Is the Hindu monkey god Hanuman really Homo erectus?
- A new book by an Indian scholar contends that the monkey god Hanuman belonged to an extinct human species
- The author’s examination of the Hindu epic Ramayana found that Hanuman and his companions inhabited ‘a distinctive’ human culture
From elephant-faced to lion-headed to horse-necked, the Hindu pantheon is brimming with a variety of gods fulfilling the spiritual needs of millions of believers. Yet no deity is more popular in India, perhaps, than the ape-faced Hanuman, the country’s ever-present monkey god.
But the perception that Hanuman is indeed a monkey could now radically change, with a novel theory in a newly published book suggesting that Hanuman and other “Vanaras” – Hanuman’s other monkey-like companions – of the Indian epic Ramayana could belong to the extinct human species Homo erectus or perhaps even the “Hobbit” species Homo Floresiensis, rather than being merely monkey.
The Ramayana was originally penned by Valmiki in Sanskrit, and there have been several adaptations and retellings in all the Indian regional languages. It is the tale of Lord Rama, an ancient king Hindus believe to be an ideal human, and how he rescues his abducted wife with the help of an army of forest-dwelling “Vanaras”.
In the vast body of Hindu literature filled with creative myths and moral fables, the Ramayana is widely accepted as a historical occurrence, though some specifics are disputed.
“If one reads the original Ramayana without the influence of succeeding vernacular versions, which emerged at least several centuries after Valmiki, Vanaras like Hanuman are referred to as a distinct species altogether,” said the author of the new book, Dr Rangan Ramakrishnan, a scholar of the Ramayana and literary historian. “Like other human species, they speak fluently and they inhabit a distinctive culture.”
Ramakrishnan runs the organisation Web of Life Makers (WEBOLIM), which is involved in various Ramayana-related activities and has now published the book titled ‘The Ramayana of Valmiki’.
Ramakrishnan researched dozens of retellings and remakes of Ramayana as part of his five-year-long project to release his book. The compendium, which runs to 10 volumes, is a comprehensive study on all Ramayana-related stories available in India mapping their advancements.
“Vanaras in Valmiki’s work have tails and ape-resembling faces. So, they’re taken as mere monkeys in later scriptures, but that needn’t be the case,” said Ramakrishnan. “As new fossil findings regarding various Hominids emerge, it’s certainly pertinent to see them in the prism of a class of human species.”
Ramakrishnan emphasised that the Ramayana could prove to be of invaluable literary assistance in discerning the behavioural patterns of rectus and other human species given that the field of palaeontology is rapidly evolving.
Homo erectus – which scientists believe came into being about 2 million years ago and is among the first human species to walk fully upright – is widely thought to be the most successful hominid before the emergence of homo sapiens. They are also the first hominid species whose geographical range spans multiple continents.
More than 100 hominid fossils have been discovered on Indonesian islands alone, and recent dating findings have confirmed that Homo erectus lived until about 100,000 years ago – meaning they most likely lived alongside modern humans before they went extinct, although there is some debate over this point.
Some research studies suggest H. Erectus could have survived as recent as 50,000 years ago and there is still debate whether we, modern humans, coexisted with other human species.
When the remains of the diminutive human species Homo floresiensis were first discovered in 2003, it caused a sensation in the sphere of evolutionary biology as it exhumed yet another fresh hominid from the ancient past. Though the Homo floresiensis fossils were first reported to have been from about 12,000 years ago, it was later corrected by researchers to about 60,000 years.
However, with successive discoveries and studies from the scientific world throwing fresh light on past human species, particularly on Homo erectus, revised timeline assessments are published from time to time. Several questions such as the cause of their extinction and their area of emergence remain unanswered.
“Ramayana is perhaps the only literature to speak about a variety of human species offering to fill an important gap in human ancestry and evolution through literary support,” said Ramakrishnan. “Interestingly, the protagonist Lord Rama corresponds to the sapiens, other ‘Vanaras’ loosely match Homo erectus, while the villain Ravana and his ‘Rakshasas’ clan are mostly consistent with the description of Homo Neanderthals.
“Are these striking similarities mere coincidence? Or shouldn’t we take it more seriously?
POINT OF CONTENTION
However, not everyone is impressed with the comparisons drawn from the Ramayana. American palaeoanthropologist Russell Ciochon pointed out there are noticeable dissimilarities between Vanaras and Homo erectus that are not so easily explained.
“There is some evidence that Homo erectus may have had protolanguage, but the species would not be as well-spoken as Hanuman,” said Ciochon, a professor at the University of Iowa, who led a team of researchers in a groundbreaking study in Indonesia last year which found that Homo erectus had survived for just over 100,000 years.
“Homo erectus did not have a tail or the distinctive cheek pouches that Hanuman is often illustrated with.”
Ciochon’s study strengthened the hypothesis that modern humans and Homo erectus could have lived alongside one another.
When questioned about Ciochon’s findings, Ramakrishnan said the field of fossil studies and the evolutionary path of modern humans are still at a nascent stage, with many unexplored possibilities of their trajectory. “But what is certain is that the Ramayana story of Valmiki deals with a variety of human species along with Homo sapiens,” he said, leaving open the possibility that Hanuman was indeed human.
Ramakrishnan’s new book also unearths the fresh discovery that the notion of human race superiority – that humans are ascendant over all others in the animal kingdom – is nonexistent in Ramayana.
“In a massive epic of more than 20,000 verses, there’s not even a single context in which a particular species is degraded or mentioned as inferior to humans,” he said. “It’s quite common in any story for a character to scold another as ‘pig’ or ‘dog’ or ‘donkey’. But this idea is absent in Ramayana.”
Building on that, he said: “There should be a point of time in the natural selection process where the sapiens never felt superior to subjugate other species. The Ramayana-story of Valmiki likely belongs to that age.”
“If the society of Ramayana did not consider animals inferior to humans, then why ask of discrimination among humans? The age of Ramayana did not consider one particular class or caste of sapiens as inferior to few others – a remarkable societal characteristic which is hard to find in any voluminous literature in the world,” said Ramakrishnan, adding that these attributes help map the distant past as he explained the antiquity of the Ramayana placing the epic within the realms of the existence of H. Erectus and Hanuman.