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About Ramayana and Its Hero- Valmiki

About a fortnight back, I had picked up Valmiki Ramayan from the bookstore, primarily to read it to my daughter. That the weekend was to be followed by Dusshera and Valmiki Jayanti was not on my mind. Valmiki Ramayan is to my mind a great work of Indian Literature. It is the first big book I had ever read, sometime when I was in class IVth. It is considered to be first epic in the human history, first poetic story.

            The book was written in the backdrop of early human history. I would rather presume that it reflects the time when Human civilization was in the initial stages of moving out from the forests, with one set of people still staying in the forest, still away from the concepts of reading and writing, farming like Vanars; another who moved into agricultural world, still close to nature and counting on the early discover of fire to keep themselves safe, being on the periphery of the forests; and the third which was arrogantly destroying the old ways of life, negating the nature, and building the big, huge infrastructure, and shiny capitals of greed. Valmiki’s Ramayan is reflective of those times and his. He wrote it in the times when society was not yet broken into faultlines, Varnas had not yet become rigid as castes. In those days, a wise man was a wise man, a writer, like Valmiki, was a writer and not a Dalit writer. Brahmin was the one who sought the truth and that was the reason, once Valmiki wrote the first couplet of human history, he, Ratnakar, most likely a non-brahmin, was designated a Mahrishi (The great sage) Valmiki, by none other than Narada, the priests and guru of the Gods. It would be dishonor to Valmiki to celebrate him as anything but a seeker of truth, and the first litterateur.

            Valmiki neither claims to be a prophet, nor he claims the story to be true. Ramayana and Ram as the Hero of the epic, became close to Hinduism and people started identifying it with Hinduism. I am not saying that we must, as Indians, as Hindus, not take pride in it. I am saying more than Ram, we must take pride in Ramayan, and the great writer who wrote it. This duality between literature and religious book while initially propagated  and popularized it, later it also harmed it in some ways. This literary fiction and its faults were used for Hindu bashing. The fault-lines of Story Ramayan, which is a great work of art, has been used to discredit Hindus, Characters criticized as if they were real people, guided by current social conventions and norms, by competing faiths who were amused by the extent of acceptance of Hinduism in the absence of any decree, any deception or any force.

            It is a great book of fiction, a long story which carries several sub-stories within, masterly stitched together to resemble reality. It does carry the thought and sensibility of Valmiki as a writer. I am not writing this essay as any alternate reading, a fashionable term used by non-believers to define faith for the faithful. I am writing this as a tribute to possibly the first writer in the history of humanity. Possibly at the time when we moved out of the caves, and some of us still were in caves, Vanars; one set moved away from the Forests and established great, though grotesque cities of gold as a testament to greed, like Suvarna-Lanka (Golden Lanka) of Raavan and another civilization, stayed close to them, settling on the periphery of the familiar forest life, choosing a farming life, cattle-rearing and the pursuit of knowledge- those early days when we moved from pictures on the walls of the caves to alphabets and words. In those early days, Valmiki wrote this and thereby established an illustrious  line of individual which will someday have Ved Vyas, Yeats, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Rushdie, Marquez and Dinkar and Chetan Bhagat. It is not about religion and let us not make it so.

            Like writers of  the later days, Valmiki was progressive and way ahead of his time. His Ram represented his thoughts and ideas in what he did and even in what he did not do. The story represents a conflict between the truly intellectual society and a brash, bragging society- selfish, self-oriented, boisterous Rakshashas. Ram, the Hero for Valmiki was one woman man (ek- Patnivrata). No, he was not writing for his time. He was writing for the times ahead. His time was not for monogamy. Ram’s father, Raja Dashrath, had four wives. Valmiki won’t make or have his characters make noisy protests about it. He doesn’t make it a propaganda like some modern writers would. He would carefully, craftily bring in Ram as the new-age man, who is committed to his wife. He sets an example of love and family by setting up Ram as a model for monogamy, in the age of polygamy. This was possibly revolutionary for those times. The fact that polygamy still continued till such time that it was made illegal by law, also indicates that unlike say a Quran or Bible, while Ramayan of Valmiki was a reformative and progressive story, it was that and nothing more, a story with a message.

 You don’t get killed, or cursed or go to hell for not behaving as Ram. It is like the love of Gatsby is moving, inspiring, close to the heart, but it is not binding on any man to love a woman thus and to die protecting her honor thus.

            Like any self-respecting author, he subtly places himself in Ram, wherever he wants to make a point. He quickly makes a point and gets out of it. Today, progressive intellectuals write about the moral dishonesty of our society which places the stigma of rape on the woman. Currently a newspaper is running a series of essays by eminent personalities to counter this. Valmiki wrote Ahalya Udhhar (the Redemption of Ahalya by Ram) thousands of years back on the same lines. In brief, Ahalya was the wife of Sage Gautama. There are various accounts of what happened, one says, Indra raped her, another says, Indra deceived her, by transforming himself into Gautama, her much older husband, another version says that she realized it was Indra but much later, and was by then tempted by Indra’s praise to her beauty. Whichever version we take, Valmiki, takes no side. Whether it was her fault, her foolishness or her folly, Valmiki refuses to paint her as a “fallen” woman. He calls her divine and while she is cursed by her husband to stay hidden from the world or stay excommunicated from the unforgiving society at large (if we translate poetic description with a more realistic explanation), Valmiki guides Ram, Ram- who is a part of the Divine, who is God’s own incarnation, to her, smiles at her and accepts her hospitality. This marks her coming back to life, her being a part of larger world which had stopped taking note of her, as a woman, as a person. I know, many would pounce upon me, on this, citing how Ram had treated his own wife, Sita after he rescued her from Ravana’s kidnapping. I shall come to it, and try to explain.

            How Ram gets together Vanars, Hanuman and other, together and as we find in the Uttarkand, even make them stake-holders in governance, in his kingdom is also another progressive idea for those times when the society was just forming and frameworks were just getting established. He takes the Vanvasi with him, gets them the stake in real power and even considers at times, Hanuman, closer than Lakshman. 

Then there is the instance of Shabari. Shabari is a hunter’s daughter. Moved by the plight of animal’s being killed, she goes under the tutelage of Sage Matanga. The learned sage teaches her, and while leaving the mortal world tells her to wait for Ram. She waits for years for Ram, plucking berries and tasting them for Ram. When Ram arrives, she, daughter of a Nishadh, a hunter tribesman, offers those half-eaten berries to Ram. When Lakshman objects, Ram tells him that Shabari’s affection for him is beyond all the various forms of prayers which people offer him, for it is simple, true and bereft of any pretension. With one act of his, Ram, the Hero created by Valmiki, demolishes the caste and class barriers. The fact that thousands of years down, we still had untouchability and it even sneaked into a popular translation of Ramayan (Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas) also proves that Ramayana is not a Hindu religious text as many contend. If it were so, we would have ended both polygamy and untouchability thousands of years back. In Hinduism, even religious texts are not binding, at least not threateningly binding; this was only an Epic. 

There is a reason for trying to convert this story, this great work of literature, closely related to Hindu mythology, into Hindu religious text. It is thus identified with Hindu identity and lashed at, for the behavior of the characters in this story, which eventually evolves into Hindu bashing. This is something like blaming American Christians for the derogatory manner in which a character speaks about the black people in The Great Gatsby. It should rather go to the credit of such a great force of literature, and the inherent accommodation of contrary views in ancient Indian society,  that he could have such brilliant thoughts in such ancient an age. Raavana was a Brahmin and even his caste could not save him from the misfortune his arrogance brought to him. The Dalit scholars of today identify themselves with a Brahmin and oppose the one who supports the one worked with the tribals, smacks of their lack of understanding and their attempt at attacking a religion basis a work of fiction merely because it has characters from Hindu mythology.

            Another important point on which Ram is bashed and thereby, Hinduism is bashed, is the treatment meted to Sita by Ram, First as she has to walk through a funeral pyre after she is rescued from Raaavan’s captivity in Lanka, and later, when Ram abandons her on account of one of his citizen raising question about Sita’s chastity in long captivity by Raavan. Valmiki justifies the first incident in a political manner. Ram was to become the king on return to Ayodhya, and there was so much of bloodshed to rescue Sita. Ram wanted to prove that all that struggle, the loss of life, was not personal, it was for a larger good- liberation of people of Lanka from an oppressor, a tyrant. Being divine, Ram knew it well that Sita is chaste and pious and will not be hurt by the fire. In the time, when the King was the state and State was the King, through his protagonist, Valmiki tries to prove, that King is state as a patron, as a symbol of state, not as a person, as an individual, certainly not as a grieving husband. The king represents something bigger than his human form and cannot act on the basis of his human impulses and certainly cannot use the state machinery to fulfill his personal objectives. State resources must only be used for larger public good only. Through Ram, Valmiki establishes the democracy inherent in Hinduism, even in those days of Monarchy. This democratic aspect also comes into picture in the later abandonment of Sita by Ram, when she was pregnant. Many are up in arms against not only Ram, but Hindus for this act of injustice.

It was unjust. True. Even Sita could not understand this never ending expectation of people from its leader in a democratic world, and eventually refused to be a part of it. But then, Valmiki had established Ram as a model ruler. What could possibly his character in the story have done? Could Ram have left the state with Sita, and left the state to whom?. Where would that leave all the bloodshed and war and fighting? So many lives lost, for nothing? Eventually would a Ram leaving the responsibility of ruling a state which had set so many expectations on him as divine father, like an ordinary, family man, surrendering his lofty ideals for domestic duties be in line with the character created to present eventually a role model for governance- Ram Rajya? Would this have been in line with the character which Valmiki had so painstakingly developed? Can we imagine Lord Jim of Joseph Conrad, selling used-cars and flirting with girls? Sometimes the writer gets stuck with the characters he creates, in a way that there is no way out. Every writer knows that. The best of us will be able to disentangle ourselves with least damage to the character built with such labor and love. Valmiki does that. So when Sita is prays to the Mother Earth and is taken in, hounded by such repeated humiliation, He says even grieving Ram knows that she will be waiting for him in another world, away from the censorious eyes of people with narrow minds. Valmiki doesn’t justify those people who make comments on Sita, he is equally sad, as much as his hero. He sends a lesson to the society which derives voyeuristic pleasure imagining personal lives of their leaders. It is not a lesson for Ram, it is a lesson for the people of Ayodhya, who eventually curse Ram, after the gallant victory he had won for them, into becoming a tragic, Shakespearean hero, ending his days in a lonely, private purgatory, while performing his public duties towards the larger good.

Ramayan is not a story with happy ending. It was not meant to be. he first Shloka of Ramayan, considered to be first poetic words written in Human history, tells us where Valmiki wanted to go with the story:

मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः 
यत् क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम् ।।

Translation: Oh hunter, may you never get your honor restored for a thousand years,
For you have killed, an innocent bird, lost in love, mercilessly, without any tears.  

Having uttered these words, Valmiki discovered the beauty of written verse, and the first poetry dawned on human race in all its divinity. Valmiki then set on writing this great epic. It culminated out of sadness, after Valmiki saw two birds and the sudden killing of one of the two birds during their mating dance. He was moved and began writing Ramayana, it was meant to end in longing and sadness. He knew where his story was supposed to go, and that is where it goes.

Ram is good king, but he is not a happy king. He is a tragic hero who has sacrificed his love and family for a larger good. It is a sad story. Failure of Ram as a hero is the success of Valmiki as a writer. That is my opinion. It is a progressive story.  It is not a social essay, although like any good writer, Valmiki has placed progressive thoughts on monogamy, sharing of power, engagements with social pariahs, opposing stigmatization of women, casteism. 

Let us not judge him on religion and politics. Let us celebrate his writing and poetry and let us celebrate the society in which innovative thoughts were celebrated for thousands of years while the world about us was still settling the arguments through stoning and beheading. But it is not a religious work. If it has any connection with religion, it was about the direction an enlightened, emancipated, intellectual mind wanted it to go. I am not worthy enough to review the first epic of human history, nor intellectual enough to offer alternate reading. I offer this as my understanding and interpretation and as the tribute to the Grand Priest of  Poetry, Mahrishi Valmiki.   
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