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The Curse of Valmiki

THE RAMAYANA: An Epic of Ancient India: Vol. I: Balakanda. Introduction and translation by Robert P. Goldman . Annotation by Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland . Princeton University Press: 436 pp., $67.50 : Vol. II: Ayodhyakanda. Introduction, translation and annotation by Sheldon I. Pollock . Edited by Robert P. Goldman . Princeton University Press: 566 pp., $87.50 : Vol. III: The Aranyakanda. Introduction, translation and annotation by Sheldon I. Pollock . Edited by Robert P. Goldman . Princeton University Press: 398 pp., $72.50 : Vol. IV: The Kiskindhakanda. Introduction, translation and annotation by Rosalind Lefeber . Edited by Robert P. Goldman . Princeton University Press: 402 pp., $67.50 : Vol. V: The Sundarakanda. Introduction, translation and annotation by Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman . Princeton University Press: 590 pp., $89.50

September 14, 1997|JEFFREY MOUSSAIEFF MASSON | Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the author of "When Elephants Weep" and "Dogs Never Lie About Love." He is a former professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley

On a bright sunny morning about 3,000 years ago, an Indian holy man who went by the unusual name of Valmiki, "Son of the Termite Mound," set out through the woodlands for his morning bath on the banks of the Tamasa River in North Central India. As he approached the water, his attention was caught by the sight of a pair of Sarus cranes in the rapture of their mating dance. But as the sage observed this charming scene, a tribal hunter, taking advantage of the birds' absorption in the joy of lovemaking, felled the male with his arrow. Seeing the wounded creature writhing in its blood and hearing the piteous wailing of its bereaved mate, Valmiki, normally a paragon of emotional and sensual control, was suddenly swept away by a flood of emotions, by his rage at the hunter and, above all, his grief and compassion for the victims. In the grip of these unfamiliar feelings, he cursed the hunter, crying: "Hunter! For killing the male of this pair of mating cranes while he was distracted at the height of sexual passion you will soon die!"

Curses of this kind, invoked by spiritual adepts against those who have annoyed them, are a commonplace of traditional Indian literature. But the curse of Valmiki was different. It differed not in substance but in form. As the wonder-struck sage himself observed: "Fixed in metrical quarters, each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of grief [Sanskrit shoka], shall be called poetry [Sanskrit shloka], and nothing else."

Returning to his ashram, still lost in grief and amazement over these events, Valmiki is visited by the great creator, Lord Brahma, for whom he sings once more his musical curse. The god tells him that it was through his divine inspiration that Valmiki has been able to create this poetry, and Brahma explains his purpose in granting it.

Brahma reminds Valmiki that earlier that morning, the holy man had heard from the lips of another sage a brief and dry narration of the tragic life and extraordinary virtues of Rama, ruler of the kingdom of Kosala, who is revered to this day by hundreds of millions as the ideal man and an earthly incarnation of the supreme divinity. The god then commissions the sage to compose a great epic poem to celebrate and popularize the history of Rama and his long-suffering wife, Sita. The result, the monumental epic the "Ramayana" ("The History of Rama"), revered for millenniums in India as the "first poem" though unfamiliar to most Westerners, remains one of the oldest and most influential works the world has seen, forming the foundation of aesthetic, social, ethical and spiritual life in innumerable versions throughout the vast sweep of Southern Asia, from Afghanistan to Bali.

The story of Brahma and Valmiki, which constitutes the framing narrative of this vast composition that is four times the length of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" combined, is not merely a charming and thematically syntonic preamble to this tale of love, struggle and loss. For it, and the "Ramayana" itself, together form the opening argument in an extraordinary theoretical conversation about the relationship between emotion and aesthetic experience, a conversation about what literature is and how and why it moves us as it does that engaged the best minds in pre-modern India for at least the first 15 centuries of the Common Era. It is in the story of Valmiki and how he came to compose his great oral epic that we find one of the earliest displays of the notion that the artistic process can refine and sublimate raw human emotions so that experiencing a sorrowful poem like the "Ramayana" (or, for that matter, a sad novel or film) produces a kind of aesthetic rapture uniquely linked to, yet utterly different from, the experience of real loss. It is, in fact, in the opening chapters of this poem that we first find reference to the specific emotive-aesthetic states, or rasas, that were the most sophisticated discourse on the experience of art in any pre-modern culture, dating from the time of the ancient treatise on dramaturgy by the legendary sage, Bharata, to the complex theories of medieval Kashmiri aestheticians such as Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta.

Despite its unparalleled importance in Asia and its significance for exploring the relationship between art and life, the "Ramayana" of Valmiki, the oldest surviving version of this immortal tale, is hardly known in this country, except in the large and growing communities of Americans of South and Southeast Asian origin and a few academics. Even within academia, the poem, in spite of the fascinating comparative light it sheds on epic poetry and religious literature of Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, is little known outside of a handful of specialists in South and Southeast Asian studies.

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