The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the human avatar of Vishnu who must rescue his wife from the demon Ravana. Ascribed to the semi-legendary Valmiki, the poem was written in Sanskrit at some point between 500 and 100 BC. Along with the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is one of the two great Hindu epics and is equal in stature to any work in any canon. My not having ever read it is a lapse—certainly if I want to write about these things. As I read, I’ll post things that catch my eye and why they do.
There is no shortage of options. The first sloka (couplet) bursts from Valmiki’s lips almost by accident when he denounces a pitiless hunter. The Ramayana begins in shock, grief, and anger. This is certain to color the rest of the work. Equally moving, the bulk of the story begins when two students of Valmiki arrive at the court of Rama, now an old man. As they retell his story, he finds himself transfixed, so quietly he gets up from his throne and “descended unobtrusively from there step by step and sat on the floor with the others listening to the glorious kavya. He sat spellbound and he listened as though it were the story of someone else and not himself. Tears were flowing from his eyes when he sat down to listen to the Ramayana… [he] listened as though he were a figure carved out of a block of marble.”
Though it is less momentous and never interacts with the plot, a later episode seems worth dwelling on. Rama and his brother Lakshmana’s first adventure is with a sage named Vishvamitra. The sage asks them to kill several rakshasas (demons) that are preventing his carrying out a ritual. Having killed the first, they are on their way to the sage’s ashrama when Rama admires the surrounding grove. Vishvamitra explains how the grove came to be.
Helpful glossary from the translation by Kamala Subramaniam: ashrama: a hermitage of rishis Bhargava: alternate name for Sukra Acharya danava: demon/rakshasa deva: god Indra: the king of the devas Maruts: companions of Indra Narayana: alternate name for Vishnu, the Preserver Prajapati: creator rishi: an ascetic, holy man tapas: penance done in exchange for divine boons Visvarupa: the true form of Vishnu yajna: sacrifice yajnasala: sacrificial hall
“Ages back, the great Lord Narayana, the all-pervading, who is the cause of the creation, the preservation and the destruction of this entire Universe, performed tapas here. And again, this is the place where Vamana had his dwelling place and hence it is called ‘Siddhashrama.’
“Bali, the son of Virochana, was the emperor. He had defeated all the rival danavas as also the Maruts and Indra too. He was famed all the world over for his prowess and for his generous nature. He once performed a yajna. The yajna was to confirm his position as the lord of the three worlds. It was in this ashrama that the devas led by Agni approached Narayana and said: ‘Lord, Bali the son of Virochana is performing a yajna. You must somehow stop it for the good of those who dwell in the celestial regions. Bali is well known for his generosity. He has never said ‘No’ to anyone who has asked him for anything. You must make use of this characteristic in him and help us to regain the world which we have lost to him.
“In the meantime Kashyapa, the great Prajapati who was like the god of fire, so radiant was he because of his tapas, desired a son. His wife Aditi was like his other self in glory and this great man once performed tapas with the image of Narayana deeply engraved in his mind. To him came the Lord in person and asked him what he desired. Kashyapa the son of Marichi said: ‘Please do not think it audacious on my part when I ask you to be born as my son. You must be born as the son of Aditi and you must wipe her tears which are flowing because of the unhappiness of her children, the devas. Our purpose should thus be served and this ashrama where you will be born will be famed the world over as the Siddhashrama since we would have attained our desires.’
“’So be it,’ said Narayana with a smile. Aditi became the mother of the Lord in human form. He was so small and so much like a miniature of a man that he was called ‘Vamana’ along with his other name ‘Upendra.’ When the yajna of Bali was in progress Vamana went to the yajnasala.
“Bali stood up and greeted this young brahmin who was like a heap of gold. He said: ‘What will you have, my young brahmin? You look so beautiful and so radiant, I have a feeling you do not belong to this earth but to the heavens. No human being can look so glorious. Ask anything of me and I will give it to you. I am eager to please you.’
“Vamana was gratified by the generous nature of the king and said: ‘O king! It is but proper for the son of Virochana to talk thus. The world talks of nothing but the great yajna you are performing and so I came to you hoping that you will give me something. I want very little but I will ask only if you assure me that I will be granted my wish.’
“The king smiled at the young child—for so he thought!—and said: ‘It is my great good fortune that you should come to me asking me to give you something. My tapas has been sanctified only now. My very life seems purposeful only now and I feel that I have been born for this only task, granting you what you ask for. My kingship, and all the many good acts which I may have performed seem to bear fruit at this moment when you have come to me. My treasury, my granary, my army, my entire kingdom, all these are at your disposal. Ask of me anything you please and it is yours.’
“A beautiful smile lit up the face of the young brahmin and he said: ‘Of what use is all this to me, O king? I am but a poor dweller in an ashrama and my needs are few. All I want is a bit of land: a piece from your kingdom which can be covered by three paces of mine.’
“The king was amused at the request of Vamana. He smiled tolerantly at Vamana and said: ‘But certainly. I will grant you three paces of land as you wish.’
“Sukra Acharya, the Bhargava, was the preceptor of Bali and he stopped the king from taking water in his hand preparatory to the gift and said: ‘Bali, this is no ordinary brahmin. He is that TRUTH which cannot be known even by Brahma or the devas or by yogis who spend years and years in tapas. He is Narayana. You should not grant him his wish. If you do, you will be destroyed. Narayana, as is well known, is ever partial to the devas and their good will be the consequence of your gift.’ Bali would not listen to him.
“ ‘If the Lord of lords has assumed a form to bless me with the request, my yajna has been fulfilled to a glorious degree. What greater good fortune can befall one like me?’, said the king and, with his wife pouring the water into his hands he gave away ‘three paces of land’ to the youngster who was standing with his little right hand held out to receive the gift. When the water touched his hand and when the gift had been granted, Vamana grew. Narayana assumed his Visvarupa. With one blessed foot he covered the entire earth and with the other, the heavens. Bali worshipped him with great gladness in his heart and he spoke to himself: ‘Narayana Himself came to me with a request and I was able to grant it. Can anyone be more fortunate than me?’ He stood with folded palms, with tears streaming from his eyes.
“Narayana thus regained for Indra his kingdom and restored to him his throne. That grove which seems to thrill you so much was where Vamana was born.”1
It is an easy tale to remember. We begin with the arrogant king who tempts the gods, only to fall before their greater trickery. Unlike most kings in his position, Bali is wise enough to recognize a deeper victory in his defeat.
1Ramayana. Trans. Kamala Subramaniam. Bhavan’s Book University: 2017.