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The Hanuman Chalisa is a prayer that many young Hindus will at least have heard of, if not be familiar with. Chances are that it may be sung in your own home or by somebody that you know. This article explains the background to the Hanuman Chalisa and provides an insight into the many layers of meaning – mystical, ethical and devotional – contained in the prayer, by focusing on the first two verses of this (43 verse) prayer.
The Hanuman Chalisa was written by the famous 16th century sage, Goswami Tulsidas. Tulsidas lived at a time when Sanskrit learning was on the decline in India, and he rewrote the ancient Ramayana in the common dialect of the people, once again making the story of Rama and Sita accessible to the people.
Out of all the personalities in the Ramayana, Hanuman occupies a crucial position. He is the embodiment of auspiciousness, courage, devotion, eloquence, physical prowess and victory. It was only through Him that Sita and Rama could be reunited. Sita represents the Earth, the field, Mother Nature, creativity, abundance. Rama is the spiritual potential, which has been lost from creation. Hanuman represents the forces and teachings that can reunite the creation and spirit. It is through the lessons that we find in His character that the realm of divinity can transpire itself in our society.
The Hanuman Chalisa was written by Goswami Tulsidas to be a beautiful prayer and song, yet also to contain in itself the entire message of the life and character of Hanuman.
A Brief Insight into the Meaning of Verse 1
Shree Guru Charan Saroj Raj, Nij Man Mukur Sudhaari, Barnau Raghuvar Bimal Jasu, Jo dayaku Phal Chaari
With the dust of the Guru’s lotus feet, I first clean the mirror of my heart and then I narrate the glory of Shree Raghuvar, the giver of the 4 fold attainments of life
“With the dust of the Guru’s lotus feet, I first clean the mirror of my heart”
The Guru is the one who takes us towards the Truth. The symbol of a lotus is used a lot in Hinduism. The reason for this is that it is a flower that grows in murky water, yet grows as a clean and beautiful flower, bringing beauty to the surroundings. Similarly, a real Guru, who can take us towards realisation of the Truth, is like a lotus, in that whatever the environment and circumstances they are in, the Guru will remain unaffected by any negativity, and will bring beauty and light to their surroundings.
The ‘dust of the Guru’s lotus feet’, stands for and symbolises the qualities that such a Guru has built his/her life upon – principles such as compassion, presence of mind, fearlessness and truthfulness. Hence, to clean our hearts with the dust of the Guru’s lotus feet means to clean out the accumulated junk and negativity within us (cleaning our hearts), by recognising and honouring the principles which great teachers have built their lives upon (the dust of the Guru’s lotus feet).
Raghuvar means a person descended from the lineage of Raghu (a forefather of Ram). Usually the title Raghuvar is used to refer to Ram. However, here it is apparently talking about Hanuman. In the Ramayana when Hanuman located Sita in Lanka, she was filled with emotion and called him son. Rama also called Hanuman son, in emotional times, like when Hanuman saved Laxman’s life after Laxman fell unconscious in battle. Referring to Hanuman as Raghuvar is to describe the extent to which Rama and Sita held him as dear. It shows that a person who always keeps their minds focused on God and expends all their energy in God’s service is extremely dear to God.
“the giver of the four fold-attainments of life”
All goals in life can be put under 4 broad categories: Arth (livelihood and wealth); Kama (pleasure and enjoyment); Dharma (duties, good conduct, religion); Moksha (liberation). The reason why Hanuman is the giver of all four of these is because He is the embodiment of devotion and determination. These are essential keys to achieving any goal in any of these spheres. We can achieve great things in any sphere of life provided that the goal is approached with strong devotion and determination.
A Brief Insight into the Meaning of Verse 2
Buddhi heen Tannu Jaanike, Sumirow Pavan Kumar, Bal Buddi Vidya Dehu Mohi, Harahu Kalesh Bikaar
Knowing myself to be ignorant, I remember you, the Son of Pavan. O Lord! Bestow on me strength, wisdom and knowledge, and take away my miseries and vicious qualities
Prayer is a simple form of yoga. Not in the sense of physical yoga, which itself is only a part of yoga, called “Hatha Yoga.” In the West, this physical yoga is considered as the sole meaning of yoga, which is unfortunate because it often prevents people from grasping the true scope of the tradition that they practice. Of course, so far Hindus have been too lazy in promoting yoga as a larger and integrated tradition (hopefully this will soon change). Properly understood, yoga refers to a far greater range of spiritual practices that are designed to take us towards unity with the Divine.
The message of the second verse is how to offer a prayer successfully. Why do we pray? It is usually because we recognise a higher power than ourselves at work around us and wish to acknowledge that force, and align ourselves with it. Just like a single computer, no matter how powerful it is, has a limited capacity to store information, but when it is connected to the internet suddenly a new world has opened up to it, far beyond what we would have thought possible – in the same way, a mind, if aligned with the Divine, has an entire new capability, power and vision opened up to it.
The first and foremost point of this verse is contained in the first phrase: “KNOWING MYSELF TO BE IGNORANT.” This says that a person must keep an attitude or state of mind which feels that “I know very little, I have so much more to learn.” If this state of mind is maintained, then a person will keep on growing and unfolding, whereas if a person keeps an “I know it all” attitude, it will be hard to learn or experience anything worthwhile. However much one knows, keeping an attitude of humility will always allow the mind to remain receptive to new knowledge, thus allowing it to develop further.
The point is made stronger by the actual choice of words that Tulsidas uses to express this – “Buddhi heen tannu janike.” “Tannu” means “myself.” But there are several ways to say myself, and he chooses quite an unusual word.
“Tan”- in Hindi related dialects, is a word referring to the body. The significance of using “tannu” in the phrase “Knowing myself to be ignorant” affirms that the source of the ignorance is our identification with the physical body – our material self. “I still identify myself with my physical body (tan), which is always changing. I know there is an inner self beyond that, but in ignorance, I can’t see it, but by your grace, please change that.” It is an acknowledgement that my true self is not the physical body, yet I am still identifying with it as I go about my life.
Filling our mind with the divine, speaking the qualities and greatness of divinity, asking for things that can make us dynamic, are the other points contained in this verse, about making an effective prayer.
The prayers within Hinduism are written in a mystical form and contain various layers of meanings and symbolism. The importance in knowing the meanings behind a prayer we say regularly is to do with the subconscious mind. When we know the meanings, they become stored in our memories. When we say the verses, even though we are not consciously remembering all of the meanings, the subconscious mind is reinforcing these messages into our character. It is in the same way that we pick up so much from our surroundings, without consciously trying to, which is also a subconscious process. The action of the subconscious mind while praying and meditating is explained in depth in various scriptures, particularly the Patanjali’s Yogasutras. Saying a prayer hence becomes a stream of clear water purifying our consciousness.
Related article: Is Hanuman alive?