Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Many Ramayanas: What is so Special about Valmiki's Version?

Dr R. Mohan

For millennia Valmiki Ramayana has occupied the pride of place as “The Ramayana”. While there have been other versions like Adhyatma Ramayanam, Ananda Ramayanam, Kamba Ramayanam, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and many others1, Valmiki’s Ramayana was always accorded primacy. Recently many arguments have been advanced2 to suggest that there is a myriad of Ramayanas and no one version can be considered as the original nor can another be relegated as a retelling. Each Ramayana comes with its own aesthetic experience and is as such unique. In short Valmiki’s version is one of the Ramayanas and not “The” Ramayana. Looking at it unbiasedly it does seem to make sense. The Ramayana is after all a story of love, separation and reunion described in a poetic fashion by Valmiki. Who can say that none can do a better job of it for all time to come? One could argue that Valmiki’s version is valued for its authenticity, for Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama. At which point I am tempted to ask a hypothetical question. What if another contemporary had written Rama’s story with equal finesse? We would then have to invoke a combination of Valmiki’s poetic skills and his contemporary existence to buttress his claim to fame. And again, if it can be proved that Valmiki came much later than Rama’s time, would Valmiki lose his numero-uno status? Or would we then be compelled to create a contemporary of Rama in whose tradition Valmiki follows much later? Such arguments and counter arguments can continue ad infinitum.

The tradition of story-telling in India: From Vedas to Itihaasa, Purana and Kaavya
To understand the speciality of Valmiki’s Ramayana one must understand the spiritual and mystic traditions of our literature and culture. In our traditions, the Itihasas (of which the Ramayana is one) and Puranas are a continuation of the traditions of Shruti and Smruti. While Shrutis were diaries of the spiritual experience of the drashta-rishi, Smrutis were injunctions arising out of the recollections of the spirit of the Shrutis. As time progressed and people became less inclined to the rigours of penance, the Rishis were left with the unenviable task of leading men on the path of spiritual advancement without the trappings of formal methods. The unbounded ecstasies which were hitherto attained with penance and uncompromising self-control had to be imparted to a people given to the pleasures of life. To this challenge, the Rishis responded in the most ingenious manner. They decided to speak to people in the language of poetry (kaavya), history (Itihaasa) and parable (Purana). The tales were that of kings, princes and the common folks that everyone was familiar with. But the themes and elaborate imagery that they conjured up, served to silence the minds and put them on the path to spiritual upliftment. This approach was taken to its logical conclusion in the development of the visual arts, most notably in the Naatya Shaastra.

Why is story-telling so effective?
Lest it should sound like a piece of fantasy, an everyday example might serve to show the effectiveness of the approach. Consider a young boy who in his playfulness runs all over the house in merriment. The mother with a bowl of food calls out in vain to the child to come and sit down to have his food. But the brat shows no sign of letting up. At this point the mother calls out to the boy with the promise of a story. The boy now all wide eyed comes and sits impatiently next to the mother. As the mother weaves a magical story with wondrous twists and turns, the boy stares wide eyed and gets immersed in the proceedings. As the boy stares with his jaws drooping, the mother slips in morsel after morsel until the bowl is empty. Similarly the Rishis employed stories with myriad weavings of various rasas from srungara (love) to roudra (anger) to shaanta (tranquil) that would induce in listeners an effect akin to the tranquilizing effect of penance, meditation and trance. While it seems a tall order to generate such exquisitely crafted narrations, the Rishis employed a very simple trick by which countless numbers of such stories may be generated.

Crafting a story: The art of modulating the mood
This trick is employed by all of us quite routinely. Say, a friend describes the scene of a gory accident completely, including the blood stained clothes, the bone protruding out at the elbow, a smashed skull of the deceased and the victim griping in pain; chances are that it will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, and horror/fear in the mind. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may shudder when you get on your bike the next time. If the friend is a good narrator, he can pull it off even though the entire incident may be a concoction. Similarly, effective public speakers use ‘rags-to-riches’ and ‘zero-to-hero’ stories to induce a positive frame of mind in the audience. Describing an atrocity in graphic detail evokes anger and passion in the listeners. Similarly, an experienced speaker can induce a feeling of amazement, humour, curiosity or any such mood by wordplay and story-craft. In each of these cases, the mood rides piggyback on the actions and situation of the characters in the story. These are all remarkable experiments in our everyday life which are well understood and often used. For these experiments to succeed, few preconditions exist. Firstly the narrator must have a direct experience of the state of mind to be conveyed and its visible manifestations. He must be able to sink into the mood at will. It must be noted that though the story itself may be fully or partly fictional, the mood must be a real experience of the story teller and he must be a master of that mood. Secondly, the narrator must have the gift of the gab to yoke his words accurately to his mood. Thirdly the audience must be attentive.  

The Rishi as a (hi)story-teller
Coming back to the problem at hand, the Rishis had a similar task cut out for them. They had to develop stories that would induce in others the meditative state they themselves had gained by immense askesis. Recalling the conditions for crafting an effective story, it is imperative that the Rishis must have first-hand experience of meditation and its pinnacle of joy – the state of Samadhi and the experience of the atman (Atmabhava or Atmadharma). This of course they had. But they had also to understand the subtle means and signs by which that supreme experience modulates the subsequent outward activities and qualities of an Atmavaan (self-realized person). These qualities are called Atmagunas or the manifest qualities of the Atman himself. The man/woman replete with the Atmagunas or preferably a direct knowledge of the Atman becomes the hero of the story and is the vehicle by which the Atmabhava is induced in the audience. When poetry flows from a mind that dwells on such an Atmaguna-sampanna, a perfect persona replete with Atmagunas, the result is a vivid epic whose plot and aesthetics can soothe and caress the mind into a state so calm, tranquil and sublime. Thus is born an epic like the Ramayana, from the crest of Rishi Valmiki – the Adikavi (the first and foremost among Kavis).

Is Valmiki’s Ramayana truly such a work? Where is the proof?
One might suspect that we are bent on thrusting greatness upon Valmiki. But an unbiased reading of the epic will show this exact process at play. The purpose of Ramayana is stated explicitly as ‘Vedopabrahmanaarthaya’ – ‘for expanding on the message of the Vedas’, thus indicating that the kaavyas were natural extensions of the Shrutis3. The modus operandi is to expand the reach of Dharma in the hearts of men, by flavouring it with Kama (sensory pleasures) and making it pleasing to the ears4. The Ramayana opens with the conversation between sage Valmiki and Narada who is an eternal Tapasvi and is the best amongst those who know the science of speech (vaagvidaam varam)5. Note that our preconditions 1&2 for a Kavi-storyteller, namely that he should be an enlightened soul and a gifted wordsmith are satisfied in Narada, Valmiki’s guide and inspiration in this endeavour. Valmiki asks Narada for a contemporary who is Atmavaan (one who knows the Atman) and possesses a long list of superlative qualities including self-control, truthfulness, indomitable strength, compassion and large heartedness6. In reply Narada describes the qualities of Sri Rama as the only one with such a rare combination of qualities7. As a Jnaani would testify these are verily the Atmagunas. We may recollect from the previous discussion that to build a narrative that infuses Atmabhava in the audience, it is necessary to have a hero who oozes Atmagunas. It is thus evident that Valmiki is searching for such a persona and the pivot of his impending epic. Narada emphatically proposed Sri Rama as that persona, a dharma murti, a paragon established in the virtues of the atman, one who has realized the self, is in complete control of his senses, yet proceeds to live the life of a mortal with all its trappings.
Subsequently, sage Valmiki proceeds towards the banks of the river Tamasaa for his ablutions. Here on witnessing the killing of a male crane by a hunter, when it is in a delightful mood with the female partner, the sage is overcome with grief. His grief spontaneously gushes out in the form of a quatrain. He is surprised to note that his grief stricken outpourings had 4 paadas (quarters) of 8 aksharas (syllables) each and was rhythmic enough to be sung to the accompaniment of a lute8. The sage then resolves to compose the Ramayana in a fashion similar to his previous conversion of shoka to shloka9. This shows that in Valmiki, the vaak (speech) was yoked to the inner moorings of the mind and on realizing the power of this process he consciously sets about employing it in the creation of the Ramayana. Subsequently when Valmiki gets down to writing the Ramayana, he sits down on his darbhaasana facing the east, and by means of penance and Atmadharma, he sets out to discover the gati (activity, along with the underlying thought and word) of Rama10. One must note that although the story has already been revealed to him by Narada, Valmiki once again undertakes to see the story in the light of his yogic experience and Atmadharma.  Thus it is amply clear that the immortal epic Ramayana, the first Kaavya was conceived as a means of inducing Atmadharma and Atmagunas in men. Thus the opening cantos of Srimad Ramayana attest emphatically to the fact that Valmiki is weaving an exquisite poetry in spiritual dimensions based on an anecdote. This art of epic creation is highly sophisticated but spontaneous, a mechanism perfected by the Rishis.

and Rishi
It is thus apparent that the process of writing a Kaavya, Purana or Itihaasa is ‘light years’ away from just ‘writing poetry’. It requires a rare combination of penance, insight, an intimate knowledge of the workings of human nature and lastly a natural flair for poetry and writing. While modern discourse focuses on the latter, the former is most emphasized in Indian thought. A Kavi is put on the same pedestal as a Rishi (Naanrishih kurute kaavyam). Even a reciter of a Kaavya ought to have the qualities mentioned in order that the audience may be led upwards in their spiritual pursuits. Thus this was considered a specialized job with the title “Sootha-puranika”. Precisely for the same reason it is decreed that Itihasas and Puranas must be heard or learnt from a guru.

Valmiki’s poetic abilities and his vantage position of being a contemporary of Rama were only incidental to his ability to see the self-realised perfection in the character of Rama. To see this, one has to be a yogi himself and be doubly blessed to understand the science of yoga and its manifestation in man. Valmiki was one such along with Vyaasa and Kalidasa and it is no surprise that their works have traditionally been placed on the highest pedestal. This is not to say that other Ramayanas by Kamban or Tulasidas are inferior. They too have their fair share of valuable gems filled with the rasa of bhakti. But the science behind the creation of a Kaavya has seen its full bloom in Valmiki’s masterpiece. It is at once exquisite art and esoteric science.  An understanding of the greatness of such Kavis requires insight into the inner working of the tools of our tradition and can only come from one who has realized the Self himself. This perhaps explains why most modern discourse on such topics turns out to be a futile exercise in semantic jugglery.

[This article is based on the original expositions on Ramayana by Sriranga Mahaguru of AstangaYoga Vijnana Mandiram]

  • [1] see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versions_of_Ramayana for a complete list
  • [2] A.K. Ramanujan: ’Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’
  • [3] Valmiki Ramayana 1-4-5
  • [4] Valmiki Ramayana 1-4-8
  • [5] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-1
  • [6] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-2, 3, 4, 5
  • [7] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-8 through 1-1-19
  • [8] Valmiki Ramayana 1-2-17[9] Valmiki Ramayana 1-2-40
  • [10] Valmiki Ramayana 1-3-1, 2