About the Book:
Valmiki's Ramayana, consisting of 24000 verses, is one of the most famous epics in the world's literature. Apart from its literary grandeur, it is also looked upon by the Hindus as a holy text.
Of the six sections or Kandas of the Ramayana, the present volume comprises the fifth, known as the Sundarakandam. Consisting as it does of 2885 Sanskrit verses, the Sundarakandam deals with the heroic exploits of Hanuman in one day and night, during which he crossed over to Lanka, discovered Sita, inflicted crushing defeat on Rakshasa forces, set fire to Lanka and returned to the southern shore of the Indian continent to convey the news of Sita's discovery to Rama at Kishkindha.
Devotee-scholars of India who equate the whole of the Ramayana with the Veda, consider the Sundara-kandam as its Upanishad, the essential portion. Its study is considered equal to the study of the whole Ramayana. Pious Hindus attach great psychic potency to this Text, and use it for ceremonial recitation for the attainment of various worldly blessings also.
Valmiki's Ramayana is one of the most famous epics of the world. In Sanskrit literary tradition, it is called Adikavya (the first among great poems) and Valmiki, the Adikavi (the primeval poet). Even after several millennia the claim of Valmiki and his Ramayana to this exalted rank ha snot been challenged by any other poet or poetical work. It consists of 24,000 verses divided into six Kandas or sections, Bala Kanda, Ayodhya Kanda, Aranya Kanda, Kishkindha Kanda, Sundara Kanda and Yuddha Kanda. A seventh section, Uttara Kanda, stands apart from the main epic.
Though Sundara Kanda comes as the fifth in order, comprising 2885 verses, it has received special attention from the lovers of literature and devotees. The very name given to it is quite distinct from the type of names by which the other chapters are known. They are called by names which clearly and unambiguously relate to the places where the events took place or the occasions to which the subject matter refers. Following the pattern of these earlier Kandas, this section should have been called Hanumat Kanda. But why the world Sundara, primarily meaning 'beautiful', is applied to this particular kanda is rather mysterious. It has led to many speculative interpretations of its significance. The direct meaning that comes to one's mind is that it refers to the literary excellence of the Kanda. In the great epic poem of Ramayana, it marks the acme of Valmiki's literary and poetical excellence, and so it is Sundara or beautiful. But many other meanings, direct and esoteric, have been given to it. It is suggested that it is Sundara, Because it relieved Sita of her sorrow. Sundara can mean a messenger, and the Kanda includes the message sent by Rama to Sita. Sundara is also a name for an intermediary who establishes a mutual contact between a hero and a heroine, as Hanuman did in the case of Rama and Sita. Sundara is said to be a name for a monkey and this chapter is so called, because it deals with the achievements of the monkey Hanuman. The recovery of something lost is sometimes described as Sundara, and in this section the topic dealt with is the discovery of Sita who had been lost. It can also be indicative of the great spiritual importance attached to this chapter. The study of this is considered as equivalent to the study of the whole of the Ramayana as far as spiritual merit is concerned. Just as the Upanishads are considered to contain the supreme purport of the Veda, this Kanda is supposed to be the heart of Ramayana, which is regarded as equal to the Veda in holiness.
Valmiki's Ramayana has a direct and indirect meaning. An ordinary reader sees in it only a great literary work dealing with the heroic exploits of Rama. But following the tradition that scriptural texts have indirect meanings also and that these form their essence, the great Indian devotee-thinkers, who have bestowed their devoted and life-long attention on the Ramayana, have found deep spiritual meanings in it, and they have interpreted it as an account of man's ethical and spiritual progress.
Incarnations are very mysterious in the sense that they are both human and divine, and so they are amenable to be viewed in both these respects. Their humanity is the mask of their divinity. Where a man's superficial understanding can see only an interesting narrative, a sage with insight can find deep spiritual meanings. There is nothing contradictory in the co-existence of both these views. A small particle of organic or inorganic matter is nothing to the naked eye of man, but the same thing is found to be marvelously complex under the microscopic views of a scientist. Both these views are correct. Only the first is superficial, while the other goes to the depth of things. The stories and achievements of divine Incarnations may look like literary fiction or mere poetical narratives to a man who studies them from the purely literary or historical point of view. To ay that we thus exhaust the significance of these divine personalities will be the summit of folly. Sages like Valmiki and Vyasa, who have gained penetrating vision through their spiritual development, could see in them much deeper meanings. They try to interpret such meanings to ordinary men, and in order to make the main teaching impressive to the mind of the common man, they may use the poetical method and the Pauranika way of depiction. The total effect meant to be conveyed through such writings of sages is not to teach history or geography but to impress on man the mystery of divine existence and the spiritual destiny of man. For example, the Bhagavata Purana after giving a long account of great devotee kings, finally says, "I have narrated the life-stories of all these great men who have departed leaving behind their memories. The object of all this literary effort is only to generate renunciation and spiritual enlightenment. Those who desire devotion to Krishna, should always hear such accounts dealing with the deeds and attributes of the Lord." So those who contend that such texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are fables or literary works like novels, because they cannot understand or reconcile themselves with many of the things mentioned in them, are basically wrong. They may be right in trying to get as much historical material as they can out of such a work, but to contend that it limits the significance of these writings and that the rest of it is all fictitious or nonsensical, is absolutely presumptuous. It overlooks the fact that they are the products of men with spiritual insight, who could see far deeper into things than others could do with their human, limited understanding.
Thus, the Sundara Kanda as also the whole of the Ramayana, has got its spiritual as also its literary and narrative aspects. The narrative of Sundara Kanda deals exclusively with the achievements of Hanuman in one night in his search for the discovery of Sita's whereabouts. Roused by Jambavan, Hanuman assumes cosmic dimensions and standing on the mount Mahendara, takes a leap through the skies to cross over the distance of a hundred Yojanas that separates Lanka from the shore of the mainland. On the way, he meets with obstruction from Surasa the mother of the Devas, sent by them to test his strength, and from the shadow-catching demoness called Simhika. He overcomes these obstructions without any difficulty. Mainaka, the submarine mountain, comes up by the prompting of the sea-god to give some rest to Hanuman on the way, but Hanuman sets him aside, as he has got to achieve his end in a very brief time. Reaching the shores of Lanka, he is opposed by Lanka Lakshimi, the protecting deity of the place. But in a duel, he subdues her and enters at night into Lanka, assuming the form of a small monkey that could not be noticed by others.
During the night, he goes through every nook and corner of Lanka. The description of the search is interspersed with vivid pictures of the night-life of the Rakshasas of Lanka. Hanuman then enters into the palace of Ravana and searches every where-in gardens, in banqueting halls, concert-rooms and bed-rooms. Scenes of drinking, of sleeping beauties, and even of Ravana snoring on his bed are painted in vivid verbal colours. Not findings Sita anywhere, Hanuman once or twice gets into moods of despair and resolves to commit suicide even. But still, encouraged by the fact that he had the special blessing of Rama, he continues to research, and at last comes across a highwalled garden full of Asoka trees. Hanuman who had not till then noticed or searched that place, gets into that garden and moves from tree to tree, looking for Sita everywhere.
At last he comes across a wide-spreading Simsupa tree under which he finds Sita seated, lean, dressed in worn-out clothes and ever absorbed in the thought of Rama. She is surrounded by a posse of Rakshasa women of grotesque and terrifying forms. Hiding within the branches of the Simsupa tree, Hanuman watches carefully the scenes that are taking place below. Towards the latter part of the night, Hanuman sees Ravana coming with a procession of women to see Sita and convey his love for her and to persuade her to become his wife. Sita, though situated in this tragic and helpless situation, spurns his advances with contempt, gives him an elaborate piece of advice regarding the conduct of honourable men towards women and also threatends him that the consequence of his misbehaviour towards her will be the total destruction of himself and the whole tribe of Rakshasas at the hands of Rama. Sita's challenging talk and contemptuous manner enrage Ravana in the extreme, and he gives Sita an ultimatum that if within two months she does not become subject to his will, he will make a breakfast of her body. He also instructs the guard of Rakshasa women to break the will of Sita by persuasion and threats.
After Ravana's departure, the Rakshasa women indulge in every kind of persecution of Sita until they are warded off by one elderly woman named Trijata, who had a dream of Rama coming to Lanka and destroying all the Rakshasas and rescuing Sita.
Afterwards, while all the Rakshasis are dozing, Hanuman makes an effort to come down and see Sita. But he feels that Sita would doubt his identity, as she knows that the Rakshasas are capable of assuming various forms for deceptive purposes. So from his seat on the branch of the tree he narrates the whole sage of Rama from his early life to the alliance with the monkeys in Kishkindha. Just before she hears this narration about Rama, Sita, falling into a desperate mood, had resolved to commit suicide. But this most unexpected narrative of Hanuman makes her desist from ending her life. Then Hanuman comes before Sita in the form of a monkey and enters into a conversation with her and finally creates confidence in her mind by presenting to her the signet ring that Rama had entrusted with him as a token.
After that, Hanuman enters into a heart-to-heart conversation with Sita and assures her that Rama has not forgotten her but is always thinking of ways and means of recovering her, and that immediately after he receives the news of her discovery, he will be coming to Lanka with an army to destroy Ravana and take her back. Then he receives from Sita her precious crest jewel to be presented to Rama, so that Rama may recognize the bona-fides of Hanuman's report of having met her.
Having thus achieved the main part of his mission, Hanuman wants to meet Ravana personally. For that purpose, he creates a situation by destroying all the trees in that garden so dear to Ravana. When the news about it is conveyed to Ravana by the Rakshasis, he sends a division of Rakshasa troops to capture and chastise the monkey, but all of them are killed by Hanuman with the utmost ease. At last Ravana's powerful son Indrajit binds him by a Brahma-missile and takes him to Ravana's presence. There, before the king of the Rakshasas, Hanuman fearlessly throws a challenge and a threat to Ravana that total destruction of himself and his tribe would be the consequence if he does not immediately restore Sita to Rama. Ravana, incensed by the insolence of the monkey, orders him to be killed, but later, on the persuasion of Vibhishana, reduces the sentence to mutilation.
Large quantities of cloth soaked in oil are now wound round Hanuman's tail and ignited. He is then paraded round the city with his tail on fire. But Hanuman overcomes the Rakshasa guard, and releasing himself from their control, goes about setting fire to a large part of Lanka. Having achieved all these, he leaps back to the main shore to meet his fellow monkeys who are waiting there. Then all the monkey hosts go in a triumphant march to Kishkindha where Rama is camping. Hanuman conveys the news of the discovery of Sita and hands over to Rama the crest jewel of Sita, as a token of the genuineness of his report. After this successful mission of Hanuman, Rama, along with the monkey leaders, starts planning the campaign they have to lead organize Lanka. With this description of Hanuman's achievement of a day and a night, as also of the triumphant return of the monkey army, the Sundara Kanda ends.
A word must be said here about the literary merit of this great text. Valmiki's poetry is characterized throughout by sublimity, felicity and naturalness of expression, and epic grandeur. Sundara Kanda, besides marking the summit of his poetical excellence, is also a masterpiece of characterization. It brings out two great characters, noted alike for the strength and nobility of nature they display. The two characters thus portrayed are those of Hanuman and Sita, the first standing for the ideal of masculine strength and the second for the feminine expression of courage. Hanuman is vividly described as one who never considers anything impossible. He is the very embodiment of strength and self-confidence. No danger or difficulty can thwart him from his purpose. A single individual crossing the seas, penetrating Sita is described by Valmiki with a wealth of details that are both impressive and imposing. Fear is a sentiment that does not come anywhere near Hanuman and relentless action is his motto. It is also to be noted that the source of his power, besides his own inherent strength, is his faith in Rama and the confidence generated by the fact that Rama had entrusted him with the signet-ring as a token to be shown to Sita. It is doubtful whether such a pen-picture of a heroic character as Valmiki has drawn in the Sundara Kanda could be met with anywhere else in the world of literature.
The other character, typifying female heroism, is Sita. In India Sita is always held as the ideal of womanhood. Generally, woman is considered the weaker sex, timid and dependent on man. But in Sita, we get a character that is unparalleled in faithfulness, in courage, and in undaunted heroism. They are as great as those of Hanuman, but the main difference is that these qualities are displayed in a passive way. Sita is abducted by Ravana and in the Sundara Kanda we get a vivid description of how she is confined in the Asoka grove, surrounded by threatening Rakshasis-all alone without anyone to commiserate and console her until she meets Hanuman. Valmiki describes how Ravana tries to seduce this helpless woman with the display of all his wealth and glory and promises of attractive rewards, and having failed in that, threatens her with death and the woeful Sita withstands these allurements and terrorizing tactics with a firmness that cannot be surpassed by the most heroic spirit. Without being cowed down a bit, she gives the most disdainful and fearless reply to Ravana's advances. Valmiki's portrayal of Sita in such a situation is at the same time a poem of pity and a painting of feminine courage offering a challenge to any threatening situation. The source of her courage, as that of Hanuman, is faith in Rama.
Though this Sundara Kanda looks apparently like a narrative of a section of the Rama saga, philosopher-devotees have found a hidden allegoric meaning in the whole narrative. It is represented as the quest of the awakened spiritual aspirant to cross over the ocean of Samsara and seek the Divine Spirit within through an analysis of the various layers of human personality. Hanuman is the awakened soul or intelligence endowed with Sattva quality. Jambavan is the enlightened spiritual teacher who offers him the advice necessary for awakening the spiritual potentialities. The vast ocean is the ocean of Samsara which the aspirant wants to cross. Surasa, Simhika, Malyavan, Lanka Lakshmi etc. who come in his way, is the obstacles that beset the path of the spiritual enquirer. Hanuman's search for Sita all through the night is illustrative of the Gita dictum: 'That which is night for all people, in that the self-controlled sage is awake.' Lanka with all its fortifications and gardens and palaces through which Hanuman makes his search represents the various layers or Kosas in man's mental make-up, through which the enquirer has to penetrate for attaining the goal. The search is arduous and often disappointing, as it was in the case of Hanuman, but the aspirant is to go on with his search undaunted and vigilant, with faith in the Supreme Spirit. Of the Divinity in himself, which is represented by Sita.
This, however, is only a bare outline of the mystic significance of the episode described. Thinkers on the Ramayana have attributed allegorical meanings to all the details also. In Indian scriptural tradition, it is an accepted principle that many accounts which look like stories have indirect spiritual meaning, conveying the principles of the Vedanta. If these principles are directly stated, at will not interest the ordinary people. So they are presented indirectly as allegories. By this it is not meant in any way to mitigate the truth of the narrative. It only means that great events have much more significance than the mind of ordinary man can see. These truths come to the perception of sages and they have attempted to give added significance to events described.
According to the belief of pious Hindus, Sundara Kanda is not merely a narrative of events or an allegory, but also a mine of power on which a devotee can draw for spiritual support in difficult worldly situations. Its recital with faith is considered a panacea for the various ailments and difficulties of man. Its daily repetition is potent enough to lift man up from very difficult situations, to help in the curing of dangerous diseases, to help him attain success and prosperity, and to promote his welfare in life in every way.
Texts dealing with the subject of the ritualistic recital of Sundara Kanda have laid down elaborate rules and Poojas connected with it. The central discipline of these ritualistic recitals consists in the number of times it is repeated. It varies from a repetition of the whole text sixty eight times in sixty eight days to reading it seven times at the rate of seven chapters a day. But those who cannot afford to observe all these rules are allowed to read it according to their capacity with absolute faith in Rama. Those who desire Moksha (liberation) are specially asked to read every day the first chapter dealing with Hanuman's crossing the sea. In this respect Ramayana is compared, nay, equated with the Veda itself. The Veda has its ritualistic portions for the fulfillment of Artha (welfare) Kama (desire) and Dharma (morality). But its ultimate purpose is Moksha (liberation) which is explicity discussed in the Upanishads and implied in the other portions. Of the Ramayana, Sundara Kanda is the core and it can provide all the values or ends sought by man. Thus the Sundara Kanda is a mine of spiritual inspiration and of all-round welfare and strength.
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