Western culture is only just beginning to look beyond the Roman and Greek civilizations for new inspiration. Even so, it is a little surprising that, although the mighty epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey are widely known and loved, only a few scholars have studied their Hindu counterparts known as the Ramayana and the Mahdbharata. In fact no good complete modern English translation of the Ramayana exists, and the best of those made in the last half of the 19th century are unobtainable outside the larger libraries.
The Ramayana is a work of great antiquity attributed to the illustrious Sage Valmiki. Its date of composition cannot be fixed with any certainty, particularly as, in common with other Sanskrit classics, it was not at first committed to writing, but was passed on from singer to singer. This process also accounts for the fact that the various versions (Sakhas) of the poem that have come down to us differ slightly in context. The interesting fact is that the scholars are agreed that the Ramayana is the grandly conceived and executed masterpiece of one poet, and not a collection of stories from many sources, loosely gathered together.
Unfortunately we know very little about the Rishi Valmiki, whose title ‘Adikavi ‘ (First poet) and pre-eminence in Sanskrit verse has never been seriously challenged to this day. He was a robber chief in a forest in Northern India and on one occasion waylaid two ascetics for the purpose of plundering them. The travellers, however, spoke to him with kindness, and offered him the spiritual truth in lieu of the gold and silver which they did not possess. Convinced of their sincerity and on their advice, Valmiki changed his mode of life and became a devotee of Shri Ramachandra, the Seventh Incarnation of God (Vishnu) on earth. After a long period of meditation on the form and virtues of Shri Rama, it is said that he was granted a vision of Rama’s life from beginning to end.
He gave expression to this unique experience, in Sanskrit verse, in the 24,000 slokas (48,000 lines) known as the Ramayana. The sloka is a specific metre which the poet himself discovered, as is told in a beautiful passage in the first book.
The poem is divided into seven books (Kandas) of unequal length, which may be very briefly summarised as follows :—
Book I. (Bala-Kanda.) King Dasaratha of Ayodhya (Oudh), performs a sacrifice in die hope of obtaining a son. At this time the Gods (Devas) are alarmed at the power acquired by the mighty Titan named Ravana, who, by the practice of black magic had conquered almost all of die known world. King Dasaratha’s prayer is answered and his three wives bear four sons, Rama, Bharata and the twins Lakshmana and Shatrughna, who are all partial incarnations of Shri Vishnu. Vishnu, however, manifests himself more fully in Shri Rama than in the other brothers. The boys grow up and Shri Rama wins as his bride, Sita, the daughter of King Janaka of the neighbouring kingdom of Videha.
Book II. (Ayodhya-Kanda.) King Dasaratha intends to proclaim Shri Rama heir-apparent, but the jealousy of his second queen, Kaikeyi, is aroused and she holds the king to a promise made formerly, that he would grant her two boons. The boons she now secures are the banishment of Shri Rama to the forest for fourteen years, and the installation of her own son Bharata as Yuvaraja.1 According to the law of righteousness (dharma) a vow must be honoured, and Shri Rama calmly accepts the sentence of exile. He travels south to Chittrakuta in the Dandaka Forest with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. King Dasaratha dies of grief and Bharata implores Shri Rama to return to the throne, but the latter adheres firmly to the vindication of his father’s honour and the fulfilment of his vow.
Book III. (Aranya-Kanda.) After about ten years in the forest with her husband, Princess Sita is kidnapped by the Titan Ravana, and taken by him to his capital, Lanka (the modern Ceylon).
Book IV. (.Kishkindhya-Kanda.) Rama and Lakshmana in pursuit of Ravana and to rescue Sita, enlist the aid of King Sugriva, leader of the monkey tribe, whose chief minister Hanuman becomes the foremost devotee and servant of Shri Rama. Help also comes from Vibishana, brother of Ravana, who has openly disapproved of the Titan king’s conduct, and warned him of the retribution he may expect for his unrighteous actions.
Book V. (Sundara-Kanda.) The monkey armies reach the south coast of India, and, bridging the straits, gain entry into Lanka.
Book VI. (Lanka-Kanda.) After a series of pitched battles, Lanka is captured and Ravana is slain by Shri Rama. Sita demonstrates her purity and faithfulness to her husband, by successfully undergoing the ordeal by fire. The period of fourteen years’ exile is by now completed, and Shri Rama returns with his consort, his brothers and allies, to the capital Ayodhya, where he begins a long and glorious reign.
Book VII. (Uttara-Kanda.) This ‘ later section ’ or epilogue, describes the doubts raised in the minds of the citizens concerning the purity of Sita, and how they compel Shri Rama to send her to Valmiki’s hermitage in the forest where she gives birth to twin sons, Kusha and Lava. When these boys grow up, they return to Ayodhya and are recognized by Shri Rama, who subsequently brings Sita back to share the ruling of the kingdom with him.
This in outline is the story of the Ramayana, which, in the poetic grandeur of the original, as well as in die later Hindi work on the same theme by Goswami Tulsidas, has exerted a tremendous influence on the men and women of India. It is not only poetry of unsurpassed dramatic power and brilliance, it is a treasure-house of information on rhetoric, medicine, geology, botany, geography and every facet of the ancient civilization, with which learned scholars may interest themselves. For every Hindu, Shri Rama and Sita are the ideal man and woman, the model husband and wife. Shri Rama is an incarnation of God, die One all-pervading Principle of Truth and Intelligence, and what higher pattern for one’s life could be chosen than this man of perfect virtue, a lover of truth, compassionate, just, benevolent, valorous and chivalrous ?
The story may also be taken as an allegory. Symbolically Rama and Ravana represent the forces of light and darkness operating in the human heart, as well as in the world. Truth, benevolence, rpercy and righteousness are the forces of Light which are opposed by greed, lust, love of pleasure and power, anger and egoity. The real triumph of man means conquest of the forces of darkness. In India a festival is celebrated each year on the day traditionally held to be that on which Ravana fell and the rule of tyranny, injustice, savagery and unrighteousness ended.
Mention has already been made of Tulsidas’ later Hindi epic on the life of Shri Rama, which is probably the most widely read of all in the present day. One version of the story also forms an episode in the Mahabharata and another comparatively modem treatment of it is the Adhyatma Ramayana ascribed to the Sage Vyasa.
The Sage Valmiki himself wrote a long metaphysical classic known as the Maharamayana or Yoga Vasishtha, which deals with the inner development of Shri Rama as opposed to his outer deeds and which remains one of the most authoritative and respected philosophical treatises of Vedanta.
The life of Shri Rama has entered into the consciousness of the Indian people, and much art and literature, such as Bhababhuti’s dramas, draw their inspiration from it. The words of Brahma in the Ramayana have proved so far to be no idle boast: “ So long as mountains and rivers have place on the earth, the story of the Ramayana will be told in the world.”
The aim of the translator is to make the story known to English readers in a complete form, the first part of which is published in this volume. Although it is not possible to reproduce the beauty of the original poetic form, the true spirit of Valmiki’s masterpiece is here preserved and for those who have vision, the whole significance of its spiritual purpose will be apparent.