Valmiki’s Ramayana, composed as early as 500 BCE, remains a story that speaks to every generation and continues to enthral millions of people in the Subcontinent and beyond. Published by Harper Collins, Arshia Sattar’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana (2019) makes this ancient classic accessible to the present-day English reader.
The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book.
The Indian Rama stories that come after Valmiki’s Ramayana all take Rama’s divinity as a starting point for their tale. However, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is clear that for most of the story Rama does not know that he is divine. It is precisely this fact that gives his trials and tribulations such poignancy – Rama does not know why all these awful things are happening to him and why he has to suffer so much. It is at the very end of the war with the rakshasas, after Ravana has been killed and Sita has proved her chastity, that the gods appear and tell Rama that he is Vishnu and not an ordinary mortal.
Scholars unanimously hold that the first and last books of Valmiki’s Ramayana (‘Childhood’ and ‘Epilogue’) are later additions to the central five books. In Valmiki’s text as it is constituted today, the only places where Rama’s divinity is unambiguously stated are the closing chapters of the sixth book (‘War’) and in the first and last books. In the first book, Dasharatha performs a sacrifice for the birth of a son. At the same time, the gods, who are being harassed by Ravana, plead with Vishnu to be born on earth as a mortal in order to kill the rakshasa. A celestial being appears at Dasharatha’s sacrifice with heavenly food that will cause the queens to become pregnant. Rama and his brothers are born as a result of this. In the last book, Vishnu is recalled to heaven by Brahma and so Rama has to give up his earthly life. When Brahma’s messenger arrives, Rama knows what is required of him and makes arrangements to leave his kingdom and ascend to heaven.
In the middle books, then, the only direct mention of Rama’s divinity is after the war. Nonetheless, arguing from within the narrative necessities of the text, Sheldon Pollock states firmly that Rama has to be a god-man.1 Pollock holds that Rama’s divinity is a ‘higher order narrative feature,’ that is, it is constitutive of the text itself. His argument is as follows: since Ravana had been made invulnerable to all kinds of creatures by his boon, the only kind of being that could kill him could be a mortal. But since he is so powerful and magnificent an enemy, this mortal could not be ordinary. Therefore, a god- man is the only possibility, a man who has the powers of the gods without actually being one himself.
The gods may never in such circumstances actually grant immortality itself. … Yet like so many others Ravana seeks to achieve the same result by a gambit widely familiar in folklore, by attempting to frame the perfect wish. The sheer impossibility of an exhaustive catalogue, however (in this case over-determined by Ravana’s scornfully discounting man altogether), immediately implies that a solution is assured; the very provisions of the boon make it inevitable that some proxy will be found. Not a god, since the gods have become, so to speak, contractually impotent; nor yet a man, men being constitutionally impotent… Instead, it must be some fusion of the two, a god-man.2
Despite these hypotheses and all the other extra-textual reasons for Rama being considered divine (like the suggestion that the Indian conception of kingship demanded that the king be divine), within the story Rama must act as a human hero even though he is Vishnu. How else would the tale find its dramatic tension, its pathos, its tragedy? And perhaps most important, how could Rama be seen as the ideal man, a model for human behaviour and a paragon of virtue?
Imagine if the story had, from the outset, two equally matched protagonists, Rama and Ravana. Imagine if Rama had known that his banishment served a larger and far more significant purpose than the petty ambitions of his stepmother. Imagine if he had known all along that the monkeys would help him rescue Sita and that the throne of Kosala would be restored to him. As it is, Rama displays an almost unnatural equanimity in the face of all that happens to him. But because he functions as a human hero, he has his moments of torment. He regrets the fact that he was exiled because of his father’s infatuation with a selfish and flighty woman. He is insane with grief when Sita is abducted and vows to show the gods the extent of his wrath if she is not returned to him unharmed. He is pathetic and miserable without her and turns his anger on Sugriva, who seems to have forgotten the terms of their alliance. It is moments like these that grasp the reader’s imagination, for they make Rama real, accessible and utterly human.
At the same time, Rama must transcend his human limitations and restrictions if he is going to vanquish the king of the rakshasas, the most powerful creature on earth. On an entirely mundane level, Rama inverts the patterns of his father’s life, rising above the temptations of anger, desire and greed to which Dasharatha was subject. Dasharatha unknowingly kills an ascetic in his youth, Rama actively protects the ascetics, first on his journey with Vishvamitra and then later when he is exiled into the forest. Dasharatha succumbed to desire (kama) by agreeing to Kaikeyi’s wishes, Rama upholds dharma by publicly humiliating and then punishing his innocent and chaste wife. Both Rama and Dasharatha as kings obtain their sons at sacrifices: Dasharatha’s sons are born because of the efficacy of his sacrifice and Rama is united with his unknown sons at his horse sacrifice.
As a human hero, Rama does all he can to avoid repeating the mistakes of his father. As an avatara of Vishnu (and as a human king), it is his job on earth to uphold dharma and protect the brahmins and the ascetics. As a human, Rama sacrifices everything, his kingdom and his wife, to uphold dharma. As a god, he plays along with a cosmic plan. It is the tension between his mortal limitations and the conceivably unlimited powers he enjoys as Vishnu that makes his dilemmas and his resolution of them compelling.
The Ramayana is the portrait of a consciousness hidden from itself; or, one might say, of an identity obscured, and only occasionally, in brilliant and poignant flashes, revealed to its owner. The problem is one of forgetting and recovery, of anamnesis: the divine hero who fails to remember that he is god, comes to know himself, at least for brief moments, through hearing (always from others) his own story.3
If we hold that the core Ramayana includes the first and last books, where Rama knows and understands his own divinity, the situation becomes even more complex and Rama’s condition even more poignant. Imagine if Rama knew he was god and was still constrained to act as a man would and should. This is, in fact, the situation in the Rama stories that come after Valmiki’s Ramayana. Rama has to continue to act as a man precisely because he is a god and not in spite of his divinity.
1. See Sheldon Pollock, ‘The Divine King in the Indian Epic’, in Journal of the American Oriental Society 104 (1984), pp. 505–28.
2. Pollock, ‘The Divine King in the Indian Epic’, pp. 516–17.
3. David Shulman, ‘Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kamban’s Iramavataram’, in Many Ramayanas, edited by Paula Richman, p. 93.