I. The Intent of the Poet
Since about a year now, I have been reading Vālmīki ’s Rāmāyaṇa with a group of friends with the goal of enjoying Vālmīki ’s style, the narrative and the drama. My personal task in the beginning was to examine how words in poetic description cause feelings in the reader. I was checking on contrasts and conflicts that build aesthetics. Appreciation of poetry through enjoyment of words and metaphors is a meditative experience. Vālmīki is a genius in his descriptive ability to present imageries that are as vivid as one sees through directly with the eye. Our meetings in Dwarkamai VIdypaeeth happen twice a month on Sundays from 3 Pm to 5:30PM.
II, Laukika and Vaidika
My intention in this series is to analyze Vālmīki’ Rāmāyaṇa and to understand if we can appreciate the conduct that he is advocating. As Vālmīki says in the preface of his work, we are in search of good moral conduct that we can emulate. Apparently Rāma is such a personality. A personality is a dynamic attribute, we learn from the decision making and the performance of the tasks in life. We have to analyze the moral conduct in life, one applicable to operate life and another to create a model of life. We analyze if idealism and practice can converge. We follow Vālmīki in the analysis.
XI : Brahmarṣi Vaśiṣṭha
Brahmarṣi is an honorific title used in Indian epics to denote the highest attainments of knowledge of life acknowledged by one’s peers. Since there is no competition, the achievements are determined through the creative potential of the person. The logic is that all creativity is due to the maker of the universe Lord Brahmā; and so, the title would be conferred by Lord Brahmā in order to reward the work by the individual. What we may analyze is that Lord Brahmā facilitates the creative potential of the individual and continues to nurture the person for better productivity. In course of time the person is respected by the mankind for his or her wisdom and scholarship. When they receive universal respect, they assume the title of Brahmarṣi. Because of their immense wisdom, they may never perish.
XII: The City of Ayodhyā
Early in the text of the book, Vālmīki presents to us his search of that “perfect” man about whom he had been contemplating. He is told by the Sage Nārada about Rāma and is given an outline of the Rāmāyaṇa story. After the dramatic presentation of the story Nārada says that Rāma returns to “Ayodhyā” to rule. This is where Ayodhyā enters the outline story. While there have been various discussions in the literature about the historicity or the mythology of the Rāmāyaṇa, the city of Ayodhyā remains as a historic landmark. The description of the city by Vālmīki gives us the picture of an advanced urban society with the city’s layout, people, roads, business and security.
XIII: The Holy Gaṅgā
Vālmīki is a nature poet. The events become natural through his poetic skills. He is an observer of the sky, the stars, the mountains, the clouds, the forest, the trees, the animals, the snakes, birds, the rivers, the fish, the women and men. His discharged arrow bites like a “poisonous snake”, his jubilant heroes walk like “intoxicated elephants”, his garlands glitter as “stars in a night sky”, his fear appears as the “look of a deer in front of a lion”, his wailing is like the “state of a fish taken out of water”, his description of beauty is the “cool radiance of the moon!” The entire nature gets animated in Vālmīki’s hands. All objects have life. They interact. His animals talk. The River Gaṅgā becomes the Mountain Himalaya’s daughter. Then it becomes the Holy Mother through the words of Divine Sītā!
III, King Daśaratha
Vālmīki’s characterization of King Daśaratha is a unique portrayal that meets the definition of a family man in a social narrative. Daśaratha has a reputed lineage; he inherits a kingdom. His task is to maintain and protect the kingdom, which he does exceedingly well. His kingdom is prosperous, fortified and his subjects are loyal and well-skilled. He is a pleasure-seeking king, who keeps busy in hunting expeditions and maintains an assembly of three hundred and fifty “queens” in his inner quarters. Out of the three hundred and fifty, he is duly married to three, who possibly have come to his life in his search for a son.
IV, Death and After-Death
In our present day understanding of science and genetics, it is not possible for anyone to find a closure to a life cycle in order that we find a beginning or an end. Though we are born and we die, it is safe to deduce that our life does not originate with our birth. But then does it end with our death? What does exactly happen? The analyses of such questions have helped invent religions to create various closure hypotheses. Different suggestions are pressured on people as functions of the local cultures and their cultivated faith. Most conflicts in the world arise due to these ad-hoc assumptions, each claiming ritualistic maneuvers based on speculation.
V, Mother Kauśalyā
In the design of the universe, the institution of motherhood has the most important place. Every living being has an origin and such origin is attributed to a mother. The mother is a continuation of the flow of life in the universe. While the origin of life is still a speculation in science and cosmology, the mother becomes the protector and propagator of life. In older Indian thinking the universe is run by a mother; our health, strength, capacity of work and intellectual ability are nurtured by our mother. We respect our fathers, but we love our mothers. Mother is our friend and protection in this life wherever we are.
VI - Devī Sumitrā
While we are not clear to state whether the Ramayana story is a fiction, we can certainly say that Vālmīki is the most successful author in creating his characters who live realistic life and are loved for their role in the story. After presenting the aspirations and tribulations of a mother in Kauśalyā, the poet proceeds to paint the femininity in Sumitra, a person of supreme confidence and extreme resilience. She is a woman par excellence, a queen, a wife, a mother; but above all, a friend. Sumitra’s story is that of a Devī, if a Devī ever took a human birth. In Indian tradition, all women are supposed to be a part of the Universal Mother that nurtures the universe. In Sumitra’s case the Universal Mother resided within her as her spirit.
VII, Queen Kaikeyī
The relationship between a mother and her son is always loving and affectionate in this earth. Rarely a situation would arise when a mother would be protective of her son thinking of his welfare in life and the son would ignore the gesture calling it selfishness on the part of the mother. So is the characterization of Queen Kaikeyī by Vālmīki in the epic Rāmāyaṇa.
VIII : Dāsī Mantharā
We do not exactly know what a dāsī is; she is considered as a maid servant from the modern point of view. From the anthropologic cultural point of view, a dāsī was possibly a bonded servant who was engaged in a serving task because of social or physical compulsions. We learn in Valmiki’s story that the servants were mostly dwarfs; so a physical limitation was possibly a factor why people offered themselves in taking care of others. Occasionally the male form dāsa is used to indicate a slave that is procured through invasions and battles. In medieval India, poets and writers assumed the title dāsa or dāsī to show their complete dedication to the service of God.
IX : Sārathī Sumantra
A king needs a confidante to keep track of his kingdom and people. The person who fills the role normally comes from a family loyal to the king by generations. The person keeps his total allegiance with the king with undivided attention to king’s orders and desires. In a mobile environment, he helps transport the king by being his charioteer. The charioteer, sārathī, is an old concept in Indian tradition. The strength and skills of a warrior are compared to the personality of the charioteer. In the epic Mahābhārata, S’rīkṛṣṇa was the charioteer to the warrior Arjuna.
X : Maharṣi Viśvāmitra
We do not know the origin of the word ṛsi, popularly used in the Indian scriptures to denote to individuals who “know”. It was possibly an old social belief that some persons had more insight than others, or, the belief could be that some individuals could apply their knowledge better than others. ṛsis had a characteristic of detachment by living away from the society. They survived in solitude. The solitude and the tranquility gave them an opportunity to “observe” the society from a distance and comment on it as they thought fit. These compositions have come down to us as hymns that taught people how to conduct life. ṛsis had poetic talents. It could be the reverse that persons of poetic talents observed the society and wrote about life and conduct. Poets and ṛsis became synonymous. A new word kavi was developed to denote all composers. All ṛsis are kavis, the reverse may not be true. Vālmīki is a ṛsi and a kavi, the older Viśvāmitra is a ṛsi.
XIV: The Citrakūṭa Mountains – Rāma’s First Abode in Exile
As we have observed earlier, Vālmīki excels in describing the beauty of nature. It would appear as though the poet would like Rāma to roam in the forest such that he can glorify the natural beauty at length. The poet is an expert in pointing the names of the plants, flowers, animals and birds. He goes into a celebratory mode when he engages the reader with metaphors in order to create imagination. We saw the story of Gaṅgā in the last article. We proceed to the mountains of Citrakūṭa in this article.
XV: Bharata meeting Rāma at Citrakūṭa
Rāmāyaṇa is a family story. Vālmīki is out to portray the distinctive love and respect of brothers to each other and their affection to the eldest. Here the eldest happens to be the best among them. The psychology of envy, jealousy and competition, prevalent in the present day social conduct, manifests as love, respect and friendship in Vālmīki’s story. The highest example of this presents itself through the character of Bharata, who refuses to assume the throne in Ayodhyā that his mother had carefully orchestrated for him.
The story of Rāmāyaṇa is woven through three geographic areas: the first is Ayodhyā and its surroundings, the second is the large expanse of south India called Daṇḍakāraṇya, and the third is the island of Laṅkā in the sea. Other contiguous areas like Kaikeya and Mithilā are brought to the story to create nuptial relationship. Ayodhyā city was the capital of the Ikṣvāku clan inherited by the King Daśaratha but the overall area of Kośala spread through much of northern India. Daṇḍakāraṇya, which was the area to the south of the Vindhya mountain range, was in principle under rule of the Ikṣvāku but was undeveloped. Its northern fringes were popular with monks and holy people who liked seclusion in order to have an environment of solitude necessary for contemplation.
XVII - Pañcavaṭī
Out of various geographic locations narrated in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Pañcavaṭī is the place where the drama of the story takes a profound turn. Assuming that Rāmāyaṇa is a story, it would appear as though Vālmīki had thought about Pañcavaṭī where the story would host the key action. The natural beauty of the area with the ground water streams feeding Godāvarī river is both peaceful and harmonious. The tranquil forest still recalls Sītā who walked through its leafy trails, it was Sītā’s homestead in the woods. The exposure in the open environment invited the assault that became the core of the Rāmāyaṇa story.
XVIII - Rākṣasa and their clan
Vālmīki lived in an animated world. His sky spoke, his air ran, his water sang. Ocean, mountain, forest and trees showed compassion. Animals, birds and beasts became friends. It could appear as a modern- day fairy tale. But for Valmiki it was all real. His poetry is a narration of the scene. He examined the mental processes of his characters. A distressed Rāma wandering in the forest had a right to think if the tree knew where Sītā might have gone!
XIX: The Kingdom of Lankā
There has been continuing debate to determine the historic value of the Rāmāyaṇa story. A realistic life of a warrior man is interspersed with fanciful episodes connected with the mysteries of south India. The most intriguing object in these descriptions is a self-propelled transport system which traveled above the tree line. It could carry a reasonable amount of payload and could travel long distance possibly with the help of air currents. It sounds like a good technological feat, but the timing of it does not tally with the current understanding of the evolution of technology on the planet.
XX: The Puṣpaka air-vehicle
The skills of story-telling sometimes can let a writer embellish in words of description to capture the interest of the reader. Writers tend to use superlative artificial constructs to make them look realistic. The poet can say “millions” to describe a large crowd; a building “reaching the sky” where one just looks upwards from eyelevel to the top; a river can be as large as a “sea”. Storytelling can be fanciful; but, in all situations a physical object or event remains at the roots of its exaggeration. The qualities of an object gets amplified in shapes and sizes; for example, a man can look like a “lion” or be a “fifty- foot tall monster”.
XXI: Hanūmān’s Search of Sītā in Laṅkā
The most admirable and the most creative contribution of Vālmīki in Rāmāyaṇa is the character of Hanumān. Hanuman is a vānara, not a fully developed human being. A vānara is described as a creature with human like intelligence and intuition. Most likely, the poet wanted to endow an instinct of super dutifulness and utter diligence that he thought not to be easily available in human beings. The humans are ego-driven; the most dutiful can flicker when his or her self-interest could be in danger. He knew that the ego in human beings can cause inhibition to action. Vālmīki’s Hanumān is a model of total dedication to a cause that he is asked to handle. Vālmīki creates him as an icon of pure dutifulness and complete dedication.
XXII: Sītā in Laṅkā
Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa weaves around the character of Sītā. It is possible that the story was popular as the legend of Rāma, but Vālmīki appears to recognize the influence of female characters in running life. While he asks Nārada to name him that exquisite virtuous man with a long list of masculine characteristics, he possibly realizes that each of the masculine virtues would pale against the appeal by the opposite sex. A woman can shine untarnished as pure and eternal. While men can make errors, the women are the winners. In Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Sītā is an unparalleled winner. Vālmīki creates an ideal of a woman through the character of Sītā.
XXIII: Mental Agony of the Imprisoned Sītā
Vālmīki is a scholar of the mind. In his time, society may have had active public discourses on mental anguish, as part of the common social exchange. Also, it is possible that internal analyses may have been encouraged, to appreciate life. Valmiki lived at a time in India’s civilization when it was believed that the world as perceived might have had many underlying layers of evolution. Fundamentally, there was an understanding that each event had a cause, and that we must contemplate the event to find the cause and take steps to remedy it. This belief forms the basis of current Indian philosophical thinking: namely, events that have a larger domain of origin can nevertheless be vanquished through faith.
XXIV: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part I
Humans receive two types of messages. Internal messages of hunger, thirst, love or grief are felt in the body and contribute to our experience. External messages about the environment, objects, weather or social scenes, etc. are perceived through our senses and contribute to our knowledge. Dissection and comprehension of the sensory knowledge occur through our intellect and help us in navigating our life in the universe. We realize that our senses are limited, so we use our previous knowledge as an analyzer in any new action.
XXV: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part II
A story builds on coincidences. Vālmīki is a storyteller. The problem may be difficult, but the solution would finally emerge. To the poet, the world runs on positive forces. The Vedic thought is that if a person’s intention is right, darkness will clear. Instability or nervousness is futile. One has to align oneself completely in order that mission be accomplished. Vālmīki paints Hanūmān as a determined character, one who has solid intentionality.
XXVI: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part III
A messenger delivers a message. But the addressee had to be authenticated in order to make the delivery to the correct person. In such a special situation, proper identification needed care and attention. Hanuman thought that he had located the right person but wanted to reassure himself before passing on the ring that Rāma had sent as a token of gaining trust. The messenger had to analyze the receiver’s response carefully, to convince himself that the object and the message were not misdelivered!
XXVII: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part IV
Hanūmān was Minister to the Vānara King Sugrīva. In the search for Sītā, Sugrīva sent Hanūmān in a southerly direction, since Sugrīva had less control in the south and assumed that the occupants of the south would be tougher. Although Hanūmān’s mission was to locate Sītā, he was also responsible for apprising Sugrīva about the strength and fortitude of the southern inhabitants. Having accomplished his mission of locating Sītā, Hanūmān next set about to check out Rāvaṇa’s might and his organization.
XXVIII Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part V
While all success in the world is a function of our labor, reaching a “goal” is not straightforward. All labor is not fully rewarded, many industrious people suffer through unforeseen circumstances. And in some other situations some totally unprepared people are raised up to fame and fortune through pure novelties. This process has been termed “luck” in popular thinking. We don’t know why and when the “luck” would strike, but there is evidence that a clear determination can indeed invite good “luck”.
XXIX: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part VI
Returning home from any adventure is easy. Return is particularly fast if the job is successful. The return is also a mental condition to get back to one’s own abode, meet friends and relatives, eat familiar food and relax in one’s familiar environment. Hanūmān returned swiftly. Instead of hopping over the shore line and checking every step, he leaped high and soared through the wind. Instead of being confronted with objects in the sea, he “flew” over the clouds with mirth and strength.
XXX: Hanūmān, the Messenger - Part VII
Vālmīki includes an interesting discussion about the role of the individual in a group. A group is a collective body, and many tasks are accomplished with the help and assistance of members in the group. But other tasks may be distinctively difficult and may need special skills for tackling them. How much credit should go to the group when a member in the group is commissioned to do the task and he or she is successful?
XXXI: Sugrīva, the Friend – Part I
“Friendship” as a concept is a social construct. We accept a friend, because at times we need a friend. Normally, man is solitary. We breathe on our own, we eat on our own and we die on our own. There is a human natural diversity that separates people. Parents remain “friend(s)” to us when we are babies, but we separate out to branch off pretty easily, to go live our own lives. We develop playmates and classmates during our young years, but rarely we make a life-long friend. We do find our partners in marriage, but it can become a conditional relationship unless we accept the partner as a “friend”.
XXXII: Sugrīva, the Friend – Part II
The sun shines, without asking for anything in return. The ancient sages sent hymns directed to the sun. The air blows, without asking for anything in return. We conduct rituals to honor the life-giving force. Trees give fruits, without asking for anything in return; occasionally they need our care and attention, and we learn not to hurt them. Human beings are different. Here friendship is a relationship, it is strong when it is complementary. Each of us is deficient to some extent in overcoming the challenges of life: as such, we seek help, and at times, this help develops into friendship.
XXXIII - Sugrīva, the Friend - Part III
Vālmīki’s Rāma was not prepared for the ordeal for a forest-exile for fourteen years. Sītā’s insistence that she must accompany him was an additional burden. Sītā did confide later that she felt unsafe to stay in the palace without the protection of her husband. It was not easy to protect her in the forest either. Lakṣmaṇa had volunteered to come with Rāma to facilitate in his ordeal. A slight miscalculation on the part of the brothers had caused Sītā to be abducted. Vālmīki’s characters make the story.
XXXIV - Sugrīva, the Friend - Part IV
Sugrīva was a vānara and he was a king. As a king, he had full control on his forces. The tree-dwelling monkeys and bears had their total loyalty to him. Vulnerability for survival most likely influences the animals to flock together and to restrain them from their own individuality. Friendship and loyalty are interpreted differently by the non-humans. Unlike the humans the animal commitment to a task is total. Sugrīva submitted his entire troops consisting of thousands of monkeys and bears at the disposal of Rāma.