Sri Aurobindo's grasp of the essence of the Ramayana is truly unique.
Sri Aurobindo meticulously studied the whole of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and wrote several hundred pages on the greatness of these two epics. In these pages he has dealt with the creative genius of Valmiki and Vyasa and the problems related to the understanding and misunderstanding of these two epics. He has also translated many of their passages into English.
The two great Epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are not merely the sagas of heroes or a mythology but a day to day reality for Indians. The thoughts and ideas embodied herein have greatly influenced the thinking of the common man of India. They are, as Sri Aurobindo says,
“…a highly artistic representation of intimate significances of life, the living presentment of a strong and noble thinking, a developed ethical and aesthetic mind and a high social and political ideal, the ensouled image of a great culture.” 1
These epics are called “Itihasas‟. According to Sri Aurobindo “Itihasa‟ is
“…an ancient historical or legendary tradition turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people.” 2
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are Itihasa of this kind. The knowledge of this Itihasa or significant tradition was one of the elements of Vedic education.
Ramayana and its place in the Epic Literature
The Ramayana of Maharshi Valmiki is said to be the first metrically composed poem in Sanskrit. So it is known as adikavya where Maharshi Valmiki describes beautifully the story of Rama’s banishment, Sita’s abduction and Ravana’s destruction. As we follow the hero’s adventures step by step, we see him walking with Visvamitra in the Balakanda, crossing the Ganges with Guha in the Ayodhyakanda, journeying in Dandaka with Sita and Lakshmana in the Aranyakanda, meeting Sugriva in the Kishkindhyakanda, listening to Sita‟s message from Hanuman in the Sundarakanda and killing Ravana in the Yuddhakanda. Several times the story is recapitulated. Repetitions are used as brush strokes to make the structure absolutely clear. Though the epic is long, nowhere we miss the main thread of the story. It is the simplicity of the structure and the creative genius of Valmiki that made Ramayana so popular. Sri Aurobindo comparing the Ramayana with the Mahabharata says,
“… it differs only by a greater simplicity of plan, a more delicate ideal temperament and a finer glow of poetic warmth and colour. The main bulk of the poem in spite of much accretion is evidently by a single hand and has a less complex and more obvious unity of structure. There is less of the philosophic, more of the purely poetic mind, more of the artist, less of the builder. The whole story is from beginning to end of one piece and there is no deviation from the stream of the narrative.” 3
The Genius of Valmiki
The story of Rama has been told a hundred times, in hundred different ways, but Valmiki remains unsurpassed till today. Valmiki is not a mere story-teller. He is the hero as a poet taking the civilizations of the past in their entirety to study the step reached so far by mankind struggling towards perfection. He has made the epic a path-finder, a character-builder and a means for attaining human perfection. Sri Aurobindo points out that through the ideal characters of Ramayana, Valmiki “makes us conscious of the immense forces that are behind our life…” 4 The poet by the living characterization of the ideal human beings has made the great human values like ‘strength and courage’, ‘gentleness and purity’, ‘fidelity and self-sacrifice’ appealing to the emotion and the aesthetic sense in a gracious and harmonious manner. In the Ramayana the poet has “lent a certain high divineness to the ordinary things of life, conjugal and filial and maternal and fraternal feeling, the duty of the prince and leader and the loyalty of follower and subject, the greatness of the great and the truth and worth of the simple…” 5
On the Avatara-hood of Rama
Commenting on the Avatara-hood of Rama of the Ramayana, Sri Aurobindo tells us that “…he was the Avatara of the sattvic mind – mental, emotional, moral – and he followed the Dharma of the age and race.” 6 Many charges have been leveled against Rama of the Ramayana, like the killing of Vali, the fire-ordeal of Sita, her banishment in the Uttarakanda etc. that one can easily conclude that Rama was unjust in many cases. However, Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that while dealing with the human personality of Rama one should get into the spirit of his age and race. He again says,
“I consider myself under an obligation to enter into the spirit, significance, atmosphere of the Mahabharata, Iliad, Ramayana and identify myself with their time-spirit before I can feel what their heroes were in themselves apart from the details of their outer action.” 7
Ramayana and the Cultural Mind of India
The Ramayana has played a vital role in building a strong foundation for Indian culture. According to Sri Aurobindo:
“The work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the moulding of the cultural mind of India: it has presented to it to be loved and imitated in figures like Rama and Sita, made so divinely and with such a revelation of reality as to become objects of enduring cult and worship, or like Hanuman, Lakshmana, Bharata the living human image of its ethical ideals; it has fashioned much of what is best and sweetest in the national character, and it has evoked and fixed in it those finer and exquisite yet firm soul-tones and that more delicate humanity of temperament which are a more valuable thing than the formal outsides of virtue and conduct.” 8
Thus in a single breathless sentence, Sri Aurobindo has brought out very beautifully the uniqueness and greatness of Ramayana from a socio-cultural viewpoint.
Translation of Ramayana
Apart from such short commentaries on the Ramayana, Sri Aurobindo also translated some interesting passages from the epic as: 5th to 22nd verses of the 5th canto of Balakanda; 20th canto (verses 36-55) and 26th to 30th canto of Ayodhyakanda; 1st (verses 1-21), 2nd (verses 1-25) and 3rd (verses 1-5) cantos of Aranyakanda and 52nd canto (verses 1-4) of Yuddhakanda. Though only a few verses have been translated by Sri Aurobindo, the passages he selected are unique in their poetic beauty and importance and throw light on social and cultural issues.
Ramayana is not just an epic written for the sake of the entertainment of the intellect but it is a revelation propelled by the supreme afflatus of the divine urge. Its penetrating attractiveness causes profound elation and high-spiritedness in each and every sensible heart. It makes us realise the mystically luminous and resplendent history of India encompassing the true cultural processes. The whole of the Ramayana is moulded for a greater societal transformation from an unreal materialism to enduring spiritualism. It is truly the heart and soul of India.
References / Footnotes
1. Sri Aurobindo: „The Foundations of Indian Culture‟, SABCL Vol.14. p. 293
2. Ibid. p. 285
4. Sri Aurobindo: „Letters On Yoga‟, SABCL Vol.22. p. 414
5. Sri Aurobindo: „The Foundations of Indian Culture‟, SABCL Vol.14. p. 290
6. Sri Aurobindo: „Letters On Yoga‟, SABCL Vol.22. p. 413
7. Ibid. p. 414
8. Sri Aurobindo: „The Foundations of Indian Culture‟, SABCL. Vol.14. p. 290