There are three main theories about the etymology of the word "Vanara":
- It derives from the word vana ("forest"), and nara(man) means "belonging to the forest" or "forest-dwelling".
- It derives from the words vana ("forest") and nara ("man"), thus meaning "forest man".
- It derives from the words vav and nara, meaning "is it a man?" or "perhaps he is man".
Although the word Vanara has come to mean "monkey" over the years and the Vanaras are depicted as monkeys in the popular art, their exact identity is not clear. Unlike other exotic creatures such as the rakshasas, the Vanaras do not have a precursor in the Vedic literature. The Ramayana presents them as humans with reference to their speech, clothing, habitations, funerals, weddings, consecrations etc. It also describes their monkey-like characteristics such as their leaping, hair, fur and a tail.
According to one theory, the Vanaras are strictly mythological creatures. This is based on their supernatural abilities, as well as descriptions of Brahma commanding other deities to either bear Vanara offspring or incarnate as Vanaras to help Rama in his mission. The Jain re-tellings of Ramayana describe them as a clan of the supernatural beings called the Vidyadharas; the flag of this clan bears monkeys as emblems.:334
G. Ramdas, based on Ravana's reference to the Vanaras' tail as an ornament, infers that the "tail" was actually an appendage in the dress worn by the men of the Savara tribe. (The female Vanaras are not described as having a tail.:116) According to this theory, the non-human characteristics of the Vanaras may be considered artistic imagination. In Sri Lanka, the word "Vanara" has been used to describe the Nittaewos mentioned in the Vedda legends.
In the Ramayana
Vanaras are created by Brahma to help Rama in battle against Ravana. They are powerful and have many godly traits. Taking Brahma's orders, the gods began to parent sons in the semblance of monkeys (Ramayana 1.17.8). The Vanaras took birth in bears and monkeys attaining the shape and valor of the gods and goddesses who created them (Ramayana 1.17.17-18). After Vanaras were created they began to organize into armies and spread across the forests, although some, including Vali, Sugriva, and Hanuman, stayed near Mount Riskshavat.
According to the Ramayana, the Vanaras lived primarily in the region of Kishkindha (identified with parts of present-day Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh & Maharashtra). Rama first met them in Dandaka Forest, during his search for Sita. An army of Vanaras helped Rama in his search for Sita, and also in battle against Ravana, Sita's abductor. Nala and Nila built a bridge over the ocean so that Rama and the army could cross to Lanka. As described in the epic, the characteristics of the Vanara include being amusing, childish, mildly irritating, badgering, hyperactive, adventurous, bluntly honest, loyal, courageous, and kind.
The Vanaras also appear in other texts, including Mahabharata. The epic Mahabharata describes them as forest-dwelling, and mentions their being encountered by Sahadeva, the youngest Pandava.
In the Ramayana, the Vanara Hanuman changes shape several times. For example, while he searches for the kidnapped Sita in Ravana's palaces on Lanka, he contracts himself to the size of a cat, so that he will not be detected by the enemy. Later on, he takes on the size of a mountain, blazing with radiance, to show his true power to Sita.
- Angada, son of Vali, helped Rama find his wife Sita
- Anjana, Hanuman's mother
- Hanuman, devotee of the god Rama and son of Vayu
- Kesari, Hanuman's father
- Mainda and Dvivida, sons of Ashvins
- Macchanu - the son of Hanuman (as per the Cambodian and Thai versions)
- Makardhwaja - the son of Hanuman (as per the Indian versions)
- Nala, son of Vishwakarma
- Nila, son of Agni
- Rumā was the wife of Sugriva.
- Sharabha, son of Parjanya
- Sugriva, king of Kishkindha, son of Surya
- Sushena, son of Varuna
- Taar, incarnation of Brihaspati
- Tara, wife of Vali
- Vali, Sugriva's brother, and a son of Indra
- Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary p. 940
- Apte Sanskrit Dictionary search vaanara
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- Media related to Vanara at Wikimedia Commons