Books: Essay

The World According to Valmiki Ramayana

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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Rama and dharma

Valmiki Ramayana: Volume One | Translated by Bibek Debroy | Penguin Classics | Pages 1,536 | Rs 1,699

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are known as itihasas. The word itihasa means ‘it was indeed like that’. Therefore, the word is best rendered as legend or history, and not as myth. This does not mean everything occurred exactly as described. In a process of telling and retelling and oral transmission, embellishments are inevitable. However, the use of the word itihasa suggests a core element of truth. There were two great dynasties—surya vamsha and chandra vamsha (the solar and the lunar dynasty). The first proper king of the surya vamsha was Ikshvaku and the Ramayana is a chronicle of the solar dynasty, or at least a part of its history. Similarly, the first king of the chandra vamsha was Ila and the Mahabharata is a chronicle of the lunar dynasty. The Puranas also describe the histories of the solar and lunar dynasties. Though there are some inconsistencies across genealogies given in different Puranas, the surya vamsha timeline has three broad segments: (1) from Ikshvaku to Rama; (2) from Kusha to Brihadbala; and (3) from Brihadbala to Sumitra. In that stretch from Ikshvaku to Rama, there were famous kings like Bharata (not to be confused with Rama’s brother), Kakutstha, Prithu, Yuvanashva, Mandhata, Trishanku, Harishchandra, Sagara, Dilipa, Bhagiratha, Ambarisha, Raghu, Aja and Dasharatha. These ancestors explain why Rama is referred to as Kakutstha, Raghava or Dasharathi.

Rama had two sons—Lava and Kusha. Ikshvaku and his descendants ruled over the kingdom of Kosala, part of today’s Uttar Pradesh. The Kosala kingdom lasted for a long time, with the capital sometimes in Ayodhya and sometimes in Shravasti. When Rama ruled, the capital was in Ayodhya. After Rama, Lava ruled over south Kosala and Kusha ruled over north Kosala. Lava’s capital was in Shravasti, while Kusha’s capital was in Kushavati. We don’t know what happened to Lava thereafter, though he is believed to have established Lavapuri, today’s Lahore. The second segment of the surya vamsha timeline, from Kusha to Brihadbala, doesn’t have any famous kings. Brihadbala was the last Kosala king. In the Kurukshetra War, he fought on the side of the Kouravas and was killed by Abhimanyu. The third segment of the surya vamsha timeline, from Brihadbala to Sumitra, seems contrived and concocted. Sumitra is described as the last king of the Ikshvaku lineage, defeated by Mahapadma Nanda in 362 BCE. Sumitra wasn’t killed. He fled to Rohtas, in today’s Bihar.

The Ramayana isn’t about these subsequent segments of the timeline. Though there are references to other kings from that Ikshvaku to Rama stretch, it isn’t about all of that segment either. Its focus is on Rama. It is difficult to date the poet Kalidasa. It could be anytime from the first century CE to the fifth century CE. Kalidasa wrote a mahakavya (epic) known as Raghuvamsha. As the name of this mahakavya suggests, it is about Raghu’s lineage, from Dilipa to Agnivarna, and includes Rama. But it isn’t exclusively about Rama. The Ramayana is almost exclusively about Rama. That’s the reason it is known as रामायण = राम+अयण. अयन means travel or progress. Thus, Ramayana means Rama’s progress. There is a minor catch though. अयन means travel or progress and अयण is a meaningless word. The word used in Ramayana is अयण, not अयन. This transformation occurs because of a rule of Sanskrit grammar known as internal sandhi. That is the reason रामायन becomes रामायण.

It is impossible to impart precision to any dating of the incidents in the Ramayana. But from the point of view of the present translation, it is an irrelevant exercise

Who is Rama? The word राम means someone who is lovely, charming and delightful. There are Jain and Buddhist versions (Dasharatha Jataka) of the Rama account and they differ in significant details from the Ramayana story. For instance, in Jain accounts, Ravana is killed by Lakshmana. In Dasharatha Jataka, Sita is Rama’s sister. In Ramayana and Purana accounts, Rama is Vishnu’s seventh avatara (incarnation). Usually, ten avataras are named for Vishnu, though sometimes, a larger number is also given. When the figure is ten, the avataras are matsya (fish), kurma (tutle), varaha (boar), narasimha (half-man, half lion), vamana, (dwarf) Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki (Kalki is yet to come). In the cycle of creation and destruction, yugas (eras) follow each other and one progressively goes down krita yuga (alternatively satya yuga), treta yuga, dvapara yuga and kali yuga, before the cycle starts again. In the list of ten avataras, matysa, kurma, varaha and narasimha are from the present krita yuga; Vamana, Parashurama and Rama are from the present treta yuga; Krishna is from dvapara yuga; and Buddha and Kalki are from kali yuga. Rama was towards the end of treat yuga. (In the ‘Uttara Kanda’, dvapara yuga has started.) Just as Krishna’s departure marked the transition from dvapara yuga to kali yuga, Rama’s departure marked the transition from treta yuga to dvapara yuga.

When did these events occur? It is impossible to answer this question satisfactorily, despite continuous efforts being made to find an answer. At one level, it is an irrelevant question too. There is a difference between an incident happening and it being recorded. In that day and age, recording meant composition and oral transmission, with embellishments added. There was noise associated with transmission and distribution. It is impossible to unbundle the various layers in the text, composed at different points in time. Valmiki is described as Rama’s contemporary, just as Vedavyasa was a contemporary of the Kouravas and the Pandavas. But that doesn’t mean today’s Valmiki Ramayana text is exactly what Valmiki composed, or that today’s Mahabharata text is exactly what Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa composed. Therein lies the problem with several approaches to dating.

Who is Rama? The word राम  means someone who is lovely, charming and delightful. There are Jain and Buddhist versions of the Rama account and they differ in significant details from the Ramayana story

The first and favoured method of dating is undoubtedly the astronomical one, based on positions of nakshatras and grahas (constellations/stars and planets), or using information about events like eclipses. However, because layers of the text were composed at different points in time, compounded by precession of the equinoxes, this leads to widely divergent dates for an event like Rama’s birth, ranging from 7323 BCE to 1331 BCE. Second, one can work with genealogies, notwithstanding problems of inconsistencies across them. One will then obtain a range of something like 2350 BCE to 1500 BCE. Third, one can work with linguistics and the evolution of language, comparing that of the Ramayana to other texts. Fourth, one can work with the archaeological evidence, such as the pottery discovered in sites known to be associated with the Ramayana. Even then, there will be a wide range of dates, from something like 2600 BCE to 1100 BCE. Fifth, one can consider geography, geology, changes in the course of rivers. Finally, there are traditional views about the length of a manvantara (lifespan of a Manu) or yuga. Given the present state of knowledge, it is impossible to impart precision to any dating of the incidents in the Ramayana. Scholars have grappled with the problem in the past and will continue to do so in the future. This may be an important question. But from the point of view of the present translation, it is an irrelevant one…

If one cannot date the incidents of the Ramayana, can one at least conclusively date when the Valmiki Ramayana was written? Because of the many layers and subsequent interpolations, there is no satisfactory resolution to this problem either. The Valmiki Ramayana has around 24,000 shlokas, a shloka being a verse. The Mahabharata is believed to have 100,000 shlokas, so the Valmiki Ramayana is about one-fourth the size of the Mahabharata. These 24,000 shlokas are distributed across seven kandas—‘Bala Kanda’ (Book about Youth), ‘Ayodhya Kanda’ (Book about Ayodhya), ‘Aranya Kanda’ (Book of the Forest), Kishkindha Kanda (Book about Kishkindha), ‘Sundara Kanda’ (Book of Beauty), ‘Yuddha Kanda’ (Book about the War) and ‘Uttara Kanda’ (Book about the Sequel). Kanda refers to a major section or segment and is sometimes translated into English as Canto. ‘Canto’ sounds archaic, ‘Book’ is so much better. This does not mean the kanda-wise classification always existed. For all one knows, initially, there were simply chapters. In this text itself, there is a reference to the Valmiki Ramayana possessing 500 sargas. The word sarga also means Book, but given the number 500, is more like a chapter. (For the record, the text has more than 600 chapters.) Most scholars agree ‘Uttara Kanda’ was written much later. If one reads the ‘Uttara Kanda’, that belief is instantly endorsed. The ‘Uttara Kanda’ doesn’t belong. This isn’t only because of the content, which is invariably mentioned. It is also because of the texture of the text, the quality of the poetry. It is vastly inferior. To a lesser extent, one can also advance similar arguments for the ‘Bala Kanda’. Therefore, the earlier portions were probably composed around 500 BCE. The later sections, like the ‘Uttara Kanda’, and parts of the ‘Bala Kanda’, were probably composed around 500 CE. It isn’t the case that all later sections are in ‘Uttara Kanda’.

Why did he take Sita and Lakshmana along with him? Was Shurpanakha’s disfigurement warranted? Why did he unfairly kill Vali? Why did he make Sita go through tests of purity, not once, but twice?

There is a mix of earlier and later sections across all kandas. The word kanda also means trunk or branch of a tree. The Mahabharata is also classified into such major sections or Books. However, in the Mahabharata, these major sections are known as parvas. The word parva also means branch. However, parva suggests a smaller branch, one that is more flexible. Kanda suggests one that is more solid, less flexible. There may have been slight variations in shlokas across different versions of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, but fundamentally the Sanskrit Mahabharata is a single text. The original text expanded, like a holdall, to include everything. Those different versions have been ‘unified’ in a Critical Edition published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona (Pune). In the case of the Valmiki Ramayana, with its kanda-kind of classification, the evolution seems to have been different. If someone was unhappy with what Valmiki had depicted, he simply composed another Ramayana. In Sanskrit, mention has already been made of the Yoga Vasishtha Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana and Adbhuta Ramayana. This continued to happen with vernacular versions…

Valmiki is the first poet, adi kavi. By the time of classical Sanskrit literature, some prerequisites were defined for a work to attain the status of mahakavya. Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, Shri Harsha and Bhatti composed such works. Though these notions and definitions came later, the Valmiki Ramayana displays every characteristic of a mahakavya and is longer than any of these subsequent works. The story of how it came about is known to most people who are familiar with the Ramayana. The sage Valmiki had gone, with his disciple Bharadvaja, to bathe in the waters of the River Tamasa. There was a couple of krouncha (curlew) birds there, in the act of making love. Along came a hunter and killed the male bird. As the female bird grieved, Valmiki was driven by compassion and the first shloka emerged from his lips. Since it was composed in an act of sorrow— shoka—this kind of composition came to be known as shloka. So the Ramayana tells us. The shloka is as follows, ‘O nishada (hunter)! This couple of curlews was in the throes of passion and you killed one of them. Therefore, you will possess ill repute for an eternal number of years.’…

To return to the notion of dharma—transcending all those collective templates of dharma—there is one that is individual in nature. Regardless of those collective templates, an individual has to decide what the right course of action is and there is no universal answer as to what is right and what is wrong. There are always contrary pulls of dharma, with two notions of dharma pulling in different directions. It is not immediately obvious which is superior. Given the trade-offs, an individual makes a choice and suffers the consequences. Why is there an impression that these individual conflicts of dharma are more manifest in the Mahabharata than in the Ramayana?

The answer probably lies in the nature of these two texts. What is the difference between a novel and a long story, even when both have multiple protagonists? The difference between a novel and a long story is probably not one of length. A novel seeks to present the views of all protagonists. Thus, the Mahabharata is a bit like a novel, in so far as that trait is concerned. A long story does not seek to look at incidents and actions from the point of view of every protagonist. It is concerned with the perspective of one primary character, to the exclusion of others.

If this distinction is accepted, the Valmiki Ramayana has the characteristics of a long story. It is the Ramayana. Therefore, it is primarily from Rama’s point of view. We aren’t told what Bharata or Lakshmana thought, or for that matter, Urmila, Mandavi or Shrutakirti. There is little that is from Sita’s point of view too. That leads to the impression that the Mahabharata contains more about individual conflicts of dharma. For the Valmiki Ramayana, from Rama’s point of view, the conflicts of dharma aren’t innumerable. On that exile to the forest, why did he take Sita and Lakshmana along with him? Was Shurpanakha’s disfigurement warranted? Why did he unfairly kill Vali? Why did he make Sita go through tests of purity, not once, but twice? Why did he unfairly kill Shambuka? Why did he banish Lakshmana? At one level, one can argue these are decisions by a personified divinity and therefore, mere humans cannot comprehend and judge the motives. At another level, the unhappiness with Rama’s decisions led to the composition of alternative versions of the Ramayana. Note that Sita’s questions about dharma remained unanswered. If you are going to the forest as an ascetic, why have you got weapons with you? If the rakshasas (demons) are causing injuries to hermits, punishing the rakshasas is Bharata’s job, now that he is the king. Why are you dabbling in this? Note also Rama’s justification at the time of Sita’s first test. It wasn’t about what others would think, that justification came later. The initial harsh words reflected his own questions about Sita’s purity. Thus, Rama’s conflicts over dharma also exist. It is just that in the Valmiki Ramayana, it is about one individual alone.  

(This is an edited excerpt from Bibek Debroy’s The Valmiki Ramayana, Volume One; Penguin Classics; Pages 1,536; Rs 1,699)