The Valmiki Ramayana remains a living force in the lives of the Indian people. A timeless epic, it recounts the legend of Rama, the exiled prince of Ayodhya, and his battle to vanquish the demon king Ravana.
Exiled on the eve of his coronation, Rama enters the forests of Dandaka with his beautiful wife, Sita, and devoted brother, Lakshmana. When Sita is abducted by Ravana, who takes her to his isolated kingdom on the far side of the southern ocean, the two brothers set out to rescue her. What follows is a heroic tale filled with intrigue and adventure, gods and demons, colossal battles and ancient wisdom. But the Ramayana is also an intensely personal story of love and loss, duty and honour, petty jealousies and destructive ambitions.
In Bibek Debroy’s majestic new translation, the complete and unabridged text of the Critical Edition of this beloved epic can now be relished by a new generation of readers.
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. 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 any time from the first century CE to the fifth century CE. Kalidasa wrote a mahakavya 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. Usually, ten avataras are named for Vishnu, though sometimes, a larger number is also given. When the figure is ten, the avataras are matsya, kurma, varaha, narasimha, vamana, 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 layers 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, 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 manvantara 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.
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