Magical Vanaras

Since I have blogged about weird parallels in myths before.Recently in a discussion elsewhere, Belle linked to the Wikipedia page on the “magical negro“. It was in a completely different context, but this caught my eye:


The magical negro is a reoccurring theme in Chinese Literature from the Tang Dynasty. Known as “Kun-lun” (崑崙, an ancient Chinese term that denoted all dark-skinned races), these African slaves were portrayed as having supernatural strength and the power to invade people’s dreams to reveal great knowledge. One tale known as the Kun-lun slave mentions a slave leaping over high walls while laden with the weight of two people in order to rescue his master’s lover.

This sounds rather
familiar. Though of course Hanuman does not carry Sita back to Rama. Nor does he carry two people – though considering his other feats of strength one assumes he could do so, if required. And Gods don’t have slaves, they have devotees. The parallel is strong enough, though, to make me curious about how closely Hanuman in the Ramayana could be said to conform to the type. Bear with me – this is pointless geekery.

  • The magical negro is typically but not always “in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint,” often a janitor or prisoner. Nope. Doesn’t fit.
  • He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. Also doesn’t fit, Hanuman has a pretty well fleshed out back story. Then again, there’s this whole gigantic body of myth for said backstory to exist in.
  • He sometimes fits the black stereotype, “prone to criminality and laziness.” No, not that I’m aware of. Then again, since Hanuman isn’t actually black (and Rama isn’t actually white; he’s blue), there’s no black stereotype for him to fit into*.
  • To counterbalance this, he has some sort of magical power, “rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters.” No, I think the incredible strength part, at least, is reasonably tangible.
  • He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is “closer to the earth.” Er. Not sure about this one, especially the “closer to the earth” bit. What do people think?
  • The magical negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Er. Again, not sure about this. He’s certainly a lot better fleshed out than a mere plot device. And Rama by definition has no faults.
  • Although he has magical powers, his “magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character.” It is this feature of the magical negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing African-Americans in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to European-Americans. This, yes. Except with a blue non-vanara/ brown vanara dynamic instead of the black/white thing.

Of course, this would be easier if one could work out what the Vanaras were supposed to be. This being Hinduism there doesn’t seem to be a Canon answer, and one can get any answer along a scale from “really clever monkeys” to “tribe or community who the author thought of as kind of simian and not entirely human”. Which just carries all sorts of potential for winceage.

* Is there a Vanara stereotype though?The wikipedia page says they’re “amusing, childish, mildly irritating, badgering, hyperactive, adventurous, bluntly honest, loyal, courageous, and kind. They are at least a foot shorter than an average human and their bodies are covered with light fur, generally brown in colour” but I’d like a more learned source.

8 Comments to “Magical Vanaras”

  1. Other magical creatures who help out not-quite-white males through an elaborate question-and-answer-game which reveals the hero’s morality are the Yaksha who asked Yudhisthira questions, and the Vetaal who would pose moral puzzles to Raja Vikram. I think the Vetaal meets the magical negro stereotype much better than Hanuman does.

  2. I’m always somewhat peeved by the whole Ram/Krishna having blue skin issue. It’s not that they actually have blue skin, it’s that their skin is dark brown but has a slight visual shift to the cooler side of the spectrum. A bit hard to describe, but think of the subtle difference in colour between a slab of milk chocolate (warm) and dark chocolate (cool). They’re both still brown, but not in the same way.

    While I love the usage of blue for its aesthetics and iconographic qualities, it does get ridiculous in the modern world, where TV and film adaptations either turn Ram into some shade of ‘light wheatish’ (wasn’t he white in the anime adaptation?) or even actually paint him blue.

    Re: Magic Negros
    So basically since time immemorial, brown people of all types have been telling people how to get their shit together.

  3. Vanaras had tails! I don’t think they were supposed to represent any tribe.

  4. @VikramAdith a fascinating insight. This has gigantic implications. Since the pigs in Animal Farm also have tails, they cannot represent the Soviet leadership either. Now we will have to rewrite the Wikipedia article.

  5. Aadisht – I remember only the barest outlines of the Vikram & Vetaal stories. The Yaksha & Yudhisthira one…hmm. I've always seen the Yaksha as being in a far superior position of power, so I don't know it would work as well. I can picture the Vetaal at least as being a feared, othered minority. (Grin)
    Also, you're smart.

    Ros – Feasible, yes! I hadn't thought of that before.

    Vishal – My real problems with the blue thing are
    1) When done to Shiva, the whole "neelekantha" thing becomes rather pointless.
    2) It would be nice to have an actually dark skinned god (Krishna) in our iconography, since scripture seems to support this.
    I don't particularly mind when it's used for Rama, though. But the painted on blue is hilarious.

    Vikramadith – Erm. What Aadisht said. Also, do some research.

  6. re: neelkantha
    They always make Shiva a nice shade of eggplant purple, and many images I’ve seen go the opposite way and actually paint his throat (when they bother to) a shade of grey.

    Maybe they think he’s having a bad reaction to the halahala?

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