Many of us have heard the term the “monkey mind” – the mind that hops from one thing to another, never at peace, wanting, worried, curious, with all kinds of random thoughts racing around in our head allowing us no peace. Hanuman, the divine Indian monkey-man famous for his many heroic deeds, was and is living proof that the monkey-mind can not only be tamed but can be channeled to surrender to and serve the heart. And when the mind’s energy is harnessed to serve the heart there is no stopping the good it can do.
Our modern culture has turned nurturing and feeding that monkey into big business. Our TV, media, Internet, video games, perennially advertising culture with its ever more rapidly changing sound-bytes has come to perfectly reflect our monkey minds.
Once a year, during the first full moon of spring, considered to be the time of Hanuman’s birth, there is a practice conducted in Los Angeles designed to honor Hanuman where we can experience that transformation in ourselves.
A palpable aura of peace pervades the Vedanta Temple tucked into the foot of the Hollywood Hills. Since it was built in the 1930s, this little white Indian temple has been cherished as a place to meditate on the divine and silently repeat mantras; a place where many a monkey mind has been quieted.
On one day in the spring, the Ramakrishna order of monastics who established this island of serenity allows an all-day practice of sacred sound to fill their pristine place of silence.
The sound is a forty-verse ancient Indian prayer chanted to Hanuman called the Hanuman Chalisa. In this ritual it is repeated 108 times.
There are thousands of melodies and methods of singing or chanting this prayer that is a daily mantra to millions of Indians and increasing numbers of Westerners. Many varieties of Hanuman Chalisas are sung during this practice to honor the birth of Hanuman; some are simply chanted to the ringing of the little Indian hand bells. Besides the harmonium, some people bring in accordion, guitar, or tampura (or tamboura) to accompany their offerings. All ways are welcome.
This yearly practice of chanting 108 Hanuman Chalisas at the Vedanta temple begins at that ultimately quiet hour of 4:00 A.M., the time that is considered by many spiritual traditions to be a portal or transition time, when the veil between the world of spirit and form is thinnest. The few who come at that auspicious hour steep in the mystical quality of the atmosphere charged with decades of meditation and spiritual focus.
A spotlight in the dark temple reveals an image of Hanuman standing in a flower and fruit be-decked altar humbly greeting his visitors, his eyes full of compassionate love and wisdom.
The first Hanuman Chalisas are sung quietly, without drums, gently greeting Hanuman and the living presence of silence. Hanuman fought a great battle and performed many dangerous feats, many of which are depicted in the epic tale The Ramayana. In the midst of all of it, the twentieth-century Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba said that Hanuman was always at peace. These early hours are an excellent opportunity to experience that place of Hanuman’s peace and powerful devotion in ourselves, to immerse ourselves in it.
Since the Ramakrishna monastics honor the Indian tradition of morning worship, the chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa stops for their daily morning meditation. After singing for two-and-a-half hours, the silence now resonates with Hanuman’s insights for us to dwell upon in our meditative practice. After an hour, the singing begins again, renewed by our meditation, the bright morning light – and Hanuman’s treats and chai. We sing louder and stronger as we face the task we’ve committed ourselves to with renewed vigor, remembering and calling upon the power of Hanuman’s focused energy.
Hanuman is a perfect example for us in these challenging times when the abuse of humanity’s vast wealth and intelligence threatens to destroy life as we know it. His being is so completely and tirelessly infused with the eternal practice of loving service. The fact that Hanuman is a monkey-like being adds to his relevance for us now. He’s proof that we’ve always known what’s most important about existence: love.
Hanuman lives in all of us as a representative of that fundamental knowing, recognition of true love. As William Buck wrote, “Hanuman can spot a tyrant, he looks at deeds, not words . . . Disguises and words of talk cannot confuse a mere wild animal.”
The phrase, “Words of talk” lucidly expresses such an essential aspect of Hanuman. He loves sound, especially singing – when it is related to true love. Without true love, the experience is empty, as shown in the story of when Sita, the wife of Rama, the form of the divine Hanuman eternally serves, gave the monkey one of her own precious pearl necklaces and he started cracking the gems open one by one and tossing them away like empty peanut shells. His explanation was, “If Rama’s name is not in them, what good are they?” Hanuman also has no use for words that do not contain love.
As the sun rises higher in the sky and we repeat the Hanuman Chalisa, we feel the sentiment in every verse that shows how Hanuman serves love and truth in himself as well as in others; we see his innocence and his untiring commitment to service. And as we continue to sing we increasingly feel Hanuman’s focused state of mind living in us through our action, this practice.
In his book Flow of Grace, Chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, Krishna Das writes, “In the [Hanuman] Chalisa we bow to the great beauty, strength, and devotion that Hanuman embodies; we also begin to bow to that place in ourselves. The Chalisa inspires us to try to become like him.” Chanting 108 Hanuman Chalisas in a day is a sublime crash course in finding and experiencing “that place in ourselves.”
The final morning repetition of the Chalisa occurs when one of Ramakrishna’s pravrajika’s performs the noon worship in the temple. Again there is an opportunity to experience the stillness that always surrounds the sound, the stillness from which all sound comes. And we can gratefully bask in it . . . until it is time to begin again – as always happens in life.
We can only rest for so long, then we must find the strength to go on, no matter the reason we stopped, whether for good or ill, joy or sorrow.
In the first chapter of her beautiful and insightful book, Hanuman, The Devotion and Power of the Monkey God, Vanamali writes of the importance of remembering that Hanuman demonstrated how a mere monkey “rose to the stature of a god through sheer strength of character and one-pointed devotion.”
As the day of this practice wears on into the afternoon we experience in ourselves that “sheer strength of character” of Hanuman. Fortunately the Hanuman Chalisa, being such a powerful prayer, feeds us energy as we give ourselves to it. In the more intense and quickened melodies we can feel Hanuman running back to Lakshman with the life-restoring herbs, we can feel him burning down Lanka, the land of ego in us too.
And finally as we finish, what joy to see that, yes, we can, by Hanuman’s grace accomplish huge tasks when we are serving and honoring love. As with all things in life surely it is no accident that Hanuman’s birthday is honored on the first full moon of spring. Spring is the time of new life beginning.
By steeping in this powerful practice we are reminded how we want to live our new lives: with one-pointed focus on shaping all our words and actions into loving service.