BJP-RSS ‘Adopting’ Hanuman: Bid to Win Dalit, Tribal Votes in 2019

Debate around Hanuman’s origin is the Hindu Right’s means to elicit the support of tribals & oppressed castes.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Lord Hanuman has found himself facing a serious identity crisis, thanks to the imaginative theories of the Hindu right-wing. By now, Hanuman has been called ‘Jat’, ‘Dalit’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘tribal’.

But what was Hanuman’s actual social status? More importantly, what does the debate surrounding his descent mean in the larger arena of national politics?

What’s Hanuman’s Actual Social Status?

On Friday, 21 December, Uttar Pradesh’s Minister for Religious Affairs, Chaudhary Laxmi Narayan Singh said Hanuman was a “Jat”, responding to BJP MLC Bukkal Nawab’s earlier statement, that claimed “Hanuman ji was a Muslim”.

Hanuman’s most recent identity crisis began with UP Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath claiming that Hanuman was “deprived and a Dalit”, during an election rally in Rajasthan on 27 November.

Soon after, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes Chairperson Nand Kumar Sai declared to a gathering in Lucknow that Hanuman was a tribal.

But coming back to who Hanuman really was. Hanuman is a mythological (as opposed to a historical) character. References to his social status, therefore, like the mythologies that he was/ is part of, are multifarious.

Despite this apparent difference, they point to how Hanuman has been a central figure of meaning-making exercises by the social and political elite, spanning India’s history, and how that continues into the present day, when we call ourselves a modern democracy.

Hanuman’s Many Histories

We find the first textual reference to Hanuman in Valmiki’s Ramayan. The monkey-hero (and not a god) is dark, hairy, has a cleft lip and looks different from all the other human characters in the epic. He is Ram’s reverent and devoted ally, leader of the vast vanar sena (monkey army), and plays a decisive role in the battle against Ravan by burning Lanka with his tail.

It is estimated that Valmiki lived in the first or second century BC, and his text, written in Sanskrit, was accessible to the social elite of the time, mostly Brahmins. Multiple versions of later Ramayans drew on Valmiki’s poem, and many took great pains to explain and account for Hanuman’s different appearance.

Some texts, for instance, say Hanuman was a bold child, and would consume anything within his sight. Once, he mistook the sun for a ripe fruit, and was about to consume it when Indra, the king of gods, realised that the earth would be in peril if the sun was swallowed.

He struck in Hanuman’s direction with his vajra, which struck the latter on his lip and jaws, thus giving him and his ilk their distinct appearance.


Brahminical Elite’s Co-Opting of the Subaltern

Scholars of mythology argue that these texts were most likely the social elites’ means of co-opting ‘different-looking’ strong-men or wrestlers, who were also leaders of subaltern groups, into their fold.

Their observations follow those made by Jyotirao Phule, BR Ambedkar and countless others, who stressed that mythological texts provided ideological ground for the Brahminical elite to retain and extend their control over subaltern groups.

Hanuman’s social standing or origin remains unclear in Valmiki’s as well as later versions of the Ramayan. While many claim he was born of Shiva’s seed, others say that Pavan (the god of wind) was his father.

Yet, almost all texts stress on his unquestioned devotion for Ram. It is only in the sixteenth century, by which time Ram is firmly established as a Vishnu avatar in Hindu texts, that Hanuman is anointed with clear, caste-based symbols.

For instance, the Hanuman Chalisa, a small part of Tulsidas’s version of the epic poem titled Ramcharitmanas, throws up a Hanuman who is Brahmin and Kshatriya. It says: “Hātha vajra au dhvajā birājai/ Kādhe mūnja janeū sājai” or “You have the Vajra (symbol of Ksatriya-hood) and the flag in your hands, and the sacred-thread made of the Munja grass (symbol of Brahmin-hood) adorns your shoulder”.

Hanuman’s ‘Brahmin’ & ‘Kshatriya’ Status

Like Valmiki, Tulsidas gives us glowing accounts of Hanuman’s exploits, and stresses repeatedly that he is revered only because he has Ram in his heart. For instance, in the seventh and final book of Tulsidas’s Ramsharitmanas, Ram’s half-brother Bharat tells Hanuman: “Monkey, at the sight of you all my sorrows have gone, for today I have met in you my beloved Ram!”

Tulsidas’s Ramayan was intended for a much wider audience than Valmiki’s, but it was the elites he had in mind all the same. He wrote in Awadhi, which was the court language of several kings during this period. 

Since Kshatriyas and Brahmins depended on each other to retain and extend their political social dominance respectively during this period, it was but natural for Tulsidas to anoint Hanuman with symbols of Brahmin-and Kshatriya-hood, while also projecting him as a devout Ram-bhakt.

In fact, Tulsidas is known to have incorporated several mythological stories popular in the vernacular domain, within oral traditions, into his Ramcharitmanas. His text, therefore, provided a way to account for, and co-opt folk practices and thus expand the reach of organised Hindu religion.


BJP Needs Support of Tribals & Oppressed Castes

Religious studies scholars argue that Tulsidas’s version of Ramayan constitutes the most important textual appropriation in the last five centuries of folk practices, centred around the reverence for monkey-heroes. They say the texts prime up Hanuman as a loyal servant of Ram, although this is unimportant in folk practice, where the reverence for Hanuman rests on his unparalleled power and virility.

The recent comments by a cluster of politicians need to be seen in this light.

Both were schooled by, rose to prominence in and are members of the RSS, whose avowed goal is to establish a Hindu Rashtra in India. The veneration of Ram is an essential, if not inseparable, part of this project. The multiple Ram rath yatras taken out by the BJP since the late 1980s make this apparent.

The support of innumerable and disparate oppressed caste groups and tribal groups is essential for the BJP to return to power in the states, and at the Centre in 2019.

The apparent debate around Hanuman’s descent is nothing but the Hindu Right’s means to elicit the support of this disparate electorate.

The Making of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’

In its entirety, the debate constitutes yet another cycle of the meaning-making around Hanuman. For, while Dalits in contemporary India are lynched for their food habits and social practices, and tribals are thrown out of their lands in the quest for mineral resources, political leaders groomed by the RSS stress that it is these communities that had helped establish the original ‘Ram Rajya’.

The veneration of Hanuman among oppressed caste and/ or tribal groups, they say, is proof of the ‘historical fact’ of their participation, thus providing the ideological ground for Hindutva forces to elicit such groups’ unquestioned support.

This, while other Sangh offshoots like the Bajrang Dal, work among oppressed castes and tribals, establishing more Hanuman temples by the day, conducting more ghar wapsis, and providing the grist for top leaders to engage in polemics for the sake of establishing a Hindu Rashtra.

(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, and currently teaches at a college in Bengaluru. He can be reached at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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