Storytelling is no ordinary thing. It is how we make meaning. Beyond referring to works of fiction, storytelling is the medium of everything from news stories to life stories. Story is how we make sense of experience, and the stories that stand the test of time invariably make sense of the human experience itself. Stories that broach the machinations of the human journey – those that tell the tale of origins, of ideals, of the ultimate, the supreme, the divine – these are what we call mythology. Mythological stories make sense of what it means to be human, and the mythological tales of ancient India do so in a most insightful and profound manner. These are telling tales. They are indeed meant to be told – uttered aloud – but moreover, they are telling in an adjectival sense, i.e., revealing, significant, compelling. This blog post draws from the wellspring of Indian myth to meaningfully illumine a theme uniting all stories of impact: the theme of selfless service. Most of us think we understand the meaning of selfless service. But are we able to parse out selfless service from self-effacing service? The story of selfless service is perhaps best told by tales of Hanumān, the great simian in service of Rāma. Let us turn to the three tales of Hanumān found within The Stories Behind the Poses, to reflect on the mechanics of selfless service.
Commonly called Crescent Moon pose, the Sanskrit name for this reverent lunge is Añjaneyāsana, i.e., the posture (āsana) of Añjaneya. Añjaneya is Hanuman’s matronymic appellation, meaning Son of Añjanā. Why does this pose invoke the obscure mother of Hanumān especially when Hanuman has such formidable fathers? (Yes, this is fathers in the plural!). Hanumān is the result of Śiva’s seed carried by Vayu, the wind god, to the womb of Añjanā. He is therefore commonly known as Vayu-putra, the son of the Wind, or Śiva-sūta, the son of Śiva. And yet of all of his epithets, he is invoked by his matronymic for this yoga pose, and with good cause. While Hanuman is in a male body, he is very much emblematic of feminine power. To serve is to accommodate, which is tantamount to showing up as water, able to accommodate all things. Like water, lunar symbolism, too, is feminine, as is the circular shape, and so the energy of this pose is captured in its English name as well; its femininity invoked by the crescent moon. Irrespective of our sexes, genders, orientations or vocations, we all have within us the capacity for feminine power, that is the power to forbear, to endure, to persevere, to serve, to nurture, to love. And Hanumān learns this from his mother Añjanā. Once, Añjanā asks Hanuman which was stronger, water or rock? Hanumān, of course, chose the rock. Añjanā then gave him this teaching:
“That’s what most think, my son. Rock is masculine and water is feminine. The masculine appears stronger in the outer world. But the strength of the feminine comes from within. A stone axe cannot penetrate the tiny cracks the way water can. And even a great boulder can be split open by water flowing gently through its cracks, given time. You are a great and powerful warrior without question, but your true power will come from within, from devotion, surrender, sacrifice, and service to something greater, just as water, because it is soft and yielding, has strength enough to dissolve mountains”
The Stories Behind the Poses, p. 112
Hanuman was awed by Añjanā’s wisdom about the power of the feminine. She was sure to school him, too, about the complementarity of the feminine and the masculine, and the need to bring them into balance in life.
Añjanā wasn’t Hanuman’s only teacher, however. Intrigued by the mysteries of life, a spiritual seeker through and through, the sagacious simian approached the Sun for divine instruction. The Sun, who was set on his fixed course across the heavens, scoffed at Hanuman’s proposal because he couldn’t stop for a second to teach him. But Hanuman, full of feminine power, was willing and able to accommodate the Sun. He positioned himself in front of the Sun and flew backwards to keep pace with the great celestial orb. The Sun, impressed at his perseverance day in and day out, shared all of the mysteries of life with him over the course of an entire year. At the end of his training the blackened and wizened Hanumān made an offering to the Sun in gratitude for his divine tutelage. He devised a sequence of yoga postures dedicated to the Sun which we know as Sūrya Namaskāra. Hanuman declared to the Sun:
“I wish not only to honor you as my guru for the rest of my days, but I want for all the world to honor you too. I know you are worshipped around the world with prayers and hymns, but I will devise a sequence of yoga postures dedicated to you. These postures will not only activate your solar energy within bodies of all who undertake them, but the sequence will also call them to reverence before your glory. The very first of these will be Praṇāmāsana, the position I adopt now as I pay my respects to you, guru sun.”
The Stories Behind the Poses, p. 139
Praṇāmāsana, the first step of Sūrya Namaskāra, invokes the spirit of selfless service where one brings awareness to the heart centre in reverence, humility, and poise.
Service is not servitude. For service to take place, one must be fully empowered to choose to serve. Servitude is not service, it is a disservice to all involved. Whenever one is pressured or coerced – whether by inner or outer forces – then one is not free to truly serve of one’s own accord. Therefore, wisely chose whom and what you serve in life. Steer clear of those who disempower others, for they demand servitude in the name of service. Service entails neither abuse nor martyrdom. Note that Hanuman pledged his service to the noble Rāma, who respected and loved him dearly. When Rāma’s wife, Sītā, was abducted, Rāma was beside himself with grief. With the help of Hanumān’s people, he formed four search parties to scour the four corners of India. Hanumān scoured the South. Knowing that the other parties had come up emptyhanded, Hanuman was dismayed when he reached the Southern tip of India with no sign of Sītā. Yet he knew there was a great kingdom of Lanka beyond the sea, and suspected Sita might be there. But how would he cross the sea? He surrendered to the divine and prayed for inspiration – and inspiration struck indeed! Faith, devotion, and surrender are true tests of strength. Hanuman
“summoned every iota of faith he could muster, chanting the name of Rāma all the while. Then he backed up and took a running leap toward the horizon. He kicked off with his back foot as his front foot pierced the air in from of him. In a split posture, defying gravity, he hurled himself through the air, propelled by the power of belief, and fueled by grace. The great leaping monkey succeeded in crossing the sea, flying above the waves, and landing on the soil of Laṅkā.”
The Stories Behind the Poses, p. 78
It is this potent leap of faith after which Hanuman’s own pose (Hanumānāsana) itself is named. Hanuman here becomes a prime exemplar of the power of selfless service. When we serve something greater than ourselves with agency and integrity, we become greater than we were before. We transcend our ego-self, which is why it’s called ‘self’-less service. Through the lens of Indian philosophy, we can actually think of this as Self-service, i.e., service which comes from our soul, rather than our ego. Such service is bereft of expectation, shorn of performance. Inspired by the need of others, propelled by the power of devotion, we garner the grace to make the impossible possible. Such is the power of selfless service. And such is the power of ancient Indian tales to shed light not only on selfless service, but to illumine all things human.