Dichotomous legends surround the historical existence of the first poet (adikavi) Valmiki, the believed composer of the Hindu epic Ramayana, or first poem (adikavya) (Eliade 184). On one hand, folk legend reports that “the sage was born […] of a high- caste brahmin family”, while on the other hand he is surmised to have been a “sinner transformed into a saint” (Eliade 184). Valmiki’s biography has varying versions, and scholars speculate on which account may indeed be the real one (or perhaps a combination of both). However, the poetic form, sloka, which is accredited to him, has since been found throughout Hindu and Buddhist liturgy and remains an existent and tangible piece of evidence left by whoever the “legendary sage” truly was (Eliade 184, “Valmiki” n.d.).
The earliest documented mention of the name ‘Valmiki’ is in the Taittiriya Pratisakhya of the Black Yajur Veda school (Leslie 80). While the exact date of this manual is impossible to determine, as is much early Sanskrit liturgy, it is postulated to have been composed sometime after Panini, but before Patanjali, in the period between c. 350 and c. 150 BCE (Leslie 80-81). That being said, the name “Valmiki” has not always been connected unequivocally to the poet-saint of the Ramayana (Leslie 80). However, for purposes here, the focus of the remainder of this article will be centered on the sage-author and sage-character of the epic.
The obstacle for historians is not that of supporting Valmiki’s title of adikavi, but, that of discovering who he actually was amongst the surfeit of lore and myth surrounding the historical grammarian (Leslie 79). “The historicity of Valmiki is somewhat uncertain because the traditions referring to him are late and unsupported by anything other than still later texts repeating, modifying, or elaborating on the stories” (Sil). “According to a legend, Valmiki was a robber who one day met a hermit who transformed him to a virtuous being” (Das). This alludes to the poet-saint figure’s narrative which begins with his escaping from a termite mound to which he is bound and found reciting Rama’s name. Rsis refer to the metaphorically reborn pupil as Valmiki, whom the god Visnu decrees to be the author of the Ramayana (Leslie 152). This account of Valmiki seems to concern the earlier portion of his life. In the first book of the Ramayana, the character Valmiki is presented as a “gifted saint […] from a hermitage in the valley of the river Tamsa”, situated in the northern region of India in the Kaimur Range in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh respectively, several miles south of Ayodhyā in north central India (Sil, “Tamsa River” n.d.). Within book one, the initial four chapters provide a description of Valmiki in some detail, and begin with presenting him as an ascetic and notably “…the most potent of munis or munipumgava” (Leslie 97). The Sanskrit translation which is most often applied to Valmiki, varies and can mean “saint, sage, seer, ascetic, monk, devotee, hermit, and so on”. Munis often undertake a vow of silence (maunavrata), therefore rendering a perfect English equivalent nearly impossible (Leslie 80). That Valmiki is earnestly betrothed to the practice of asceticism is an important and continuous motif in the character and persona of this figure in the Ramayana (Leslie 97).
The second chapter of the epic reveals that Valmiki is an articulate and persuasive speaker as well as a virtuous man who is intelligent and has attracted his own following of devoted men (Leslie 97). He is described as a “great souled…dvija” or “twice-born rsi” which usually indicated someone of Brahmin status in the epics (Leslie 97). The third and fourth chapters of the Ramayana follow suit describing Valmiki as “saintly” and “holy”, giving an overall persona of an extraordinary individual – “…muni, rsi, ascetic; high-minded, innately wise, trained in religious ritual, and learned in matters of dharma…worthy of the company of the Gods” (Leslie 99). It is at this point in the Ramayana that this great and holy man is bestowed with the spiritual vision, attained through meditation and not recitation, of the poetic story of Prince Rama, told eloquently in the epic through some twenty-four thousand sloka verses (Leslie 99, “Ramayana” 2016). The problem with these rich descriptions is of course the lack of information regarding Valmiki’s early life.
In contrast to the latter descriptions of Valmiki, the Adhyatma Ramayaṇa (esoteric Ramayaṇa), an anonymous work in Sanskrit, probably written in the fifteenth century, describes a very different person in historical question, and perhaps provides us with a window into the earlier, lesser-known life of this figure (Sil). This version finds a younger Valmiki who, although Brahmin in status, is a questionable character. He associates with other dubious characters, and takes to a life of burglary and corruption, even amidst married and parental life (Sil). This account seems to concern his early life. Legend describes a young man by the name of Ratnakara, who after a life of corruption, realizes that his family will not be a part of his sins, and thereafter leaves to live as a hermit among hermits, learning the Vedas for redemption (Sil). “Thereupon the penitent reprobate began chanting Rāma’s name oblivious of time; gradually his body was covered under an anthill (valmika)” (Sil). Questions have been raised by scholars regarding the class of Valmiki, since his early life does not denote that of a typical Brahmin. Julia Leslie examines the possibility that he may have been of the Sudra class, or even lower as a dalit, or untouchable, in her in depth analysis of Valmiki (25-35). Since there is no definitive documentation about this, it is open to interpretation (Leslie 25-35).
Worth mentioning with regard to a proper biography of the great poet Valmiki, is his legacy, the poetic form sloka (Leslie 97-98, “Valmiki” n.d.). The story from the Ramayana describes perfectly how this form came to be (Leslie 97-98). Valmiki, so stirred with compassion at the death of an Indian Sarus crane by the hands of a tribal hunter (nisada) bluntly utters a curse (or lament) in the sloka form:
‘May you find no peace, Nisada, for all eternity – because you killed the male of this loving kraunca pair when he was intoxicated by desire!’ (Ram, 1.2.14)
So inspiring is that moment of poetic creation that Valmiki’s delighted disciple promptly commits the verse to memory (v. 18) (Leslie 97-98). The god Brahma then comes to speak with this man who ‘knows what is right’, addressing Valmiki as “brahmin” and “best of rsis” (Leslie 97-98). “Brahma is impressed by Valmiki’s eloquence […] and asks him to compose the story of Rama in the form of slokas” (Leslie 97-98). Thus, the epic the Ramayana was composed (Leslie 97-98).
Sloka has a distinct and specific form. It means “sound,” “song of praise,” “praise,” or “stanza”, it is the chief verse form of the Sanskrit epics” (“sloka” 2016). A fluid meter that works well with extemporization in poetic verse, sloka lays itself out in two-verse lines, consisting of sixteen syllables each (“sloka” 2016). Accordingly, “the Ramayaṇa is arguably one of the finest works of Sanskrit poetry in respect of both contents and form” (Sil).
What is the significance of this mythical author and his epic the Ramayana? Valmiki’s classic is far reaching and has survived many ages, and “over the centuries, the story of Rama has spread across the world” (Leslie 118). There are various versions of the Rama story cross-culturally, including “the Pali Dasaratha Jataka of the Buddhist tradition” which is probably derived from Valmiki’s Ramayana (Leslie 118). Not only is Valmiki’s Ramayana syncretic in nature, it has been translated into numerous vernacular languages as well, including but not limited to Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, and Hindi (Leslie 160). The Ramayana is popular and timeless among Hindus, with its “themes of annyaya (injustice), darpa (arrogance), moha (infatuation), dharma (righteousness), and nyaya (justice) coinciding with the foundations of the Hindu worldview” (Sil). The west was first exposed to Valmiki’s Ramayana in 1843, by an Italian named Gaspare Gorresio, with the provision of Charles Albert, King of Sardinia (Sil).
Mystery remains around the legendary author and sage Valmiki, the eminent author of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. “All that the biographer can do is gather traditions which deal with Valmiki, sift them, and study the evolution of his life-story as it becomes revealed in them” (Bulke, via Leslie 79). While the undoubted importance of the first poet (adikavi) of the Ramayana remains indisputable, we are only able to make biographical sense of this Hindu hero in the present through deduction in myth from the past (Bulke via Leslie 79).
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING
Bulke, Camille (1958) “About Valmiki (Materials for the biography of Valmiki, author of the first Ramayana.” Journal of the Oriental Institute. 8(2):121-131. Baroda.
Das, Subhamoy (2015) “Maharshi Valmiki: The Great Sage & Author of The Ramayana.” hinduism.about.com. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://hinduism.about.com/od/gurussaintsofthepast/a/valmiki.htm
Das, Subhamoy (2014) “The Ramayana: India’s Most Loved Epic.” hinduism.about.com. Accessed February 26, 2016. http://hinduism.about.com/od/epics/a/ramayana.htm
Eliade, Mircea Ed. (1987) “Valmiki.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 15:184. NewYork: Macmillan.
Leslie, Julia (2003) Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki. Burlington: Ashgate Pub Ltd.
“Ramayana” (2016) In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://academic.eb.com.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/EBchecked/topic/490529/Ramayana
Sil, Narasingha P. (2004) “Valmiki.” Great Lives from History: The Ancient World, Prehistory 476 c.e. Editor: Salowey, Christina A. Hackensack: Salem. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://online.salempress.com.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca
“Sloka” (2016) In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://academic.eb.com.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/EBchecked/topic/548917/sloka
“Tamsa River” (n.d) In Discovered India.com. Accessed February 20, 2016. Retrieved
“Valmiki” (n.d) In Wikipedia. Accessed February 20, 2016. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valmiki
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Black Yajur Veda School
Charles Albert, the King of Sardinia
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Laura Gunn (Feb – April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.