I discovered Hinduism at a garage sale.
Stacked between tattered issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and Swamp Thing was a strange comic called The Adventures of the Gods. It was just an illustrated version of the Ramayana for children, but I hadn’t seen anything like it. I paid one dollar for 10 comics and was soon in Nerdvana.
My favorite stories of the Hindu gods were of Hanuman the Monkey God, the sidekick of the god Rama. They were the original Batman and Robin. While Rama was somewhat glum and blue, (he was a big blue-skinned god), Hanuman was always up for adventure and charged into action. Although many underestimated Hanuman, he rarely doubted himself and his fearless nature helped him overcome any obstacle in his path.
When Rama’s wife was abducted, Hanuman volunteered to lead the rescue mission. With a group of Rama’s followers, Hanuman set out to find her. But their journey lead them to a dead-end at the edge of the ocean. While Hanuman’s companions complained about their misfortune, Hanuman was undeterred. He summoned all his powers, crouched down and leapt across the ocean in a single bound.
As he traveled, Hanuman was met with challenges to his wit and courage before he finally reached Rama’s wife. But of course, it’s never that easy and Hanuman was captured. Much like James Bond, Hanuman waited, seemingly trapped, while his captors prepared to burn and kill him.
“Do you expect me to talk?” said Hanuman.
“No, Mr. Hanuman, I expect you to die!” said the villain, laughing. Then Hanuman’s tail was lit and he began to catch fire. Hanuman escaped and ran through the fortress of evil, causing mayhem and destruction while lighting things on fire with his still burning tail. He escaped unharmed, undoubtedly with a witty comment for his defeated foes.
Although loyal, Hanuman was a bit of a rebel, and when you’re an 11-year-old boy, you will look for any kind of rebellious role model, even a monkey god. I started to be drawn to people who seemed to embody that joyful confident spirit of Hanuman.
I recall one fabulous family vacation being trapped in our wood-paneled station wagon with no air conditioning or entertainment other than my comic books. We were driving through the neighboring city of Minneapolis. I was reading the Adventures of Hanuman when I glanced up and saw a man on a purple motorcycle next to us at the light. He wore white sequined bell-bottoms and 10-inch platform boots that barely touched the ground. The man looked at me, lowered his sunglasses and winked as he pointed a perfectly manicured finger as if transmitting some esoteric knowledge. The man roared off and turned up a hill to a giant purple mansion.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“I think that was Prince,” my mother grumbled. Although a rock star, it wasn’t uncommon to see Prince in his hometown of Minneapolis, but still an unwelcome sight to my conservative mother. The message was clear. People like that were not to be admired. So of course, I admired him.
After that, Prince became a symbol. (Literally, he changed his name to a symbol, which was unpronounceable and forced the media to refer to him as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.) But to me he was a symbol of something more: the self confident, courageous attitude of Hanuman. (If nothing else wearing ten-inch platform heels while riding a motorcycle is pretty courageous.)
As I grew up, I embraced my own inner Hanuman. I was drawn to extremes: rock climbing, para-gliding, mixed martial arts and snowboarding. I even had a rock band though I never braved wearing platform heels. I rarely had a moment of self-doubt and no obstacle was too daunting. I traveled the world, finished college, became an artist and writer.
And then something changed. It was subtle at first but it started with yoga, a new-age girlfriend and a group of Buddhist monks. The kind of people your mother warned you about. Over time the message I got was one of subjugation of desires, eliminating the ego and passivity. To my horror, I discovered that I had become That Guy. Yes, the sensitive ponytail guy.
Truthfully, those were very dark times. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was lucky to get out alive. Eventually I discovered there was nothing wrong with my path, just my perception. I found a Harley riding Zen master, who helped me get past my dualism and encouraged me to integrate all my inner gods and demons. I found an equally tough Anusara yoga studio, where the practice was about power and stability, not avoiding conflict but embracing and growing from it. I lost my sensitive ponytail and re-found my inner Hanuman.
As I grow older, it’s harder to channel that joyful determined spirit. Sometimes Hanuman feels like an old friend who calls you on a weeknight, and says, “Dude, Gods of Metal concert tonight and two-for-one Mai Tais at Burt’s Tiki lounge! Are you in?”
But you decline because you’re too old for that kind of thing and you know there’s no such thing as two-for-one Mai Tais. It’s always ten-for-five Mai Tais, and you don’t wake up until noon the next day. “No Hanuman,” you say. “But call me next time.” You know he will, because he’s loyal like that. But you also know he’ll have plenty of fun without you. No, you don’t always have to hang out with Hanuman but it’s nice to know that he’s there, urging you on when you need him.
It’s like that poem “Footprints in the Sand.”
One night I had a dream,
I was walking along the beach with Hanuman.
I looked back at the foot prints in the sand
and noticed that many times at the saddest parts of my life
there was only one set of footprints.
And I said, “Lord Hanuman, why would you leave me in those dark times?”
And Hanuman replied, “I didn’t leave you. During those times when you were filled with self-pity, it was then that I leapt on your back and jumped up and down, saying,’ Get over yourself! Giddy up!’”
Yes, it’s true, I have a monkey on my back. I am lucky. But we all have one. If you listen closely you can hear him gently yelling in your ear with an encouraging, “Get over yourself! Giddy Up!”
That is the spirit of Hanuman.