Long ago a cruel hunter shot down a male curlew in a forest on the Tamasa river. Soaked in blood it was writhing in mortal pain. Its spouse was grief-stricken. An anchorite was witness to the dismal scene. It melted his heart. Out flowed a curse from the saddened spectator: “O cruel hunter, may thou be not long-lived, for, thou hast killed a love-lorn curlew.” The curse was metrical and musical. He was astonished that such type of a language flowed from him. Thus was born the Muse. Sadness, shoka, assumed the form of a shloka, a verse.
Valmiki had gone to the river for ablution. It was while he was enjoying the natural beauty of the forest, that he happened to see the sad scene. He returned to his hermitage. Brahma, the grandsire, appeared before him and told him that it was the grandsire’s inspiration that took shape as a spontaneous verse from the sage. The grandsire advised him to compose the life-story of Sri Rama in such mellifluous verse. After Brahma’s departure, the sauntering minstrel Narada came to Valmiki and narrated to him the saga of Rama briefly.
The saintly Valmiki asked the great sage Narada: “Who is the man now living, who is righteous, grateful, honest, steady, moral, well-wisher of all, wise, efficient, charming, self controlled, even-tempered, brilliant, free from jealousy, and whom even the Deuos dread in combat?” In reply to the query, Narada said: “O sage, rare indeed is the person endowed with the characteristics you have enumerated. But yet, there is one whom I know. He is known as Rama, a scion of the dynasty of the Ikshvakus.” Narada introduces Rama with nearly seventy rare good qualities. The characteristics speak highly of Rama’s wisdom, culture, refinements, physical charm, mental nobility and exemplary behaviour with others whether friends or foes. A person endowed with such noble qualities is not a mere man, but a god. And Valmiki reveals now and then Rama’s divinity.
Narada regaled Valmiki with Rama’s life-story in a nutshell. Valmiki then sat in meditation and saw the scenes of the Ramayana before his spiritual vision as depicted by Narada and he wrote the Ramayana.
The Ramayana, is the Adikavya, i.e., the first poem. It does not mean that there was no poetry before, but that it is the first work of poetry that depicts all the topics and characteristics expected of a great work of art. It may even be said that it was the Ramayana that set the standard for a great poem. Besides, it is a Dharma Shastra, an authority on right conduct. It is the story of Rama, the noblest man, and that makes it a guide manual for righteous life. Then again it is an Itihasa. Itihasa is a record of ancient wisdom of righteous living and its purpose is to elaborate and elucidate the precepts propounded by the Vedas.
The Vedas are the basic texts of Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion. It deals with the ultimate goal of man and the means of achieving it. The goal is atonement with Brahman and the means is Dharma. Dharma and Brahman are the main topics that the Vedas deal with. Of these, Brahman is the goal and Dharma is the means. The goal is eternally the same irrespective of time or clime. Dharma, the means, may vary according to place, time and person. Propitiation of the gods through sacrifice is the means the Vedas prescribed.
The scope and sweep of Vedic Dharma are limited, thought Manu. He expanded the scope of Dharma into Varna Dharma, and Ashrama Dharma and that of Yajna into the five daily obligatory duties that a householder is expected to perform. He proclaimed: “Dharma destroyed destroys, and Dharma saved saves.” The Mahabharata provides a classical example of destruction brought about by the discarding of Dharma through the story of the Kouravas. The Ramayana provides the positive example of the saving power of Dharma through the life story of Rama, the righteous one.
The Ramayana, the Itihasa, provides the sanction for Ramayana, the Dharma shastra, and the Adikavya provides the canvas for projecting the Dharma shastra. Of the three aspects, it is the Dharma shastra that standsout. Valmiki depicts Rama as the embodiment of Dharma – Ramo vigrahavan Dharmah.
Dharma is often portrayed as an ox. “Vrisho hi Bhagavan Dharmah“. Siva rides on that bull. It has four feet – Tapas, Saucha, Daya and Satya i.e., austerity, chastity, charity and honesty. Valmiki depicts his hero as perfect in all the feet of Dharma.
Rama is said to have lived more than eleven thousand years. He married Sita, a six year old girl at the age of thirteen. They lived in Ayodhya for twelve years when Dasharatha proposed to crown Rama heir-apparent. Through the machinations of Kaikeyi, Rama was banished to the woods for fourteen years. For thirteen years Sita was with Rama in the forest. At home and in the forest they led the life of self-control. Sita was abducted by Ravana and kept captive for one year in Lanka. At the end of the fourteenth year Rama rescued Sita killing Ravana and they returned to Ayodhya. Rama was crowned king. Rama thought of consummating their marriage only then, for the purpose of continuing the lineage. Within a year Sita was banished for good on account of some baseless slander against her. Rama never married again. On occasions such as a sacrifice when the presence of the wife was mandatory, he had a golden image of Sita in her place. Rama’s long life was a continuous tapas.
Of all the four feet of Dharma, Satya, truth is perhaps the strongest. Rama was verily the personification of Satya. When Kaikeyi hurried him’to leave the palace and proceed to the forest, he said: “O Devi, I do not propose to delay for any ulterior motive. Know me to be devoted to pure Dharma even like the Rishts. Rama has no double talk.” No, Rama never swerves from his plighted word. Not only that, he is particular that his father also should honour his word both in letter and in spirit, even though it be at the cost of Rama’s royal rights. Dasharatha had given his word of honour to Kekaya at the time of their wedding that her son would be Dasaratha’s successor to the throne. This was a top secret. Rama came to know of it only during the private interview with his father after the public announcement of his coronation. Rama was in a fix. Had he known about it beforehand, he would not have agreed to accept the office. If he withdrew when he became privy to it, that would have put Dasharatha in an awakward situation. When Kaikeyi for her own reasons asked for the banishment of Rama, it was a redemption for Rama from dilemma. That was why he readily accepted Kaikeyi’s demand in spite of his father’s wish to the contrary. No, Rama cannot have any compromise with truth, nor can he be a party to the father’s attempt to wriggle out of it. Rama sticks to his word at all cost.
Charity is one of Dharma’s feet. During the war, Rama, Lakshmana and the army were bound down by the Nagastra. To rescue them from me clutch of the serpent missile, Garuda appeared on the scene. Seeing Garuda all the serpents fled. While taking leave of Rama, Garuda said: “O righteous friend Rama, indulgent even unto thy enemies, please give me leave to depart.” Here Garuda depicts Rama as one who is considerate even to his enemies.
Rama and the army of monkeys were camping at the southern end of India on their way to Lanka waiting to cross the brine. There appeared in the sky over Rama’s tent Vibhishana, the brother of Ravana. He sought refuge with Rama. A war council was held. All except Hanuman were against welcoming Vibhishana, a Rakshasa and a brother of Ravana. After hearing all, Rama said to Sugriva: “O Sugriva, fetch him, I have given him refuge, be he Vibhishana or even Ravana himself. Once one takes refuge in me, him I protect from all beings, that is my vow.” He not only accepted Vibhishana, but was also ready to welcome his arch enemy Ravana himself. That is Rama.
The war between Rama and Ravana was raging ferociously. One day Ravana himself entered the field. He wrought havoc on Rama’s army. Towards evening he encountered Rama. Rama said to him: “You have done mighty deeds today. Many a doughty warrior on my aide has been done to death by you. But you are exhausted. You have no conveyance or aims. Go home, rest well and come tomorrow, well armed in your chariot. Then you will see my power.” Two or three more arrows would have done the job. The arch enemy was within his grasp. But Rama did not want to take advantage of his enemy’s weakness. Who but a Rama could be so chivalrous?
Now another scene. Ravana was killed. His body was lying on the battle-field. Vibhishana was hesitating to perform his brother’s funeral, as Ravana was a wicked person. Reading Vibhishana’s mind, Rama told him: “Enmity ends with death, my purpose has been served. Perform his obsequies. He is related to me as he is to you.” By the terms of their treaty of friendship, Vibhishana’s friends are Rama’s friends also. By saying this to Vibhishana, Rama implied that if for any reason he was reluctant to do his duty to Ravana, he, Rama, would do that office himself. Verily Rama was charitable to a fault.
The poet has proved that his hero is perfect in Dharma and Satya. The Upanishad says: “Tell the truth and live righteously.” The Ramayana, the Itihasa, exemplifies this Vedic dictum through the life of Rama. Narada advised Valmiki to sing the glory of the noblest man. Valmiki wrote the Adikavya. And the Ramayana has become the greatest Dharma shastra, the best guidebook for a noble and useful life. Valmiki himself says about his work: “As long as hills and rivers remain on earth so long will the story of Rama prevail among men.”
The Ramayana is not simply Rama’s story (Ramasya Ayanam) only, but also Sita’s story (Ramayah Ayanam). So Ramayana is the life-story of Sita and Rama. Both are paragons of virtue. At the time of their marriage Rama was thirteen years of age and Sita, six. Giving his daughter to Rama, Janaka said: “This Sita, my daughter will be your constant companion in all your noble deeds. May good betide you. Take her hand in yours. She is a lucky girl. She will be totally devoted to you. She will follow you like your shadow.” When Rama was banished from Ayodhya, he tried in various ways to dissuade her from accompanying him. But she did not agree. The shadow could not be separated from the original object. While in the forest, Viradha, a Rakshasa, lifted Rama and Lakshmana. Then Sita cried out to the demon: “Carry me, spare the brothers. Salutations to you, � best of the Rakshasas.” Sita sought their safety and not hers. Once while leaving a hermitage, a number of anchorites from the neighbourhood came and sought Rama’s protection from the Rakshasas and Rama assured them his help. While going, Sita expressed her concern about Rama’s promise to the anchorites, because the Rakshasas had done no wrong to them and destroying them would be punishing the innocent. In reply, Rama said that it was their duty as Kshatriyas to protect the anchorites from the persecution of the demons. In this connection Sita added that he was totally devoted to truth and chastity. She affirmed that not even in dream did Rama think of any woman other than Sita. How many men can get such an attestation from their spouses?
While entering fire to prove her purity, Sita swore by her faithfulness to Rama by word, deed and thought and the Fire God vouched for her purity. Even when she was discarded into the forest for no fault of hers, she did not utter a word against Rama. She took it as her fate. Rama did his duty as a king. Sita did not complain. At the final scene when she disappeared into the lap of her mother, the earth, then also she affirmed her utter loyalty to her Lord. Hanuman said Sita was a befitting spouse to the righteous Rama. Swami Vivekananda said Sita was not just pure, but purity itself.
Valmiki is a poet first and foremost. His language is limpid and style, vibrant. There is no attempt at pedantry. Poetry spontaneously flows from a heart saturated with noble sentiments. He wrote about Rama and Sita, the ideal human beings. So the Ramayana has become a model Dharma Shastra which exemplifies the Vedic Values, thereby raising it to the status of an Itihasa. It is the Itihasas and Puranas that nurture and nourish the Indian culture and civilization. Culture is the refinement of the mind and the spirit When it is directed to the external aspects of man, it is called civilization and when directed inward it is called culture. It rises up to spiritual dimensions. So Indian culture is considered spiritual in content. The contribution of the Ramayana to effect this culmination is immense and immeasurable. It has gone deep down into the racial sub-conscious. Every aspect of Indian culture has been enriched and ennobled by the Ramayana. Indian languages, art, architecture, music, painting, devotional movements have all been profoundly influenced by the Ramayana. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been the mainstay of all the Indian regional languages. Tunchan, Tulasi, Krithivasa, and Kamban have installed the Ramayana in every Indian heart. It is the name and story of Rama that sustain most of the devotional movements. Temples dedicated to Rama dot the length and breadth of India. Painting, music, drama and other art-forms have the Ramayana as their main themes. It is the epics and the Sanskrit language that formed the cultural cementing force of the whole of India even when the country was divided into several political units. It has spread its message and culture to Burma, Siam, far-eastern countries, Indonesia, and other far off places. The epics and the Puranas have eclipsed the earlier literature. Rama and Krishna have become the current coin of Indian culture and none can dethrone them from their supreme eminence.
The Ramayana is unique in one aspect. Indian domestic relations have been deeply influenced by the Ramayana. We owe to Sita and Rama, the deep conjugal fidelity in our homes. Relations between father and sons, brothers and friends have all been profoundly strengthened and sanctified by the example of Valmiki’s heroes. The Ramayana is the pole-star of Indian culture.