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The Ramayan of Valmiki

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V?lm?ki is almost indisputably the author of the Sanskrit R?m ?yana even though it is quite likely that the story of R?ma's life was in circulation before V?lm?ki gave it its present form. As a poet and composer, V?lm?ki acts within the story that he tells. Later legend has it that V?lm?ki was a bandit who was converted from his life of looting and pillaging by R?ma's grace. His devotion then inspired him to compose and recite the story of R?ma's adventures. While it is impossible to establish conclusive dates for V?lm?ki's life and there is nothing outside the R?m ?yana itself to prove that he was a historical figure, it is believed that this Sanskrit text was composed between 700 and 500 bc.

Arshia Sattar has a Ph.D from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago. Her areas of interest are Indian epics, mythology and the story traditions of the subcontinent. Her articles appear in various national newspapers and magazines. Her translation of Tales from the Kath?sarits?gara was published by Penguin in 1995.

The R?m?yana


A bridged and Translated by arshiasattar


an imprint of


For my parents,

Hameed and Nazura Sattar,

with love

























In literal terms, to translate means to 'carry over', to cross boundaries and barriers without losing the material that you carry with you. In literary terms, to translate means to make another language read like your own, to preserve meanings and significances across grammars, syntaxes and vocabularies. And it is precisely at this point of grammars, syntaxes and vocabularies, i.e., at the very beginning, that it becomes apparent that there are certain problems unique to the translation of classics in general. Even if we translate a classic from within the same culture, we are never going to translate it from within the same time. The very notion of a classic implies that while it may be removed in time from the reader, it still speaks with relevance and meaning.*

Nonetheless translators of classics have a propensity to fall into forms of usage that are older, even, than the times in which they write. We have all encountered translations of the R?m?yana and the Mah?bh?rata as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey that are littered with 'thees', 'thous', 'wherefores' and 'it would behove you, sire' even though these translations were produced at a time long after such words and phrases fell out of common usage. There seems to be something about ancient literature,

* The first part of this Note initially appeared as an essay on translation, 'A Classic Problem', in The Indian Review of Books, vol. v, no.1 (Sept-Nov 1995) pp.17-18.

particularly epics, that inspires translators to dig deep into their vocabulary of archaisms in an attempt to reflect the 'authentic' voice of the text. Perhaps they are led to the use of such language by the perception that epics are 'grand narratives' full of noble emotions, immense dilemmas, huge wars, larger than life characters. Our common usage is considered inadequate to express this grandeur that has all but vanished from our mundane lives.

We must try and remember as we translate epics and traditional story literatures that even at their times of composition, these were not obscure texts meant for scholarly elites. They were living and vibrant and were composed in a language accessible to. all kinds of people. Unlike highly refined poetry and drama, stories and epics had a common, ordinary audience. In the story literature and in the epics, it was the events and the characters that were more important than linguistic arabesques and curlicues. For us to cover these texts in a veil of language that obscures them is inaccurate as well as unfair.

There is a school of thought that believes that a classic should be re-translated every twenty odd years so that it is always in a current idiom, always accessible and meaningful to the contemporary reader. The theory that classics always need to find a contemporary voice, that they should be re-presented every generation, is simple enough, but the practise does not follow quite as easily. The search for a current idiom that can simultaneously contain within it forms and patterns of speech as well as concepts, principles and values that are no longer real or viable presents the translator with a problem of many dimensions. These problems would, perhaps, not apply equally to translators of contemporary work primarily because they are responsible only for bridging space. The translator of a classic must also bridge time.

In translating Indian classics for Indian readers, I am not compelled to explain concepts like dharma, karma, purus?rtha, etc in detail. However, I am still compelled to negotiate such terms as R?ma being described as a 'bull among men' and S?t? having 'the gait of a female elephant.' The ideas of bravery and beauty implied by such formulaic Sanskrit phrases are as foreign to the contemporary Indian as dharma may be to a western reader.

The linguistic negotiation would normally involve flattening out formulae into more familiar constructions like 'R?ma was the best of men' and walked with a swaying grace'. While the literal images of the Sanskrit animal similes are being brushed over, their implied colours are being highlighted. The flattened phrases reflect the language we use today in our common speech as well as in literature even if they do not capture the original flavours and the subtle nuances of the language. They are, however, truer to our idioms and to the connotations of our current usage than images of bulls and elephants may be. At the same time, the task of the translator lies in making such phrases as 'S?t? walked with the gait of a female elephant' seem natural in their context. The translator must be able to carry the reader across both linguistic and cultural boundaries into a literary space where uncommon idioms, uncommon actions and uncommon events seem commonplace. In this translation, I have retained the 'exotic phrase' wherever it was unobtrusive. In other instances, I have flattened the Sanskrit usage into a more common English idiom.

What, then, of the grand and extended hyperbole that give epics their distinctive flavour? Warriors are as large as mountains, kings give away hundreds of thousands of millions of cows, gold and silver are as common as salt and pepper, people live for thousands of years. Everything is larger than life. Heroes are described by a string of superlatives that range from righteous, honourable, steadfast, splendid and effulgent to renowned. How does the translator maintain the grandeur of the emotions, the characters and the events without succumbing to a dull and formulaic litany of virtues? How do you carry the structures and restraints of a primarily oral tradition into a written one?

Once again, the theory is simple but the practise is not. A translation depends on evocations, echoes and resonances. These are generated by the translator and nurtured, in a sense, by the reader. Since the grandeur described and invoked by the epics and classical literatures no longer corresponds to reality (if it ever did, that is), it is the translator's task to suggest this meaningfully, to provoke the reader's imagination and to sustain her/his credulousness through an absolute engagement with the story and the characters. This can only be done through language that is transparent, that does not draw attention to itself (except very occasionally and very purposefully). The only language that will not draw attention to itself is one that seems natural, real and familiar.

Any contemporary idiom has the flexibility to evoke a response, to conjure up a universe, to create a sensibility. A translator can use this flexibility to create a delicate network of echoes and resonances that captures the moving spirit rather than the static letter of the original. Instead of allowing the source language to determine the flavour of the translation, we might be better off using our language to probe the nuances of the original, to seek out the significance of ideas, values and cultures that are available to us only as a view through a window. We cannot jump through the window and appropriate or participate in the world beyond ourselves, but we can appreciate it in our own terms and from our position in time and space.

Translating V?lm?ki's R?m?yana is both an exhilarating and daunting task. Exhilarating because the story of R?ma is perhaps the best known and most enduring of all Indian tales and V?lm?ki's telling of it is certainly the oldest version we have. And it is daunting for exactly the same reasons. Everyone I spoke to during the time I was translating this text stated categorically that they knew V?lm?ki's R?m?yana. But when we talked further, it would become apparent that what most people knew was a regional, non-Sanskrit version of R?ma's adventures. Everyone knows that V?lm?ki's is the oldest R?ma story and they assumed that what they knew of R?ma's adventures came from V?lm?ki's poem. It was then that the magnitude of the task I had undertaken began to dawn on me: the presentation of V?lm?ki's tale to an audience that already claimed to know it with a great deal of certainty and se1f-assurance.

My trepidation was compounded by the fact that I was contracted to produce an 'abridged translation' of V?lm?ki's epic poem, an abridgement that carried 'the original, but that fitted snugly into a single volume. Abridging, i.e., deciding what would be left out rather than what would be left in, became the most critical question I faced during the translation.

The source for this translation is the Critical Edition of the V?lm?ki R?m?yana prepared by the Oriental Institute at M.S. University, Baroda. As I began to work on the text, many of the issues that bothered me actually resolved themselves. Readers who are already familiar with the R?m?yana and other tellings of R?ma's story will notice that some of the incidents they know best are absent from this translation. For example, many of us know that when Laksmana leaves S?t? alone in the forest and goes in search of R?ma, he draws a circle around her, telling her that she will be safe as long as she stays within it. This incident is so well known that the idea of Laksmana's circle, the laksmanarekha, has passed into many Indian languages as a metaphor for a boundary that cannot be transgressed. But it does not appear in the Critical Edition of V?lm?ki's text, not even in the appendices.

As it turns out, there are few incidents that have actually been left out in this translation. The major excisions have been story cycles, primarily from the B?la and Uttara K?ndas. The only incidents that have been completely left out are those that I firmly believe would have no bearing on the reader's understanding or appreciation of the text as a whole. Generally, passages have been shortened rather than excluded so that the story as well as the flavour of the text is retained.

Complete (and modern) translations of V?lm?ki's text are readily available, most notably Hari Prasad Shastri's and N. Raghunathan's three volume versions. An academically oriented R?m?yana translation is already in process. Robert Goldman heads a team of R?m?yana scholars, each translating one of V?lm?ki's k?ndas, to produce a scholarly but readable version of the Baroda Critical Edition of the Sanskrit text. Parallel to these complete R?m?yanas, there have always existed 'retellings' of the tale. As diverse a group as C. Rajagopalachari, R.K. Narayan, P. Lal, Kamala Subramaniam and William Buck have 'retold' or 'transcreated' the R?m?yana in English.

Given the fact that longer and shorter English R?m?yanas abound, what then is the value and purpose of this translation? To begin with, it distinguishes itself from the shorter versions, the retellings of the R?m?yana, by being a translation of the Sanskrit text. While some material has been left out, nothing has been added to the story or to the nuances and tone of the original Sanskrit. In terms of the longer, complete R?m?yana translations that already exist, this particular one has the advantage of being contained within a single volume. It is also directed at the lay reader, someone with an active interest in ancient Indian texts and stories but who is not necessarily interested in scholarly details.

This translation would never have been completed without the support and cooperation of Prof. V.L. Manjul, Chief Librarian at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. I am deeply grateful to him and his staff, Satish, Megha and Gauri, for all their their help. SinceI have been involved with the R?m?yana and its accompanying materials for more than ten years, there are many people I must thank for helping me develop a familiarity with the text. Profs Alf Hiltebeitel, David Gitomer, Wendy Doniger and A.K. Ramanujan all shared their valuable insights with me and taught me newer and better ways to approach and understand the material. A.K. Ramanujan suggested that I translate the R?m?yana many years ago, at a time when it seemed unlikely that I would ever do so. I wish he could have been alive to see this published. Wendy Doniger has always been more to me than a teacher. Through this project, too, she provided long distance support, advice and encouragement. I thank her for keeping the faith and bearing witness. Laurie Patton was instrumental in helping me clarify my thoughts about the Introduction as well as cheering me through the last few weeks of my work. Anmol and Sarita Vellani deserve sincere thanks for careful reading and helpful suggestions, for their patience with endless conversations about the R?m?yana, for food, drink and other kinds of sustenance. Ravinder Singh's timely interventions helped me fine tune my thoughts on translation and I thank him for that. R. S. Iyer patiently read through early drafts and offered helpful suggestions. Ravi Singh, my editor, made my task infinitely easier with his careful readings and insightful queries. Thanks are also due to Sorab Mehta for silent but solid support and to Amrita Shodhan for always having something wise to say about anything that I do. Most of all, I thank Sanjay Iyer, who is a presence in all that I do and all that I write. He is in this book, too, and I can say with certainty that it would have been less without him.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Hameed and Nazura Sattar. Not only did they help me with the mechanics of books and libraries and the postal system, they fed, watered and sheltered me with unquestioning devotion for the last few months of this Work. In many ways, this translation of the R?m?yana is the completion of a journey they allowed me to embark on many years ago. I can only hope that the book will bring them as much joy and satisfaction as the journey has brought me.

Arshia Sattar December, 1995


The story of R?ma spreads all over the cultures of the Indian Subcontinent and South-east Asia. It appears in literatures, in music, dance and drama, in painting and sculpture, in classical and folk traditions, in hundreds of languages, in thousands of tellings and retellings from thousands of tellers. Each of these versions has its own special flavour, ambience and distinctive style. A.K. Ramanujan goes as far as to say that 'in India and South-east Asia, no one ever reads the R?m?yana or the Mah?bh?rata for the first time. The stories are there, "always already" . . .'l

V?lm?ki's R?m?yana is arguably the oldest surviving version we have of R?ma's tale, but in the multiplicity of R?ma stories received today, V?lm?ki's Sanskrit poem is just one more version of R?ma's adventures.2 Nonetheless, scholars hold that this telling is perhaps the most prestigious and influential of them all.3

Like any other monumental work of literature, the R?m?yana has always functioned on a variety of levels. Through the millennia of its popularity, it has attracted the interest of many kinds of people from different social, economic, educational, regional and religious backgrounds. It has, for example, served as a bedtime story for countless generations of Indian children, while at the same time, learned ??strins, steeped in the abstruse philosophical, grammatical and metaphysical subtleties of classical Indian thought, have found it a subject worthy of their intellectual energies.4

V?lm?ki's R?m?yana tells the tragic story of a virtuous and dutiful prince, the man who should be king, who is exiled because of his step-mother's fit of jealousy. R?ma's real troubles begin when he enters the forest for fourteen years with his beautiful wife S?t? and his devoted younger brother Laksmana. S?t? is abducted by the wicked r?ksasa king R?vana who takes her away to his isolated kingdom on the far side of the southern ocean. R?ma and Laksmana set out to rescue her and, along the way, they make an alliance with a dispossessed monkey king. The monkey king's advisor, Hanum?n, becomes R?ma's invaluable ally and is instrumental in making the mission to rescue S?t? a success. At the end of a bloody war with the r?ksasas, R?vana is killed and S?t? is reunited with her husband. R?ma and his companions return to the city and R?ma reclaims the throne that is rightfully his.

R?ma's equanimity and grace in the face of all the terrible things that happen to him, S?t?'s unflinching devotion to her husband, Laksmana's and Hanum?n's fierce loyalty to R?ma: these qualities have made the characters of the R?m?yana ideals in Indian culture, valued for their virtues and exemplary behaviour. R?ma is not just the perfect man, he is the ideal son, the ideal brother, and, most important, the ideal king. Likewise, S?t?, Laksmana and Hanum?n loom large in the cultural imagination as the perfect examples of their social roles.

Within this idealized and heroic tale of public honour and kingship is another intensely personal and intimate story. It is one of family relationships, of love between fathers and sons, brother and brother, friends and allies, husbands and wives. The R?m?yana is as much a tale of personal promises and private honour, of infatuation and betrayal, of harem intrigue, petty jealousies, destructive ambitions and enormous personal loss as it is a tale of rightful and righteous kings. Even as questions of kingly duty and nobility of character for the public realm are raised, the story revolves around fidelity, obligations and the integrity that refines individual relationships.

The Two Realms of the R?m?yana

The universe in which this tale occurs is expanded by gods and celestial beings, boons and curses, magical weapons, flying chariots, powerful sages, wondrous animals, heroic monkeys and terrifying r?ksasas. A crucial aspect of the expanded universe which includes the presence of the divine is the fact that R?ma himself is an incarnation, an avat?ra, of the great god Visnu. In V?lm?ki's R?m?yana, R?ma does not know this about himself. While the gods are on his side in all that he does and often appear to help him or his allies, he goes through the story not knowing that he was born mortal for the express purpose of killing R?vana. The gods' divine planbecomes R?ma's personal destiny and must be played out to the bitter end. After the war is over, the gods appear and tell him who he is.

V?lm?ki's R?m?yana is divided into seven books: B?lak?nda (Childhood), Ayodhy?k?nda (Ayodhy?),

Aranyak?nda (Wilderness), Kiskindhak?nda (Kiskindha), Sundarak?nda (Beauty), Yuddhak?nda (War) and Uttarak?nda (Epilogue). Of these, the first two and the last books ('Childhood,' 'Ayodhy?' and 'Epilogue') are situated firmly in the mundane world, in the kingdom of Ayodhy?, where Da?aratha and later R?ma rule wisely and well. The other books ('Wilderness', 'Kiskindha', 'Beauty' and 'War') are located in the forests south of Ayodhy? and in Lank?.

As with other Indian genres of literature, the magical and mundane, the natural and the supernatural encounter each other frequently in the R?m?yana. Usually, the supernatural and wondrous events occur outside the city, in the uncharted and dangerous regions through which the hero must pass. It is here, in the narrative freedom of the forests, deserts, islands and mountains, that R?ma meets monsters and magical beings. The magical and monstrous beings of the forests and wilderness are, most often, liminal creatures. They straddle the boundaries of more than one species, more than one category of being. Some of these liminal creatures test R?ma, others become his allies, as he goes further on his quest.

In the books located outside Ayodhy?, when the story enters the realm of magic and wonder, R?ma has to contend first with powerful sages and then with marauding r?ksasas before he meets the friendly animals who will help him get his wife back. While there are isolated instances of the magical breaking into the mundane world in the first and last books, the incidents either occur outside the kingdom (like the princes' encounter with T?tak? in 'Childhood') or under highly circumscribed situations (like S?t?'s disappearance into the earth during the sacrifice in 'Epilogue').

Once R?ma leaves the city, the known world has been left behind and from this point on, there are few signposts. In 'Kiskindha,' when Sugr?va is directing his monkey hordes to go out into the world and find S?t?, he provides a fascinating geography that begins with real kingdoms and real peoples and then opens up into a cosmology of wild and dangerous places where neither the sun nor the moon shine, where there are people with ears so long they can sleep inside them, and so on until you reach the regions where the gods and celestial beings live.

It is in the enchanted forests south of the kingdom that R?ma is truly tested for valour, patience and fortitude. Anything can happen here and it does. R?ma's initial encounters with the monstrous Vir?dha and Kabandha are only preludes to the larger and deadlier conflicts that await him in Janasth?na and Lank?. The forests, in a sense, represent the underbelly of the R?m?yana's idealized human actors and the perfect city of Ayodhy?. There seem to be different rules of conduct in the forests and wilderness and certainly a different set of narrative parametergyt Birds that speak, monkeys that fly, form-changing r?ksasas and headless torsos that run amok are not unnatural or bizarre. Rather, they seem to fall into the normal course of events.

It has been suggested that these forest creatures, particularly the monkeys and the r?ksasas, are the shadows of the R?m?yana's ideal principal characters.5 Because R?ma and S?t? cannot or will not act out their baser impulses, the monkeys and r?ksasas, who embody non-perfection, do it for them. For example, the monkey V?l? can banish his younger brother Sugr?va who usurped the kingship of Kiskindha, but R?ma is bound by his dharma and his model nature to let Bharata, his younger brother, keep the kingdom. Likewise, ??rpanakh?, the r?ksas?, can express her carnal desire for R?ma whereas S?t? can only express sublimated love and devotion.

These sets of contrastive figures provide the poets with a vehicle for portraying the ambivalence inherent in all real human beings while keeping the central characters largely free from inner struggle.6

It is also in the same southern lands that R?ma perpetrates the two acts that apparently mar his shining dharmic nature: the unlawful killing of the monkey V?l? and the rejection of his faithful wife S?t?.7 By implication, it would seem that the strict moral and legal codes of Ayodhy? and the world of humans do not apply in the forests and the southern lands. R?ma operates here under a different code of ethics. In fact, in the early chapters of 'Wilderness', when R?ma, Laksmana and S?t? have just entered the unpeopled forests, S?t? tells R?ma that here they must abide by separate rules for behaviour. She says that they must leave the codes of the city behind and learn to live by the rules of the forest dwellers. Ironically, though, R?ma's unlawful acts are the result of his imposing the rules and dharma of human city living upon events that occur outside the city.8


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The Ramayan of Valmiki

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