Hanuman, the Ninth Author of Grammar

In Octavio Paz’s book The Monkey Grammarian, Hanuman, as Jason Wilson has argued, is seen as “a metaphor of pensée, the total flow of the activity of the unconscious, without control or regulations.”

The book cover of The Monkey Grammarian and a file photo of Octavio Paz. Credit: Photobucket and Wikimedia Commons

The book cover of The Monkey Grammarian and a file photo of Octavio Paz. Credit: Photobucket and Wikimedia Commons

The nation is celebrating Hanuman Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the legendary monkey-with-divine-powers. Such a commemoration is bound to be under strict religious norms, with some added patriotic spirit as well, the figure of Hanuman being eulogised as the great disciple and comrade of Ram.

However, there are other interesting ways of looking at Hanuman’s importance. I remember a long introduction by Mehdi Hasan before he started his programme in a London concert, where I first heard of the ‘Hanuman mat’, as one of the four ‘mats’ (or systems) in Hindustani classical music, used mainly in Dhrupad. It is the prominent system used in the singing of the Gurubani. In the Narada Purana, Hanuman is described as a master of vocal music, combining the embodiments of Shiva and Vishnu. It is interesting, in the context of Hanuman ‘mat’ as predominantly sung in the Dhrupad style, that we get the earliest mention of Dhrupad as a musical genre in Abu Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari (1593), known to have been sung in the court of Man Singh Tomar. The story goes that Dhrupad as a genre found a new lease of life in Mughal court singing.

There is also another fascinating aspect regarding Hanuman – in an unusual book, The Monkey Grammarian, late Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz writes about Hanuman in the capacity of his being the ninth grammarian in Hindu mythology. In this book, Hanuman, as Jason Wilson has argued, is seen as “a metaphor of pensée, the total flow of the activity of the unconscious, without control or regulations.”

Paz invents, Wilson adds, a hieroglyphic universe around the figure of Hanuman. And he also reinvents the ruins of Galta in the book, by following Hanuman. Paz perhaps sees himself as another Hanuman, aping the ape, who apes in turn the act of being a pilgrim and translator of Hindu culture. Paz had undertaken a real journey to Galta, and superimposes that journey with Hanuman’s, whose devices reveal his expertise in, to use a neologism, grammatising the world. What does it mean to grammatise the world? Here is a fascinating quote from the book to begin with:

“(T)he difference between human writing and divine consists in the fact that the number of signs of the former is limited whereas that of the latter is infinite; hence the universe is a meaningless text, one which even the gods find illegible. The critique of the universe is called grammar….”

So unlike French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘grammatology’, or the origin of grammar, of logos, of reason and knowledge as a source of power, the corresponding structures of grammar as rules laid out for language (and us) to follow, Paz gives us the other side of the origin of grammar, as a universe invented by human beings to understand, perhaps, the semiotic (and by extension, epistemological) limits of divinity and of the universe. It is by the limitations in the number of signs we invent and reproduce that we, human beings, are able to create a legible universe. That makes us unlike the gods, who by their infinite capacity to invent signs have moved into the realm of the absurd, of meaninglessness. To be able to possess meaning, to have a world that is meaningful, is then to have a limited universe of signs. Our limitations, unlike that of the gods, have alone allowed us to create a meaningful world. If we stretch the logic we may say, whenever faced by the difficulty or temptation to go beyond the limited signs at our disposal to understand our world, we leap into the universe of the absurd, the divine realm where things are meaningless. Such an understanding of the world then, whether by a Samuel Beckett or a Jean Paul Sartre, seems closer to this idea that Hanuman, and after him, Paz, seems to forward.

But of course there is a crucial difference without which even the slightest of comparisons itself may sound absurd. In Beckett’s idea of the absurd or Sartre’s despairing contention of life being absurd there is a fundamental tragic element. By parodying or dismissing the excesses of realism, showing how human beings are caught in hopeless and bizarre situations where language is reduced to a loss of meaning or of grammar, Beckett takes our attention to the plight of human life under modernity, where new political structures, the often obscuring demands of scientific ‘progress’ and social upheavals, converge.

In the case of Sartre, there is no “ultimate meaning” in life, and hence life is absurd. It is interesting that Sartre holds it is our passion to lose ourselves that throws us headlong into inventing, contradictorily, a god who we cannot become. Sartre’s disappointment with the human race is that it is willing to give up its freedom by inventing god. But even the idea of freedom is ridden with choices which have no meaning for Sartre, except that we are free to choose. It is instructive that the man who was most interested in the idea of human freedom also realised the anguish of our inability to ward off the structures under which we can imagine freedom. If we cannot have freedom beyond the structure (of power) around us, all we are left with is anguish and a chimera of freedom which itself is absurd and meaningless for Sartre. Such was Antoine Roquentin’s life. The other extreme as envisaged by Beckett’s characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who in their waiting for Godot realise the absurdity of their (condition of) waiting.

But from the point of the monkey grammarian, to fall out of meaning into the world of divine or unlimited freedom is precisely the birth of absurdity. Whereas, we may argue, it is in the limited world of our choices, that we hold a semblance of meanings, our little freedoms that we cherish and without which life would be intolerable. And that brings us back to the question of language. Through Hanuman, Paz tries to draw the meaning of life, that is neither real nor writing, but a journey of promise. Paz writes in this strangely devised, poetic story on Hanuman, “Galta is not here: it is awaiting me at the end of this phrase. It is awaiting me in order to disappear.” The place of Galta, a signifier of both travel and destination is a promise that evaporates even as one thinks it. In its whirling vortex, the idea of Galta gives space to imagination, to language, and the possibility of language. In being a possibility, something that vanishes the moment you think, language is also a trickster, a trickster as sharp as Hanuman, who used his burning tail to burn up a whole city. Language, the trickster, can also commit violence, in the name of a game plan not yet discovered. Paz writes, “Stop trying to plan everything in advance. Just get off your butt, get moving, and make it up as you go along.” The road to Galta, Paz discovers in the book, are also ridden with violence. Children throw stones at monkeys in Galta. In the ruins of a place where Hanuman is worshipped, the mirror of correspondence, that world of signs that invents human language, is insurrected by unruly children facing unruly monkeys, a double-reversal of provocations where people ape their ancestors and the ancestors ape their progenitor.

In a striking beginning, where Paz, trying to imagine Hanuman the grammarian tracing his way into Galta, brings together the question of language, journey-as-promise, choice and place together, he writes: “The best thing to do will be to choose the path to Galta, traverse it again (invent it as I traverse it), and without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, go to the end— without being concerned about what “going to the end” means….” It reads like a journey undertaken to reach an end without thinking of reaching it, thus avoiding the end of the journeying forever. Is this how Hanuman, and with him Paz, invite us to undertake all our journeys — into language, love, place and ruins of origins? A place where children throw stones at monkeys? Isn’t then the origin, the place of an originary violence that we have not allowed our language and our actions to be freed from? What shall we need to do before we start being proud of those origins, and reclaim it as our own? Before, so to say, we stop aping our own violence, falsely naming our inabilities in the name of apes?