THE RAMAYANA: An Epic of Ancient...

<i> Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the author of "When Elephants Weep" and "Dogs Never Lie About Love." He is a former professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley</i>

On a bright sunny morning about 3,000 years ago, an Indian holy man who went by the unusual name of Valmiki, “Son of the Termite Mound,” set out through the woodlands for his morning bath on the banks of the Tamasa River in North Central India. As he approached the water, his attention was caught by the sight of a pair of Sarus cranes in the rapture of their mating dance. But as the sage observed this charming scene, a tribal hunter, taking advantage of the birds’ absorption in the joy of lovemaking, felled the male with his arrow. Seeing the wounded creature writhing in its blood and hearing the piteous wailing of its bereaved mate, Valmiki, normally a paragon of emotional and sensual control, was suddenly swept away by a flood of emotions, by his rage at the hunter and, above all, his grief and compassion for the victims. In the grip of these unfamiliar feelings, he cursed the hunter, crying: “Hunter! For killing the male of this pair of mating cranes while he was distracted at the height of sexual passion you will soon die!”

Curses of this kind, invoked by spiritual adepts against those who have annoyed them, are a commonplace of traditional Indian literature. But the curse of Valmiki was different. It differed not in substance but in form. As the wonder-struck sage himself observed: “Fixed in metrical quarters, each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of grief [Sanskrit shoka], shall be called poetry [Sanskrit shloka], and nothing else.”

Returning to his ashram, still lost in grief and amazement over these events, Valmiki is visited by the great creator, Lord Brahma, for whom he sings once more his musical curse. The god tells him that it was through his divine inspiration that Valmiki has been able to create this poetry, and Brahma explains his purpose in granting it.


Brahma reminds Valmiki that earlier that morning, the holy man had heard from the lips of another sage a brief and dry narration of the tragic life and extraordinary virtues of Rama, ruler of the kingdom of Kosala, who is revered to this day by hundreds of millions as the ideal man and an earthly incarnation of the supreme divinity. The god then commissions the sage to compose a great epic poem to celebrate and popularize the history of Rama and his long-suffering wife, Sita. The result, the monumental epic the “Ramayana” (“The History of Rama”), revered for millenniums in India as the “first poem” though unfamiliar to most Westerners, remains one of the oldest and most influential works the world has seen, forming the foundation of aesthetic, social, ethical and spiritual life in innumerable versions throughout the vast sweep of Southern Asia, from Afghanistan to Bali.

The story of Brahma and Valmiki, which constitutes the framing narrative of this vast composition that is four times the length of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” combined, is not merely a charming and thematically syntonic preamble to this tale of love, struggle and loss. For it, and the “Ramayana” itself, together form the opening argument in an extraordinary theoretical conversation about the relationship between emotion and aesthetic experience, a conversation about what literature is and how and why it moves us as it does that engaged the best minds in pre-modern India for at least the first 15 centuries of the Common Era. It is in the story of Valmiki and how he came to compose his great oral epic that we find one of the earliest displays of the notion that the artistic process can refine and sublimate raw human emotions so that experiencing a sorrowful poem like the “Ramayana” (or, for that matter, a sad novel or film) produces a kind of aesthetic rapture uniquely linked to, yet utterly different from, the experience of real loss. It is, in fact, in the opening chapters of this poem that we first find reference to the specific emotive-aesthetic states, or rasas, that were the most sophisticated discourse on the experience of art in any pre-modern culture, dating from the time of the ancient treatise on dramaturgy by the legendary sage, Bharata, to the complex theories of medieval Kashmiri aestheticians such as Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta.

Despite its unparalleled importance in Asia and its significance for exploring the relationship between art and life, the “Ramayana” of Valmiki, the oldest surviving version of this immortal tale, is hardly known in this country, except in the large and growing communities of Americans of South and Southeast Asian origin and a few academics. Even within academia, the poem, in spite of the fascinating comparative light it sheds on epic poetry and religious literature of Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, is little known outside of a handful of specialists in South and Southeast Asian studies.

Surprisingly, however, this was not always the case. Europe’s first acquaintance with Sanskrit language and literature, resulting from its colonizing push into India and elsewhere and coming as it did at the critical historical juncture between the Enlightenment and the Romantic age, led, in the closing decades of the 18th and the opening decades of the 19th century, to a sort of vogue in Britain, France and especially the German states for things Indian, a phenomenon beautifully outlined by Raymond Schwab in his “The Oriental Renaissance.” Scholars of that period may be familiar with Sir William Jones’ raptures over the copiousness and refinement of Sanskrit, Goethe’s ecstasies over the recently translated “Sakuntala of Kalidasa” and philosophers’ fascination with the “Bhagavad-Gita” or the texts of Theravada Buddhism. Few, however, may now realize that the Valmiki “Ramayana” too became a favorite subject of the early Orientalists.

The work was first translated into a European language (English) by William Carey and Joshua Marshman between 1806 and 1810 and then into Latin by August Wilhelm von Schlegel between 1829 and 1838. Then it was translated into Italian by Gaspare Gorresio between 1843 and 1858 and into French by Alfred Roussel between 1903 and 1909. Ralph Griffith prepared a translation in Longfellowesque English rhymed verse between 1870 and 1874, and M.N. Dutt supervised the production of an archaic English translation between 1891 and 1894. More recent complete English translations of the poem were prepared by Hari Prasad Shastri in 1957 and N. Raghunathan in 1982.

The problem with these older translations is that most are inaccessible and virtually unreadable. All are based on one or another of the printed versions of the two major regional recensions of the poem and are subject to the same textual problems of their originals. Finally, the existing translations have at best only a sketchy annotation and introduction, hopelessly inadequate to a work of such encyclopedic scope and cultural significance as the “Ramayana.” Virtually none of them, for example, has made a serious attempt to read and weigh the learned opinions of more than, at most, one of the numerous and copious Sanskrit commentaries the poem has inspired.


Now, at last, we have access to a new collaborative translation. It is the first and only one to be based on the critically edited text prepared by scholars at the Oriental Institute at the University of Baroda, India, between 1960 and 1975, and one that, moreover, effectively addresses all of the defects of its predecessors listed above.

This massive project has been quietly carried on by a group of American and Canadian scholars under the direction of Robert Goldman, the Sarah Kailath professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at UC Berkeley, and his wife, Sally Sutherland Goldman, also a UC Berkeley Sanskrit scholar. Thus far, the translation consortium has completed five of the projected seven volumes of this monumental poem for a total of more than 2,300 pages of extraordinary reading. The Goldmans have prepared Volumes 1 and 5 (and will do 7); Volumes 2 and 3 have been prepared by Sheldon Pollock, Bobrinskoy professor of Sanskrit at the University of Chicago; Volume 4 by Rosalind Lefeber of York University in Toronto; and Volume 6 by emeritus professor B.A. van Nooten of Berkeley. The recent publication of Volume 5, the “Sundarakanda,” the heart of this great literary epic and the section dearest to millions in South and Southeast Asia, is an occasion for celebration.

An assessment of the significance of the “Ramayana,” offered in 1919 by the literary historian A.A. Macdonell, 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 ‘Ramayana.’ ” It has inspired painting, film, sculpture, puppet shows, shadow plays, novels, poems, TV serials and plays. There are versions of the poem throughout Southeast Asia. It is not just a Hindu text either: There is a Buddhist retelling found in Thailand. In fact, all Thai kings, down to this day, include Rama as one of their titles, and the ancient capital of the old Thai kings is Ayutthaya, which is named after the capital city of the Kosalan state, Ayodhya, where the poem is set. Even in East Asia, its impact, if somewhat more attenuated, is seen in a variety of texts ranging from Tibetan versions and a Chinese novel of the poem to a Japanese noh drama. Millions of people in India bear the names of the principal characters of the epic: Ram, Sita and Laksman among others. Indian legend says there are 10 million versions of the “Ramayana.” That figure is not entirely hyperbole.

What is the “Ramayana”? It is a vast poem of 50,000 verses. A story of exile and self-sacrifice filled with miracles, flying monkeys, giant monsters, beings who change their shape at will, compassionate birds and cosmic forces of good and evil, it tells the tale of Prince Rama, heir apparent to the imperial throne of the ancient kingdom of Kosala in Northern India. On the eve of his consecration as emperor, Rama is forced into exile by a wicked stepmother. Accompanied by his faithful brother, Laksmana, and his devoted wife, Sita, he roams the forests of Central India. Just before being permitted to return to ascend the throne after 14 years of exile, he suffers yet another blow: His beloved wife is kidnapped by the 10-headed demon king of the fabled island kingdom of Lanka. Imprisoned there and tormented for her faithfulness to Rama, she is sought out by the monkey hero Hanuman. Hanuman is a celibate talking monkey of immense physical strength, the messenger of Rama who is able to change his size from that of a small house cat to a large mountain at will. He leaps from South India to the island of Lanka.

Here is how the “Ramayana” describes what he experienced there: “The sound of stringed instruments pleasing to the ear could be heard. Virtuous women slept next to their husbands, while rangers of the night whose deeds were marvelous and dreadful, set forth to take their pleasure. The wise monkey saw mansions--one after another--filled with amorous and intoxicated people, crowded with chariots, horses and golden seats, and filled with the splendor of warriors.”

Then he sees the person he has come to find: “Sighing constantly, that timorous woman resembled a daughter-in-law of a serpent lord. By virtue of the vast net of sorrow spread over her, her radiance was dimmed like that of a flame of fire obscured by a shroud of smoke. She was like a blurred memory or a fortune lost.” Hanuman informs Rama, and together they assemble a vast army of monkeys who build a bridge across the ocean to the island of Lanka. After a cataclysmic battle, Rama defeats Ravana and returns in triumph with his rescued bride. In keeping with the epic theme of sorrow and separation, Rama submits to the pressure of public opinion, outraged that he has taken back a woman who has lived in another man’s house. Although he knows her to be faithful, Rama exiles his queen, now pregnant with their twins, to the forest, where she is rescued by the sage Valmiki, the author of this poem, who teaches it to her twin sons. As young boys, they perform the poem before Rama, which leads to their recognition by him. He once more recalls Sita. She returns, but in a last tragic gesture, when she stands before the entire assembled population, Sita calls upon her mother, the earth goddess, to testify to her fidelity. The goddess appears and takes her long-suffering daughter into her bosom and Sita disappears, bringing the epic to its end.


The readable introductions, which break new scholarly ground, are gripping and are bound to interest the ordinary reader. The translation is written in accessible contemporary English (with no thees and thous); the translation also includes portions of traditional commentaries for the first time ever and places footnotes in the back, where they will not bother the general reader. Each volume has on the cover a full-color illustration from the “Jagat Singh Ramayana,” an exquisite 17th century unpublished manuscript.

In a literary universe in which the dozens of new translations of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” that flow, uninterrupted, from the pens and word processors of scholars receive immediate and excited attention, one might assume that this far more ambitious and original undertaking, the translation of a vastly influential epic poem largely unknown in the West, would have aroused the interest of the literate public. Yet, so far as it can be determined, this translation, although it has been often praised in the scholarly journals, has barely been mentioned, let alone reviewed in any general circulation publication in spite of the fact that the first volume appeared 13 years ago. That is a pity; but it should not be taken to suggest that this work has nothing to offer to the general reader. On the contrary, Goldman and his team of translators and the Princeton University Press have made accessible a work that offers a unique window into a rich and ancient civilization. They present a carefully contextualized and densely annotated literal translation of a text which, like the Bible or the Koran, has profoundly shaped the world we share.

The Valmiki “Ramayana” is at once a remarkable adventure story, a tale of love and war, a meditation on the conflict of emotion and duty, a mirror for kings, a model for traditional society and for hundreds of millions of Hindus in South Asia and the worldwide South Asian diaspora and a history of God made flesh. Beyond that, it is, if not literally the world’s first poem, undoubtedly the first poem to speak seriously about the nature of poetry and the still unfathomed link between art and emotion. To work through this massive and haunting poem is to undertake a serious journey into another world. The translators and editors of Princeton’s Library of Asian Translations are to be congratulated for opening the door for us.