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Laurance Wieder

How Poetry Began with Grief

India's earliest epic.

The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki is the oldest Sanskrit epic. Over seven books and some 50,000 lines, the poem celebrates the life of Rama, incarnation of Vishnu, founder of the Golden Age, peerless warrior, master of scripture, obedient son and exemplary brother, dedicated lover and husband of Sita, daughter of the Earth.

Vālmīki composed his holy story of Rama and Sita sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries before the Common Era. That makes his poem younger than Hesiod's Theogony and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but roughly contemporaneous with writings of the Hebrew Prophets, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Plato.

Nothing is hidden. Sacred legend, the struggle between good and evil, divine intention and human ambition, the cross-currents of personal obligation and right conduct, and the possibility of happiness, all unfurl in a work meant to be both read and performed. The Rāmāyaṇa informs, enlightens, and entrances, even in translation.

Bālakānda, or Boyhood, Book 1 of the epic's seven books, tells the story of the Rāmāyaṇa's own conception in its first four cantos. It also tells the history of Rama at least two ways, before the actual events unfold. Throughout, Vālmīki 's poem vibrates between heightened self-awareness and rapture.

Canto 1 opens with Vālmīki asking the sage Narada: "Is there a man in the world today who is truly virtuous?"

The sage responds that there lives a man named Rama. He then relates what might be called Rama's official history, from princely birth to exile and martial triumphs, ending with the Golden Age.

After he hears Rama's story, Vālmīki goes down to the riverbank to bathe. There, he sees a Nisháda hunter kill the male of a pair of krauñcha birds. Filled with grief at this injustice, the ascetic says: "Since, Nisháda, you killed one of this pair of krauñchas, distracted at the height of passion, you shall not live for very long." But even as he speaks, the compassionate sage wonders what this is which he has uttered. Upon reflection, Vālmīki decides that his utterance, its elaborately patterned syllables "produced in this access of shoka, grief, shall be called shloka, poetry, and nothing else."

Next, Brahma, the maker of worlds, visits Vālmīki , and informs him that it was by the god's will alone that the poet produced his shloka, his elegant speech. Brahma then commands Vālmīki to compose the entire history of Rama as he heard it from Naráda, "the full story, public and private …. For all that befell … will be revealed to you, even those events of which you are ignorant. No utterance of yours in this poem shall be false."

In the days after Rama regained his kingdom, the seer Vālmīki composed the whole Rāmāyaṇa. Its episodes, as rehearsed in Canto 3, include the future and final events which had not yet befallen Rama on earth.

But who would perform this story of Sita and the slaying of Ravana, which is "sweet both when recited and when sung …, eminently suitable for the accompaniment of both stringed and percussion instruments"?

In Canto 4, the youths Kusha and Lava become Vālmīki 's students, learning the entire Rāmāyaṇa by heart. Gifted musicians, they sing the poem with such single-minded concentration before assemblies of seers, brahmans, and good men, that its events seem to be happening before their eyes.

Vālmīki 's two disciples are brothers, princes, Rama's sons by Sita. They do not know their father. Rama, in turn, is unaware of their existence. Yet the fame of their performance reaches royal Rama's household. So the king brings the singers to his home and, turning to his own brothers Lakshmana, Shatrughna, and Bharata, says: "Let us listen to this tale, whose words and meaning alike are wonderful …. Moreover, it is said that this profound tale they tell is highly beneficial, even for me. Listen to it." Kusha and Lava begin "to sing in the full perfection of the marga mode. And right there in the assembly, even Rama, in his desire to experience it fully, gradually permitted his mind to become enthralled."(1.4.25-29)

Whatever its historical date of composition, the Rāmāyaṇa was written in the early days of Rama's regained kingdom, which places Vālmīki 's discovery of poetry at the end of Yuddhakāṇḍa, Book 6 in the epic chronology.

Yuddhakāṇḍa, the sixth of seven planned volumes from the Rāmāyaṇa Translation Project, has just been published by Princeton University Press. Yuddhakāṇḍa sings the war of annihilation between the forces of good and evil. Led by Rama and his brother Lakshmana, the massed armies of the monkey King Sugriva and the hero Hanuman cross the ocean from the mainland to Lanka, capital of the ten-headed rakshasa (demon) king, Ravana. They destroy the evil demon's kingdom and reunite the abducted Sita with Rama. Rama returns home after his 14-year exile, reclaims his throne, and ushers in the Golden Age.

The longest book in Vālmīki 's epic, Yuddhakāṇḍa unfolds over 116 sargas, or cantos. They fill 376 pages in translators Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten's stanza-spaced, numbered prose verses. The Englished shlokas, with their carefully pointed, romanized Sanskrit words where English will not serve, look like a kind of poetry which disregards the customary rules yet summons the need to understand rather than the impulse to correct. An 118-page scholarly introduction and 1,161 octavo pages of back-matter annotations, bibliography, glossary, and index support, but don't intrude upon, the body of the text. The introduction takes up matters of meaning, theme and character, style and structure, commentary and translation. There's even a discussion of Yuddhakāṇḍa's cinematic qualities. The extensive annotation considers variant passages. It clarifies such details as the identity of beings, weapons, and creatures that retain their Sanskrit names in the translation. For example, the hamsa is a bar-headed goose, Mute swan, or Whooper swan; and the sarasa is the Indian sarus crane.

The first five volumes of this translation of the Rāmāyaṇa are also available from the Clay Sanskrit Library. Easier to come by than the Princeton versions, the Clay editions are bilingual, a Sanskrit counterpart to the Loeb Classical Library. Addressed to Sanskrit students, these sextodecimo books eschew big scholarly apparatus. A brief introduction and guides to pronunciation and punctuation precede the romanized, transliterated Sanskrit verse with facing translation. Unlike the scholarly edition, the Clay Library sets its English text as prose. Marginal numbers synchronize the paragraphs with the corresponding Sanskrit shlokas. Each volume ends with a glossary and index.

Without the formality of verse blocks, the same translation reads like a narrative. There are other differences. The Clay volumes go by plain English or simplified rather than full Sanskrit titles. (The forthcoming Princeton University Press edition of the seventh volume, Uttarakanda, will appear in the bilingual Clay Sanskrit Library edition as The Final Chapter.) Also, the orthographic rigors of the Princeton edition are dropped.

The pleasures of Sanskrit-verse-in-English take some getting used to. Elegantly mannered and rhetorically extravagant, it possesses gravity, expressive breadth, and profound credibility. Profusion of detail and address informs every line like a creative principle, a force of nature.

The Yuddhakāṇḍa opens with Rama prey to the despondence he's felt since the day back in Book 3, The Forest, when Ravana abducted Sita from their ashram in exile. Now, in the second sarga of Book 6, Rama's ally, Sugriva the monkey king, asks: "Why do you grieve, hero, like some other, ordinary man? Don't be like that! Abandon your grief, as an ingrate does friendship."

Despite Sugriva's urgings that he recall himself and lead Hanuman and the vast monkey army across the ocean to Lanka where Sita's held captive, Rama laments to his brother, Lakshmana:

"They say that grief diminishes with the passage of time. But bereft as I am of the sight of my beloved, mine only increases day by day.
"I do not suffer because my beloved is so far away, nor even because she has been abducted. This alone is the source of all my grief: her youth is slipping away.
"Blow, breeze, where my beloved stays. Touch her and then touch me. For the touching of our limbs now depends on you, as on the moon depends the meeting of our glances." (6:5:4-6)

The greater part of Yuddhakāṇḍa consists of battle scenes of a visual and auditory intensity very different in kind from the earth-bound pitched battles in the Iliad, or Herodotus' descriptions of Xerxes' armies. Consider the crescendo-decrescendo and hot-to-cold flashing of this confrontation, with its shifting perspective:

Then, in that terrible darkness, the frenzied rakshasas attacked Rama with hails of arrows.
And the uproar that they made as they rushed upon him, roaring in fury, was like the sound of the upheaval of the seven seas at the time of universal destruction ….
Pierced in every vital point by Rama with his hail of arrows, they crawled away from the battle, barely clinging to life.
Then mighty Rama illuminated all directions with his arrows which, with their shafts adorned with gold, resembled flames of fire.
As for the remaining rakshasa heroes who stood their ground before Rama, they, too, were destroyed, like moths entering a flame.

With thousands of arrows flying, their feathers fletched with gold, the night was as lovely as an autumnal evening sparkling with fireflies. (6.34.16-23)

This poetry of elaboration and profusion turns the common ancestry of bow and stringed instruments into a mortal concert, marrying aesthetic splendor to horror and pathos: "With the twanging of bowstrings in place of the sweet sound of the lute, the gasps of the dying for the beating of time, and the faint cries of the wounded in place of singing, the battle resembled a musical recital." (6.42.23)

Typically, the Rāmāyaṇa describes the troops waging this war between the monkeys and the rakshasa hosts in millions and billions. In time the large numbers, like the chilly distances of astronomy or the vaporous magnitudes of plutocrats and economists, beggar understanding and numb pity. Homer particularized his warriors, granting even walk-on combatants a unique history, distinction, and anatomically explicit death. Or he imagined sublime unequal single combat, like Achilles fighting with the river Skamander outside the walls of Troy. Vālmīki celebrates the battle for Lanka as a conflict of race against race, so vast it needs four shlokas to anatomize the undifferentiated legions who feed the maw:

Indeed, the battleground resembled a river. Masses of slain heroes formed its banks, and shattered weapons, its great trees. Torrents of blood made up its broad waters, and the ocean to which it flowed was Yama. Livers and spleens made up its deep mud, scattered entrails its waterweeds. Severed heads and trunks made up its fish, pieces of limbs, its grass. It was crowded with vultures in place of flocks of hamsas, and it was swarming with adjutant storks instead of sarasa cranes. It was covered with fat in place of foam, and the cries of the wounded took the place of its gurgling. It was not to be forded by the faint of heart. Truly, it resembled a river at the end of the rains, swarming with hamsas and sarasa cranes. (6.46.25-28)

The hyperbolic sublime also has its droll moments. In Sarga 48, Ravana sends an army to awaken the enormous rakshasa Kumbhakarna, who is addicted to sleep. Over forty shlokas, the hard-put delegates of the ten-necked demon king try to arouse the sleeper first with piles of meat, then with pots of blood and strong drink. They smear him with sandalpaste, utter praises and roaring. They blow conches, clap their arms, belabor the giant with bludgeons and cudgels and maces, but they cannot withstand the wind from his snoring. They beat drums, they drive horses, camels, donkeys and elephants over him:

[F]inally, when they made a thousand elephants trample across his body, Kumbhakarna, aware of a slight sensation, at last awoke.
Ignoring the tremendous blows of mountaintops and trees that were being hurled down upon him, he suddenly leapt up at the violent interruption of his sleep, yawning and oppressed by fear and hunger.
Stretching wide his arms, which were as strong as mountain peaks and resembled two mountain peaks or great serpents, that night-roaming rakshasa yawned grotesquely, opening his mouth, which was like a gaping mare's head fire that lies beneath the sea.
And as he yawned prodigiously, his mouth, as wide as the underworld Patala, resembled the sun, maker of day, risen over the summit of Mount Meru.
Yawning, the enormously powerful night-roaming rakshasa was at last fully awake. His breath was like a gale from the mountains. (6:48:47-51)

Having slain Ravana, granted him a funeral, and consecrated the demon's brother Vibhisana as the new king of Lanka, Rama dispatches Hanuman to Ravana's palace with a message for Sita. "Inform her," Rama commands, "that Sugriva, Lakshmana and I are well, and that I have slain Ravana …. Please take a message from her and return."

To this embassy Sita responds, "Foremost of monkeys, I wish to see my husband."

Her reply plunges Rama into gloom. Staring at the ground, he orders that Sita be washed and adorned and brought before him, although she would have preferred to appear before him as the rescued captive. Instead, surrounded by hosts of his friends, Rama receives his wife:

"So here you are, my good woman. I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle. Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished ….
"I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased. For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.
"Today … I am once more master of myself."
As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.
But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a fire drenched with melted butter ….
"In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do ….
"Bless you, but it was not on your account that I undertook this war ….
"Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation ….
"Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.
"Go, therefore, as you please, daughter of Janaka. You have my permission. Here are the ten directions. I have no further use for you, my good woman.
"For what powerful man born in a respectable family—his heart tinged with affection—would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?"

Sita bids Lakshmana to build a pyre. She circles Rama, bows to the gods and brahmans, declares her purity, and "As Sita entered the fire, a deafening and prodigious cry of 'Alas! Alas!' arose from the rakshasas and monkeys."

The gods fly to Lanka in their chariots, and Brahma asks Rama, "How can you, the creator of the entire universe, the most ancient one, and foremost among those possessing supreme knowledge, stand by and watch as Sita falls into the fire, eater of oblations? How can you not realize that you are foremost among the hosts of the gods?"

To which Rama replies, "I think of myself only as a man, Rama, the son of Dasaratha. May the Blessed Lord please tell me who I really am, to whom I belong, and why I am here?"

For all the monkeys, vultures, divine beings, demons, and gods swirling through the Rāmāyaṇa, only Rama and Sita count as avatars of true feeling. Married, peerless, loving, and devoted to the practice of righteousness, power, and pleasure, neither will ever know another partner. Separated twice—once by Ravana to incite a holy war, and once by Rama's decision to embrace the burden of sovereignty, as will be recounted in Book 7—the monogamous pair make a strong case for mortal unhappiness.

The Rāmāyaṇa has generated literary spin-offs and reimaginings for 1,500 years at least. In the 4th century CE, the poet Bhatti wrote The Death of Ravana, a retelling of Rama's story that teaches classical Sanskrit grammar without a textbook. Rama's Last Act, an early 8th-century ce Sanskrit play by Bhava·bhuti, dramatizes the events of Uttarakanda. Murari's play Rama Beyond Price is a seven-act remake of Vālmīki 's poem that closes with the triumphs of Yuddhakāṇḍa minus the trial by fire, and with a happy ending. All three works are available in the Clay Sanskrit series.

An illustrated Rāmāyaṇa commissioned by the 17th-century Rajasthani ruler Jagat Singh has been reproduced by the British Library, with 128 color plates. The manuscript makes a pictorial narrative of Vālmīki 's poem. There's a book-by-book plot summary, and running captions identify the episodes depicted. Of course, visual imagination stands in the stead of poetry.

In Vālmīki 's world, poetry is the highest form of discourse: a measured utterance capable of simultaneous ecstasy and cognition. Poetry is "replete with all the poetic sentiments: the humorous, the erotic, the piteous, the wrathful, the heroic, the terrifying, the loathsome and the rest." How else could it speak truly of the human? How else to come to terms with this world?

Books Also mentioned in this essay:

The Clay Sanskrit Library Ramayana of Valmiki
Book 1: Boyhood / Balakanda
Translated by Robert Goldman, NYU Press, 2005

Book 2: Ayodhyakanda
Translated by Sheldon I. Pollock, NYU Press, 2005

Book 3: The Forest / Aranyakanda
Translated by Sheldon I. Pollock, NYU Press, 2005

Book 4: Kishkindhakanda
Translated by Rosalind Lefeber, NYU Press, 2005

Book 5: Sundarakanda
Translated by Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman, NYU Press

The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic
Edited by J. P. Losty, British Library, 2008

Bhatti's Poem: The Death of Ravana
Translated by Oliver Fallon, Clay Sanskrit Library/ NYU Press, 2009

Rama's Last Act
Translated by Sheldon Pollock, Clay Sanskrit Library/ NYU Press, 2007

Rama Beyond Price
Translated by Judit Törzsök, Clay Sanskrit Library/ NYU Press, 2007

Laurance Wieder is a poet living in Charlottesville, Virginia. His books include The Last Century: Selected Poems (Picador Australia) and Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms (Eerdmans). He can be found regularly at PoemSite, a monthly broadside in the landscape (free subscription available from poemsite@gmail.com).

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