Hanuman Jayanti around the corner (8th April 2020), we take a closer look at Lord Hanuman and see if the Monkey Gods of other cultures are incarnations of Lord Hanuman as many have claimed. The festival celebrates the birth of Hanuman on the Anjaneri mountain, and can last a single day or go on for 41 days.
Image credit: by Deepak Kosta on Unsplash
Lord Hanuman is one of the most important and revered Gods in Hinduism. He is recognised as an epitome of devotion, faith, valour and selfless love.
Worshipped in India and Southeast Asia, Hanuman is mentioned several times in religious texts, including the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In Southeast Asia, he comes in different forms and is associated in various legends. Hanuman is derived from two Sanskrit words “Hanu“ and “Man”. “Hanu“ directly translates to jaw, whilst “Man“ means disfigured. Basically his name was a descriptive one as he had a disfigured jaw from his childhood.
Hanuman is the son of Vayu, the god of the wind, and Anjana, a nymph. But why is Hanuman a monkey? The answer lies with his mother, Anjana. Anjana was cursed by a sage and was born as a monkey. When she begged to be pardoned, the sage made a deal with her and said that she would be able to regain her original form if she bore a son, a deity that was an incarnation of Lord Shiva.
As a child, Hanuman had great powers, and continued to gather more as he won over the various gods’ hearts with what is described in Hindu texts as sundar (beautiful inside). He is immortal, self controlled, shapeshifting at will, has extraordinary strength but most importantly, he is known as someone who constantly faces difficult challenges, one that has to overcome adversary or circumstances to achieve his noble missions. Somehow, he finds innovative and creative ways to combat those challenges, and turns them into victory. This is why many Hindu devotees worship the deity, and why a whole festival, Hanuman Jayanti, celebrates his birth and what he stands
MONKEY KING (SUN WUKONG)
Some people believe the popular Monkey King or Sun Wukong in the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West is an incarnation of Lord Hanuman. Just looking at the important stories of both characters, one can see how the two stories are similar.
Sun Wukong is also known as Suen Ng-hung in Cantonese, Son Goku in Japanese, Son Oh Gong in Korean, Sung Khokong in Javanese, Sun Ngokong in Thai and Sun Gokong in Malay and Indonesian. Sun Wukong and his story is so popular that there has been many adaptations in various media using this character, and is even a character in the hit video game League of Legends. Ji Xianlin, a famous Chinese scholar, believes that Sun Wukong is the incarnation of Hanuman, based on the few reasons below:
Sun Wukong and Hanuman both shapeshifts at will. Described in Hindi as Kama-rupin, Hanuman can shapeshift. He is described to be able to be so small that he is invisible to the naked eye, and also enlarge to be larger than the largest enemy at will. With 72 Bian (72 Transformations), Sun Wukong is able to shapeshift into various animals and objects. Each of the 84,000 hairs on his body can also transform into another form, and he often gets creative by biting the hairs into pieces to create more forms.
In the folklore that both characters are in, both Hanuman and Sun Wukong are described to be extraordinarily strong. Hanuman has always demonstrated his supernatural strength, not just in physical strength, but also carrying any burdens. During the war between Rama and Rayana, Hanuman went looking for a herb to cure Rama’s brother Lakshmana who was dying. Hanuman found the mountain but did not know which herb to take as there were many varieties on the mountain. He lifts the entire Himalayan mountain, carries it across India and brings it back to Lakshmana.
Sun Wukong was also known for lifting mountains. And not just one. He is able to carry two celestial mountains on his shoulders, and if lifting the mountains wasn’t enough, he ran “with a speed of a meteor“ even with the pressing weight on his shoulders. He was only unmatched with his attempt to carry Mount Tai. Taishan (Mount Tai) is one of the five sacred mountains of China, and is the mountain that overwhelms Sun Wukong’s strength. Mountains are represented as the the epitome of heavy items imaginable, and is also a metaphor for the weight or philosophical importance as well. Taiji boxing is also named as such as it pretty much means “Crush the Weight of Mount Tai“(泰山壓頂), which also demonstrates how the Chinese idealogically symbolises Mount Tai as the heaviest item, physically, emotionally and spiritually, which symbolises Sun Wukong’s inability to support this type of emotional and spiritual weight.
Sun Wukong gained immortality through five different means, all of which stacked up to make him one of the most immortal and invincible beings.
- Sun Wukong learnt both the 72 Transformations and how to be immortal from Taoism sage Subhuti.
- Sun Wukong crossed out his name in the register of life and death in the World of Darkness, which in turn, makes him untouchable by the fetchers of death.
- Sun Wukong was assigned to Guard the Heavenly Peach Garden. The garden grows three types of peaches, all of which grant over 3,000 years of life when consumed. Wukong ate the peaches, and was granted immortality and other innate abilities that come with the peaches.
- Wukong was not invited to a royal banquet of the Queen Mother of the West, and decides to show up early to the banquet. He was attracted by the scent of the wine and decided to drink it. Coincidentally the heavenly wine had the ability to turn anyone who drinks it to an immortal, thus giving Sun Wukong this ability.
- Wukong stumbles into Laozi’s alchemy lab whilst strolling around at the banquet of the Queen Mother of the West and finds his pills of longevity, known as the “The immortals’ Greatest Treasure“. Curious about these, Wukong downs an entire gourd of pills.
Hanuman gained immortality in his childhood, through intervention and gifts from other gods.
One morning, a child Hanuman was hungry, saw the sun and mistaken it for a ripe fruit. He leapt up to grab it and Indra, the king of gods stopped him with his thunderbolt. It hit Hanuman and he fell back to earth with a misshapen jaw. His father Vayu, was very upset and stopped the airflow in the three worlds. The lack of air caused immense suffering and led Lord Shiva to resuscitate Hanuman, so Vayu would return airflow to the universe. Lord Shiva granted Hanuman’s body to be as strong as Indra’s thunderbolt, Vajra, so it cannot harm him anymore. Agni deity granted Hanuman the immunity to fire so it wouldn’t harm him, and Varuna and Vayu granted that Hanuman would be immune from water and wind. Lord Brahma granted Hanuman a wish that he can move to any place and cannot be stopped, and Lord Vishnu gave Hanuman a weapon, named “Gada“.
A separate legend says that when Lord Rama was walking into the Sarayu river and end his early life, he gave a boon of immortality to Hanuman.
It seems to us that Hanuman was definitely a reference and influence for Sun Wukong’s character, even if the stories of both are very different. Sun Wukong’s character is so much like Hanuman that it indicates that he was the muse for this popular character. The cultural differences show how the character traits are conveyed in very different ways although they are identical on paper.
VAALI THE BALINESE MONKEY KING
Vaali is a kind hearted Monkey King with super strength whom which the island of Bali in Indonesia is named after. As Bali predominantly believes in Hindusim, the similarities with Lord Hanuman is easy to compare with. Visually, Vaali is very different, having hair all over his body. He is often ornamented with fresh colourful flowers, gold bangles, gold crown and a sinister expression.
Vaali was invincible during the Tetra Yuga and also defeated Rayana, one of the greatest warriors. This is similar to Hanuman in his supernatural strength as described above. Vaali also has the ability to obtain half of the strength of his opponent. This, coupled with Vaali’s superior strength (described to having a power equal to 70,000 elephants) makes Vaali far superior in any battle, and in fact, invincible.
If you look closely and read more of Hindu texts. Lord Hanuman actually met Vaali when Sugriva challenged Vaali to a duel. Lord Hanuman could have supported his friend Sugriva and easily have defeated Vaali, but this wasn’t his battle and he stood back whilst both Sugriva and Vaali sorted out their differences. This also means that Vaali isn’t Hanuman and both are different dieties although have very similar traits.