This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
Many faiths say that God made man in his image. Conversely one may say that if you want to see God with a form He would have a human form– a person or purusha. Many puranas depict God in the form of a human being, as parama-purusha (Super-man) even as the upanishads talk of the ultimate reality as formless, yet He is depicted as having different forms. Subsequently the agamas gave various human forms to God so that devotees can worship with concrete form rather than try to image and meditate based on the way God is described in the puranas. The puranas by depicting God as a super human being with very charming stories about Him, were able to depict God as a person so that many devotees would be able to relate to the Lord more easily. Those charming stories all attempt to bring out the auspicious qualities of the Lord as a just, compassionate, guide, a peer–the puranic god one can empathize with. They help bring God from heaven to one’s own home. It is easy to consider many of these –like Krishna, Rama, Siva—as a friend, philosopher, guide. The same Krishna who played pranks with Gopikas and his mother Yasodhara became a Guru to his friend Arjuna and gave very sane advice which is considered to be universally and eternally valid.
But God created other beings from the lovely polar bear to the annoying Madras mosquito. When I was young I used to spend some good time with my father’s friend Harihara Iyer. Though he had no formal training in Indian philosophy, he had such a grasp of several aspects of the tradition he could breathe a lot of life into ordinary sayings of the scriptures and smritis. He would say something on these lines: ‘God created the entire universe with thousands of species. If human beings think of God having a human form what about other beings say a buffalo. If a Buffalo were to know God how will it visualize Him, as a buffalo a super buffalo.’
Since the Lord created so many beings why not God have the forms of different species. Some upanishads refer to the formless Lord manifesting in different forms. Many Puranas have depicted God in different forms. Take the case of the most beloved of them all, Ganesa.
Ganesa, plump and with that elephant head is the chosen deity (ishta devata) of millions of people. Ganesa has endeared himself with some lovely stories and episodes that can be found in puranas. He is said to represent the Prithvi tatva or the earth principle. There is an interesting story about how he got an elephant head. There are also further charming stories about how he outwitted the more mobile brother Shanmukha by resorting to a simple procedure as paying respects to the parents by circumambulation. Equally fascinating is the story about how he wrote down the whole Mahabharata as dictated by sage Vyasa, the episode giving details about how each one kept the other in check by certain preconditions. All these stories, the several beautiful forms of Ganesa dancing, eating a sweet (modaka) have endeared Him to millions. Small shrines for Ganesa in almost all the temples in India make Him always available to communicate with. People participate in Ganesa festivals with great enthusiasm, love and reverence. All these attempts make God accessible rather than viewing Him as a distant entity.
Hanuman or Anjaneya with the famous head of a monkey is another popular deity who again finds huge following. He is the chosen deity for many yogis who give considerable importance to yamaniyamas especially Brahmacharya. Yogis have designed a few asanas after him like Haanumanasana, Anjaneyasana with a few artistic vinyasas or variations. Hanuman could mean one with a prominent jaw. Hanuman was considered the son of the deity Vayu and Anjana. He is therefore known as Vayusuta and Anjaneya. One reason why Anjaneya is worshiped is to remove the obstacles and sorrows one experiences inevitably in life due to afflictions of the planet Sani or Saturn. There are several stories as to how Sani affects everyone directly for more than 40% of one’s life and indirectly also. Orthodox people dread the arrival of the sani afflicted period like when it occupies the 12th, 1st, 2nd, 4th,and 8th houses in one’s horoscope or birth chart. There is no one who can escape the afflictions of Sani it is believed. Even Lord Siva is said to have suffered at the hands of Sani albeit for a short period of time (muhurta). There are very few temples for Sanaischara or the slow moving Saturn. So what can one do? Worship Hanuman instead. How does worshiping Hanuman help prevent Saturn’s afflictions?
In the Ramayana, Lord Rama takes his army mainly made up of monkeys to Kishkinda of Sugriva. To cross the Indian Ocean to reach Lankapuri of the demon Ravana, all were busy getting building materials and constructing the bridge. Anjaneya the strongest of all was carrying huge boulders for the work. But it was time for Sani to afflict Anjaneya, Sani does not bother to wait. So he approached the busy Anjaneya and told him that it was time for the Sani period for Anjaneya. Anjaneya asked him what will happen if you afflict me? You will lose everything including your home, be separated from your family. Anjaneya said, “No Problem” I have no family, I have no possessions, and my home is my Lord Rama’s feet. Then Sani said, “Ok, I will affect one part of your body and after the stipulated period, I will leave. Can I get into your knee so that you will suffer from arthritis”. Anjaneya said: ‘Not now as I have to work to complete the construction of the bridge across the ocean.’ Ultimately Anjaneya let Sani get into his head as he did not want to think much while doing the basically hard manual labor. Sani got into the monkey head. Sani to his dismay started feeling huge pressure as Anjaneya was busy carrying mountain sized rocks and sometimes smashing the rocks on his head to break them to smaller pieces for the construction work. Instead of bothering Anjaneya, Sani started feeling the same misfortune others experience when he afflicts them. With the pain unbearable, Sani cried out to Hanuman and wanted to get out of his head. Anjaneya agreed but on one condition. The condition was that Sani should not afflict any of Anjaneya’s devotees. Sani agreed immediately, he was such pain that he would agree to any condition at that time. We know now why Hanuman has so many devotees. Hanuman Chaleesa is a very popular prayer chanted by hundreds of Anjaneya devotees. Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana contains the grand episode of Hanuman leaping over the Indian Ocean to Lanka in search of Rama’s wife Sita. This portion is called Sundara Kanda, chanting of which is said to remove all obstacles and recovery from absolutely hopeless situations. It has about 2800+ slokas or verses and it takes close to 10 hour to chant it. I have chanted this section and was recorded by my recording company Sangeetha which is still available in India in a twin volume package.
The idols of these gods are worshiped in temples and in homes as well. Some philosophers of the upanishadic school worry that such form worship may prevent the worshiper from understanding the ultimate reality, the formless Brahman. But then these stories and icons help the devotees to remain more easily focused on the chosen deity and the Supreme. And the personal deity (ishta devata) has the powers to confer all the wishes. If the devotee wants kaivalya or jivan mukti the chosen deity will give it gladly. In fact a mantra found in Lalita ashtottara praises the Goddess as the one that gives svarga or heaven and/or apavarga, complete freedom/involution
Svarga apavargadayai namah
(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami. www.vinyasakrama.com