VALMIKI’S RAMAYANA: AN INTRODUCTION

Dr. Hareshwar Roy
In Sanskrit literature Maharshi Valmiki is celebrated as the poet harbinger. The Uttara Kanda chapter of the Ramayana tells the tale of the poet’s early life, as an unnamed highway robber. One day the robber attempted to rob Narada for the benefit of his family. Narada said to him, ‘Will his family share the sin he is incurring due to the robbery’. The robber replied in the affirmative. Narada suggested him to confirm this with his family. None agreed to bear the burden of his sin. Finally he understood the truth of life and asked for Narada's forgiveness. Narada taught him to worship Lord God. The robber meditated for many years. The ant-hills came to grow around his body. At last, a divine voice declared his penance successful. That voice bestowed him with the name Valmiki, one born out of ant-hills.

Valmiki's reputation as the father of Indian poetry seems to have been legendary. In the Buddhacarita Ashvagosha is of the view that the voice of Valmiki uttered poetry which the great seer Chyavana could not compose. He is revered as the first poet or Adi Kavi and the Ramayana, the first kavya. It is said that it is he who discovered the first sloka. One day Adi Kavi was on the way to the Ganga for his daily ablutions. His disciple, Bharadwaja, was carrying his clothes. On the way they came across the Tamasa Stream. Looking at the stream he exclaimed, ‘Look, how clear is this water, like the mind of a good man! I will bathe here today.’ When he was trying to search a suitable place to step into the stream, he heard the melodious chirping of some birds. When he rose his head up he saw two birds flying together. Valmiki felt very pleased to see the happy bird couple. At once one of the birds fell down, hit by an arrow. It was the male bird.  Its mate began to scream in agony. Valmiki's heart melted at this pitiful sight. He looked around to find out who had shot the bird. Soon he found a hunter with a bow and arrows nearby. He began to tremble in anger. His lips opened and he uttered the following words:

mā nisāda pratisthām tvamagamah śāśvatīh samāh
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīh kāmamohitam.

You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting.

Emerging spontaneously from his rage and grief, this was the first sloka in Sanskrit literature. Later Valmiki composed the entire Ramayana with the blessings of Lord Brahma in the same meter that issued forth from him as the sloka. Thus this sloka is revered as the ‘first sloka’ in Hindu literature. His first disciples to whom he taught the Ramayana were Lava and Kusha , the sons of Ram.

The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic. Its name is a tatpurusha compound of Ram and ayana. Ayana stands for ‘going’ or ‘advancing’. Thus it can be translated as ‘Ram's Journey’. The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses in seven books (kandas). Verses in this grand epic are written in a 32-syllable meter called ‘anustubh’.

          The Indian tradition is unanimous in its agreement that the Ramayana is the work of a single poet, the sage Valmiki. It forms an important part of the Hindu canon (Smriti). It deals with divine Lord Ram and his journey of life. It tells the story of Ram, an incarnation of the Hindu preserver-god Vishnu. Sita, Ram’s wife, is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. Thematically, the epic explores the tenets of human existence and the concept of dharma. It is one of the two great epics of India, the other being the Mahabharata. It depicts the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal wife and the ideal king. Valmiki’s Ramayana is one of the world's most remarkable classics and excels all in its moral appeal. It is full of lessons for all and deserves to be read with interest and profit by all lovers of healthy literature. It is noted for its poetic excellences and is the oldest specimen of epic poetry. It stands equal in rank to the Vedas. It contains the teachings of ancient Hindu sages and presents them through allegory in narrative and the interspersion of the philosophical and the devotional. The characters of Ram, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India. Arshia Sattar states that the central theme of the Ramayana, as well as the Mahabharata, is respectively Ram's and Krishna's hidden divinity and its progressive revelation.

The Ramayana is traditionally divided into several major kandas or books or parts. These kandas  deal chronologically with the major events of Ram’s life- Bala kanda, Ayodhya Kanda, Aranya Kanda, Kishkinda Kanda, Sundara Kanda, Yuddha Kanda, and Uttara Kanda. The Bala Kanda deals with the birth of Ram, his childhood and marriage to Sita. The Ayodhya Kanda describes the preparations for Ram's coronation and his exile into the forest. The third part, Aranya Kanda, tells the tale of the forest life of Ram and the kidnapping of Sita by the demon king Ravana. The Kishkinda Kanda narrates the story of the meeting of Hanuman with Ram, the destruction of vanara king Vali and the coronation of his younger brother Sugriva on the throne of the kingdom of Kishkindha. The fifth part is Sundara Kanda which narrates the heroism of Hanuman, his flight to Lanka and meeting with Sita. The sixth book, Yuddha Kanda, describes the battle between Ram's and Ravana's armies. The last book, Uttara Kanda, describes the birth of Lava and Kusha to Sita, their coronation to the throne of Ayodhya, and Ram's final departure from the world.
The Valmiki Ramayana is dated variously from 500 BC to 100 BC. As with many traditional epics, it has gone through a long process of interpolations and redactions, making it impossible to date accurately. The story's original version in Sanskrit is known as Valmiki Ramayana, written around 4th century B.C. According to Hindu tradition, the Ramayana takes place during a period of time known as Treta Yuga, one of the four eons (yuga) of Hindu chronology; thus, it is held to date back 880,000 years. Ram is said to have been born in the Treta Yuga to King Dasaratha in Ikshuaku vansh (clan). The core events of the epic may be of even greater age, as the names of the characters (Ram, Sita, Dasaratha, Janaka, Vasishta, Vishwamitra) are all known in Vedic literature such as the Brahmanas which are older than the Valmiki Ramayana. However, nowhere in the surviving Vedic poetry is a story similar to the Ramayana of Valmiki. According to the modern academic view, Brahma, one of the main characters of the Ramayana, and Vishnu, who according to Bala Kanda was incarnated as Ram, are not Vedic deities, and come first into prominence with the epics themselves and further during the 'Puranic' period of the later 1st millennium CE. There is also a version of Ramayana, known as Ramopakhyana, found in the epic Mahabharata. According to literary scholarship, the main body of the Ramayana first appeared as an oral composition somewhere between 750 and 500 BCE. Cultural evidence (the presence of sati in the Mahabharata but not in the main body of the Ramayana) suggests that the Ramayana predates the Mahabharata.

There has been speculation as to whether the first and the last chapters of Valmiki's Ramayana were written by the original author. In this context, Raghunathan writes that many experts believe that they are integral parts of the book in spite of some style differences and narrative contradictions between these two chapters and the rest of the book. There is general consensus that books two to six form the oldest portion of the epic while the first book Bala Kanda and the last the Uttara Kanda are later additions. The author or authors of Bala Kanda and Ayodhya Kanda appear to be familiar with the eastern Gangetic basin region of northern India and the Kosala and Magadha region during the period of the sixteen janapadas as the geographical and geopolitical data is in keeping with what is known about the region. However, when the story moves to the Aranya Kanda and beyond, it seems to turn abruptly into fantasy with its demon-slaying hero and fantastic creatures. The geography of central and South India is increasingly vaguely described. The knowledge of the location of the island of Sri Lanka also lacks detail. Basing his assumption on these features, the historian H.D. Sankalia has proposed a date of the 4th century BC for the composition of the text. A. L. Basham, however, is of the opinion that Ram may have been a minor chief who lived in the 8th or the 7th century BC.

In its extant form, Valmiki's Ramayana is an epic poem of some 50,000 lines. The text survives in several thousand partial and complete manuscripts. Father Kamil Bulke, author of Ramakatha, has identified over 300 variants of Ramayana. Scholar Romesh Chunder Dutt writes that ‘the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a growth of centuries, but the main story is more distinctly the creation of one mind.’  The text has several regional renderings, recensions and subrecensions. Textual scholar Robert P. Goldman differentiates two major regional recensions: the northern and the southern. In particular, the Ramayana related in North India differs in important respects from that preserved in South India and the rest of South-East Asia. The most influential version of the Ramayana is the Ravanavadham of Bhatti, popularly known as Bhattikavya. It is a Sanskrit retelling of the epic that simultaneously illustrates the grammatical examples for Panini's Astadhyayi as well as the major figures of speech and the Prakrit language.

As in many oral epics, multiple versions of the Ramayana survive. There are diverse regional versions of the Ramayana written by various authors in India. Some of them differ significantly from each other. During the twelfth century AD, Kamban wrote Ramavatharam, known popularly as Kambaramayanam in Tamil. Valmiki's Ramayana inspired the Sri Ramacharit Manas by Tulasidas. It is an epic in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi. It is popularly known as Tulsi-krita Ramayana. Gujarati poet Premanand wrote a version of Ramayana in the 17th century. Other versions include a Bengali version by Krittivas , an Oriya version by Balarama Das , in Marathi by Sridhara , a Telugu version by Ranganatha , a Torave Ramayana in Kannada by Narahari, Sri Ramayana Darshnam by Rashtrakavi Kuvempu, Kotha Ramayana in Assamese by  Madhava Kandali and Adhyathma Ramayanam Kilippattu, a Malayalam version by Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan.There are other versions of the Ramayana, notably Buddhist and Jain in India. Two versions of Ramayana are present in Nepal. One is written by Mahakabhi Siddhidas Mahaju in Nepal Bhasa. The other one is written by Aadikavi Bhanubhakta Acharya.

 The epic story of Ramayana was adopted by several cultures across Asia.  There is an extensive tradition of oral storytelling based on the Ramayana in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Maldives. Javanese version of Ramayan is Kakawin Ramayana. Phra Lak Phra Lam is a Lao language version of Ramayan. The Cambodian version of Ramayana is known as Reamker and Thailand's popular national epic Ramakien is derived from the Hindu epic. Other Southeast Asian adaptations include Ramakavaca of Bali (Indonesia), Maharadya Lawana and Darangen of Mindanao (Philippines), and the Yama Zatdaw of Myanmar.

There is a sub-plot to Ramayana, prevalent in some parts of India, relating the adventures of Ahi Ravana and Mahi Ravana, the evil brother of Ravana, which enhances the role of Hanuman in the story. Hanuman rescues Ram and Lakshmana after they are kidnapped by the Ahi-mahi Ravana at the behest of Ravana and held prisoner in a subterranean cave, ready to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali.

Mappillapattu—a genre of song popular among the Muslims belonging to Kerala and Lakshadweep—has incorporated some episodes from the Ramayana in some of its songs. These songs, known as Mappila Ramayana, have been handed down from one generation to the next orally. In Mappila Ramayana, the story of the Ramayana has been changed into that of a sultan, and there are no major changes in the names of characters except for that of Ram which is `Laman' in many places. The language and the imagery projected in the Mappilapattu are in accordance with the social fabric of the earlier Muslim community.

One of the most important literary works of ancient India, the Ramayana has had a profound impact on art and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The epic was an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry and Indian life and culture, primarily through its establishment of the shloka meter. The story ushered in the tradition of the next thousand years of massive-scale works in the rich diction of regal courts and Brahmanical temples. It has also inspired much secondary literature in various languages. The Ramayana became popular in Southeast Asia during the 8th century and was represented in literature, temple architecture, dance and theatre. Today, dramatic enactments of the story of Ramayana, known as Ramlila, take place all across India and in many places across the globe within the Indian diaspora.

Ram, the hero of the Ramayana, is a popular deity worshiped in the Hindu religion. Each year, many devout pilgrims trace his journey through India, halting at each of the holy sites along the way. The poem is not seen as just a literary monument, it serves as an integral part of Hinduism, and is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it, or certain passages of it, are believed by Hindus to free them from sin and shower blessings upon the reader or listener. According to Hindu tradition, Ram is an incarnation (Avatar) of the god Vishnu. The main purpose of this incarnation is to demonstrate the righteous path (dharma) for all living creatures on the earth.

References:

Arya, Ravi Prakash (ed.). Ramayana of Valmiki: Sanskrit Text and English Translation. (English translation according to M. N. Dutt, introduction by Dr.  Ramashraya Sharma, 4-volume set) Parimal Publications: Delhi, 1998.

Bhattacharji, Sukumari (1998). Legends of Devi. Orient Blackswan. 
Brockington, John (2003), "The Sanskrit Epics", in Flood, Gavin, Blackwell companion to Hinduism, Blackwell Publishing. 
Buck, William; B.A. van Nooten (2000). Ramayana. University of California Press.  
Dutt, Romesh C. (2004). Ramayana. Kessinger Publishing. 
Dutt, Romesh Chunder (2002). The Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed into English verse. Courier Dover Publications.  
E. B. Cowell, tr., The Buddhacharita of Asvagosha, Book I, Verse 48. Clarendon Press (1894).
Fallon, Oliver (2009). Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Ravana (Bhattikavya). New York: New York University Press, Clay Sanskrit Library.
Goldman, Robert P. (1990). The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India: Balakanda. Princeton University Press. 
Goldman, Robert P. (1994). The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India: Kiskindhakanda. Princeton University Press. 
Goldman, Robert P. (1996). The Ramayana of Valmiki: Sundarakanda. Princeton University Press. 
Julia Leslie, Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki, Ashgate (2003).
 Keshavadas, Sadguru Sant (1988). Ramayana at a Glance. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. 
Prabhavananda, Swami (1979). Spiritual Heritage of India. Vedanta Press.  
Raghunathan, N. (transl.), Srimad Valmiki Ramayanam, Vighneswara Publishing House, Madras (1981).
Sattar, Arshia (transl.) (1996). The Ramayana by Valmiki. Viking. 
Sundararajan, K.R. (1989). "The Ideal of Perfect Life : The Ramayana". in Krishna Sivaraman, Bithika Mukerji. Hindu spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. The Crossroad Publishing Co. 
A different Song - Article from "The Hindu" August 12, 2005 - [2].                                                                          

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