On Hanuman Jayanti this year, I had a brief conversation with a young man who was carrying a saffron flag with the feral image of Hanuman. The conversation took place at the Ram Mandir in Wadala, Mumbai. I had just visited the Hanuman mandir, which is across the road, and was enjoying a moment of early morning quiet. The young man with the flag was similarly quiet and prayerful.
A few minutes later, we were standing side by side outside the temple, re-claiming our footwear. “Where did you get that flag,” I asked the young man out of simple curiosity. He had a gentleness about him. He smiled sweetly as he answered that he couldn’t now remember where he got it. Smiling back at him I said, perhaps a bit wistfully, that when I was his age Hanumanji was always depicted as loving, gentle, kind, not fearsome.
“I prefer that Hanumanji also,” said the young man. Seeing my questioning look, he gazed at the feral image on the flag in his hand and said: “Now we need to feel strong so we need this image of Hanumanji. But I miss the old Hanumanji.”
We parted with what felt like a shared sense of affection for Pawansuta Hanuman as he is still to be found in the temple we were standing outside. This Hanuman embodies loving gentleness along with valour and strength harnessed in a determined quest for the divinity within. Meeting this young man, seeing his longing as much for gentleness as for strength left me wondering. What if this combination of aspirations is more commonplace than is apparent in the public discourse? Listening to him highlighted how easy it must be for any determined group to tap that young man’s longing for strength and convert it into aggression in public spaces. From there, to open hatred towards assorted “others” is then a tiny step.
Above all, that early morning conversation made me realise that it may be inappropriate to outright condemn all those who mobilise under that feral image of Hanuman. There is a danger that we might, in the process, fail to grasp the jumble of aspirations driving that person — however contradictory those aspirations may seem to be.
Of course, acts of aggression that harm or even threaten others must be stopped — both by the state’s law and order machinery and, where possible, by the community. Any compromise on this undermines firstly samaj, the very base of our collective existence, and then democracy which arises from this base. However, the criminal excesses of those who claim to be inspired by the feral image may be relatively less pervasive than the social energy that supports or makes excuses for those excesses. Can this social energy be viewed in a more subtle and nuanced manner?
It is now common for Indian society to be projected as being utterly polarised. On one side are those who will feel proud of and cheer that young man just because he carries that flag. On the other side are those who will reject and condemn him just because of the flag he is carrying. Yes, dramatic events in the public domain offer justification for this perception — but this one-dimensional view of polarisation is not quite accurate. Dramatic events, be it hate crimes or hate speech, are not the sum total of reality. And when our attention is limited to said events, we miss the opportunity to listen to those on the sidelines who are struggling with seemingly contradictory aspirations.
This is not a call to look for some golden truth in the middle of two polar extremes. This notion of a “middle” would mean we are still locked in the one-dimensional trap. Nor does it mean that we ignore the importance of electoral politics — even though elections tend to be a binary contest. The challenge lies in cultivating mental spaces which are somewhat free of preconceptions. Then we may have an opportunity to understand what is driving the need to feel strong and even foster spaces where non-aggressive forms of strength and capability can thrive. Only then can compassion and acceptance of the otherness of “others” become a strength rather than being feared as a weakness.
Like the rest of life, mythic images keep changing and being imbued with different meanings. Thus, a contest over which depiction of Hanuman is more “correct” may become just a distraction. What we need is a reaffirmation of the loving and fraternal aspects of devotion. Meeting that young man at the temple showed me these values may be closer to the surface than seems apparent and finding them depends on the tone in which a conversation is initiated.
The writer is the founder of the YouTube channel ‘Ahimsa Conversations’
This article was first published in The Indian Express and is being reproduced here with the author’s permission