Monkey in the middle
It is still hard to believe that such an awful year really happened, 1968. Riots set ablaze the poorest, blackest neighborhoods in the inner cities. My mind was not yet awake, but I could see our imperialist leaders at war over a place of no strategic importance on the far side of the world, and all claiming they could win with only a few hundred thousand more draftees. Friends were being flown back from the front in body bags. Dr. King was killed, too, then there was a second Kennedy assassination, and visitors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were beaten by police. The Prague Spring demonstrators, led by students, were gunned down by the Soviets.
In those days if you were a soldier's age but no soldier, you were no American. Even your mother and father saw no difference between the Vietnam War and the good war that saved the planet in their generation. The most popular bumper sticker read: "America, Love It or Leave It," which meant "If You Don't Support Our War, Then Obviously You Are the Enemy."
It was also the year, my sophomore year, that I transferred into a very small college in downstate Illinois, far from home, to make a new start. I was not hopeful. I was totally alone. Yet even there, in the middle of the vast cornfields and repulsive-smelling swine herds, there were friendly urban easterners, disoriented as I was, who mostly grinned, took any mind-altering drugs they could find, and listened to Jimi Hendrix records. I wondered if they could understand me.
I preferred the Beatles, who in that year began experimenting with Hindu mysticism and transcendental meditation, which seemed to be promising alternatives to drugs. The boys were studying in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, so I was turned on one day when the college announced a faculty exchange program in which we would receive, for all of second semester, Dr. V. Madhusudan Reddy, chairman of the philosophy department of the University of Hyderabad, India. Reddy was going to teach a survey course in Oriental Philosophy, and my hippie roommate George and I were first in line to register.
At first sight to us, Reddy was an odd-looking man: tall and portly with a brown, pock-marked face, dark eyes, and tufts of black hairs sprouting from his ears. His south Asian English was strange to us, too. I remember that it took half of the semester before I knew what he meant when he said "devil-epped," with stress on the "ep." I thought that he was talking about something evil until finally one day he said "devil-epp-ment"!
He presented the generalities of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern beliefs, as expected, but he also told stories of his ashram, where the soul of a departed sage named Sri Aurobindo periodically returned from the greater cosmos like a brilliant comet to enlighten the spirits of all who meditated there on his perfected consciousness. A holy woman named the Mother ran the place, communicated regularly with the dead master, and performed a variety of stunning miracles.
Had Reddy been anyone other than he was, I would have been repelled by all of this strangeness, but after the first meeting, whenever I was in his presence, my heart filled with pure joy. I could not understand it then, and I do not understand it now, but decades later I still feel traces of the happy energy that radiated from him, as if he were a great soul who had found out the secret way to paradise and yet was kind enough to return to show me the way.
I began to wonder whether this sensation was caused by something in him or, in reality, something in me? All I knew for certain is that I never felt a bliss at all similar to it in meeting anyone before. It wasn't on and off, or irregular with highs and lows of emotion, such as we feel in a strong friendship or romantic love, but a continuous contentment that all is as it should be. Continuous, that is, as long as he was present in person or in memory.
Reddy spent that semester living alone in a fleabag hotel downtown and, from all that we could see, he never was asked to socialize with "colleagues" or townies. He was nice enough in conversation, but apparently not the right color to wear. It started George and I thinking: we decided that we should throw a dinner party for him at the end of the semester. It would show his students' appreciation and also provide us with an opportunity to learn more about him. We made elaborate plans. On break from school out in Boulder, we found an Indian shop and bought supplies--not only the spices unknown in downstate Illinois, but incense, bells, posters and other decorations--an extravagant outlay for us, as we were always broke.
On the night of the party, I answered the door when Reddy knocked. He seemed to be in a kind of daze, standing a little unsteady outside the doorway and unresponsive to me when I blurted out "hi." I wondered if he was having a heart attack after climbing the long flights of stairs to our apartment!
I almost called George for help, when Reddy suddenly returned to himself. "Ah, I am just admiring Hanuman!" he smiled.
"Are you OK?" I asked.
"You must admire Hanuman also," he replied.
"Oh, you mean the poster!" It took a moment and longer, but I thought I finally got it. Out in the hallway, he had been staring at our Indian poster of a monkey, sitting in yoga posture, dreamy eyed among flowers, beads and radiant light. "That's just something that we picked up during break week at a terrific Indian headshop out in Colorado. The storekeeper there told us that you might like it, especially if we put it near the door."
On further questioning, I had to admit that actually I knew nothing about Hanuman. Reddy explained that, in the Hindu pantheon, Hanuman is the god of hospitality because he welcomed and helped the forest-wandering Rama and his wife Sita in the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana.
The rest of that evening was bittersweet, as Reddy was to depart for the airport early in the morning--taking with him forever, as it seemed to us, our happiness. After dinner, he told us stories of Rama for an hour or so, and then he went back to his hotel.
That night, when finally I slept, I vividly dreamed. Wherever I went, the trees all died. The birds flew away, the animals ran off, and the people followed them. I asked some starving ascetics what was happening, but I did not get any answer because they too fled hungering from me. Finally I came upon a figure like some famished Buddha, or death’s head, sitting square and resolute in my way. What’s wrong with the trees, I begged him. Very slowly he uttered words that awakened me in horror: “Your friend will go to the ashram, but you will not! Wait for another sign. Be kind to trees!”
Immediately I thought about Reddy's rapture, or seizure, or whatever it had been, at the top of our staircase. I went out into the hallway and stood where he had stood, and I looked up at the poster to try to sense what could have happened to him. To my entire confusion, the monkey god had changed! Hanuman had worn strands of beads around his neck, but now all of the strands were broken, and the beads lay scattered around on the carpet where he sat, still dreamy eyed in the identical yogic trance as before. I could not believe what I was seeing.
George could not believe it, either. The broken beads were much too obvious to have been overlooked when the poster was new, when we hung it by the door, or even when we passed it on entering or exiting the apartment several times per day for several weeks, up to the day of the party. We wondered about this mystery for days, and we tried to talk about it, but there was no way to account for what had happened . . .
The next semester, on break from school, we took the poster back to the shop in Boulder where we found the same Indian woman who months before had sold it to us. She may have remembered us, for she greeted us with a very warm smile. "Look at this," George said excitedly as he unrolled Hanuman. "This isn't the way it looked when you sold it to us." I was sure that she would be stunned by Reddy's miracle, as we had been.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"The beads," George said. "The strings are broken. See?" She looked and cocked her head in silence. "The beads weren't broken before, when we bought them from you last year," he explained.
Perhaps the old woman thought that we were going to make some kind of warranty claim against her for selling us a defective poster. I can't imagine what she thought, but for whatever reason, following a long silence she claimed not to know anything at all about the condition of the beads at the time of sale. As we pressed our questioning, she became more defensive until at last she denied that she ever had seen us before. We must have purchased this particular poster somewhere else, she said.
She may have not understood our English, or maybe she only pretended not to understand us. I tried to make clear to her that nobody actually was angry: we simply wanted answers about the beads, in order to show that a miracle had happened. The more I said about it, the more frightened she became, as if she thought of us as two lunatic drug addicts. We were running out of time to chat with her when I made a final attempt: "Look, you must have sold other prints of this same poster. What do they look like? Are the beads broken or not?"
She knew nothing about such a poster at any time, either before or now or in the future.
The store had scores of posters, but we had not seen one identical to ours. George asked to see her catalogues, but she denied having catalogues.
We had been getting nowhere for a seemingly very long time, when the door opened, and another customer entered the shop. The old woman of course leapt at the chance to wait on him. While she was away, and probably asking him to defend her from us, for he was a big man with a tall cowboy hat, George and I looked once again through all of the posters in the shop and talked over what to do, and in the middle of that confusion is when I hatched a stupid plan.
The woman might be more open with us, I said, if we left the poster with her in her shop, and if we told her to write to us, or call us collect, if she ever came across another Hanuman print that would answer our question about the beads. Somehow I got George to agree that there was no use in taking the poster back to school. Without this distressed lady's help, we would never have any real proof of anything.
So that morning we left the broken-beaded god in the shop where we had found him, with the old woman who disowed him. We left our address and phone number, but of course we never heard again from her. When finally I called her some weeks after the visit, the phone number of the shop had been disconnected. I later heard from an acquaintance in Boulder that the store had closed.
George was a senior that year. After graduation, he went to Hyderabad to study with Reddy, and he visited the ashram too, but after a few weeks he returned to the States to go to film school. In later years, our paths crossed only once, briefly, and I could not help myself. I asked him whether in India he had questioned Reddy about Hanuman. Of course he had asked, but Reddy had simply smiled in the usual way and changed the subject, he said.
What kind of an answer is that?
Obedient to my dream, I never made the trip to Hyderabad, but at least a couple of times each year I find myself with tears in my eyes searching the internet for images of broken-beaded Hanuman. Indian mystics use magic tricks and illusions to hook gullible believers, I know, but I can't imagine how Reddy possibly could have deceived me. As long as I live, I will believe in the miracle of the beads, and the proof of the miracle will lie only in my heart.
Image right: on a contemporary poster, Hanuman tears his rich necklaces of pearls to reveal that he wears Rama and Sita in his heart. As I eventually learned, the broken-beaded Hanuman is a traditional Indian image of devotion, but perhaps fittingly for novices our broken-beaded student poster did not show Hanuman's heart.
Scholars say that Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu the preserver of dharma, justice among humankind. His story has been told through the generations since at least the 4th century BCE, the date of the earliest reported written version of Ramayana. Today's version is 24,000 stanzas in Sanskrit. A full recital from memory can last for up to forty days, three hours per day. To start the story, the bard traditionally acknowledges the presence in the recital hall of the unseen Hanuman, whose mind is filled only with Rama. Indeed, it is said that the story cannot begin unless Hanuman is present.
Where does the monkey fit the picture?
What significant similarities and differences exist between Ramayana and the Homeric songs? Do the landscape and ecology of the Indian subcontinent play important roles in the Indian epics, or are social or political factors more important in accounting for differences?
2. Catastrophism: Rama and Krishna acquired acceptance as incarnations of the destroyer god Vishnu in the medieval period, so the original Ramayana and Mahabharata, as they formerly existed in the ancient world, may not have made strong assertions or any assertions about Vishnu incarnations. These references may have been added, or at least strengthened, as the Vishnu sect re-used old familiar stories to support its beliefs, much as the Ptolemaic sect in Alexandria and the Roman sect of Augustus sought to re-use Homer for their own political ends (recall Lesson 8). Because the ancient texts have been lost, we do not know for certain.
The idea that Vishnu manifests himself periodically and divides time into ages of the world appears to be a poetic account of catastrophism. Vishnu's appearance in Rama's time and Krishna's time coincides with the destruction of the Bronze Age. The god's return to put an end to the classical period in the fifth century, when the world had all but forgotten him since he had been away for many years, coincides with the date from which our modern manuscripts of Ramayana and Mahabharata appear to derive.
The collapse of the Bronze Age may have triggered or coincided with the Aryan or Indo-European migration from the steppes of central Asia into the subcontinent. Extensive civilizations that existed during the Bronze Age in south Asia left no literary account of themselves, which we today have been able to read, but the new people who arrived to find the ruins of that civilization attempted to tell what had happened, and they of course could have had access to more records than we have today.
Mahabharata is more or less explicit in its theme of the destruction of the Kuru, or people of Bharata, through their injustice. (Compare the Genesis flood myth.) Obviously many hands have shaped the telling of this ethical/religious story over the centuries.
The theme seems more revealing in Ramayana: the central battle of Rama and the monster Ravana in book 6 is a cosmic catastrophe similar to that in Hesiod's Theogony [recall Lesson 1]. The ten-necked demon arrives unexpectedly from the sky in a chariot (a comet or space debris), he puffs himself up and takes away the fertility of the world represented by Sita (her name means "furrow" and she is a daughter of the goddess Earth). Then like Hesiod's lightning-throwing Zeus, Rama fires his blazing arrow, dealing a death blow to Ravana (signs of impact dissipate), but resulting also in a fire that burns Sita (firestorm of fallout from impact). She miraculously recovers as Brahma re-creates the world, and this miracle episode is the focal point in the original story of wonder and awe at the power of the planet to recover from its apparent doom. Brahmin culture may have its roots in the first form of this text. (This is just a conjecture by Dr G.)
Rama's story as it appears in today's text is far bigger than the cosmic battle itself. (Here's further conjecture.) Centuries passed since the catastrophe that ended the Bronze Age, and story-tellers no longer understood the meaning of the original Ramayana, or they did not think that audiences would be interested. It appears they preserved the old story with minimal rewriting, but they elaborated with new characters like Hanuman and Keikeyi, and new episodes focused on the ethic of dharma or Buddhist retreat, or medieval romance or whatever else was in fashion among the story-tellers of the time of retelling. The result is like Mahabharata, a big collection of old and new passages, composed at various times over perhaps two thousand years, a mix of voices that is often very beautiful but at times inharmonious. For instance, Rama's alleged perfections clash in the ending episodes with his insults to Sita and his trying her by fire so that he will not appear to good people to be "a lustful fool." The heel! She becomes in this retelling of the firestorm a familiar literary type, a "slandered bride," a folktale heroine commonly found in early narratives all over the world. Sita has to burn, because everybody knows that Sita's burning is part of the story, but why?
For the cultural historian, the real beauty of the Indian epics is that old material was not thrown away or edited out by revisionist priests or editors or censoring poets. All revelations seem to have been regarded as true, or at least worthy of preservation, and so the record preserved for us to read today is far more complete than in any other part of the world. This is truly remarkable and truly valuable for study, though it can be initially overwhelmingin scope, variety and mass. Here is multiculturalism at its best!
3. Web resources for Ramayana:
Laura Gibbs' Resources for Ramayana
Ramayana of Valmiki translated by Ralph H. Griffith
World Cultures, The Ramayana. Margery Freeman and Lorraine Aragon present the story for Learn NC with marvelous graphics.
Rama in the forest miniatures.
4. V. Madhusudan Reddy. Born in 1926, the late Dr. Reddy was Senior Professor and Chairman, Department of Philosophy, Osmania-University, Hyderabad (India), for more than 16 years. As post-graduate teacher he taught courses in Indian and Western philosophy for 30 years. He travelled widely as UNESCO Fellow, Fulbright Asian Professor, and Visiting Scholar (1961, 1969, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1988) and taught in the USA, UK, Canada, France, West Germany, Switzerland and Singapore. He participated in various national and international seminars and gave talks on ancient and modern Indian thought, with special focus on the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita and Sri Aurobindo. He was UGC Emeritus Fellow, Chairman, Institute of Human Study and Editor of New Race – a quarterly journal dedicated to the exposition of Sri Aurobindo’s Vision of the Future. He published more than 200 papers and authored 20 books.
6. Ramayana's role models: according to Damrosch, "the moral dimension of the poem has long had powerful effects on the behavior of real people in southern Asia. . . Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and the others have constantly been held up as models of behavior . . . To this day public performances of the Ramayana, regardless of the version, often revolve around moral questions: Why did Rama do this? Was Sita right to do that?" (Instructor's Manual to Accompany the Longman Anthology of World Literature, Second Edition, 76.)
What kind of culture is fostered by this poem? (recall how we defined culture in Lesson 1.) How is this culture adaptive? That is, what advantage would there be to persons who follow of the models of behavior in this story? Or is the advantage to society as a whole?
7. Puranas? Retellings of the Indian epic material and other history and psudohistory were gathered in about the sixth century (to save the knowledge of the past following the world disaster of the fifth century) in devotional collections known as the Puranas. Best known of these are the Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana. These expand on the stories of Rama, Krishna, and the other gods, heroes and sages of earlier South Asian literature.
8. Creative writing project: come up with a new episode of Ramayana.
Lennon rejected Maharishi but Harrison accepted him.
Left: Thai Emerald Temple scene of Laksmana, Rama and Sita in exile.
Relief sculpture of monkeys building the bridge to Lanka, Prambanan Temple, Java.
Left: the Mother,