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The Valmiki Ramayana

Amish Tripathi





  Bala Kanda

  Ayodhya Kanda

  Aranya Kanda

  Kishkindha Kanda

  Sundara Kanda

  Yuddha Kanda

  Uttara Kanda


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  Bibek Debroy is a renowned economist, scholar and translator. He has worked in universities, research institutes, industry and for the government. He has widely published books, papers and articles on economics. As a translator, he is best known for his magnificent rendition of the Mahabharata in ten volumes, and additionally the Harivamsha, published to wide acclaim by Penguin Classics. He is also the author of Sarama and Her Children, which splices his interest in Hinduism with his love for dogs.

  Praise for The Mahabharata

  ‘The modernization of language is visible, it’s easier on the mind, through expressions that are somewhat familiar. The detailing of the story is intact, the varying tempo maintained, with no deviations from the original. The short introduction reflects a brilliant mind. For those who passionately love the Mahabharata and want to explore it to its depths, Debroy’s translation offers great promise . . .’—Hindustan Times

  ‘[Debroy] has really carved out a niche for himself in crafting and presenting a translation of the Mahabharata . . . The book takes us on a great journey with admirable ease’—Indian Express

  ‘The first thing that appeals to one is the simplicity with which Debroy has been able to express himself and infuse the right kind of meanings . . . Considering that Sanskrit is not the simplest of languages to translate a text from, Debroy exhibits his deep understanding and appreciation of the medium’—The Hindu

  ‘Debroy’s lucid and nuanced retelling of the original makes the masterpiece even more enjoyably accessible’—Open

  ‘The quality of translation is excellent. The lucid language makes it a pleasure to read the various stories, digressions and parables’—Tribune

  ‘Extremely well-organized, and has a substantial and helpful Introduction, plot summaries and notes. The volume is a beautiful example of a well thought-out layout which makes for much easier reading’—Book Review

  ‘The dispassionate vision [Debroy] brings to this endeavour will surely earn him merit in the three worlds’—Mail Today

  ‘Debroy’s is not the only English translation available in the market, but where he scores and others fail is that his is the closest rendering of the original text in modern English without unduly complicating the readers’ understanding of the epic’—Business Standard

  ‘The brilliance of Ved Vyasa comes through, ably translated by Bibek Debroy’—Hindustan Times

  For Professor Shailendra Raj Mehta


  The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are known as itihasas. The word itihasa means ‘it was indeed like that’. Therefore, the word is best rendered as legend or history, and not as myth. This does not mean everything occurred exactly as described. In a process of telling and retelling and oral transmission, embellishments are inevitable. However, the use of the word itihasa suggests a core element of truth. There were two great dynasties—surya vamsha and chandra vamsha.1 The first proper king of the surya vamsha was Ikshvaku and the Ramayana is a chronicle of the solar dynasty, or at least a part of its history. Similarly, the first king of the chandra vamsha was Ila and the Mahabharata is a chronicle of the lunar dynasty. The Puranas also describe the histories of the solar and lunar dynasties. Though there are some inconsistencies across genealogies given in different Puranas, the surya vamsha timeline has three broad segments: (1) from Ikshvaku to Rama; (2) from Kusha to Brihadbala; and (3) from Brihadbala to Sumitra. In that stretch from Ikshvaku to Rama, there were famous kings like Bharata (not to be confused with Rama’s brother), Kakutstha, Prithu, Yuvanashva, Mandhata, Trishanku, Harishchandra, Sagara, Dilipa, Bhagiratha, Ambarisha, Raghu, Aja and Dasharatha. These ancestors explain why Rama is referred to as Kakutstha, Raghava or Dasharathi.

  Rama had two sons—Lava and Kusha. Ikshvaku and his descendants ruled over the kingdom of Kosala, part of today’s Uttar Pradesh. The Kosala kingdom lasted for a long time, with the capital sometimes in Ayodhya and sometimes in Shravasti. When Rama ruled, the capital was in Ayodhya. After Rama, Lava ruled over south Kosala and Kusha ruled over north Kosala. Lava’s capital was in Shravasti, while Kusha’s capital was in Kushavati. We don’t know what happened to Lava thereafter, though he is believed to have established Lavapuri, today’s Lahore. The second segment of the surya vamsha timeline, from Kusha to Brihadbala, doesn’t have any famous kings. Brihadbala was the last Kosala king. In the Kurukshetra War, he fought on the side of the Kouravas and was killed by Abhimanyu. The third segment of the surya vamsha timeline, from Brihadbala to Sumitra, seems contrived and concocted. Sumitra is described as the last king of the Ikshvaku lineage, defeated by Mahapadma Nanda in 362 BCE. Sumitra wasn’t killed. He fled to Rohtas, in today’s Bihar.

  The Ramayana isn’t about these subsequent segments of the timeline. Though there are references to other kings from that Ikshvaku to Rama stretch, it isn’t about all of that segment either. Its focus is on Rama. It is difficult to date the poet Kalidasa. It could be anytime from the first century CE to the fifth century CE. Kalidasa wrote a mahakavya2 known as Raghuvamsha. As the name of this mahakavya suggests, it is about Raghu’s lineage, from Dilipa to Agnivarna, and includes Rama. But it isn’t exclusively about Rama. Ramayana is almost exclusively about Rama. That’s the reason it is known as रामायण = राम + अयण. अयन means travel or progress. Thus, Ramayana means Rama’s progress. There is a minor catch though. अयन means travel or progress and अयण is a meaningless word. The word used in Ramayana is अयण, not अयन. This transformation occurs because of a rule of Sanskrit grammar known as internal sandhi. That is the reason रामायन becomes रामायण.

  Who is Rama? The word राम means someone who is lovely, charming and delightful. There are Jain and Buddhist versions (Dasharatha Jataka) of the Rama account and they differ in significant details from the Ramayana story. For instance, in Jain accounts, Ravana is killed by Lakshmana. In Dasharatha Jataka, Sita is Rama’s sister. In Ramayana and Purana accounts, Rama is Vishnu’s seventh avatara.3 Usually, ten avataras are named for Vishnu, though sometimes, a larger number is also given. When the figure is ten, the avataras are matsya,4 kurma,5 varaha,6 narasimha,7 vamana,8 Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki (Kalki is yet to come). In the cycle of creation and destruction, yugas9 follow each other and one progressively goes down krita yuga (alternatively satya yuga), treta yuga, dvapara yuga and kali yuga, before the cycle starts again. In the list of ten avataras, matysa, kurma, varaha and narasimha are from the present krita yuga; Vamana, Parashurama and Rama are from the present treta yuga; Krishna is from dvapara yuga; and Buddha and Kalki are from kali yuga. Rama was towards the end of treta yuga. (In the ‘Uttara Kanda’, dvapara yuga has started.) Just as Krishna’s departure marked the transition from dvapara yuga to kali yuga, Rama’s departure marked the transition from treta yuga to dvapara yuga.

  When did these events occur? It is impossible to answer this question satisfactorily, despite continuous efforts being made to find an answer. At one level, it is an irrelevant question too. There is a difference between an incident happening and it being recorded. In that day and age, recording meant composition and oral transmission, with embellishments added. There was noise associated with transmission and distribution. It is impossible to unbundle the various la
yers in the text, composed at different points in time. Valmiki is described as Rama’s contemporary, just as Vedavyasa was a contemporary of the Kouravas and the Pandavas. But that doesn’t mean today’s Valmiki Ramayana text is exactly what Valmiki composed, or that today’s Mahabharata text is exactly what Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa composed. Therein lies the problem with several approaches to dating.

  The first and favoured method of dating is undoubtedly the astronomical one, based on positions of nakshatras and grahas,10 or using information about events like eclipses. However, because layers of the text were composed at different points in time, compounded by precession of the equinoxes, this leads to widely divergent dates for an event like Rama’s birth, ranging from 7323 BCE to 1331 BCE. Second, one can work with genealogies, notwithstanding problems of inconsistencies across them. One will then obtain a range of something like 2350 BCE to 1500 BCE. Third, one can work with linguistics and the evolution of language, comparing that of the Ramayana to other texts. Fourth, one can work with the archaeological evidence, such as the pottery discovered in sites known to be associated with the Ramayana. Even then, there will be a wide range of dates, from something like 2600 BCE to 1100 BCE. Fifth, one can consider geography, geology, changes in the course of rivers. Finally, there are traditional views about the length of a manvantara11 or yuga. Given the present state of knowledge, it is impossible to impart precision to any dating of the incidents in the Ramayana. Scholars have grappled with the problem in the past and will continue to do so in the future. This may be an important question. But from the point of view of the present translation, it is an irrelevant one.

  The present translation is about the Ramayana text. But what is the Ramayana text? After a famous essay written by A.K. Ramanujan in 1987 (published in 1991), people often mention 300 Ramayanas. It is impossible to fix the number, 300 or otherwise, since it is not possible to count satisfactorily—or even define—what is a new rendering of the Ramayana story, as opposed to a simple retelling, with or without reinterpretation. Contemporary versions, not always in written form, are continuously being rendered. There are versions of the Ramayana story in East Asia (China, Japan), South-East Asia (many countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia), South Asia (Nepal, Sri Lanka) and West Asia (Iran). As mentioned earlier, there are Buddhist and Jain versions. Every state and every language in India seems to have some version of the Rama story. Our impressions about the Rama story are often based on such regional versions, such as, the sixteenth-century Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidas. (Many of these were written between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries CE.) Those depictions can, and will, vary with what is in this translation. This translation is about the Sanskrit Ramayana. But even there, more than one text of the Sanskrit Ramayana exists—Valmiki Ramayana, Yoga Vasishtha Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana and Adbhuta Ramayana. In addition, there are versions of the Ramayana story in the Mahabharata and in the Puranas. With the exception of the Ramayana story in the Mahabharata, the Valmiki Ramayana is clearly the oldest among these. This is a translation of the Valmiki Ramayana and yes, there are differences between depictions in the Valmiki Ramayana and other Sanskrit renderings of the Rama story.

  If one cannot date the incidents of the Ramayana, can one at least conclusively date when the Valmiki Ramayana was written? Because of the many layers and subsequent interpolations, there is no satisfactory resolution to this problem either. The Valmiki Ramayana has around 24,000 shlokas, a shloka being a verse. The Mahabharata is believed to have 100,000 shlokas, so the Valmiki Ramayana is about one-fourth the size of the Mahabharata. These 24,000 shlokas are distributed across seven kandas—‘Bala Kanda’ (Book about Youth), ‘Ayodhya Kanda’ (Book about Ayodhya), ‘Aranya Kanda’ (Book of the Forest), Kishkindha Kanda (Book about Kishkindha), ‘Sundara Kanda’ (Book of Beauty), ‘Yuddha Kanda’ (Book about the War) and ‘Uttara Kanda’ (Book about the Sequel). Kanda refers to a major section or segment and is sometimes translated into English as Canto. ‘Canto’ sounds archaic, ‘Book’ is so much better. This does not mean the kanda-wise classification always existed. For all one knows, initially, there were simply chapters. In this text itself, there is a reference to the Valmiki Ramayana possessing 500 sargas. The word sarga also means Book, but given the number 500, is more like a chapter. (For the record, the text has more than 600 chapters.) Most scholars agree ‘Uttara Kanda’ was written much later. If one reads the ‘Uttara Kanda’, that belief is instantly endorsed. The ‘Uttara Kanda’ doesn’t belong. This isn’t only because of the content, which is invariably mentioned. It is also because of the texture of the text, the quality of the poetry. It is vastly inferior. To a lesser extent, one can also advance similar arguments for the ‘Bala Kanda’. Therefore, the earlier portions were probably composed around 500 BCE. The later sections, like the ‘Uttara Kanda’, and parts of the ‘Bala Kanda’, were probably composed around 500 CE. It isn’t the case that all later sections are in ‘Uttara Kanda’.

  There is a mix of earlier and later sections across all kandas. The word kanda also means trunk or branch of a tree. The Mahabharata is also classified into such major sections or Books. However, in the Mahabharata, these major sections are known as parvas. The word parva also means branch. However, parva suggests a smaller branch, one that is more flexible. Kanda suggests one that is more solid, less flexible. There may have been slight variations in shlokas across different versions of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, but fundamentally the Sanskrit Mahabharata is a single text. The original text expanded, like a holdall, to include everything. Those different versions have been ‘unified’ in a Critical Edition published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona (Pune). In the case of the Valmiki Ramayana, with its kanda-kind of classification, the evolution seems to have been different. If someone was unhappy with what Valmiki had depicted, he simply composed another Ramayana. In Sanskrit, mention has already been made of the Yoga Vasishtha Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana and Adbhuta Ramayana. This continued to happen with vernacular versions.

  This translation is of the Valmiki Ramayana. It is necessary to stress this point. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are so popular that one is familiar with people, stories and incidents. That doesn’t necessarily mean those people, stories and incidents occur in the Valmiki Ramayana in the way we are familiar with them. Just as the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute produced a Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, between 1951 and 1975, the Oriental Institute, Baroda, produced a Critical Edition of the Valmiki Ramayana. This translation is based on that Critical Edition, published sequentially between 1958 and 1975. Producing a Critical Edition meant sifting through a large number of manuscripts of the Valmiki Ramayana. The editors had around 2000 manuscripts to work with. Not all of these were equally reliable. Therefore, in practice, they worked with fifty to hundred manuscripts, the specific number depending on the kanda in question. It is not that there were significant differences across the manuscripts and broadly, there was a Southern Recension (version) and a Northern one, the latter sub-divided into a North-Western and a North-Eastern one. The earliest of these written manuscripts dates to the eleventh century CE. In passing, the language may have been Sanskrit, but the script wasn’t always Devanagari. There were scripts like Sharada, Mewari, Maithili, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, Nandinagari, Grantha and Malayalam. Since this translation is based on the Baroda Critical Edition, it is necessary to make another obvious point. Even within the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana, not everything we are familiar with is included in the Critical text. For instance, the configuration of nakshatras and planets at the time of Rama’s birth is not part of the Critical text. Nor is the bulk of one of the most beautiful sections of the Valmiki Ramayana, Mandodari’s lamentation. Those are shlokas that have been excised. That’s also the case with a shloka that’s often quoted as an illustration of Lakshmana’s conduct. नाहं जानामि केयूरं नाहं जानामि कुण्डलं । नूपरं तु अभिजानाम�
� नित्यं पादाभिवन्दनात ॥ This is a statement by Lakshmana to the effect that he cannot recognize the ornament on Sita’s head or her earrings. Since he has always served at her feet, he can only recognize her anklets. This too has been excised. There are instances where such excision has led to a break in continuity and inconsistency and we have pointed them out in the footnotes.

  There are two numbers associated with every chapter. The first number refers to the kanda, while the second number, within brackets, refers to the number of the chapter (sarga) within that kanda. Thus, Chapter 1(33) will mean the thirty-third chapter in ‘Bala Kanda’. The table below shows the number of chapters and shlokas we have in the Critical Edition. The Critical text has 606 chapters, 106 more than the 500 sargas mentioned in the text itself. And there are 18,670 shlokas. If one considers chapters and shlokas from non-Critical versions, irrespective of which version it is, there are almost 650 chapters and just over 24,000 shlokas. Compared to such non-Critical versions, very few chapters have been excised from ‘Bala’, ‘Ayodhya’, ‘Aranya’, ‘Kishkindha’ or ‘Sundara’ kandas. The excision is primarily from ‘Yuddha’ and ‘Uttara’ kandas. The excision of shlokas is uniformly spread throughout the kandas, though most excision, relatively speaking, is from the ‘Ayodhya’, ‘Yuddha’ and ‘Uttara’ kandas.

  Name of kanda Number of chapters Number of shlokas

  Bala Kanda 76 1941

  Ayodhya Kanda 111 3160

  Aranya Kanda 71 2060

  Kishkindha Kanda 66 1898

  Sundara Kanda 66 2487

  Yuddha Kanda 116 4435

  Uttara Kanda 100 2689

  Total 606 18,670

  Valmiki is the first poet, adi kavi. By the time of classical Sanskrit literature, some prerequisites were defined for a work to attain the status of mahakavya. Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, Shri Harsha and Bhatti composed such works. Though these notions and definitions came later, the Valmiki Ramayana displays every characteristic of a mahakavya and is longer than any of these subsequent works. The story of how it came about is known to most people who are familiar with the Ramayana. The sage Valmiki had gone, with his disciple Bharadvaja, to bathe in the waters of the River Tamasa. There was a couple of krouncha12 birds there, in the act of making love. Along came a hunter13 and killed the male bird. As the female bird grieved, Valmiki was driven by compassion and the first shloka emerged from his lips. Since it was composed in an act of sorrow—shoka—this kind of composition came to be known as shloka. So the Ramayana tells us. Incidentally, this first shloka doesn’t occur in the first chapter. It isn’t the first shloka of the Valmiki Ramayana. The incident and the shloka occur in the second chapter. More specifically, it is the fourteenth shloka in the second chapter and is as follows. मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वती: समाः । यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकमवधी काममोहितमू ॥ ‘O nishada! This couple of curlews was in the throes of passion and you killed one of them. Therefore, you will possess ill repute for an eternal number of years.’