It Is Poetry
What we are told
Ramayana, a tale of romance and love
The epic is traditionally ascribed to the Rishi Valmiki, and narrates the life of Rama, a legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom with Ayodhya as its capital. There he was eventually crowned as its king. [Map]
However, Rama was exiled to the forest for fourteen-years before that, and travelled across forests in India with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. One day Sita was abducted by a ten-headed monster king of Lanka. A war followed. An army of talking bears and monkeys fought for Rama. After the war he got back his Sita and became a king, but suspicions about his abducted wife lingered, so he much reluctantly sent her away although she was pregnant.
However, when Queen Sita was late in her more than ten thousand years long life, she was welcomed to a hermitage that the poet Valmiki ran. There her two sons with Rama grew up. They were taught by Valmiki who had first been sitting still for thousands of years, so that white ants built an anthill over him. From the anthill he told someone who wanted him to get out of the anthill: "I have no skill in any craft, even in words." But eventually he came out. (Ib., 4-5; WP, "Ramayana")
On a more prosaic level
Ramayana, 'Rama's Way', from the name Rama and ayana, going, advancing, may be translated to such as 'Rama's going,' and 'Rama's journey' also. It is a very long epic poem ascribed to the sage Valmiki, and written in the Sanskrit language. It has influenced later life and culture in India and many nearby countries much. Its key characters Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana have been long-lasting characters in the cultural pan-Indian awareness, including that of Nepal.
The poem tells about the royal Rama and his fare. The larger part of it deals with how he and his allies handles that Rama's beloved wife, Sita, is abducted by a monstrous king called Ravana. Rama seeks allies, they fight to get her back, and Rama's forces succeed at long last. But that is not the end of it.
Like the Mahabharata, the epic poem is not just a story: it presents teachings of sages in narrative form, interspersing philosophical and devotional parts. It depicts duties of relationships and portrays ideal characters: the ideal king, wife, father, brother servant and so on. The poem further explores human values and the concept of dharma, righteousness, justice, law, proper religious fare, and so on. The term 'dharma' encompasses proper living and fairness too.
The long poem consists of 24,000 verses in seven books (kandas) and 500 cantos (sargas). Verses are written in a 32-syllable metre called anustubh, which was discovered when a fowler killed an unsuspecting bird and the cries of its mate gave the nearby sage the measures that he composed the "Ramayana" in.
Valmiki comes up with a metre after agony cries
The sage Valmiki had gone to the river Ganges to bathe. At one place Valmiki said to a disciple who was carrying his clothes, "Look, how clear is this water, like the mind of a good man! I will bathe here today."
When he was looking for a suitable place to step into the stream, he saw a crane couple mating. Valmiki felt very pleased with seeing the happy birds. Suddenly the male bird was hit by an arrow and died on the spot. Its mate screamed in agony and died of shock. Valmiki looked around to see who had killed the happy bird, and noticed a hunter with a bow and arrows nearby. Valmiki became grieved and angry and said something spontaneously to the hunter. It turned out to be a verse, a sloka.
Later Valmiki composed the entire Ramayana in the same metre; an early free form that flows quite like blank verse. It has very few restrictions, but tends toward being iambic (a short syllable followed by a long syllable is a iamb). By origin the anustubh is a stanza - a quatrain - of four lines with eight syllables in each, but has been found to work well as a couplet.
What's the use of being rich if you won't spend your gold to do good for other people?
To continue to live is the way to joy and happiness [in a life].
If one continues to live, happiness and bliss may come even after a gap of a hundred years [or so].
One who is angry does not distinguish [a lot].
Dharma . . . sustains or supports society.
You can't protect Dharma if you don't know what it is.
Abundant are yes-men.
Tapas is the highest good or pleasure. (Mod).
The story's original version in Sanskrit is known as Valmiki Ramayana, dating to about the 500s to 400s BCE. Also, the epos has gone through a long process of interpolations and redactions, and there is a version known as Ramopakhyana, in the very long epic poem Mahabharata. More specifically, the Ramayana is composed of about 480,000 words on some 50,000 lines. It is about four times as long as Homer's Iliad, and a quarter as long as the full text of the Mahabharata. The "Ramayana" within the Mahabharata is a narration to a main character there, Yudhishtira.
There are other versions of the Ramayana too, and several regional renderings, recensions, subrecensions and retellings. Followers of Madhvacharya believe that there once was an older, more authoritative version of the Ramayana, the mula-Ramayana, but which is no longer extant. And in the Buddhist variant, Rama's father was the king of Benares and not Ayodhya. What is more, Sita was not abducted in this version.
From the Wikipedia:
The poem is often viewed as a primarily devotional text, However, Vaishnava [Vishnuism] elements appear to be later accretions.
The Sanskrit term 'yuga' means era, age, as in the Golden Age of ancients Greeks. Treta Yuga corresponds in several ways to the Silver Age.
It has been found that the general cultural background of the Ramayana is of the post-urbanisation period of the eastern part of North India. The whole poem consists of seven parts that deal chronologically with the series of hardships endured by Rama and his Sita. However, as the story moves to the third part, kanda, and further, it seems to turn into the fantastic, to a field where hordes of demons are slayed, and fantastic creatures appear, bear arms, fly in the air without wings, talk, and fight wars in part like human soldiers. The geography of central and South India is only vaguely described, and what is told of the island of Sri Lanka also lacks detail.
Yet, in India the epic story of Ramayana is not seen as just a literary monument, but serves as an integral part of Hinduism by its portrayal of the "exemplary characters", by how it concocts and transfer religious ideals and cultural values, and much else. Hence, to millions of men, women and children in India, the Ramayana is not a mere tale. And in course of time, the epic story of Ramayana was adopted by a lot of cultures across Asia.
The Parts of the Poem
[Cf. Wikipedia, s.v. "Ramayana"]
The Oldest Portion and the Additions
According to Indian tradition the poem is the work of a single poet, namely the sage Valmiki. Called the "first poet" in Sanskrit literature, he is hailed to be the author of most of the epic at any rate: The scholar Romesh Chandra 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."
There is general consensus that books two to six form the oldest portion of the epic while the first and last books are later additions.
The Author: A Former Highway Robber Turned Poet
Valmiki is revered as "first poet" because he discovered the metre and verse form of the very long epos. By the first century CE, Valmiki's reputation as a main poet Sanskrit appears to have been legendary.
Quite early in his life, Valmiki, named differently, was a highway robber. He used to rob people before killing them. Robbing people who passed by was the only source of income to him. But the sources of his early life are questionable.
One day a sage who was passing by, ran into Valmiki. He wanted everything the passer-by owned, from his clothing to the shoes. The sage asked why he was committing this horrible offense. Valmiki answered that it was the only way to provide for his family. Now the sage asked him if his family was part of the sins he committed and told him to go ask his family that.
Valmiki tied the sage to a tree so that he could not escape, and headed home. There he asked his parents and wife in turn if they were with him on the sins that he was committing too, or only living off the results. They answered that after all it was his duty to provide for them, but he alone was responsible for his sins. He understood and quickly returned to the sage, let him loose, fell to his knees and asked him to get rid of the terrible consequences of the sins and offences he had committed.
The sage told him to repeat 'Rama' as his mantra. That practice would help him. After the sage left, Valmiki sat down and meditated on the mantra for a long time, so long that an anthill grew up around him while he was sitting. Then a great Light broke in and a heavenly voice said he had been freed from sins. The voice also said that from now on he now was to be called Valmiki. It is Sanskrit for 'one who sits in an anthill'.
◎ A former highway man sat in an anthill and meditated long and well, and became recognised as a great poet and sage since.
The Hero Rama
Rama is one of the many popular heroes and deities in Hinduism. In what is believed to be the birthplace of Rama, he is also worshipped as an infant or Rama Lalla. Rama is referred to within Hinduism as the Perfect Man or Lord of Self-Control or Lord of Virtue, and his wife Sita the embodiment of perfect womanhood. Rama is forced by his honour, moral obligations, dharma, to fight a terrible war. He was not totally unprepared for it, as the following few hightlights make clear:
When Rama was sixteen, he and his brother Lakshmana were taken to the forests and taught weaponry by a glorious sage, Vishwamitra. The sage took the two princes to a ceremony where a fair princess could be had. The challenge was to string a certain bow and to break it. While trying to string the bow, Rama broke it it two and as a result got the princess, Sita, for his wife.
When they left the place where she had grown up, a rishi (seer) appeared before them. He was famed for having killed all of the world's tyrannical and oppressive emperors and kings twenty-one times. Now he found it unbelievable that anybody could break the bow that Rama had just broken. He had taken with him another difficult bow, and challenged Rama to string it and and then fight a battle with him.
Very quickly Rama snatched the bow, strung it, placed an arrow and pointed it straight at the old rishi's old heart. The rishis understood Rama was his better, and left. Rama then shot the arrow up into the air with great ease. It is said that the Rama's arrow is still flying across space, across time and across the universe.
Later Rama was asked by Vishwamitra to slay a cursed demoness. Rama first demurred, considering it sinful to kill a woman, but Vishwamitra explained that evil had no gender.
Rama replied, "My father asked me to follow your orders; I will obey them even if it is a sin." The killing was soon followed by more killings. Two sons of the demoness he had just killed, attacked, and there were other evil spirits too - Many of them had even killed and eaten sages and innocent people. So Rama uses his exceptional prowess to single-handedly kill over fourteen thousand demon hordes, it says.
Rama had also learnt how to use of the Brahma Astra (astra means 'weapon'). Described in a number of the Puranas, it was considered the deadliest weapon considered capable of destroying up to all creation. At one point on his journey Rama had pointed the Brahmasta at the ocean to demolish it; he was not pleased with it. But when it turned out it was not necessary to invoke the astra, the weapon still had to be used after it had been invoked. Rama then re-directed it at a demonic race that lived in the heart of the ocean. His arrows destroyed the demons and established a purer, liberated environment down there.
In another version, Rama redirected his missile to a barren island, and as a result huge volcanic eruption resulted at the southern part of the Indian peninsula.
The killing of Ravana
The Ramayana by steps and stages leads to Rama killing Ravana - not an easy thing to do, since Ravana had magical powers and knowledge of warfare, among other assets. Rama and Ravana fought fiercely and wounded one another severely with the remaining most powerful weapons in the world, after then one that had been used to create a volcano or kill fish. The remaining weapons could destroy the universe, they too. So we are told. But Rama stayed alive anyhow.
Ramana had ten heads. After a long and hard battle, Rama cut off the main head somewhere in the middle and thought he had won. But an ugly head at once grew up instead of it. After another long battle, Rama cut that head off too. But another head came up in its place. This happened again and again, till darkness approached. With the gathering gloom Ravana's magical powers would become stronger, so Rama had to come up with a solution fast.
At just that point someone told Rama that Ravana had got the nectar of immortality in a vessel in his stomach. The nectar made heads grow out again on him as soon as heads were cut off. Rama understood what to do. He aimed a blazing arrow at Ravana's stomach and when it hit its target, it made the nectar evaporate. As a result, Ravana died.
There are many times more English versions of the Ramayana than the ones that are picked out here. The handed-over poem comes with additional matter that has accrued, and variations too. In English today there are translations, condensations of translations, renderings and selections. The differing versions aim at different people and age groups: some versions address grown-ups and others children - and well illustrated. Some are carefully written in scholarly fashion and some are well formed retellings ruled by other standards than scholarly care, and the Ramayana handled by Egenes and Reddy (above) is said to combine both. — Translations/selections/renderings/condensations are quite naturally of various lengths. Pick your choice among the Ramayana versions. The newest one could be the best, if it is not the full text you are after.
Brockington, John, and Mary Brockington, trs. 2006. Rama the Steadfast: An Early Form of the Ramayana. London: Penguin Classics.
Buck, William. 1978. Ramayana: King Rama's Way. Valmiki's Ramayana told in English prose by William Buck. London: Mentor Books / The New English Library.
Debroy, Bibek, tr. 2017. The Ramayana. 3 Vols. Cyber City, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India.
Egenes, Linda, and Kumuda Reddy, trs. The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki's Ancient Epic - Complete and Comprehensive. New York: Tarcher/Pedigree, 2016. ⍽▢⍽ Written in a nice, accurate and clear style, this is a very readable scholarly work.
Mazumdar, Shudha. Ramayama. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1958. ⍽▢⍽ The Krittivasa Ramayana, the Bengali Ramayana, has been made available by the author Shudha Ghosh Mazumdar (1899–1994) in a form that mothers of Bengal tell it in to children - It is a quality work.
Shastri, Hari Prasad, tr. Ramayana of Valmiki, Vols 1-3. London: Shanti Sadan. Vol 1: 2nd rev. ed. 1962; Vol 2: 1957; Vol 3, 1st ed. 1959. [Later editions exist too] ⍽▢⍽ Hari Prasad Shastri (1882–1956) was born into a Brahmin family at Bareilly in northern India and educated at Benares and Allahabad University. A gifted Sanskrit scholar, well versed in Advaita Vedanta, he lectured at Waseda University in Tokyo, and afterwards moved to China for eleven years and was Dean of the Foreign Department at Hardoon University and Professor of Philosophy at Nankwang College, where he supervised the publication of a Chinese edition of over 5,000 Buddhist Scriptures. He travelled to Britain in 1929, where he founded a centre of Yoga and made several distinguished translations of Advaita classics. Dr. Shastri was an acharya (teacher) of one of the oldest teaching schools of classical yoga, the Yoga of Self-Knowledge (Adhyatma Yoga). ⸺ Dr Shastri's complete Ramayana translation in prose is online at the Internet Archive in various quality formats.
Subramaniam, Kamala. Ramayana. Bombay: Bharatiya Book University, 1983. ⍽▢⍽ A very popular and readable English version of nearly 700 engrossing pages, well suited to non-academic readers, and not overly condensed. The gifted author (1916–83) spent much time on translating Hindu scriptures after the late 1960s.
Venkatesananda, Swami. 1988. The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Sources of article above: Wikipedia, "Rama," "Ramayana," "Valmiki", "anustubh", "Sita", etc.
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