The First Poet

Western culture is only just beginning to look beyond the Roman and Greek civilizations for new inspiration. Even so, it is a little surprising that, although the mighty epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey are widely known and loved, only a few scholars have studied their Hindu counterparts known as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In fact no good complete modem English translation of the Ramayana exists, and the best of those made in the last half of the 19th century are unobtainable outside the larger libraries.

The Ramayana is a work of great antiquity attributed to the illustrious Sage Valmiki. Its date of composition cannot be fixed with any certainty, particularly as, in common with other Sanskrit classics, it was not at first committed to writing, but was passed on from singer to singer. This process also accounts for the fact that the various versions (Sakhas) of the poem that have come down to us differ slightly in context. The interesting fact is that the scholars are agreed that the Ramayana is the grandly conceived and executed masterpiece of one poet, and not a collection of stories from many sources, loosely gathered together.

Unfortunately we know very little about the Rishi Valmiki, whose title 'Adikavi' (First poet) and pre-eminence in Sanskrit verse has never been seriously challenged to this day. He was a robber chief in a forest in Northern India and on one occasion waylaid two ascetics who were followers of the Kalabhairava and Kapalika sect, for the purpose of plundering them. The travellers, however, spoke to him with kindness, and offered him the spiritual truth in lieu of the gold and silver which they did not possess. Offering him some vibhuti or sacred ash, they asked him to meditate on a sacred chant, most likely Nirvana Shatakam (the eternal chant) or Guru Paduka Stotram (The Lotus Feet of the Guru) the word Rama. Convinced of their sincerity and on their advice, Valmiki changed his mode of life and became a devotee of Shri Ramachandra, the Seventh Incarnation of God (Vishnu) on earth. After a long period of meditation on the form and virtues of Shri Rama, it is said that he was granted a vision of Rama's life from beginning to end.

He gave expression to this unique experience, in Sanskrit verse, in the 24,000 slokas (48,000 lines) known as the Ramayana. The sloka is a specific metre which the poet himself discovered, as is told in a beautiful passage in the first book.

The Valmiki Ramayana is still recited on festival days as part of the Ramleela on Dussehra, Vijayadashami and other days. It is an important part of the cultural milieu of Indian festivals