Take the leap! Hanumasana in Cairo’s Gazira Club.
Photo by Zeinab Lamloum.
On my first trip to India, I didn’t quite get the fascination with Hanuman. Here was this monkey man looking somewhat supercilious to me. Everywhere I went, there he was. At the corner store, there were stickers for sale. And at kirtan, chants for the legendary character in Indian mythology. What was the big deal, I wondered?!
Then, over time, as I heard and read more about him, my love for him also grew. He captured my imagination, not so much for his incredible super powers, but for his incredible humanity.
It’s been over (as of this writing) a week since the recent bombings, demonstrations and arrests in Cairo marking the anniversary of the revolution in Egypt. Seeing the resulting sadness and frustration that the not-so-past and all-too-recent events have caused friends and students in Cairo, it feels like a good time to share his story.
This is not just for the folks in Egypt, this is a story for all of us. Its themes are universal. We can all learn a thing or two from a not-so-little monkey called “Hanuman.”
(I’ve taken some artistic license, here, piecing this together from stories I’ve heard and read.)
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There once was a time when aspects of the divine walked on Earth and humans were not exactly the way we are now and, well, monkeys, hmmm, monkeys were not like the monkeys we know today…
The vanaras were mostly bipedal, human-sized or larger, they could be incredibly strong, they were intelligent and educated, and some–descending from some celestial beings– had very interesting powers that we might today call supernatural. They had complex organized societies, at the top of the social strata was a monarchy. In all, they were an extraordinary people–I say people, because they were more like people than our idea of monkey.
One particular valorous vanara was extra extraordinary, though he would be the last to know and, if he did know, would probably be the last to admit it.
Hanuman was a strong soldier, a born leader, a loyal friend, a devoted student, a kind and thoughtful being. True to his monkey nature, he was also fun-loving and mischievous when it was appropriate. And sometimes, when not entirely appropriate. Those around him, valued his presence deeply, they saw in him a brilliance, though, some would argue that he had not yet come to his full shine.
When he was a wee little monkey, Hanuman was a great deal bolder than he was in adulthood. As a little sprout, he had no concept of the constructs that often define and limit one. He had a whole lot of wind in him–literally, too, because without him knowing the Wind himself had sired him and was constantly blowing on his sails.
One day, young Hanuman, noticed an orange, so juicy and bright hanging above him. Oh, how his mouth watered at the sight of it. He had never seen such an orange! It seemed so ripe! So full of the blazing flavor of summer! His vision narrowed. Hanuman was determined to taste it.
He reached up but found that the orange was beyond his reach. Hanuman hadn’t learned the so-called scope of what one could or could not reach. He took to his toes and stretched his arm as high as he could, but no, he could not touch the fruit. I will jump for it, thought Hanuman. He was a good jumper, the best amongst his playmates. And so he hopped up, but still could not reach.
Hanuman, however, was not dissuaded. He crouched down and sprung up so lightly, so very high. But not quite high enough.
Undeterred, again and again, he pulled in and leapt up and up and up. He was getting much higher, much, much higher each time he jumped.
Hanuman did not notice that he was jumping higher than the tops of the tallest trees, then higher than the neighboring hills, then higher than the tallest peaks of the biggest mountains. So high was he that he was jumping into the clouds.
Indra, the King of the Heavens, however, noticed and was first amused, then perturbed, then affronted.
Why this babe of a monkey was trying to reach for the Sun! And if he let him go on, would most likely pick it out of the sky! The Sun, Surya, himself was getting anxious because he could see clearly that Hanuman was getting closer with each attempt. Surya looked to Indra with alarm, asking him for assistance.
Now, Indra ruled his domain with a great deal of gravity and was not impressed by this crazy little monkey. Known for his thunderous personality, and occasional quick temper, Indra drew on his bow, and struck Hanuman down with a bolt of lightning.
Now if Hanuman were an ordinary monkey with no heavenly connections, then that hit would have been fatal–and, it was for the most part. The bolt hit his jaw and knocked him down, and Hanuman’s lifeless body fell back to earth with a thud.
His father, Vayu, the Wind, sensing that his son was in trouble, flew frantically to his side. Indra, upon realizing the trouble he would have with Vayu, quickly apologized and breathed life back into the struck down monkey.
Hanuman gasped, not quite understanding what had just come to pass, just that his jaw was broken; it hurt badly. He must have fallen from a tree or somewhere…he could not rightly remember.
Over time the pain in his jaw faded, and the already fuzzy details of the incident sunk into the deep recesses of his memory.
In truth, more than Hanuman’s jaw was broken that day. A part of Hanuman’s true nature has been shocked and silenced. He forgot, not just about his great desire for the bright juicy orange in the sky, but also of his natural ability to leap, to reach for the sun, the stars, anything he put his mind/heart/soul/body into.
Until one day, when the brave varana was all grown up, he met the honorable Prince Rama, who inspired in him such great kinship and devotion. For Rama was also not an ordinary human either, but an avatar of great Vishnu, the Preserver of all things, sent down to live a human life so he could vanquish the great 10-headed demon Ravana.
Ravana had just kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita. And the vanaras offered to help Rama recover his beloved. Hanuman especially pledged his support to the young prince and went off with a troop of monkeys and bears–yes, bears, too, were different as they are today, following the faint trail left behind by Ravana, which led them to the great sea. Somewhere out there, beyond the water, was Lanka, the island domain of this great demon, and hidden within its walls, Rama’s other half, Sita.
At present, Hanuman was beside himself. Someone had to cross the ocean. But who? Who could continue this search? There were several very talented varanas among the group and they discussed who might be able to cross the ocean to Lanka. Some could make themselves really small, some very big, and many could jump incredibly high and far. But each one’s strength and prowess seemed to fall a little short of the task.
Now, among the bears, there was a great, wise old bear, who had seen Hanuman in his youth, and who saw the monkey as he really was. He cleared his throat and said with authority that he knew of one varana that was up to this huge task, because he was just as great as the task at hand. No, the bear corrected himself, for in fact, he was even greater. Hanuman looked at him eagerly, full of hope!
“That vanara is you, Hanuman,” the wise bear said. Hanuman was taken aback.
“Yes, you,” the bear, prodded. “Think back, dear friend. Remember who you are, remember yourself. You can make this leap. You have the power within you to do this. But you need to have courage.” Hanuman’s eyes glistened. Courage he could muster.
“And you need to believe…” Hanuman’s gaze faltered. “You need to believe!”
Hanuman took a breath. Closed his eyes, and looked within himself. He remembered a deep sense of joy and freedom as he leapt into the air; he could see clouds. Clouds!
The old bear was right. He had forgotten. He had let external forces and his own fears and failures dull his sense of self. He had buried his own power deep within his being. But it was there. He may have forgotten it, but nothing could take away what was always his.
It was up to him now. He would not let Rama down, he would help reunite the husband and wife. He had the courage and he had the vision. Hanuman decided: Yes, I will make the leap….
Thus, Hanuman drew back, making himself very very small, and then launched himself into the sky with such force that parts of the mountain behind him also swept into the air, a spray of trees, and dirt, and flowers following Hanuman, as if they themselves were reluctant to be without him.
A now very large, almost giant-like, Hanuman was flying! Flying over the sea of forgetfulness, overcoming various obstacles threatening to steer him away from his goal. His airy path, albeit filled with friend and foe, was clear: he would unite Rama with his Sita, the masculine with the feminine, bringing together that which had been wrongly separated. And this is how Hanuman leapt over the sea to the island of Lanka, where egoic Ravana held Rama’s beloved Sita hostage.
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Life can be tough on us and we might loose sight of who we are. Certain events, people, powers might cut us down, frustrate our hopes, make us feel small or helpless. The story of Hanuman reminds us that yoga is about remembering who we truly are. And from that place of authenticity, we can start to make the leap towards better integration/union, lasting peace and harmony.
And the great epic giant leaps… they do come–but they come with practice; with diligent whole-hearted work; with dogged perseverance, with dedication, with–at times, wavering, but ultimately–well-grounded belief that whatever it is we have lost or forgotten, whatever dream or goal deferred, it is there, waiting for us to reclaim it, waiting to boost us up into the air.