The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakanda.
Author: Sandahl, Stella
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Acta Orientalia Publisher: Hermes Academic Publishing Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Hermes Academic Publishing ISSN: 0001-6438
Issue: Date: Annual, 2010 Source Volume: 71
Accession Number: 300544845
Full Text: The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakanda. Translation and Annotation by Robert P. Goldman, Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, and Barend A. van Nooten; Introduction by Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-06663-9 (hardcover), xviii, 1655 p.

The sixth part of the Ramayana translation project, the Yuddhakanda, is an awesome volume of 1655 pages: introduction pp. 3-118, translation pp. 119-494, notes pp. 495-1551, three glossaries (Important Sanskrit Words, Proper Nouns, and Epithets; Flora and Fauna; and Weapons) pp. 1552-1560; a substantial bibliography pp. 1563-1578; and, finally, a most valuable index pp. 1579-1655. The whole weighs in total 1961 grams, about half of the weight of the Baroda critical edition of the same kanda. Just to read through this heavy and impressive book is a kind of tapas. How much more to produce it! The general editor Robert P. Goldman, along with Sally J. Sutherland Goldman and Barend A. van Nooten have all accumulated punya for many lives to come as a reward for this gigantic oeuvre.

Like the five preceding volumes, the most striking quality is that the translation is accurate and eminently readable, in spite of the colossal length and the many similar scenes, especially the numerous descriptions of battles which is the main theme of the aptly named Yuddhakanda, the Battle Book.

Severed arms, legs and head fly around along with 14 kinds of arrows, spears, tridents, hammers, javelins, darts, cudgels and various missiles, not to speak of the millions of boulders, uprooted trees, mountain tops--these three latter items constitute the monkey army's main weapons. Judging by the millions and millions of fighting monkeys there couldn't have been a single tree left standing in Lanka after these fierce battles. And where did all the mountaintops come from? The text doesn't exactly describe Lanka as mountainous. However, in an epic of this kind realism has no part. We are entirely in an aggrandized fantasy world:

"Thus, in the eighth part of the day, did Rama with his arrows like flames of fire single-handedly annihilate the forces of the raksasas, ...: a host of ten thousand chariots as swift as the wind, eighteen thousand mighty war-elephants, fourteen thousand battle-steeds along with their riders, and a full two hundred thousand raksasa foot soldiers." (6.81.28-30)

Impressive numbers, indeed!

The general slaughter can also be described in poetic terms, or as the Goldmans put it more elegantly "Valmiki seems to delight in graphic descriptions of massive and sanguinary violence" (Intr. p. 91):

"Indeed, the battleground resembled a river. Masses of slain heroes formed its banks, and shattered weapons, its great trees. Torrents of blood made up its broad waters, and the ocean to which it flowed was Yama. Livers and spleens made up its deep mud, scattered entrails its waterweeds. Severed heads and trunks made up its fish, pieces of limbs, its grass. It was crowded with vultures in place of flocks of hamsas, and it was swarming with adjutant storks instead of sarasa cranes. It was covered with fat in place of foam, and the cries of the wounded took the place of its gurgling. It was not to be forded by the faint of heart. Truly, it resembled a river at the end of the rains, swarming with hamsas and sarasa cranes" (6.46.25-28).

As always, there are of course some minor points to discuss. For instance, I do not see the necessity of the many explanatory notes that Sanskrit passive phrases have been rendered as active. Most first year Sanskrit students know that tenoktam is normally translated as "he said"--no need to explain it actually says "by him it was said". The frequency with which Goldman refers to this utterly banal syntactic phenomenon takes up unnecessary space in the already voluminous notes.

The concentration on syntactical and semantic, not to mention the theological issues in the notes is sometimes to the disadvantage of other little clarifications that would have been welcome. How many readers remember that Caitraratha and Nandana in 6.30.8 are names of Indra's and Kubera's celestial gardens? And who remembers that Pinaka (6.81.32) is Siva's bow? Or is it his trident? There's no explanation in the notes.

Sanskrit words for gemstones always pose a problem. The word vaidurya is rendered as 'lapis' in 6.15.2, further explained as 'dark blue' in the notes p. 611, again as 'lapis' in 6.3.13 and 6.67,13, but then the notes explain that "it could also be translated as 'cat's eye beryl' or 'emerald' ..." (p. I152). I believe that vaidurya/vaidurya is normally understood as 'cat's eye beryl', which usually is yellowish and brown, rather than 'lapis', which has been adopted here.

I do not quite agree with the interpretation of 6.3.19. The Sanskrit text reads:

lankapuri niralamba devadurga bhayavaha / nadeyam parvatam vanyam krtrimam ca caturvidham // which is rendered as:

"The citadel of Lanka is not to be scaled. It is inaccessible even to the gods. It is fearsome with its fourfold defences: its rivers, mountains, forests, and defensive constructions."

I would prefer interpreting caturvidham as a qualifying adjective to krtrimam, which is also metrically defensible (8+8 syllables). The four man-made things (krtrimam) are already mentioned in the preceding slokas: the ramparts (prakara 3.13), the moats (parikha 3.14), the gates (dvara 3.15) and the bridges (samkrama 3.15-16).

One could discuss minor issues like these ad infinitum, but that seems rather superfluous. However, it will be impossible in the future to teach a single sloka of the Ramayana without having access to these excellent notes provided in this and all the preceding volumes of this colossal and admirable translation project.

In the introduction the Goldmans aptly observe that many scenes are highly visual, almost made for a cinematic rendering (pp. 90 ff.) However, the references to American films and to the British cult-figure Monty Python are incomprehensible for anyone outside the English-American cultural sphere. I have hardly heard of any of the many American--and some Japanese--films mentioned, and I have only seen fifteen minutes of a Monty Python movie once--I found it too idiotic to spend more time watching it. Surely it would have been more interesting and useful to refer to renderings of the epic in Indian films, not to speak of the seemingly interminable TV series that ran for one and a half years every Sunday morning all over India in all the regional languages in the 1980s. (1) It would have been more to the point to dwell a little longer on the numerous representations of the Ramayana found in illuminated manuscripts, in temples friezes, in popular calendar art and so forth. True, the "Jagat Singh Ramayana" is mentioned (p. 94). Unfortunately the current volume of the Ram. must already have gone to the printers before the British Library in London put on the exhibition called "The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic" (16 May to 14 September 2008). (2) The "Jagat Singh Ramayana" was indeed the centerpiece in this exhibition with 120 paintings. But Vidya Dehejia's beautiful book The Legend of Rama: Artistic Visions, published already 1994, (3) is sadly missing from the bibliography. Furthermore, this book contains an article by J. P. Losty "Sahib Din's Book of Battles. Rana Jagat Singh's Yuddhakanda" (pp. 101-116) with numerous illustrations in colour. A mention of this article along with other references to the representations of the Ramayana in art would have been more useful than the names of American films.

By and large, the scholars involved in the Ramayana translation project seem more interested in pure philology--and at times theology--than in art.

The most astonishing event in the Yuddhakanda is the dramatic meeting between Sita and Rama once the war is over. Hanuman is sent to Sita to tell her about Rama's victory. She is speechless, overcome by joy: "When I heard the wonderful news concerning my husband's victory, I was overwhelmed with joy and momentarily speechless." (6.101.15) and she wishes she had something to reward Hanuman. Hanuman offers to kill the evil raksasa women who have guarded her, but she tells him "who ... could be angry at servant women, for, as mere functionaries and dependent on the king, they are obedient and act only on the orders of another" (6.101. 30), thereby demonstrating her noble character. Finally she simply says: drastum icchami bhartaram vanarottama "I wish to see my husband, O best of monkeys" (6.101.40). Hanuman relays her message to Rama, who then order Vibhisana to bring her: "Have Sita Vaidehi come here anointed with celestial unguents, adorned with celestial ornaments, her hair freshly washed." This is rather peculiar, since Sita herself wishes to come unwashed and unadorned in front of her husband, bur she submits to Rama's orders and arrives, her hair washed and "adorned with costly garments and ornaments", in "a shining palanquin that was draped in costly fabrics" (6.102.13-14). In other words she arrives like a queen--as if she had been Ravana's queen? There is no discussion whatsoever in the learned notes why Sita initially wishes to appear before her husband in the dishevelled state she has been in since she was abducted. However, in 6.23.16, Sita refers to herself as a tapasvini: mam vihaya tapasvinim, which is rendered "having abandoned me to my misery". Although the adjective tapasvin most often means just 'miserable' in the epic, I wonder if we shouldn't take tapasvini here as meaning that Sita refers to the fact that she has lived like an ascetic ever since she was abducted by Ravana. This is uttered when Sita is made to believe that Rama has been killed, and Sita blames herself not to have been virtuous enough: "When a husband dies first, they say it is because of the wife's lack of virtue. But even though my conduct has been exemplary (sadhuvrttayah ... mama), you, who were so virtuous, departed before me." (6.23.9) Appearing before Rama without washing and adorning herself could then mean that this is a proof of her chastity. Then Rama's insistence that she should be washed and dressed up in finery could imply that he wants her to appear as if she had been Ravana's queen during her stay in Lanka, something which makes his rejection of her more defensible, at least to himself. (4)

Rama then tells her in no uncertain terms that he has waged the whole war to wipe out the insult to his honour, and that she does not really count. All is about his honour: "I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased. For I have eliminated both the insult and the enemy at the same time" (6.103.3) and he continues angrily to the devastated, weeping Sita "Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war" ... "Instead I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage" (6.103.15-16). And he continues, "Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye" (6.103.17). He then tells her to marry Laksmana (whose marriage to Urmila in Balakanda 72.18 seems to have been totally forgotten ever since the brothers went into exile), or Vibhisana, or Sugriva or whoever. The devastated Sita asks Laksmana to prepare a funeral pyre for her from which she is miraculously rescued by Agni, thereby proving her chastity. Later on Rama says: "For surely had I not put Janaki to test, the virtuous would have said of me, 'Dasaratha's son Rama is a lustful fool'" (6.106.12). The text says: balisah khalu kamatma ramo dasarathatmajah / iti vaksyanti mam santo janakim avisodhya hi// As a matter of fact it was not Rama who put her to test, it was Sita herself who demanded a funeral pyre (6.104.18-19) and by the intervention of Agni her innocence was proven. So Rama's speech is rather hypocritical. This ought to have been noted in the commentary.

Rama's treatment of Sita tells a lot about the values of a male-dominated society, where women are disposable and, like chattel and cattle, easily replaceable. In the beginning of the Yuddhakanda Rama refers to Sita's "full and close-set breasts" (6.5.14), as a "lady of lovely thighs" (6.5.16), and worries about "her youth slipping away" (6.5.5) (he clearly doesn't want an aging wrinkled Sita), but later, seeing his beloved brother Laksmana lying wounded beside him, he laments: "What do I care for Sita or even for my life itself now that I see my brother lying defeated in battle? Were I to search the world I could find another woman like Sita, but never a brother, a companion, or a warrior equal to Laksmana" (6. 39-5-6). So Sita is decidedly just a sex object replaceable with another sex object, but a brother, an equal, is a different matter.

There is naturally nothing odd about Rama's attitude: he is part and parcel, even the supreme representative of the feudal society over which he reigns.

And this whole episode illustrates the humanness of Rama, and also of Sita.

The main problem with the Ramayana remains the question of the divinity of Rama in the epic. I have already discussed this in my review of the Aranyakanda, (5) and I have not changed my mind about this issue. Just as Pollock in his intr. to Aranyakanda (and elsewhere), the Goldmans seems to subscribe to the idea that Rama is an avatara of Visnu already in the Valmiki Ram. Both Pollock and the Goldmans base this notion on the commentators, who all wrote more than a thousand years after the composition of the epic, and who all were devout Vaisnavas. This does not solve the problem of how the epic was perceived and received in the beginning. Rama and Laksmana are found in temple friezes since the first century A.D. (6) but that per se does not prove he was considered an avatara of Visnu. To insist that Rama was a Vaisnava god already in the Valmiki Ramayana reduces the epic from a powerful human drama to a desiccated, syrupy and often absurd theology, (7) however clever the commentators' theological somersaults are. Take for instance sargas 37-38 when Sita is flown in the "flying palace" Puspaka to see the unconscious Rama and Laksmana lying on the ground. Sita naturally assumes they are dead, and laments (vilalapa bhrsam sita 6.38.1). The note to this sloka reads: "Several of the commentators feel compelled to explain how the omniscient goddess Sita could give way to lamentation when Rama is not really dead. Cm (8) argues that, although she knows the truth, she laments in order to deceive the raksasas ... Ct (9) adds that she laments as an actress might in order to firmly establish in the raksasas' minds the notion of her humanity ..." (p. 798). (10) These theological "explanations" are patently absurd in their assumption that Sita also was an omniscient goddess already in the epic. Although they do not say so, the Goldmans clearly realize that this is utter nonsense, but worth quoting for its involuntary humour. So why then do they take the commentaries so seriously when it comes to the notion of Rama as an avatara of Visnu and dwell on it at great length?

This difference of opinion does not in any way lessen the immense merit of this latest contribution to the gigantic Ramayana translation project. This annotated translation of the Yuddhakanda is not just an opus magnum, it is an opus magnificum.

Does the Government of India really have to wait until the Uttarakanda is published to give a collective, well-deserved Padma Bhushan to the whole Ramayana translation project team?

Stella Sandahl

University of Toronto

(1) See my article "The Ramayana--cultural heritage as TV soap", in the Toronto South Asia Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 1990, p. 57-64; and Romila Thapar: "The Ramayana Syndrome" in Seminar 353, January 1989, Delhi, pp. 71-75.

(2) 2008 seems to have been the year of the Ramayana. Museum Rietberg in Zurich had an exhibition called "Rama und Sita: Das Ramayana in der Malerei Indiens" from 29 June to 28 September 2008. There is an excellent catalogue with the same title put together by the curators Eberhard Fischer and Jorritt Britschgi (ISBN 978-3-907077-39-9).

(3) The Legend of Rama. Artistic Visions, ed. by Vidya Dehejia, Marg Publications 1994.

(4) There's a peculiar rite in present-day Kashmiri Hindu weddings: a few days before the actual wedding the unwashed bride with dishevelled hair is carried in by a maternal uncle (mama) to a waiting priest, and a ritual, called in Hindi deogun/devgun, is performed. The ritual is meant to invoke the blessings of the gods before the wedding. It takes place in the bride's house, and only the bride's relatives are present. I have not managed to get any explanation why the bride-to-be has to be unwashed and generally unkempt, but my guess is that she is meant to appear like an ascetic to underline that she is chaste and pure. After this ceremony the bride is washed in besan and dahi, i.e. chickpea flour and yoghurt, a traditional cleansing method which actually works very well.

(5) In Acta Orientalia, Vol. 55, Copenhagen 1994, pp. 255-261.

(6) See The Legend of Rama. Artistic Visions, ed. by Vidya Dehejia, Marg Publications 1994, Fig. 6, p. 11.

(7) See my article "A Good Story Spoiled. Tulasidasa's Rendering of the Valmiki Ramayana", in Corolla Torontonensis. Studies in Honour of Ronald Morton Smith, ed. by Emmet Robbins and Stella Sandahl, Toronto 1994 pp. 199-224.

(8) The commentary Tattvadipika by Mahesvaratirtha from the mid-sixteenth century.

(9) The commentary Ramayanatilaka by Nagesa Bhatta from the early eighteenth century.

(10) For a lucid discussion of the commentaries see Rosalind Lefeber's Introduction to the Kiskindhakanda (1994) pp. 17-28.
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