The method of the Western researchers is to put in extraordinary efforts to delve into the details of the poet’s time and place. For us, the poetry and not the poet, is more important. We need the poet because of the poetry and not the poetry because of the poet.
There are at least a hundred places that desire to claim that Valmiki lived there. The people of Avani near Mulabagilu say that it is the original Avanti-Kshetra, and that Sita Devi delivered her children there and point to a pool in the hills claiming that she washed her children’s clothes there. This indicates the pride they have in their town. We feel happy for that. Instead of denying, if we smile and accept it as though it’s a fact, it does not injure our enjoyment of the Ramayana poem even one bit. Others claim that Valmiki Maharshi did not hail from Avani but belonged to a place called Vanmiyoor near Madras. Be that as it may. No matter where Valmiki lived, he undoubtedly belongs to all of us—that is, if we feel the need for his poem.
The size of Srimad Ramayana which has come down to us in the present form—was it entirely written by Valmiki himself?—every letter from start to end? Or, did Valmiki author only some portions of the work and did numerous unnamed poets who came later add to his original creation? Perhaps this was so.
- The work was not popularized in the form of a written book but by singing it orally. After Lava and Kusha, Purana exponents like the Rishi Suta sang the Ramayana wherever he was, wherever he went. In some places, new audiences would come to listen to it. For the benefit of such people, it was necessary to summarize the previous portions of the story and revise them. Then, in order to show new flavor to these new audiences, these Purana exponents would add a couple of lines not present in the original work. As these storytellers gained practice and mastery over their art and craft, they would’ve perhaps seen newer charms and infused more creative intricacies into the work. All this is verifiable by our own experience, right? As the story is narrated, it acquires various limbs. Scholars have averred that Homer’s epic poem Iliad grew in this fashion. Likewise, over time, even Valmiki Maharshi’s work might have also expanded in size as the Purana exponents sang it.
- In a story popular with the masses, the opportunity for expounding on the element of Bhakti greatly increases. People who genuinely regarded Sri Rama as Vishnu himself might have added a few lines in the work which strengthened this belief. In the overall reckoning, some people claim that major portions of the Balakanda and the whole of the Uttarakanda are interpolations.
If that is so, so be it. It is not easy to definitively prove as interpolations those portions in the work that are claimed to be interpolations. That is the field of doubt. We don’t need controversy. We are chiefly the connoisseurs of the Rasa emanating from pure poetry. If a verse is lovely, we do not need to ask how it appeared there. Is the sentence construction beautiful? Is the emotion appropriate? If the answer is yes to such questions, we don’t need other disputes.
For now, let us examine the portion of the Ramayana that is before us. Of the seventy-seven Sargas of the Balakanda, the first four were not composed by Valmiki. Some folks make a guess that one of his disciples composed and added these to the work. It appears to me that this guesswork is correct. These four Sargas are in the form of a preface and not part of the story itself. The story begins from the fifth Sarga:
sarvā pūrvam iyam yeṣām āsīt kṛtsnā vasuṃdharā ||
However, I simply cannot drop the first four Sargas. These are the themes they deal with:
Sarga (1): Conversation between Narada and Valmiki: summary of the entire story.
Sarga (2): Brahma blessing Valmiki with the theme of the Ramayana
Sarga (3): Manifestation of the theme of the poem before the poet’s eyes
Sarga (4): Method of popularising the work—singing the poem
All four are beautiful.
tapasswAdhyaya niratham tapaswI vAgvidAm varam ||
Tapas, the study of the Vedas, the glory of knowledge, recalling the traits of great people—the poet transports us to this sacred world the moment he spots us. The poet who beseeches Narada about the extraordinary curiosity (param kautūhalaṃ hi me) he experienced invokes within us the same curiosity. In order to quickly satisfy this curiosity, he shows us a complete sketch of the entire account of Sri Rama’s life-story. In this manner, contentment accompanies this satisfaction of curiosity and our mind is prepared for concentration.
The second Sarga contains the story of how the poet’s mind was stimulated and filled with passion. Indeed, this story of the poet’s inner passion infuses astonishment in us. However, I have a slight dispute in this. The verse in which Valmiki curses the hunter is not composed in the poet’s usual style.
mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṃ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ ।
yatkrauṃcamithunādekamavadhīh kāmamohitam ।। (Balakanda: 2-15)
It is natural for compassionate people to feel pity when they look upon a scene where lovemaking is cruelly interrupted. Even as small kids are happily playing and someone comes along and beats them for no reason, it is but natural for any person to feel enraged. The situation is certainly appropriate. However, was it a crime to kill only one bird in the couple? ekamavadhī—wouldn’t it sadden us if both the birds were killed?
pratiṣṭhāṃ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ mā agamaḥ ||
“May you never find shelter anywhere in in this world.”
What kind of a curse is this? Is this world everlasting for only innocent people? Is there anxiety in the words, “May you never live eternally?” If the hunter replies, “Even I don’t need eternal life, sir. Fifty more years are enough,” what would be Valmiki’s reply to it?
This is an artificial verse—composed with a view to imply two meanings. The first meaning is to curse the hunter. The second meaning is as follows: “Hey cruel Ravana! You have kidnapped one among the Sita and Rama couple who are verily the incarnations of Mahalakshmi and Vishnu. Therefore, may you quickly be subjected to death.” Commentators have argued that the poet’s intent was to indicate the theme of the story in this fashion.
To be continued