Maharshi Valmiki

Vālmīki is introduced as a Sage in the epic who has a hermitage in the Citrakūṭa Mountains. He facilitates Rāma’s stay while the latter is on way to exile.  The Sage does not surface again until the last part of the story when Sītā is banished from Ayodhyā.  He rescues her from the forest and gives her shelter in his hermitage. Sītā’s twin children are born in the hermitage.  The Sage takes care of them along with his other pupils.  By this time, the Rāmāyaṇa text is fully composed, and the Sage teaches the two boys to sing the poem in public places in order to earn a living.

As a character in the story, the Sage Valmiki enunciates in Rāma’s court that he is the tenth child of Sage Praceta.  He declares his own veracity in order to vouch for Sītā’s character.  She had lived in his hermitage after having been banished by Rāma.  In response to questions about Sita’s children, and aspersions on her character while in his hermitage, he vows complete confidence on Sita’s fidelity and assures Rāma that the twin children are indeed fathered by Rāma.  It is a narrative of high drama, which ends in Sita herself entering into the womb of Mother Earth to escape further questioning to her integrity.

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The poet also presents himself as one who contemplates on the discovery of the most virtuous man living on the earth at the time.  He starts his book by putting a question to Sage Nārada, who provides Rāma’s reference to Vālmīki, and outlines the important events of Rāma’s life.  Nārada proclaims Rāma’s superlative achievements throughout his life in endorsing the response.

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After Nārada’s departure Vālmīki proceeds to the River Tamasā for his morning rituals.  He happens to witness to the wailing of a female waterfowl.  The bird’s companion had been pierced by an arrow from a hunter while the two were in conjugal love.  The Sage curses the hunter, and in the process utters a line of poetry that he thought had the charm of a melodious musical meter. He presents this creation to Lord Brahma through meditation. He receives approval internally from Lord Brahmā, who encourages him to proceed with the composition in the meter he has just used.  Mentally enabled, vālmīki proceeds to compose the immortal composition.

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It is possible that the poet and the Sage Vālmīki  (mentioned in the composition) are one and the same person.   The original story narrated by Sage Nārada  ends with Rāma’s return to Ayodhyā.  Thus, the introduction of Sage Vālmīki at the end of the composition can only be a poetic construct, aimed at adding a twist to the drama. In the process, the poet introduces himself, however briefly, to the readers. This is the only introduction we have to the poet in the writing.

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Vālmīki may have been a contemporary of Rāma, but could have also undertaken the task of writing long after Rāma’s time.  The Indian theory of reincarnation states that a poet can imagine being reincarnated in a character, and that the events of past lives can be recollected through meditation.  This can be a likely scenario that would satisfy the context of the book.

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No geographic location in India is known to bear the poet’s name, adding to the conjecture that the poet was not so well known during his lifetime. His work location has not been registered in India’s cultural tradition. Vālmīki  is believed to have been born in a low caste family, and cultivated his art of literary storytelling through sheer meditative speculations.   His command of geography and the detailed description of the trees, flowers and animals point to an individual who was well-versed in India and was certainly well-traveled.

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Indian Aesthetics and the Rāmāyaṇa

Vālmīki can be considered to be the founder of the science of aesthetics that blossomed in India in the first millennium.  Story-telling as an art had already been raised to a masterful level, by the native story-tellers who used fanciful imagination and exaggeration in order to animate the characters.  That the human mind could compose itself into distinct moods is possibly an empirical observation, but creation of such moods through story-telling has to be a cultivated art.  Eventually, eight such moods were classified by the renowned Sage Bharata in the Nāṭyaśāstra, the reference book on dramaturgy.

Driven purely from story-telling considerations, Vālmīki  simulates various moods through dramatic twists of the plot and with the use of words and rhythm.  He helps manifest moods through his poetry by sheer use of words and play of suspense.  Possibly he was operating purely from a compositional point of view to narrate the story, but his techniques become text-book examples of how to foster the reader’s interest by applying narrative poetics.

He alludes to the definition of a “poet” (“kavi” in Sanskrit) as a person who can express the natural scene using the tools of language.   Through this language, he adulates the sun, suggesting that the sun was the first poet on the earth.  In fact, it is the poet Vālmīki who assumes that position on earth as recognized in India.

A popular folk story of unknown origin portrays Vālmīki  as a man who is transformed from a highway robber named Ratnākara.  Sage Nārada is invoked, and drives the transformation by advising the robber to meditate.  Ratnākara sits in meditation for years, while an ant-hill – called valmīka  in Sanskrit - forms around him.  Having survived the ant-hill, he assumes the new name Vālmīki .

We do not have any clue as to why Vālmīki undertook this mammoth task of presenting Vedic ideas in the form of a story.  He made the story interesting by creating twists and turns that result in high drama.  He was a musicologist and possibly knew that his composition would be sung by people at public events. He thus created lyrical stanzas, and adopted techniques which are now considered to be the attributes of poetics.  He founded the science of aesthetics in literature as we know it today.