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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry  


The Origin of Poetry in the Sanskrit Epic Ramayana

Rama, the great hero of Indian tradition, descends from the line of kings who ruled in the capital city of Ayodhya in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. One of four sons borne to his father by three separate wives, Rama is supposed to inherit the throne, but he relinquishes his claim when one of his stepmothers demands that her son instead become king. Although a great warrior who has won his beautiful wife Sita by bending a huge bow that no other suitor has the strength to string, Rama graciously retreats to a meditative existence in the forest with his devoted Sita, rather than insist on his political rights.

When a demon abducts Sita, Rama exercises his martial prowess by fighting the demons to regain his wife. After a series of fantastic adventures and battles, he finally succeeds with the aid of an army of monkeys, led by the witty white ape, Hanuman. Eventually, Rama assumes his rightful role as king, but, as the passage below indicates, he remains apart from Sita because of the scandal of her abduction. Although she remained faithful to Rama despite the efforts of the demon to seduce her, her reputation tarnishes and Rama must give her up if he is to retain his people's trust.

The Ramayana derives from traditional oral materials celebrating the legends of Rama. As Homer is considered to be the first Greek poet, so Valmiki is the first Sanskrit poet, thought to have composed the Ramayana some time between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. (Stories about Rama continued to be so popular that the full name of the Sanskrit epic is Valmiki-Ramayana, to prevent confusion with other versions in other languages of the Indian subcontinent. The newest treatment of the exploits of Rama is a television series in seventy-eight episodes that recently aired in India to great public acclaim.)

The excerpt below, from the opening pages of the poem, describes the events that turn Valmiki into a poet and suggests the role that poetry plays in preserving and providing coherence to past events. The original Sanskrit is written in an intricate poetic form; this English prose translation by William Buck makes no attempt to reproduce the effect of Valmiki's verse. In the original, it is worth noting, a resemblance between two Sanskrit words links the birds' anguish (soka) to the genesis of lyric verse (sloka).

Excerpt from Ramayana

As a young man, Valmiki searched through the world seeking open friendship and happiness and hope, and finding none of these he went alone into the empty forest where no man lived, to a spot near where the Tamasa river flows into Ganga. There he sat for years without moving, so still that white ants built an anthill over him. There Valmiki sat inside that anthill for thousands of years with only his eyes showing out, trying to find the True, his hands folded and his mind lost in contemplation.

Then one cloudy winter's day, at noon, the heavenly sage Narada, the inventor of music, born from Brahma's mind, flew from heaven to Valmiki and said, "Come out! Help me!"

"It's too cold," answered Valmiki. "Away with the worlds, where a little pleasure costs a lot of pain. Don't make trouble."

"Would I ever? See how Life goes by, with every creature doing what follows his nature." Narada knelt and looked in Valmiki's eyes. "Master, what can I say to you?" Valmiki said, "Just name me one honest man and I'll move." "Rama!" said Narada. "Come out of there!"

"Who is Rama?"

"Rama rules as King in Ayodhya. He is born in the Solar race and a descendant of the Sun; he is brave and gentle and firm in fight. By Rama's command his adorable Queen Sita is being brought here into the forest on a chariot, and though she suspects nothing yet, here she will be left abandoned. Unless you comfort her she will drown herself in Ganga and kill as well her unborn sons by Rama."

"What did she do wrong?" asked Valmiki.

"Nothing," said Narada. "Sita is innocent and blameless. She has lived as Rama's Queen for nearly ten thousand years; before that, Rama saved her from great danger by wondrous and incredible deeds. And now behold one of the terrors of kingship, that Rama must let her go because his people talk against her. Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama, and teach it to Rama's two sons."

"I have no companions here," said Valmiki.

"You have now. Coming here, I sang a friend-gathering song. Valmiki, I've seen other skies than these, other worlds, and other friends. People are counting on you...and I can hear the chariot from Ayodhya approaching across Ganga."

Valmiki said, "I have no skill in any craft, even in words."

"There stops the chariot! Right now--here they come across Ganga in a boat, or will you also give way and forsake Sita too from fear of other people? See! She has discovered she is lost, and the boat is launched back without her. Oh hurry--there the sunlight comes from behind the dark clouds--there Ganga the River Goddess begins unseen to whisper spells over Sita and make her swift-flowing waters seem a warm safe home. Act now, Valmiki; call out and the rest must follow."

Valmiki stood up and broke free out of that hard anthill. Suddenly he saw all around him many houses of hermits and their families, young trees carefully watered, a retreat cleared from the forest. Four boys ran up to him from the river and cried, "The wife of some great warrior weeps by Ganga. She is fair as a Goddess fallen from heaven all bewildered, all alone, never seen before, with child, and with small gifts from the city tied with a silk cloth beside her. Go to her, welcome her, protect her . . ."

Valmiki ran to Sita on the riverbank. "Sita, stay here in my hermitage, you have found here your father's house in a foreign land, we will care for you as our daughter." And seeing Sita he thought,

"What a fine fair woman, how beautiful."

Quickly the hermit wives surrounded Sita and took her to their homes. Narada had gone. Valmiki went alone to the clear Ganga waterside and bathed. He washed away the anthill dust and peeled grey bark from a tree and made new fresh clothes.

Then he sat back resting against a stone. He watched two small white waterbirds in a tree nearby. The male bird was singing to his mate when before Valmiki's eyes an arrow hit him, and the little bird fell from the limb. He thrashed on the ground an instant and then lay dead, and blood drops stained his feathers.

Heartbroken the dead bird's mate cried--Your long feathers! Your tuneful songs!

A bird-hunter came from the forest holding a bow. Valmiki's heart was pounding and he cursed the killer -- You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity, For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting.

One look at Valmiki and the hunter ran for his life, but fever already burned in his blood; he died that day. Valmiki turned back to his hermitage thinking, "This is truly how I remember the ways of the world." Then he thought, "Those words I cursed him with make a verse, and that verse could be sung to music."

For days the words ran through Valmiki's mind. Whatever he seemed to be doing he was really thinking of his verse. On the fourth day after Sita's rescue, Lord Brahma the creator of the worlds appeared in Valmiki's new retreat. He looked like an old man with red skin and white hair, with four arms, with four faces around one head, holding in his hands a ladle and a rosary, a waterpot and a holy book.

Valmiki greeted Brahma, "Sit by me," and taking water from a pitcher he washed Brahma's feet, and gave him other water to drink. But after that, even sitting there with the Grandfather of all the Universe, watching him, still Valmiki remembered only the two waterbirds and thought to himself, "What a crime! There was not one bite of meat on that little bird! What use is a world run all wrong without a grain of mercy in it?"

Those thoughts were as clear to Brahma as if Valmiki had been shouting in his ear. Brahma said, "So, by a river, the world's first verse has been born from pity, and love and compassion for a tiny bird has made you a poet. Use your discovery to tell Rama's story, and your verses will defeat Time. As you make your poem, Rama's life will be revealed to you, and no words of yours will be untrue."

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is important about Valmiki's telling the story of Rama? What might this reveal about the value of literature?
  2. What does Valmiki's experience suggest about the role of the poet in relation to his society?
  3. How does the sentiment expressed by Valmiki when he sees the fate of the waterbird reflect the attitude toward natural and especially animal life in Indian culture?
  4. What inspires Valmiki to create poetry? How does this source of inspiration compare with that invoked in the opening lines of classical Western epics like the Iliad and the Aeneid?
  5. What measures of time figure in this passage? How does length of life differ here from that expected by the Greeks and the Hebrews? What conclusions can be drawn from observing the differences?