By Benjamin Khan
E.W. Hopkins, McKenzie, Farquhar and many Western scholars influenced by the Christian standard or ethics, have failed to understand the true significance of the law of dharma. Ignorance of this fact has often made some of these critics to assert that no attempt was made by the Hindu thinkers to develop a science of morality.
There is no doubt that in contrast with the Western thinkers, no separate treatise was written in India on this vital subject, yet I am prepared to maintain that though Valmiki was not an academic theorist, he fulfils this great task in his Ramayana. He objectified the moral ideal in the lives of his notable characters. Rai Sahib Dineshchandra Sen very rightly observes: ?The epic poet in all ages and countries gives expression to the ideas which float in the air around him, transmitted to his nation often from immemorial times. The national ideal and civilisation claim him as their most eloquent exponent. Stories of heroic deed of unspotted virtues and ideal manhood which, from age to age inspire a race, are garnered up, so to speak, in the common store-house of the epic poem. The old traditions may get a new and uptodate inter-pretation at the hands of the epic master.? This holds good for the Ramayana.
The problems of fate and the theory of karma are very prominent in the Ramayana. Rama, in a very unusual way, stresses the predominance of fate in the affairs of mankind and even goes to the length of denying the doctrine of free will, saying that when Kaikeyi plotted against him, she may not be blamed. It was all destiny which impelled her to do so. But we see that Valmiki through Lakshmana denies this rigid doctrine. I have devoted a special chapter to this problem criticising the views of all those who say that the theory of karma as the central doctrine of Hinduism leave no room for morality. It has been shown that Valmiki'streatment makes us discard such a doctrine of fate, often imagined to be the will of God or some other supernatural power against which puny efforts of men are of no avail.
Rama, in a very unusual way, stresses the predominance of fate in the affairs of mankind and even goes to the length of denying the doctrine of free will, saying that when Kaikeyi plotted against him, she may not be blamed. It was all destiny which impelled her to do so.
By way of introduction, let us say a word or two about the work under examination.
The ancient Indians were great masters in writing and out of their early writings came a special group of treatises called Smriti and Dharma-shastras written by ?Manu, Atri, Visnu, Harita, Yajna-valkya, Usanas, Angiras, Yama, Apastamba, Samvarta, Katyayana, Brhaspati, Para-sara, Vyasa, Sankha, Likhita, Daksa, Gautama, Satatapa and Vasistha.? These great law-givers were followed by many commentators who in view of changed circumstances tried to interpret the texts in the light of the new facts. I hold Valmiki as one of those great exponents who through the vehicle of poetry expressed their interpretation of the law of dharma. Thus the importance of the Ramayana becomes two-fold. It is a literature as well as a vademecum for moral reference. It makes a universal appeal owing to the lucidity with which the noblest thoughts have been expressed. While not claiming to be a moral treatise, it has tried to combine religion and morality in such a comprehensive way as to include all the spheres of human life. Indeed it is our pride as a beautiful record of moral lives led and lived by human beings like us.
The Ramayana may be described as a manual of morals which without entering into technical details, would instruct the reader in the duties of life. ?It prescribes the general principle by which family and domestic life is to be regulated specifying a number of cases most likely to occur.? Truly ?it is the expression of a profound ethical and religious spirit.? There are writers on morals who have given us abstract and formal principles of morality, often impractical because they are torn out of the living context, but Valmiki has given us concrete examples of the true principles of human action in real or possible situations.
Hopkins observes that ?the Epic period marks a change in Brahmanism. Though this new faith has its root in the Vedas and Brahmanas, yet the indigenous beliefs and religious practices of the new environment were remoulding the old faith unconsciously and were causing new interpretation and inspiration. East was a home of agitation against the old Brahmanism. The two great heresies, Buddhism and Jainism, fought against the Brahmanism, Vishnuism and Sivaism (sic) though not radically opposed to Brahmanism, yet opening a window towards more attractive, simple and living religion. These agitations were from the simple soldierly class against the crafty priestly class.? But, the laws of conduct preached were not altogether new.
Hiriyanna says about the epic writer, ?The laws of conduct are not altogether the author'sinventions. Many are repeated from the old works like the Vedas, etc. In some cases, no doubt, an aim formerly and indistinctly expressed is more and clearly expressed. Some modifications or adaptations are introduced which the tendencies of the age required, but on the whole, the moral laws of the Ramayana are unquestionably derived from pre-existent usages and the object of the author is to insist upon their importance and to supply motives for their observance.? Ramayana may be described as the excellent reorientation and adaptation to new needs of an older moral and spiritual code. It is an age when theocracy was passing into a secular society.
The greatness of the Ramayana lies in the fact that by becoming a national moral code, it inspired many writers to repeat its story and morals, and with the passage of time, many Ramayanas came into existence to replenish our moral heritage. So we find that besides Valmiki'sRamayana, almost a dozen other works dealing with the same theme, such as the Yoga Vasistha Ramayana, the Adhyatma Ramayana and the Ramayana in the Mahabharata called Ramopa-khyana. The Mahanataka, authorship of which is ascribed to Hanuman, Devi Ramayana (here prominence is given to Sita as a divine personality), the Padma Purana which relates many curious tales of Rama, Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti'sUttara Rama-caritam and Mahaviracaritam, Tulsidas? Ramacharitmanasa, Krttivasa (in Bengali) and Kamban Ramayana. The Rama story is also found in Jaina and Buddhist literature.
Valmiki and the origin of Ramayana
Valmiki, as the legend goes, led the life of a highway robber and after repenting, became a hermit. This account we find only in the Adhyatma Ramayana. Nothing more is known about his personal life. The time when Valmiki lived is also very uncertain. There are two views to be gathered from the Ramayana itself. According to the opening canto of the Ramayana, Valmiki prayerfully asks Narada about a man who is morally perfect and Narada tells him about Rama, a prince of Ayodhya who lived in the past. According to the second view, Valmiki seems to be a contemporary of Rama and Rama during his exile visits the hermit. Sita after her return to Ayodhya when exiled from her husband'spalace was in Valmiki'shermitage where she gave birth to twins. And Valmiki composed the poem for the use of the children.
No true biographical account regarding Valmiki'sancestry, his life and other works (if any) is available to us. In India, there is a tendency even to mystify history. Secondly, the sanyasins and the rishis when they renounce the world, they also renounce with it their name and ancestry. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that our sage leaves no record of his human life, its adventures and its glory; he shows greater concern for the eternal verities, where nama and rupa as the illusory manifesta-tions are dropped and they become meaningless.
In the Uttara Khanda, the poet says that he is the tenth son of Pracetas and that he performed penance for a long time. Rama in his wanderings during the period of exile, goes to visit Valmiki'shermitage which was on the way from Bharadwaja'sashrama to the Chitrakuta hill.
The greatness of the Ramayana lies in the fact that by becoming a national moral code, it inspired many writers to repeat its story and morals, and with the passage of time, many Ramayanas came into existence to replenish our moral heritage.
The legend of his sinful career we have already mentioned and low caste ancestry is not mentioned in the Valmiki'sRamayana, but on the other hand, we find Lakshmana speaking of him as a friend of Dasaratha and a Brahmana. Valmiki himself confesses that he never committed any sin in thought or word or deed.
Manasa karmana vaca
Bhutapurvam na kilbisam
Therefore, the theory that Valmiki began his career as a highway robber is a legend ill-conceived and unfounded.
(Extracts from the The Concept of Dharma in Valmiki Ramayana by Benjamin Khan.)
(To be concluded)