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Review: My Hanuman Chalisa by Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt Pattanaik expertly explains all the verses of the Hanuman Chalisa

books Updated: Sep 23, 2017 15:08 IST
Pradhuman Sodha
Setting out to fight evil: Devotees dressed as Hanuman commute in Amritsar on October 5, 2011, on the eve of Dussehra.
Setting out to fight evil: Devotees dressed as Hanuman commute in Amritsar on October 5, 2011, on the eve of Dussehra.(NARINDER NANU/AFP)

It was either after watching The Exorcist or one of the hilariously frightening Evil Dead movies that it became torture for me and my cousins to fall asleep in a dark room. It was then that Hanuman first came to our rescue by way of our grandmother. The Hanuman Chalisa was too long and tedious for our little, frightened minds then. So she sat us down and taught us a four-line mantra to invoke the mighty Indian monkey god, whose name alone, she said, drives all evil away. Magically enough, we did fall asleep to the rhythmic chants of the mantra, however, mispronounced they were.

15 years later, when the practical realities of life have become more frightening than any horror film, it is such mantras that provide meaningful relief. Iti is for the child in you, who finds itself grown up but still unprepared, that Devdutt Pattanaik has simplified the Hanuman Chalisa.

A poem in 43 verses, the Hanuman Chalisa, about a character as old as Time, was written by Tulsidas four centuries ago. This book goes through all the verses of the Chalisa explaining their literal meaning and the stories of Hanuman’s life that inspired Tulsidas to write each verse. At the very end, Pattanaik had also introduced readers to Tulsidas himself. Those who are unfamiliar with the story of his life might find it surprising and relatable. His inspiration to write his version of the Ramayan didn’t arise from sources much far removed from that of other writers; his lustful love for his wife made him hit rock bottom, and the rest is history.

Legends of Hanuman or the divine warrior monkey didn’t just speak to the Hindu psyche. They have travelled over the Himalayas to China where a historic piece of literature, written around the same time as the Hanuman Chalisa, talks of a Monkey King who is the protector of sages and destroyer of demons. Sun Wukong is born of a stone that was touched by the wind; he is a shape shifter of incredible ability and, quite like Hanuman, is unaware of his strengths until they are required.

Those who have read or heard stories from the Ramayan or other Indian epics know that they are like Russian dolls, nesting one inside another. Taking on a subject as vast as Hanuman, a writer’s chief task is brevity. Pattanaik says in the introduction: “Varuna has but a thousand eyes, Indra a hundred, you and I, only two.” He starts out cautioning the readers not to look for perfection but to aim to expand their knowledge. An aim that is quite achieved if only one picks up the book; finishing it thereafter won’t be a struggle. That is, if you leave your scepticism behind.

The Hanuman Chalisa is a case study for aspiring writers in the art of story structuring and character formation. Tulsidas starts with the most visibly amazing aspects of his subject’s personality; those that once heard of will hook any listener or reader. Then, he refers to the greatest of Hanuman’s accomplishments, those that make readers beg for details. Then once, they have marvelled at this superhuman monkey, Tulsidas writes about how humble Hanuman is and how his only purpose is the service of Ram. And who can resist the charms of a character so presented?

Read more: Excerpt: My Hanuman Chalisa by Devdutt Pattanaik

Since the Ramayan predates the printed word, the challenge was to write crisp rhyming verses that would travel easily. Instead of losing something in translation, the epic gained many stories; and since Hanuman is so well loved, he inspired much “fan fiction”. In a folk version of the Ramayan, Hanuman is the fifth son of Dashrath, and thus Ram’s brother. Yet another version tells a story that, while flying back from the Himalayas with the sanjeevani booti, Hanuman was intercepted by Bharat, who mistakenly took him to be a rakshasa. By the time the confusion was cleared up, it was too late for Hanuman to return to Lanka in time to save Lakshman’s life. In order to make up for the delay that he had caused, Bharat asks Hanuman to sit on his arrow. He shoots it southwards, taking Ram’s name. This little plot twist brings together two of Ram’s biggest devotees, pleasing many readers/listeners of the story. Pattanaik’s book mentions many such fascinating variations of this ancient story.

Author Devdutt Pattanaik (Pic courtesy HarperCollins)

The book also gives readers enough mythological incentive to go around the country in search of the many Hanuman temples mentioned in it. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, a temple enshrines the Patali Hanuman or Hanuman of the underworld. The story goes that to rescue Ram’s sons, Luv and Kush from their kidnapper, Hanuman ventured into the underworld, where he found everything was upside down and so was he. Another Hanuman Temple in south India celebrates the slapping Hanuman. The idol in the temple has his hand raised to slap!

Watch more: FB Live conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik on his new book My Hanuman Chalisa

Pattanaik’s approach reveals Hindu mythological figures as concepts that are personified in riddled tales that are easy to remember and entertaining to retell. Understanding the spirituality behind them is a different matter altogether. And so, it is best to read the Hanuman Chalisa on your own, aided by books like this one, rather than hear it from someone else.