Hanuman’s burning of Lanka was just one of his many exploits during his reconnaissance mission there.

By Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Reflections on Hanuman’s feats in Lanka.

Few missions are as difficult as the mission entrusted to Hanuman, the vanara* hero in the Ramayana who comes into his own in the later part of the epic. When his team of vanaras searching for Sita were stymied by the impassable ocean, he had to press on singlehandedly, as he alone had the strength to leap across the ocean and return.

An Ocean of Obstacles

Even after Hanuman had crossed the ocean, he still faced a host of challenges: entering the heavily guarded city of Lanka; maintaining his celibacy while searching for a woman in places frequented by women; locating Sita among the thousands of people living there; winning her trust so that she would see him as Rama’s messenger, not as Ravana’s disguised agent; assuring her of Rama’s love for her and His determination to come to rescue her; and escaping alive from Lanka to inform his colleagues of Sita’s whereabouts.

How Hanuman accomplished all of this, and much more, is an incredible adventure that makes up the heart of the Sundara-kanda, the fourth book of the Ramayana. Here we pick up the action after he had entered Lanka. To enter undetected, he had assumed a small, inconspicuous form. He slipped in unnoticed between the rows of soldiers guarding Lanka’s walls. Sneaking in and out of various buildings, he managed to avoid arousing suspicion by his agility and alertness.

Impure Perception, Pure Intention

While sneaking into houses and their inner chambers, Hanuman saw several women in various stages of undress. He felt a grave doubt: Was he acting irreligiously by looking at them? After due introspection, he concluded that he was not, because he wasn’t motivated by the desire for voyeuristic pleasure, but purely by the desire to serve Rama by finding Sita. As he had to look for a woman and had to do so discreetly, he had no alternative to looking in women’s chambers. Thus he demonstrated that service may sometimes take the unlikeliest of forms. 

After seeing signs of revelry in palaces in the city, he reached the biggest building, evidently Ravana’s palace. Therein he saw Ravana asleep on a majestic bed, and nearby was a beautiful woman, also asleep. Thinking that he had found Sita, he jumped up and down in delight. But soon it struck him that Sita would be grieving because of separation from Rama and wouldn’t have given herself up to Ravana – this woman who was sleeping so comfortably in Ravana’s house couldn’t be Sita.

Feeling chastened, he continued his search through the many palaces.

From Discouragement to Discovery Through Determination

Despite searching exhaustively, Hanuman couldn’t find Sita anywhere. Gloomy thoughts started consuming him. He had come so far and gone through so much, yet now he seemed destined to fail. Contemplating what his failure would do to others triggered a mental doomsday scenario. On hearing of his failure, Rama would not be able to maintain His life. If Rama passed away, so would Lakshmana. Seeing the demise of those two princes would similarly fell the citizens of Ayodhya. The vanara king Sugriva too would give up his life, deeming himself a failure for not keeping his word to help Rama find Sita. With Sugriva’s grief-stricken death, the citizens of his kingdom, Kishkinda, would also meet the same fate.

Intriguingly, such thoughts energized Hanuman. He resolved that rather than be the bearer of bad news that would wreak such devastation, he would keep searching for Sita till his last breath.

Hanuman’s resilience demonstrates the power of resolute intention. Life’s adversities can knock down even the best among us, but they don’t have to keep us down. If our intention is strong enough, it will eventually prevail over situations and emotions.

Though Hanuman was determined to keep searching for Sita, he was unsure of what to do next – he had already searched the entire city. When we resolutely pursue a worthy cause, forces far beyond our own come to our aid, often in inconceivable ways. While Hanuman was considering his next move, the moon providentially came out from behind the clouds. It revealed to his searching eyes the palace gardens, which he had overlooked while searching through the houses. The thought occurred to him that Sita might have refused to stay in a palace while her Lord was living in a forest and she might have insisted on living outdoors like Him. Excited, he felt a surge of hope and energy rushing through him.

Bounding quickly to the garden, he searched through it till he noticed a woman of incredible beauty. Dressed in soiled clothes, she was sitting desolately under a tree, surrounded by hideous demonesses. While observing her, he saw Ravana trying to wheedle and threaten her into submission. Overhearing their conversation, Hanuman understood that the object of Ravana’s unwanted attention was Sita. He felt delighted on finding Sita, but his joy was tempered on seeing her plight.

As Hanuman watched, the exasperated Ravana spoke harshly to Sita and walked away in a huff. The demonesses guarding her swarmed around her, speaking threateningly to her and gesticulating towards Ravana, apparently pressuring her to accept his proposition. But Sita remained unmoved, and soon the demonesses gave up their efforts.

Overcome Mutual Suspicion by Divine Glorification

After the demonesses had withdrawn to a distance, Hanuman crept closer to Sita and started the one activity that wins the hearts of devotees: speaking the Lord’s glories.

He spoke vivid details of Rama’s pastimes, including intimate details that no one except Rama and Sita knew – details that Rama had uttered when expressing to Hanuman His agony in separation from Sita. Delighted on hearing her Lord being glorified, Sita looked around and spotted the small monkey sitting with folded hands atop a tree. Hanuman jumped down and introduced himself. Though Sita was understandably suspicious, he won her confidence by showing Rama’s signet ring. Seeing it, Sita broke down in tears, overwhelmed with remembrance of her Lord.

The subsequent talk between the servant of Rama and the consort of Rama – both devotees par excellence – is intensely moving. Their fervent remembrances of Rama invoke His intense presence amidst His absence.  

Sita told Hanuman about Ravana’s threat to consume her for breakfast if she didn’t submit to him within one year. On hearing that Sita’s life was in danger, Hanuman felt alarmed. He told Sita urgently that he could immediately carry her on his back. In his anxiety, Hanuman forgot that he was still in the form of a small monkey, half the size of Sita, and that she didn’t know about his strength. When she voiced the obvious question about how he could carry her, he felt piqued. Expanding his form to towering proportions, he assured her of his ability. Still, Sita expressed other concerns: Hanuman would find it difficult to fight with the demons while carrying her, and she desired to be rescued by her Lord alone and to not touch any other man. Appreciating her chastity, Hanuman assured her that Rama would soon come to rescue her. He took her leave and took with him her message for Rama and his memories of her unswerving devotion.

Too Busy to Be Humiliated

Though his mission of locating Sita was accomplished, Hanuman felt inspired to do more, much more. Knowing that a war with Ravana was most likely unavoidable, he desired to do a reconnaissance mission to assess Lanka’s defensive formations. He also wanted to deter the demons from war by delivering a grim warning and demonstrating the power of Rama’s servants.

With this in mind, Hanuman started destroying the Ashoka Vatika, the garden that he had come to know was Ravana’s favorite. The guards opposed him and were soon decimated. So was the series of warriors sent by Ravana, including even his own son Aksha, each of successively greater strength. Finally, Ravana’s most powerful son, Indrajit, attacked Hanuman and bound him using the brahmastra weapon. Hanuman knew that this formidable weapon would restrain him only for a short time, and that he could break free at the right time. So, despite being physically overcome, he was not mentally overcome. He remained alert and determined to serve Rama.

The bound vanara was soon dragged through the streets of Lanka, with demons mocking and kicking him. They wanted to humiliate him and demonstrate to Lanka’s citizens the fate that would inevitably befall anyone who dared antagonize Lanka’s lord. 

Had Hanuman been foolhardy in provoking the demons? No, he had thought out his strategy well. While arrested, he was lying low, fully ready to catch his attackers off guard and wreak havoc in their ranks. More importantly, while being paraded through Lanka’s streets he was too busy to be humiliated. He was keenly observing Lanka’s paths, evaluating their feasibility for launching surprise attacks should such an eventuality arise.

When, even in the midst of adversity, we stay fixed in the intention to serve the Lord, we will find some opportunity to serve, though that service may differ radically from our normal service. Whether flying forcefully across an ocean or pulled forcibly through a street, Hanuman was focused on serving Rama.

Eventually, Hanuman was brought into Ravana’s presence in his court. Despite being bound, humiliated, and threatened, Hanuman felt, not fear, but grief – not fear that this formidable demon might punish or kill him, but grief that a person with such gifts had wasted his life because of his godlessness; if he had been virtuous, he could have done so much good for the world. A sign of a healthy mind is to see good in everything, even the bad. And a sign of a devotionally healthy mind is to see the potential for service to the Lord in everyone, even those sworn to defy the Lord. Such was the spiritually vibrant consciousness of Hanuman.

On seeing the bound Hanuman, some of the warriors demanded that he be executed for his vandalism. But Ravana, wanting to first know the intruder’s identity and purpose, ordered that he be interrogated.

Wanting time to observe the leading demon commanders carefully, Hanuman initially toyed with his interrogators, claiming innocence. He was just a monkey who on feeling hungry had plucked a few fruits. During his plucking, a few trees had fallen, and suddenly he had found himself being attacked by the demons. Driven by survival instinct, he had fought against those bent on killing him.

When the interrogators grilled Hanuman about why he had come to Lanka, Hanuman ended his toying with them. Introducing himself as the messenger of Rama, he rebuked Ravana for his adharmic act of abducting Rama’s wife and warned him that he would be destroyed by Rama if he didn’t immediately return Sita. When Ravana and other demons mocked Rama as a mere exile with no army, Hanuman flared up. He spoke of the many occasions when Rama had bested even the best of demons, highlighting especially His singlehandedly killing fourteen thousand demons at Janasthana. Concluding his proclamation of Rama’s glories, Hanuman reiterated his warning to Ravana: If he didn’t return Sita to Rama, he would meet the same fate as his cohorts at Janasthana.

What the Demoniac Attack With, They Get Attacked With

Infuriated at the impudence of a mere monkey in threatening him, Ravana ordered that Hanuman be executed. When Ravana’s saintly brother, Vibhishana, pointed out that a messenger should never be killed, Ravana reluctantly agreed. But, insisting that Hanuman needed to be punished for his unmessengerlike actions in destroying Lanka’s celebrated garden, he ordered that Hanuman’s tail be set ablaze.

Little did Ravana know that that very tail would soon leave a trail of devastation in his kingdom. What the ungodly do to thwart the godly often boomerangs on them.

Acting on Ravana’s command, the demons tied oiled cloths on Hanuman’s tail, lit it, and paraded him through the streets once again. Meanwhile, the demonesses guarding Sita informed her about Hanuman’s plight. She prayed that the fire not hurt the heroic vanara. By the potency of her prayers, the fire stopped scalding Hanuman. When he saw that the fire was still burning but was not hurting him, he inferred that this miracle was due to Sita’s prayers and thanked her in his mind. The ever-resourceful vanara recognized that his burning-but-not-hurting tail was a formidable weapon to attack the demons. Using his extraordinary powers to break off his shackles, he leapt onto one of Lanka’s many buildings. Soon his tail lit the building, and he jumped onto another building to burn it. The demons were flabbergasted by his sudden counterattack. By the time they regained their wits and rushed to stop him, he had already jumped to the next building. In no time, he set nearly half of Lanka ablaze.

Hanuman exemplified how even the destructive emotion of anger can be put to constructive use in devotional service. His anger on seeing Sita’s affliction and on hearing Rama’s denigration is considered righteous, for it impelled him to perform a glorious service. Nonetheless, despite his heroic channeling of the power of anger, he also demonstrated anger’s inherent danger: it can make us act recklessly. When he had set Lanka ablaze, the thought suddenly occurred to him that Sita might have been burnt in the conflagration. Horrified, he berated himself for his impetuosity. Responding to the sincerity of his intention and the gravity of his concern, a celestial voice spoke up, assuring him that Sita was safe. 

Thus reassured, Hanuman decided to complement the destruction with intimidation. Wanting to sow dissension among Lanka’s citizens, he climbed atop the city’s border wall. With his blazing tail creating a fearsome halo around him, he declared in a thunderous voice that this devastation was just a prelude of what would befall Lanka unless Ravana returned Sita – he, Hanuman, was the least powerful among Rama’s servants, and countless monkeys, many more powerful than him, would soon assail Lanka.

Glancing with satisfaction at the chaos in the demons’ ranks, Hanuman leapt into the air with the victorious war cry “Jaya Sri Rama!” The distraught citizens of Lanka watched mutely, petrified to see their defensive wall crumple under the pressure of his leap.

Hanuman’s intrepid devotion, unflappable determination, sharp intelligence, creative resourcefulness, and ambitious service attitude – all these can inspire us in facing our battles. More importantly, his example can help us re-envision devotion as an adventure in service. If we strive to the best of our capacity while serving the Lord, things that seemed impossible will become possible. Indeed, Hanuman’s glorious mission to Lanka demonstrates the concluding verse of the Bhagavad-gita (18.78): for those who endeavor in harmony with the divine, ultimate victory is guaranteed.


*An advanced race of monkeys.