Rama - Part 1
மரபு விக்கி இருந்து
Rama the righteous
“Was it a vision or a waking dream?” wondered John Keats in his Ode on a Nightingale. The story of Rama does fill us with a wonder not dissimilar to that of Keats in many respects. ‘Is it possible for a man, a mere human being to conduct himself in this way?’ we muse. ‘Is it at all possible for any single one of us to place righteousness above everyone, father, mother, guru, brother, wife and his own self? Is it possible for anyone of us to accept the crown this day and move on to the jungle the very next, for no fault of ours, just for the sake of upholding the promise that the father made to the step-mother in the distant past, which she utilises now to turn the tables? That too when the father says, ‘You need not listen to me; you may fight and get your kingdom back,’ and the gurus subscribe to that view?
Quite unusual human traits grip us before we complete just the first two books of the great epic, Bala and Ayodhya Kanda. This man’s penchant for righteousness takes us not by surprise but by shock. He refutes his master Vasistha, turns his request down to come back and take the crown; chides the eminent sage Jabali when he proffers pure reason and logic that permit Rama to come back to Ayodhya to accept the crown. “Dasaratha was none to you,” he argues and says, “nor were you related in anyway to him. The king was not you, while you are not the king (Dasaratha); therefore do what is recommended (to you). The father is only an efficient cause of a creature; it is only the sperm and the ovum conjointly retained by a (prospective) mother during the nights favourable for conception that constitute the material cause of a human being in this world. The aforesaid king has departed to the destination where he was bound to go (viz., back to the five elements, form which he had sprung up). Such is the natural way of created beings, while you are being harassed for no purpose.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Canto 108, Sloka 10 – 12)
‘Rama you need not be bound by what Dasaratha promised to Kaikeyi. It was not your promise; and Dasaratha was responsible along with your mother just for your birth and no more. The entire population of Ayodhya and we and Bharata desire that you are the one who should be installed on the throne of the country. Therefore, there is no reason why you should continue to remain in exile.’ Any of our present day statesmen would need no more than this argument to retain his seat of power. But not so for this man! He hits him back with an equally potent logic and wisdom and says, “The advice that you have tendered on this occasion in order to make available to me the pleasures of sense, which are agreeable (to all) is not (really) worth following, although appearing as such, and is unwholesome, though appearing as wholesome,” (Ibid, Canto 109, Sloka 2), cites the Vedas and other scriptures and questions, “Wherefore, then, shall I, who know all this, not carry out the behest of my father which was based on truth and solemnized through swearing by truth, true to (my) promise as I am? Neither from greed (of sovereignty) nor even from infatuation nor again from ignorance shall I, overpowered by obtuseness of understanding, violate the sanctity of my father’s pledge (given to mother Kaikeyi) true to my promise, (as I am).” (Ibid, Sloka 16 and 17)
‘I stick to my promise and it is my word which is dearer to me more than my own life,’ he declares later to Sita in the forest when she tries to stop him from killing the ogres at the request of the Rishis there -
அபி அஹம் ஜீவிதம் ஜஹ்யாம் த்வாம் வா ஸீதே ஸலக்ஷ்மணாம் |
he says, “For truth is always dear to me. I can even give up my life or you together with Lakshmana but not my plighted word given especially to the Brahmanas.” (Ibid, Aranya Kanda, Canto 10, Sloka 18) And remembers to add,
“மம ஸ்நேஹாத் ச ஸௌஹார்தாத் இதம் உக்தம் த்வயா வச: |
“O Sita! I am fully pleased. For a person is never advised unless he is dear. And it is becoming and proper not only for you but for your family too, O beautiful lady! You are dearer to me even than life, being my companion in Dharma.” (Ibid, Sloka 21)
‘I hold my life dear like everyone else, but you are dearer to me than my life. You are my companion in the performance of Dharma. Lakshmana is dearer to me too than my life. But if such a situation arises, I would rather stand for truth, than for my own life, or you or Lakshmana. I would give up everything, including my life and you both. But not truth.’
Unimaginable. A person who displays so many traits which are in the likeness of every common man, declares in no uncertain terms that the chief driving force in his life is Truth and nothing but Truth and lives for it. And finally, when he had to give up Sita, it was for the sake of righteousness; when he had to give up Lakshmana, it was for the sake of this Truth and when he gave up his own life in the river Sarayu, it was in part due to this very same penchant for truth that remained with him until the very last moment.
That is why, even Western scholars like J L Brockington who did extensive research on Valmiki Ramayana and are of the view that Valmiki did not portray his Rama as an avatar; and the Bala and Uttara Kandas are later additions by poets other than Valmiki, still choose to call Rama, the righteous. In fact, Brockington calls his book by the name ‘The Righteous Rama.’
A man or an avatar?
Many have been the Western as well as Indian scholars who have gone into the question of whether Valmiki saw his Rama as an avatar or as a human being, the best of all that mankind had seen until that time. Brockington is one of the many eminent scholars who have analysed the Ramayana of Valmiki threadbare, analysed the structure, gone into the grammatical and linguistic aspects, studied the pattern of the verbal system, construction of sentences et al, which go into the mould that a poet adopts for himself, that goes to bear the stamp of his own particular style and have come to several important conclusions. How far and to what extent the conclusions can be accepted per se is another question. But the conclusions are nonetheless important, though we may have to rework on certain points, question the logical validity, test the theory propounded by him with contradicting external – but at the same time undeniable – evidence and see the result for ourselves. They form a very sound and plausible basis for us in our quest for what might be closer to the truth.
According to Brockington, Valmiki could not have composed the Bala and Uttara Kandas, which were enriched by oral tradition down the generations of bards who recited and interpreted the ‘core book’ that consisted only of five cantos, namely, Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkinda, Sundara and Yuddha Kandas.
“The original story,” he states at the very beginning of his book ‘The Righteous Rama’ and continues, “began no doubt with some version of the court intrigues which open the Ayodhya Kanda, now the second book of the epic. Here we are introduced to the aging king of Ayodhya, Dasaratha, his wives Kausalya, Bharata, son of Kaikeyi and Lakshmana and Satrughna, sons of Sumitra…” and at the end he concludes that the story, which Valmiki could have composed somewhere between the 3rd and the 5th centuries BC was spread by bards reciting it to the masses, adding a few more details every time. ‘And that’s how,’ he concludes, ‘what started as a story of a king slowly transformed into a religious text, narrating the descending of the Lord on earth, assuming human form, depicting Rama the king as an avatar of Vishnu.’
‘This concept of an avatar was not there,’ argues Brockington, ‘when Valmiki composed his grand epic.’ Roughly put, the essence of his arguments would boil down to this. After the composition of the epic, as it has to happen, bards got the epic by heart, recited it to the masses and moved about the country from the northernmost corner of this vast continent, to the southernmost tip, adding a few scenes in each geographical junction where they stayed for a while, to tell the people that ‘Rama was in their place, close to them,’ so that a sense of belonging is created and the story can be appreciated and can become more absorbing. With the passage of time, generations and crossing of geographical boundaries, the epic grew up, evolved and took shape. Brockington breaks this entire evolution into five stages, the first one being the ‘creation of the core book’.
“It is during the second stage,” he argues, “the complex inter-relationship of mutual borrowing with the Mahabharata begins.” He points to the existence of the story of Rama in the Mahabharata, which itself is an acknowledgement of the exceeding popularity of Ramayana. “During the second stage also the divergence into Northern and Southern recensions was taking place, and was largely complete before the fixing of the Uttara Kanda in the later part of the third stage. It had already progressed significantly by the time of the Mahabharata borrowings from the Ramayana…” he continues.
In essence, what he argues is this, at this point. ‘The story of Rama, which is narrated to Yudhishthira by Markandeya in the Vana Parva in order to strengthen his flailing spirit, contains the core events of Ramayana. Since these two epics were not distanced in time by the passage of comparatively long number of years, the version in Mahabharata, namely, Raamopaakhyana would be much closer in details to its original. He then points out the number of differences by way of events narrated, between Valmiki Ramayana and the Raamopaakhyana.
There of course are many differences between these two, the chief among them being the absence of Agni Pravesa in the Raamopaakhyana. But then, there are differences in the events described in the synopsis that appears in the Bala Kanda (which is supposed to be an interpolation according to Brockington and many others) and the main course of events, one of which is the absence of the second repudiation of Sita!
Proof by absence
‘The Raamopaakhyana in the Mahabharata does not contain many of the important details that are found Valmiki Ramayana in its present form. And therefore, obviously,’ concludes J L Brockington, of whom we have been discussing in our last post, ‘these missing details in the Raamopaakhyana were deftly inserted into the text of Valmiki, much later, certainly later than Mahabharata.’ It is his conclusion that the Mahabharata must have been composed when Valmiki Ramayana was undergoing its changes – or ‘evolution’ as it is called – in the second stage (of the five stages that Brockington has broken the process of ‘evolution’ into) and this must have been roughly around the first century BC. To quote him, “Most probably the Raamopaakhyana was composed around the middle of the second stage, in perhaps the first century BC.”
He then enlists some of the details that are not narrated in the Raamopaakhyana of Mahabharata. “The Raamopaakhyana in fact contains no reference to several of the more obvious additions of the second stage, for example Dasaratha’s account of his slaying of the ascetic youth (though mentioning Dasaratha’s death), Bharadvaja’s entertainment of Bharata’s army, Jabali’s and Vasistha’s speeches to Rama, Sita meeting with Anasuya, Valin’s accusation of Rama and his reply, Hanuman’s killing the sons of Ravana’s ministers and Rama’s first encounter with Ravana, to name only the most prominent episodes and thus the most likely for inclusion,” he says. That is to say, for example, since Raamopaakhyana does not mention anything about the first war of Rama with Ravana, this could not have been there in the ‘original’ version of Valmiki and that this particular scene must have been ‘created’ by some later bard and has thus found its place in the Valmiki Ramayana in its present form.
This conclusion has a serious implication. Though the researcher does not mention it explicitly, by exclusion of this scene from what is proposed to be the ‘original rendition’ of Valmiki, one would have to take out, deprive Rama of the highly commendable, extremely righteous, wonderfully generous gesture of restraining himself from persisting in his fight against Ravana when he stands without his chariot, any of his weapons or anyone of his army, alone, saying, “I know you stand agonised through (continued) fighting. (Therefore) depart (for the present), O king of the rangers of the night! Re-entering Lanka and resting (awhile), sally forth (again), (duly) mounted on a chariot and armed with a bow, then (remaining) seated in your car, you shall witness my strength.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 49, Sloka 143)
This is one scene which Kamban has beautifully rendered in Tamil. It is a very famous and oft-quoted line - ‘இன்று போய்ப் போர்க்கு நாளை வா.’ Since you have lost your all and stand alone without weapons, go back now. Take rest and come back tomorrow. Let us resume the war after you rest and rejuvenate. And if this ‘first war’ is brushed aside as ‘interpolation’ simply because Raamopaakhyana in the Mahabharata does not mention it, you are depriving Rama of one of his most splendid qualities – observing restraint in the battlefield against his sworn enemy, when the latter was defenceless, helpless and was most vulnerable.
Without hinting at this implication, Brockington simply moves on, “It does allude to episodes which it is reasonable to infer have been elaborated rather than inserted – such as Sita’s spirited rejection of Ravana before he seizes her – but always in a way that is consistent what may be expected to have lain behind the present expanded version.” That is, a few scenes were of course narrated by Valmiki; but going by what the Raamopaakhyana says, it only leads us to infer that such episodes as Sita’s highly spirited response to Ravana when he sheds his Sanyasi make-up and begs for her love, were not ‘so spirited’ when Valmiki composed his epic; but were elaborated by later hands, bards reciting the story to the masses have worked up the words of Sita, and have elaborated – added their own Slokas to – the ‘original’ of Valmiki. However, such elaborations, he suggests, have been done very well, and in consistence with the ‘original’ so that the ‘elaboration’ does not stand out and allow itself to be detected easily.
And then he drops the bomb. “To cite just one significant example, it refers to the arrival of the trio at Sarabhanga’s hermitage but not to Indra’s previous arrival, which seems to form part of the process of enhancing Rama’s status culminating in his identification of an avatar.”
We have narrated this scene at the hermitage of Sarabhanga, when discussing Sita. (See: Being a human and also What remains – a glimpse). This is one of the strong points that underline the idea that Valmiki did perceive his Rama as an avatar, beyond Bala Kanda. That is, even if it is accepted that the assumption the whole of the Bala Kanda – along with Uttara Kanda – is taken as an interpolation, where the concept of ‘avatar’ is presented in what constitutes the ‘core book’ that Brockington argues about. He brushes this scene aside pointing to the absence of this ‘presence of Indra’ at the hermitage of Sarabhanga.
Hmm. What else?
A structure without cement
We have been discussing that one of the important conclusions that Brockington draws on the basis of Raamopaakhyana of Mahabharata is that Rama was not depicted as an avatar of Vishnu and that Raamopaakhyana does not portray him that way, which evidences the fact that Valmiki’s ‘core book’ did not – till the time of the composition of Mahabharata, which according to him was composed during the first century BC – contain this concept of an avatar.
“Raamopaakhyana is contemporary with the middle of the second stage,” he contends (the second stage refers to the second of the five stages of the process of ‘evolution’, which according to him the Valmiki Ramayana has undergone to reach its present form) and says, “and precedes the addition of Bala and Uttara Kandas, probably forming the source of their nuclei. Nevertheless, the religious attitude expressed in its narration of Rama’s birth is clearly similar to that of the third stage (and also the beginning of the Ayodhya Kanda and end of the Yuddha Kanda) so again there is a suggestion of some overlap between the second and third stages.”
Simply put, ‘Rama as an avatar’ (which is the connotation couched under the long winding phrase “the religious attitude expressed in its narration of Rama’s birth”) developed in the third stage in the process of ‘evolution’. The Raamopaakhyana is a contemporary of the ‘second stage version’ of Valmiki Ramayana. “Yet the Raamopaakhyana is not likely to have been the innovator in this respect,” he adds, meaning, ‘though the concept visualising Rama as an avatar was taking shape parallelly, this ‘idea’ was not triggered in by Raamopaakhyana, because, “the rationale of its inclusion at that point in the Mahabharata is that Rama is human and that is its overall attitude.”
‘Such an idea seems to have been taking shape at that time,’ he infers, ‘however, the Mahabharata version of Ramayana did not include it in its text.’ Listen to him in his own words. “It is more probable that ides of Rama’s divinity were beginning to be current in the milieu in which the Ramayana circulated, without as yet being accepted into the text, and that the Raamopaakhyana from outside was less inhibited about including them, despite some inconsistency with its own basic position.”
If one goes through this particular portion in the Mahabharata, one is tempted to buy the argument of Brockington, blind-folded. As we mentioned earlier, Markandeya narrates the Raamopaakhyana to Dharmaputra in the Vana Parva, when the Pandavas are undergoing their exile. ‘Even such a great soul as Rama suffered exile in the jungle,’ Markandeya tells Yudhishthira. The whole purpose of this narrative is to tell the Pandavas that they were not alone in their misfortune and there were more or less similar instances in earlier times and there were kings who had undergone periods of misery and suffering. It is with this in view, in fact, the story of Nula is related to them earlier by sage Brihadaswa, in order to tell Dharmaputra that there lived a king who lost his all – like him – in a game of dice and regained it later, after undergoing miseries of an untold nature.
With such a purpose in view, Markandeya tells this to Yudhishthira. “O bull of the Bharata race, even Rama suffered unparalleled misery, for the evil-minded Ravana, king of the Rakshasas, having recourse to deceit and overpowering the vulture Jataayu, forcibly carried away his wife Sita from his asylum in the woods. Indeed, Rama, with the help of Sugriva, brought her back, constructing a bridge across the sea, and consuming Lanka with his keen-edged arrows.” (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section 272 – translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli) On this, Dharmaputra wants to know the story of Rama and here is how the birth of Rama is narrated by Markandeya.
"Markandeya said, 'Listen, O prince of Bharata's race, to this old history exactly as it happened! I will tell thee all about the distress suffered by Rama together with his wife. There was a great king named Aja sprung from me race of Ikshwäku. He had a son named Dasaratha who was devoted to the study of the Vedas and was ever pure. And Dasaratha had four sons conversant with morality and profit known by the names, respectively, of Rama, Lakshmana, Satrughna, and the mighty Bharata. And Rama had for his mother Kausalya, and Bharata had for his mother Kaikeyi, while those scourge of their enemies Lakshmana and Satrughna were the sons of Sumitra.
விதேஹராஜோ ஜநக: ஸீதா தஸ்யாத்மஜா விபோ |
And Janaka was the king of Videha, and Sita was his daughter. And Tvashtaa ( Brahmaa) himself created her, desiring to make her the beloved wife of Rama. I have now told thee the history of both Rama's and Sita's birth.” (Ibid)
This portion does not speak anything about the ‘aswamedha’ and the ‘putra kameshti’ sacrifices conducted by Dasaratha; the emergence of the ‘payasa’ from the sacrificial fire and the way the king shared it among the queens. It just says Dasaratha, son of king Aja, had three queens, by whom he had four sons. And it also does not say anything about the celebrated ‘ayoni sambhava’ that Sita is. It just says that she is the daughter of king Janaka of Videha. The narration of birth ends there, which is emphasised by the Rishi’s saying, “I have now told thee the history of both Rama's and Sita's birth,” who then moves on to narrate the birth of Ravana and his ancestry.
That lends credence to the claims of Brockington indeed. But then, as we have always been emphasising, it is always necessary to look at the picture in toto rather than basing our conclusions on a sloka here and a sloka there. That is where the whole structure of the eminent scholar of Ramayana collapses. A well tessellated platform; but without cement.
How does that prove!
As we observed, it is true that the Raamopaakhyana, while speaking about Rama’s birth, is silent on his being the avatar of Vishnu. But that doesn’t prove anything! Inasmuch as Raamopaakhyana is a story retold, it is not necessary for it to go into all the details and to resemble its original, event for event. The faithful repetition of an event from what is supposed to be the ‘original’, in a story retold, does not confirm the correctness or otherwise of the original and the absence of such event or events do not prove that the ‘original’ or ‘core book’ would not have contained that ‘missing’ portion as well. For example, take a look at this passage from Raamopaakhyana, which describes the events from the birth of Rama till the decision to enthrone him is taken.
"Markandeya said, 'The pious king Dasaratha, ever mindful of the old and assiduous in religious ceremonies, was greatly pleased when these sons were born. And his sons gradually grew up in might and they became conversant with the Vedas together with all their mysteries, and with the science of arms. And when after having gone through the Brahmacharya vows the princes were married, king Dasaratha became happy and highly pleased. And the intelligent Rama, the eldest of them all, became the favourite of his father, and greatly pleased the people with his charming ways. And then, O Bharata, the wise king, considering himself old in years took counsel with his virtuous ministers and spiritual adviser for installing Rama as regent of the kingdom. And all those great ministers were agreed that it was time to do so.” (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section 275 – translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli)
Any keen reader would not fail to notice what is missing here. Rama’s marriage. The Raamopaakhyana does not mention anything about the way Rama broke the bow and took the hand of Janaki as well, as it does not mention anything about the performance of the aswameda and putrakameshti by Dasaratha. (By the way, if the Raamopaakhyana does not mention anything about the marriage of Rama and Sita, it does not mean the Mahabharata as such does not mention it! It would be available somewhere else in that enormously bulky epic, which we shall quote, presently.) If one concludes that the ‘core book’ of Valmiki could not have conceived Rama as an avatar, since Raamopaakhyana, a story retold, does not contain any reference to it, it is only logical to conclude that Rama and Sita did not get married at all, since that is also not mentioned there!
Jokes apart. The Raamopaakhyana does contain indirect references to the divine nature of Rama’s birth, though Brockington feels otherwise. When narrating the story of Ravana, Markandeya does mention about the special boons that he received from his Grandsire, Brahma, which assures protection to him from celestials of every kind, excepting men and monkeys. Here is how the boon is asked for and granted. “Thereupon Ravana said, 'May I never experience defeat at the hands of Gandharvas, Celestials, Kinnaras, Asuras, Yakshas, Rakshasas, Serpents and all other creatures!' Brahma said, 'From those that hast named, thou shalt never have cause of fear; except from men (thou shalt have no occasion for fear). Good betide thee! So hath it been ordained by me!” (Ibid, Section 273)
If this idea of the boon given to Ravana is accepted, it is only natural that Ravana had to be killed only by the Supreme Being, assuming the form of the ‘most puny of all puniest of creations,’ namely, men and monkeys. And the Grandsire – Brahma – does mention this to Devas, when they rally around him, seeking to be protected. The Raamopaakhyana gives the assurance of Brahma, as follows. “"Brahma said, 'O Agni, he cannot be conquered in battle by either the gods or the Asuras! I have already ordained that which is needful for that purpose. Indeed his death is near! Urged by me, the four-headed God hath already been incarnate for that object. Even Vishnu, that foremost of smiters will achieve that object!' (Ibid, Section 274) In other words, Brahma confirms that Ravana could not be killed by anyone other than men and monkeys and soon Vishnu would achieve that object. He then commands Indra (who is referred to as Sakra in the following passage, which is his other name)
"Markandeya continued, 'Then the Grandsire also asked Sakra, in their presence, 'Be thou, with all the celestials, born on earth! And beget ye on monkeys and bears, heroic sons possessed of great strength and capable of assuming any form at will as allies of Vishnu!” (Ibid)
‘Indra, you go along with your celestials and beget heroic sons on bears and monkeys and be ready. You will have to be the allies of Vishnu, when he descends on earth.’ I do not know what more evidence is needed to establish that the concept of an ‘avatar’ <b>is</b> there in the Raamopaakhyana too. Another thing. It can be seen that Hanuman is repeatedly referred to as Pavana Kumar in the Raamopaakhyana. Son of the Wind God. Sugriva is referred to as son of Indra and Vali is referred to as son of Surya. Why should all these ‘sons of various celestials’ be born on earth, if it was not for Vishnu to descend in the form of Rama!
The evidences available in Mahabharata are just not confined to the Raamopaakhyana. One has to see elsewhere too in the very same Mahabharata – let us now, for the present confine ourselves to the Vana Parva – where explicit evidence is available.
The Parasurama incident
The story of Rama as recited to Dharmaputra, known by the name Raamopaakhyana, commences from Section 272 of Vana Parva in the Mahabharata. We were discussing about the absence of a direct reference to the Vishnu’s avatar as Rama though the other references to various characters like Ravana, Hanuman, Sugriva, Vali etc. confirm the existence of such a notion in Raamopaakhyana too.
The reference to the story of Rama in the Mahabharata is not confined to the Raamopaakhyana alone. It is found in several places. Several details not found in the Raamopaakhyana are narrated in several other instances. One such instance is the story of Parasurama meeting Rama. This marks an important milestone in Ramayana since it is here that Rama, not more than a boy, returning from Mithila after his marriage, meets the terror of the Kshatriya race and slights his pride with a smile. And it is here that the celebrated bow of Vishnu is handed over to Dasaratha Rama, by Parasurama.
This portion of the story, though not to be found in the Raamopaakhyana, occurs in the very same Vana Parva, though in a much earlier section, i.e., Section 49. There we see the Pandavas visiting Agastya Ashrama, accompanied by sage Lomasa. After narrating the story of Agastya, sage Lomasa tells Yudhishthira to take a dip in the sacred river Bhagirathi. At that time the sage mentions that it was here that Parasurama bathed to regain his energy that he lost to Dasaratha Rama. Here is the particular portion.
“Bathe ye as ye like in this sacred river, ye son of Pandu! And behold there, O Yudhishthira, the tirtha of Bhrigu that is celebrated over the three worlds and adored, O king, by great Rishis. Bathing here, Rama (of Bhrigu's race) regained his might, which had been taken away from him (by Dasaratha's son). Bathing here, O son of Pandu, with thy brothers and Krishna, thou wilt certainly regain that energy of thine that hath been taken away by Duryodhana, even as Rama* regained his that had been taken away by Dasaratha's son in hostile encounter.” (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section 49, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli) [* The Rama (of Bhrigu’s race) referred to here is Parasurama and the Krishna spoken of here is none other than Draupadi, as it is one of the names by which she is known.]
Yudhishthira is taken by surprise to know that even such a glorious person as Parasurama lost his energy and spiritual power and wants to know as to how it happened. Lomasa narrates the birth of Dasaratha Rama at this point.
"Lomasa said, 'Listen, O king, to the history of Rama (the son of Dasaratha) and Rama of Bhrigu's line gifted with intelligence. For the destruction of Ravana, O king, Vishnu, in his own body, took his birth as the son of illustrious Dasaratha. We saw in Ayodhya that son of Dasaratha after he had been born. It was then that Rama of Bhrigu's line, the son of Richika by Renuka, hearing of Rama the son of Dasaratha--of spotless deeds--went to Ayodhya, impelled by curiosity, and taking with him that celestial bow so fatal to the Kshatriyas, for ascertaining the prowess of Dasaratha's son.” (Ibid)
The story then goes on to narrate the event as it is described in Valmiki Ramayana (Bala Kanda Cantos 74 and 75), though with minor differences. One cannot expect a faithful line-for-line reproduction of events in a story which is retold.
Now, the Parasurama incident is a Bala Kanda event. If the Bala Kanda was not in extant at the time when Mahabharata was being composed, one would wonder how at all this incident could find a place in Mahabharata! It is not just here. Once again, in the story of Rishyasringa, we find several references to Dasaratha including the one and his daughter, Santha, whom he gave in adoption to king Lomapada (or Romapada). Once again a Bala Kanda incident.
Not that Brockington did not foresee these questions. He has an answer. Let’s hear him. But before that let’s quickly see the story of Rishyasringa as it is narrated in the Mahabharata, just the bare minimum references.
The son-in-law of Dasaratha
The story of Rishyasringa, who conducts the aswamedha and putrakameshti sacrifices that Dasaratha performs, is narrated in Section 60 of Vana Parva, Mahabharata. It is to be noted here that the story does not say anything about the sage performing these sacrifices – of which the Raamopaakhyana too is silent – but describes his birth, his father Vibhandaka bringing him up in total isolation, which results in the son not knowing a soul other than his father, especially women, his special ability to bring rains because of the fact that Indra was afraid of him, his being lured to the kingdom of Romapada whose country went rainless for a long number of years, and ends with Rishyasringa’s marriage with the (adopted) daughter of king Romapada, Santa.
This story, once again, is narrated to Yudhishthira by sage Lomasa. Let’s hear the essence in his own words. “Lomasa said, 'This is the pure divine river by name Kausiki. O chief of Bharata's race! And this is the delightful hermitage of Viswamitra, conspicuous here. And this is a hermitage, with a holy name, belonging to Kasyapa of mighty soul; whose son was Rishyasringa, devoted to penances, and of passions under control. He by force of his penances caused Indra to rain; and that god, the slayer of the demons Vala and Vritra, dreading him, poured down rain during a drought. That powerful and mighty son of Kasyapa was born of a hind. He worked a great marvel in the territory of Lomapada. And when the crops had been restored, king Lomapada gave his daughter Santa in marriage to him, as the sun gave in marriage his daughter Savitri.”
But then who was the princess Santa? We do not get any clue about her in the above narration found in the Mahabharata, excepting that she was the ‘daughter’ of king Romapada (spelt as Lomapada in some recensions). If one wants to know anything more about this princess given in marriage to sage Rishyasringa, one has necessarily to go to the Bala Kanda of Ramayana. The Bala Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana (Canto 10) gives an almost similar account of the way in which sage Rishyasringa is lured to the country of king Romapada, by comely maidens, whom the boy mistakes for other sages. The description given in the Kamba Ramayana (which of course is a much later – a minimum of a couple of thousand years later – version as compared to Valmiki or Vyasa) is not any different.
Dasaratha, on the advice of his minister (who normally is portrayed as his charioteer) Sumantra goes to the palace of king Romapada, who was a close friend of his. And the Bala Kanda of Valmiki says -
“By Romapada was made known to the enlightened Rishyasringa (the son of Vibhandaka) his friendship (with the emperor) as well as the relation in which the emperor stood to the sage (being the real father of his wife, Santa) as also how Santa was given in adoption by the emperor to Romapada, who was issueless, at the latter’s request.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Bala Kanda, Canto 10, Sloka 17 and 18)
The Mahabharata simply gives an account of the events in the Ramayana. It might repeat certain events, it might supplement, or complement, or amplify, or miss out certain details. Because the details were so well known and not giving a vivid and exact account of every single detail would not make any difference to the reader, for they were there, always around by oral tradition. What is missing there could be found, amplified here and what is missing here could be found there, of course, with slight variations.
But the theory has an answer, in particular to the Parasurama incident and the story of Rishyasringa found in Mahabharata. Here is what Brockington argues. “Two particularly late passages, on the evidence of their religious implications are the Rishyasringa and Parasurama episodes (1.8 – 10 and 73 – 5)* which quite possibly fall after this date.” (*This stands for Bala Kanda Canto 8 to 10 and 73 to 75). By the phrase “which quite possible fall after this date,” is meant ‘later than the end of fourth century.’ He very carefully avoids whether or not the expression ‘fourth century’ stands for BC or AD. But obviously what he means is 4th century AD. For, according to him, even the Raamopaakhyana was composed during 1 BC. And how does one arrive at these curious dates? Style! The style that is found in the texts – portions of it – varies. ‘These two epics have borrowed from each other mutually.’ That is, later bards have mixed events from one epic with the other; worked up, amplified, missed, and did everything.
Okay. And then, what about the meeting of Hanuman and Bhima, where you find a striking similarity of the metaphor employed in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana? What about the tribute paid by Vibishana when Yudhishthira conducted the Rajasuya? The scholar is silent about these. He does not even recognise these two characters of Ramayana appearing in the Mahabharata.
Even if Vibishana’s role may once again be branded as an insertion, the meeting of Hanuman and Bhima in the Vana Parva bears a vital clue, for it cannot be put aside as another insertion because it contains the reason why the standard – flag – of Arjuna’s chariot has Hanuman on it.
Like fire, like wind
What we are going to see today is section 146 of Vana Parva, Mahabharata, that is to say, about a little more than 130 sections before Raamopaakhyana starts. This happens when the Pandavas and Draupadi reach the peak by name Gandhamadana where a divine lotus, Saugandhika pushpa, wafts across in the passing wind and drops in their path. Draupadi picks up the flower and desires to have more of it and Bhima sets about in search of the flower, picks up the scent and goes to fetch it. On his way through lovely hills and dales, he comes across Hanuman, lying with his tail extended across the path
Bhima mistakes him for an ordinary monkey and rudely asks him to clear from his way. Hanuman knows who this Pandava is, and decides to play with him. A wordy duel follows; Hanuman mock-quarrels with Bhima. We know this story. We have narrated this scene in one of our epic story series. (See: Appearance may hide greatness) When finally Bhima gives up and with folded hands and tears in eyes, seeks to know who he is, the Mahabharata narrates as follows:
“Thereupon Hanuman said, 'O repressor of foes, even to the extent of thy curiosity to know me, shall I relate all at length. Listen, O son of Pandu! O lotus-eyed one, I was begotten by the wind-god that life of the world--upon the wife of Kesari. I am a monkey, by name Hanuman. All the mighty monkey-kings and monkey-chiefs used to wait upon that son of the sun, Sugriva, and that son of Sakra, Vali.” (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section 146, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli)
This portion gives three important details. That Hanuman is the son of wind-god; that Sugriva is the son of Surya and that Vali is the son of Sakra, or Indra. As we mentioned earlier, this kind of ‘celestials begetting children upon monkeys and bears’ is part of the divine design that took shape in the Bala Kanda. If as it is argued that Rama was not conceived as an avatar by the author of the ‘original core book’ then there is no purpose in Hanuman, Sugriva and Vali taking birth from Vayu, Surya and Indra at all! If this idea of divine birth exists in respect of other characters then there can be no doubt that it did exist in respect of Rama as well, even if Raamopaakhyana does not mention that! This portion underlines the idea of an avatar in the Ramayana being recognised in the Mahabharata. And this portion has a direct reference to that portion in Bala Kanda, where this decision of the Grandsire takes shape.
And then there is the argument of Brockington that Uttara Kanda could not have existed at the time of the composition of Mahabharata. “If the Uttara Kanda was extant in substantially its present form by the fourth century,” he argues, “and in all possibility by the third, it is scarcely feasible to assign the Bala Kanda, which is in general earlier, to the end of the fourth century or later…”
Let us come back to Hanuman’s speech to Bhima. He refers to his friendship with Sugriva. Now, there is a very famous description about this friendship between these two. ‘They played together like fire and wind in their younger days and grew up.’ Listen to Hanuman.
“And, O repressor of foes, a friendship subsisted between me and Sugriva, even as between the wind and fire.” This is a direct quote from Uttara Kanda. Describing the birth of Hanuman, his extraordinary energy, his frolicking among the sages which earned him their curse of temporary loss of memory of his strength et al, sage Agastya tells Rama -
ஸுக்ரீவேண ஸமம் த்வஸ்ய அத்வைதம் சித்ரவர்ஜிதம்|
(Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kanda, Canto 36, Sloka 40)
“From his very boyhood he developed with Sugriva an unwarying and unbroken friendship, similar to that of the wind with fire.”
And finally, we hear from Hanuman on Rama, when narrating his story to Bhima. “And for some cause, Sugriva, driven out by his brother, for a long time dwelt with me at the Risyamukh. And it came to pass that the mighty son of Dasaratha the heroic Rama, who is Vishnu's self in the shape of a human being, took his birth in this world.”
Unmistakable, undeniable, unchallengeable evidence! This portion cannot be termed as another interpolation since as we mentioned earlier, it is here that Hanuman promises to adorn the flag of Arjuna on his chariot, when the war starts. And we see the mention of the ‘Hanuman flag’ in places without number in the later half of Mahabharata.
Now, even if this may be termed as ‘interpolation’ if not the whole portion, just the particular sloka, then we will turn our attention to Tamil literature, Sangam classics and a few others which are distanced not more than a couple of centuries from Sangam classics.
The epics and ancient Tamil literature
Both the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata were popular among the masses even at the time of the Sangam classics and that is how we find several events from the epics mentioned in Sangam poetry as well as the works written in closely subsequent periods, in Tamil. Of the two epics, the Mahabharata is more spoken of and more oft-quoted in ancient Tamil literature, which are clearly more than 2000 years old. Some of these events are supported by the text of Valmiki and Vyasa and some others do not find a mention in their works. This, without doubt, goes to underline the fact that not only did these two epics – as composed by the Sanskrit authors – were extant; but also several other versions, including those composed in Tamil, on the basis of the Sanskrit works, were prevalent at that time. Which means, these works had crossed the geographical boundaries from the north, to thousands of kilometres down south, took roots, were so popular and influenced people so much that they were translated in Tamil as well.
We come to know of the existence of Ramayana in aasiriya-paa metre, through fragments quoted in commentaries on several works. We mentioned this in our study on Sita. (See: Versions vary; values do not – Part II). Similarly, the Mahabharata was rendered in Tamil by poet பெருந்தேவனார், who is the author of the invocation verses in புறநானூறு and குறுந்தொகை These two anthologies form part of the ‘ettuth thogai’ or eight compilations, the period of which starts from 2 BC and goes up to 5 AD. In fact, the poet is distinguished by the title ‘பாரதம் பாடிய பெருந்தேவனார்,’ or Perundhevanar who composed the Mahabharata.
These epics were so well-known to the masses that the poets of the Sangam classics have employed the events in them either in passing, making a casual mention, or in similes. For instance, in ‘கலித்தொகை’, the sixth compilation of ‘எட்டுத் தொகை’ the poet சோழன் நல் உருத்திரன் ( Rudran, the good Chola, in modern terms) describes a bull fight. There, speaking of the fighter twisting the neck of the charging bull, he likens the fighter to Aswatthama.
‘ ஆர் இருள் என்னான் அருங் கங்குல் வந்து, தன்
‘Like Aswatthama who went (into Panadava’s camp) in the inky night and twisted the neck of the one who killed his father (Dhrishtadyumna who killed Drona)…’
This Mahabharata incident takes place after the fall of Duryodhana, when Aswatthama is sworn in as Commander-in-chief (with just two warriors remaining on the Kaurava side to command!) and goes out to take revenge on Pandavas. This is mentioned in Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana as well.
The important thing to note here is that such events are quoted not as direct incidents, but are used as similes. As Dr. C. R. Sarma says in his doctoral thesis, ‘The Ramayana in Telugu and Tamil – A Comparative Study,’ “It is interesting to note that some of the above mentioned stories, which not found in Valmiki’s work, are told in the form of similes which show that the story of Rama was popular among the Tamils, though a complete version of it was not available till the time of Kamban.”
A complete version might or might not have existed before Kamban. However, that Kamban adopted mostly from the version of Valmiki is abundantly clear. Not just the core story, structure and its blueprint alone, but from the poetry of Valmiki as well, in many places. For example the very popular verses of Bala Kanda of Kamban, ‘வண்மை இல்லை ஓர் வறுமை இன்மையால்’ There was no philanthropy since there was no poverty. Celebrated as Kamban’s ideal state. Kamban owes the thought as well as style to Valmiki, who sings of the same Ayodhya as follows -
“There is no one in that city who has not mastered the six branches of knowledge auxiliary to a study of the Vedas and does not observe pious vows. There is no donor of scanty gifts and no miserable man. There is none who is either distracted in mind or afflicted.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Bala Kanda, Canto 6, Sloka 14 and 15)
Let’s now see a few verses from ancient Tamil Literature, which give us incidents from the epic of Valmiki and show us the idea of Rama as an avatar.
One from ‘puram’
Characters and events aside. If one goes through the list of poets who have composed the verses of புறநானூறு, one would be surprised to find a poet by the name vAnmIkiyAr – Valmiki – who is the author of verse 358 of the anthology. May be this is a penname. We do not have a clue. Nonetheless, this itself stands in testimony to the deep influence that the epic had over the Tamils of the Sangam era, that poets assumed the name of the author of Ramayana, celebrated as the ‘adi kavi’ and were proud to be known by that name.
Speaking of puranAnuru one has necessarily refer to that poem of ஊன்பொதி பசுங்குடையார், who sings the praise of the Chola king, chozan seruppaazi-erindha-iLam-cEt-chenni (Verse 378) who showers a liberal gift of gold coins and ornaments on a group of poverty stricken pANan-pANi – male and female bards or minstrels. The group, who had never seen an ornament before, started trying on them in the court itself. Not knowing which ornament goes where, they tried wearing the nose-ring on the finger, the ring for the finger on the ear, the necklace on the waist, and the waistband on the neck etc. ‘virar cheri marabina sevith thodakkunarum,’ here are these innocent lot, who tries to wear the ring for the finger on the ear, ‘sevith thodar marabina viraR seRikkunarum,’ and those who wear the earrings on the finger, ‘araith thodar marabina midatru yAkkunarum,’ and wear the necklace on the waist, the poet goes on to describe the humorous scene.
‘This reminds me, O king, something similar that happened in the past,’ the poet says.
கடுந்தெறல் இராமன் உடன்புணர் சீதையை
The lines are quite terse and give the minimum details. Properly supplemented and paraphrased, these lines would read thus. ‘Sita, the wife of the mighty warrior Rama, was taken away by force by that demon, Ravana. On that day, while being taken away, she dropped her ornaments in a bundle from the Pushpaka Viand, among a group of monkeys. The monkeys opened the bundle; and found many ornaments, which they had not seen at all. Knowing, however, that they are meant to be worn, they tried to wear the bangle on their ears, earrings on their fingers, necklace on the waist and frolicked about with a beaming smile. These innocent bards do the same thing here in your presence. Look at them, their act and their smile!
The ease with which the poet is able to put this vivid scene in quite a few words, the quick references and joy of communication that is made possible through a very terse account, testify to the ready familiarity to the story of Rama in the land of Tamils, about a thousand years before Kamban.
And then look at this piece from that ancient collection, பரிபாடல்.
Ahalyä, Ravana and Sangam classics
It may be recalled that we ventured into having a peep into the Tamil Sangam literature to examine the validity of the claim that Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda were composed later than the 3rd or 4th century AD. பரிபாடல் is the fifth of the eight anthologies – எட்டுத் தொகை – the period of which though difficult to ascertain, are accepted to have been authored a long time before the 2nd century AD. This is the prevalent view of all Tamil scholars. A <a href=”http://www.tamilelibrary.roxr.com/teli/chrono1.html ”>chronological list of Tamil Literature</a>, based on Prof. Kamil Zvelebil’s book, “The Smile of Murugan” endorses this view.
Verse 19 of paripAdal, by nappaNNanAr is on Lord Murugan and describes the pilgrimage of devotees from Madurai to that ancient shrine, Thirupparam-kundram. The poet goes on to describe the various activities of the devotees on the way to the temple. A few devotees get into an art gallery on the way and gather around different paintings displayed there and discuss spiritedly among themselves, about what is portrayed in the paintings. A particular painting has the image of a cat, a woman, a sage in rage and a rock. The devotees comment, ‘indhiran pUsai’ ;This cat is Indra. ‘ivaL agaligai,’ This is Ahalyä. ‘ivan sendra kavudhaman,’ This sage is Gautama, who was away (at that time). ‘sinan uRa, kal uru ondriya padi idhu,’ And this rock is (nothing but) Ahalyä transformed by the curse of the sage. This painting shows how she was transformed into a rock.
Now, the Ahalyä incident is a Bala Kanda event. The first incident in the epic that brings out the divine nature of Rama explicitly – apart from the killing of Tätakä, Subahu and hurling Märïca far, far away. ‘She remained imperceptible to all until the arrival of Rama,’ says Valmiki. “Under the curse of Gautama, really speaking, she had grown imperceptible to (all) the three worlds pending the sight of Sri Rama, so it is said. Having reached the end of the curse she had (now) come within the range of their sight,” he says. (Valmiki Ramayana, Bala Kanda, Canto 49, Sloka 16)
This variant, of Ahalyä turning into a stone, seems to be a Tamil tradition as is evidenced in paripAdal 19 above, which Kamban has followed in his version. We shall discuss this in detail presently, in our study of Rama.
If paripAdal speaks of a Bala Kanda event, the kalith thogai speaks of an Uttara Kanda incident. Poet Kabilar paints the picture of an elephant poking its tusks at the root of a vEngai tree, pushing it with all its strength, and trying to uproot it. ‘Like Ravana,’ he begins his second verse of kurinjik kali (Verse 38 of kalith thogai). ‘imayavil vAngiya Irnjadai andhaNan, umai amarndhu uyar malai irundhanan aaga,’ Lord Shiva, who took the Mount Meru for his bow (for the destruction of Tripura, at first) was seated on Mount Kailaas, with His Consort, Uma. ‘aiyiru thalayin arakkar kOmaan thodip poli thadak kaiyyir kIzhp pugutthu am malai edutthal sellaadhu uzappavan pOla…’ Ravana, the ten-headed demon king with his hands adorned by bracelets of gleaming gold, tried to lift it up, but could not. This elephant is trying to uproot the tree even as Ravana trying to uproot Mount Kailaas, with Shiva and Uma seated on it.
Though this is mentioned almost throughout the epic in various places from Aranya Kanda to Yuddha Kanda, one has to go to the Uttara Kanda to know the details. This story is narrated to Rama by sage Agastya, in canto 16 of Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana.
If the Bala and Uttara Kandas were in the ‘process of being composed’ in the fourth century AD, that too in the northern part of the country, how come they were referred to in classics belonging to an age prior to 2 AD! That too on the other side of the country, crossing thousands of kilometres! That is a question for the experts to answer. It is not for us to bang our heads on. But the evidence given thus far, makes the claim that the ‘Bala and Uttara Kandas’ were added to the ‘core book of Valmiki’ in the later part of 3rd century AD and in the earlier part of the 4th, not so strong. Especially when we see சிலப்பதிகாரம், which was written in the second century AD. Or மணிமேகலை which is later by about another two centuries.
As old as hills
Manimekalai, one of the five major epics of Tamil, goes about the life of Manimekalai, the daughter of Madhavi of Cilappadhikaram. It speaks of Manimekalai obtaining an amudhasurabhi, something similar to the akshyapatra that Draupadi had when the Pandavas were on exile, from which welled up endless quantities of food, for the appeasement of hunger of one and all. Now, there was a woman by name Kayachandikai who was suffering from a strange disease known as ‘யானைத் தீ,’ or a hunger that makes one consume food like an elephant, like fire. Her insatiable hunger comes to an end on consuming a morsel from the amudhasurabhi that Manimekalai had. Kayachandikai narrates her pathetic state to Manimekalai and describes her un-appeaseable hunger. ‘My hunger never ceases,’ she says, ‘Even mountains of food disappear in a trice in my belly.’ And how? Here is how she puts it:
'நெடியோன் மயங்கி நிலமிசைத் தோன்றி
‘You know, Lord Vishnu (நெடியோன்) assumed a human form and was born on earth. He constructed a bridge across the ocean. The monkeys collected mountains and threw them into the sea for constructing the bridge. Even as those mountains got immersed and disappeared in seconds under the bowels of the sea, so do mountains of food disappear in my stomach.’
That simile captures several facts from Ramayana. That Rama constructed a bridge across the sea; that the monkeys brought mountains and threw them into the ocean; and on top of all, Rama was known as an avatar of Vishnu, at that time.
Now let us turn to சிலப்பதிகாரம், which, it is agreed all over, belongs to 2 AD, the period during which – according to the arguments – Rama was still known as a human being, a king and not as an avatar even in the north.
Kovalan, the hero of the story is killed by the hasty orders of the king. On the other side, Kannagi, his wife, is in the refuge of cowherds living in the outskirts of the city. The news of Kovalan having been killed is yet to reach them. The cowherds perceive bad omens and perform the குரவைக் கூத்து, to their lord, Krishna, vividly singing his praise. In a long running verse of varying metres, which can easily be mistaken for an AzwAr pAsuram, they praise and appeal to their Lord. I am quoting the particular portion which is of interest to us.
மூவுலகும் ஈரடியான் முறை நிரம்பா வகைமுடியத்
‘He who came down as Vamana, assumed the form of Trivikrama to measure all the three worlds with his two feet. And he once again came down as Rama; His feet that measured all the worlds were reddened when he walked with his brother in the forests, in exile; Of what avail are those ears that do not listen to the praise of the Lord who destroyed Lanka with its demons! Of what avail are those ears that do not listen to the praise of Lord Vishnu!’
That very clearly mentions not only the Rama avatar, but the idea of dasa-avatar – the ten incarnations – referring to the Trivikrama avatar here and the Krishna avatar and the Mahabharata incidents in other stanzas.
Therefore, the conclusions of researchers like Jacobi, who places the Ramayana in the 6th century BC, Winternitz who believes that it belongs to 3 BC, Macdonell who argues that it should be placed in 5 BC, sound more valid. In fact Winternitz challenges the calculations of Max Muller. But we do not know which one is the closest, almost correct, somewhat precise conclusion! All that we know is, Ramayana is as old as hills. Has been around from time immemorial and will be there sustaining the interest of generations to come, until the last human being breathes on this earth.
A story that belongs to all
The arguments are endless. Every scholar has his or her own reason(s) to believe in his or her own conclusion. It has to be admitted that despite the fluctuations in the findings as far as the period to which the epics belong, every single one of them has worked sincerely and extremely hard – one has to say that they are superhuman efforts – before he or she has come out with the results. Our purpose is not to question their efforts. Nonetheless, the widely varying conclusions themselves go to prove that it is not possible to arrive at a more convincing and readily acceptable view. Because, one has necessarily to base his or her conclusions on a basic premise, which always turns out to be an assumption. That is to say, their conclusions would be right only if the assumption on which the structure of their arguments is based is accurate. And it is not possible, considering the circumstances and the hoary past to which these works belong, to start working without a basic assumption, which may or may not be close to what can be accepted as ‘accurate’.
That seems to be an impossible task. But it is agreed by almost all, Westerners as well as Indians that the Uttara Kanda was a later addition. But the question of the time during which it was added evades all understanding and almost every conclusion leaves at least a question or two unanswered. That is what we have seen in our earlier instalments.
One thing is very clear. Some of the scholars at least have one kind of an agenda or the other behind their efforts. Everyone, almost everyone I should say, places the Ramayana close to the Vedic period on considerations of the language employed. But then, the ascertaining of the period of the Vedas itself is susceptible to subjective considerations in many instances. As Winternitz puts it,
“When Indian literature became first known in the West, people were inclined to ascribe a hoary age to every literary work hailing from India. They used to look upon India as something like the cradle of mankind, or at least of human civilisation. The better, however, we became acquainted with Indian literature, the more this view had to be given up, and scholars became cautious and suspicious and <b> a tendency arose, to make everything as late as possible.</b>* Indians, on the other hand, have always had a sentimental inclination, to consider their most important woks of literature, above all the Vedas, as immensely old. According to the orthodox Brahmanical view, indeed, the Veda has been created at the beginning of the world and is no human work at all. The historian has to abandon this view, and he has to free himself from all preconceived opinions and inclinations.” (M. Winternitz, ‘Some Problems of Indian Literature’) (* ‘bold’ is mine)
In the context of the ‘fixation’ of a timeframe for the ancient scriptures, what he says speaks volumes. “I, for my part, do not understand why some Western scholars are so anxious to make the hymns of the Rgveda and the civilisation which is reflected in them so very much later than Babylonian and Egyptian culture. Nor do I understand why Indians should think that it adds anything to, or detracts anything from the <i>value</i> of the most beautiful hymns of the Rgveda or the deepest passages of the Upanishads according as they are believed to be a thousand or five hundred years older or later.” (Ibid)
That does not exclude Max Müller as well, says Winternitz -
“Now it was a mere guess on the part of Max Müller when he gave the dates 600 to 200 BC for the origin of the Sutra Literature. And the assumption of 200 years for each of the periods in the development of the Veda was quite arbitrary. Instead of 200 years he might just as well have said 300 or 400 years. Max Müller himself did not wish to say more than that our Rg veda-Samhita must have been completed <i>at least</i> about 1000 BC.” (Ibid)
What he says about the results of these calculations is even more thought-provoking. “And yet, strange to say, although the foundation on which Max Müller’s calculations were based, was so purely hypothetical and arbitrary, it had become a habit among scholars for a long time, to speak of 1200 to 1000 BC as the date of the Rgveda, which Max Müller was said to have established.” (Ibid)
So far for the historicity of the Ramayana – and Mahabharata as well. I go with M R Yardi, another great Indian researcher of the ancient Sanskrit literature and scriptures, who says,
“Valmiki has portrayed Rama as a moral hero. In him we had a king, who essentially human, triumphed over his human frailties and strictly observed the rules of the moral code (aacharadharma). His just and benevolent rule is celebrated as the Ramarajya, in which all sections of the public enjoyed prosperity, health and happiness. Because of his superhuman qualities, Rama has enthroned himself in human hearts and become the symbol of human culture.” (M. R. Yardi, Epilogue of Ramayana)
True. Had it not been for this fact, there cannot be a Buddha Ramayana, a Jain Ramayana, a Thai Ramayana, a Laos Ramayana and many more. Minoru Hara speaks of a Japanese version of the Ramayana, in ‘The Ramayana Tradition in Asia,’ edited by Sri V Raghavan. The story of Rama has become so endeared to mankind that every section and almost every nation of Asia has accepted him as its own hero, versions of course varying, while the core remaining the same. The East claims him as his own, while the West says that the story belongs to mankind. “For the history of the literary treasures of ancient India,” says Winternitz “appears to us only as part and parcel of the history of man. In this sense, Indian literature is as much ours as it is yours. The ideas and thoughts of great men belong to mankind, and not to any one country or nation only.” (Winternitz, Some Problems of Indian Literature)
Sans Bala Kanda?
All the arguments for and against the Bala and Uttara Kandas remaining as they are, what we are going to see – and have been seeing – is the story as a whole. For, if there was no Bala Kanda and the story started from Ayodhya Kanda, we would then be reading something that begins abruptly, with the information, “The sinless Satrughna, the destroyer of the lasting enemies (concupiscence etc.) was taken away on that occasion by Bharata while the latter was proceeding to his maternal uncle’s home, full of affection as he (Satrughna) was for (Bharata).” (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda, Canto 1, Sloka 1)
That sounds something like one of those modern novels where authors prefer to begin their stories abruptly from somewhere in the middle of the events and go back and forth to give details on the events and characters. With such a beginning, how is the reader supposed to know who is this ‘sinless Satrughna’, what was the occasion on which his brother (at this first Sloka, we are clueless about what is the relationship between Bharata and Satrughna even) took him along, when going to his maternal uncles home etc. What we come to know is that there was a person by name Satrughna, who was sinless and he went to some other country when someone called Bharata went to his uncle’s place.
And then the first canto goes on to speak about Dasaratha, who – in the absence of the details of Bala Kanda – is another stranger to us at this stage and his decision to enthrone his eldest son Rama, though he considered his four sons as ‘his four arms sprung from one’s own person.’ Slowly we come to know that this king Dasaratha had three queens and that Rama was born to the queen by name Kausalya.
Even going by techniques of story telling, one would not be able to buy the argument that in the initial stages the entire Bala Kanda was totally absent. We know that the most familiar way of beginning a story is that oft-repeated and well-worn phrase, ‘Long long ago there lived a king by name…”
For a very long time this was how the stories began. They did not start abruptly. Beginning a story as close to the climax as possible is a technique that is known to the Western world. Sri V V S Aiyar says that it was Aristotle who first formulated the rule for not starting the story from its beginning, a technique known as ‘in medias res.’ “The reader will have noticed that the Ramayana follows in its natural order the life of the hero from his birth and childhood,” says Sri V V S Aiyar, “up to the close of the action which forms the theme. On the other hand the epics of Europe as is well-known, follow their prototype and example, the Iliad, and start the story as near the end as possible, filling in the earlier events by slight allusion as well as by episodic narrative.’
That’s how every single one of our ancient classics has been narrated. They start from the beginning and move smoothly event by event to the end, in a chronological sequence. You take any classic for that matter. It follows the same pattern. Normally it contains a short recital at the beginning, giving out an outline of the story and then move to the main story, once again beginning at the beginning. First event first. This can be seen even in Cilappadhikaram which gives a short recital as well as the sequence of the titles of the cantos. This was something like an index page for them, who were using the palmyra leaves for their medium, which were never page-numbered. Such a habit seems to be non-existent in most of the classics and Dr U V Swaminatha Aiyar draws our attention to this fact when he suspected a few leaves must be missing in a long list of names of flowers in குறிஞ்சிப் பாட்டு and how, left without a clue, he had to travel far and wide for another copy of the work, just because of the practice of indexing and page-numbering was absent.
This habit of short-recital at the beginning was very much in vogue, at least until the time of Cilappadhikaram. We see that this is absent in Kamban and his contemporaneous works like Periya Puranam. At least as far as Periya Puranam is concerned, we have the song, ‘தில்லைவாழ் அந்தணர்தம் அடியார்க்கும் அடியேன்’ to fall back to, to lean on for a reference, at least to look for the number and sequence in which the ‘thiruth thoNdars’ have been listed.
Coming back to the Ramayana of Valmiki, where does the short-recital of Ramayana appear? Where are the details of (though minimum they are) Dasaratha are given? Where do we learn anything about the main hero and his heroine? How do we come to know that so-and-so is married to so-and-so? And – though not very important to the main story and the movement of events – how did the hero marry his heroine? Bala Kanda. Sans Bala Kanda, the story would not mean much to us and reading it would be a task, trying to understand the relationships, which would be extremely complex. Something like that in the Mahabharata, where one has to make a chart and keep a track of the names – different names for the same person and different persons with the same name – and the events as well, because of the various directions to which the story branches off, with its hundreds of sub-plots and stories within story.
Therefore, it is not possible for the story to have been written without the Bala Kanda. At least some portions of it would doubtless have been there, which later were re-classified and regrouped to form what is now known by the name Bala Kanda. And it may be true, to an extent, that the Uttara Kanda came to be added – or at least expanded – by and by. Nonetheless, both these Kandas are important for us, for our study. That’s how we have been dealing with it so far, and that’s how we are going to continue the study of Rama, now.
The story of a hunter
The story of the author of the Ramayana, the adi kavi – or the first poet – comes down to us as another hearsay, oral tradition. That he was the son of sage Prachetasa, that his boyhood name was Ratnakara – the jewel mine, or the ocean – and that he picked up friendship with hunters in the forest and grew up as a hunter and way layer, is a well-known story. Some versions say that he was lost in the jungle when he was a boy and was brought up by a hunter and he grew-up in the lines of his foster-father. He tried once to waylay sage Narada (or it may be some other sage as well) who taught him the effects of his sin and that while his family shared his plunder and lived on what he robbed from others, they would not be able to – or even prepared to – share his sins that were accumulated by him. That shocked the robber-hunter Ratnakara. He repented for his ways and asked the sage to guide him to mend his ways.
On the advice of the sage, the hunter Ratnakara sat in deep meditation for long number of years. It was such a long time that he sat without stirring, lost in the inner-consciousness that an anthill formed around him and when we woke up, he had to come out of it. Since he came out of the valmIka or the anthill, he came to be known as Valmiki. ‘வல்மீகாத் ஜாத: வால்மீகி:’ is the saying in Sanskrit ‘One who is born of an anthill.’
There is an interesting variant to the story. The sage who initiated the way layer-cum-hunter into asceticism told him to chant the name ‘Rama’ which he could not. Then the sage pointed to a tree close by which is known by the name ‘marA’ with which Ratnakara was more comfortable and that he meditated on that name, which, while being chanted repeatedly, sounded in the reverse and thus the purpose of chanting the name of ‘Rama’ was achieved. I have my own reservations on such fancy stories, though mythical they are. In the first place, the name ‘Rama’ is not such a complex sounding name. It is as easy as – or as complex as – the suggested alternative, ‘marA.’ In the second place, ‘marA maram,’ is a Tamil name, which stands for the Sal tree. As far as I can see, there is no tree that goes by the name ‘marA’ in Sanskrit. Anyway, that may or may not be part of the original tradition. That sounds interesting. And that’s that.
However, when we meet our sage Valmiki in the Ramayana, he is neither a hunter nor a way layer. These stories are not referred to in the least in the epic. It is the traditional belief and hearsay that has been around for such a long time that people come to believe that the Ramayana opens with the story of Valmiki roaming as a hunter. Not at all. The sage is a sage when the story opens. He is a distinguished sage already. ‘munipumgava,’ is how he is referred to in the very first sloka of Ramayana. The poem opens with a conversation between Valmiki and Narada.
தப: ஸ்வாத்யாய நிரதம் தபஸ்வீ வாக்விதாம் வரம்|
‘The ascetic Valmiki put the following question direct to Narada, the chief of hermits (nay) the foremost of those skilled in expression, who remains (ever) engaged in askesis and self-study (the study of the Vedas).’
It is this question that holds the key to the answer to the longstanding debate, ‘Was Valmiki a contemporary of Rama? Could he have partaken in the story as he does in the Uttara Kanda – and in a portion of the Aranya Kanda in some recensions – and penned the story, or did he merely collect information from Narada and recorded what he heard from him for posterity? Is it possible for an author to participate in the drama that he created? Or was it that some later unthinking hand, without realising the inconsistency of it, made him a character in his own drama?
The last question can very easily be answered. Vyasa was an essential part of Mahabharata that he authored. In fact, he fathered the three brothers, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. He appears every now and then in the epic when the sky darkens and gives predictions, forewarnings and advice of every kind to everyone – Dharmaputra and Duryodhana alike. But what about Valmiki? He is absent in most part of the epic and comes and joins at the last – and the supposed to be ‘unauthentic’ portion – of the epic? Could he have been a contemporary of Rama?
A Legend that lived then
Valmiki was curious to know from Narada the name and the life of that person who was most ideal, living at that time. ‘In the present time,’ is what he qualifies his opening remark with, before going into the details of the nature of the person that he wants to know.
ko nv asmin sāmpratam loke gunavān kas ca vīryavān
“Who can possibly be full of virtues in this world at present? Nay, who is possessed of prowess and knows what is right? Who is conscious of services done, truthful of speech and firm of resolve?”
The word ‘sāmpratam’ is defined as ‘belonging to the present time; not past or future.’ Therefore, when he sought information on the person possessed of the most ideal qualities, he also specified that that person should belong to the present, who belongs to his time, who is living, who is not someone who lived in the past. That makes it very clear that Rama had not yet ascended His abode at that time. Moreover, the narration of sage Narada flows out in the past tense from the birth of Rama, until the story reaches the point of Rama regaining his kingdom, taking it back from Bharata who stays in the Nandigrama.
நந்திக்ராமே ஜடாம் ஹித்வா ப்ராத்ருபி: ஸஹித: அநக: |
“Having disentangled his matted hair at Nandigrama along with his (three) brothers and got back Sita, the sinless Rama regained his kingdom (too).”
From this point onwards, the narrative is in the future.
“(During the reign of Sri Rama) people will be positively much delighted and cheerful, contented and well-fed, exceedingly pious, free from mental agony and bodily ailments and rid of (the scourge of) famine and fear (of theft etc.). Nowhere will any men witness the death of their son or daughter, women will never be widows and will be ever devoted to their husband. There will be no fear from fire nor will living beings drowned in water. There will be neither fear from wind nor any fear of fever. Nor will there be neither fear of starvation in his kingdom nor that of thieves. Nay, cities and states will be full of riches and food-grains. All will be ever extremely happy as in Satyayuga. Having propitiated the Lord through hundreds of horse-sacrifices and (other) sacrifices involving the use of abundant gold, (nay) bestowed with due ceremony a billion cows on the learned and given away untold riches to the Brahmanas, the highly renowned Rama will establish royal dynasties a hundred times more prosperous than before (by not only recognising and confirming their sovereignty but even by liberally subsidising them). Nay, he will direct the people belonging to (all) the four grades of society to follow their respective duties on this terrestrial plane. Having served his kingdom for eleven-thousand years, Sri Rama will ascend to Brahmaloka (the highest heaven).” (Ibid, Sloka 90 – 97)
And therefore, one can say with certainty that Sri Rama had ascended the throne of Ayodhya when Valmiki heard this story from Narada and the series of events that are to follow were yet to be seen; heard and recorded. That gives us a clue as to how the Uttara Kanda might have been added later, by the poet himself, and of course, expanded by bards, down the years.
Therefore, Valmiki playing a part in his own drama is no wonder. The poem gives out all the clues. The short-narrative at the beginning of the epic, told by Valmiki in his own words describes all the important events and milestones in the epic in full, till the day Kusa and Lava sang the poem in the presence of Sri Rama. This narrative – as is obvious – could only have been composed after the epic was almost completed and added at the beginning, as otherwise the statement, “The sage uttered twenty-four thousand verses and made (out of them) six Kandas, consisting of five hundred (and odd) cantos and an Uttara Kanda (the epilogue),” (Ibid, Canto 4, Sloka 2) could not have been made at the beginning. After all, the ‘Foreword’ of any book is written only at the time of its publication, though it precedes the work! The epic was still in the process of being completed, even as Kusa and Lava sang it to an enthralled audience and Sri Rama who was in tears. That probably is one of the reasons why the scene dealing with the recalling of Sita from Valmiki’s hermitage and her subsequent disappearance into Mother Earth, does not find a place in this short-recital, at the beginning of the epic.
With this, we shall now move into the study of one of the grandest of all characters that the literature of the world has known, Sri Rama.