Ramayanam as told by Valmiki and Kamban


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The story of Rama has been told many times, in many languages, ever since Valmiki's account of it shaped itself about two thousand years ago. The reader would, therefore expect to find a manifest justification for one more book, beyond that of the author's subjective satisfaction in handling the great story.

What this book offers is a comparative study of Ramayanam as told by the adikavi, Valmiki, and as rendered by Kamban, the first poet to re-tell the epic in a regional language, viz., Tamil. Kamban came nearly ten centuries after Valmiki: his language, Tamil, endowed him with an inheritance that was rich and felicitous, yet distinct from Sanskrit. Thus, commonality as well as individuality can be discerned in every page, as the; two poets are held side by side. While Valmiki is the source and inspiration for Kamban, the difference in the cultural milieu that influenced the two poets is reflected in the many little points of linguistic and literary excellence that enrich the narrative, in either language.

However, what has been a desideratum is a comparative view of the two classics; although translations in English are available of Valmiki in full and of Kamban in parts, a critical appreciation of the two is something which the earnest reader does not have. This work has its genesis in the belief that a binocular view of Valmiki and Kamban can open up unseen vistas of literary gratification – belief which I had occasion to test in my book Kavya Ramayanam' that came out in Tamil. The response which that book has evoked has been such as to reiterate the importance of bilingual studies. The growing interest in Ramayana studies in the countries of S.E. Asia also warrants the assumption that a study of this kind can stimulate further interest in the literary aspect of the two classics in Sanskrit and Tamil.

Literature is, indeed the aspect on which the focus is held; for it is as an epic poem that Valmiki gave his work to the world and that works is held as primeval in Indian literature. If succeeding generations fostered the divinity of Rama, it was a consequence of the custom by which ruling chief sought to identify themselves with Rama, leading to the notion of deva-raja, which spread even beyond the shores of India. To reinforce the image of Rama as an avatara of Visnu was to raise themselves in the eyes of their subjects. Kamban's epic which belongs to the tenth century A. D. retains, in adequate measure, the vitality of human characterization that is manifest in Valmiki; with an occasional reference in extolling terms to the divinity of Rama, Kamban achieves a portrait with a multi-dimensional effect without detriment to the human aspect.

Rama, as an incarnation of Visnu, stands deified in the temples of India: as one who embodies some of the noblest of human virtues, Rama is enshrined in the hearts of millions of human beings in Asia. Held in esteem as an exemplar of moral power, Rama bolds sway in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, establishing, beyond set notions, the ennobling experience of nobility of character in its universal aspect. Humanity owes that experience to the creative genius of Valmiki.

How that genius came to him in a flash is, by itself, a story of literary significance. For, it was when Valmiki reacted with compassion towards an innocent bird unjustly killed by a cruel hunter that his speech acquired a poetic quality: Valmiki the saint became Valmiki the poet instantly. It was in that mood and in such newly-endowed gift of expression that Valmiki was led to undertake the task of telling the story of Rama, in epic style. Tradition has it that it was Brahma who ordained Valmiki to do so: but, perhaps, there is equal significance in the studied use of the Sanskrit words soka and sloka to describe how sorrow {on seeing the plight of the injured bird} gave rise to poetry, worthy of the great task. The word kavi, which denotes a poet, as well as a sage, is also derived etymologically from the verb ku which means the wailing cry of a bird.

Chastened by a distressing experience that evoked compassion, blessed by the Creator, and inspired by the blossoming of the poetic genius that lay dormant, Valmiki became uniquely gifted. What he achieved there from was the creation of unique characters – Rama, Sita and Ravana – each unique; in all the literature of India they remain without parallel.

Rama, the hero, is a prince of valour and nobility, born to rule. But he grows into a man with commitment to dharma, thanks to his tutelage under Vasistha and Viswamitra in early life. In all situations, whether it be in joy or sorrow, in triumph or in failure, whether it be in the palace or in the forest, Rama sees himself as impelled by dharma. The result is the evolution of an unusual personality – a royal hero, obsessed by unworldly principles; in his detachment of life, Rama is perceived as close to Lord Buddha.

Ravana, the anti-hero, is also unique in his own way. Born is Visravas, a Brahmin of great spiritual power, Ravana learns the discipline of taopasya (penance) which leads to his acquisition of superhuman power, both physical and spiritual. The influence of his tribal mother, Kaikasi, reflects itself in his ambition, cunning and ruggedness. The results is unbridled arrogance. Winning boon after boon from the gods through penance, moving from victory to victory in war with demons and deities, capturing woman after woman by means of pelf and lure, Ravana lets his ego soaraloft until it becomes necessary for it to be brought down by a 'mere man', as he perceives Rama.

Sita the central figure, enters the story as a charming girl on the eve of her marriage; born to web ad life a life of regal splendour, she find herself overtaken by events that test her resources, again and again. As she goes through them – banishment from Ayodhya, abduction in Dandakaranya, and imprisonment in Lanka – she is seen to grow into a woman of steel; every course in adversity brings out a new hidden strength within. The acme of hers is when the fall of Ravana brings her face to face with a hostile husband; instead of the triumphant hero she longed to be reunited with. Her final vindication is an attestation of what feminine power can attain, when imbued with quality, implied in the word maha-bhaga, which described Sita as a young bride.

Such distinct individuality of character is unraveled in the course of a story that is rich in dramatic moments and sudden turns, in which individuality as well as strength seem to be frequently under test and trial. The banishment of Rama on the very day he was to take the crown, consequent upon a sudden change of heart in his step-mother Kaikeyi, who was really fond of him, is the beginning of such quirks of fortune that fall to the lotof of the main characters. The chance arrival of Surpanakha near the precincts of Rama's cottage in Dandakaranya, which eventually leads to Ravana's abduction of Sita, is another.

Among the other features that embellish the epic, one is the interplay of cultures as obtaining in different societies – the value-based aristocracy of Ayodhya, the forest-welling clan of vanaras and the ruggedly mighty raksasas. Another is the juxtaposition of fraternal affinity as manifest in Rama's family, with the running feud between Sugriva and vail, and the strongly differing loyalties that are exhibited by Ravana's brothers. By far the most significant element in the story is the transformation of Ravana, from arrogance to abject surrender, in the face of the moral power which Sita is able to invoke. The manner of in which the rude chieftain brings innocent Sita as prisoner in lonely Lanka, while she trembles in fear and wails in grief, only to result gradually in reversal of roles as Ravana begs for love, placing his head at her feet, while the spurns his offers and rebukes him firmly, would conform to the Greek concept of peripeteia, a sudden turn in character or situation, Ravana's death a the hands of Rama seems but a formal disposal of an unbending man whose defeat has already taken place at the hands of Sita.



Valmiki's classic soon became a model and an inspiration to many a poet, both within and outside India; Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Dinnaga, Kumaradasa, and Bhatti are names that attest the continuum of that tradition, However, outside the Sanskrit heritage, Kamban happens to be the first poet to create an epic narrative on the story of Rama, in a modern Indian language. Writing in Tamil in the medieval period. Kamban was heir to the corpus of literature dating back to what is known as Sangam period (circa 2nd to 5th cent. A. D.) as well as to the flood of devotional hymns, poured forth by the Vaisnava saints known as Alwars. Yet, it is a measure of his poetic stature that Kamban is spoken of as Kavi chakravarti in the Tamil tradition. Also of significance is the title he gave to his account of Ramayanam, viz., 'Ramavataram' which lends a clue to the full-grown recognition of Rama's divinity. Kamban's epic bears the stamp of all such influences; but his source and inspiration is Valmiki whom he describes as the poet with the capacity for the inevitable word (vangarum padam nangum vakuttaVanmiki enban).

Tradition has it that Kamban once heard an exposition of Valmiki Ramayanam, spread over several sessions every evening, and that he would, every morning, render into Tamil poetry the story as heard the previous evening. However, as one studies Kamban, the internal evidence amply demon-strates the poet's close knowledge of Valmiki, as found in the Southern rescension. Examples are I) the encounter between Laksmana and Ayomukhi in the Jungle (Page 137) and the encounter with Lankini that Hanuman has, before entering Lanka (page 175). That he was well-versed enough in Sanskrit to have had access to the original text can also be inferred from the many words and usages in Sanskrit which he sprinkles his narrative with, albeit in Tamilised form (arthi = seeker takes the form arutti; Kamban uses the expression en padam in Tamil, the way Valmiki uses asrama padam), to padam in Tamil, the way Valmiki uses asrama padam), to mean at the door). When the poet finds passage in Valmiki attractive or dramatically significant, he renders almost a direct translation of it in Tamil, as when Ravana boasts of his prowess to Sita (cf. udvaheyam bhujabhyam … and meruvai-p parikka vendin …,P. 131 n). But where change in warranted, Kamban does not hesitate to differ; the dialogue between Rama and Vali is an instance. Sometimes there is shift in emphasis as in the handling of the Surpanakha episode, or the characterisation of Kumbhakama. An entirely original scene is created in Maya Janaka Patalam, which lends another dimension to Ravana's personality.

Thus it is that Kamban's work acquires a distinct stamp, rising in stature so as to stand comparison with the adi-kavyam. As one reads the two epics together, the difference in language recedes, yielding place to a comparative view of the felicity in the two languages that has been harnessed by two great minds with a single purpose. Genius is genius, though it may show itself in many forms.

The objects of the book being what it is, passages and sequences have been selectively employed, though the running narrative does cover the story without being exhaustive. Battle scenes and elaborate descriptions of places and journeys have thus been left out. However, the book closely follows the text of Valmiki and Kamban offers what may be deemed as readable translation in English of the poetic and dramatic content I the originals. The purpose is comparative study.

The main narrative draws from Valmiki, albeit in summary; Kamban's version is discussed at the end of each section. As works of standard reference, the critical edition of Valmiki (Oriental Research Institute) and the Kazhagam edition of Kamban are used. Close adherence to the original has been attempted, without appearing to offer a literal translation. Key passages are cited I the notes at the end of each section to facilitate ready references and comparison. V.II.5:43 would thus denote Valmiki, Ayodhya Kanda, sarga 5, sloka 43, critical edition: K.423 would similarly stand for stanza 423 of Kamban, Kazhagam edition.

With the increasing interest in Ramayana studies, which international seminars have stimulated in recent years, it now seems opportune to view Kamban's work in the perspective of Indian literature. This book is meant to serve as an introduction, not only to those who wish to obtain a comparative view of the epics in Sanskrit and Tamil, but to those in the S.E. Asian countries who look for linkages between their own local version of the Rama story and the versions that reached them from India, at different times in different ways. For, it is not by chance that there are similarities between Kamban's account and, say, that which is found in Thailand's 'Rama and Sita', the young man catching a glimpse of the princess as she stood on her terrace in Mithila. Again, Kamban's version of Dasaratha as receiving a pindam (not payasam) as the divine gift after the horse-sacrifice, is endorsed by the sculptor in Prambanan (central Java).

Comparative study of Valmiki and Kamban is a rewarding experience; when an integral view of Indian literature prevails, one of the delights that await the reader is the commonly shared corpus of literary flourishes and devices, known as alamkara, in the two languages that modern scholarship has consistently deemed as different (Aryan and Dravidian). That the metaphors and similes found in ancient Indian literature are manifest alike in Thai or Javanese should also be significant.




  Prologue ix
I. The Birth of Poesy 1
II. Ayodhya 3
III. Viswamitra 9
IV. Sita's Wedding 18
V. Rama to be Crowned 24
VI. Counsel of the Crooked Maid 28
VII. The Great Day 38
VIII. Towards Chitrakuta 54
IX. The lifeless City 61
X. Who will take the Throne? 75
XI. Chitrakuta and Beyond 93
XII. On to Panchavati 103
XIII. The Golden Deer 112
XIV. One More Deceit 122
XV. The Man Forlorn 132
XVI. A New Bondage 138
XVII. The Death of an Abductor 146
XVIII. Waiting for Better Days 154
XIX. In search of Sita 161
XX. Hanuman's Journey to Lanka 165
XXI. Sita in Captivity 177
XXII. Message of Hope 188
XXIII. Restoration of Faith 199
XXIV. Hanuman Shows His Mettle 208
XXV. Back to the Kisinda with Joy 216
XXVI. Towards the Great War 222
XXVII. Ravana's Strategies 231
XXVIII. The Siege of Lanka 238
XXIX. The First Great Encounter 244
XXX. Ravana in Desperation 253
XXXI. Indrajit, the Invisible Fighter 258
XXXII. The final Battle 267
XXXIII. The Triumph of Sita 273
XXXIV. The Return to Ayodhya 281
XXXV. The Coronation {Uttara Kandam) 286
XXXVI. Who was Ravana? 289
XXXVII. The Banishment of Sita 294
XXXVIII. Sita's Return to Mother Earth 298
  Index 303

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