āśīrnamaskriyā vastunirdeśo vā || (Dandin: Kavyadarsha)
is a famous aphorism. However, this was composed long after Maharshi Valmiki’s period. I simply cannot believe that Valmiki was completely bound by this rule. We don’t find any other example to claim that Valmiki was a poet who specialized in puns. One can shut the mouth of the opponent in an argument through clever feats of grammar. We can even astonish the opponent akin to performing acrobatics in a circus. However, we cannot instill peace and contentment within his heart. If we discount just this one sloka, the entire second Sarga of the epic has the capacity to provide evidence as to the poet’s nobility of heart.
The third Sarga informs us about the mental purity and preparation of the poet. The kind of our inner-life richness that true poetry expects, an attempt which has innate respect for opposing views, the sort of Tapas this is—we notice all of this in the third Sarga.
The fourth Sarga is extremely enchanting. This is the topic of the Sarga: the song of Kusha and Lava and the Rishis giving them gifts. We observe the shadow of Maharshi Valmiki’s sense of charm here.
In this manner, all these four Sargas, held to be the creations of Valmiki’s disciples are beautiful and appropriate in their place.
The Wonderful Circumstance of the Avatara
The story of the Balakanda contains three sections:
- The Birth of Sri Rama and his brothers
- Their education
In the circumstance of the Avatara of Sri Rama and his brothers, there is mention of several thrilling happenings: Rishyashringa who officiates a Yajna, and the Yajna-Purusha who gives the Payasam—these are the main events. The birth of a great man endowed with divine qualities is not like the birth of ordinary people. Much before his actual birth, several exceptional qualities will be innate in him—it appears that this belief is common to all countries and cultures. It is visible in the myths and epics of the ancient Greeks. At the time of the birth of the great person, a voice is heard from the skies; stars and planets provide indicators; special preparations for the birth take place with a feeling of fear and devotion. The most eminent people take part in it. In this way, Rishyashrunga was one such eminence who took part in the preparations for the Avatara of Sri Rama.
The episode of the Divine Payasam is similar. The Great Man is not born of human seed. We may recall that, like Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, even Kunti and Madri became pregnant through Divine means.
Are such miracles real? This is not a question one must ask in such cases. We are reading poetry, not court records. The intent of the poet is for us to regard the main theme of the work with an attitude of respect and seriousness. It is to create such an attitude within us that the poet builds an environment of miraculous and fantastic events.
The episode of Rishyashrunga shows an ancient belief system: prosperity resides wherever a Tapasvi or Rishi resides; a Tapasvi who essentially practices Vrata brings safety to the populace.
Another ancient belief: as early as in the Tretayuga, courtesanship was recognized as a separate profession governed by separate rules and laws. The society had accepted the necessity of the existence of this profession. People of those days didn’t have false pretences about it akin to a cat closing its eyes and drinking milk thinking nobody would see it. A lake for a town or village. A sex market for the lustful. A commercial market for the consumerist. If these are not clearly demarcated, such buyers would regard every home as a store. This is a subject that today’s ultra-civilised social reformers need to think about.
One of the summits of Valmiki Maharshi’s artistic finesse is bringing Vishwamitra to educate Sri Rama. Only great men are necessary to help other great men prepare for their great tasks. Vishwamitra is truly an extraordinary person. He was originally a Kshatriya who attained Brahmatva [the State of realizing Brahman]. He had realized both the depth and the tip of human nature. He had experienced the vagaries of happiness and sorrow, suffered and transcended them. He embarked on several adventurous feats, tasted defeat, and without losing heart, had enlightened himself through ceaseless efforts. He was valourous and gave refuge to those who sought his help. Indeed, it is only such persons as him who were capable of providing caution against the dangers faced in the path of life and to instill enthusiasm and drive out fear. Sri Rama derived five benefits from his guidance: (1) Training in weapons (2) Knowledge about the Rakshasas (3) History lessons (4) Travelling to various countries as a way of uplifting the mind (5) Ideal marriage.
Chief among the stories narrated by Vishwamitra to Sri Rama are: Vishwamitra’s own life story, the story of Sri Rama’s birth and ancestors, the story of Shanmukha, the story of Bhagiratha, and the story of Ahalya. Of these, some are related to the history of the country and others are historical episodes that had come down from a remote past. Ahalya’s episode is derived from the Vedas.
gaurāvaskandinnahalyāyai cāra |
Devendra [or Indra] was a resplendent personality but a lustful person. One cannot live without him. However, one must not be unguarded even while trusting him. He is always scared of people on the earth who are involved in Yajna or Tapas because they might ask for some boon which might damage his position. And so, he immediately begins piling up obstacles in their way. In the past, he had sent the celestial damsels Rambha and Menaka to ruin Vishwamitra’s penance. When the Emperor Sagara performed the Sankalpa for a Yajna and sent the Yajna-horse on a campaign of Digvijaya [conquest of victory], Indra stole the horse, hid it in the nether world and became the cause for the deaths of Sagara’s sons. All such stories must have stimulated Sri Rama’s intellect.
What Sri Ramachandra needed was not textbook lessons but knowledge of the world, practice of distinguishing the appropriate and the inappropriate, felicity of understanding the nuances of Dharma, self-confidence, and respect for his own duties in this world. Vishwamitra’s narratives and stories helped cultivate and nuture these qualities within Sri Rama. The boy Rama’s travels to various countries with Vishwamitra strengthened his body, perfected his prowess in archery, blossomed his mind, and sharpened his intellect. Likewise, Vishwamitra gained confidence in Rama’s ability and competence to discharge the weighty duties of an enlightened life.
To be continued