1. General Introduction
Few works of literature produced in any place at any time have been as popular, influential, imitated, and successful as the
great and ancient Sanskrit epic poem, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. A. A. Macdonell’s sweeping comment is hardly an overstatement of the case: ‘Probably no work of world literature, secular in origin, has ever produced so profound an influence on the life and thought
of a people as the Rāmāyaṇa.’[Note 1] For at least the last two and a half millennia, the tragic tale of Rāma and Sītā, the oldest and most influential surviving version of which is Vālmīki’s poem, has entertained, moved, enchanted, and uplifted untold millions of people in India and much of Southeast Asia for countless generations. The poem in all its versions and representations in the literary, plastic, and performing arts
has constituted traditional India’s most pervasive and enduring instrument of acculturation.
If the Rāmāyaṇa has dominated the cultures of India and Southeast Asia, it has similarly fascinated a whole tradition of modern scholarship both in India and the West. The one hundred fifty years since the appearance of Schlegel’s partial edition and Latin translation [Note 2]have witnessed the growth of an enormous body of scholarly, pseudo-scholarly, sectarian, and popular literature on the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma, and the Rāma cult and literature. This corpus includes an extraordinary variety of works, ranging from editions, translations, and serious
research into the language, metrics, and text history of the poem to bizarre retellings, traditionalist apologia, and wishful
fantasies about airborne monkeys, Indian pharaohs, and long-tailed tribal peoples.[Note 3]
The reasons for these two closely related phenomena — the extraordinary influence of the epic at home and the curious fascination
that it has exerted upon scholars and others in India and abroad — are interesting and important. An examination of them bears centrally upon our understanding not only of the
poem and the culture whose touchstone it has become, but on the nature and function of traditional literature, and even on
our own response to fantasies that touch the deepest roots of our being.
The story of Rāma, Prince of Ayodhyā, is not one that could be expected to interest greatly a general western audience. Aside from its rootedness in a foreign
and alien-seeming culture, one far removed from ours in space and time, the poem’s central characters lack the quality of
inner conflict, the human frailty that we have come to associate with the protagonists of the finest examples of western literature
from Job and Achilles to the heroes and heroines of the contemporary novel. Were this absence of psychological complexity
a universal feature of ancient Indian literature, it could constitute the basis for cross-cultural literary criticism. But
the poem differs sharply in this respect from the work with which it is most intimately associated in time, place, style,
content, and general world view — the other great epic of ancient India, the Mahābhārata. What is most interesting, as we shall see, is that this very feature of monovalent characterization is at the heart of the
epic’s extraordinary success.
Leaving the characterization of Rāma and the other principal figures of the Rāmāyaṇa aside for the moment, there remains something in this long tale of the irreproachable but ill-starred prince and his faithful
but ill-used princess, of their magical flying monkey companions, and their terrifying and implacable enemy, the ten-headed
demon king, that continues to haunt us, to move us with its peculiar enchantment long after we set the book, with its textual
and philological puzzles, aside. It is in an effort to convey something of this strange enchantment, this haunting sense of
a distant yet somehow familiar inner world that we offer here what we have tried to make a readable and yet philologically
accurate translation of the critical edition of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa.
Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa: its nature and history
In the form in which we have it today, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is an epic poem of some 50,000 lines retelling in Sanskrit verse the career of Rāma, a legendary prince of the ancient kingdom of Kosala in the eastern portion of north central India. The text survives in several thousand partial and complete manuscripts,[Note 4] the oldest of which appears to date from the eleventh century a.d.[Note 5]The poem is traditionally divided into seven major kāṇḍas, or books, that deal chronologically with the major events in the career of Rāma, from the circumstances surrounding his birth to his death. The central body of the poem recounts his disinheritance and
exile and the abduction and recovery of his wife.
The text has come down to us in two major regional recensions, the northern (N) and the southern (S), each of which has a number of versions defined generally by the scripts in which the manuscripts are written.[Note 6] The versions of N are somewhat less homogeneous than those of S and, in fact, the former may conveniently be spoken of as having two regional subrecensions belonging to the northeast (NE)
and northwest (NW), respectively.[Note 7] The three major recensions and subrecensions differ considerably among themselves; approximately one-third of the text of
each of them is common to neither of the other two.[Note 8] Nonetheless, elaborate text-historical studies of the Rāmāyaṇa, culminating in the preparation of the critical edition have, in our opinion, more than adequately established that all existing
recensions and subrecensions are ultimately to be traced to a more or less unitary archetype.[Note 9] The numerous interesting and important textual differences that characterize the various recensions, subrecensions, and versions
of the epic — differences that we shall discuss in detail below — are not, in fact, reflected in any significant variations
in the major outlines of the story, its contents, tone, moral, or characterizations.
Let us turn now to the central epic tale before continuing with a discussion of the history of the Rāmāyaṇa and of Rāmāyaṇa studies.
The central narrative of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, as it is contained in the critical edition, is easily told.[Note 10]
The poem, in its surviving form, begins with a curious and interesting preamble (upodghāta) that consists of four chapters (sargas) in which the audience is introduced to the theme of the epic, the story, and its central hero. This section also contains
an elaborate account of the origins of the poem and of poetry itself and a description of its early mode of recitation by
the rhapsodist-disciples of the traditional author, the sage Vālmīki. The upodghāta is of great importance to the study of the textual prehistory of the poem and to an understanding of traditional Indian thinking
on the subject of emotion and literary process. As such we will treat it at length when we discuss the epic’s history and
again in our detailed introduction to the Bālakāṇḍa.
The epic proper, which begins with the fifth, tells us of the fair and prosperous kingdom of Kosala whose king, the wise and powerful Daśaratha, rules from the beautiful, walled city of Ayodhyā. The king possesses all that a man could desire except a son and heir. On the advice of his ministers and with the somewhat
obscure intervention of the legendary sage Ṛśyaśṛṅga, the king performs a sacrifice, as a consequence of which four splendid sons are born to him by his three principal wives.
These sons, Rāma, Bharata, Lakṣmaṇa, and Śatrughna, we are given to understand, are infused with varying portions of the essence of the great Lord Viṣṇu who has agreed to be born as a man in order to destroy a violent and otherwise invincible demon, the mighty rākṣasa Rāvaṇa who has been oppressing the gods, for by the terms of a boon that he has received, the demon can be destroyed only by a mortal.
The king’s sons are reared as princes of the realm until, when they are hardly past their childhood, the great sage Viśvāmitra appears at court and asks the king to lend him his eldest and favorite son, Rāma, for the destruction of some rākṣasas who have been harassing him. With great reluctance, the aged king permits Rāma to go. Then, accompanied by his constant companion, Lakṣmaṇa, the prince sets out on foot for the sage’s ashram. On their journey, Rāma receives instruction in certain magical spells and in response to his questions, is told a number of stories from ancient
Indian mythology that are here associated with the sites through which the party passes. At one point Rāma kills a dreadful ogress and as a reward for his valor, receives from the sage a set of supernatural weapons. At last the
princes reach the hermitage of Viśvāmitra where, with his newly acquired weapons, Rāma puts an end to the harassment of the demons.
Viśvāmitra’s ostensible goal accomplished, the party proceeds to the city of Mithilā where Janaka, king of Videha, is said to be in possession of a massive and mighty bow. No earthly prince has so far been able to wield this divine weapon,
and the old king has set this task as the price for the hand of his beautiful daughter, Sītā. After arriving at Mithilā, Rāma wields the bow and breaks it. Marriages are arranged between the sons of Daśaratha and the daughters and nieces of Janaka. The weddings are celebrated at Mithilā with great festivity, and the wedding party returns to Ayodhyā. On the way, Rāma meets and faces down the brahman Rāma Jāmadagnya, legendary nemesis of the warrior class. At last the brothers and their brides settle in Ayodhyā where they live in peace and contentment. This brings to a close the first book of the epic, the Bālakāṇḍa.
The second book of the epic is set, as the name suggests, largely in the city of Ayodhyā. Here we find that, in the absence of Prince Bharata, Daśaratha has decided to abdicate his sovereignty and consecrate Rāma as prince regent in his stead.
The announcement of Rāma’s succession to the throne is greeted with general rejoicing, and preparations for the ceremony are undertaken. On the eve
of the great event, however, Kaikeyī, one of the king’s junior wives — her jealousy aroused by a maidservant — claims two boons that the king had long ago granted
her. The king is heartbroken, but constrained by his rigid devotion to his given word, he accedes to Kaikeyī’s demands and orders Rāma exiled to the wilderness for fourteen years while the succession passes to Kaikeyī’s son, Bharata.
Rāma exhibits no distress upon hearing of this stroke of malign fate but prepares immediately to carry out his father’s orders.
He gives away all his personal wealth and donning the garb of a forest ascetic, departs for the wilderness, accompanied by
his faithful wife Sītā and his loyal brother Lakṣmaṇa. The entire population of the city is consumed with grief for the exiled prince, and the king, his cherished hopes shattered
and his beloved son banished by his own hand, dies of a broken heart.
Messengers are dispatched to bring back Bharata from his lengthy stay at the court of his uncle in Rājagṛha in the west. But Bharata indignantly refuses to profit by his mother’s wicked scheming. He rejects the throne and instead proceeds to the forest in
an effort to persuade Rāma to return and rule. But Rāma, determined to carry out the order of his father to the letter, refuses to return before the end of the period set for his
exile. The brothers reach an impasse that is only resolved when Bharata agrees to govern as regent in Rāma’s name. In token of Rāma’s sovereignty, Bharata takes his brother’s sandals to set on the throne. He vows never to enter Ayodhyā until the return of Rāma and to rule in his brother’s name from a village outside the capital.
Rāma, Sītā, and Lakṣmaṇa then abandon their pleasant mountaintop dwelling and move south into the wild and demon-infested forests of Daṇḍaka.
The third book recounts the dramatic events that occur during the years of Rāma’s forest exile. The trio have now pushed on into the Daṇḍaka forest, a wilderness inhabited only by pious ascetics and fierce rākṣasas. The former appeal to Rāma to protect them from the demons, and he promises to do so. Near the beginning of the book, Sītā is briefly carried off by a rākṣasa called Virādha in an episode that strongly prefigures her later abduction by Rāvaṇa, the central event of the book and the pivotal episode of the epic.
While the three are dwelling peacefully in the lovely woodlands of Pañcavaṭī, they are visited by a rākṣasa woman, Śūrpaṇakhā, the sister of Rāvaṇa. She attempts to seduce the brothers and failing in this, tries to kill Sītā. She is stopped by Lakṣmaṇa, who mutilates her. She runs shrieking to her brother, the demon Khara, who sends a punitive expedition against the princes. When Rāma annihilates these demons, Khara himself comes at the head of an army of fourteen thousand terrible rākṣasas, but the hero once more exterminates his attackers. At last news of all this comes to the ears of Rāvaṇa, the brother of Khara and Śūrpaṇakhā and the lord of the rākṣasas. He resolves to destroy Rāma by carrying off Sītā. Enlisting the aid of the rākṣasa Mārīca, a survivor of the battle at Viśvāmitra’s ashram, the great demon comes to the Pañcavaṭī forest. There Mārīca, assuming the form of a wonderful deer, captivates Sītā’s fancy and lures Rāma off into the woods. At Sītā’s urging, Lakṣmaṇa, disregarding his brother’s strict orders, leaves her and follows him.
Rāvaṇa appears and after some conversation, carries off the princess by force. Rāma’s friend, the vulture Jaṭāyus, attempts to save Sītā, but after a fierce battle, he falls mortally wounded. Sītā is carried off to the island fortress of Laṅkā where she is kept under heavy guard.
Upon discovering the loss of Sītā, Rāma laments wildly and maddened by grief, wanders through the forest vainly searching for her. At length he is directed to the
monkey Sugrīva at Lake Pampā. This brings the Araṇyakāṇḍa to a close.
The book is remarkable in a number of respects. Like the following kāṇḍa, it has a number of passages of great poetic beauty in which the seasonal changes in the forest are described. Further, as
has been noted by several scholars,[Note 11] it differs sharply from the preceding book in leaving the relatively realistic world of palace intrigue in Ayodhyā for an enchanted forest of talking birds, flying monkeys, and dreadful demons with magical powers. This is a difference,
or perhaps an apparent difference, that we shall discuss further below.
The fourth book of the epic is set largely in the monkey citadel of Kiṣkindhā and continues the fairy-tale atmosphere of the preceding book. Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa meet Hanumān, the greatest of monkey heroes and an adherent of Sugrīva, the banished pretender to the throne of Kiṣkindhā. Sugrīva tells Rāma a curious tale of his rivalry and conflict with his brother, the monkey king Vālin, and the two conclude a pact: Rāma is to help Sugrīva kill Vālin and take both his throne and his queen. In return for this, Sugrīva is to aid in the search for the lost Sītā.
Accordingly, Rāma shoots Vālin from ambush while the latter is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Sugrīva.[Note 12] Finally, after much delay and procrastination, Sugrīva musters his warriors and sends them out in all directions to scour the earth in search of Sītā. The southern expedition, under the leadership of Aṅgada and Hanumān, has several strange adventures, including a sojourn in an enchanted underground realm. Finally, having failed in their quest,
the monkeys are ashamed and resolve to fast to death. They are rescued from this fate by the appearance of the aged vulture
Sampāti, brother of the slain Jaṭāyus, who tells them of Sītā’s confinement in Laṅkā. The monkeys discuss what is to be done, and in the end, Hanumān volunteers to leap the ocean in search of the princess. This brings to a close the Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa.
The fifth book of the poem is called, for reasons that are not wholly clear, the Sundarakāṇḍa,[Note 13] and it is centrally concerned with a detailed, vivid, and often amusing account of Hanumān’s adventures in the splendid fortress city of Laṅkā.
After his heroic leap across the ocean, the monkey hero explores the demons’ city and spies on Rāvaṇa. The descriptions of the city are colorful and often finely written. Meanwhile Sītā, held captive in a grove of aśoka trees, is alternately wooed and threatened by Rāvaṇa and his rākṣasa women. Hanumān finds the despondent princess and reassures her, giving her Rāma’s signet ring as a sign of his good faith. He offers to carry Sītā back to Rāma, but she refuses, reluctant to allow herself to be willingly touched by a male other than her husband, and argues that Rāma must come himself to avenge the insult of her abduction.
Hanumān then wreaks havoc in Laṅkā, destroying trees and buildings and killing servants and soldiers of the king. At last he allows himself to be captured and
brought before Rāvaṇa. After an interview he is condemned, and his tail is set afire. But the monkey escapes his bonds and leaping from roof to
roof, sets fire to the city.[Note 14] Finally, Hanumān returns to the mainland where he rejoins the search party. Together they make their way back to Kiṣkindhā, destroying on the way a grove belonging to Sugrīva, and Hanumān reports his adventures to Rāma.
The sixth book of the poem, as its name suggests, is chiefly concerned with the great battle that takes place before the walls
of Laṅkā between the forces of Rāma (Sugrīva’s monkey hosts) and the demon hordes of Rāvaṇa.
Having received Hanumān’s report on Sītā and the military disposition of Laṅkā, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa proceed with their allies to the shore of the sea. There they are joined by Rāvaṇa’s renegade brother Vibhīṣaṇa who, repelled by his brother’s outrages and unable to reason with him, has defected. The monkeys construct a bridge across
the ocean, and the princes and their army cross over to Laṅkā. A protracted and bloody, though far from realistic, battle rages. The advantage sways from one side to the other until,
at length, Rāma kills Rāvaṇa in single combat. The prince then installs Vibhīṣaṇa on the throne of Laṅkā and sends for Sītā. But Rāma expresses no joy in recovering his lost wife. Instead, he abuses her verbally and refuses to take her back on the grounds
that she has lived in the house of another man. Only when the princess is proved innocent of any unfaithfulness through an
ordeal by fire does the prince accept her.
At last, traveling in the flying palace Puṣpaka, which Vibhīṣaṇa had given him, Rāma returns to Ayodhyā where, the period of his exile now over, his long-delayed coronation is performed.
The seventh book of the Rāmāyaṇa is entitled simply ‘The Last Book’ and is more heterogeneous in its contents than even the Bālakāṇḍa. Of the nature of an extensive epilogue, it contains three general categories of narrative material. The first category includes
legends that provide the background, origins, and early careers of some of the important figures in the epic whose antecedents
were not earlier described. Approximately the first third of the book is devoted to a lengthy account of the early career
of Rāvaṇa and to a much shorter account of the early life of Hanumān. In this section many of the events of the central portion of the epic story are explained as having their roots in encounters
and curses in the distant past.
The second category of Uttarakāṇḍa material consists of myths and legends that are only incidentally related to the epic story and its characters. Some of these
episodes concern ancestors of the epic hero and in the main, are related to the central story only in the loosely topical
or associative way by which such material is included in the Bālakāṇḍa and in many sections of the Mahābhārata. This sort of material, as will be discussed below, is characteristic of only the first and last books of the Rāmāyaṇa.
The last and in several ways the most interesting category of material in the Uttarakāṇḍa concerns the final years of Rāma, his wife, and his brothers. Struggle, adversity, and sorrow seemingly behind him, Rāma settles down with Sītā to rule in peace, prosperity, and happiness. We see what looks like the perfect end to a fairy tale or romance. Yet the joy
of the hero and heroine is to be short-lived.
It comes to Rāma’s attention that, despite the fire ordeal of Sītā, ugly rumors of her sexual infidelity with Rāvaṇa are spreading among the populace of Ayodhyā. In dreadful conformity to what he sees as the duty of a sovereign, Rāma banishes the queen, although she is pregnant and he knows the rumors to be false. After some years and various minor adventures,
Rāma performs a great horse sacrifice during which two handsome young bards appear and begin to recite the Rāmāyaṇa. It turns out that these two, the twins Kuśa and Lava, are in fact the sons of Rāma and Sītā who have been sheltered with their mother in the ashram of the sage Vālmīki, author of the poem. Rāma sends for his beloved queen, intending to take her back. But Sītā has suffered too much. She calls upon the Earth, her mother, to receive her, and as the ground opens, she vanishes forever.
Consumed by an inconsolable grief, Rāma divides the kingdom between his sons, and then, followed by all the inhabitants of Ayodhyā, enters the waters of the Sarayū river near the city and yielding up his life, returns at last to heaven as the Lord Viṣṇu. These events bring to a close both the book and the poem itself.
2. History and Historicity
Few questions in the history of world literature have evoked so many and so widely differing answers as those that bear upon
the date of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and the historicity of the characters and events that are represented in it.[Note 15] Even if we leave aside the traditional ascription of the life of Rāma to the legendary era of the Tretā Yuga, c. 867, 102 b.c.,[Note 16] opinion as to the date of the poem and its central events range from the fourth century a.d. to the sixth millennium b.c.[Note 17] Surely the dating of no other work of world literature can boast such a range of scholarly disagreement. The problems of
dating the poem are numerous and complex. As with most of the literary and philosophical documents of ancient India, there exists virtually no independent and objective testimony in the form of historical, archeological, epigraphical, or
similar survivals on the basis of which to establish the dates even roughly. Literary works are mentioned and quoted in other
literary or technical works, but in general, until quite recent times the dates of these other works are equally indeterminate.
The problem is greatly compounded in the case of this immensely popular epic narrative transmitted both orally and through
the medium of huge numbers of manuscripts — a narrative whose origins are obscure and whose author is known to us chiefly
as a character in the poem itself.
The question of the authorship of the poem is complicated. For one thing, it has long been known that the poem in its present
form cannot be the work of a single author, or even the product of a single period of time. The text, in all its recensions,
is marked by a large number of passages, ranging in size from a quarter verse to hundreds of lines, that can be demonstrated
on the basis of cultural, religious, linguistic, or text-historical evidence to be interpolations or additions that have become
part of the text over the centuries. Moreover, it has been generally accepted by scholars, since at least the time of Jacobi, that much of the first book and most, if not all, of the last book of the epic, the Bāla and Uttara Kāṇḍas, are later additions to the work’s original core, represented by Books Two through Six.[Note 18]
In the absence of reliable external evidence bearing on the date of any stratum of the Rāmāyaṇa, scholars have been thrown back on such evidence as the text itself affords and have tried to date the work relative to other
equally problematic texts, chiefly the Mahābhārata. The general types of internal evidence used may be conveniently categorized as linguistic, stylistic, cultural, political,
Linguistic investigations of the Rāmāyaṇa have been quite numerous, and several have been used in an effort to determine the date of the poem and the relative priority
of its principal recensions.[Note 19] But the linguistic evidence can cut two ways, for the so-called irregularities of the epic language have been seen, on the
one hand, as pre-Pāṇinian archaisms and, on the other, as late innovations.[Note 20] All such arguments, when they are applied to the question of the date of the poem, ultimately depend on their authors’ conception
of the relation of the epic language to that described by Pāṇini.[Note 21] However, as a number of authors have argued,[Note 22] the language of the Sanskrit epics is a popular dialect of the rhapsodists, and its divergences from Pāṇini’s rules cannot convincingly be used as evidence that the epics are either earlier or later than the great grammarian.
In brief, then, analyses of the language of the epic, although they may be of great intrinsic interest and shed some light
on the relative age of different parts of the text and of its various recensions, have not proven themselves useful as tools
for determining the date of the poem or of the events that it purports to represent.
Stylistic studies of the Rāmāyaṇa, in our opinion, have shed no more light on the absolute date of the poem than have linguistic investigations. Here again
the approach appears to be most productive when it is applied to the study of the relative age of the different sections of
the work and its relationship to the Mahābhārata. This latter problem is extremely complicated. For, in the course of their parallel development, the two epics have influenced
each other and borrowed from each other to the extent that it has become difficult in many cases to disentangle the web of
their mutual involvement. Both poems employ the style of the popular oral-formulaic epic and share a considerable body of
gnomic phrases and commonplaces as well as the same meters.[Note 23]
On the other hand, the Rāmāyaṇa does have a number of stylistic features that generally distinguish it from the Mahābhārata. The work is traditionally designated as kāvya, poetry, in contradistinction to the Mahābhārata, which is generally classified as itihāsa, traditional history.[Note 24] This is justified to a great extent by the frequent striving on the part of the poet for the creation of what in the Indian
tradition is regarded as specifically poetic effect through the massive accumulation of figures, forceful use of language,
dense descriptions, and the evocation of aesthetic pleasure through a play on intense emotional states.
One stylistic point at which the two epics diverge is the way in which the poets deal with the junctures at which the direct
address of one narrator gives way to that of another. The point is important, for the virtually unvarying convention of the
epic and puranic poets is that their works are represented as a series of direct narrations on the part of various speakers
on various levels of the narrative. The Mahābhārata consistently introduces its speeches with the prose formulae that are common also to the purāṇas of the type arjuna uvāca and ṛṣaya ūcuḥ, that is, ‘Arjuna said,’ ‘the seers said,’ and so on. These formulae are not part of the metrical body of the text but occur between verses and unmistakably signal
a change of speaker. By way of contrast, the Rāmāyaṇa typically integrates this sort of information directly into the text of the poem in the form of a variety of rather tedious
metrical formulae. This difference has led several scholars to conclude that the Rāmāyaṇa is a later work than the Mahābhārata.[Note 25] For, they argue, Vālmīki’s usage in this respect represents a later development than the usage of the Mahābhārata, which they see as an archaic survival of the style of ancient balladry. But this argument is far from convincing. For one
thing, the prose formulae of the Mahābhārata are universally employed in the purāṇas, all of which are later and most of which are much later than even the latest forms of either epic.[Note 26] Moreover, it is by no means clear that the integration of the formulae into the verses of the Rāmāyaṇa is a sign of anything other than a genre distinction between the poem and the Mahābhārata-purāṇa literature mentioned above.[Note 27]
The general stylistic inferiority of the first and last books to the others supports Jacobi’s theory of the textual prehistory of the poem. In general, however, the stylistic evidence adduced by scholars seems unlikely
to shed much light on the question of the date of the Rāmāyaṇa.
In its great extent and its profusion of detail, the poem provides us with a wealth of data concerning the material, sociological,
psychological, and general cultural conditions prevalent in ancient India during the period of its composition. These conditions have long been a major area of interest to students of India, and a number of books and articles have been devoted, in whole or part, to the cataloging and analysis of such data.[Note 28]
Such studies have organized for us a great deal of the cultural data to be gleaned from the epic. But because of the virtual
impossibility of referring most of this data to a clear historical context and to the generally quite conservative nature
of Indian society, we cannot tell with any certainty the dates of the culture represented in the Rāmāyaṇa. Moreover, the obscurity of the poem’s textual history, with additions and interpolations having been made over a period
of some centuries, makes it virtually impossible to correlate a given bit of cultural data with the period of the composition
of the core of the work. Thus, for example, the elaborate description of the city of Ayodhyā at 1.6 does not necessarily mean that the bulk of the poem cannot predate the age of significant urbanization in the Gangetic plains.
Similarly, attempts to date the poem on the basis of specific cultural phenomena associated with Hindu society have not yielded
very convincing results. For example, several authors have noted that although the immolation of widows upon their husbands’
funeral pyres is commonplace in the Mahābhārata, this custom is almost wholly unknown to the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 29] The case of niyojana, or levirate, in which a woman whose husband is dead, or otherwise incapable of fathering children, may conceive by another
man in the name of her husband, is similar. Not only is this practice commonplace in the Mahābhārata, it is fundamental to the development of the epic story. In contrast, although the Rāmāyaṇa may know of the custom, it gives no clear examples of it and certainly none in the case of the royal family of Ayodhyā.[Note 30]
A further example of the use of cultural data in an effort to date the epic involves the much-discussed question of whether
Rāma’s marriage to Sītā is a case of child marriage. In this case, the recensional evidence is so various that it is difficult to ascertain the precise
age of Sītā at the time of her marriage.[Note 31] But here, again, whatever may have been the case in regard to this or any of the other practices of traditional Hinduism,
their presence or absence in the Rāmāyaṇa is at best only secondary evidence of the priority or posteriority of the poem with respect to the Mahābhārata. This is so for two reasons. First, the Mahābhārata is encyclopedic and became a sort of compendium of traditional law and custom. As a result, it accumulated episodes illustrating
virtually every social custom known to the epic bards and redactors. These episodes, moreover, were accumulated over a long
period of time. Under these circumstances, the exclusion of a practice or convention from the Mahābhārata constitutes fairly good evidence that it was not known to the compilers and expanders of the text. This is not the case with
the Rāmāyaṇa, which was never intended to be so inclusive. Therefore, the omission of a traditional practice from the Rāmāyaṇa does not, to our way of thinking, conclusively demonstrate that its authors were ignorant of the practice. It may be that
they simply had no occasion to mention it. Moreover, in the absence of any independent historical or sociological evidence
concerning the epic period, it is impossible for us to rule out the possibility that cultural differences between the two
poems may reflect regional rather than chronological distance.
It would appear then, that internal linguistic or cultural evidence can, at best, shed some light on the relative dates of
the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, but it cannot provide us with anything like an absolute time frame for the dating of either epic.
By way of contrast, the geographical and political data gleaned from the Rāmāyaṇa can, as Jacobi argued, shed considerable light on the question of the latest date for the composition of the archetype.[Note 32] Let us summarize Jacobi’s arguments. Jacobi argued that, although the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa appears to originate in and centrally concerns the royal house of the Kosala-Magadha region of east central India, the area in which both the great Buddhist movement and the rise of the imperial Magadhan power occurred toward the middle
of the sixth century b.c., it appears to know nothing of these important developments. The world known to the authors of the epic is that of small
quasi-tribal kingdoms whose kshatriya overlords may or may not have owed some special fealty or deference to the Ikṣvāku monarch
reigning in Ayodhyā. The poets are fairly familiar with the geography of northern India and with the countries and towns of the pre-Magadhan period.[Note 33]
An extremely important observation in this connection was made by Jacobi when he noted that the Bālakāṇḍa, which is closely concerned with the history and geography of the region through which Rāma is led by Viśvāmitra, appears to know that region at a time prior to the rise of Buddhism and the growth of Magadhan hegemony.[Note 34] For, although Rāma is led right past the site of the great Magadhan capital of Pāṭaliputra (1.34), and the sage is eager to discourse on the founding and origins of other urban settlements in the area, the city is
not mentioned.[Note 35] Later in the first book (1.46-47), we find that for the poet the settlements of Viśālā and Mithilā, which we know to have been merged into the urban center of Vaiśālī by the time of the Buddha, were separate and under separate rulership.[Note 36]
Finally, we see that in the Bālakāṇḍa, as in the central five books of the epic, the kingdom of Kosala is represented as being at the height of its power and prosperity, governed from a major urban settlement called Ayodhyā. It is only at the very end of the Uttarakāṇḍa, in what must be regarded as a late epilogue to the poem, that we find reference to Śrāvastī as a successor capital to the ruined city of Ayodhyā.[Note 37] It is worth noting in this connection that, as Jacobi also pointed out, the capital city of the unified realm of Kosala is invariably known as Ayodhyā in the epic and never by the name Sāketa, the name by which it comes to be known in much of Buddhist and later literature.[Note 38]
Thus, the Rāmāyaṇa — including the Bālakāṇḍa, which is generally agreed to be among the latest additions to the text — appears to know or have a fresh recollection of
the ancient janapada of Kosala at the time of its greatest glory. But, the last great ruler of Kosala, Prasenajit, was a contemporary of the Buddha and ruled from Śrāvastī. After his time the kingdom was absorbed into the growing empire of the new, non-kshatriya imperial dynasty of Magadha whose great capital, Pāṭaliputra, was founded approximately 460 b.c.[Note 39] Even if we grant no value at all to the traditional puranic dynastic lists[Note 40] or to the Buddhist view that the Buddha himself was a descendant of the ancient and glorious Ikṣvāku rulers of Ayodhyā and that the events recounted in the Rāmāyaṇa predate his birth by many generations,[Note 41] it is difficult to see how the portions of the Bālakāṇḍa mentioned above can have been composed later than around the beginning of the fifth century b.c. If, however, we take into consideration the tradition that the poem was set and composed in a long-distant past[Note 42] and the generally accepted notion of the relative lateness of Bāla, it seems reasonable to accept for the composition of the oldest parts of the surviving epic a date no later than the middle
of the sixth century b.c.[Note 43]
In the matter of determining the earliest date for the composition of the poem, we can speak with far less certainty. The
most we can say at the present with any confidence is that the language, style, content, and world view of the poem appear
to be consistent with what we know of the late vedic and early Hindu periods, with small patriarchal kingdoms, heavy forestation,
great emphasis on the knowledge of the vedas, and great śrauta rituals as the principal public expressions of religious life. In the poem itself, particularly in its later portions, we
see the influence of the newly developing cult of Viṣṇu, but the text, even in these sections, is largely free from the devotional passion that came later to characterize traditional
Taking all of this into consideration, we feel that it is extremely unlikely that the archetype of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa can be much earlier than the beginning of the seventh century b.c., although it is impossible to demonstrate this with any sort of rigor.[Note 44]
The historicity of the Rāmāyaṇa
We have thus narrowed down the probable date of the composition of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, sometime between 750 and 500 b.c. What now can be said of the historicity of the characters and events that the epic purports to represent? The author or authors
of the central portions of the poem — including the older parts of the Bālakāṇḍa — appear to have been familiar with the Kosala-Magadha region at the time of the sixteen janapadas and well before the period from which we can recover our first verifiable historical data. Since their geographical and
geopolitical data are in keeping with such knowledge of the place and time as we have, there can be no doubt that, at least
in the first two books of the epic, the poets are dealing with real places and kingdoms. If we make some allowance for epic
hyperbole in the elaborate description of the city of Ayodhyā and in the accounts of the wealth of the various kings that people the text, we have no difficulty in reading the setting
of the first part of the poem as a credible, if idealized, rendering of a fortified township in the heavily forested plains
of the Ganges-Sarayū watershed.
Our first difficulty relating to the historicity of the Rāmāyaṇa concerns the principal characters of the story. Of these the only thing that may be said with certainty is that the author
did not invent their names. The names Rāma, Daśaratha, Sītā, Janaka, Vasiṣṭha, and Viśvāmitra are attested in various strata of the vedic literature, at least some of which are older than the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 45] On the other hand, nowhere in the surviving vedic literature is anything like the Rāma story related in connection with any figures bearing these names, nor are any of these figures related to each other in ways
paralleling their interrelationships in the epic.[Note 46] The finding of like-named or even parallel figures in the vedas merely pushes the problem one stage back to still more ancient
texts whose historicity is at best as dubious as that of the epics. The most that one could hope to accomplish by examining
the vedic literature is to find literary sources for characters or events in the Rāmāyaṇa, sources that finally shed no light on the problem of historicity.
The genealogical and dynastic lists of the Ikṣvākus found in the purāṇas and the epics themselves provide another external source that has been used in attempts to verify the historicity of the
characters in the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 47] The problem with this sort of testimony is that we have no way of determining the reliability of such lists. In many cases
it seems clear that names are inserted or invented simply to give the lineage of a given ruler or house a claim to great antiquity,
and we are not convinced that the collation of these lists has any great value. Moreover, all the available lists, other than
those in the Rāmāyaṇa, are drawn from texts that in their present forms are later than the epic.[Note 48] Even if, as Pargiter argues, some of the puranic lists are actually the sources of the Bāla genealogies, we can push this sort of material no further than to say that the purāṇas preserve a tradition of a lengthy Ikṣvāku genealogy according to which Rāma, the son of Daśaratha and descendant of Raghu, ruled in Ayodhyā during the Tretā Yuga.[Note 49]
Another level of the problem of the historicity of the epic is reached when one passes from the Ayodhyākāṇḍa to the remainder of the poem. For in the elaborate and detailed narrative of Book Two we have what is, if not a historical,
at least a credible account of a harem intrigue and its political consequences; but in the Araṇyakāṇḍa we move abruptly into the enchanted realm of the forests, poorly charted and peopled by mighty sages who wield magic powers,
dreadful supernatural monsters, and flying monkeys who can change their shapes and sizes at will and who speak elegant Sanskrit.
This abrupt change[Note 50] from the at least pseudo-historical to the totally fantasied has long been an object of interest to scholars, some of whom
have seen the epic as pieced together from two different stories, the first a historical reminiscence of a family feud and
the second a legend of a demon-slaying hero. A lucid statement of this seeming dissonance is that of Macdonell:
The story of the Rāmāyaṇa, as narrated in the five genuine books, consists of two distinct parts. The first describes the events at the court of King
Daśaratha at Ayodhyā and their consequences. Here we have a purely human and natural account of the intrigues of a queen to set her son upon the
throne. There is nothing fantastic in the narrative, nor has it any mythological background. If the epic ended with the return
of Rāma’s brother, Bharata, to the capital, after the old king’s death, it might pass for a historical saga. For Ikṣvāku, Daśaratha and Rāma are the names of celebrated and mighty kings mentioned even in the Ṛg-veda, though not here connected with one another in any way.
The character of the second part is entirely different. Based on a foundation of myths, it is full of the marvellous and the
Macdonell’s statement is characteristically lucid and is responsive to what appears to be a real discontinuity in the poem. And yet
we should, perhaps, attempt to see the poem as a coherent whole before accepting it as some species of hybrid. This is an
extremely important point, for it bears directly upon our understanding of the epic, of what its authors intended it to be,
and of the role it has played for more than two thousand years in the lives and thoughts of the Indian people.
Before undertaking a detailed discussion of the nature and purpose of the Rāmāyaṇa, however, it will be appropriate to examine critically the second of Macdonell’s ‘two distinct parts’ with an eye toward determining whether or to what extent the events described there may be said to be historical.
One of the most common approaches to the study of the Rāmāyaṇa, from the early days of modern Indological scholarship to the present, has involved the attempt to discover in Rāma’s strange alliance with the monkeys of Kiṣkindhā and his bitter war with the savage rākṣasas of Laṅkā the representation of some historical reality. In fact, the numerous attempts to determine the exact geographical location
of the demon king’s island fortress and the ethnic or religious groups represented as apes or goblins may be said to form
a minor genre of Indological writing. The rākṣasas have been identified as various of the Dravidian and tribal peoples of South India and Ceylon, the Sinhalese Buddhists, and even, in an extreme case, with the aboriginal population of Australia![Note 52]
Even Gorresio, who saw the central conflict of the epic as a struggle between two hostile races, recognized, with his usual insight, that
this was also a narrative representation of the conflict of the two abstract principles of good and evil.[Note 53] If the demons have been viewed as hostile and barbarous aboriginals, the vānaras, or monkeys, are seen as tribesmen who, if they exist on a primitive level of culture, are well-disposed toward the Aryan
warriors from the north.
The arguments against these interpretations have been tellingly made by a number of authors.[Note 54] The problem is that such interpretations that seek to allegorize or rationalize what is essentially a work of fantasy, fail
to show why a text that gives rational and at least relatively realistic description of tribal groups such as Guha’s Niṣādas should represent other tribes as possessed of animal forms and supernatural powers. It seems to us as fruitless to attempt
to read the epic as an ethnological roman à clef, as it is to try to demonstrate that the supernatural events described in the poem are, in fact, possible.[Note 55]
Despite the careful and copious scholarship on the geography of Rāma’s adventures in the forests and on the location of Laṅkā,[Note 56] we would still basically share Jacobi’s opinion that, once the poet has his hero cross the Ganges and move south into peninsular India, he has him enter a dimly known realm that he could safely represent to an originally provincial audience as inhabited by
ogres, magicians, and talking beasts.[Note 57] We do not mean to argue that the poet does not set the latter portion of the epic in south India. He does. But it is a south India known to him only as a distant and wild land ideally suited to his purposes in pitting his fearless hero against the terrifying
dark forces of what is, after all, an inner world.
Even the elaborate descriptions of the battles at Laṅkā do not, despite their minute concern with the various types of weapons, create an impression that the poet is trying to render
real events. As Macdonell remarks, ‘The warfare in the epic nucleus of the Mahābhārata is that of heroic human combatants on both sides; in the Rāmāyaṇa it consists of conflicts with monsters and demons such as are described by writers of fairy-tales without knowledge of real
Since the geography of the south becomes increasingly vague the farther the poet takes us from Ayodhyā, and since the poem gives evidence of only the most tenuous notions of coastal India, it seems improbable that the authors of the original portions of the epic had any very detailed knowledge of Sri Laṅkā (Ceylon). There is some evidence in the poem that the island was known, but is distinguished from Laṅkā. The most that can be said with any certainty is that the poet knew of an island kingdom, whether real or mythical, said
to lie some distance off the coast of the Indian mainland. It seems unlikely that, as some scholars have contended, Laṅkā was conceived of as lying within the boundaries of peninsular India.[Note 59] In any case, we are convinced that attempts at the ethnological identification of the rākṣasas and the vānaras and the geographical location of their strongholds are not only futile but wrongheaded. For in seeking a historical basis
for what is, in many respects, a kind of elaborate fairy tale, we are led away from a true understanding of the work.
Like all powerful works of the imagination, the Rāmāyaṇa is rooted in both the inner and outer realities of its creators. There was a kingdom of Kosala (although it could hardly have been the earthly paradise depicted by the poets), and there may even have been a Rāma who ruled it long ago. Yet, even for the historicity of the events of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, there is not a shred of evidence other than the idealized, exaggerated, and clearly largely imaginary account of the poem
itself. As to the kingdoms of the demons and the monkeys, it is our conviction that they never existed anywhere except in
the mind of the poets and more importantly, in the hearts of the countless millions, among whom we must include ourselves,
who have been charmed and deeply moved by this strange work.
Vālmīki and his sources: the origins of the Rāma story
We see then that the age of the Rāmāyaṇa is uncertain and its historicity dubious. Let us now examine the question of the authorship of the epic and the sources upon
which its author or authors may have drawn for their subject matter.
The Indian tradition, as expressed in the first and last books of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, and a large number of later poetic, puranic, and other texts,[Note 60] is unanimous in its agreement that the poem is the work of a single poet, the brahman sage Vālmīki, a contemporary of Rāma and a peripheral actor in the epic drama. On the basis of this unanimity and the general plausibility of single authorship
for the middle five books, modern scholarship has, by and large, accepted Vālmīki as a historical personage.[Note 61]
An interesting concomitant to this acceptance is the almost uniform rejection by these same authors of the validity of the
tradition concerning Vyāsa, the legendary author of the Mahābhārata. There are two main reasons for this difference. The first is the patent impossibility that the Mahābhārata could be the product of a single hand. The second is the fact that Vyāsa, ‘the arranger,’ is more of a descriptive title than a proper noun, and in fact, the tradition has also ascribed to him the composition of
the purāṇas and even the arrangement of the vedas into their various textual divisions.
It seems to us that these grounds for the different evaluations of the historicity of the two sages are not very firm. If
we are to ascribe any historical validity to the traditions with regard to either author, we must restrict the scope of the
author’s work to the central epic nucleus: in the Rāmāyaṇa, the tales of Rāma’s exile, his loss and recovery of Sītā (Books Two through Six), and his restoration to his hereditary throne; and in the Mahābhārata, the tales of the Pāṇḍavas’ exile, battle with Duryodhana, and recovery of their hereditary kingdom. As is well known, however, the Mahābhārata has developed into an all-inclusive and virtually encyclopaedic repository of ancient Indian myths, legends, laws, and so
on. All its inclusions, interpolations, and additions have naturally been fathered upon Vyāsa, just as the late portions of the Bāla and Uttara have been upon Vālmīki. There is in this no inherent reason to argue against the single authorship of the presumed Bhārata nucleus of the Mahābhārata.
The tradition of Vālmīki’s contemporaneity with Rāma and, indeed, of his participation in the action of the epic tale is paralleled in the case of Vyāsa.[Note 62] Indeed if, as has been argued, this is a basis for judging the tradition to be a genuine historical reminiscence, then it
is more so in the case of the longer epic. For as the biological grandfather of the epic heroes and a constant adviser to
them and those close to them, he plays a much more central and significant role in the Mahābhārata than does Vālmīki in the Rāmāyaṇa where he plays an important role only in the late portions of the latest books.[Note 63] As for the name Vyāsa or Vedavyāsa, it is indeed an epithet of the legendary sage Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana, and he comes by it in a fashion quite analogous to that in which Vālmīki comes by the title Ādikavi or first poet. For Vyāsa has, doubtless, acquired the reputation as the editor of the huge mass of vedic, epic, and puranic literature on the basis
of the tradition that makes him the author and first reciter of the great epic of the Bhāratas, in almost exactly the same way as Vālmīki, on the basis of the tradition that makes him the author and first reciter of the Rāmāyaṇa, has been elevated to the position of the first poet of all time. In both cases it is clear that the traditions of inspired
authorship are considerably later than the oldest surviving portions of the epics.
There is, finally, no reason to regard Vālmīki as having any greater claim to historicity than Vyāsa. The traditions in both cases are late and are unsupported by anything other than still later texts that accept the stories
as genuine and repeat, modify, or elaborate upon them as they find appropriate. In the end, the most that can safely be said
is that there appears to be no real evidence to contradict the proposition that the central portion of the Rāmāyaṇa had a single author. On the basis of the unanimous tradition, there is no reason for us to doubt that this author’s name
was Vālmīki; but to attempt, as has been done, to provide him with other than a legendary biography and to assign particular verses or
passages to his hand is, we would argue, to waste one’s efforts.[Note 64]
We now turn to a brief discussion of the much disputed question of the author’s sources. Although a number of theories have
been advanced as to the sources of the Rāma legend, we believe that most of the major issues have now been settled. In the last century and a half of Rāmāyaṇa studies, a number of literary texts have been put forward as the proximate or distant sources of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. Some of these, such as the Homeric epics, suggested by Weber and others, are no longer taken seriously, and it would be pointless to refute them here.[Note 65] It is a general and quite reasonable assumption on the part of many scholars that the poet Vālmīki drew his inspiration from some body of ballads or legends about heroism and self-sacrifice, and that no such materials are
recoverable. Indeed, this is much the traditional view of the creation of the poem as it is dramatized in the opening two
chapters of the first book. There, at 1.1, we are told that the sage Vālmīki heard the story from the divine seer Nārada who tells it to him in a highly compressed form. It is this simple account that the sage is represented at 1.2 as elaborating
through the help of divine inspiration into the great epic. Nārada’s account is, of course, nothing but a terse, elliptical, and late abstract of the central portion of the existing epic.
Nonetheless, it is interesting that the later strata of the text show the sage as first learning of Rāma and of his wonderful career as a story, despite the fact that he is considered to be a subject of the prince and in the Uttarakāṇḍa, a participant in the epic action.
Leaving the question of these floating ballads aside, only two of the surviving texts that have been suggested as sources
for the Rāmāyaṇa are worthy of mention here. These are the Pali Dasaratha Jātaka and the Mahābhārata’s Rāmopākhyāna.
The suggestion that the story of the Rāmāyaṇa could be traced to Buddhist sources was put forward by Weber who saw it as growing, under the influence of the Greek epics, to its present form out of the Buddhist legend of Prince Rāma; the point of which was a glorification of the virtue of indifference to events in the real world.[Note 66] Weber then saw the Dasaratha Jātaka as the original of the Rāmāyaṇa, which was, he felt, a poetic expression of, among other things, brahmanical hostility to the Buddhists. This theory was
cogently refuted shortly after it was promulgated,[Note 67] but owing to the excessively late date assigned to the epic by a number of reputable scholars and the inaccurate estimate
by others of the antiquity of the prose portions of the jātakas, the theory has continued to be put forward in some quarters.[Note 68]There can be no doubt, however, that on the basis of the best historical and literary evidence available to us, the Dasaratha Jātaka is substantially later than the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and that it is both inspired by and derived from it.[Note 69]
The question of the relationship between the two great epics of ancient India, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, especially with regard to the latter’s elaborate version of the Rāma legend, the Rāmopākhyāna,[Note 70] is more complex and difficult and has generated a considerable body of scholarly writing.[Note 71]
Especially since the appearance of the critical editions of the two epics, the evidence confirms the view of Jacobi that the Rāmāyaṇa in its present form is on the whole somewhat older than the Mahābhārata in the form in which it has survived to us. There are numerous textual and contextual grounds for this assertion, not least
of which is the fact that the longer epic knows, alludes to, and summarizes the shorter, which it regards as an ancient text,
whereas the Rāmāyaṇa is ignorant of the events, issues, and characters that make up the central content of the Mahābhārata. As for the Rāmopākhyāna, Weber found himself unable to decide on the basis of his researches whether it was the source of Vālmīki’s epic, was derived from it, was derived from an unknown early version of the epic, or was an independent derivate from a
common source.[Note 72] Jacobi argues on the basis of a detailed and cogent analysis that the Rāma episode of the great epic is a ‘Nachdichtung’ drawn, in fact, from Vālmīki’s poem. This opinion has been given powerful support by the meticulous textual comparisons of Sukthankar and the learned observations of Raghavan.[Note 73] We feel, on the basis of the available evidence, that this view is correct and should now be generally accepted.[Note 74] There is neither space nor reason here to attempt to adduce all the arguments and citations that bear on the various sides
of this issue, and only two of the most recent need be discussed in any detail.[Note 75]
These views, closely related, have been put forward within the past decade by two distinguished authorities in the field of
Sanskrit epic studies, the late professors Vaidya and van Buitenen. Because of the eminence of these scholars and the fact that their revival of the theory that the Rāmāyaṇa is not the source of the Rāmopākhyāna has been subjected to little published criticism, we will consider it in some detail. For the issue is an important one and
should be put to rest.
Vaidya’s and van Buitenen’s efforts to disprove the priority of the Rāmāyaṇa were made in their respective introductions to the critical edition of the Yuddhakāṇḍa and the translation of the Araṇyakaparvan of the Mahābhārata. The two positions differ only slightly, because van Buitenen has borrowed several of his chief arguments from Vaidya. However, where Vaidya unequivocally regards the Mahābhārata episode as the direct source of the Rāmāyaṇa, predating it by ‘centuries,’[Note 76] van Buitenen prefers, in the end, to equivocate, stating only that ‘rather than viewing either one as the source of the other it is more profitable and also more interesting to see the story
of Rāma (i.e. the Rāmopākhyāna), as preserved in The Mahābhārata, as the happy documentation of a stage in the development of The Rāmāyaṇa very close to the point in time when the main story of this text was given the form in which we now know it.’[Note 77] He concludes, somewhat nebulously, that ‘the only conclusion that seems reasonable concerning the relationship between the story of Rāma and Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa is that the former is a summary of a fully expanded Rāmacarita that after its contents were fixed in the story of Rāma, underwent further development, acquired a new beginning and a new end, attracted subsidiary elements, and became known as
the original poem (ādikāvya) of Vālmīki.’[Note 78]
Let us now examine the evidence for these conclusions. Vaidya’s first argument is that since the Rāmopākhyāna is narrated to Yudhiṣṭhira at an appropriate juncture in the tale, it cannot therefore be an interpolation in the text. He goes on to say that, ‘being thus a genuine part of the Mahābhārata, it is much older than the poem of Vālmīki, and being a part of an Itihāsa, it is much more trustworthy than a Kāvya.’[Note 79] As to the first point, it may be said that practically all of the ākhyānas of the Mahābhārata are introduced at suitable points in the narrative. This is because particular events and situations in the central narrative
suggest these stories and are used by the epic bards as the thematic pegs on which to hang the loose structure of the massive
poem. If Vaidya’s point were allowed, then we would be obliged to accept all such episodes as part of the original saga and could then safely
abandon the theory of interpolations.
As for the distinction of genre that separates the two poems, the itihāsa is in no discernible way either more or less valid historically than the kāvya. To assert that it is leads one to absurdities such as that proposed by Vaidya, who suggests that we must contrast the Mahābhārata’s ‘historical statement’ of the wind god’s testimony as to Sītā’s purity with the poetic innovation of having the god of fire give the same testimony in the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 80] Vaidya follows this preamble with a list of eight differences between the two versions that he claims to be innovations on the part
of Vālmīki. Many writers on this subject have collected lists of differences between the two texts, and one must expect discrepancies
between poetic accounts of the same story when the one is some 50,000 lines in length and the other is less than 1,500. The
great majority of these are consistent with Jacobi’s theory that the Rāmopākhyāna is a free retelling, with great condensation, of an orally transmitted text. Nonetheless, let us look at the following points
marked with Vaidya’s numbers.
1. The Rāmopākhyāna makes no mention of Viśvāmitra. This is interesting, but it seems to be in keeping with the compression of the text, which has eliminated many characters
from the Bālakāṇḍa that do not figure significantly in the main narrative of the poem. Vaidya’s argument that in the original version, which for him is the Rāmopākhyāna, the hero’s marriage is arranged not by the Kauśika sage, as in Vālmīki, but by Tvaṣṭṛ has been shown by Raghavan to be based on a faulty interpretation of the passage in question.[Note 81]
2. The Rāmopākhyāna lacks the Rāmāyaṇa’s account of the curse of Ahalyā and of her liberation from it by Rāma. This is true, but since we are dealing here with what is undoubtedly part of the latest stratum of the Bālakāṇḍa, this can hardly be called ‘an innovation of Vālmīki.’[Note 82] Nothing about the relation of the two texts can be adduced from this fact.
3. The Rāmopākhyāna has a character, the venerable rākṣasa minister Avindhya, who aids and comforts the desolate Sītā and chides Rāvaṇa for his ill treatment of her. It is Avindhya who has the prophetic dream that is in Vālmīki ascribed to Trijaṭā, and he is rewarded by Rāma for his kindness to Sītā. This character, according to Vaidya, is unknown to the Rāmāyaṇa. van Buitenen was very impressed by this point and regards it as critical to his own argument:
There is a telling variation between Rāma and Rām. in the dream episode. In Rām, it is Trijaṭā’s dream, but in Rāma it is not just the dream of some young and friendly demoness but the rather more official vision of a venerable Rākṣasa named Avindhya, who later comes in for a reward from Rāma. Vālmīki knows nothing of him. Now it is very difficult to understand why an abridger of The Rāmāyaṇa who, according to Jacobi, consistently simplifies his original, suddenly should invent a wholly new character. It is more likely that Vālmīki did not want any more friendly Rākṣasas than Vibhīṣaṇa.[Note 83]
The problem is that Vālmīki does know Avindhya and mentions him and his disregarded counsel to Rāvaṇa at two separate points in his poem.[Note 84] Clearly what has happened is that the Rāmopākhyāna has condensed Vālmīki’s version by largely merging the roles of Avindhya and Trijaṭā.
4. In the Rāmopākhyāna, Kumbhakarṇa is killed by Lakṣmaṇa, whereas in the Rāmāyaṇa he is killed by Rāma himself. This point is worthy of consideration, for it is representative of a class of such differences that characterize
the two texts. What are we to make of situations in which one text ascribes a specific deed to one character and the other
to a second, or where the two works use different names for what appears to be the same person or place? Do they require us
to posit separate sources for the two versions? Surely not. For if we do, then how are we to explain the difference in the
hypothetical sources? Can there really have been two ur-Rāmāyaṇas, one of which made Lakṣmaṇa the killer of Kumbhakarṇa and the other Rāma? Even if one were willing to accept such an unlikely state of affairs, how could we explain this difference in these hypothetical
constructions other than by saving that one or the other had made a change? If we accept the possibility of such a change
in these hypothetical texts, or in their own predecessors, we are forced back toward an ever more distant and imaginary source.
We cannot in all cases expect to know the reason for such a change.
The remainder of Vaidya’s points are either erroneous[Note 85] or easily explainable as examples of the Rāmopākhyāna’s somewhat awkward and often pedestrian condensation of the tale as told by Vālmīki.
Most of van Buitenen’s points are either repeated from Vaidya or are subject to the same objections as Vaidya’s. He adduces, however, two additional arguments against Jacobi that deserve attention. First, he remarks that Jacobi’s observation that the Rāmopākhyāna knows the late Uttarakāṇḍa and must therefore postdate the composition of the older portions of the poem by a considerable period is not necessarily
valid. For, he argues, the Uttara-derived material ‘may well have been inserted’ later in the Mahābhārata version.[Note 86] But although there is clear evidence for the lateness of the Uttara in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, there is none for the later addition of its references to Rāvaṇa’s antecedents to the Rāmopākhyāna.
van Buitenen’s second point deals with Jacobi’s observation that the Rāmopākhyāna’s allusion to the famous incident of Sītā and the crow[Note 87] is so terse that it is unintelligible unless we presuppose on the part of its author and audience knowledge of Vālmīki’s text. van Buitenen denies this, but his arguments are difficult to follow. He says that ‘it is in the nature of abridgments to abbreviate most concisely those episodes that are best known,’[Note 88] illustrating this enigmatic statement with a series of examples from the Mahābhārata. His examples, however, are elliptical versions of tales whose full narratives follow immediately, a common practice in the
longer epic. Since the Mahābhārata has no longer version of the Rāma story than the Rāmopākhyāna, which is in any case hardly an episode of the type given in the examples, his point is not telling. van Buitenen concludes this argument with another bewildering statement: ‘the Mount Citrakūṭa episode, in my view, appears as a risqué story (not necessarily only told of Sītā), and the mere reference to could bring instant recognition.’[Note 89] Are we to understand the reference to reeds and crows to allude to some general habit of ancient Indian ladies? If so, how
would an allusion to this serve to reassure Rāma that Hanumān had actually seen Sītā? In any case, this argument leaves us with no known source for the reference other than the improbable proto-Rāmacarita hypothesized by its author. The whole point is, in fact, based on a passage of dubious-textual authority. The actual crow
episode is known only to the northern recension of the Rāmāyaṇa, although Hanumān’s allusion to it in Book Six appears in the best reconstruction of the text. More telling on the side of Jacobi’s view is a previously unnoticed allusion in the Rāmopākhyāna that would appear to presuppose a passage in the constituted text of the critical edition of the Rāmāyaṇa. At Mahābhārata 3.275.60 it is said that when Hanumān has been sent to bring the good news of Rāma’s victory to Bharata, he carried out his mission after ‘observing all gestures’ (lakṣayitveṅgitam sarvam). This phrase is obscure unless one has in mind Rāmāyaṇa 6.113.12-15, where Rāma charges the monkey to observe closely all of Bharata’s bodily and facial gestures when he hears the news, with the purpose of determining whether the prince is truly willing to
relinquish his regency to Rāma. At verse 14 he says, ‘take note of all of Bharata’s gestures and behavior’ (jñeyāḥ sarve ca vṛttāntā Bharatasyeṅgitāni ca). The opacity of the former passage leads us to believe that it is an elliptical allusion to the latter. This would appear
to be a better example of what Jacobi argues is evidence of the priority of Rāmāyaṇa with respect to the Rāmopākhyāna.
With the elimination of the Rāmopākhyāna as probable source or even a collateral descendent from a common source for the story, we can with some assurance assert
that the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa or at least the text that can be reconstructed from the manuscripts of its three recensions, is the earliest surviving version
of the Rāma legend.
The fate of the Rāma story in India and beyond
The Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, as the oldest surviving version of the Rāma story, assimilated and superseded its presumed bardic sources. Moreover, an early stage of the text can, we believe, be recovered
from the existing manuscripts and, to a large extent, has been reconstructed in the text of the critical edition. At an indeterminate
but relatively early date, the work acquired tremendous prestige not only as an edifying and even redemptive tale but as both
the first work of true poetry and a record of God’s deeds among men. It thus seems reasonable to view the poem as the ultimate
source of all versions of the tale in existence.
The pervasive appeal of the story and its principal characters is astounding. The enormous and diverse body of Sanskrit literature,
from the time of the Mahābhārata onward, is filled with retellings, allusions, poems, plays, hymns, and philosophical and religious texts inspired by the
Rāmāyaṇa. The literatures of even such powerfully anti-Hindu groups as the Buddhists and the Jains, from the time of the gāthās of the jātakas and the Paumacariya, respectively, have adapted this moving story to their own needs. The story has been enthusiastically adopted by the literatures
of virtually every language of modern India.[Note 90] In some cases, such as that of Kamban’s Tamil masterpiece and Tulsi Das’s Rāmcaritmānas, works derived from the Rāmāyaṇa are still regarded as among the greatest pieces in the literary traditions of important languages. The power and popularity
of the Rāma story has been such that it has been able successfully to cross not only the boundaries of caste, religion, and language
but even those that divide major cultural areas. In this way the story has come to serve as one of the major wellsprings of
poetry, folklore, and puppet theater in many of the languages and cultures of Southeast Asia. The power of the tale to inspire artistic creation has manifested itself as well in many of the finest examples of painting
and sculpture in both South and Southeast Asia.[Note 91]
Before turning to a discussion of the translation of the epic, its style, conventions, aims, and annotation, we must make
some effort to explain it. In order to do so, we must probe into the nature and significance of the work as an expression
of the needs, ideals, and beliefs of the culture that produced it and continues to cherish it.
The meaning of the Rāmāyaṇa
Like any monumental work of literature, the Rāmāyaṇa has always functioned on a variety of levels. Through the millennia of its popularity, it has attracted the interest of many
kinds of people from different social, economic, educational, regional, and religious backgrounds. It has, for example, served
as a bedtime story for countless generations of Indian children, while at the same time learned śāstrins, steeped in the abstruse philosophical, grammatical, and metaphysical subtleties of classical Indian thought, have found
it a subject worthy of their intellectual energies.
Originally the story, or at least its kernel, must have drawn its audience as a stirring martial saga of a legendary warrior
hero of Kosala. On this level, the level of a legendary tale, the compound story has two main portions fused into an epic of intrigue, quest,
and triumph such as we find in literature the world over. The first section of this story, the account of the events in Ayodhyā culminating in the exile of Prince Rāma, has, despite its relative realism and apparent historicity, much in common with the folk or fairy tale. Its central event,
the dispossession of a favorite child through the machinations of a wicked and pitiless stepmother, is commonplace in fairy
tales.[Note 92] Although the epic, as we now have it, has treated this motif in its own peculiar fashion, modifying it in the service of
other ends, the essential plot of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa is unmistakably allied to that of hundreds of stories in the collections of the folk and fairy tales of India, Europe, and the Middle East.
The subsequent portion of the poem seems even closer to such a source. For the hero, now exiled, wanders through a succession
of enchanted woods peopled by strange creatures, filled with enormous and magical powers for good or evil. In these woods
he is befriended by a powerful and beneficent sage who gives him magical weapons.[Note 93] With these weapons Rāma manages to kill huge numbers of dreadful demons, creatures common to the fairy-tale literature; but, at last, the lord of
all the demons, using his magic power, steals away the beautiful princess Sītā whom he imprisons in a remote citadel across the sea. Then, just when Rāma seems to have lost everything, he is befriended by a group of talking monkeys who agree to help him. One of the monkeys flies
across the sea and returns with news of the princess. Then, with the aid of the monkey army, the hero crosses the sea, fights
a dreadful battle and, at last, recovers both the princess and his throne. Once more, similar stories could be picked out
of virtually any collection of fairy tales.[Note 94] Indeed, when told in outline, the story seems at times more like Puss in Boots than a great heroic saga or courtly epic.
The basic plot of the epic, then, is clearly derived from or heavily influenced by the folk literature of ancient India, which is closely allied to the folk literatures of Europe and West Asia. It is, perhaps, this that has led some scholars to see western influences at work on the authors of the Rāmāyaṇa. We may view the Rāmāyaṇa, then, as either an epic built upon a heroic legend of the Kosalan aristocracy and largely shaped by the hands of storytellers
steeped in the tradition of Märchen and fairy tales, or as an ancient folktale adapted by the bards to suit the tastes and interests of the Kosalan nobility.
We cannot, of course, finally decide between these two hypotheses. But, in any case, the destiny of the Rāma story is such as to demonstrate clearly that it was from a very early date regarded as far more important than just another
fairy tale or even legend of the heroic age, such as are recorded by the hundred in the Mahābhārata, the purāṇas, the kathā literature, and even the vedas. By the time of the addition of the Bāla and Uttara Kāṇḍas, the text had taken on a fully defined function as an exemplary tale, and its hero had assumed a role as a model for human
By the time of the completion of the Bālakāṇḍa — and probably somewhat earlier — the original characterization of the unfortunate Prince Rāma had come to be obscured by a massive and hyperbolic catalog of manly virtues. At the very beginning of the poem as it now
stands, the sage Vālmīki is represented as plying the divine seer Nārada with questions as to the existence in his own day of a man possessed of a long list of human virtues. In Nārada’s reply Rāma is identified as just such a man.[Note 95]
Thus it appears that the author or authors who put the text into the form and order in which it has survived wished to make
it clear that their hero was not by any means an ordinary man, nor even an ordinary hero. He is the perfect man, an ideal
toward which ordinary mortals should strive. Moreover, it is reasonable to suppose that this exaltation of Rāma to the status of a perfect man is an independent development of and, in fact, a precursor to the elevation of this ideal
figure to the rank of earthly manifestation of God. For the first development seems to have become popular with early writers
who are either only peripherally interested in the divinity of the hero or who, like the Buddhists and Jains, would reject
it out of hand. In this way the character of Rāma, as delineated by Vālmīki, became an exemplary hero for the authors of the Rāmopākhyāna, the Dasaratha Jātaka and other Rāmāyaṇa-derived jātakas, and the Jain Rāmāyaṇas. The deification of Rāma appears to belong to the very latest stratum of the conflated epic. The great bulk of the text in the central five books
is almost wholly unaware of his identification with Viṣṇu, and even parts of the Bāla seem uncertain on this point.[Note 96]
The intrusion of the theological element, albeit at a late and somewhat heterogeneous stratum of the text, gave rise to the
tradition that the epic has a soteriological virtue. This development, however, is not very pronounced and is perceptible
in the critically edited text in only a few obviously late passages. The first of these, and the only one accepted by the
critical editors, is to be found at the end of Nārada’s Saṃkṣipta Rāmāyaṇa, which forms the bulk of the epic’s opening chapter. There we are told that the story is holy, the equal of the vedas, and
that it purges one from sin.[Note 97] The reading of it is said to free one from all sin. Further, it is said that the reading of the Rāmāyaṇa insures a place in heaven, not only for the reader, but for his sons, grandsons, and dependents. Finally we learn that reading
it was open to all four of the social orders of Indo-Aryan society, and benefited them all, according to their respective
social roles: it brought mastery in the use of the sacred utterances to brahmans, kingship to kshatriyas, success in business
to vaishyas, and greatness to even the shudras.
The more elaborate phalaśruti at the end of the Yuddhakāṇḍa, often cited as proof that the original poem ended with the sixth book, is rejected by the critical edition.[Note 98]
By the same token, the text is for the most part free from a strongly devotional attitude toward its hero. Even the Bālakāṇḍa, which explicitly describes Rāma’s birth as a manifestation of God on earth in response to the prayers of the lesser gods, shows almost nothing of the devotional
fervor that will characterize the bhakti movement. Only at the very end of the Uttara and in a curious passage near the end of Yuddha[Note 99] do we see real devotionalism creeping into the epic. Even in the Bālakāṇḍa, with its unequivocally Vaishnava account of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the hero, we find few other references
to Rāma’s divinity, even in contexts such as the breaking of Śiva’s bow that would appear to lend themselves especially well to a sectarian treatment. Only at the very end of the book do
we find even a subdued reference to the identification of the hero with Viṣṇu.[Note 100]
The Rāmāyaṇa, then, although it has come to be regarded as an essentially devotional text, has become one only as a result of accretions.
The devotional element never permeated the Sanskrit epic and has left the bulk of it untouched. As a result, the tone and
feeling of Vālmīki’s work is markedly different from that of later versions of the Rāma story, such as those of the Vaishnava purāṇas and the poets of the bhakti movement who use the tale to give literary expression to the consuming force of their devotional passion.
It may well be that the Vaishnava element in the Rāmāyaṇa was first introduced in emulation of the authors of the Harivaṃśa, perhaps between the second and fourth centuries a.d.[Note 101] This latter work, an appendix to the Mahābhārata and the oldest surviving complete account of the career of Kṛṣṇa, stands, we feel, in a complicated relationship to the Rāmāyaṇa. There can be no doubt that the latter is the older work, for as we have argued it is in the main older than the surviving
form of the Mahābhārata. The Harivaṃśa, on the other hand, at least in the form in which we now have it, presupposes the longer epic.[Note 102]
What the authors of the Harivaṃśa did was to take the somewhat obscure and enigmatic god-man of the Bhārata saga and of the popular legend of the Mathurā countryside and provide for him a coherent and sequential biography set an often highly poetic medium. In creating such a
work, a poetic rendering of the legend of a kshatriya hero, the authors must certainly have used the Rāmāyaṇa as their inspiration and model.[Note 103]
If, however, the narrative poem of the life of Kṛṣṇa is inspired by the Rāmāyaṇa, there is evidence to indicate that the development of the cult of Kṛṣṇa considerably predates that of Rāma.[Note 104] If this is so, then it seems quite possible that the Vaishnava authors or expanders of the Bāla and Uttara Kāṇḍas might, in turn, have been influenced in their conception of the Ikṣvāku hero as a demon-slaying warrior, an incarnation
of Viṣṇu, by their exposure to the Harivaṃśa.[Note 105]
With the rise of the cult of Rāma and development of the Vaishnava schools of theology, particularly that of Rāmānuja and his successors, the numerous commentators on the Rāmāyaṇa aimed to provide a Vaishnava hermeneutic for the poem as an account of God’s manifestation among his earthly devotees. We
feel that this sort of interpretation is largely forced upon the poem. The Rāmāyaṇa was not originally intended to be a theological narrative, nor, we would argue, is its extraordinary popularity to be explained
as a function of its religious significance. On the contrary, we would suggest, it was the great popularity of the work at
an early date that attracted the interest of the sectarian bards of the puranic tradition and, later, of the Vaishnava theologians
and the great Rāmabhaktas among the poets of India’s modern languages. Although the traditional regard for Rāma as a compassionate manifestation of God on earth must certainly be a major factor in our understanding of the increasing
vitality of the poem and its extraordinary destiny in medieval and modern India, this cannot be the principal reason for its early spread and popularity.
With this in mind, we may now turn to the much-discussed question of the interpretation of the Rāmāyaṇa. Few works of Indian literature, with the possible exception of the Gītā, have generated so great a mass of exegetic writing. A great deal of this writing consists of muddled pieties of a religious
and moral nature, and it is often more useful to us as source material on the role of the Rāmāyaṇa in the process of acculturation in Hindu society, than as critical secondary scholarship.
The traditional interpretation of the Rāmāyaṇa is that it represents a poet’s vision of actual events involving an earthly manifestation of the supreme divinity, events
that took place in historical time, but in an age enormously remote from our own.[Note 106] The interpretations of modern scholars usually differ in only a few respects from the traditional view. That is to say that
a large number of students of the Rāmāyaṇa take the poem to be a poetic rendition, in however distorted a form, of historical events.[Note 107] But, as we have argued, there appears to be no genuine historical basis for the Rāma legend, and these theories are now largely discredited. Jacobi was one of the first to demonstrate the flaws in the historical interpretation, and he proposed to interpret the epic on
a wholly different level: that of mythology.[Note 108]
Jacobi is concerned in his analysis of the epic only with the material of Books Three through Six. Like other scholars, he finds
a discontinuity between the Ayodhyākāṇḍa and what follows it, and he seems willing to take the events of the second book as historical. In his view, the portion of
the epic narrative that deals with the abduction and recovery of Sītā is an agricultural myth and, in fact, a reworking of the ancient Indra-Vṛtra material of the vedas. This interpretation, which proceeds chiefly from Jacobi’s identification of Sītā as the personification of the plowed furrow and therefore of agricultural fruitfulness in general, belongs to a type of mythical
analysis that is no longer generally accepted. In any case it must be regarded as a premature essay into speculation that
mars Jacobi’s otherwise incisive and generally convincing treatment of the poem.[Note 109]
The point that Jacobi raised in opposition to the proponents of allegorical interpretations is, however, an important one: it is improbable that
the essential significance of so enormously popular a work as the Rāmāyaṇa should not on some level be well understood in its native environment. In the end, then, we must return to the point from
which we began: the unparalleled success of the Rāmāyaṇa in India and the enormous influence it has exerted over virtually every aspect of India’s culture. For surely, this is the most remarkable fact about the Rāma story, and no attempt to explain the significance of the epic can be judged truly successful unless, in some measure, it
addresses this question.
Although the Rāmāyaṇa as we know it is a mixture of many elements — bardic, legendary, folkloric, mythic, poetic, didactic, devotional, and so
on — none of these elements, either separately or in combination, seems sufficient to explain the pervasive influence of the
story. Indian literature, from very ancient times, provides us with an unusually rich corpus embodying all these elements.
Yet none of these stories and their legendary heroes has even remotely approached the Rāmāyaṇa in influence and vitality, century after century, over all the cultural, national, social, religious, and linguistic boundaries
of India, Southeast Asia, and even East Asia. In an effort to explain the unique success of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and its numerous descendents, the many versions of the Rāma story, we must direct our attention more closely to the nature of the epic story itself and to the poet’s delineation of
its principal characters.
Rāma: the hero as renouncer
The most striking aspect of Vālmīki’s characterization of his hero is not his martial valor but his refusal to assert his rights to succeed to the throne of
the Kosalas and, when finally enthroned, to protect his beloved wife from the malicious gossip of his people. Rāma’s unemotional acquiescence to his wrongful disinheritance marks the central moment of the epic, and it is this willing renunciation
of his inheritance and apparently perfect control of his emotions that is the reason for the enormous esteem in which he is
held. That Daśaratha’s exile of his son is unjust serves only to heighten the traditional admiration for the hero’s feat of self-effacement. Testimony
to this is abundant in both the popular and scholarly literature on the Rāmāyaṇa. A typical example of this attitude is expressed by Dhirendra Narain, who remarks,
The heroism of Rāma precisely lies, on the one hand, in the enormous injustice of the demand made on him, and on the other, in his unprotesting,
almost willing submission to it. … The highest adoration has … always gone to Rāma. He is what cannot be easily achieved, he suffers gladly. Lest this be said that Rāma is the ideal of self-control, in full possession of his emotions, let it be pointed out that Rāma is never angered, he never has the feeling of being unjustly treated. He is incapable of being angry. It is not the control
of anger but the complete absence of it that makes him a great hero in Hindu estimation.[Note 110]
Rāma’s exaggerated self-denial and general lack of emotion in the face of personal tragedy — however appropriate they may be to
the selfless sages that populate traditional Indian literature — are peculiar attributes for the warrior hero of a martial
epic. This is especially striking when we contrast the hero of the Rāmāyaṇa with those of the Homeric epics: It is precisely the selfishness and self-assertiveness of the Achaian leaders that give
rise to the tragic events of the “Iliad”.[Note 111] But the contrast between Rāma and the heroes of non-Indian warrior epics, if striking, is not as illuminating as the differences of the Kosalan prince
from the principal protagonists of the other great Indian epic poem, the Mahābhārata. For although a number of the important figures connected with the central ruling family of the Mahābhārata, most notably Bhīṣma, exhibit an unusually exaggerated form of self-denial, the central narrative of the epic depends upon the Pāṇḍavas’ insistence
on asserting their rights, even where this involves armed confrontation with their brahman preceptor and the patriarchs of
their clan.[Note 112]
The difference in the two epics’ central attitudes toward self-assertion is most clearly seen in a comparison of their respective
heroes’ response to the same situation of potential conflict. In several well-known passages from the beginning of the Bhagavad Gītā, Arjuna, confronted with the prospect of having to fight his friends, kinsmen, and teachers, succumbs to a fit of depression and
loses his resolve to fight for what he knows is right.[Note 113] In explaining to Kṛṣṇa his unwillingness to do his warrior’s duty, the great Pāṇḍava hero states that he has no longer any desire for victory, kingship,
pleasure, or even life itself, since those for whose sake he desires these things — his kinsmen and teachers — must be fought
and slain if he and his brothers are to obtain them. To emphasize his refusal to attack his elders, Arjuna argues that he would not do so even for the sake of the kingship of the three worlds, much less for mere lordship of the
earth. The poignancy of Arjuna’s horror of killing his family for the sake of material and political gain is brought home powerfully to the Gītā’s intended audience by the hero’s use of a metaphor deriving its force from the traditional Indian concern with the purity
of food. He tells Kṛṣṇa that should he kill his elders, he would ‘eat food smeared with blood.’
In the Rāmāyaṇa at 2.90-91, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, exiled to the forest, are confronted with a situation that looks, at least to the latter, very much like that confronting
Arjuna on the field of Kurukṣetra. For Bharata, approaching with a huge army in order to bring Rāma back to the capital in a manner befitting a king, seems to Lakṣmaṇa’s protective and somewhat cynical eye to be bent on the destruction of his older brother and apparent rival. Lakṣmaṇa urges Rāma to prepare for battle and promises to kill Bharata for him. Rāma, however, has no stomach for such a fight and, in any case, does not believe that Bharata means him any harm. He rebukes Lakṣmaṇa for saying such things for the sake of a mere kingdom, adding that both Bharata and he himself stand ready to cede the kingdom to him.[Note 114]
These apparently similar confrontations are of interest precisely because they focus our attention on the fundamentally irreconcilable
attitudes toward the nature and limits of self-assertion that characterize the two great Sanskrit epics. Although both Rāma and Arjuna speak eloquently for the traditionally sanctioned posture of deference and self-denial in the face of one’s male elders or
their representatives,[Note 115] only Rāma is fully prepared to carry this attitude into practice. For in the end, despite his protestations, Arjuna allows himself to be persuaded not only to fight his kinsmen but to slaughter them treacherously, murdering such revered
elders as Bhīṣma, the patriarch of his family and his surrogate father, and Droṇa, his brahman teacher. Rāma, in contrast, really means it when he claims that he would far rather yield his right to the throne of the Kosalas than be
involved in any sort of conflict with his kinsmen. This is a central point, critical to our appreciation of the Rāmāyaṇa and its destiny in India.
The point is stressed repeatedly throughout the epic. First the hero receives the news of his dispossession and banishment
with astonishing equanimity.[Note 116] Moreover, he affirms in the confrontation with Bharata at Citrakūṭa his absolute unwillingness to accept the throne in violation of his father’s orders, despite the fact that Daśaratha is now dead and Bharata and the sages beg him to return.[Note 117] Even in the end, when he has fully carried out the instructions of his father and is returning victorious to Ayodhyā, Rāma makes it unmistakably clear that, should Bharata display by so much as a facial gesture any unhappiness at the thought of relinquishing the throne to him, he would still
be willing to abandon his claim to sovereignty.[Note 118] Rāma’s unwavering deference to Daśaratha and his reluctant successor Bharata is matched only by the latter’s deference to Rāma himself. Thus the confrontation at Citrakūṭa is the very opposite of what is represented as having taken place at Kurukṣetra. Here it is a contest of self-denial, a virtual battle of mutual deference, with the two princes each urging the other to
accept the throne.
Clearly the epic poets of the Rāmāyaṇa are at pains to minimize and diffuse, if not totally eliminate, conflict within the heroic family. It is true that a certain
fundamental conflict is necessary both to make the epic story work and to provide a background against which the hero’s virtues
of self-denial can be shown to best advantage. But the conflict is represented as the product of a lowly, scheming maidservant
who plays upon the jealousies and maternal feelings of the susceptible Queen Kaikeyī. None of the men of the House of Raghu is ever set in conflict against another, or for that matter, against himself. Rāma and his brothers rarely show any of the inner ambivalence that lends such psychological reality to the finest portions of
the Mahābhārata. In the world of the Rāmāyaṇa, struggle must always be directed outward. The enemy is not one’s self, one’s elders, or one’s family. In fact, the objects
of aggression are not even human but are, instead, fantasied demonic incarnations of all the darker forces that are so completely
exorcised from the characters of Rāma and Bharata. Insatiable lust and unbridled grasping for power are not unknown to the poets of the Rāmāyaṇa; they are simply alien to the principal heroes of the epic who are invariably governed, even to their great disadvantage,
by the promptings of a higher morality whose principal strictures derive from deference to one’s elders and adherence to the
loosely codified principles of one’s collective elders, or dharma.
This sort of deference to both specific and generalized paternal authority is by no means unique to the heroes of the Rāmāyaṇa. The Mahābhārata can offer a number of examples, some of which, as in the stories of Bhīṣma, Rāma Jāmadagnya, and Pūru, are even more dramatic than that of the prince of Kosala. Yet in the longer epic these stories are relatively minor and self-contained incidents set in the greater context of an
internecine struggle so bitter that, in the end, it sweeps away the old morality to leave the heroes’ world a smoldering ruin.
The genius of the authors of the Rāmāyaṇa lies, in part, in their ability to create a national epic of political and military deeds that retains all the moral simplicity
of its underlying fairy tale, in which the hero acts only on higher motives, and the villain, a ten-headed monster, is unredeemed
by even a shred of decency or humanity.
In order to lend to the story a certain amount of tension and move the complex plot, raising the poem from the level of a
fable to that of a compelling and often moving drama, the poets have made extensive use of the technique of creating a series
of closely associated but clearly differentiated composite character sets.[Note 119] The most elaborate and complex of these sets of characters is that made up of the heroic brothers, the four sons of Daśaratha. This group is further subdivided into two subsets, the closely linked and carefully differentiated pairs, Rāma-Lakṣmaṇa and Bharata-Śatrughna. A very clear and important series of differentiations is made among the three principal wives of Daśaratha. They differ in age, function, and the degree of fascination that they exert on the aged monarch. Moreover, the moral and
emotional qualities of Kausalyā and Kaikeyī are sharply contrasted; the character of the latter provides the impetus to the development of the entire narrative. Even
the villain of the piece, the dreadful and uncontrolled Rāvaṇa, is supplied with a contrasting counterpart in the person of his pious and righteous (if disloyal) brother, the renegade
These sets of contrastive figures provide the poets with a vehicle for portraying the ambivalence inherent in all real human
beings while keeping the central characters largely free from inner struggle. Yet even in the case of the almost totally self-controlled
Rāma, they have permitted occasional but important lapses in which his inner feelings find expression in his speech or even overwhelm
him completely. Thus, for example, we find that at 2.47.8-10 the prince, on his way into exile with his brother and wife,
gives vent to the bitterness he feels toward his father for having subjected him to such hardship and humiliation. He says,
Without me the old man has no one to look after him. All he thinks about is sex, and so he has fallen completely under Kaikeyī’s power. What will he do now? When I reflect on this disaster and the king’s utter change of heart, it seems to me that sex
is a more potent force than either statecraft or righteousness. For, Lakṣmaṇa, what man, even a fool, would give up an obedient son like me for the sake of a woman?
Passages such as this keep Rāma from becoming just one more of the static and one-dimensional paragons of filial devotion with which the epic and puranic
literature is filled. Vālmīki’s sensitivity and psychological insight in allowing his hero a measured degree of human frailty has enabled him to create
a figure who, more than any other, stands as the very symbol of filial obedience. The simpler and wholly unambivalent characters
of this type, figures such as Bhīṣma, Rāma Jāmadagnya, and Pūru, are respected by the tradition and are important in the Mahābhārata and later literature. They are not, however, the stuff of which great epic heroes are made; lacking any suggestion of inner
doubt and uncertainty, they are not figures with whom an audience can empathize. Moreover, the authors of the legends of these
other heroes have deprived their characters of one of the fundamental elements of human life. In seeking to portray the hero
as totally a creature of his father’s needs, all these figures are made to renounce sex.[Note 120] Bhīṣma abandons the pleasures of sex forever so that his father can indulge his own fascination for a beautiful young woman.[Note 121] Pūru is said to have exchanged his youthful sexual vigor for his father’s senile impotence.[Note 122] Rāma Jāmadagnya, in complying with the order of his father, summarily beheads his own mother who is guilty of having had a transient sexual
thought.[Note 123] Alone among his clan, he adopts a career of lifelong celibacy. Only Rāma, of all the legendary paragons of filial piety, is spared the fate of impotence or celibacy. He alone is permitted a mature
love, albeit one that is fraught with difficulties and ultimately tragedy. In fact, Rāma has come to be regarded in India as the great exemplar of devoted, monogamous married love, despite his cruel treatment of Sītā. The most striking and important result of this tension between the two aspects of Rāma’s personality is the fact that, although the hero is represented as being deeply in love with Sītā and is driven almost to the point of insanity by his grief at her abduction,[Note 124] he repeatedly asserts that she occupies an inferior place in his heart to that of his male relatives and his subjects.[Note 125] Moreover, in his concern for his own reputation, he twice repudiates Sītā, banishing her and his unborn children to what seems to him certain death in the wilderness. It would appear that the poets
wanted to rescue their hero from the censure that Indian tradition heaps upon those who place too high a value on sexuality
and who indulge in expressions of it in violation of their duty to their elders.[Note 126]
In addition to Rāma’s clearly stated and fundamental ambivalence toward Sītā, his early life — the adventures that culminate in his marriage — includes a series of events that bear directly upon the
resolution of the tension between his portrayal as, on the one hand, an aggressive and romantic hero and, on the other, a
self-controlled, deferential, and anerotic son.
Like his Bhārgava namesake, the brahman Rāma Jāmadagnya, Rāma is forced at the very beginning of his recorded adventures to kill a woman. Here, however, the story is both more elaborate
and more complex. Jāmadagnya kills his mother on the order of his father, after his older brothers have refused to do so. In our story, recounted at 1.23-27,
the victim is not the hero’s mother but a once-beautiful yakṣī who, because of an attack of some kind on a venerable sage, has been transformed into a hideous and insatiable man-eating
demoness. The man who orders her death is not the hero’s father, but is regarded as speaking with the authority of and as
a surrogate for King Daśaratha.[Note 127] The refusal of Jamadagni’s older sons is paralleled by Rāma’s reluctance, despite Viśvāmitra’s instructions, to kill a woman.[Note 128] Just as Rāma’s action in killing the demoness Tāṭakā is closely parallel to that of Jāmadagnya’s in beheading Reṇukā, the consequences of the two deeds are also similar. Both heroes receive boons at the hands of the elders who have ordered
the death of the women. Rāma Jāmadagnya receives, among other things, the virtue of being unrivaled in battle.[Note 129] Rāma Dāśarathi is given possession and mastery of an elaborate set of supernatural weapons that likewise make him invincible in battle.[Note 130]
It is one of the major tenets of traditional Indian literature, religion, and society that renunciation of the objects of
sensual desire is compensated either through material gain or the acquisition of supernatural or spiritual powers. Clearly
Bhārgava Rāma, a lifelong celibate and blind follower of his father’s most dreadful commands, is being compensated for renunciation. The
kshatriya Rāma, in killing the rākṣasa woman, is engaging in similar, although more heavily disguised, renunciation — an act for which he is compensated by Viśvāmitra’s gift of the magical weapons. Where the two legends differ in this respect is that, although the brahman hero must remain
celibate, the prince must marry and father sons if the purposes of the epic poets are to be fulfilled.
In order for these things to happen in the Rāmāyaṇa, it is necessary that Rāma first pass through two additional trials that serve, in large measure, to undo the psychological effect of his killing of
Tāṭakā. These trials both involve the mastery and neutralization of powerful bows in the keeping of patriarchal figures. In the
first of these, Rāma, alone among all the kings of the earth, is able to lift, wield, and destroy the great bow of Śiva that had been left in the possession of the patriarch Janaka. It is in reward for this feat that Janaka gives the prince his daughter Sītā in marriage.[Note 131] In confirmation of his having thus overthrown the dominance of the patriarch and thereby won the right to take his daughter,
Rāma is confronted almost immediately with a second, almost identical, test. On his way back to Ayodhyā with his new bride, Rāma is accosted by none other than his namesake, the terrible son of Jamadagni who, enraged by the destruction of Śiva’s mighty bow, challenges the prince to try his strength against that of the even mightier weapon of Viṣṇu. If he can wield this bow, he must fight the scourge of the kshatriyas. The hero is more than equal to the challenge and
easily defeats Jāmadagnya.[Note 132] This episode, which virtually brings to a close the Bālakāṇḍa, is evidently a late addition even to this book, for its portrayal of the Bhārgava Rāma clearly presupposes knowledge of the Mahābhārata. It nonetheless demonstrates that the later poets of the Rāmāyaṇa were at some level aware of the psychological significance of the Rāma legend as well as the tale of ‘Paraśurāma’ and sought, through these three striking episodes — the killing of Tāṭakā, the breaking of the bow, and the humiliation of Rāma Jāmadagnya — to deal with the complex psychological realities underlying the epic and the characterization of its hero.
Through the careful manipulation of these themes, characters, and episodes, the authors of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa achieved a delicate balance in their characterization of Rāma. On the one hand, he is the most important, if not the most extreme, example of traditional India’s ideal man, the son who subordinates the goals of his own life to those of his father. On the other hand, he has a sufficient
degree of ambivalence and a sufficiently rounded character to enable him to serve as a model for countless generations of
Indians, while remaining the compelling hero of a fundamentally tragic epic tale.[Note 133] I have, nonetheless, discussed this aspect of Rāmāyaṇa interpretation at some length because it is clear that in this area we find the richest source of data that bear on the all
important question of the longevity, vitality, and fecundity of the epic and its derivates in India and much of contiguous Asia.
The Rāmāyaṇa is, at least in part, an exciting, moving, and beautiful poem. It is also the saga of the incarnate divinity’s battle against
the forces of evil. Yet Indian literature is filled with poems and sagas such as this, none of which have achieved the prestige,
diffusion, and influence of Vālmīki’s poem. The success of the work, like the prestige and even divinization of its hero, derives from its success in striking
at the heart of one of the critical cultural problems of traditional India. Reading the Rāmāyaṇa; hearing it chanted, discussed, expounded, and analyzed; seeing it represented in plays, dances, paintings, sculptures, and
films has enabled its audience, through their identification with Rāma and Sītā, to cope in their own lives with the problems that the epic poets have addressed. Like any piece of fantasy, the Rāmāyaṇa permits the reader partially to externalize and more completely master his most urgent anxieties and inner conflicts. Hundreds
of generations of Indian children, urged to emulate Rāma and Sītā by elders eager to stifle rebelliousness and self-assertiveness, have submitted themselves to the sway of its powerful fantasies.
In doing so they have made an adjustment that is central to the formation of the Indian personality, family, and society.
As both the traditional literature and modern field observation show, many Indians, both men and women, act out in their own
lives the central plot of the Rāmāyaṇa with all its negative entailments in the areas of sexuality, relation to authority figures, and emotional life in general.
For them, and almost necessarily for their children, a fascination for the figures of Rāma and Sītā and their story is unavoidable. It is this, more than anything else, that is responsible for the extraordinary destiny of
3. Introduction to the Bālakāṇḍa
We may now turn our attention from the general problems of history and interpretation to a more detailed consideration of
the form and contents of the Bālakāṇḍa and of their implications for the study of the Rāmāyaṇa as a whole.
Since the appearance of Jacobi’s seminal study, it has been generally accepted, at least among western scholars, that most if not all of the Bālakāṇḍa is a later addition to the central core of the poem. There is considerable evidence in support of this position. As early
as 1841 Adolph Holtzmann pointed out a number of apparent contradictions in the early sections of the Bālakāṇḍa, remarking forcefully on the book’s stylistic inferiority to what he regarded as the genuine portions of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. He also provided a cogent explanation for the inclusion in the Bālakāṇḍa of the miraculous origin of the hero and his early feats of prowess.[Note 134] Holtzmann noted the evident confusion in the Bālakāṇḍa account of Daśaratha’s sacrifice to produce a son. There are at least two distinct rites involved, a putrakāmeṣṭi and an aśvamedha, the purposes of which appear to be identical. Moreover, as he suggests, there is some confusion and duplication in the roles
of Vasiṣṭha, the official purohita of the king, and of Ṛśyaśṛṅga in the performance of the rites. Holtzmann was also the first to report that the contents of the first book, with its pastiche of myths, legends, genealogies, and other
digressions, is in sharp contrast with the more coherent narrative of the middle books. Since Holtzmann’s time, this ‘purāṇic’ quality of the Bālakāṇḍa, as contrasted with the more ‘epic’ quality of Books Two through Six, has been noted by most writers on the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 135] Several of these authors have also remarked that the first sarga of the Bālakāṇḍa, as it now stands, summarizes the main events of the poem but makes no reference to the events of the book itself, a deficiency
corrected in sarga 3.
These points are good ones, and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that at least some significant portion of the Bālakāṇḍa is later, perhaps considerably later, than the bulk of Books Two through Six. The question of just how much later has been
treated somewhat casually by many scholars. Most are content to remark that the book is later, and some, like Lesny, have stated simply that ‘ein grösserer Zeitraum,’ a considerable period of time, must lie between it and the five following books.[Note 136] R. G. Tiwari argued, on the basis of a comparison of some of the mythological material from the Bālakāṇḍa with known data from political and religious history, that the book was composed sometime in the period from the latter half
of the second century to the first half of the first century b.c.[Note 137] His arguments are not wholly convincing, however, and since he offers no new evidence that bears on the date of the ‘genuine books,’ he brings us no closer to an informed estimation of the period that separates the Bālakāṇḍa from the older material.
The question of the date of the Bālakāṇḍa, like that of the epic itself, is greatly complicated by the fact that the text developed gradually, perhaps over a period
of several centuries. As Jacobi convincingly argued, portions of the Bālakāṇḍa appear to be quite old and, undoubtedly, belong to the earliest strata of the text.[Note 138] In fact, Jacobi went so far as to propose a reconstruction of the beginning of the Bālakāṇḍa from which he excised all but sixteen verses that set the scene in the prosperous Kosalan capital of Ayodhyā and introduced the principal characters.[Note 139] Since he regarded these few verses as the original preface to what is now the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Jacobi implicitly rejected most of the first book as part of the original work. In this, as we shall see, he was probably overly
In a brief article written in 1953 entitled ‘The Genesis of the Balakanda,’ Bulcke provides us with a conspectus of the book’s subject matter. Without subjecting the text to the minute verse-by-verse analysis
that we find in Jacobi, he divides the book into five sections as follows:
- Introduction. Sargas 1-4.
- Daśaratha’s sacrifices. Sargas 5-17.
A description of Ayodhyā; the horse sacrifice; *the Putreṣṭiyajña.
- Rāma’s birth and youthful exploits. Sargas 18-31.
Birth of the four brothers; Viśvāmitra’s arrival; encounter with Tāṭakā, Mārīca, and Subāhu.
- *Pauranic stories. Sargas 32-65.
- Viśvāmitra’s family; sons of Sagara; churning of the sea; Ahalyā’s deliverance; the long story of Viśvāmitra becoming a Brāhmaṇa.
- Rāma’s marriage. Sargas 66-77.
The breaking of the bow; the marriage; *the encounter with Paraśurāma; return to Ayodhyā.
Bulcke’s asterisks indicate passages that he regards as later interpolations, so he appeared willing to allow that a substantial
portion of the book, amounting to well over half the sargas of the constituted text, belongs to its oldest stratum. According to Bulcke, the early sargas are those dealing directly with the antecedents and early career of Rāma. Bulcke refers to Jacobi’s reconstruction and presumably accepts its validity, although he offers no explicit judgment of it. He appears to regard
the first four sargas,[Note 140] the upodghāta, as belonging to the ‘original Bālakāṇḍa.’ According to him, the oldest part of Book One is the introduction, the first sarga. This was followed — in response to questions asked by the poem’s original audience — by a description of Vālmīki and how he came to write his poem, and only then by the material about Rāma, his youth and marriage. After this material had been composed, continues Bulcke, bards added the puranic material that makes up the bulk of the central portion of the book.
There is nothing inherently unreasonable about Bulcke’s reconstruction of the history of the Bālakāṇḍa. But like Jacobi’s reconstruction of the kernel of the first book, it is based on a number of judgments concerning what the ancient bards
and their audiences would or should have done. As such, it lacks any probative force. On the other hand, his arguments do
force us to think of the first book analytically, rather than as an indivisible whole.
It is the failure to regard the book as having its own textual history that has led scholars such as Tiwari astray.[Note 141] The geographical references in the portion of the Bālakāṇḍa concerned with Rāma’s journey appear to date from a time prior to the rise of Magadhan hegemony. If we take the earliest reasonable period for
puranic reference to Śakas and Yavanas to be the late first century a.d., then it is evident that at least four hundred years must separate the earliest from the latest portions of the Bālakāṇḍa. These later portions are, as we shall see, heavily influenced by the Mahābhārata and older purāṇas.
As to the relative dates of the second and fourth sargas, the portion of the text dealing with the composition and early performance of the poem, it is difficult to say anything
definite. The highly developed knowledge of traditional poetics and the sophisticated notion of art as a sublimation of emotion
set forth in these sections suggests that their author or authors were at least familiar with the Nāṭyaśāstra; and although this text presents its own complicated problems of chronology, it can hardly be much older than the second
century b.c.[Note 142]
In discussing the nature and contents of the Bālakāṇḍa and its relation to the epic as a whole, earlier scholars have been, like Holtzmann, negative in their appraisal of the book. In their zeal to demonstrate the relative lateness of the book and its lack of
an organic relation to the ‘genuine’ portions of the poem, a number of writers have tended to overstate their case. For example, as evidence for the tenuousness
of the link between the first book and the core of the epic, Holtzmann claimed that in the second book, to which he ascribes real poetic merit, there are no references to the events described
in the first.[Note 143] Jacobi, Winternitz, and Bulcke all declared that this observation could be extended to include all the genuine books.[Note 144] In conjunction with this point, these three scholars all point to what they regard as a clear contradiction between the Bālakāṇḍa’s description of Lakṣmaṇa’s marriage to Ūrmilā at 72.18 and Rāma’s famous assertion at 3.17.3 that his younger brother is unmarried.
The first and more important of these two points is simply not true. The ‘genuine’ books contain at least two references to the events of Book One. At 2.110.26-52, Sītā, responding to the questions of Anasūyā, gives a fairly detailed synopsis of the events surrounding her birth, svayaṃvara, and marriage. This synopsis follows closely the account of the concluding chapters of the Bālakāṇḍa, as we now have it, and mentions specifically that Lakṣmaṇa married Ūrmilā (verse 51). This passage, known to almost all of the subrecensions of the text, has nevertheless been overlooked or ignored
by these scholars.[Note 145]
Similarly, in verses 1 through 18 of the thirty-sixth sarga of the Araṇyakāṇḍa, the rākṣasa Mārīca, seeking to dissuade Rāvaṇa from his plan to abduct Sītā, tells him in some detail the story of his earlier encounter with Rāma that culminates at Bālakāṇḍa 29.7-21. In his preamble to the story of his being knocked unconscious by the force of Rāma’s weapons, the demon gives a concise account of Viśvāmitra’s persecution at his own hands and of the sage’s visit to the court of King Daśaratha to procure the services of the young prince, all matters treated in Book One.[Note 146] It is of paramount importance to note that the passage not only summarizes the narrative of Book One with only minor changes,
but it betrays, in at least one verse, a close textual affiliation with the Bālakāṇḍa passage, for lines 1.19.2ab and 3.36.6ab are almost identical. Clearly one of the passages is derived from the other.
These two passages, drawn from two of the central books of the epic, summarize the material of most of the Bālakāṇḍa passages dealing with the early career of Rāma.[Note 147] It is thus apparent that the claim that the central core of the epic knows nothing of the events of the Bālakāṇḍa is without foundation. This fact does not, by itself, disprove the theory of the lateness of the Bālakāṇḍa. On the other hand, the parallels in text and content between the Bālakāṇḍa accounts of the youthful exploits of Rāma and their epitomes in the second and third books, coupled with the historical-geographical data offered by this same early
stratum of Book One, make it clear that there could not have been, as has so often been argued, a very great lapse of time
between the composition of Books Two through Six and the oldest portions of the Bālakāṇḍa, the portions roughly represented by sargas 5-8, 17-30, and 65-76.[Note 148]
Another of the major charges in support of the claim for the book’s lateness and inferiority is the inconsistency involving
the princess Ūrmilā who is said to marry Lakṣmaṇa in the Bālakāṇḍa. Not only do the ‘genuine’ books know nothing of Ūrmilā, so the argument goes, they contain a passage in which Lakṣmaṇa is explicitly said to be unmarried.
Once again Jacobi seems to have been the first to make this observation. He remarks that it is especially striking that Book Two contains no
mention of Sītā’s sister, because one would have expected the poet, had he known of her, to have used her to intensify the touching farewells
of the exiled heroes. In a footnote to this statement, Jacobi refers to the Ayodhyākāṇḍa passage mentioned above, but dismisses the passage as an interpolation on the grounds that the first book does not constitute
an integral part of the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 149] Moreover, Jacobi finds the verse in which Ūrmilā is mentioned to be spurious even by the standards of its own ungenuine context. He bases this argument on the grounds that
the verse (2.110.51, Jacobi’s [Bombay edition of the Rāmāyaṇa] 2.118.53) falls between two verses that belong together. These arguments are invalidated by the fact that this passage,
including the verse mentioning Ūrmilā, is found (with some variation in a few cases) in virtually every known subrecension of the text.
Nonetheless, Jacobi’s observation about the absence of Lakṣmaṇa’s wife from the elaborate scenes of leave-taking and departure that form so vital a part of the second book is interesting.
It can be explained in the light of the Rāmāyaṇa’s consistent portrayal of Lakṣmaṇa as a man who suppresses his own emotional life in deference to that of his older brother.[Note 150] The poet is at pains to develop Lakṣmaṇa as the archetype of the de-erotised and totally subservient younger brother that has become normative in traditional Indian
culture.[Note 151] The inclusion of any emotional leave-taking on the part of Lakṣmaṇa and Ūrmilā would therefore be wholly out of keeping with the carefully elaborated characterization of Rāma’s companion and alter ego. That Lakṣmaṇa as a Hindu prince should be married is to be expected, but omission of references to Lakṣmaṇa’s wife from the departure scenes of Book Two is appropriate to the poet’s design, and can tell us nothing about the date
or genuineness of the Bālakāṇḍa.
Rāma’s well-known description of Lakṣmaṇa as akṛtadāra, or unmarried, at 3.17.3 has also been subject to misinterpretation on the part of many scholars. Jacobi remarked that Vālmīki does not make Rāma a liar by having him so describe Lakṣmaṇa to the infatuated rākṣasa woman Śūrpaṇakhā because, in the older books, his younger brother indeed has no wife. Winternitz and Bulcke concur.[Note 152]
Here again, as in the whole question of Lakṣmaṇa’s supposed bachelorhood, these scholars have overlooked the cultural and narrative contexts of the passage. It is true that
Rāma tells the lust-maddened demoness that she should choose Lakṣmaṇa, for he is unmarried and is seeking a wife (3.18.3-4). But how seriously are we to take his remarks here? Are we to believe,
for example, that he really means his brother to marry this monster? Certainly not. Rāma is having a little joke, albeit a cruel one, with the foolish creature. When the jest goes too far, ending in an attack on
Sītā and the savage mutilation of the rākṣasa woman, Rāma remarks casually to his brother, krūrair anāryaiḥ saumitre parihāso na kāryaḥ, ‘Saumitri, one really shouldn’t joke with these savage non-Aryans’ (3.18.19). Rāma is only teasing the wretched creature. The strict code of truthfulness of the Aryan warrior class, a virtue for which Rāma is famous, simply does not apply to dealings with such barbarians, any more than the code of kshatriya chivalry will apply,
in the following book, to Rāma’s killing of the monkey Vālin from ambush. Certainly we can draw no serious inference about the relation of the older portions of the Bālakāṇḍa to the rest of the epic from this foolish and ultimately tragic joke.[Note 153]
In conclusion, then, it would appear that previous scholarship has been overly harsh in its judgment of the genuineness of
much of the Bālakāṇḍa. Examination of the first book shows that the fairly substantial portions of the text that deal directly with the early exploits
of the epic hero are indeed known to the central books and are, on geographical and historical grounds, almost certainly products
of the pre-Magadhan era. As such, it seems most probable that these portions of the Bālakāṇḍa formed part of the original stratum of the epic.
The remaining portions of the first book, comprising the prefatory material of sargas 1-4, the legend of the sage Ṛśyaśṛṅga and the account of his participation in Daśaratha’s sacrifices, Viśvāmitra’s retellings of sectarian and genealogical legends from the purāṇas, the lengthy and interesting account of Viśvāmitra’s struggle to achieve the rank of brahmarṣi, and the tale of the encounter of the two Rāmas, belong to later strata of the text. Let us now turn briefly to each of these sections in an effort to set them in their
proper relation to the oldest material in the Bālakāṇḍa and, therefore, to the oldest core of the epic itself.
The opening sarga of the Bālakāṇḍa, as it now stands, presents us with a number of interesting puzzles. It consists for the most part of a detailed, if selective,
synopsis of the epic story (verses 18-70) put in the mouth of the divine seer Nārada, who recites it in response to the questions of the seer Vālmīki concerning the existence of an ideal man (verses 1-5). Nārada begins his account with an elaborate catalog of Rāma’s physical, mental, and moral perfections (verses 6-18) and closes it with a brief description of the hero’s ideal reign
(verses 71-74) and the various political, spiritual, and economic benefits that accrue to people who read the poem.
As has been remarked at various times, the first sarga does not appear to know Rāma as an avatāra of Viṣṇu.[Note 154] This inference is drawn on the basis of two references in the text. First, Viṣṇu is mentioned simply as one of those with whom the hero is compared (verse 17). Also at the end of the chapter, when Nārada is forecasting the future of Rāma’s rule, he states that, after having reigned for eleven thousand years, Rāma will ascend to the world of Brahmā (verse 76). Neither of these references seems consistent with the position that Rāma is regarded as an incarnation of Viṣṇu, and so it would appear that the section is older than the Uttarakāṇḍa and Bālakāṇḍa passages that posit this identification. In addition, the synopsis is strikingly free from allusions to the events of the
Bālakāṇḍa proper, a fact that appears to support the theory that the substance of the Bālakāṇḍa is late.[Note 155] In brief, then, it would appear safe to set up a chronological sequence according to which sarga 1, the so-called Saṃkṣipta Rāmāyaṇa, predates even the oldest stratum of the Bālakāṇḍa, which, in turn, would have to postdate the central body of the narrative that is summarized in this section. But although
this conclusion appears to be unexceptionable, it may be open to serious question.
For one thing, the framing portions of the chapter, the first seven and the closing three verses, seem not to belong to the
oldest strata of the text. The sketchy introduction of the sage-poet Vālmīki seems to link the chapter closely with the remainder of the upodghāta, a section that must be a subsequent addition to the core of the Bālakāṇḍa. The figure of Vālmīki is, as has often been noted, known only to the upodghāta and the Uttarakāṇḍa. He is unknown to the so-called ‘genuine’ books, and there is no allusion to him in the other parts of the Bālakāṇḍa. Moreover, the whole tone, style, and content of the opening sarga support the notion that it is an integral part of the preamble. The three closing verses of the chapter, the phalaśruti, make no explicitly Vaishnava reference, but do presuppose a powerful association with divinity on the part of the epic hero:
the ancient audience of a pre-Vaishnava heroic ballad could hardly be expected to believe that hearing the piece would free
them of all sin and conduct them with their descendants and retainers to heaven.[Note 156] The presence of a phalaśruti has been regarded as evidence of the late and interpolated character of the Bālakāṇḍa’s section telling of the descent of the Ganges, and there is no reason why this argument should not apply equally to this other set piece, the Saṃkṣipta Rāmāyaṇa.
Further evidence of Rāma’s identification with Viṣṇu in the first chapter is found in the last verse of the Bālakāṇḍa. Virtually every version of the text tells us that the newly married Rāma in the company of his wife was as radiant as the lord of the gods, Viṣṇu, in the company of Śrī.[Note 157] Most scholars argue that the entire book is late, and particularly this verse with its longer meter and Vaishnava allusions.
And yet, 1.76.18, like 1.1.17, merely compares Rāma with Viṣṇu; it does not identify the two. If, as Bulcke argues, we must take the verse from 1.1 as evidence of the first’s priority to the Vaishnava element in the Rāmāyaṇa, then we must make the same judgment with regard to the last verse, if not the last sarga of the text. In fact, it would appear that these allusions to Viṣṇu presuppose the identification of the god and the hero and are intended to suggest it in the context of the audience’s knowledge.
The failure of the first’s conspectus of the epic plot to include reference to the Bālakāṇḍa is evidence more suggestive than conclusive of the lateness of the book. The conclusion that the compiler of the Saṃkṣipta Rāmāyaṇa knew a Rāmāyaṇa that, as yet, lacked a Bālakāṇḍa is simple and appealing. It is not, however, necessarily correct. Bulcke argued that the first’s omission of allusions to the early career of Rāma is an ‘anomaly’ that has been ‘corrected by the insertion of a second conspectus (cf. sarga three) in which the subject-matter of the Bālakāṇḍa is incorporated.’[Note 158]
The ‘correction’ Bulcke refers to is a sarga of nearly sixty lines of which only three (1.3.4-5b) refer to the events of the Bālakāṇḍa.[Note 159] Rather than compose an entire second table of contents, it would surely have been much simpler, had the redactors intended
correction, for them to have inserted the necessary verse or two directly into the first chapter. The fact that such an insertion
does not occur in any known manuscript of the text suggests that the first sarga is a fairly late set piece appended, not so much to the epic or even to the Bālakāṇḍa, as to the late upodghāta itself. Its function is not to provide the background to the story of Rāma, but to provide a narrative context and background for the story of the creation and dissemination of the poem. It does this
by representing the legendary sage Vālmīki as the audience of Nārada’s terse puranic account of the virtues and career of Rāma who is represented as the contemporary ruler of Kosala. In order to illustrate the qualities about which the sage has inquired and of which, Nārada tells him, the Ikṣvāku prince is the unique repository, the divine seer summarizes the central, and original, portion of
the epic in which they are most clearly made manifest.
Why the events of the central story of the Bālakāṇḍa are omitted is not wholly clear. It may be, as has been claimed, that the author of the Saṃkṣipta Rāmāyaṇa did not know them. On the other hand, it may well be that, as in the case of the other famous ancient condensation of the
Rāmāyaṇa, the Rāmopākhyāna, the author or authors were aware of the events of the Bālakāṇḍa and even the Uttarakāṇḍa but, in keeping with the special purposes of their texts, do not mention them.[Note 160]
Sarga 3 was certainly not added as an afterthought or correction to sarga 1. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the upodghāta and, as such, is probably the older of the two condensations of the story and serves a different purpose. Sarga 3 is a conspectus of the contents of Vālmīki’s poem as known to the author of the upodghāta; sarga 1 is supposed to be the concise rendition of the Rāma legend upon which the poet based his work. Both accounts are doubtless drawn from the poem, but their authors regarded them
as different sorts of condensation, and it is this that explains the epic’s need for the two passages and the differences
Let us now turn our attention to the remainder of the upodghāta. The first four sargas of the Bālakāṇḍa, as it now stands, give us insight into the ancient Indian view of the poem, its origin, nature, and destiny. In its treatment
of the epic as the world’s first piece of true poetry, and its author therefore as the ādikavi, or first poet, the preamble affords us our earliest glimpse of the tradition’s attitudes toward art, emotion, and aesthetics.
Sargas 2-4 of the Bālakāṇḍa constitute the heart of the preamble, recounting how the sage came to compose the poem and teach it to his disciples. In
addition, this section provides some description of the poem in the technical terminology of poetics and music and concludes
with a brief account of a command performance of the poem before Rāma himself by his twin sons Kuśa and Lava, disciples of Vālmīki.[Note 161]
Sarga 2 is one of the most interesting, widely known, and frequently mentioned passages in all the epic literature. It is in this
passage that we hear of Vālmīki’s discovery of the art of poetry and of how he comes to compose the Rāmāyaṇa. Immediately after hearing Nārada’s compressed and somewhat elliptical account of Rāma’s career, the sage, wandering through a charming forest glade with a disciple, is lost in rapture while contemplating a pair
of mating birds. Suddenly a tribal hunter emerges from the cover of the trees and kills the cock with an arrow. The sage,
seeing the bird in its death throes and hearing the piteous cries of its mate, is filled with compassion and spontaneously
curses the hunter.[Note 162] To the amazement of the sage, his curse bursts forth in metrical form. Upon reflection he realizes that his grief (śoka) over the suffering of the birds has somehow been transmuted into an aesthetic, rather than a purely emotional, experience
and has expressed itself as poetry (śloka) (1.2.15-17). The verse itself (1.2.14), supposed to be the very first example of the poet’s genius, is rather a disappointment,
for it appears to be almost entirely lacking in the qualities of sound, sense, and suggestion that form the basis for the
major traditional schools’ critical assessment of poetry. Nonetheless, because of the place assigned the verse at the very
wellsprings of poetic inspiration, it has, along with the entire episode, been accorded great significance by both literary
critics and sectarian commentators.[Note 163]
Vālmīki returns to his ashram, where he is visited by the great god Brahmā. The god tells the sage that it is he who has inspired him with poetic genius and commissions him to compose a major poetic
account of the life of Rāma based upon Nārada’s tale, the gaps in which are to be made good through a special gift of insight (1.2.21-34). It is here that we find Brahmā’s famous prophecy concerning the longevity of the poem (1.2.35).
The sarga is interesting in many respects, but chiefly because of the light it sheds upon the close connection between emotional and
aesthetic experience in early Indian thought. It is interesting also to note that in this legend of the creation of the first
poetry, the underlying emotional states that give rise to the aesthetic experience are grief and pity. If we are to view this
as reflecting a theoretical position — and this is by no means certain — then it is a provocative one that is not generally
reflected in the massive technical writings of the followers of the ‘rasa school’ of Indian poetics.[Note 164]
Nonetheless, the upodghāta’s evident familiarity with the theory and traditional enumeration of the rasas, and the implicit interpretation of the entire poem as having a single central organizing mood, strongly suggest that the
preamble is later than the oldest portions of the epic, including the central portions of the Bālakāṇḍa.[Note 165] Finally, after the conspectus of the poem’s contents that makes up the third sarga, the preamble addresses the issue of the bardic tradition of Rāmāyaṇa transmission. The poet is represented as teaching the poem and its mode of recitation to Kuśa and Lava, who are said to be twin sons of Rāma. It seems clear that these figures are a late invention designed to personalize the anonymous tradition of the bards, the
kuśīlavas, of ancient India.[Note 166] Through the creation of these two imaginary figures and their identification as both disciples of the legendary poet and
sons of the epic hero, the authors have linked the origin of the poem with the career of its central character. In having
the twins recite the epic before their father in Ayodhyā, they have set the stage for the beginning of the epic proper.
The saga of the Rāmāyaṇa begins, as Jacobi claimed, with the fifth sarga of the Bālakāṇḍa in which the audience is introduced to the royal house of Ikṣvāku, its scion King Daśaratha, and its hereditary seat Ayodhyā, capital of the fair realm of Kosala. Sargas 5-7 describe in some detail the glories of the city and the surpassing virtues of its inhabitants. The descriptions are
elaborate and extremely hyperbolic, but this is in keeping with the style of the Sanskrit epics and lends weight to the Rāmāyaṇas claim of universal sovereignty for the princes of the Rāghava line.
Daśaratha is a fortunate, prosperous, powerful, and happy man. But as is so often the case with the great monarchs of Indian legend,
his happiness is flawed by his lack of a son and heir. In order to rectify this deficiency, the king resolves to perform the
great Horse Sacrifice (1.8.1-2). The staging of the elaborate Horse Sacrifice, normally employed in the epics to sanctify
a king’s acquisition of sovereignty over his neighbors’ territories, is unusual for the purpose of procuring a son. Bhatt, in his notes to the critical edition, attempts to gloss over this peculiarity by referring to the vedic tradition, according
to which ‘the performance of the Aśvamedha sacrifice secures everything for the performer. It is, therefore, performed even for a particular purpose (e.g. for getting
a son).’[Note 167] This explanation is far from satisfactory. For one thing, there does not appear to be any other example in the extensive
list of Aśvamedhas performed in the two Sanskrit epics of a king’s making such use of the rite. Moreover, as has been noted by other scholars,[Note 168] the king performs at least one additional rite for the acquisition of a son, the Putrīyā Iṣṭi initiated at sarga 14. One of these rites would appear to be redundant, and in the light of the seeming inappropriateness of the Horse Sacrifice
in this context and of the peculiar recruitment of the sage Ṛśyaśṛṅga as its chief officiant, I would be inclined to disagree with Bulcke’s suggestion that the superfluous rite is the one specifically designed to produce a son.[Note 169] It would, on the whole, appear more probable that Daśaratha’s great Horse Sacrifice, which is described in far greater detail than any other ritual performance in the Rāmāyaṇa, is a later addition introduced with the purpose of firmly establishing in the mind of the audience the splendor and might
of the Kosalan monarchy. By the period of the final shaping of the Sanskrit epics, the Aśvamedha had evidently become the great symbol and demonstration of Hindu hegemony. Although the Bālakāṇḍa and Uttarakāṇḍa together attribute the performance of the rite to no fewer than five Ikṣvāku kings and refer to at least eight performances
of the ceremony in all, the central five books rarely, if ever, mention it.[Note 170] From this discrepancy, it would appear that the portions of Books One and Seven that mention this ritual, and especially
the extremely detailed and elaborate account of Daśaratha’s somewhat otiose performance, are late additions to the text, introduced under the influence of the Mahābhārata/purāṇa tradition that sets such great store by the Aśvamedha.
The derivative and interpolated nature of the account of Daśaratha’s two sacrifices is further demonstrated by its use of an important figure drawn from a wholly unrelated mythic context —
the sage Ṛśyaśṛṅga. This interesting figure, the story of whose seduction is one of the most widely distributed of Indian legends, had no original
connection whatever with the tale of Rāma or the House of Ikṣvāku.[Note 171] He is brought into it abruptly and in the manner of puranic narratives. Hearing that the king wishes to sacrifice in order
to procure a son, his old retainer and counsellor Sumantra is reminded of an ancient story that he has heard from some sacrificing priests who tell him that the sage Sanatkumāra related it long ago (1.8.5-6). He then recounts to the king an abbreviated and relatively colorless version of the tale of
the seduction of the innocent ascetic boy and his marriage to Śāntā, the daughter of King Romapāda of Aṅga.[Note 172]
This perfunctory account of the unicorn-sage is introduced because Sanatkumāra had concluded it with the prophecy that Ṛśyaśṛṅga would somehow produce sons for Daśaratha.[Note 173] Having heard this, Daśaratha asks Sumantra for a more detailed account of the career of Ṛśyaśṛṅga. Sumantra’s response is a slightly more elaborate but still highly compressed and pedestrian rendering of the charming story.[Note 174] Sumantra, concluding the prophecy of Sanatkumāra, now reveals that the king will bring Ṛśyaśṛṅga to officiate in his sacrifice and that the result of this will be the birth of four mighty and renowned sons (1.10.1-11).
Daśaratha journeys to the kingdom of Aṅga, brings back the sage and his wife Śāntā, and installs them in his womens’ apartments (1.10.13-29). This sets the stage for the performance of the rites of the Aśvamedha and the Putrīyā Iṣṭi. The description of the preparations for the execution of the first of these rituals occupies virtually the whole of sargas 11-13. The latter is undertaken at the beginning of sarga 14, but is interrupted immediately by the story of the petition, on the part of the gods, to Brahmā and then to Viṣṇu in their desire to find relief from the oppression of Rāvaṇa (1.14.4-15.6). Viṣṇu agrees to take birth as the sons of Daśaratha, and this resolution takes effect through the appearance of a celestial being who arises from the king’s sacrificial fire,
bearing a vessel filled with a pudding infused with the god’s essence (1.15.8-22).
This dramatic event marks the culmination of the sacrificial interlude of the Bālakāṇḍa. After the king’s distribution of the divine food to his three principal wives, the Vaishnava interlude continues with a
chapter in which the gods generate sons in the form of various kinds of monkeys in order to assist Viṣṇu in his mission (1.16). After this, the text returns at last to the tale of the birth of Rāma and his brothers, which occurs in due course after the completion of the king’s Horse Sacrifice (1.17.1ff.).
Clearly — as has been observed many times — the nine sargas from 8 through 16 are a somewhat diverse collection of materials added after the completion of the original story of Daśaratha and the birth of his sons. These materials may be subdivided into two originally unrelated elements, the sacrificial and
the Vaishnava. The latter of these has long been known for a late addition to the original saga of Rāma, which appears to know nothing of its hero’s divinity. The former is probably older, but is itself made up of a number of
heterogeneous elements. There appears to be some unresolved confusion and a certain degree of overdetermination in the relationship
between the Horse Sacrifice and the Putreṣṭi. Moreover, the abrupt and clumsy introduction of the legend and the person of the sage Ṛśyaśṛṅga into the sacrificial material is evidently the result of a secondary manipulation of the text, which appears to have served
two purposes. The legend of the seduction of the boy-sage, like the other puranic stories of the Bālakāṇḍa and Uttarakāṇḍa, lends to the Rāmāyaṇa something of the encyclopedic quality and prestige of the Mahābhārata. In this way the poem and its hero are glorified, as is the learning of the bards. More specifically, however, the Ṛśyaśṛṅga legend was, no doubt, thought apposite here because of the powerful association of the sage with sexuality and especially
with great fecundity. The sage is perhaps viewed as serving the purpose of Vyāsa or the other Mahābhārata practitioners of the ancient custom of niyojana, or levirate, only through an act of sacrifice in place of direct sexual liaison with the king’s wives.[Note 175]
The remaining mythological episodes of the Bālakāṇḍa may be generally classified according to two principal purposes that they serve. The first is to invest with a mythic and
sacred significance the landscape through which Viśvāmitra and the two Ikṣvāku princes pass on their journey from Ayodhyā, via the ashram of the Perfected Being, to Mithilā. In this way the legend of Rāma is associated with and ultimately equated with the great myths of the brahmanic-puranic tradition. The second major type
of legend has a similar purpose. It is to glorify the principal figures of the first book, Rāma and Viśvāmitra, through accounts of the greatness of their early deeds and those of their ancestors. Some important legends or sets of legends
incorporate both elements.
Examples of the first type are Viśvāmitra’s version of the myth of the destruction of Kāma (1.22.10-14), his tale of the origin of the Ganges and birth of Skanda (1.34-36), and his narration, in connection with the cities of Viśālā and Mithilā, of the stories of the churning of the ocean, the origin of the Maruts, and the curse of Indra and Ahalyā (1.44-48).
Episodes of the second type, perhaps because the authors and audiences of the text were more interested in the heroic antecedents
of their protagonists, tend to be more elaborate and, in fact, make up the most significant addenda. Two of these episodes
combine genealogical with geographical interest. In response to Rāma’s questions concerning the region of Magadha through which they are passing, Viśvāmitra relates the genealogy of the legendary king, Kuśa. He tells of the cities founded by the king’s four sons and of the strange fate of the hundred daughters of his son, King
Kuśanābha (1.31-32). Viśvāmitra concludes his tale with an account of his own descent from the line of King Kuśa and the extraordinary statement, in which the geographical and the genealogical elements are fully fused, that his sister
Satyavatī has become the river Kauśikī (1.33.1-13).
As a sequel to his description of the Ganges and the birth of Skanda, the Kauśika sage tells Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa an elaborate and detailed saga of their own Ikṣvāku forbears. This tale, the story of the sons of Sagara, the digging of the ocean, and the descent of the Ganges, picks up from the geographically motivated tale that precedes it and presents, in seven chapters (1.37-43), one of the major
legendary interpolations of the first book. The episode deals with the superhuman deeds of Rāma’s ancestors and with their close associations with divinity. It is just the sort of puranic set piece that one would expect
in a work of this sort.[Note 176]
The last significant legendary interpolation of this type in the Bālakāṇḍa is also the longest. This is the well-known saga, really an epic within an epic, of the career of Viśvāmitra and his struggle to achieve the status of a brahman seer within a single lifetime. This saga, which contains at least three
separate legendary components organized around the common theme of the sage’s quest, occupies almost all of sargas 50-64.
While it is clear that this lengthy episode with its complicated sub-episodes must be a later interpolation in the Rāma story, it is equally clear that it is important in the minds of the authors of the first book. Viśvāmitra is one of the central characters of the book, and it was evidently felt that his importance demanded a major rehearsal of
his legendary feats of asceticism and supernatural power. The significance of this exaltation of the sage and the consequent
elaboration of the Mahābhārata tale of his conflict with Vasiṣṭha, here interspersed with the legends of Triśaṅku and Śunaḥśepa, is not wholly clear. Perhaps the Bālakāṇḍa reached its present form at the hands of bards or redactors associated with the Kauśika clan, who exerted a formative influence
something like that exercised by the Bhārgava redactors of the Mahābhārata.[Note 177]
The remainder of the Bālakāṇḍa consists of material directly connected with the early adventures of the epic’s hero and heroine. In sarga 65 we are given the tale of the origin of Sītā and one version of the history of the great bow that Rāma is to break. This is a necessary background to the central scenes of the testing of the bow and the hero’s marriage. If this
material was added to the epic after the completion of the central tale, it could not have been much later, for, like the
central portions of the Bālakāṇḍa, it fills lacunae in the audience’s grasp of the poem’s principal characters. Later on, the same motivation that led to the
inclusion of the legend of Sītā will impel the authors of the Uttarakāṇḍa to provide their audience with the legends of the origins and early careers of such figures as Rāvaṇa and Hanumān.
Finally, a certain amount of originally unrelated and almost certainly later material has been juxtaposed with the central
part of the Bālakāṇḍa. The most striking and important examples are the two dramatic encounters that frame Rāma’s adventures in the Bālakāṇḍa — the encounters with Tāṭakā and Rāma Jāmadagnya. The two episodes, whose psychological focus is the breaking of Śiva’s great bow, should be considered together; their placement at the very beginning and very end of the hero’s boyhood odyssey
and their complementary emotive thrust whereby he overcomes first a terrifying mother figure and then the menacing aspect
of the father, provide Rāma with the closest thing to a Bildungsroman the ancient Indian literature can show.
The literary or legendary sources of the Tāṭakā episode remain obscure.[Note 178] Perhaps it is an adaptation of some older legend of a sphinxlike yakṣī who blocks a road at some dreadful enchanted forest and devours those who seek to pass. In any case, the destruction of this
personification of the sexually charged devouring mother and the compensatory boon of the huge array of magical weapons offered
by the surrogate father Viśvāmitra constitutes the first great rite of passage for Rāma from a pampered boy-prince to an Indian warrior hero. The lateness of the passage with respect to the central books of the
epic is further suggested by the fact that in Books Two through Six the hero does not appear to use the weapons that Viśvāmitra so liberally bestows upon him at 1.26-27.[Note 179]
The second of these episodes, the encounter with the dreadful brahman-warrior Rāma, is interesting not only from psychological and literary standpoints, but also with regard to the textual pre-history of
the epic. Like the episode of Tāṭakā, it is introduced directly into the epic action and, indeed, forms the culminating event of Book One. Nonetheless, it is
clearly a later interpolation, for the figure of Rāma Jāmadagnya is proper to the Mahābhārata in its expanded form and was a product of the Bhārgava redactors of that work.[Note 180] Since the older portions of the Rāmāyaṇa are older than the Mahābhārata and the development of the figure of Rāma Jāmadagnya belongs to a relatively late stratum of the Bhārata corpus, it would follow that the episode of the encounter of the two Rāmas must be a late development in the Bālakāṇḍa.[Note 181] Nonetheless, the episode has been used with great psychological and literary skill by the authors of the Bālakāṇḍa to complete their exposition of the character of Rāma as an irresistible warrior-hero who will earn his reputation not only for his skill at arms, but for his aptitude for renunciation
and deference to authority.
The Bālakāṇḍa, like the character of Rāma himself, is, as we find upon close examination, considerably more complex than most scholars have hitherto led us to believe.
4. The Rāmāyaṇa Text and the Critical Edition
Sheldon I. Pollock
Despite its great antiquity, we probably know as much about the origin and development of Vālmīki’s epic as of any other ancient or early medieval work of Sanskrit literature. A substantial body of testimony and numerous
parallel versions in addition to the long and self-conscious Rāmāyaṇa tradition aid us considerably in our effort to reconstruct its past. The publication at the Oriental Institute, Baroda, between
1960 and 1975 of the first critical edition of the poem — the basis of our new translation — has given us ready access to
all of the manuscript evidence for the work that we are ever likely to have and enables us to draw some new conclusions about
the nature of its transmission. It will be necessary to consider at some length the character of this edition, its rationale,
value, and limitations. But before we do this, let us recall briefly what we know about the history of the poem beyond its
strictly textual tradition.
In the late upodghāta, Vālmīki is represented as having created his masterpiece out of the terse narrative provided to him by the sage Nārada. He recasts this in a new metrical form and inspired by the god Brahmā, expands the story. ‘The whole Rāmāyaṇa poem’ is taught by Vālmīki to two disciples chosen because they are ‘retentive and thoroughly versed in the veda.’ They learn the poem by heart and perform it in public, singing it back ‘just as they were taught’ to the accompaniment of the vīṇā, or Indian lute.[Note 182]
The tradition thus represents Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa as an individual artistic elaboration of a pre-existing narrative, composed and transmitted orally in a more or less memorized
form. There is little in this account that is not in keeping with the unitary character of most of the poem and with what
we can infer about its sources. That the Rāmāyaṇa is an oral composition has now been statistically demonstrated, and indeed, as we shall see, our manuscript evidence implies
a long antecedent period of oral transmission.[Note 183]
The history of the Rāmāyaṇa in its written form effectively commences in the eleventh century. The probable date of our earliest exemplar, a palm-leaf
manuscript from Nepal representing the northwest tradition, is a.d. 1020. No earlier manuscript fragments have been discovered. Ancient epigraphical documentation is wholly lacking except for
the commemoration, in a Sanskrit temple inscription from Cambodia dating about a.d. 600, of the presentation of a Rāmāyaṇa codex.[Note 184]
Between 1020 and the introduction of printing in India in the early nineteenth century, the Rāmāyaṇa was copied by hand repeatedly in all parts of the country, and at present more than two thousand manuscripts of the poem,
in whole or in part, are known to exist. The sheer size of the text, the enormous number of manuscripts, and their often discrepant
testimony, make for a text-historical problem equalled in complexity, perhaps, only by that of the New Testament.
Like the Mahābhārata, the second great epic of ancient India, the Rāmāyaṇa has been handed down in two principal recensions, one from northern and one from southern India.[Note 185] These recensions consist of often heterogeneous versions written in the various regional scripts. Manuscripts of the northern
recension come from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kashmir, Nepal, Bihar, and Bengal; those of the southern recension from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, with Devanāgarī manuscripts variously affiliated to the northern and/or southern tradition. Unlike the Mahābhārata (and this is of primary significance for the text criticism of our poem), the recensions of the Rāmāyaṇa display disagreements of a sort that cannot be accounted for by the inevitable accidents of written transmission.[Note 186]
Although the phenomenon of recensional divergence has long engaged the attention of scholars, adequate scrutiny has become
possible only with the appearance of the critical edition. Our understanding of the complicated character of the variations
is still imperfect. One explanation that has come to have wide scholarly currency since Jacobi first offered it in 1893 is that the northern recension represents a purification, a polishing of an archaic southern recension.[Note 187] According to this theory, the northern schoolmasters or learned reciters were the custodians of a pristine Sanskrit tradition.
They held the Rāmāyaṇa to be not so much a sacred document as the archetypal poem and expected it to observe all the canons of linguistic and rhetorical
usage that had come to be regarded as standard in post-epic times. When the Rāmāyaṇa departed from these norms, the northerners were prepared to alter it.[Note 188]
The basic suggestion — that the northern recension presents some sort of revision — we feel to be correct, but not necessarily
for the reasons usually given. For the argument supporting that theory is based on the preservation in the southern recension
of grammatical irregularities and no longer seems tenable.[Note 189]
If we closely examine the northern recension, we observe two phenomena that are far more common than any attempt to bring
the poem into conformity with the rules of classical grammar or rhetoric and tell us a great deal about the history of the
poem’s transmission and the value of the northern recension in the reconstruction of the original. First, the wording of the
northern recension frequently differs from that of the southern without appreciably altering the text’s grammatical regularity
or poetic acceptability. The northern recension, moreover, often tends toward a popularization or glossing of the southern
The critical apparatus on virtually every page of the Rāmāyaṇa indicates how the northern recension rephrases the southern recension almost gratuitously, without eliminating solecisms
or enriching the poetic quality of the text. The density of this divergence is highly variable, anywhere from 0 to 66 percent
for different sections of the poem. It seems that the only way we can account for these variations is to posit a long period
of oral transmission after, as well as before, the split in the tradition had occurred.[Note 190]
Although this first feature has been appreciated to some extent by other scholars, the apparent tendency of the northern recension
to gloss southern recension readings appears to have gone unnoticed. The text came to be viewed as obscure in places, as the
learned medieval commentators amply attest. The northern singers seem to have been particularly sensitive to this, and in
the course of centuries, they evolved a somewhat simpler idiom, vulgarizing Vālmīki’s poem for the sake of their audiences.[Note 191] Instances of this are very common.[Note 192] This tendency does not, however, generally involve an effort to regularize grammatical usage. It is rather a simplification
of the text, a transposition into a more popular idiom, a close paraphrase of passages that, although grammatically correct,
are nonetheless difficult or obscure for lexical, syntactical, or other reasons. In fact, in many ways, the northern recension
acts as our oldest commentary on the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 193]
This tendency of the northern recension to modernize and gloss a text perceived as archaic offers decisive support to the
position adopted by the editors of the critical edition that the southern recension preserves an older state of the text,
and consequently must serve as the basis for any reconstruction. We have been able to find no passages that would indicate
such a tendency on the part of the southern recension. Indeed, we would appear to have in the type of variation found in the
northern recension the first sign of the popularizing impulse that leads ultimately to the great vernacular translations and
adaptations of medieval times.
How these recensions are related to one another, or, indeed, whether they are related at all, forms the central problem of
Rāmāyaṇa textual criticism. With the publication of the northeastern and southern recensions in the mid-nineteenth century and the
north-western version in the early twentieth, a fairly complete picture of the text’s history began to emerge and with it
a certain pessimism about the possibility of recovering the original poem. Thus Hopkins argued that ‘all our classical notions of a fixed original from which manuscripts vary by the slightest alteration vanish into thin air
before such freedom of transmission as instanced here. ... The hope of getting at any ādi-[original] Rāmāyaṇa by working back from the textual variations handed down in the several recensions is quite vain. There can be no plausible
original reconstructed.’[Note 194]
Other scholars, although they acknowledge textual fluidity, have argued in just the opposite way on the grounds of the remarkable
congruence that often does appear between recensions. Jacobi, for instance, maintained that the various local versions must ‘all have descended from an old recension, and one can adduce no reason why this Ur-recension should not have been one that
was set down in writing.’[Note 195]
On the one hand, then, we have the denial that the Rāmāyaṇa ever existed in any stable form, and on the other, the assertion that not only was its form stabilized at an early date but
it was fixed in a written archetype. Each position has some truth in it, but obviously both cannot be wholly correct.
Disagreement among the recensions, as we have noted, is sometimes stark — in fact, irreducible. Nonetheless, the different
versions of the Rāmāyaṇa are unquestionably versions of the same poem. This is the basic postulate that underlies the critical edition.[Note 196] Although substitutions do occur, and although their density sometimes reaches two lines in three, it frequently drops to
as low as 2 or 3 percent, or disappears altogether. In some places we find dozens of consecutive verses or even whole chapters
for which there are no significant parallel passages. Thus, though variable to a degree, agreements between the recensions
in wording, sequence of verses, chapters, and incidents are often remarkably close, and the only way to account for this continuous
concord is to posit a common descent. This in turn implies that the source must be to some extent recoverable.
But if convergence is too marked to deny a genetic relationship between the recensions and thus the possibility of reconstruction,
divergence is likewise too pronounced to allow the assumption of a written archetype.[Note 197] Moreover, were such an archetype admitted, we should expect the original to be potentially always recoverable, which is patently
not the case.[Note 198] We must, therefore, postulate a mode of transmission that can account for both features of the Rāmāyaṇa textual tradition. The recensions must have been handed down through oral transmission — perhaps influenced in a distinctive
way by the vedic mnemonic tradition — from the oral composition attributed to Vālmīki, that is, the monumental poem that was a remaniement of an ancient Rāma story. The resulting versions were then independently fixed in writing at different times and places.[Note 199] This hypothesis alone would allow for both the divergences and agreements, and although it is not consistently upheld by
the editors of the critical edition,[Note 200] it is what study of the critical apparatus clearly and emphatically confirms.
Under these special conditions of textual transmission, stemmatic analysis is clearly inappropriate. For the many verses in
irreducible disagreement of a neutral sort (that is, in the absence of linguistic, stylistic, contextual, or historical features
that would allow discrimination), an a priori choice on the basis of the generally best version is not only admissible but necessary.[Note 201] But the absence of stemmatic compulsion also requires that where the choice between versions is not neutral, we must review
the recensions with care: for if they all ultimately derive more or less independently from the same oral source, then the
correct reading in any given case may be preserved by any one of them.
In countless instances it appears that the ordering of the verses and the readings of the southern recension are far more
intelligible and authentic than those of the northern recension, while its transmission, in general, seems considerably more
uniform.[Note 202] And thus, despite some literary and historical arguments that have been made to the contrary, it recommends itself as the
basis of a critical edition.[Note 203] But the southern recension, too, is marred by corruptions, false emendations, accretions, and the like, and does not invariably
give us the right text. The northern recension can help correct it and thereby reveal the oral original.[Note 204]
We can show the truth of this at every level of the text in the case of individual words and phrases as well as large interpolations.
One small paradigmatic example may serve as demonstration. In 2.63.4 we read in the vulgate:
vādayanti tathā śāntiṃ (lāsayanty api cāpare
nāṭakāny apare prāhur …)
The reading śāntiṃ is that of the entire southern recension. The commentators try desperately to explain its sense: ‘Some caused śānti, peace, to sound (others danced or staged dramatic pieces …)’ but obviously, without success: for here the word has no sense. It is a stop-gap emendation, an early one, faithfully reproduced
throughout the whole southern tradition. Northern manuscripts, for the most part, offer:
replacing the meaningless śāntiṃ with ‘(some made music) and sang.’ The northern recension is, in fact, glossing an obsolescent verbal form preserved for us in three other northern manuscripts,
one from the northeast, one from the northwest, one from the west:
(vādayanti tathā) gānti …
This form (classical gāyanti), as we now know, was current in the epic dialect, for the critical edition of the Mahābhārata repeatedly attests to it.[Note 205]
Even such a minor example should suffice to answer Hopkins’ complaint that ‘no comparison of the varied readings of the two versions will enable one to discover the ādi-form.’ If we multiply this type of evidence many times over, in the case of word, verse, or chapter, we can get some sense of the
text-critical value of the northern recension and the reality of the critical edition’s reconstruction.
Perhaps the most dramatic results of the critical edition can be seen in the treatment of interpolated passages. We must bear
in mind that committing the versions to writing in no way arrested their growth. New material of a mythological, sectarian,
or simply expansive nature continued to be added nearly equally in the different recensions and versions throughout the period
of written transmission, just as we suppose happened in the period of purely oral transmission. The principle developed to
deal with these interpolations is similar to the one used for the critical edition of the Mahābhārata: A passage missing in any of the recensions or versions as a whole, or in uncontaminated manuscripts of these (in a descending
order of probability, with due attention paid to contextual requirements), is suspect and eliminated from the critical text.
In practice as well as in theory the principle has proved to be sound.
At first glance, this may seem like an artificial formula that might have disastrous consequences in application. It is, of
course, a natural corollary of the hypothesis of common origin, which is probable on other grounds. But one might expect it
to be too crude to deal with, for example, the tendentiousness and wilfulness of scribes so often demonstrated in the western
literary tradition. We do well here to recall the remarkable, perhaps unparalleled, fidelity of the Indian copyist to his
exemplar. As Edgerton describes it, ‘it appears that no scribe, no redactor, ever knowingly sacrificed a single line which he found in his original … there is
certainly not a shred of evidence for a single deliberate omission, and I do not believe it ever took place.’[Note 206] In fact, when the interpolations of the Rāmāyaṇa are excised, a perfectly smooth text usually does result. The editors may sometimes have erred either way in their application
of it, but the principle itself repeatedly demonstrates its validity. And the result is remarkable: a full 25 percent of the
vulgate (the southern recension) has been eliminated as not deriving from Vālmīki’s monumental composition.
The critical edition, then, we believe, puts us in possession of the most uniform, intelligible, and archaic recension of
the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, corrected and purified on the basis of the other recensions and versions that are descended from the common oral original.
Although the reader of this translation thus has access to a more authentic text than has hitherto been available in translation,
we are aware of the fact that those familiar with the Rāmāyaṇa may miss favorite or well-known passages that have become established in later tradition, particularly those that belong
properly to the vulgate. For this reason, we have translated or summarized in the notes such passages as we thought significant.
On the other hand, where the text-critical principle has been applied with less consistency and rigor (as in the Bālakāṇḍa), such material as ought properly to have been excised has nonetheless been included in the translation, since our primary
purpose was translating, not editing. An examination of the notes to the translation will show which passages we regard as
possible interpolations and why.
The critical edition has in general followed the methods and fulfilled quite admirably the expectations that Johnston wrote of fifty years ago:
The proper procedure would be to collect and collate the oldest and most representative MSS. from the various parts of India and Nepal and prepare from them a composite text. After excising obvious interpolations, there would remain a number of passages in
substantial agreement and probably original in the main, and secondly, many much expanded passages in which the MSS. would
differ greatly and which would require skilled handling. According to all appearance we have lost little of Vālmīki’s work, and it is a question in the main of determining which passages or verses are original. In the end it should be possible
to obtain a coherent text which, though constructed by subjective methods, would not differ so very much from the poem as
it left Vālmīki’s hands; and such a version would have the supreme advantage that, stripped of most of the accretions of later times, it
would reveal to us in precise detail the genius of the greatest figure in Sanskrit literature.[Note 207]
But, of course, although a certain degree of scientific precision can be attained in application of the critical method, manuscript
testimony can be inconclusive, and subjective decision is sometimes the only recourse available to the editors. But editors,
as one textual critic puts it, ‘are not always people who can be trusted, and critical apparatuses are provided so that readers are not dependent on them.’[Note 208] For these reasons we have carefully scrutinized the sources of the constituted text and have never followed it where we felt
it was in error. When textual emendation was unavoidable we have emended. But again, given our main task, this has been kept
to a minimum, and for the most part, we rest content with registering and explaining our disagreements in the notes.
5. Translating the Rāmāyaṇa
LEONARD E. NATHAN
The aim of every serious translator of poetry is to stay faithful to the original and yet create something like its quality
in the receiving language. This ambition is always tempered by a disheartening awareness of the difficulties that inhere in
the task. Difficulties exist even when the transaction is between languages that have a good deal in common; but they increase
as the linguistic and cultural distance that separates the original from the target language grows greater. It should come
as no surprise, then, that the task of rendering an ancient Sanskrit epic into contemporary English is more than usually daunting;
for the distance here is virtually antipodal.
Consider what we now have come to regard as authentic poetry: personal utterance in the poet’s own voice, dense with the inner
reality of private experience, and largely free from the formal patterning of calculated art. What, then, is a contemporary
audience to make of the Rāmāyaṇa, a poem for public recitation, emphatically impersonal in tone, and whose author was committed to his culture’s unwavering
faith in an immutable social, moral, political, and aesthetic order?
We are, for the most part, silent and solitary readers, appreciating poetry in the quiet of our homes and only insofar as
it resonates through our own inner lives. The Rāmāyaṇa was meant to be heard at gatherings, to be chanted like liturgy — a poem that, early in its history, promises its audience
not only aesthetic rapture but salvation. And though we call this poem an epic, there is little, as we shall see, in a reading
of the “Iliad” or “Paradise Lost” that can adequately prepare the western reader for the movement, tone, and style of Vālmīki’s masterpiece. There is little, for example, in the most widely read western narrative poetry to compare to the Rāmāyaṇa’s long and repetitive passages that seem to lack all poetic or dramatic function. That such passages do have some function
is attested by their preservation, but the translator must despair of making them palatable to his audience.
It is bad enough to have to deal with difficulties that arise out of extreme cultural disparities. But such difficulties are
not the worst kind. There are other, less tractable problems, problems of style and of feeling, of trying somehow to capture
and transmit the flavor of the stately, scarcely changing, and sonorous drone of the Indian oral poet. Many of our solutions
to these problems were ad hoc — what seemed to answer most effectively to a particular need. But certain general principles
were fundamental to the endeavor. Above all, we decided that it was essential to follow, as closely as possible, the relative
simplicity of Vālmīki’s syntax and diction, and to adhere, as strictly as we could, to the poem’s verse-by-verse narrative movement.
The notion of attempting a verse translation was early abandoned because there is no equivalent of chanted prosody in modern
English poetry, and anything less would have yielded the sort of doggerel employed by some earlier translators. An alternative
could have been a more elaborate meter and syntax, but this would have been a fatal distortion of the uncomplicated surface
of the original. Where the Rāmāyaṇa does rise to something that the modern reader might recognize as poetry, we have tried to follow with an enriched prose.
But for the most part we have aimed at a diction that would unobtrusively carry the narrative without jarring either with
archaism or colloquialism.
If the music has been lost and with it something of the magic the poem held for its original audience and their heirs, we
think we have kept the grand outline of the conception and the large verbal gestures that create a sense of the idealized
world of the poet and his characters. To this degree we have kept faith with the original. It must remain for our readers
to decide whether or not we have given them a living Rāmāyaṇa in their own tongue.
6. The Translation and Annotation
On the basis of the foregoing discussions of the antiquity of Rāmāyaṇa and of its unrivaled popularity and influence in the traditional culture of India and much of contiguous Asia, one need hardly offer an explanation for undertaking to produce a new translation of this important work. Translations into
several European languages of the entire poem exist, including at least three into English. A few of these, like Gorresio’s Italian rendering of the Bengal Recension and Roussel’s French translation, are elegant and readable, while others, such as Shastri’s English rendering and the much older translation of Dutt, are helpful, perhaps, to the beginning Sanskrit student, but are stylistically unpalatable to the English reader. Whatever
their literary merit, and this varies radically, all of the translations so far made have been based upon a single version
or recension of the text, either the vulgate or the Bengal version, and their authors have not been in a position to judge
accurately the vital text-critical problems that the epic presents. None of them, moreover, has attempted to put before its
audience the results of a close and critical reading of the extensive and important commentarial literature that has grown
up around the poem. As a result, readers of previous translations have had to accept without criticism the translators’ judgments
on often very difficult questions of interpretation without even knowing where the problems are to be found, much less the
issues raised by attempts to solve them.
It is principally these two shortcomings, which diminish the value of all previous translations of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, that we seek to remedy in the present work. We wish to set before the general, as well as the scholarly, reading public
an accurate and readable translation of the epic that is as faithful as possible to the style, tone, and general feeling of
the original. As an aid to the understanding of the poem and our translation, we have provided a fairly dense annotation in
an effort to lay before the reader the issues involved in each one of the numerous textual, interpretational, and stylistic
problems that the work presents. In this way, we hope to enable our readers to judge for themselves the success of our efforts
at the solution of these problems.
A point that must inevitably strike the reader upon first examination of this translation is that it is in prose. Surely,
it will be argued, one cannot hope to capture the feeling and flavor of the original if the very mode of composition is abandoned.
The Rāmāyaṇa is unquestionably regarded by the majority of exponents of the Indian tradition of literary scholarship as kāvya, or poetry.[Note 209] Nonetheless, for this tradition the quality of poetry in a literary work does not inhere in its metrical form. Prose can
be judged as kāvya, whereas much metrical composition, such as the great mass of śāstras, kośas, purāṇas, and so on, represents, in the main, the antithesis of poetry.
In any case, despite its traditional reputation as the ādikāvya, and with the exception of a number of well-known and undeniably beautiful passages, the Rāmāyaṇa is often far from poetic. The major thrust of the text is narrative. The bulk of the poem, moreover, consists of short syntactic
units, generally coincident with the basic metrical unit, the śloka, the effect of which is most accurately represented to the modern ear by simple, rather paratactic, English prose.[Note 210]
Moreover, it was ultimately agreed by all the members of the translation consortium that, as this was to be the first translation
of the critical edition of the Rāmāyaṇa, its principal concerns should be accuracy and readability. It was agreed that these two goals would be best served by a
prose diction as uncomplicated and straightforward as that of the original. Moreover, in view of the decision that a small
group of Sanskritists would each prepare the translation of a different book of the poem, it was soon realized that stylistic
consistency from kāṇḍa to kāṇḍa could be maintained most easily in the medium of prose.
The most general and by far the most important issue confronting someone who contemplates an English translation of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is that of the style, tone, and underlying ethos of the poem.[Note 211] The educated western reader’s conception and expectation of what an epic poem is and should be are largely derived from Homer. In his still-illuminating essay, “On Translating Homer”, Matthew Arnold called attention to what he saw as the four principal stylistic virtues of the Homeric epics. Homer, he remarks, is rapid, plain, and direct in both his language and thought, and noble.[Note 212] It is precisely these qualities of the Greek poet that we have come to regard as the standard for all epic poetry. But although
many passages in the Rāmāyaṇa can be said to share something of Homer’s rapidity, directness, and elevation of style, the feeling of the whole poem is quite different from that of the “Iliad”. True, both poets rely heavily on the use of elaborate and highly formalized speeches. Both make heavy use of epithets, the
choice of which is largely governed by meter. Both poets delight in the liberal use of descriptive adjectives and poetic figures,
particularly the simile. Both authors are oral poets employing densely formulaic metrical discourse to sing of the quests
and battles of ancient warrior-heroes. And yet, the feeling one gets from reading the two poets is very different.
Erich Auerbach, in his learned and provocative study of realism in western literature, argues that Homer’s well-known predilection for narrative digressions and epithets is a result of the poet’s ‘need for an externalization of phenomena in terms perceptible to the senses.’[Note 213] Auerbach argues persuasively that the epic style, as exemplified by Homer, knows no depths of narrative perspective but rather strives to present a world in which all events, thoughts, and actions
are uniformly foregrounded in a uniformly illuminated present. Upon first consideration one might be tempted to say that this
quality is shared equally by the poetry of Vālmīki and his followers. For Vālmīki, like Homer, is at pains to hold back nothing from his audience. Every thought, speech, and action of the epic characters is carefully
set in the context of its antecedents and its consequences. Like Homer, the poets of the Rāmāyaṇa are deeply concerned with the visual description of their characters, their actions, and the places in which these actions
take place. Yet a sense of stylistic parallel is diminished by a careful reading of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Greek epics.
Vālmīki is not so digressive as the poets of the Mahābhārata, and yet the pace of the poem is often slower than that of the greater epic and of the bulk of Homer. As with any work of originally oral poetry, the flow of the Rāmāyaṇa’s narrative is often impeded by formulaic phrases conveying only the information that one character has heard the speech
of another and will now reply; but the occurrences of such phenomena seem especially numerous in the Rāmāyaṇa. Moreover, the Indian poet’s diction is not infrequently repetitive, relying on participles and gerunds that echo a previous
finite verb to lend an often dreary continuity to the tale. Features such as this, which originally served both to provide
time to the oral poet to compose successive verses and to provide continuity for a shifting audience, tend to become tedious
to a literate audience of a printed version of the poem.[Note 214] Again, whereas Homer, in the manner of oral bardic poets, employs many metrically conditioned epithets, Vālmīki seems to take an unusual delight in their proliferation. Thus, a character in the Rāmāyaṇa may be burdened with three or more epithets or patronymics in a single verse. In many cases, a single such term, such as
kausalyānandavardhana, or a term paired with a proper noun, such as lakṣmaṇo lakṣmīvardhana or rāvaṇo rākṣasādhipa, will occupy a full quarter of a verse. This sort of thing taken cumulatively slows the progress of the poem enormously and
although it enhanced the appreciation of the original audience, often stands in the way of a contemporary reader’s enjoyment.
Aside from these tendencies, both the style and the content of the Rāmāyaṇa are, in the main, quite simple. Partly because of the absence of ambivalence in the characterizations of the epic’s central
figures, they almost invariably think, speak, and act simply and directly. This simplicity is matched by the poet’s diction.
The style tends to be paratactic and the periods are usually short. Only occasionally does a syntactic unit extend over one
and a half or, at most, two of the thirty-two-syllable śloka verses that constitute the bulk of the text. The major exception to the rule of simple diction is the verses composed in
meters longer than the śloka. Aside from the frequent usage of the forty-four-syllable upajāti meter, which varies the text somewhat but often modifies the style only insofar as it permits the packing of still more adjectives
and epithets into a verse, these longer lines occur in two main contexts. Such verses occur sporadically in groups or singly
at the end of sargas, where they slow the progress of the narrative and mark closure. Also, in the middle six books of the poem, longer verses
appear in clusters, sometimes constituting an entire sarga in which the poet gives rein to his powers in creating highly wrought descriptions rich in rhetorical figuration. These form
many of the poetic set pieces of the poem and lend it much of its charm. In both cases, the longer lines tend to slow the
already stately progress of the story and interrupt somewhat the monotony of the various ślokas.
In our translation, we have striven to reproduce the paratactic style of the original on a verse-by-verse basis, while remaining
within the limits of what we judged to be contemporary readability. Thus, we have rendered the basic śloka passages into straightforward English prose, avoiding, wherever possible, long periods and intricate constructions. When,
as in the case of sentences that run over verse boundaries, we felt that the style of the original warranted it, we have used
a somewhat more complex English syntax.
Another aspect of the Rāmāyaṇa that distinguishes it from the western epic is the way in which the poet acts as a mediator between the objects and events
he describes and his audience. Homer’s descriptions, even though he makes frequent use of figures, are characterized by the accumulation of minute, objective,
and almost clinically observed detail. As Auerbach notes, Homer is never far from the world of sense perception. As a result, Homeric description serves to focus the attention of the audience
upon the perceptible nature of the person, thing, or act described. By way of contrast, Vālmīki’s descriptions, partly because of their unremitting accumulation of similes and partly because of the poet’s general preference
of moral to physical attributes, have the effect of interposing the poet between the event and the audience. On the one hand,
the imagination of the reader is constantly diverted from the objects in the story to the things with which they are compared;
on the other hand, the text’s ethical and moral descriptions tend to filter the audience’s perception of the epic events through
the implicit moral judgment of its author.
In order to illustrate this difference, it will be helpful to quote briefly two passages that describe the ends of the duels
between Diomedes and Pandaros[Note 215] and between Rāma and Kumbhakarṇa.[Note 216] In the Greek poem, Diomedes, wounded by Pandaros’ arrow, parries a spear throw and hurls his own spear:
At this he made his cast,
his weapon being guided by Athena
to cleave Pandaros’ nose beside the eye
and shatter his white teeth: his tongue
the brazen spearhead severed, tip from root,
then plowing on came out beneath his chin.
He toppled from the car, and all his armor
clanged on him, shimmering. The horses
quivered and shied away; but life and spirit
ebbed from the broken man, he lay still.
Vālmīki renders Rāma’s killing of Kumbhakarṇa in this way:
Then Rāma took up the arrow of Indra. Sharp, well-feathered, and perfect, it shone like the rays of the sun, had the speed of the wind, and seemed like the staff
of Brahmā at the time of the world’s end. Its feathers were made beautiful with gold and diamonds, and it shone like the glare of the
blazing sun. Its striking power was like that of great Indra’s mace or a lightning bolt. Rāma shot it at that roamer of the night, and once set in motion by Rāma’s arm, it looked like the flame of a smokeless fire as it sped on its course, like the thunderbolt of Śakra, lighting up the ten directions with its inherent luster. Just as Indra, smasher of citadels, once long ago severed the head of Vṛtra, the arrow cut off the head of the rākṣasa lord. Its teeth bared and its gorgeous earrings wildly swinging, the head looked like the peak of some huge mountain. Struck
off by Rāma’s arrow, the rākṣasa’s head, which looked like a mountain, fell smashing roads, buildings, and gateways and knocking down the lofty ramparts of
the city. But the rākṣasa, with his huge body that looked like the Himalayas, fell into the sea where, crushing sea monsters, shoals of great fish, and serpents, he at last entered the earth.
The passages deal with similar events but, obviously, quite differently. Where Homer is spare, Vālmīki is diffuse and repetitive, relying on the massive accumulation of adjectives and similes for his effect. Homer, who is in general by no means averse to the use of simile, in this stark passage is at pains to render the nature of Pandaros’ injury in unemotive, objective, and even clinical terms. The effect is powerful, even overwhelming, for the reader is forced
to imagine, almost to experience, the agonizing passage of the spearhead through the stricken man’s skull. Homer achieves his effect using only two simple adjectives, ‘brazen’ and ‘white,’ both of which make direct appeal to our senses and with no similes. Elsewhere in his poem he delights in the extended simile
and in the piling up of masses of descriptive adjectives, but, nonetheless, the effect is always to bring the audience close
to an objective and sensorially grounded perception of objects, actions, and characters.
How different is the effect of the Rāmāyaṇa passage. Here the objects that principally absorb the attention of the poet, Rāma’s arrow and Kumbhakarṇa’s head, are all but obscured by a cloud of qualifiers and rhetorical figures. The first three verses of the passage quoted
convey only three pieces of narrative information: Rāma selects an arrow and shoots it at his opponent, and the arrow flies on its way. This is communicated in some six or seven
short words; the great bulk of the twelve lines of poetry consists of thirteen adjectives, seven of which function within
similes. In the two following verses Rāma’s target, the demon’s head, is severed and falls. The head is qualified by five adjectives of which two express similes,
while the act of decapitation itself is made the subject of a non-adjectival simile based on a conventional mythic reference.
Finally, the fall of the now separated head and body (modified by an adjectival simile) is rendered in a straightforward but
elaborate and extremely hyperbolic fashion. Only three or four of all the adjectives in the passage are simple words. The
great majority of them are nominal compounds, many of four or more members. In one case, the adjective sabrahmadaṇḍāntakakālakalpam, ‘seeming like the staff of Brahmā at the end of the world,’ constitutes in itself a full eleven-syllable pāda or quarter verse.
The mere density of the modifiers and the richness of the figuration are not all that distinguish the passage from Homer’s. There is a fundamental difference in the kinds of adjectives and similes that the two poets have chosen and in their purposes
in choosing them. Where the Greek poet strives to speak to the sensory experience of his audience, the Sanskrit bard aims
to stir the emotions of awe and amazement with a dense texture of descriptions and comparisons that move us away from the
world of mundane experience to that of the supernatural. Vālmīki tells us very little about the physical nature of Rāma’s arrow and what he does tell us is of small help to those who would visualize the weapon. We are told only that it is sharp
and flawless[Note 217] and that it is well-feathered. Later it is said that the feathered portion of the arrow is adorned with gold and gems. But
all arrows are sharp, and even the second reference to the feathers leaves much to the imagination. What is more, it tends
to remove us at once from the world of ordinary experience. For who, in real battle, uses arrows wrought with gold and diamonds?
To know that the arrow was associated with the god Indra and that it is set in motion by Rāma’s arm does not enhance our ability to picture it. For the rest, we find that two qualities of the arrow engage the interest
of the poet. He is concerned with the speed of the arrow, for it is twice said to have the swiftness of Indra’s lightning bolt and once that of the wind. He is also eager to represent the dazzling brilliance of the arrow; for he compares
it first to the blazing sun, and, later, to a smokeless fire, mentioning further that its luster illuminates the ten directions.
Once more, the emphasis is on exaltation and exaggeration, with the repeated mention of the vedic gods and the celestial powers
serving to divert the mind of the audience from a mundane weapon to more lofty realms.
Related to the poet’s use of simile to draw the hearer from the world of ordinary experience is his pervasive use of hyperbole.
Not only are Kumbhakarṇa’s head and body likened to mountains, but their fall is disastrous. The monster’s severed head destroys roads, buildings,
and palisades, while his falling body wreaks havoc among the creatures of the sea. Yet there is nothing of Rabelais here. It does not appear that Vālmīki is aiming to be either comic or grotesque. The real function of passages such as this — and they constitute a considerable
portion of the poem — is to create and sustain for the audience a sense of events utterly removed from everyday experience.
Homer is not averse to hyperbole, and he uses it frequently to enhance the grandeur of his subject. Thus, he refers often to the
prodigies of strength of his heroes whom he represents as men of an earlier and more heroic age. Yet, here again, there is
a marked difference between the two poets. When Homer has his heroes heft and throw with ease a boulder such as ‘no two men now living could lift,’ he not only refreshes for the audience its sense that these are not ordinary men, but through the very restraint of his hyperbole,
he gives us a boulder that we can easily visualize and whose weight we can intuitively judge. How different is the feeling
we get from Vālmīki’s statement that Rāma, while still a boy, lifts, wields, and snaps a divine bow that five thousand powerful men are barely able to drag on a wheeled
cart. The very exuberance of the exaggeration serves to remove both the object and the event from the realm of our sense experience.
The unrestrained and overwhelming nature of Vālmīki’s use of hyperbole, the creation of a world in which tens of millions of monkeys aid a prince in battle, in which a monkey
can leap across the ocean holding a mountain peak, and in which the sixty thousand sons of a king can dig the ocean may —
at least for a modern audience — lead to a deadening rather than a heightening of effect.
On the basis of Vālmīki’s fabulous treatment of the battle scenes, as compared to their relatively realistic representation in the Mahābhārata, Macdonell argued that the poet had never witnessed a real battle.[Note 218] This conclusion is not, in fact, justified by the evidence. We may be quite certain that the epic bards had ample opportunity
to observe real monkeys, yet their own needs and those of their audience led them to the creation and elaboration of the fantasy
figure of Hanumān.[Note 219] We cannot then assume, with Macdonell, that the poet’s recourse to exaggeration and fantasy indicates any lack of opportunity to observe real phenomena. On the
contrary, we should seek to understand the motives that lead them consistently to idealize and exaggerate the phenomena they
did observe, distancing them as much as possible from the realm of sense perception and reality.[Note 220]
Even the profusion of descriptive epithets that cluster around the characters of the Rāmāyaṇa fail, in the main, to appeal to the perception of the senses. Homer’s epithets, as often as not, allude to a man’s particular skill, the loudness of his war cry, the swiftness of his feet,
or some other physical attribute, so that they are, as Auerbach has remarked, ‘in the final analysis … traceable to the same need for an externalization of phenomena in terms perceptible to the senses.’[Note 221] But although a number of Vālmīki’s epithets, such as ‘great-armed,’ are similar to those of Homer, they are vastly outnumbered by epithets that allude to moral, ethical, intellectual, and emotional rather than physical
qualities. Principal, secondary, and peripheral figures alike are endlessly described as righteous, great, mighty, truthful,
noble, and the like. These qualities are applied almost indiscriminately and are generally vague, often obscure, and always
sensorially opaque. Such physical descriptions of characters and places as the text does contain tend to be conventionalized,
as in the description of Ayodhyā, the forest of Tāṭakā, and Rāma; fantasied, as in the description of the ten-headed Rāvaṇa or his colossal brother, Kumbhakarṇa; or difficult for the modern audience, at least, to visualize, as where Rāma is said to be ‘shell-necked,’ ‘great jawed,’ or to have ‘a hidden collarbone.’[Note 222] A fair number of epithets are employed simply because they echo the name of the character to whom they are applied. Thus,
Lakṣmaṇa may be called lakṣaṇasampanna, ‘endowed with (auspicious) signs,’ or Rāma described as lokābhirāma, ‘delight of the world.’ Such terms merely heighten the modern reader’s sense that the poet is verbose.[Note 223]
The point of this somewhat protracted comparison between Vālmīki and Homer is not to denigrate the literary achievement of the former. For, as Ingalls has so passionately argued, it would be unfair to expect the literature of one tradition to conform to the aesthetic norms
of another.[Note 224] If Homer’s intended audience might have found Vālmīki verbose, sentimental, nebulous, and boring, so might an ancient Indian have found the Greek poet terse, crude, ignoble, and
lacking in religious and moral sensibility. The heirs of Homer’s literary sensibility must be aware of these differences if the poem is to be read on its own terms without an effort to
adapt it to western tastes.
We have therefore consistently avoided the temptation to improve upon Vālmīki in an effort to make the poem more attractive to a western audience. Like Griffith, we have attempted to ‘give the poet as he is,’ rather than ‘to represent him as European taste might prefer him to be.’[Note 225] Where the poem is repetitive, our translation will be repetitive, and where it is tedious, our translation will, I fear,
be equally dull. Yet many of the virtues for which the poem is prized in India should survive both translation and shift in the intended audience. The poem is remarkable for its even tone and diction,
the nobility of its characterizations, the beauty of many of its conventionalized descriptions, and above all, its deeply
felt rendering of the emotions of grief, sorrow, and a sense of loss. But our readers should not expect in this translation
a work that will strike them at once with its universal appeal or uncomplicated charm. The purpose of our efforts was not
to render an amusing story into easily digestible form. That has been attempted more than once in the case of the Rāmāyaṇa with indifferent results. Rather, we have sought to put before a scholarly and a general audience as accurate and as readable
a rendition of this great epic as was possible, retaining as much as an alien language and idiom would permit of the measured
pace, lofty tone, and gravity of our original. In our efforts to accomplish this goal, we have had to come to terms with a
great number of features of the Sanskrit text that, although they present no apparent difficulties to Indians who are able
to read the poem for pleasure and/or religious purposes, are often extremely problematic when the work is subjected to the
close reading necessary for a scholarly translation.[Note 226]
The special difficulties that the Rāmāyaṇa presents to a western translator are of two kinds. The first are the problems that result from its being a product of a time
and a culture far removed from ours. Some of these problems involve simple questions of realia — the weaponry, architecture,
costume, flora, and fauna of ancient India. In some cases the language of the poet is so imprecise that neither we nor the traditional commentators can be absolutely
certain that we fully understand what is happening in the story.[Note 227]
The second, and to my mind the most pervasive, significant, and intractable set of problems derives from the poet’s general
disinclination to address the perceptions of the senses. The innumerable epithets and descriptive adjectives based on moral
rather than physical attributes of the characters in the epic drama are difficult to conceptualize accurately and therefore
hard to translate with any conviction that one has found an appropriate English equivalent. This problem is aggravated by
the fact that our contemporary literary idiom has nothing like the vast Sanskrit lexicon of words suggestive of virtue and
vice. Thus, for example, although the epic bards were quite at home with derogatory and pejorative nouns such as durātman, ‘wicked man,’ most of the simple nouns with this connotation in English are either archaic or colloquial. Neither of these modes of diction,
we feel, adequately represents the tone of the original. The common adjectives and epithets based on the word tejas, ‘brilliance,’ are another good example — terms such as tejasvin and mahātejas. The word tejas may mean in the epic ‘brilliance,’ ‘moral, spiritual, or physical power,’ or ‘semen.’ We have decided that it is best in most cases to keep the ambiguity of the term and have generally rendered the epithets
Another problem of this type is presented by the epic poets’ seemingly limitless fondness for compound epithets ending in
ātman, ‘soul, self, mind, or body.’ It has become a common practice in translating Sanskrit to render this term as ‘Soul.’ Thus, the common epithet mahātman is often rendered as ‘Great-Souled one.’ We think this is a mistake. Not only is it vapid and inelegant English, but the translation is based on a technical application
of a general term made in the upaniṣads and texts on vedānta, in a way for the most part alien to the intentions of the bardic narrators of the epics. If the philosophical term for ‘Soul’ were really intended here, one would hardly expect it to be modified, as it is invariably in these compounds, by adjectives.
In what sense can the Soul of the vedāntins be great, accomplished, unskilled, etc.? In general we regard this term, when it appears at the end of compounds, as a reflexive
marker such as is widely used in Sanskrit to strengthen simple adjectives by turning them, through the formation of bahuvrīhi compounds, into true epithets. When used in this way, the term is essentially untranslatable, and, in fact, unnecessary to
translate. Thus, we translate mahātman as ‘great,’ dharmātman as ‘righteous,’ kṛtātman as ‘accomplished,’ and so on.
One characteristic use of epithets in Sanskrit texts is the substitution of an attributive term — patronymic, descriptive,
or referent to some legendary feat — for a proper name. Whereas Homer never employs a bare epithet, Vālmīki often uses one or more in lieu of a name; the effect is that of a kenning. A major mythological figure such as the god Indra may be referred to by one or more of dozens of possible epithets, the choice being largely governed by metrical, alliterative,
or other formal considerations. Although all of these epithets are either known or transparent to an audience steeped in Hindu
mythology, they can only frustrate and baffle the average western reader. But to substitute more familiar, or at any rate
more pronounceable names, like Rāma and Indra, would be not only to misrepresent the original but also to deprive the reader of the variety and richness of epithets that
lend color to the text. On the other hand, the practice adopted in other translations of Indian epic texts of providing footnotes
with unfamiliar epithets would only serve to clutter the page and reduce rather than enhance readability. Our solution to
the problem of independent epithets is to provide the name in the running text of the translation together with the translated
epithet. Thus, for example, the epithets sahasrākṣa and purandara have been translated as ‘thousand-eyed Indra’ and ‘Indra, smasher of citadels,’ respectively. Only in the case of recurrent compound epithets used to designate the central characters in the epic story
was it thought unnecessary to provide the more familiar proper nouns. In the case of janakātmajā, for example, it was felt that ‘Janaka’s daughter’ was sufficient and did not require the name Sītā to complement it.
In the case of shorter, uncompounded epithets, particularly patronymics and those that indicate a country or city of origin,
it was decided to leave the original terms untranslated on the grounds that, on the one hand, collapsing the names back to
familiar ones would only diminish the color and variety of the text, whereas translation would only yield the equally unfamiliar
name of an ancestor. Thus, although the compound epithets of Rāma, daśarathātmaja and raghunandana, are rendered as ‘the son of Daśaratha’ and ‘delight of the Raghus,’ respectively, uncompounded names such as Jānakī, Saumitri, Vaidehī, Dāśarathi, Vāsava, and the ubiquitous Rāghava have been left untranslated. By this set of modest compromises, it is hoped that something of the flavor and the variety
of the original has been preserved without compromising the reader’s ability to follow the story.
Those who are able to follow the Sanskrit of the critical edition will find that we have taken a few additional liberties
with the text for the sake of intelligibility. It was frequently felt advisable to break up long syntactic units into shorter
English sentences. In so doing it was sometimes necessary to shift or repeat, with or without changes, a single verb that
in the Sanskrit is made to govern an extremely long clause or series of clauses. An example of this may be seen at 1.5.1-3.
Here, as elsewhere, we have departed from our normal practice of translating on a verse-by-verse basis and numbering each
of the verses to correspond to the constituted text of the critical edition. In these cases we provide only the inclusive
numbers of the verses in question.
A similar rearrangement of the elements of the original has been made in cases where a single Sanskrit sentence contains more
epithets, adjectives, or vocatives than its English counterpart can comfortably hold. In such instances our concern for maintaining
a readable English style has led us to separate elements that were originally juxtaposed, turn vocatives into phrases, and
generally distribute qualifiers in a way that seemed to us more intelligible to the English reader. In passages where the
original uses a pronoun without a clear antecedent, and yet there is no serious doubt as to which character is intended, we
have inserted the name, without indicating the insertion either by brackets or notes. In those few cases in which an antecedent
is really uncertain, the question is discussed in the notes.
Another problem the translator of Sanskrit epic poetry has to confront is that of the inevitable loss of the kinesthetic effect
this poetry had upon its original audience. The Rāmāyaṇa, as the second and fourth chapters of the Bālakāṇḍa tell us, was intended to be sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and the pleasure in hearing this song-poem
derived as much from the sonorous chant as from its edifying story. The work is, after all, the prototype of what the Indian
tradition calls śravyakāvya, ‘poetry that is intended to be heard.’ Even today, the poem, like its vernacular derivatives, is normally read aloud to a variety of gānarītis, or traditional musical chants, and is not infrequently actually sung to classical rāgas. Hearing the poem chanted, or chanting it oneself, produces an extremely pleasant effect, impossible to duplicate through
silent reading.[Note 228]
This characteristic droning effect is enhanced by a certain formulaic repetitiveness inherent in the bardic style of the work.
In the poem’s extensive passages of straightforward narrative, for example, verse after verse begins with the adverbial form
tatas, ‘then.’ Moreover, continuity between verses is often sustained by beginning a verse with a participial form of a verb expressed or
implied at the end of the preceding verse. If the translation were to attempt to render these repeated expressions whose function
can only be appreciated in the context of oral composition and recitation, it would result in an effect far from pleasurable.
Consistent translation of specific Sanskrit terms posed another problem. In general the substitution of a given English word
for each occurrence of the corresponding Sanskrit term was one of the goals of this, as of any serious translation. Yet the
nature of the Sanskrit lexicon, the epic no less than the language of the classical poets, is such as to doom any attempt
at mechanical correspondences to failure. On the one hand, Sanskrit shows an extraordinary — perhaps unequalled — degree of
true synonymity. In many cases there can be dozens of words that signify the same thing with no perceptible nuance of meaning.[Note 229] It is often impossible to find a discrete and acceptable English term for each of the many synonyms of such words as ‘son,’ ‘king,’ and the like. In some cases, where particular synonyms lend themselves to analytic or etymological representation in English,
this has been done in order to retain some sense of the variety of the original. Thus the term nandana at the end of compounds, where it idiomatically signifies ‘descendant’ or ‘offspring,’ has been given its etymological value and translated as ‘delight of.’ Similarly, a standard synonym for ‘king,’ the compound pṛthivīpāla, has been rendered literally as ‘protector of the earth.’
Synonymity is not, however, the only problem to confront the translator. Just as many different words may have the same meaning
in Sanskrit, so may a single word have a bewildering variety of meanings. Some of traditional India’s most highly charged terms, words such as dharma, karma, tapas, and so on, have wide ranges of meaning, and it is, as the pandits say, possible to determine the exact meaning only from
the specific context. In many cases, where terms do not exhibit this polysemic character, a one-to-one translation is both
possible and desirable. Thus, we have rendered every occurrence of the term ṛṣi with the English word ‘seer’ and each appearance of the partially overlapping term muni as ‘sage,’ in order to reflect the distribution of these two common terms. The important term dharma, however, has a number of related but quite different meanings. When it is used generally, as in compounds and derivatives
like dharmajña and dhārmika, ‘knowing dharma’ and ‘dharmic,’ we have translated it, depending on the English context, as ‘righteousness,’ ‘what is right,’ and so on. On the other hand, the term has various other meanings. At 1.24.16 it refers to duty, at 2.7.19 it means nothing
more than ‘custom,’ and at 2.23.4 it signifies ‘traditional insignia.’ In different contexts the term tapas may refer to the practice of bodily austerities or the supernatural powers that are thought to derive from them. But at 2.23.3
the term tapasvinī, ‘woman possessed of tapas,’ clearly has the idiomatic sense of ‘poor thing.’
One could multiply examples indefinitely, but the point should by now be clear. We have striven, through our close reading
of the text and our study of the commentaries and relevant testimonia, to represent accurately the meanings of these multivalent
terms, not by mechanically applying a set of unvarying lexical approximations, but by giving careful consideration to their
various and often subtly differing contexts.
One of our fundamental decisions concerning this translation of the Rāmāyaṇa was that it should contain a minimum of untranslated words. To avoid providing an appropriate English equivalent for terms
such as dharma is to abdicate the translator’s responsibility. Accordingly it has been our consistent practice in this translation to render
all Sanskrit words and terms that have appropriate English equivalents into English.
Nonetheless, it is neither necessary nor desirable in the translation of a document of a culture so far removed from ours
in space and time wholly to eliminate words in the original language. For one thing, such words remind the reader that this
is a poem of an alien culture rooted in an unfamiliar landscape. Then too, certain terms are either awkward or unwieldy in
translation, whereas others — if only a few — do not require it. The most numerous category of words untranslated is that
of proper nouns. We have said that epithets in the form of descriptive adjectives are regularly translated even when they
come to be treated, as, for example, daśagrīva, ‘ten-headed Rāvaṇa,’ as alternate proper nouns. On the other hand, principal names for characters are never translated, even when, as in the case
of Daśaratha (‘having ten chariots’), they are of the same form as the translated epithets. This holds true also for epithets derived from the names of characters
and countries. Thus, for example, the text’s numerous patronymics have been left in Sanskrit. Also untranslated are the numerous
terms for fauna and especially flora for which no readily recognizable English name is available. This practice has also generally
been followed in the case of technical terms, such as, for example, the mārga mode of ancient Indian music and, more generally, in the case of culture-bound terms for important classes of supernatural
beings when possible English terms seemed overly restrictive or misleading. Thus the terms rākṣasa, yakṣa, gandharva, apsaras, and so on, have been left untranslated, whereas others, such as deva, nāga, cāraṇa, and siddha, have been rendered by ‘god,’ ‘serpent,’ ‘celestial bard,’ and ‘perfected being,’ respectively. Sanskrit words that have come to be generally recognized by English speakers are translated without diacritical
marks, such as ‘guru,’ ‘ashram,’ ‘kshatriya,’ and ‘brahman.’ In a very few cases technical or semi-technical Sanskrit terms have been rendered by English equivalents chosen more for
their transparency to the reader than because they represent precise equivalents. Thus, for example, the text’s two common
terms for measures of distance, yojana and krośa, have been represented by the English words ‘league’ and ‘mile,’ respectively, for these latter words represent the relationship and something of the feeling of the originals, a feeling
that would have been obscured or lost in an effort to calculate and represent the actual distances.
As Professor Nathan reminds us in his brief prolegomena to the translation given above, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is preeminently a work intended to be heard, and heard, as I have suggested, with a kind of relaxed absorption into its sonorous
drone and its strange and yet compelling reality. It was our task to present this oral poem of ancient India to an audience of modern readers of English in the guise of a written prose-epic. In doing so we have constantly striven
to create as easy a flow of contemporary diction as close adherence to the verse structure of the original would permit. For,
we realized, only in freeing ourselves to a certain extent from the letter of the oral style would we retain any hope of transmitting
some echo of its spirit to those who would try to grasp at first hand this poem that lies so near the heart of India.
One additional feature of the present work is its extensive annotation. In this the translation is virtually unique. Some
previous editors and translators of the poem provided sporadically dense annotations of one or sometimes two kāṇḍas of the poem, but those who have translated the entire work have been generally satisfied with an extremely sparse set of
notes most of which simply provide cultural data for the reader unfamiliar with traditional India. Gorresio, with his two hundred and thirty odd notes for the Bālakāṇḍa, and rather fewer for succeeding books, has as copious an annotation as any and yet his notes, like those of his colleagues,
tend to concern themselves chiefly with cultural, mythological, and botanical information for the edification of the European
audience.[Note 230] Few scholars, aside from Peterson and a few other authors of school-texts of the Bālakāṇḍa,[Note 231] have attempted to address systematically the numerous serious problems that the text of the Rāmāyaṇa presents to the scholar. Moreover, even such noble, if partial, efforts as these were seriously hampered by the absence of
a critical edition of the text or a readily available means of making important text-critical judgments.
The issue of close textual analysis is extremely important for any attempt at translation of the epic. For although the style,
diction, and lexicon of the poem are for the most part simple, the exact sense of a particular word, phrase, or verse is frequently
quite difficult to ascertain. Paradoxically, or so it seems, we have found it more difficult to be sure of the meaning of
a Rāmāyaṇa passage than of passages in far more elaborate and difficult genres of Sanskrit literature. Thus we agreed that the value
of a translation of the critically edited text would be materially diminished unless it were accompanied by annotations that
attempted to deal with every unclear and difficult passage in the poem. Wherever such a passage was encountered, the translation
represents our final decision as to the most likely meaning. Those who are interested in the issues taken into consideration
in arriving at these decisions, or in disputing them, will find in the notes the textual, recensional, commentarial, and other
material that were judged relevant to the problem.
In general, the major thrust of the annotation is to aid in the reading and comprehension of the translation. General cultural,
geographical, and botanical matters have been ignored except where a particular item bears on our understanding of the relevant
passage or has some direct bearing on a textual or recensional question. Culture-specific phenomena whose significance is
not readily apparent are generally glossed in the translation. Thus, for example, the common gesture of deference suggested
by the term prāñjali is translated as ‘cupping the hands in reverence,’ thus obviating the need for a note. The names of mythological and legendary figures appearing in the text are identified
briefly in the Glossary and therefore also do not require annotation.
We have occasionally departed from this practice of elucidating only the text. When the explanation of a passage, problematic
or not, by one or more of the commentators is sufficiently interesting, we have included it in a note. This has been done
for two reasons. First, the ten or so Sanskrit commentators whose works we have read in connection with this translation represent,
collectively, the closest approximation available to us of the audience for which the poem was intended. The reaction of these
commentators — even when they are, in our opinion, wrong in their interpretations — often sheds valuable light on the reception
of the epic in traditional Hindu circles and constitutes a part of our understanding of the role and destiny of this crucial
text. Second, although general cultural, religious, mythological, historical, and literary information about traditional India is readily available in various translations and scholarly studies, the learned and often highly illuminating contributions
of the Rāmāyaṇa commentators are both unknown and largely inaccessible to all but a handful of Sanskrit scholars. None of their works has
ever been translated nor, in all probability, will they ever be. Limitations of time, space, and readership naturally preclude
our inclusion of much of the contents of these invaluable works. Nonetheless, we felt that we would be providing a real service
to the general as well as the scholarly audience by providing a sample of the more interesting observations and arguments
of the exponents of the rich tradition of the Rāmāyaṇa commentaries.
A detailed study of the works and interrelationships of the major commentators will have to await a future volume of Rāmāyaṇa studies planned as a companion volume to the translation. Nonetheless, a few words on this subject are in order here. In
the preparation of the translation and annotation of the epic, ten Sanskrit commentaries have been examined. These are, in
roughly chronological order: the Vivekatilaka of Varadarāja Uḍāli, the Rāmānujīya attributed to Rāmānuja, the Tattvadīpikā of Maheśvaratīrtha, the Amṛtakataka of Mādhavayogin, the Rāmāyaṇabhūṣaṇa of Govindarāja, the Rāmāyaṇatilaka of Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa, the Rāmāyaṇaśiromaṇi of Vaṃśīdhara (Bansidhara) Śivasahāya, and the Dharmākūṭam of Tryambaka Makhin.[Note 232] In addition, extracts from the commentaries of Satyatīrtha,[Note 233] Munibhāva, and Sarvajñanārāyaṇa have been used.
These works range in date from around the middle of the thirteenth century a.d. (in the case of Varadarāja) to the eighteenth (in the case of Tryambaka), and vary from the sparse glosses of the former to the dense and often copious commentaries of Mādhavayogin, Govindarāja, Nāgeśa, and Śivasahāya, who have at least something to say on almost every verse in the poem. These works are immensely valuable and, indeed, it
would be rash to attempt any serious reading of the poem without reading at least five of the more extensive commentaries.
Nonetheless, one obvious problem with the surviving commentaries is the fact that the earliest of them dates from a time nearly
two millennia removed from that of the probable composition of the core of their text. As a result they are often as puzzled
as we by certain bits of material, and there are places where it seems clear that the original meaning of the text has been
lost. In spite of this, the unusually conservative nature of traditional Indian culture and of the Sanskrit language in particular,
coupled with the maintenance of a long and unbroken tradition of reading and discussing the poem, make the interval of two
thousand years less significant than they would be in less stable cultural contexts.
One additional factor must, however, be taken into consideration. The authors of all the surviving commentaries on the Rāmāyaṇa were devout Vaishnavas for whom the primary significance of the poem was theological. For these men, most of whom were products
of the passionate and compelling world of south Indian devotionalism, every action in the epic — every line — was fraught
with clear or hidden theological significance. But, as has been argued above, it is clear that with a few exceptions, most
of which are to be found in the later portions of the Bāla and Uttara Kāṇḍas, the text posits no special relationship between its hero and Viṣṇu, much less their identity. In keeping with their passionately held view of the nature and significance of the Rāmāyaṇa, the commentators very frequently see as possessing profound and often arcane theological meaning verses and passages that,
we believe, had originally nothing whatever to do with theology. This tendency, we consequently hold, causes a consistent
overinterpretation and even falsification of the text.[Note 234]
If such theological interpretations and sectarian pleading were all there was to the Sanskrit commentators, one could safely
ignore them, at least as serious aids to a better understanding of the Rāmāyaṇa. But like many of the best minds of traditional India, the commentators were more than special pleaders. They were scholars, connoisseurs of poetry, and grammarians, and a great
deal of their exegesis shows little or no concern with theology. The commentaries frequently disagree among themselves, and
often a single scholiast offers a series of alternative explanations of the same passage. In passage after passage the best
of the commentators, particularly Govindarāja, Maheśvaratīrtha, and Nāgeśa, provide learned, judicious, and convincing interpretations of readings that without their help would have remained obscure
to us. We gratefully acknowledge the enormous contribution to Rāmāyaṇa scholarship of the commentators, and as a perusal of our notes will show, have relied heavily, although never uncritically,
upon their learning.