SPOILER ALERT! But really, if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet, YOU’RE WRONG!
Hopefully turning this into a series of blogs on finding the Hinduism in places you wouldn’t expect!
Black Panther, rightfully so, has been breaking box-office records all across the globe since its release in Mid-February. Yet, one country where it had a slight hiccup was India: one particular line in the movie was censored out. Immediately before his challenge fight with T’Challa, M’baku yells out “Glory to Hanuman!” in theaters across the world except in India. There he simply says “Glory to.”
In the Black Panther comics, the name of M’Baku’s Ape God, the White Gorilla, is actually Gerkhe. The name in the movie was purposefully changed to Hanuman – a well-known Hindu deity (even one of Obama’s favorites!). Ironically, the largest Hindu-majority country in the world could not hear that reference because the censors felt it would offend Hindus. I, along with many other Hindus, disagree – hearing Hanuman actually gave me a small moment of pride in the theater. All this made me wonder: what other connections to Hinduism, religion, and faith, can we find in this incredibly complex (and badass) movie?
Apart from the obvious verbal reference to Hanuman by M’Baku, another deeper reference to Hanuman occurs later in the movie. After T’Challa has lost his fight to Killmonger, T’Challa’s remaining supporters, led by Nakia, make the trek to the Jabari mountain. As we know, when Nakia is walking up the mountain she is in possession of the magic herb that will eventually revive T’Challa. As she and her party walk in to meet the Jabari chief, we are greeted with a gorgeous vision of the mountain tribe’s living quarters. Lights become clear against the tranquil night sky, showing a starry collection of Jabari settlements across the surrounding mountain range. And above all these settlements, we see a gigantic sculpture cut in to the edge of the mountain: a great ape holding his arms high, supporting the rest of the mountain with his arms.
In the Hindu Ramayana story, Hanuman is a semi-divine ape who is fiercely loyal to the main character Rama. Rama, his brother Laksmana, and Hanuman are fighting a great war against the story’s villain Ravana, when Laksmana is severely injured and seems to be dead. Rama, completely distraught, begs Hanuman to leave the battlefield and fetch a magic herb that can give new life to Laksmana. The herb, called sanjeevani, is located leagues away on a far mountain. Hanuman uses his powers to quickly fly over, but is unsure how to identify the sanjeevani on the large mountain. Not wanting to disappoint Rama, Hanuman uses his strength to hoist up the entire mountain on his hands and bring it back so Laksmana can be revived. In a beautiful parallel in Black Panther, Nakia brings a life-giving herb to the Jabari mountain, where she is able to bring T’Challa back to life under the statue of Hanuman holding a mountain.
While the Ape God is the deity of the Jabari tribe, the other three tribes of Wakanda worship the Panther God, Bast. The historical Bast is an Egyptian Goddess, generally depicted as a lioness or cat, and associated with both warfare and protection. In this sense, God is a woman in the Black Panther universe (finally!). While many early religious traditions similarly worshipped the powers of women, modern society has not come to deliver on those promises. But Black Panther purposefully bucks this trend. Like Bast, the women in Black Panther can protect and cure (Shuri), go to war (Okoye), or do both (Nakia).
In addition to Bast and Hanuman, the characters in Black Panther frequently refer to worshipping ancestors. Interestingly, communicating with ancestors in Wakanda requires crossing into an ancestral plane that mirrors the living world, except for a “cosmic” sky of purple, black, and blue hues. Both times that he crosses to the ancestral world, T’Challa is greeted by his father and several other ancestors, who effortlessly shapeshift from panthers to human forms. Similarly, in some views of Hinduism, we believe that the world we see is one of illusion (known as Maya) and seeing the Truth requires gazing past this illusion. In the True view of the world, we recognize that everything is connected by a universal soul (Brahman), and when we die on Earth we become part of that soul. By being buried, i.e. temporarily killing his worldly existence and ego, T’Challa connects with the world beyond illusion. His ancestors continue to exist in that world, and take the panther form, because they have merged with a universal soul/ energy that is the same as, and one with, Bast.
Finally, I would be remiss not to make a connection to my favorite story in Hinduism, the Mahabharata. While there are many possible connections to make due to the parallel of two sides of a family vying for a throne, I want to focus on a different type of conflict parallel. When T’Challa fights Killmonger (N’Jadaka) and is being torn apart, we see Nakia pleading to the elders and Dora Milaje to step in: “is there nothing that can be done?” To this, the audience responds with a distressed silence. An incredibly poignant and distressing conflict of personal righteousness versus the duty of tradition: which one takes precedence? A similar dharma conflict occurs in the Mahabharata when Draupadi, the wife of the main characters, has been gambled away in a dice game and is about to be violated by her captors. She appeals to the elders and generals present at the dice game, pleading “is there nothing that can be done?” There too, the elders stare back with distressed silence, unable to act on their personal morals in the face of obligations to society’s traditions. This is a parallel exploration of conflict in the two stories: when faced with a set of conflicting morals, how can you choose one? Do we choose tradition because we are scared to act on personal morals without validation? Do we let oppression continue in our societies simply because of tradition?
Black Panther is a cool superhero movie. Beyond that, it’s a movie that represents black people in ways that are unprecedented in America. Further beyond that, it’s a movie that questions and even turns upside down our typical conventions of race, religious belonging, women’s roles, and commitments to tradition. Personally, I am proud to see my favorite Hindu God, Hanuman, included in a movie like this. I believe peoples of color could do with a little more cross-reference and cultural appreciation. Instead of the Indian censors being offended by a harmless shout-out, why not use it as a cause to examine and celebrate our similarities to African cultures? After all, Black Panther has shown that it’s a winning formula. Wakanda Forever!