Tale of a Storyteller
For anyone familiar with Indian mythology, the name Valmiki is sure to ring some bells. But what about the name Ratnakar, know who he is? If you consider personality traits, Ratnakar is to Valmiki what Darth Vader is to Anakin Skywalker.
A sage by name Prachetasa lived by the banks of the Ganga. He had a son called Ratnakar. When Ratnakar was just a few years old, he wandered into the nearby jungle and got lost in its dense and baffling trails. His parents searched fervently for him but could not find him. They concluded that he must have been killed by wild animals and returned, grieving the loss of their son. Meanwhile, a hunter in the forest came upon this little child, bawling in fear and despair. He gently comforted Ratnakar and the childless hunter decided to raise him as one of his own. Soon, the baby forgot all about his biological parents and grew up comfortably in the hunter’s family.
Ratnakar grew up to be a strong, young and handsome man and he married a beautiful lady. He loved his wife and children very much and took care of them with utmost sincerity and love. He too was a hunter having learned the ways of livelihood from his foster father. He would pick out a variety of animals and birds to kill every day to satisfy the food cravings of his family. One day, it would be a deer and the next, a rabbit or a fowl. However, his family soon grew large and just hunting for food was not sufficient for subsistence. Not being skilled in anything but brute force, the hungry wails of his children pushed him to transform into a dacoit.
Ratnakar would prey on men and women travelling through the forest and loot them of their belongings. Anybody who refused to comply with his demands would be mercilessly killed. The first murder was an act of extreme anger and desperation to make ends meet. The second murder was an act of power. He became aware of his physical prowess. He possessed the ability to wring the life out of someone effortlessly. He felt like he was in control, everything would go smoothly in life if he could just murder a traveler and usurp his or her belongings. Like a man-eater of the jungle, he was addicted to human blood. Murder and stealing became a part of his daily chores in addition to hunting for food. His name became synonymous with terror and bloodshed. He would distribute the stolen goods lovingly amongst his family — his wife would get ornaments and expensive silks, and his children would wait eagerly for their toys. He was content. And thus time watched him go from being a sage’s son to a hunter to a thief to a murderer.
One day he accosted an odd traveler, let us call him X. Unlike others, he did not flee on seeing Ratnakar nor did he attempt to safeguard his belongings. Well, X possessed just one item — a stringed instrument which he twanged at repeatedly. He continued walking, no skipping merrily with a tune on his lips. He showed no fear and even waved at Ratnakar as he approached him. Slightly bewildered but not losing stature, Ratnakar demanded X to give him everything he carried on him. X giggled and said he does not have any material possession except the instrument, and that it would be of no use to an unlettered hunter. Assuming he must he hiding some precious articles, an enraged Ratnakar threatened to kill him if he does not surrender everything he has. X admitted he does have something apart from the Tanpura (the instrument) but was not sure if Ratnakar would be interested in it — knowledge that would set him free. Ratnakar hated these sages and philosophers and would have loved to put an end to X’s life then and there. However, the smiling face of X irked him and he wanted to prove this man wrong before doing so. He declared that he committed no sin and was depriving others of their property only to keep his family happy. Those were the laws of the jungle; you need to fend for yourself at any cost. After all, his first responsibility was towards his family who loved him to no end. They would share his sufferings if such a time came as he has nourished them with his blood (or others’ so to speak). X challenged him to prove his point. A proud Ratnakar went home and put forth the question to his family. His wife sneered at him and said that it was his responsibility to take care of her and his sins were his business not hers. His children looked at him like he was a madman and announced that they thought he was disillusioned — they were just children; they cannot partake any of his sins. He had to take care of them, how he did that was not their concern. Ratnakar’s whole world had revolved around his family. They had been his pillar of strength, gave him a reason to live — to provide for them and take care of them in exchange for their unconditional love.
In a thunderclap, the world as he knew it came crashing down. He could not recognize it anymore, could not recognize himself anymore. He felt sick in his stomach as all the cries of help of those he ruthlessly murdered came back to him. Some kind of a moral compass in him was being activated. How did I go to bed at night, he thought, did the wailings of those hundreds I killed ever reach my ears? He remembered the conversation with X and ran back deliriously to find him and ask for answers to the hundreds of questions now imploding in his head. X was standing right where he left him. The smile on his face seemed radiant, not vexing anymore. He wanted to know who this strange man was and why he had not run away when he went home. Breathless and shaking, he spluttered out a myriad of questions to X, amidst a pool of tears of dread and repentance — who are you? Who am I? I have lead an abhorrent life; can you pull me out of this quicksand I have blindly slipped into?
“I am Sage Narad”, said X,” I have come precisely to give you the assistance you beg for”. Narad recounted Ratnakar’s childhood and comforted him by promising to provide a solution for all his troubles. A relieved and amazed Ratnakar stood transfixed listening to his own story. Life must mean more than just filling my stomach, he thought. He wanted to be more, he wanted to civilize his mind and become respectable and useful to this world. He yearned to expand his mind and overcome the ways of the jungle. “I have taken enough and more than that”, he contemplated, “now I must take the leap to a life of higher quality”. He clamored for that guaranteed solution. Narad instructed him to repeat the syllables Ra and Ma in an uninterrupted manner until Narad himself felt he had reached the zenith of wisdom and self-realization. Eager to enter this new way of life, Ratnakar attempts to speak out the holy consonants. But he had amassed such a colossal mountain of sins, that he struggled to utter them. The quick-witted sage realized he might become demotivated to continue if it was so hard for him to say just two syllables. So, he suggested that Ratnakar reverse the order of the sounds to Ma-Ra.
A relieved Ratnakar sunk into meditation uttering Ma-Ra-Ma-Ra-Ma-Ra…….. He remained in this introspective state for hundreds of years, deprived of food and water. Soon he was also deprived of air as an anthill grew over him. He continued his penance unaware of the external world. Many years later, Sage Narad came back to spot him in an anthill in the middle of a lush thriving forest. Animals frolicked freely around him, vibrant flowers had bloomed in that area and the atmosphere was that of joyous tranquility. He gently eased Ratnakar to consciousness. He looked transformed — his eyes shown not with greed but with enlightenment and though his body was malnourished, it emanated strength. You are now Valmiki, meaning the one who came out of an anthill, declared Narad, and your wonderful destiny awaits. Valmiki took the blessings of the sage and went on to establish a hermitage of his own to educate all those who seek unadulterated knowledge.
This story goes on to an ironical incident. One day, while walking along the river that flowed near his hermitage, Valmilki observes two Kraunchi birds merrily courting each other. Suddenly, an arrow pierces the male bird and kills it. The female bird sings a heartbreaking lament and pines for its partner. An enraged Valmiki utters a curse to this hunter who shot the bird. The curse comes out as a beautiful and rhythmic verse. He gets very excited with the verse and runs back to his hermitage, summons his students and recited the verse over and over again to them. They had heard nothing of that sort before and are amazed too. Valmiki then meditates upon it, pondering… why did he came to compose something so perfectly rhythmic. His good old friend Narad appeared before him with an explanation. “You are destined to write a beautiful piece of literature”, he said, “one that will stand the tides of time for generations to come”. Valmiki wondered what he should write about, maybe he should write about the ideal man of an an ideal civilization. He wondered if there was a man who was as perfect as mankind could get and posed the question to Narad. Narad smiled and said, “Yes, there is one — the gem of the Ikshavaku dynasty”, and proceeded to tell him the story of King Ram. He then blesses Valmiki with the ability to view entirety of Ram’s life to enable him to write an authentic version. This is how the Ramayan came to be and Valmiki thus fulfilled his desire to contribute something meaningful to civilization — a standard for man to live up to, for governance to live up to and for literature to live up to.
Valmiki is known as Adi-Kavi, considered the first ever poet. We don’t judge him on his past actions as a hunter or dacoit anymore. It is quite contrary to the Shakespeare’s words — “evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Details of his foster father and his family are not known as it was not documented well. Valmiki’s life is full of ups and downs. His jungle life is a stage to portray an uncultured mind that acts majorly based on primal instincts. His path forward is the way to a cleaner conscience and meaningful living. It is strange that a curse to another hunter was what ticked him off to write one of the greatest literary works known to mankind. But again, it shows how the wisest of people can be blind to their own past and succumb to simple human faults. The story is reassuring in the sense that how much ever you may have messed up your life, there is always a way when there is repentance and realization and it is never too late :)