Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The World of Valmiki: Two Perspectives

V. Sivaramakrishnan

[N. RAGHUNATHAN’S BIRTH CENTENARY YEAR: The 1993 marks the birth centenary of a great scholar-journalist who, despite the anonymity with which he covered himself for the major part of his working life during his association with “The Hindu” (1926-57), has a secure place in the history of Indian journalism. N. Raghunatha Aiyer (1893-1982) or “N.R.” as he was known in his professional circle, was much more than a leader-writer for over three decades in a leading newspaper of the country. Discriminating readers all over the country came to know the master-mind that he was through his column “Sotto Voce” first in “Swatantra” and later in “Swarajya” journals of Madras now extinct, which he wrote for 13 years almost without interruption, week after week, from 1946 to 1959. His learning was vast, encyclopaedic in range and depth and his mastery of the Eng­lish language in all its subtleties and nuances of usage, was truly phenomenal. Satire was Raghunathan’s forte as a columnist but one found much else in his writing – irony, humour, righteous indignation, literary evaluations, pen-portraits and delightful cameos of historical events, literary masterpieces and artistic achievements in performing arts. He was at his best as an essayist with seeming casualness but never for once missing the essentials or losing the principal focus of thought, or the thrust of a certain point of view. “Triveni” has carried quite a few of his essays “The Kaveri”, “Journalese”, “The Artist and “His Audience”, “Ethics and Politics: The Modem Concept” among others.

N.R. devoted the rest of the 25 years of his life after his retirement from ‘The Hindu” in 1957 to an English rendering of Srimad Bhagavata and the Valmiki Ramayana. His transla­tions are unique both in respect of their fidelity to the original and the sustained dignity of style; a classical language like Sanskrit does not suffer the least in the modern English garb. In this article “The World of Valmiki: Two Perspectives” the writer compares some of the ideas of N.R. and the Rt. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri on the Ramayana. An interesting point is that it was Sastri who was responsible for N.R. joining “The Hindu” in the early ’Twenties of the present century.            -The Editor.]

THE “CHILDREN OF THE KAVERI” distinguished themselves in many fields, not the least important being literature and the fine arts which elevated the mind and soul. Countless have been the “Pauraniks” of this part of the country who re-told the stories of the great epics and the Puranas for the edification of the young and the old of several generations. Ex­posed to such an uplifting influence at a for­mative age even those who passed through the formal English system of education and pur­sued Con amore the study of English language  and literature, returned in the evening of their lives to our ancient lore, particularly the Ramayana.

The Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri (1869 - 1946), who was renowned in his time as the “Silver-tongued orator of the British Em­pire”, and N. Raghunathan (1893-1982), who had few equals as a journalist of profound knowledge and rare artistry with the written word, were easily the most outstanding of them. Sastri delivered thirty lectures on the Ramayana during 1944 over a period of seven months at the Sanskrit College, Madras, which were later published in book-form in 1949. Raghunathan rendered into English the Valmiki Ramayana in three volumes (running into 1620 pages) which were published in 1981. (The Ramayana volumes came after his English ren­dering of Srimad Bhagavatam in two volumes.)

Sastri’s lectures and Raghunathan’s translation represented not only their intellec­tual eminence but a fervour to propagate the best of ancient Indian thought that embodied the values of an ageless culture. Sastri was the elder of the two, separated by a decade and four years, but both being contemporaries, know each other well. If Sastri recommended Raghunathan to “The Hindu” in the early ’Twenties, it was Raghunathan who wrote a biographical introduction to the two centenary volumes of Sastri’s speeches and writings brought out by the Rt. Hon’ble V.S. Srinivasa Sastri Birth Centenary Committee in 1969.

Yet, no two persons differed so strik­ingly in their religious perceptions and outlook on life. Influenced by the writings of Huxley, Tyndall and Mill, Sastri lost his faith “in the accustomed rituals and ceremonials” and was inclined to reject or look with scepticism anything that did not stand the test of reason. Raghunathan set much store by his traditional faith and lost no opportunity to emphasise that reason and faith were equally valid as faith formed “an immortal part of him (man), en­cumbered and held down by the passive weight of flesh and stirs, hearing the voice of si­lence”.

It is said of Sastri that “speaking came to him easier than writing”, and this is a defect as well as a merit. The flow of words, the elo­quence and the numerous gestures of the speaker are apt to impress an audience much more than the ideas themselves that are sought to be set forth. Speeches made extempore, when reduced to writing and brought out in book-form, often reveal a certain looseness of thought and structure, they lack the compact­ness of writing which is the result of concen­trated thinking and concern for syntactical cor­rectness. Sastri’s Ramayana lectures, as Raghunathan has pointed out, suffer from this defect. “A rather excessive preoccupation with detail sometimes blurs the outline; and a literal­istic-approach that would be more appropriate to history can have disconcerting results”. But this aspect is of less importance than the sub­stance of his lectures in the kind of compara­tive study that is attempted here.

Sastri had a certain point of view in his lectures which, while making them distinct from the enormous mass of literature on the Ramayana, rendered them open to criticism. Sastri looked upon the Ramayana not as the story – “this most beautiful and moving of all stories in literature” – of Divinity come to earth for upholding Dharma, but of a man with all his faults and foibles though he embodied “the great virtues of human character”. Keenly conscious as he was that he would be hurting the feelings of the devout, Sastri was on the defensive in his first lecture, emphasizing the point that, while the essential divinity of Rama could never be forgotten, it was not essential to an understanding of the story or profiting by it. He said, “Robbed as I am of that faith (in the divinity of Rama), I am able to get for the building up of my own nature more from the Ramayana than any other student of that book who believes in the divinity of character but is not able for some reason or other to take in the real spirit in which the lives were lived.” Sastri drove home his point of view in the following words:

“It appears to me that it is no act of im­piety to study the Ramayana as an epic poem concerning human beings. It is an act, on the other hand, which gives to Valmiki his own due, establishes him as a man who held in his mind assuming that he was the one who wrote the story – a clear, fully-formed, full-blooded conception of men and women of superior value to us, of superior moral stature.”

Following the line of thought he set for himself, Sastri took up the characters one by one and delineated them with episodic refer­ences and here and there giving himself upto the joy of the poetic felicities of Valmiki. Tak­ing up Lakshmana first, he finds him a simple character, quick to lose his temper but equally quick to regain his composure. Not much concerned with Dharma in the abstract, his actions and reactions are governed solely by his devo­tion to Rama - “Rama was all in all to him, he did not look beyond Rama.”

In contrast to Lakshmana’s, Sastri finds Rama’s character-complex. He was almost im­maculate but only almost. He had both a higher and a lower nature but his power over nature was not only hidden but put down, conquered – “and this is what makes a world of differ­ence between him and us”. Rama was not above the frailties of ordinary human beings who are cast down by great misfortunes. He has his moments of light-heartedness, does act in pursuit of his creed La gloire (the creed of Kshatriya), prompted by “jealousy” when he forces Sita to go through the fire ordeal in Lanka and goes against the course of natural justice while killing Vali with a single arrow and hiding behind the trees. Sastri poses the question: “Was Rama the ideal always and the like ones?”, and answers, “If so, he was a bloodless robot, an impossible prig mounted on stilts and hardly visible in perspective.”

Bharata, according to Sastri, is a charac­ter that evoked admiration and respect rather than love. He has a strong individuality, a deal of courage, self-confidence and resource. He is also unfilial and his abuse of his mother was scandalous. Bharata symbolises subhratra­good-brotherliness.

Sastri takes pains to repudiate the criti­cism that Vibhishana was a ‘traitor”. “If he took Lanka it was not because he was an ambitious, grasping man, but because the stricken land wanted a wise, righteous ruler. It was in the highest sense of duty and service that he ac­cepted the crown of Lanka, far from being a proof of his selfish ambition, it was a proof of his selflessness.”

Sastri looked upon Hanuman as one whose deeds were on the highest level of devotion, rectitude and sense of duty. “Superlatives crowd round Hanuman, as you contemplate him .... wise, moderate in counsel, always ready to see things whilst yet they are only coming, few can approach Hanuman in sheer greatness in weight of achievement.” But Sastri would like us to remember that he was after all a mon­key and lists what he calls his “failures”. Yet he would suggest that his lapses did not really de­tract from the greatness that was Hanuman’s. The defects of a literalistic approach to the story and a desire to put across a point of view that Hanuman’s “achievements” represented an effort to get over his “lower nature”, are all too apparent in Sastri’s delineation of Hanuman. One could see in this the conflict between rea­son and faith in the mind of Sastri – he would like to uphold the traditional view of Hanuman as “Buddhimataam Varishtam” (the wisest among the wise) and yet let us not forget his simian origin and propensities. The result is not clarity but confusion.

Sastri depicts Ravana as great without being good. He was cruel and cunning, morally reprehensible, but he was great as a warrior, skilful in speech and tactful in his dealings and  generous in his praise where praise was due. Much of Sastri’s account of Ravana is taken up with several episodes in his life. These are no insights into the study of a character next only in importance to that of Rama.

With his well-known feminist sympa­thies, Sastri reserves his highest praise for Sita. “No woman that I have read of, certainly no woman that I have seen, comes near Valmiki’s conception of Sita. She is unapproachable. He has conferred on her all the attractions that a woman could conceivably have. “Beauty, ten­derness of heart, compassion of the extreme type, fidelity, wisdom of the truest type, cour­age of the heart, endurance (what has not Sita endured), all these qualities find in her a har­monious abode. She is a piece of nature like which there was and can be none.”

Sastri charges the commentators of the Ramayana with narrow-mindedness when they are critical of Sita’s taunts. “My father mated me with a woman in a man’s form ... To think of your handing me over to Bharata’s care! Why, it’s the sort of thing a dancer (sailusha) does.” (The context was Rama’s pleading with Sita to stay in Ayodhya while he went into exile.) At the same time, Sastri expresses the view that it would have been worthy of Sita if she had refrained from saying harsh things to Laksh­mana. (What has happened to Sastri’s concep­tion of Sita as an ordinary human being with all the faults and weaknesses of a mortal?)

After dealing with the other characters of the Ramayana like Kaikeyi (“a most unlovely character, her name a by-word for in­equity”), Kausalya and Sumitra, Sastri exhorts us to enthrone Rama and Sita in our hearts re­membering the lessons of their lives. They were not perfect but grew to perfection step by step, from stage to stage. “It is only when we contemplate the hero and heroine as undergo­ing the trials of life and enjoying all the good things that happened to them, it is only as we watch them through the vicissitudes of their life and make note of the way they profit by these things, that we shall get from the study of the Ramayana the utmost advantage that it is ca­pable of giving.”

In contrast to Sastri’s “human” ap­proach, Raghunathan’s is philosophical. Raghunathan would not like to be drawn into the “God vs man” debate but, using the text of the Ramayana itself, would prefer to go with Bharata and Sita who describe Rama as the Jivan-mukta par excellence who transcends all likes and dislikes. He would rather look upon the Ramayana effecting a reconciliation be­tween the personal and the impersonal ideals of the Vedanta.

If Sastri chose to exhort us to “enshrine” Rama in our hearts, Raghunathan emphasises that Rama exemplified the principle of “Saran­agati Dharma” (Protection to the affected). He upheld Dharma as the axis of the universe which revolves round the twin poles of com­passion and renunciation - the two dominant notes of the Ramayana. The lofty ethic he stands for is that Dharma is all - the Dharma the conception of which is derived from the Vedas. “The Ramayana has something pertinent to say on all the aspects of Dharma – its relevance to the social order, the cosmic order, the sense of mutual obligation that brings the universe, together with the Karmic ties, the re­ligious impulse which is the parent of that ethic, and lastly the Adhyatmic Reality to the realisation of which Dharma finds its crown and consummation”. The concept of Dhanna is a gift of the gods (the Vedas) taught by precept and practice by Rama.

Raghunathan’s translation of the Ramayana in three volumes is a work of scholarly labour spread over many years. He looked upon his work as a debt discharged to the ancient Rishis, Rishi runa, one of the three specified traditional debts – to the gods, to the seers and to the ancestors. He also occasionally contributed articles on the Ramayana to jour­nals and presented papers to learned bodies. In one such paper entitled “The World of Valmiki” presented at a meeting of the Madras Sanskrit Academy in 1954, he dealt with the characters of the Ramayana much in the man­ner of Sastri. A summary of his sketches brings out the difference in his approach from that of Sastri.

Sugriva: Raghunathan looks upon the relation­ship of Rama and Sugriva as an ideal instance of “maitri”.

Bharata: Bharata loved Rama, not as Laksh­mana did, with the possessive loyalty of a mother, but as one would a venerated exemplar and a pillar of strength. He was steadfast and dispassionate.

Lakshmana: “Lakshmana is not so much a foil to Rama as the mirror of one side of his charac­ter, as Bharata is of another.” He is the touchstone of Rama’s intimate atma-gunas.

Rama: “Rama is the complete man. All of us, encaged in our imperfections, find it difficult to
take him in whole and entire........But this much is certain, that it is the Visvamitras and the Va­sishthas, the Sutikshanas and the Agastyas, the men who have conquered raga and dvesha that see him in the round and have an integral apprehension of him”. Rama may or may not have been conscious of his divinity but there is no doubt that he looked upon himself as a Dharma-pratishthapaka. (Raghunathan does not at all countenance Sastri’s view that Rama has two natures, the lower and the higher, and that he subordinated the lower to the higher in course of time.)

Ravana: Ravana was after power. He represented “that hypertrophy of the will which history has made us familiar with in a series of scourges from Alilla to Hitler”. Instead of clinging to sva-dharma, he hugs his sva-adharma, his own besetting sin of pride.

Sita : Sita is that “unbought grace that made duty a delight”. She finds in renunciation (when she goes to the forest with Rama) a simple delight and symbolises “pativratya”.

Hanuman: Hanuman is the nitya-siddha who discovered his inner truth and unity. He saw in Rama not the Kshatriya ideal of honour but the splendour of his own self’.

Rama is a deity and the Ramayana is the story of His life. Valmiki’s poem is a classic, the first of all epic poems in world’s literature. It is futile to ask anyone brought up from child­hood to venerate Rama to look upon Him as a man and take lessons from his life. The story of the Ramayana – which seems to have a germ in historical fact – has little in common with the lives that mere mortals lead. It does appear right and proper to look upon the Itihasa that is the Ramayana as illustrating the ideals, con­cepts and values of the Vedic culture, which is based on Rta, Satya, Dharma and Tapas. The Ramayana is not a mere “human document” as Sastri would have it; there is much to be gained by looking upon it as a “Divine Testament” as well.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: