Maharishi Balmiki – A poet who takes us to Ram

Bhagwan Ram has always been there, but He chooses a few evolved souls to take us to Him. Maharishi Balmiki (‘Valmiki’ in Sanskrit) is one such blessed soul. The Adi-kavi, by way of composing Ramayan, has brought us so close to Ram – the Vishnu avatar – that He seems to be a man of flesh and blood. In the introductory piece of the present series (‘Recalling Ram’, DE, 28 April, 2024), we had had a cursory look at Maharishi Balmiki’s original epic and its retelling by Sant Tulsidas. This article and the one that follows it are a humble attempt to have some idea of who the two personages were.
It was Lord Brahma himself Who asked Balmiki to write Ramayan; ordaining that the sage shall move at will in the three worlds as long as the epic remains in currency (See Balmiki Ramayan, Balkand, Canto 2 (xxxvii)).
Luminary of a hazy past
Indeed, Maharishi Balmiki’s life story falls beyond the domain of history. In the Ramayan, of which he is the creator as well an important character, he gives just one allusion to his parentage while testifying before Raja Ram that the twins born to Sita are the sons of Ram himself:
Prachetsoaham dashmah putro Raghavnandana…
Na smraamyanritam vaakyamimou tu tav putrkau
“I am the tenth son of Pracheta, O Scion of the Raghus!
“If ever a lie came out of my month, I cannot recall. I tell you truthfully
that these two (Luv and Kush) are the sons of your own.”
– ibid, Uttar Kand, Canto 96(xix)
The fact of the matter is that precious little is known about this ancient poet who still breathes in our midst through his words. Was he born Agni Sharma or was he known by the name of ‘Ratnakar’ during his early years? Where was he born? Where, when and how did he leave his mortal coil? The haze of millennia has obliterated definitive answers from us. In turn, what we have got about Balmiki is guesses and still more guesses. He must have lived sometime around 2200-2600 years ago and spent his growing up years in the wilderness. Was then he a dacoit? Related to this last question is a popular legend. Young Ratnakar found it hard to feed his family and took resort to looting others. One day, Rishi Narad confronted him. “Go and ask your kin if anyone of them is prepared to share with you the dire aftermath of the sins that you commit,” the divine sage is said to have advised him. On being asked, all the members of his family firmly refused, one by one, to have anything to do with his karma. It was his duty to provide for them; how he did it was not their concern, each of them said. Shaken to the core, so goes on the legend, Ratnakar renounced the worldly affairs and sat in deep meditation. He became so deeply engrossed in meditation that in time his body was covered with an anthill. And thus, he came to be known as ‘Valmiki’ (the term means an anthill in Sanskrit).
M. Monier Williams gives us a fleeting glimpse of the man, who by dint of his single-minded dedication and unmatched talent, became the ‘Adi-kavi’, the primal poet –
“Valmiki…the celebrated author of the Ramayana (so called, according to some, because immersed in thought he allowed himself to be overrun with ants like an anthill; he was no doubt a Brahmin by birth and closely connected with the kings of Ayodhya; he collected the different songs and legendry tales relating to Ram-candra (sic) and welded them into one continuous poem, to which later additions may have been made; he is said to have invented the Sloka metre, and probably the language and style of Indian epic poetry owe their definite form to him; according to one tradition he began life as a robber, but repenting betook himself to a hermitage on a hill in the district of Banda, where he eventually received Sita, the wife of Rama, when banished by her husband…)”
– A Sanskrit to English Dictionary, p.946
Commentator Janakinath Sharma marvels at Balmiki’s singular achievement –
“It is a matter of a great amazement that the Adi-kavi created this excellent epic without seeing any previous poetry or taking help from any literary work.”
– Shrimadavalmikiya Ramayan (with Hindi translation), Part I, Gita Press, Gorakhpur, Samvat 2080, p.5
Apart from its core significance in shaping the Sanatan ethos, the beauty of Balmiki’s Ramayan lies in the marvellous way it lends itself to music. While instructing his pupils, Luv and Kush, to recite the epic before Raja Ram, he advised them to sing it to the accompaniment of veena, the string instrument of the ancient India (ibid, Uttar Kand, Canto 93(xiv). Little wonder that Balmiki inspired such stalwarts of Indian poetry as Rishi Vyasa of the Mahabharat fame, Kalidas, Bhas, Acharya Shankar, Ramanuja and Tulsidas, of course.
For a luminary of this stature, it is immaterial as to which caste or class he hailed from. Canto 2 of Balmiki Ramayan’s Balkand sheds light on how Balmiki came to write Ramayan and what sort of a man he was. The killing of a male heron engaged in the act of lovemaking moved him sufficiently to place a curse on the killer.
Instantly, then, he realised that it was too harsh on his part to have damned the fisherman who was following only his livelihood (see, ‘Recalling Ram’, DE, 28 April, 2024). Can a person of such delicate sensibilities be a cruel dacoit? That is the moot question. As to his standing in the contemporary society, we have a pointer in Canto 93 of Uttarakhand. Balmiki was a highly respected sage – a ‘maharishi’ – to have been invited by Raja Ram at his prestigious Ashwamedha Yagya. He stayed with his disciples in a beautiful enclosure which had been provisioned sumptuously (ibid, 93(iii)). Again, it was Balmiki who vouched for Sita’s purity before Raja Ram, which testifies to his easy access to the House of the Raghus.
Sant Tulsidas, in his invocation at the opening of the Ramacharitmanas thus sums up Maharishi Balmiki’s disposition: “a wanderer in the sacred forest of the aggregate of the qualities of Shri Sita-Ram; one who is rich in the sinless acquired knowledge” (Ramcharitmanas, Balkand, 4).