One of the most celebrated poets in Sanskrit literature, Valmiki was the author of the path-breaking epic, the Ramayana. Owing to his pioneering efforts, he is honored as the Adi Kavi (First Poet). His work defined a platform for other future poets to develop upon. He is believed to be the creator of the first shloka or verse and is therefore honored as Rishi and his work is called ‘Arsha’.
Born into a Koli/Bhil tribal family, Maharishi Valmiki was named Ratnakara. His father, Sumali, along with his family migrated to a place near the banks of River Vipasa. By profession Valmiki was a highway robber, who used to kill people after robbing them.
One day Narada Muni was passing through the woods, when he suddenly stumbled upon Ratnakara. After attempting to extort everything Narada had, Ratnakara was asked by Narada, whether his family was ready to share the effects of all the sins committed by him. To seek the answer from his family, Ratnakara tied Narada to a tree and went to his family. His family, including his wife, clarified that they were not at all ready to accept the effects of his crime and that it was his sole responsibility. Upon learning the fact, Ratnakara went back to Narada and broke down in front of him. Ratnakara requested Narada to show him the path to atonement. Narada replied that upon chanting the name of Lord Rama he would be able to redeem himself. As per Narada’s advice, Ratnakara dedicatedly went into deep penance. His dedication was such that he was unaware about the fact that an anthill had grown around him. Suddenly a divine intervention occurred and Ratnakara was freed from all his sins. Thereafter, he was called Valmiki or the one who sits upon an anthill.
Writer of the Ramayana
The Ramayana, consisting of 24,000 verses and seven cantos, was originally written by Valmiki. The Ramayana is speculated to be dated between 500 BC and 1000 BC. The Ramayana narrates the story of the Ayodhya prince, Rama. It provides detailed narration of the kidnapping of Sita, Rama’s wife, by the Lankan demon king, Ravana. It is believed that Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama and they had both met while Rama was in exile. It is also believed that it was in the very hermitage of Valmiki, that Lav and Kush were born to Sita. Valmiki had also taught both Lav and Kush the glorious narratives of Ramayana. Upon learning form Valmiki, both Lav and Kush had sung out the whole verse in the Royal Palace, during the performance of the Ashvamedha Yagya.
The First Shloka
While performing his daily morning ablution, Valmiki’s sight fell upon a very happy bird couple, making love to each other. Suddenly the male bird was hit by an arrow and died on the spot itself. Upon seeing the hunter, out of rage and grief, Valmiki cursed:
मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वं आगमः शाश्वतीः समः ।
यत् क्रौंचमिथुनादेकं अवधिः काममोहितम् ॥
‘You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting’
This above mentioned utterance of Valmiki is regarded as the ‘First Shloka’ in Sanskrit literature. After receiving the blessings of Lord Brahma, he composed the Ramayana in the same meter. The Ramayana is regarded as the first kavya in Sanskrit literature.
The first Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana is an essential component of the Hindu canon (smriti). One of the two great epics, the other being the Mahabharata, the Ramayana establishes ideal relationships in great detail. The name Ramayana is derived from Rama and Ayana i.e. going and advancing. The name essentially translates into Rama’s journey. Consisting of 24,000 verses, 7 kandas and 500 cantos, the epic narrates the abduction of Sita (Rama’s wife) by Lanka king, Ravana. It also describes the discovery of Dharma and human values by Rama. Composed in the 32 meter, anushtup syllable, the Ramayana has tremendous effect on future Sanskrit poetries.
Textual History and Structure
As per the Indian traditions the Ramayana has been attributed to one single author. The original version of the story was called Valmiki Ramayana. Later some alterations were made by subsequent authors, for the purpose of value addition (Vaishnava elements). Ramayana is also considered by many as Itihas or historical account. This means that the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, was meant to be a chronicle of history. In this regard Scholar Romesh Chander Dutt has said, “the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a growth of centuries, but the main story is more distinctly the creation of one mind.”
As per some of the cultural evidences, the Ramayana predates the Mahabharata. While the Mahabharata puts the spotlight on the Kuru areas of the Western region, the Ramayana focuses upon the eastern part of India. As per the Hindu chronology, the Ramayana belongs to the Treta Yuga, the second of the four eons. It is widely believed that the second to the sixth part of the book were part of the original structure. The first (Bala Kanda) and the seventh (Uttara Kanda) parts were later additions. Some mention of Rama is also found in the Mahabharata, known as Ramopakhyana.
The 7 Kandas or Books
The epic is traditionally divided into several major kaṇḍas or books, that deal chronologically with the major events in the life of Rama—Bala Kaṇḍa, Ayodhya Kaṇḍa, Araṇya Kaṇḍa, Kishkindha Kaṇḍa, Sundara Kaṇḍa, Yuddha Kaṇḍa, and Uttara Kaṇḍa.
The Ramayana is divided into seven books or kandas. They are named and described as follows:
|1||Bala Kaṇḍa (book of childhood)||Rama’s birth and childhood. Sita’s Swayamvara and consequent wedding to Rama.|
|2||Ayodhya Kaṇḍa (book of Ayodhya)||Rama’s coronation, exile and the regency of Bharata.|
|3||Araṇya Kaṇḍa (book of the forest)||Rama’s ascetic life amidst the forest along with Sita and Lakshmana. Sita’s abduction by Ravana.|
|4||Kishkindha Kaṇḍa (book of the monkey kingdom)||Rama’s meeting with Hanuman, assisting him to defeat Vali and reinstating Sugriva.|
|5||Sundara Kaṇḍa (book of beauty)||Hanuman’s adventure and meeting with Sita.|
|6||Yuddha Kaṇḍa (book of war) also known as Lanka Kanda||The fierce battle between Rama’s monkey army and Ravana’s demon army. After the defeat of Ravana, Sita undertakes the test of fire. They both complete the period of exile and thereafter return to Ayodhya.|
|7||Uttara Kaṇḍa (last book)||Sita’s banishment and the birth of Lav and Kush. Sita and Rama’s reconciliation. The advent of Lav and Kush to the throne of Ayodhya.|
Characters in Ramayana
- Rama– Rama is the protagonist of the epic and is regarded as the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu. Born to Dasaratha and Kausalya, Rama was regarded as an epitome virtue.
- Sita – The wife of Rama, Sita is the other protagonist of the epic. Daughter of Janaka, Sita is regarded as the epitome of virtue and female purity. She was abducted by Ravana and was later rescued by Rama along with the assistance of the monkey army. She was made to prove her chastity a number of times but emerged as the most pure form of femininity. She was regarded to be an avatar of Goddess Lakhsmi.
- Hanuman – Hanuman is also one of the protagonists of the epic and was a Vanara (monkey) from the kingdom of Kishkinda. He is also believed to be an avatar of God Shiva. He was a devout worshipper of Rama. He was born to Kesari and Goddess Anjana.
- Lakshmana – Lakshmana was the companion of Rama during the exile and also the younger brother of Rama. Born to Dasaratha and Sumitra, he also had a twin called Shatrughna. Lakshmana was regarded as an avatar of Shesha. He played a direct role in fighting the demoness Suparnakha. He later married the younger sister of Sita, Urmila.
- Ravana – Ravana was the demon king of Lanka. He had received superhuman powers after performing penance for several years. He was however later defeated and killed by Rama, an avatar of Vishnu.
- Jatayu – Jatayu was demi-god, born to Aruna. He was also the nephew of Garuda. He had the form of an eagle. He tried to rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravana. However, owing to Ravana being extremely powerful got the better of him. Even the dying Jatayu had helped Rama and Lakshmana, by directing them to the rampaging Ravana.
- Dasharatha – Dasaratha was the king of Ayodhya and had three wives, namely Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra. Beside Rama, he had three sons i.e. Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Kaikeyi had influenced Dasaratha to establish Bharata on the throne and send Rama into exile.
- Bharata – Bharata was born to King Dasaratha and Kaikeyi. He was married to Mandavi. After learning about his mother’s deceit in sending Rama to exile, Bharata left the palace in search of Rama. After failing to convince Rama to return back, he brought back the sandal of Rama and symbolically placed it on the throne. He then ruled Ayodhya for fourteen years as a regent of Rama.
- Satrughna – Married to Shrutakirti, Satrughna was the son of Sumitra and Dasaratha. He is also the twin brother of Lakshmana and the youngest brother of Rama.
- Sugriva – He was the king of the Vanara sena and had extended assistance to Rama in freeing Sita from the clutches of Ravana. Sugriva extended help to Rama in exchange for Rama’s assistance in killing Vaali, Sugriva’s brother.
- Indrajit – Indrajit was a son of the Lanka king, Ravana and was an expert in magical arts and fighting skills. He succumbed to Lakshmana in the third attempt, after defeating him twice before.
- Kumbhakarna – Kumabhakarna was the brother of Ravana and was infamous for sleeping and eating. He would sleep for months at a stretch and after waking up would consume anything and everything. He was the trusted lieutenant of Ravana owing to his sincere loyalty. He had almost decimated the Vanara sena in the battle, before Rama had cut off his limbs.
- Surpanakha – Suparnakha was one of the demon sisters of Ravana and was madly in love with Rama. Through her magical tricks, she was able to take any form she wished for.
- Vibhishana – Vibhishana was the younger brother of Lanka King Ravana. He was against the abduction of Sita and in fact helped out the Rama battalion in the battle. His detailed knowledge about Lanka proved to be positive point for Vanara Sena.
Other Versions of Ramayana
As in many oral epics, multiple versions of the Ramayana survive. In particular, the Ramayana related in North India differs in important respects from that preserved in South India and the rest of South-East Asia. There is an extensive tradition of oral storytelling based on the Ramayana in Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, and Maldives Father Kamil Bulke, author of Ramakatha, has identified over 300 variants of Ramayana.
A pen portrait of Sage Valmiki can be found in a purana called Vishnudharmottarapurana. It says:
गौरस्तु काया वाल्मीकिर्जरामण्डलदुर्दशः।
तपस्याभिरतः शान्तो न कृशो न च पीवरः॥ (Vishnudharmottarapurana 3.85)
It says that Valmiki was fair, he was old, was calm, was engrossed in his devotion and also he was neither thin nor fat.