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The Ramayana of Valmiki is the oldest Sanskrit epic. Over seven books and some 50,000 lines, the poem celebrates the life of Rama, incarnation of Vishnu, founder of the Golden Age, peerless warrior, master of scripture, obedient son and exemplary brother, dedicated lover and husband of Sita, daughter of the Earth.
Valmiki composed his holy story of Rama and Sita sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries before the Common Era. That makes his poem younger than Hesiod's Theogony and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but roughly contemporaneous with writings of the Hebrew Prophets, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Plato.
Nothing is hidden. Sacred legend, the struggle between good and evil, divine intention and human ambition, the cross-currents of personal obligation and right conduct, and the possibility of happiness, all unfurl in a work meant to be both read and performed. The Ramayana informs, enlightens, and entrances, even in translation.
Balakanda, or Boyhood, Book 1 of the epic's seven books, tells the story of the Ramayana's own conception in its first four cantos. It also tells the history of Rama at least two ways, before the actual events unfold. Throughout, Valmiki's poem vibrates between heightened self-awareness and rapture.
Canto 1 opens with Valmiki asking the sage Narada: "Is there a man in the world today who is truly virtuous?"
The sage responds that there lives a man named Rama. He then relates what might be called Rama's official history, from princely birth to exile and martial triumphs, ending with the Golden Age.
After he hears Rama's story, Valmiki goes down to the riverbank to bathe. There, he sees a Nishada hunter kill the male of a pair of krauncha birds. Filled with grief at this injustice, the ascetic says: "Since, Nishada, you killed one of this pair of kraunchas, distracted at the height of passion, you shall not live for very long." But even as he speaks, the compassionate sage wonders what this is which he has uttered. Upon reflection, Valmiki decides that his utterance, its elaborately patterned syllables "produced in this access of shoka, grief, shall be called shloka, poetry, and nothing else."
Next, Brahma, the maker of worlds, visits Valmiki, and informs him that it was by the god's will alone that the poet produced his shloka, his elegant speech. Brahma then commands Valmiki to compose the entire history of Rama as he heard it from Narada, "the full story, public and private. ... For all that befell ... will be revealed to you, even those events of which you are ignorant. No utterance of yours in this poem shall be false."
In the days after Rama regained his kingdom, the seer Valmiki composed the whole Ramayana. Its episodes, as rehearsed in Canto 3, include the future and final events …