Reflections on Valmiki Ramayana - I, The Intent of the Poet
June 15, 2014
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.
I will get back to poetics in a later post. Today I thought to start this series to discuss what I think could be the intent of the poet in creating the composition. Early scholars have speculated about the historicity of Rāma, and the historicity of the story of Rāmāyaṇa. My interest is in poetry, the characterization, the development of the story, the psychological analysis and the message, if any. Our reading has reached only the middle of Ayodhyākāṇḍa and we have a long way to finish. Here I wish to give my observation through the Bālakāṇḍa, which I read critically by interpreting and then translating to English. People wishing to read the draft translation can visit
It is the poet’s intent that I wish to talk about. It appears to me that Vālmīki was composing Rāmāyaṇa at a time when the Indian society was receding from following the cosmic law of life towards an engineering way of life. The cosmic law of life as enunciated empirically as Rta in the Veda would state that all action in the universe is cosmic, there is little human play. Our life, happiness, family, wealth and sorrow – all are part of a destiny that controls us. The destiny is a sum total of effects on us by the rest of the universe and we have no control or knowledge on why things happen. We simply accept our ignorance and stay put. Our achievements become cosmic blessing. People, who champion this process have been called Brāhmaṇa, the knower of Brahman, the omnipotent source.
The fact that an individual can apply his or her mind and develop arbitrary skills challenges the theory of cosmic play. That mind is a window to the universe is a significant discovery in our learning about us. The Greeks did imagine the possibility of controlling the universe through human skills, but they did not develop a theory of mind. In India, the scriptural writers conceived of Brahmā, a conceptual creation of the Cosmic Mind, as the creator of the manifested universe. Brahmā is the separator between the essence of creation and the creation itself. Everything manifests through the design of Brahmā. Brahmā is the cosmic engineer residing in our mind to help us develop skills and create inventions. In this scenario, we set ourselves goals and we proceed by training to focus our mind to the goal.
The second path does not contradict the first, except when there is a thought to obtain “absolute power” or “absolute control.” The first path remains as the operational mode because “absolute” takes newer definitions as we struggle forward. By virtue of achieving “success” one can develop ambition with competitive attitude to subjugate others. In the second path, the individual thinks to be more important than the cosmic elements he/she lives with. I called this the “engineering life” above.
Vālmīki spends a considerable time in Bālakāṇḍa in developing the character of Viśvāmitra as a fine scholar and as a great engineer. By undergoing various difficult disciplines and procedures, he gains enormous power to control the natural elements. His words have manifesting effect. People are scared of his anger and the curse that he can bestow when he disapproves a conduct. Vālmīki sets him up with an ambition of taking control of the planet and in the process he encounters Vasiṣṭha, the Brāhmaṇa. Vasiṣṭha is a scholar par excellence and lives with much humility. He believes in the limitedness of human potential compared to the cosmic play and power.
In Valmiki’s drama, Viśvāmitra’s powerful army and cavalry is no match to Vasiṣṭha’s simple stick. Viśvāmitra “creates” new powers but the cosmic power protects Vasiṣṭha. Viśvāmitra realizes his vanity and leaves Vasiṣṭha. Viśvāmitra appreciates that his view of life and universe could be erroneous. He proceeds to the Himalayas to do further meditation in order to get clear in his view of operation of life and the role of cosmic order. I believe that the drama associated with Viśvāmitra where a person of great personality and skills, bowing down to a scholar of faith is a Vālmīki creation of expressing the supremacy of the empirical scriptural faith against the skill-induced power and arrogance.
As we proceed further, Vālmīki would characterize Rāma as a person who follows the traditional faith and accepts tasks as they show up. This contrasts with the other characters who exhibit egotism and pain when unexpected falls on them. To establish the acceptance of unexpected as a part of life is the message that Vālmīki conveys through his many lines of analysis. Through the portrayal of Rāma, Vālmīki creates the foundation of virtue in Indian society.
Let Sai bless all.