“The characteristics of the Rakshasas and the city, as well as the power of the king of these Rakshasas, Ravana, has been ascertained.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 30.5)
rākṣasānām viśeṣaḥ ca purī ca iyam avekṣitā |
rākṣasa adhipateḥ asya prabhāvo rāvaṇasya ca ||
The good guys were coming from the wilderness. They knew the terrain consisting of forests, trees, bulbs, roots, and pristine rivers and lakes. The army consisted of monkeys living in the wild, but they were somewhat civilized. They were aligned with the most pious man, after all, the knower of the self, the righteous Shri Ramachandra, the eldest son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya. Rama’s equally valiant younger brother was there as well.
The bad guys were in a distant land. They didn’t know that war was about to take place, for their home was guarded on all sides by a vast ocean. The good guys at first didn’t know where that land was, how the inhabitants behaved, and what exactly their leader was capable of. In stepped the fearless, brave, perseverant, and intelligent messenger of the king of monkeys. Known by the name Hanuman, he ended up searching through the enemy town all by himself for the missing princess Sita, who was Rama’s wife. Along the way he gathered some vital intelligence.
First he saw the characteristics of the Rakshasas. They were like ogres, human beings who were barely civilized. In modern times, we don’t necessarily consider a meat eater to be uncivilized. Under strict Vedic culture, the original spiritual tradition of the world, someone who drinks alcohol and eats meat is considered a mleccha or yavana, i.e. an uncivilized person. With the further passage of time since the beginning of the creation, man deviates so much from the principles of the highly cultured class that they start mistaking unrighteousness for righteousness. Therefore meat eating eventually became the norm around the world instead of the exception.
Still, amongst meat eaters there is a code of ethics. Certain kinds of animals you just don’t kill. Cats and dogs are off limits. If someone should kill them they get labeled a “monster,” whereas another person can kill cows by the thousands and not be in violation of any laws. Imagine, then, how uncivilized one would have to be to kill humans and eat them. These are known as cannibals, and they are hard to find in the world. Shri Hanuman found an entire city of them.
These Rakshasas would consume any flesh, and without limit. They were also intoxicated most of the time. They had a special ability to change shapes at will. The men had the most beautiful wives, which meant that the men were very strong. The wives were very devoted as well. In short, the Rakshasas would post a formidable challenge, and they would have no problem violating any rules of etiquette for the battlefield.
The city where they lived was very opulent. Just looking at the city gave pause to Hanuman, who initially worried over how his friends from the humble setting of the forest could come there and achieve victory. There was gold everywhere, including in the construction of the buildings. The city did not look poor at all; it was beautiful in every respect. The good guys would have their work cut out for them.
Hanuman also ascertained the power of their leader, Ravana. This fiend was a special creature indeed. We see freaks and oddballs who are unusually tall or perhaps have an extra limb, finger or toe. Ravana would stand out at any circus, for he had ten heads. Lest anyone try to make fun of him, Ravana was extremely powerful. He ruled over an entire city of creatures who had no values. This meant that they feared him, that they listened to what he said. Hanuman knew that Ravana was the strongest of all the skilled ogres in Lanka.
The good guys had Rama on their side, leading them, so there was no chance for defeat. Moreover, they had Hanuman working to gather intelligence. As unscrupulous as the Rakshasas were, as beautiful as their city was, and as strong as Ravana was, Hanuman still found a way to infiltrate the city unnoticed and find Sita. Here he is preparing to speak to her, to let her know that Rama is indeed looking for her. Thus far no one has noticed him, which means that Hanuman is more skilled than any of the Rakshasas. He is both strong and gentle. He is both honest and dishonest. He is honest when he vows to keep searching to please Rama, and he is dishonest when he masks his shape and hides in a tree in the Ashoka grove so that no one will notice him.
All his characteristics are used for pleasing Rama, who is God. Therefore Hanuman is all-good. Whatever situation he finds is always beneficial for his devotional service, which is life’s ultimate goal. We are all searching for transcendence, that pleasure which goes beyond the temporary body. The days themselves are temporary, erasing the various opportunities for enjoyment that we find. The body too eventually goes away, after many days and nights have passed.
Devotional service is timeless, and it can be practiced anywhere. Any characteristic belonging to the individual is suitable for that devotion, provided that the sentiment is proper. The ogres in Lanka provided a formidable challenge, but the characteristics of Hanuman are too great to measure. Even when seeing him shortly after, the Rakshasas still could never understand him. Ravana too would never understand Rama until the very end, when the swiftly-coursing arrows released from the son of Dasharatha would take his life.
One army from the forest came,
In potency to ogres not nearly the same.
Hanuman took note of what to expect,
Yet his presence none could detect.
Characteristics for Rama used all,
Therefore a pure soul Hanuman we call.
His true nature Rakshasas never to understand,
Through him Rama’s victory imminent at hand.