Valmiki: Birth of the Poet

mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhā tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam
(You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting) - Valmiki

The very first sloka uttered in Sanskrit is this one as the legend goes on. The lines are self-explanatory but if you look into the myth of the origin of the Ramayana you’ll find this nigh impossible at first.

Hinduism, I think, was nothing like organized religion we know at first. At least not until they mingled with outsider or invaded. It had its root in pantheism and grown from there to a religion which accepts and denies everything at the same time. But, religion is out of scope here. We’re dealing with myth.

Now Ramayana has multiple versions and stories varies version to version. But, I think in a broad stroke all the stories are the same. The Valmiki portrays the very generic characteristics of poets in Indian mythology and society. Many, if not all, poets will identify themselves with Valmiki.

What makes a great poet? What ethics, what defining factors a poet should have? Surely, the poets who comply with all the rules of the society are the boring one. They are necessarily not the best of the humankind. Every vaisnab poet who wrote anything about the love affair between Krishna and Radha were expressing something that is considered unethical in the sub-continental society till this day.

Valmiki was born Agni Sharma (Ratnakara in the Bengali version) to a Sage. Though he is a Brahmana, the intellectual caste of Hinduism, he took robbery as his occupation. Utterly vile and vicious a person he was.

When Bhrama envisioned Rama in his glory, and Narada the demigod sage saw Bhrama’s vision, they both were in loss. How will they express Rama’s glory and life? Who is the most suitable person? They came to earth, shapeshifting as two Brahamana passer-by. They traveled through the Jungle where Agni Sharma do most of his robbery and as expected, he attacked them. Brahma forbade him to kill them, for killing a Brahmana is the worst kind of sin. Ratnakara argued that he won’t having all the sins since his parents and wife are getting food by his earning. Bhrama urged him to tie them up for security and go home and ask them if they will take part of his sin. Ratnakar did so. To his amazement everyone denied. It is Agni’s duty to support them. In what way, they don’t care. Disillusioned and sad, he came back. Brahma consoled him though. And asked him to recite Rama’s name to get rid of his sin. But so sinful he was that he couldn’t even recite the holy name. Brahma then instructed him to recite ‘Mara’(dead body) instead. If recited in speed, this will eventually enable him to recite ‘Rama’. So he did for years with utmost meditation. And ants attacked him, ate him and made their home surrounding his body. Many years have gone and there was nothing but his bones and his meditating soul. Brahma then gave him a new life. Thus born Valmiki.

Well… There were many sages then. Brahma could’ve commissioned any of them to write Ramayana. But, Valmiki is indeed special. He is no pristine soul from the beginning but made pristine through a process of enlightenment. Moreover, he was enlightened by the very source he is going to describe and glorify later. Hindu myth has many ‘loops’ of this sort(We are Brahma’s dream and Brahma is our dream). His cause/purpose of life is the very thing that defined him. And he chose to be enlightened from the depth of the sin. Making of a poet may not requires one to be the most pristine of a man but a most receptive one who can contemplate on his doing and thoughts and feel before obeying what to obey. And a poet’s journey is to express something beyond him/her that will define him.

Valmiki lived a life of sage from then on. But not a life of poet yet. He is only half-way there. One morning on his way to a river, he saw two crane mating and was very pleased. Suddenly a hunter killed one of them. Valmiki was displeased, sorry and angry and uttered the very first sloka of Sanskrit literature. Thus born the poem and the poet himself. Indians believe, a receptive person may have a certain state of mind known as Vaba and then some outer factor may pour some alien emotion in his mind (Rasa) and if that person tries to express his emotion faithfully he is an artist, creating art. Valmiki did exactly the same thing.

The expression was beautiful. Neither gods, nor men have ever heard anything like that before. Brahma appeared and commissioned him to write Ramayana. But, Valmiki lacked knowledge. Swaraswati, the Hindu goddess of Wisdom helped him throughout the process and his brother, elephant-headed Ganesha, the god of accomplishment was his scribe.

What does this myth tell us about the Indian idea of art? Art is not about showing your wisdom, but what wisdom did to you. It is not also about educating people but being faithful to one’s own reality. In artist’s reality, he is the one who decides what to say and what to not. That is why Valmiki had full authority to question even the person who he was trying to glorify. It is about consuming and transcending the reality we live in with the most serene of rebellion.