Friday, April 19, 2013

For Ramnavami 2013: How Poetry Came to the World

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram

On Saturday, April 20th, 2013 the birthday of Lord Rama is celebrated as the festival Ramnavami.  In the past, I have presented some stories about Rama and summarized the epic tale of his life, The Ramayana. Today I would like to spin a yarn about how this epic came to be.  It is the story of how the gift of poetry was given to humanity.

So with great reverence to Valmiki, William Buck (who wrote my  favorite retelling of the story), and the spirit of the tale, my version of how poetry came to the world:
Once upon a time, in India…

There lived a lowly thief, a highwayman, named Ratnakara.  I guess with a name like ‘Ratnakara’ your career options are pretty limited; certainly does not sound like the name of a pillar of the community.  One day he spied a lone traveler walking down the road.  Thinking this was easy pickings, Ratnakara stopped the traveler and demanded all his money and possessions.

Unbeknownst to Ratnakara, the traveler was the divine sage Narada. Narada was not scared or surprised by Ratnakara’s threats, nor did he respond in his usual manner (Narada reportedly was, shall we politely say, um, someone who makes Gordon Ramsey look like the world’s best boss).  Instead, he said very kindly to the thief:

“I have the power to give you anything that you want.  I can make plants bloom in winter and lakes freeze in summer. I can turn the sky green and the grass blue. Indeed the gods themselves jump to do my bidding when I am happy and hide in fear when I am angry.  Creating piles of wealth is a simple parlor trick for me. But first you must answer for me two questions.  Tell me, why is it you steal?”
Ratnakara’s bravado had disappeared. He stood hypnotized before the sage. “I steal to provide for my family,” he mumbled.
“Will your family accept their share of all the negative merit you have accrued from this life of crime?  If so, I will turn this very ground into gold for you.”
“I don’t know,” stammered Ratankara.
“Well go ask them.  I will wait right here.”

Without any conscious thought about his actions, Ratnakara walked to his home. Upon opening the door he was greeted by his family “Father, husband, have you brought us food?”
Ratnakara surveyed his wife and children. “I have been taking from others to provide for you. Will you accept the punishments I will receive in this life and the next for stealing?”
“Oh father, do not tease us with this philosophical talk. We do not care about the next life, we are hungry now. Give us food now!”

Ratnakara stood once again before Narada.  He fell at the sage’s feet.
“They do not care.  They only want for themselves.  They do not care what happens in the future.”  Ratnakara sobbed. “Oh glorious sage, teach me how to break from this life of theft and violence.  I am you pupil!”

“Well said, my son. Salvation is only one word away.  That word is ‘death.’ Meditate on that one word alone and you will be saved.”
“Death death death…” Ratnakara mumbled.  He sat up and focused his entire mind on repeating that one word.  “Death death death….” Ratnakara became still. The world disappeared.  The one thing that remained was the word “death.”  He became so still that the ants on the ground beneath him thought he was just another rock and they built their anthill (valmiki in Sanskrit) over the top of him.

Here is where English fails us.  Not just because of my horrible grasp of the language, but because of the perfection of the Sanskrit and the imperfection of English.  I mentioned that the word for death is mara, which is composed of two syllables, ma (म) and ra (रा). When it is said over and over, you get:
ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma….
 म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा 
Go ahead, say it out loud.

                By shifting the focus slightly (and the stress—our habits in English cause us to stress the first syllable, but Sanskrit does not have this problem), you get:
ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma…
रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म

The word for “death” (mara) is really nothing more than the name of an incarnation of the Divine (Rama).  Our good friend Narada knew that he could never convince such a corrupt individual to say the name of the Divine, so he gave him a focal point that was much more applicable. Narada also knew that the name of the Divine, said correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, with feeling or without feeling, will give the correct result. Through billions and billions of repetitions, the one-time scoundrel purified his soul.

Some time later (years, eons, lifetimes, who can say?) Narada whispered into Ratnakara’s ear that it was time to wake up.  Regaining his consciousness, he emerged  from the anthill cocoon. What had been a deserted back road had transformed to a hermitage.  The power of the repetition of the divine name Rama sanctified the area.  The person who was the criminal Ratnakara rejoined the world as the sage Valmiki.

Valmiki went to the river to wash the dust and ants from himself.  He began splashing water on himself when he became distracted by the beautiful mating song of two birds on a nearby tree.  As he watched and listened, a hunter’s arrow pierced and killed the male bird.  His mate’s song instantly turned from one of joy to one of lament.  Valmiki saw the hunter emerge from the bushes.  Without any though, Valmiki uttered a curse upon the hunter.  

मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः। यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥'
mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam(1)
You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting(2)
( 1 IAST encoded transliteration modified from original source to accurately reflect sandhi rules.
2 Buck, William and van Nooten, B. A. Ramayana. 2000, page 7)

 The curse came out in perfect metered verse.  It was the first time language had been spoken in this way by a man.

The hunter’s heart immediately exploded.

Valmiki contemplated what he had done.  Brahma, the god of creation, saw the whole thing. He appeared before Valmiki.

“Valmiki, you have work to do.  You have uttered the first poetry of man.  You will use this gift to give mankind the story of Lord Rama, whose exiled wife, the sinless Sita, now approaches the hermitage.  I give you the gift of divine sight.  Every aspect of Rama’s life, past, present, and future will be revealed to you as if you were there.  Look—“ he motioned to the water cupped in Valmiki’s hands.

In that water Valmiki saw the comings and goings of Rama.  In his mind the story was expressed in verse, and the world’s first epic poem was composed.

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