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India & China’s Monkey mythology

June 3, 2011

As the Indian and Chinese economies swing back and forth, sometimes hot sometimes cold, Inchin Closer takes a peep into the symbolism of our great ancestor, one who has inspired numerous tales across China and India, the Monkey.

Monkey mythology as it will henceforth be known has been an important part of both Hindu/Buddhist lore in India and Zodiac/Taoist/Buddhist lore in China. While the monkey is represented with varying attributes and appearances in India and China, he is initially portrayed as foolish, vain, and mischievous, who later learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption. The monkey thus embodies the themes of repentance, responsibility, devotion, and the promise of salvation to all who sincerely seek it. Below, Inchin Closer narrates selected tales from both countries highlighting the importance of the monkey and the stark similarities India’s God Hanuman shares with China’s Magical Monkey Sun Wu Kong from the epic Journey to the West

India:  Pre-buddhist Mythology – The Sanskrit term Vanara means monkey or forest dweller. Other Sanskrit terms for monkey include Makata and Kapi. In India, the most widely known Vanara is Hanuman, the monkey warrior who appears in the epic Hindu tale Ramayana. Hanuman is a manifestation (avatar) of the Hindu god Shiva. Even today, Hanuman is a very popular village god in southern, central and northern India, and artwork of Hanuman can still be found easily in India and other nations in Southeast Asia.

According to legend, as Hanuman grows up, he becomes even more invincible, but he is a trickster and is eventually cursed by the sages for his mischievousness — he is made to forget his powers until reminded of them by others. In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman’s fellow vanaras help him recollect his powers, which he uses to aid Rama in rescuing Rama’s wife, Sita, from the evil Ravana. Hanuman redeems himself, and becomes a metaphor for bravery, loyalty, and dedication to righteousness. Some scholars believe Hanuman mythology might be the origin of the magical monkey Sun Wu Kong, who appears in the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

India – Buddhist Mythology – Monkey lore plays a prominent role in Buddhism in India. The most famous tales of this era are the Jataka Tales, wherein Buddha himself often appears in the form of a monkey,  practicing generosity, courage, justice, and patience until he finally achieves nirvana. A famous Jataka tale is the story of Kapinjala. The story tells of four animals living in the forest — a hare, a monkey, a type of bird called Kapinjala, and an elephant. They choose the Kapinjala as their chief and live in harmony and mutual respect. The Kapinjala represents Shakyamuni (Historical Buddha), the hare Sariputra, the monkey personifies Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana, and the elephant Ananda.

 

China – Monkey Mythology in China follows two major strains – the Monkey represents the 9th animal among 12 in the Chinese Zodiac. According to the Chinese, those born under the Chinese Zodiac sign of the Monkey thrive on having fun. They’re energetic, upbeat, and good at listening but lack self-control. They like being active and stimulated and enjoy pleasing self before pleasing others. They’re heart-breakers, not good at long-term relationships and their morals are weak. Monkey people usually end up as inventors, scientists, artists or people who entertain the masses one way or the other. They are very creative and can be considered geniuses at a later stage in their lives.

China – Buddhist Mythology –
 a Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (602-664 AD),  who journeyed to India in search of Buddhist sutras. Protecting him on his journey, in the book, are three companions: (1) the monkey named Sun Wu Kong; (2) the pig; and (3) Sandy, the Water Demon. Journey to the West tells of the tale of the monkey’s revolt against Heaven, of his defeat by the Buddha, of his being cast out of heaven, and then, how he redeems itself and gains immortality by helping the monk Xuan Zang on his pilgrimage to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. 

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