Maharṣi Vālmīki's sense of humour - part 1

कूजन्तं राम रामेति मधुरं मधुराक्षरम् ।
आरुह्य कविता-शाखां वन्दे वाल्मीकि-कोकिलम् ॥
[Continuously singing the sweet syllables rāma, perched upon the branch - poetry, is the cuckoo - Vālmīki, we bow down to him]


It is well known that the author of Śrīmad-rāmāyaṇam is maharṣi Vālmīki. It is known as the ādikāvya i.e. the first poem. The word ādi has two meanings - the first and the cause. Since it is the first poem it might have earned the epithet ādikāvya. Or because it became the ideal for all the poetry which spawned subsequently it might have earned that name. All the criteria which the aestheticians prescribe for good poetry is found in this great work. All the rasas like śṛṅgāra and others, all the bhāvas have manifested in it. The aṣṭādaśavarṇanās (eighteen varieties of descriptions) find their place in it. Just to satisfy the criteria, the description of the forests, oceans etc, haven’t been forcefully brought in.

The life of Vālmīki isn’t known precisely. Some details are present in the Adhyātma-rāmāyaṇam. Śrī-rāma visits the āśrama of maharṣi Vālmīki during his vanavāsa, maharṣi Vālmīki himself says these words.

अहं पुरा किरातेषु किरातैस्-सह वर्धितः ।
जन्म-मात्र-द्विजत्वं मे शूद्राचार-रतस्-सदा ॥

-Adhyātma-rāmāyaṇa 1.6.65

[I was amidst the hunters and thus was brought up as one. I am a brāhmaṇa just by birth, I became a śūdra in all my conduct.]

From the phrase, “janma-mātra-dvijatvaṃ me” we can understand he was a brāhmaṇa by birth. He also had another name, Prācetasa. It means he is the son of Pracetas. Pracetas might have been a brāhmaṇa. Pracetas is also an epithet of the dikpālaka, Varuṇa. But there is no evidence to say that he is the son of Varuṇa. He has never been addressed as Vāruṇi. Thus, Vālmīki is a brāhmaṇa. Here is the narration of maharṣi Vālmīki himself in the Adhyātma-rāmāyaṇam continued.

“O Rāma, I had many children with a śūdra woman. Then I fell into the company of thieves and used to hold bow and arrows and hunted animals in the forest becoming their Yama, i.e. deity of death. Once in the dense forest I saw seven men who were as resplendent as the Sun himself. In a bid to steal their belongings I stopped them. They said, ‘O wile brāhmaṇa, why are you stopping us?’ I replied, ‘O maharṣi, I’ve a wife and children to take care of. I’m roaming around in the forest to provide for them. My aim is to steal something from you.’ They stood unperturbed. They said, ‘who would bear the burden of your pāpa which you have been committing? Will your family suffer the consequences? Go home and ask them about this individually and then come back. We’ll be waiting for you. Our word is immutable, now go.’ I did likewise and asked each of my family members separately. My wife and my children responded thus, ‘We would not bear your burden of pāpa, that is your own responsibility. It is your duty to protect and take care of us. We have never forced you to procure anything by unjust means.’ I truly repented for my wrong deeds. Vairagya (renunciation) sprouted in my mind. I returned and told the maharṣis who were waiting for me thus, ‘O great Ṛṣis, please rescue me from the naraka which I’ve gotten into, due to my own bad deeds.’ I prostrated before them. The maharṣis who were the embodiment of compassion addressed me thus, ‘Get up, from now let good things happen to you. Your encounter with good people has borne fruits. We will perform mantropadeśa of some mantra, repeated remembrance of it will cleanse you from all the pāpa you have incurred.’ they discussed among themselves. “He is a pāpin and a brāhmaṇa who has fallen. Now he repents due to the samskāras of his previous lives. A person who has sought refuge should never be deserted. He should be shown the right path.” Then they instructed me, ‘The mantramarā’ is to be repeatedly remembered. It should be pursued single mindedly. We shall visit again. Till we come you should be doing it. Don’t even move slightly from this place.’ Then they went away.

I followed their instruction, sat down, and unwaveringly pursued the goal which they assigned to me chanting the mantramarāmarāmarā’ I forgot the very existence of the whole world. I don’t know how much time went by. An anthill (valmīka) grew around me as I sat still. I didn’t know of its existence. One day the maharṣis returned. They saw that the anthill had completely covered me and instructed, ‘Come out!’ Only then I again became aware of the external world. I came out and prostrated before them. They said, ‘O maharṣi, you have been purified. You have come out of an anthill. It is as though you have been reborn. Since you came out of valmīka, henceforth you’ll be known as Vālmīki’ After declaring this they went away.”

This story is appropriate to justify the power of the utterance of the name of Śrī-rāma. But why did the maharṣis instruct the name of  Śrī-rāma by reversing it as ‘marā’? Let us for the sake of argument agree that while uttering ‘marāmarāmarā..’ we actually utter the name of Śrī-rāma. Even without knowing the meaning, the utterance of his very name is fruitful may have been the opinion here. Some people opine: since he was a forest dweller, he would be acquainted with ‘marā’ (tree). So the maharṣis instructed him using something which is familiar to him.

This begs the question, was he a kannaḍiga! Something doesn't add up. The maharśis might have thought that someone indulging in such activities shouldn’t be given the name of Śrī-rāma directly. That might have been the reason. This story might have just cropped up to justify the name Vālmīki.

This is the first part of the multi-part translation of the Kannada book "Valmiki Munigala Hasya Pravrtti" by Mahamahopadhyaya Vidwan Dr. N Ranganatha Sharma. Thanks to Dr. Sharada Chaitra for granting us permission to translate this wonderful work. The original in Kannada can be read here



Mahamahopadhyaya Vidwan Ranganatha Sharma was a renowned Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Vyakarana or Grammar. He is noted for his translation of the entire Valmiki Ramayana into Kannada, which was published with a foreword by DVG. He has authored several books in Kannada and Sanskrit. He is a recipient of the national award for Sanskrit learning and has received the Rajyotsava Award.  



Raghavendra G S is currently pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Science. He is a keen student of classical literature in Sanskrit and Kannada. He is one of the contributing editors of Prekshaa.

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