About Forty Verses of a Song (and a few extra verses for good measure) in a Language I Don’t Really Know that Mysteriously Opened a Doorway to the Divine Heart
My mentor, Ron Roth, once told a story of St. Francis of Assisi.
A spiritual aspirant had come to St. Francis on some matter, and the saint recommended that they both stay up all night praying the Our Father—the Lord’s Prayer.
In the morning, the young aspirant enthusiastically reported the many hundreds of repetitions of the Our Father prayer that he had made, and enquired as to how many repetitions Francis himself had completed.
The saint replied: “Oh, I got to the first phrase, ‘Our Father…’ and entered such bliss that I never got further the entire night.” (paraphrase.)
To put that in an eastern lexicon, at the mere thought Our Father, St. Francis—a realized soul—slipped into a deep samadhi: an ecstatic state of divine communion.
I often think of that story when I hear the opening lines of the Hanuman Chalisa, because, while I don’t exactly slip into samadhi, the very sound of the words and meaning of the introductory verses melts something inside.
It seems that many of my spiritual awakenings have come this way: from seeds planted as experiences that lie dormant and push through to conscious awareness at another time. Books and music I pick up and don’t open for years stay almost forgotten until somehow, some nudge makes me take it off the shelf. The time finally right, the contents seem to explode through my consciousness, illuminating and changing everything in its wake.
Such was the case with my encounter with the prayer-in-chant/song known as the Hanuman Chalisa, or Forty Verses in Praise of Lord Hanuman.
These verses were composed by the Indian saint Tulsidas, an enlightened poet of the 1500’s-1600’s. His prolific devotional writings recast the mystic heart of the thousands-of-years-old story of the Ramayana into a fountain from which millions still drink on a daily basis. Those millions include me.
Because Tulsidasji—the suffix “ji” is used as a term of devotional respect—made the controversial decision to recreate Sage Valmiki’s ancient Sanskrit scripture into the vernacular—the Awadhi dialect of Hindi—it is the Tulsidas Ramayana, Ramcharitmanas, with which so many are familiar today. His was a spiritual choice in its day as radical as the one made by the post-Vatican II Catholic church that ordered the change of the Mass from Latin into the language of the people.
Tulsidasji was considered by many in his own time and ever after to be the reincarnation of Sage Valmiki himself, returned in a new era to make the lessons of Ramayana available to those shut out by the scholarly Sanskrit. His poetry was saturated with the bhakti (devotion) informed by his mystic’s divine vision, and everything he touched transmitted that sense.
An early Chalisa seed was planted in me when I attended a devotional chant weekend at Ananda Ashram in upstate New York; a place that specializes in the study of Sanskrit. They were hosting a swamini (female monk) whose name I no longer recall, but who had been recommended by Krishna Das.
To tell the truth, that particular evening I was not all that enthused with the swamini’s music. I did appreciate her utter devotion and total commitment and went to thank her at the end of the kirtan. After exchanging a few pleasantries she asked me: “Do you know the Hanuman Chalisa?”
“No,” I answered.
The swamini looked off into some private distance with a semi-rapturous expression, and said knowingly: “Oh, you should learn the Chalisa!” Her voice was suffused with a sort of underlying earnest “I-know something-you-don’t-know-but-you-should” tone that matched the look on her face.
My Inner Spiritual Midget instantly reared its head and decided that it found her rapt expression vaguely annoying, since it seemed to indicate that she was part of some secret spiritual club to which I didn’t belong. Harrumph.
No doubt, however, it was that very comment and the memory of her “annoying” expression that some time later nudged me to pick up this then-recently published volume by Krishna Das. His new, small book was entirely devoted to the Hanuman Chalisa, and came with two CDs.
By that time I knew more than a little of Hanuman, including that devotees of Neem Karoli Baba, (Krishna Das’s guru and likely hers as well), had a particular connection with Hanumanji and with that prayer.
I was also aware that the Hanuman Chalisa is very long. It seemed highly unlikely that I would ever truly learn the Chalisa, as the swamini’s knowing look had advised me, but I was very interested to read more about it, especially from Krishna Das.
Yet, as is my way, I didn’t read the book then, and a few more years went by before my ever-growing fascination with old tv versions of the Ramayana finally made me take out the CDs that came with the book and started to play the one that has six different musical settings of the Chalisa.
It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that since the day I slipped the CD into my car’s player, it has been pretty much, as they used to say on the radio, “all-Chalisa, all-the-time.”
In the course of many years in the Sathya Sai Baba Centers, reading translations of hundreds of bhajans, and poring over Sanskrit-English word glossaries in the back of sacred texts, I had accumulated the knowledge of a few hundred words in Sanskrit, Hindi and Telegu. I could pick out a words here and there.
Still, it was an oceanic leap from there to understanding or memorizing the long Hindi poem and absorbing the meaning of the prayer—a leap that seemed almost as big as the one Hanumanji took from the rock on the shores of the Indian ocean across the sea to the kingdom of Lanka. In fact, it was a long time before I picked up the book and read the meaning of the lines to which I had listened over and over and over.
Sri Guru charana saroja raja, niju manu mukuru sudhari
Baranaun Raghubara bimala jasu, jo daayaku phala chaari
Buddhi heena tanu jaanike, sumiraun Pavana Kumara
Bala buddhi vidya dehu mohin, harahu klesa bikaara…
Having polished the mirror of my heart with the dust of my Guru’s lotus feet
I sing the pure fame of the best of Raghus, which bestows the four fruits of life.
I know that this body of mine has no intelligence, so I recall you, Son of the Wind
Grant me strength, wit and wisdom and remove my sorrows and shortcomings.*
(*Gratitude to Krishna Das for this translation of the Hanuman Chalisa from his site.)
Hanumanji is all-powerful, resourceful, “gyana guna sagar“— the ocean of divine knowledge, who according to his legend, was taught all the branches of wisdom by Surya, the Sun God himself. Surya also represents the illumined intellect, which is the tool of conscience and consciousness granted to humanity.
When Indian scriptures use the word “intellect”, they are not referring to the stuff-the-sausage-full-of-factoids-and-trivia-and-high-SAT-scores that we associate with intellect in the West. Intellect, or “buddhi” means that which can discriminate between the Reality of the Divine—the only lasting force in the Universe—and the illusory pull of shiny objects of creation, or as the psalmist wrote in the Bible: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
No obstacle is too much for Hanuman, who, powered by the sacred Name of Ram, takes the stance that nothing is impossible even in the face of certain defeat, innumerable obstacles and the most threatening, desperate circumstances.
The tales of Hanumanji’s exploits in the Ramayana are powerful and laden with many layers of meaning. He is considered to be an amsa, or incarnation of Lord Shiva himself, who came to help Ram achieve his mission. Yet, due to a curse placed on him by a sage to curtail his childhood monkey-antics, he forgets his power until reminded of it, in a time of great need. Hanuman never lays claim to either his greatness or power. His own life is lived only to serve Sri Ram (Lord Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, preserver of the worlds). Devotion is Hanuman’s food and his breath; he is the ultimate symbol of bhakti—devotion to the Lord, and it is that bhakti that fuels all his great victories.
It is said that when we sing the Hanuman Chalisa, we are likewise reminding ourselves of our own divine illumination within; reminding ourselves that with the name of the Lord on our lips, we too can take courageous leaps and overcome the great adversaries of our existence; whether those are within or without.
There are as many versions of the Chalisa as there are musicians, it would seem. Traditional, modern, and everything in between.
Here is a spectacular animated youtube version of one of Krishna Das’s Chalisa interpretations, along with English subtitles. Some Indian viewers may find it all too Westernized, yet interpretations like this one have helped countless people who were not raised knowing anything about Hanumanji to begin to unfold the mystery of his divine presence.
…I recall you, Son of the Wind
Grant me strength, wit and wisdom and remove my sorrows and shortcomings!
Jai Hanumanji! Jai Bajarangbali!
Jai Sri Ram!