Re-reading the Ramayana of Valmiki

Dec 05, 2022 08:45 AM IST

Reading Kamala Subramaniam’s English translation of the grand epic is a rewarding journey into the natural beauty of old India and into the emotional landscape of the heart

Kamala Subramaniam’s English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana came out in 1981, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. It is an abridged edition of the 24,000 verses that constitute the original but is a hefty 695 pages for all that. We need commitment to read it in today’s world, especially the longer descriptions and dialogues. But reading it can be a rewarding journey into the natural beauty of old India and into the emotional landscape of the heart, including its dark corners.

A scene from the Ramlila held at the Kavi Nagar Ramlila Grounds in Ghaziabad on 2 October 2019. (Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
A scene from the Ramlila held at the Kavi Nagar Ramlila Grounds in Ghaziabad on 2 October 2019. (Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times)

Interestingly, Subramaniam chose to translate the Ramayana last after completing the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam, for the Ramayana is uniquely replete with poetry and emotional depth. To get an idea of how monumental the task was, we need only think of the American Ramayana scholar Professor Robert Goldman. He and his team took 24 years to translate the 24,000 verses of Valmiki’s Ramayana. It was a labour of love, like Subramaniam’s, except that while Professor Goldman did a line by line translation of the verses, Subramaniam abridged it in prose for modern Indians without departing from Valmiki.

Subramaniam says in her preface, “Pain is the monochord heard throughout… the Ramayana is a threnody or lament filled to the brim with noble thoughts, noble sentiments and noble characters, not one of whom is spared the experience of pain.”

652pp, ₹900; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
652pp, ₹900; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

Beauty is the other bandwidth that we experience in Subramaniam’s translation. It enables us to see the enchanting India that Valmiki saw, right from the opening scenes of the limpid waters of the river Tamasa by which he lived. As we read on, we find exuberant descriptions of scented flowers, profusely blooming trees, clear lakes, great rivers like the Sarayu, Ganga and Godavari, forests and mountains, humming bees and singing birds. An original line from Valmiki goes, “Chiribilva madhuka cha vanjula vakula tatha champaka tilaka cha eva nagavriksha cha pushpita,” meaning “How charming they look blooming, the bilva and madhuka, and the vanjula (ashoka), vakula, champaka, tilaka and naga.”

The glowing impression of India’s pristine beauty that we get from this ancient book cannot but make us wistful. One of the effects this has had on me is that whenever I enter a forest, I always think of the Three (Ram, Lakshman and Sita) and of Sita’s delicate feet bruised by thorns but her immense happiness nevertheless in her beautiful surroundings. She even tells Rama, “Let us stay on in the forest, let us not go back to Ayodhya”.

Of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, it is the Ramayana, which came first, that is considered the greater work. This is because in plot terms it stays with the protagonist, unlike the Mahabharata wherein Sri Krishna appears on and off and is not systematically followed although he is the lynchpin of the epic. Vyasa makes up for that afterwards in the Srimad Bhagavatam or Bhagavata Puranam, which is the story of Mahavishnu and his various avatars. Whereas Valmiki’s Ramayana follows Rama steadily from birth through his trials and tribulations and officially ends with his homecoming at the end of the sixth book, the Yuddha Kandam. It concludes with the Phalashruti or list of benefits conferred on those who read or hear the epic.

The Uttara Kandam, the putative seventh book, in which Rama banishes Sita, is held by scholars to be a prakshipta or add-on by someone else, and not Valmiki’s work. Subramaniam, too, ends with the sixth book, the coronation and the Phalashruti. In this she is in tune with the tradition of spiritual discourse in India. No kathakar or religious discourser will touch the Uttara Kandam. It is left out as invalid and out of sync with the character of Rama as revealed in the six main books – the Bala Kandam, Ayodhya Kandam, Aranya Kandam, Kishkinda Kandam, Sundara Kandam and Yuddha Kandam.

Ram, Lakshmana and Hanuman in a scene from the Ram Lila at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi in 2011, its 100th year. (Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
Ram, Lakshmana and Hanuman in a scene from the Ram Lila at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi in 2011, its 100th year. (Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

Having observed this point, we can better see the fascinating encounters that drive the story. Their nuances don’t always come forward in short, flat English versions of the epic whereas Subramaniam shares the actual words, which naturally vivifies the characters and makes for a textured read. Manthara’s jealousy, Kaikeyi’s fatal change of heart, Dashratha’s disillusionment and heartbreak, Kausalya’s sorrow, Bharata’s shame, are hair-raisingly described and leave us shaken.

Lakshmana’s logic when Rama is banished is noteworthy. He wants to overthrow Dasharatha, his own father, and enthrone Rama. He says, “Rama, there are three arthas, as you know. Treading the right path is named Shuklartha. The path which has a slight admixture of adharma but is by and large right is named Chapalartha, and the path which is entirely unrighteous is Krishnartha. Our king belongs to the second category. Before adharma runs rampant in the country because of him, please take up the reins of the kingdom. Just command me.” After letting Lakshmana vent his anger, Rama uses gentle, persuasive words to calm him down.

Importantly, Subramaniam gives us a more filled out sense of Rama’s nature. This helps us, especially those trapped in the English language, to better understand why millions have loved Rama for millennia. I feel this is of utmost significance in today’s political climate wherein Rama is weaponized by some to the detriment of his true image. Put off by the strident politics, we are perhaps unable to appreciate the “real Rama”, which is our cultural loss.

First of all, though, what did Rama actually look like? We learn early on that Rama has a fringe of black curls on his forehead and rejoices in a glossy dark brown complexion, wholly different from the white marble statues we commonly see today. Hanuman describes Rama to Sita in the Ashoka Vana as having “coppery eyes” of gleaming golden-brown, broad shoulders and long, powerful arms.

As for his character, the epic begins with a list of sixteen good qualities that Valmiki seeks in an ideal man, which include courage, integrity, keeping one’s word, self-control, patience and kindness. Sage Narada tells Valmiki that Rama is that person. As the story proceeds, it is by Rama’s reactions in deed and word that we obtain impressions of his Ramatva or Rama-ness. A glimpse of what Rama is like as a person at merely 17 comes from the citizens of Ayodhya. When Dasharatha asks his subjects what they feel about Rama becoming the crown prince, they are so happy at the prospect that Dasharatha thinks, “They love him more than they love me”.

But it is when the big tests come that we get to properly gauge Rama’s nature.

Firstly, we see his absolute lack of greed or frustrated ambition, when he promptly and gracefully accepts being exiled, and firmly holds Lakshmana back from violence. This makes one sit up anew in astonishment, reading what Kaikeyi, Dasharatha and Rama each have to say.

Rama, Sita and Laxmana in the Ramlila at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, at Shriram Centre, Mandi House, New Delhi on October 16, 2020. (Ajay Aggarwal /HT PHOTO)
Rama, Sita and Laxmana in the Ramlila at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, at Shriram Centre, Mandi House, New Delhi on October 16, 2020. (Ajay Aggarwal /HT PHOTO)

Secondly, we see Rama’s forgiving nature when he meets Kaikeyi at Chitrakoot.  Despite the great wrong that she has done him, he deals respectfully and affectionately with her and tells fearful Sita and angry Lakshmana to do the same. He is loving to Bharata and does not impute any ulterior motives to him.

Thirdly, we notice Rama’s gift of making friends with people of all classes, the way he warmly hugs Guha the boatman and Hanuman. Be it the people of Ayodhya, great sages in the forest, vassals like Guha, a motley crew of Vanaras given to drinking and carousing, a person of superior intellect like Hanuman or an asura prince like Vibhishana, we keep seeing that Rama attracts affection and support just by being his open, friendly self. 70,000 loyal Vanaras cross the sea with him to Lanka. His loving behaviour to the dying Jatayu and his warmth and kindness to devoted, old Shabari make the driest eye smart with tears.

Fourthly, we see that Rama loves deeply, and that he unselfconsciously lets his feelings show. For all his strength and valour, be it killing 16,000 rakashas single-handedly at Janasthana or defeating the mighty Ravana in battle, he openly acknowledges his soft side. He is covered in blood after the fight in Janasthana where rakshasa arrows have struck him but Sita runs out to hug him tightly and he hugs her back.

When Lakshmana builds them the perfect parnakutir or cottage in the forest, Rama reacts very emotionally and says that he feels he has not lost his father. After Sita is kidnapped, Rama is frequently distraught with pain. Profoundly moved by the beauty of lake Pampa, he laments aloud for lost Sita. The fire of viraha or separation from his beloved burns him as fiercely as it burns a lovelorn nayika or heroine in classical dance.

During the long, weary wait through the monsoon before the search for Sita can resume, he is thoroughly homesick for Ayodhya and recalls it with longing. From Rama, we learn that it is not at all unmanly to have and express emotions, which is a wholesome counter to the dictum that ‘men don’t cry’.

In sum, a picture emerges of a very good looking yet steady person without a scrap of vanity, who feels things deeply but tries to do his best despite setback after setback without losing consideration for others. That is his real Rama-ness.

Especially, we begin to see through Subramaniam’s translation that the Ramayana is in fact a Sharanagati Shastra or Book of Sanctuary. This is the underlying spiritual bedrock of the epic. Sri Krishna has to explicitly tell Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that He is the refuge of those who surrender to Him. This is not overtly stated in the Ramayana. It is only as incident follows incident that we begin to see the pattern of sharanagati or surrender to Rama’s grace and protection. He readily grants abhaya or freedom from fear to those who seek it.

The first sharanagati is even before he takes descent as the avatar Rama. The Devas in heaven are sorely oppressed by the tyranny and brutality of Ravana and his rakshasas, while Mother Earth groans under their cruelty. The Devas beg Lord Narayana or Mahavishnu to save them, and he promises he will appear on earth to rid them of this evil.

Later, Lakshmana falls at Rama’s feet in abject and complete surrender when Rama is exiled, and begs to go with him. “I will guard you by night and serve you by day, Rama, you are my very life to me,” he pleads. Rama lovingly accepts his submission. At this point, some may ask, “How could Lakshmana leave his wife Urmila behind just like that?” Well, Lakshmana was a hot-headed character, For all we know, Urmila was quite reconciled to spending a long, peaceful break away from him. If Valmiki does not bring up the matter, we need not strive officiously to do so.

As to which, I do not relate to modern attempts to valorize Shurpanakha for “frankly expressing her sexuality”. Shurpanakha wanted Sita’s men and tried to kill her, which is why Lakshmana had to draw his sword. Read in detail in Subramaniam’s translation, it is a straightforward case in my view. Equally, Vali himself accepts that Rama was right to kill him. He entrusts his son Angada to Rama’s guardianship. Reading what Valmiki actually said gives us the true picture of this apparent dharmic blot on Rama. An indirect compliment to Valmiki is that someone is always trying to outsmart him. That is all very well; people should be free to examine the epic. It is a shame only if we buy their story without first reading the original Ramayana in depth for ourselves and forming our own opinion.

After Lakshmana, the next sharanagati is that of Bharata in Chitrakoot, when he begs Rama to come back to Ayodhya and take the throne. Subramaniam’s rendition of this exchange is incredibly moving. It is a long, emotional passage. We feel Bharata’s anguish, marvel at Rama’s steadfastness and are finally convinced of the outcome.

The beleagured rishis in Dandakaranya Forest are the next to seek sanctuary in Rama. “You are our only hope. You must save us from these terrible rakshasas who are steadily killing us,” they beg. Rama wants to know why they ask him when he is only a vagrant in exile. But the rishis say that be it in the forest or the city, Rama is their king and only he can save them. Rama faithfully promises to do so and assumes responsibility for their safety.

READ MORE: Kamala Subramaniam: An epic life well-servedAfter these formal sharanagatis, a very touching incident takes place out in Lanka. Trijata, the only nice rakshasi in the Ashoka Vana, has a dream in which she sees Ravana vanquished and Rama victorious. She tells the other rakshasis about it and advises them to apologise to Sita, which they are reluctant to do out of fear of Ravana. But Sita, who has overheard Trijata, speaks up. She herself offers protection to the rakshasis after Rama wins. When Hanuman wants to kill the rakshasis, Sita tells him not to harm them for they are merely employees following instructions. Here we see the compassionate nature of the mother goddess who does not wait to be asked before she offers sanctuary, even to her tormentors. Valmiki is subtle like that. He lets the story speak for itself.

His Sita is not a passive, dull character. She sets a high standard of kindness and courage. Though a gently-bred princess, she insists on sharing Rama’s 14 years of hardship. She asks Rama whether he should be killing anybody, even rakshasas, while in the garb of an ascetic. Although she breaks down in tears and lamentation when kidnapped, she is staunchness personified when confronting Ravana. Subramaniam makes us love her as Valmiki did, for her soft heart, her loyalty and strength and her love of flowers, birds and animals. But for Subramaniam, we may never have known that Sita’s favourite flowers were the karnikara and the ashoka. It was when she came out to pluck these flowers that she saw the golden deer. We may never have known that the three of them ate ingudi and badari berries in the forest, which, I discovered, still grow in India and are used in Ayurvedic treatment. They are described as “historical plants”.

A very important and game-changing sharanagati is that of Vibhishana. He is ridiculed by Ravana when he describes Sita as the noose of death that Ravana has placed on his own neck, and begs him to return Sita to Rama for the good of Lanka. But he is further insulted in court by Ravana’s son Indrajit as an ungrateful coward. Vibhishana decides to leave his wife, family, wealth and princely status behind. He and four trusted companions fly over the sea through their rakshasa powers. Risking his all, Vibhishana comes to Rama and begs for sanctuary. Rama diplomatically asks his advisors their opinion. Sugriva and Jambavan are fearful but Hanuman, who has seen Vibhishana in Lanka, is all for it. Rama then says, “Even if he is a bad person, I will accept him. I do not turn away those who seek refuge in me.” This is an apocalyptic moment in the story, sending out a big message about Rama-love.

Hanuman meeting Sita in the Ramlila at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi on October 20, 2015. (Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times)
Hanuman meeting Sita in the Ramlila at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi on October 20, 2015. (Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times)

A reading of the Ramayana cannot fail to mention Hanuman, the action hero and ultimate devotee. The Sundara Kandam is the most beloved of the sections in the Ramayana. It is about the modesty, strength, valour, wisdom, diplomacy and clean heart of Hanuman. Rama radiates a palpable aura of goodness that Hanuman’s heart instantly responds to.

To read it all in detail here is thrilling and uplifting. Subramaniam’s clear, simple words fall in grace on those who cannot follow the Ramayana in Sanskrit or in the mother tongues, and even on those who can.

It is thanks to her that we are able to properly participate in the Ramayana as never before in English and can share in the time-honoured verse that celebrates Valmiki:

Kujantam rama rameti madhuram madhurashtakam

Aruhya kavita sakham vande Valmiki kokilam

I salute Valmiki, the koel, who, perched on the tree of poetry, sweetly sings the sweet syllables “Rama, Rama.”

Renuka Narayanan is a journalist and author. Her latest book is ‘Learning from Loss’. She lives in New Delhi.

The views expressed are personal

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