La bible

Hearing the ‘Ramayana’ Again

In 2007 the Indian government planned to dig a deepwater channel through the thirty-mile stretch of sea that separates the southern tip of the country from Sri Lanka, which is too shallow for cargo ships to navigate, forcing them to go around the island. The shipping channel would have reduced the journey by some 250 miles and saved a great deal of time, fuel, and money.

But a group of hard-line Hindu activists protested that the digging would disturb a shelf of shells and shoals, once visible but now submerged, which they believed to be the remains of an ancient causeway or bridge. According to the great poem called the Ramayana, a prince named Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, was exiled to the forest through the machinations of the mother of one of his three half-brothers. There, the demon Ravana carried Rama’s wife, Sita, off to his island kingdom of Lanka. A simian army built a bridge between the mainland and Lanka so that Rama could cross the channel. With the help of another brother, Lakshmana, and a magical monkey named Hanuman, Rama killed Ravana and rescued Sita.

After widespread, disruptive demonstrations by Hindu groups on September 12, 2007, the government abandoned the channel project. To this day, the shipping lanes continue to wind all the way around Sri Lanka.

No one was harmed in the channel protest, but that was not the case in the notorious storming and illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid (the sixteenth-century mosque of Emperor Babur) on December 6, 1992, in the city of Ayodhya, in northern India. The Ramayana says that Rama was born in Ayodhya, and many devout Hindus believe the Babri Masjid once was the site of a Hindu temple. More than two thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the riots that followed the demolition of the mosque and in related riots elsewhere in India. In the summer of 2021 Prime Minister Narendra Modi ritually laid an eighty-eight-pound silver brick for the construction of a Rama temple on the site of the devastated Babri Masjid.

Such is the power of the Ramayana, a story whose many retellings constitute an entire literature. The oldest surviving version is a 25,000-verse Sanskrit poem that the poet Valmiki composed in India sometime in the first millennium BCE. No one in India ever hears the Ramayana for the first time, as the poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan remarked. If they don’t know Valmiki’s Ramayana, they may know one of the numerous other retellings and translations in Sanskrit or in other Indian languages, such as Tulsidas’s popular sixteenth-century Early Hindi Ramcharitmanas or Kampan’s beautiful twelfth-century Tamil poem.

Among the many reimagined Ramayanas in our day, there was the series of Amar Chitra Katha comic books devoted to Ramayana characters, beginning in 1967; the televised Ramayana (1987–1988), which added fuel to the fanaticism that brought down the Babri Masjid; and Sita Sings the Blues (2008), an award-winning film by an American director, Nina Paley, who came, predictably, under heavy fire from conservative Hindus for portraying Rama as both brutal and cowardly. Even within the seven books of Valmiki’s Sanskrit text (of which there are numerous editions), there are revisions: book 6 has a happy ending in which Rama and Sita are triumphally reunited; in book 7 Sita leaves Rama, who rules in lonely isolation ever after.

The centrality and vitality of the Ramayana in Indian culture today, its enormous historical importance and continued use in mythological historicizing, can be only roughly approximated in Europe and America by the Bible. As Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman remark in their introduction to the new edition of their translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, “Reading the Rāmāyaṇa…as history is much like reading the Old Testament as a history of the Jewish people in antiquity.” Hindu kings throughout Indian history commissioned inscriptions bragging that they had destroyed their enemies just as Rama killed Ravana and that they had made their lands a Hindu paradise like Rama’s kingdom, “Ram-raj.”

In 1975 a group of distinguished Indian scholars at the Oriental Institute of Baroda produced for the first time a full critical edition of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Subsequently, an English translation of that edition was made by a group of scholars under the direction of Goldman and Sutherland Goldman (professor and senior lecturer, respectively, at the University of California at Berkeley). Goldman translated volume 1; Goldman and Sutherland Goldman together translated volumes 5 and 7, and, with Barend A. van Nooten, volume 6; Sheldon Pollock translated volumes 2 and 3; and Rosalind Lefeber volume 4. Princeton University Press published the individual volumes between 1984 and 2016. (The first five volumes of this translation were also republished in 2009 by the Clay Sanskrit Library, through New York University Press, in handy small volumes, with only the glossary remaining from the original appendices but with the useful addition of the Sanskrit text in Roman transliteration on the facing page, in the style of the Loeb Classical Library.)

The seven-volume Princeton translation is a masterpiece of scholarship, one of the great landmarks of Indology of the past generation. The translations are painstakingly accurate and thoroughly annotated, incorporating the extensive scholarship in the field. The long introduction to each volume provides a synopsis, an analysis of that volume’s characters, and an overview of its structure, while the many notes and several appendices furnish all the information any reader could want to clarify every aspect of the text.

This publication, with its enormous technical apparatus, was intended for academic specialists or, as the editors put it, “a scholarly audience with some degree of competence in Sanskrit.” It is an essential part of the working library of any serious English-speaking Sanskritist—or, perhaps, a well-heeled amateur, for the full set is pricey. (Volume 7 alone is listed at $180.) Even those who read the Ramayana in Sanskrit (the Baroda critical edition is now conveniently available online) find the full Princeton translation invaluable for its illuminating notes and insightful interpretations.

But how many people do read Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit? More than you might think. Sanskrit has a bad rap outside of India. Walt Kelly’s Pogo used the word “Sam-skrimps” to describe highfalutin double-talk or manipulative twaddle. Marcel Proust (near the start of the fourth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu) referred sneeringly to “those people who, at the Collège de France, in the room in which the Professor of Sanskrit lectures without an audience, attend his course only for the sake of keeping warm.”

But many people in India do know Sanskrit. Narendra Modi’s water resources minister, Uma Bharti, recently proposed that Sanskrit should replace English as a “link language” in the country, since “in every village of India, you will find two or three people who are extremely knowledgeable about Sanskrit. The same cannot be said of English.” Moreover, an impressive number of people outside India read Sanskrit. (It can even run in families. Robert Goldman is my cousin: his father’s sister Minnie married my father’s brother Jack.) And one might argue that anyone who is serious about the Ramayana really ought to learn Sanskrit.

Still, many people in India and abroad want to read Valmiki’s Ramayana without all the bother of learning Sanskrit. I noted in passing just two of the many retellings in other Indian languages. And in addition to the various partial English translations and summaries and retellings in Sanskrit and other languages, there have been several serious attempts to render Valmiki’s entire Sanskrit text in English, of which one of the earliest was by William Carey and Joshua Marshman, in 1806–1810, and the most readable (though abridged) by Arshia Sattar in 1996.

The remarkable condensation of the Princeton scholarly edition (the seventh volume of which alone is 1,522 pages long) into a new one-volume paperback intended for “the general reading public” has been achieved in part by jettisoning the notes, the seven long introductions, and the appendices, though there is still a forty-one-page introduction, a ten-page glossary of important Sanskrit terms, and a seventy-one-page index. Considerable space was saved by changing the original verse formatting to paragraphs and by using smaller print, which will be a problem for many readers (especially, but not only, older scholars who have ruined their eyes poring over Sanskrit texts). The book might be sold with a little magnifying glass like the one that comes with the compact one-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in tiny print.

Inevitably, there are losses. Dropping the notes made it necessary from time to time to insert information into the translation itself to clarify the identities of the huge cast of divine, human, and animal characters. But readers of the new one-volume edition do need some notes on other subjects; not as many, and certainly not as technical, as in the big edition, but a thoughtful note might often have guided readers through puzzling passages. And I miss the grand appendices. The reader of the new edition is at one point advised that “an extensive glossary of flora and fauna [in the Ramayana] has been posted online” at Princeton University Press’s website, but I couldn’t find it.

It’s puzzling, and a shame, that the one appendix the editors did decide to keep in the one-volume edition concerns weapons (such as half-iron arrows, barbed darts, nooses, cudgels, axes, ploughshares, and double-edged swords), which have only a minor part in the Ramayana. I wish they had included instead one of the other appendices, such as the genealogical charts of Ravana’s paternal and maternal lineage, blood relations, and marital alliances. And the index is so comprehensive that it sometimes collapses under its own weight; what reader will search through five pages of index under “Hanuman”?

A translation can’t be all things to all audiences. If you don’t let go of the scholars, you won’t draw in other readers. And this new edition can’t bear to let go of the scholars. The introduction is thoroughly laced with superfluous Sanskrit terminology, such as a reference to the poem’s upodghāta, or “prologue.” Why not just say “prologue”? And why use Sanskrit diacritics at all? These puzzling little dots beneath and dashes and slashes above certain letters will stop many otherwise enthusiastic non-Sanskrit-readers in their tracks and forestall casual attempts by purchasers of the e-book version to search the text.

On the other hand, the one word they should have left in Sanskrit, and did not, is dharma, an untranslatable term for the way things are, or the way things are not but should be. The new edition usually renders this crucial term as “righteousness” but also, variously and confusingly, as “religion, duty, inherent nature, law,…character, and insignia, among others.” Since, however, the word is by now familiar to Anglophone readers, and its more complex shadings emerge from the contexts in which it appears, it need not be translated at all.

The sorts of decisions that translators of Sanskrit have to make can be illustrated by comparing a few translations of one of the most famous passages in the Ramayana (1.2.12–14). In these three verses, Valmiki sees a hunter kill a waterbird in the act of mating and spontaneously cries out in the first instance of both poetry in general and the particular meter in which he will compose the entire Ramayana. This meter is called the shloka, because the poet spoke it out of sorrow (shoka). In this myth of the origin of poetry, the sound of heartbreak is the sound of the first poem.

Let me begin by providing a very literal translation of this passage:

And when he saw that twice-born bird brought down like that by the hunter [Niṣāda], compassion arose in that poet/sage whose soul was dharma. From this emotion of compassion, thinking “This is not-dharma [adharma],” the twice-born brahman, hearing the female waterbird [krauñcī] weeping, said this speech: “Hunter [Niṣāda], may you not find a final resting place for eternal ages, since you slaughtered the one male of this mating couple of waterbirds [krauñcas] when he was infatuated by sexual passion.”


The poet Valmiki seeing a hunter kill a waterbird in the act of mating; illustration from the Ramayana

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The poet Valmiki seeing a hunter kill a waterbird in the act of mating; illustration from the Ramayana, northern India, 1597–1605. Wendy Doniger writes that the bird’s death caused Valmiki to ‘spontaneously [cry] out in the first instance of both poetry in general and the particular meter in which he will compose the entire Ramayana.’

There are several challenges here. Valmiki is called a ṛṣi (rishi), an inspired poet who is also a sage or seer. In this context, I think it best to call him a poet rather than a sage. Then there is a pun on “twice-born” (dvi-ja), a word that means both a bird (born first as an egg from the mother bird and then reborn from the egg) and a brahman (born first from his mother and then reborn as an adolescent in the ceremony of initiation, the Hindu equivalent of a bar mitzvah or first communion). The repetition suggests a bond between the two born-again creatures, the bird and the brahman poet, which explains, in part, the poet’s compassion for the bird. (The word for “compassion” is also repeated for emphasis.)

These overtones will simply have to be left out of the translation. Every Sanskritist knows the old saw that a word in Sanskrit can mean itself, its opposite, a name of god, a position in sexual intercourse, and a word for an elephant. In Sanskrit, you don’t have to pay the words extra to make them mean so many different things, as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty did. But you can’t signal all the multiple meanings of a Sanskrit word, which makes the translation depend even more than usual on the discretion of the translator.

The word dharma is also repeated, first in the epithet of the poet (“whose soul was dharma”) and then in his judgment that the hunter’s act was adharma, not-dharma, a repetition that is effective if dharma is left untranslated or translated consistently. The bird’s species, krauñca (krauncha), is a waterbird, variously said to be a kind of curlew, heron, crane, or sandpiper; Ramanujan called them a pair of lovebirds, as they are known for their fidelity to their mates (a point the Sanskrit text may hint at with the word for “one/alone/lone” applied to the male bird). Krauncha can therefore be translated as “heron,” “curlew,” “bird,” or “lovebird.” The Nishada (Niṣāda), a low-caste aboriginal hunter, can be simply called a “hunter,” at the cost of distracting and nonessential (though not irrelevant) cultural meaning. Both terms, krauncha and Nishada, are used twice in this passage. In the final curse, “May you not find a resting place [or state of rest] for eternal ages,” changing “not” to “never” would more fully convey the spirit of the strong negative imperative of the curse and capture some of the force of “eternal ages.”

A still close but smoother translation might be:

And when he saw that bird that the hunter had brought down, compassion arose in the poet whose soul was dharma. From this emotion of compassion, thinking “This is not dharma,” the brahman, hearing the female lovebird weeping, said, “Hunter, may you never ever find a final resting place, since you slaughtered the lone male of this mating couple of lovebirds when he was mad with sexual passion.”

What choices did the Goldmans make in dealing with these linguistic dilemmas? Here is their version in the seven-volume edition:

And the pious seer, seeing the bird struck down in this fashion by the Niṣāda, was filled with pity. Then, in the intensity of this feeling of compassion, the brahman thought, “This is wrong.” Hearing the krauñca hen wailing, he uttered these words: “Since, Niṣāda, you killed one of this pair of krauñcas, distracted at the height of passion, you shall not live for very long.”

“Shall not live for very long” seems to me to miss or distort the Sanskrit meaning, and the forceful negative imperative form of the curse (“May you never”) is weakened to a simple future. The curse is further dulled by being moved to the end of the verse. The emphasis on “compassion” is lost by the substitution of “pity” for one of the two occurrences of the same Sanskrit word. Dharma, too, is translated differently each time it occurs (“pious” and “wrong”), and the choice of “seer” rather than “poet” blunts the self-referential nature of the passage. “Mating couple” is reduced to “pair,” and “mad/infatuated” to “distracted.” The female bird is now called a “hen,” but the maleness of the other bird is not mentioned, erasing the crucial paired allusions to the birds’ genders. More problematically, the Sanskrit words for the hunter and the bird are kept in their full, technical, diacritical form. But they are, at least, explained in the notes: we are told that the krauñca is a type of heron or curlew, and the note on the Niṣāda gives details of his low caste status in Sanskrit literature. The translation is complete and accurate but loses the emotional power of the original.

In the new one-volume edition, the only change in this passage is in the translation of the second, negative occurrence of dharma, now rendered “unrighteous” (and still not echoing the adjective for the seer). But now there are no notes to tell us who the Niṣāda and the krauñca are; krauñca is not even included in the glossary at the back, though Niṣāda is. Both words are, however, indexed, and under Niṣāda we learn that it means “hunter” and that he “kills sārasa crane (krauñca),” adding the sarus crane to the other guesses of the translation of krauñcha, in addition to heron, sandpiper, curlew, crane, and lovebird. The reader is left with questions that obstruct the flow of the passage.

This is how Arshia Sattar translates it:

Compassion welled up in Vālmīki’s heart when he saw the fallen bird, killed so unrighteously, and the grief of its mate. Deeply moved, he said, “Hunter, because you killed this bird while he was making love, you shall never find a resting place!”

Sattar helpfully identifies the “seer/sage/poet” as Valmiki. She calls a spade a spade: the Goldmans’ “distracted at the height of passion” becomes simply “making love.” More important, she jettisons the disruptive Sanskrit words, letting the bird be simply a bird and the Nishada a hunter, while conveying that the bird who is killed is male, implying that the mourning bird is female. This tighter and shorter version is a vivid rendition that cuts through linguistic knots that might come between a general reader and the power of the Sanskrit. I would only quibble, again, with the translation of “not-dharma” as “unrighteously,” the omission of dharma from the epithet of the poet, and the reduction of the curse to a prediction transposed to the end of the line (though Sattar helpfully uses the stronger “never” rather than “not”).

What does all this mean for the readership of the new one-volume translation? If you want an accurate, fairly literal translation, with notes to explain what lies behind the words, you want the full Princeton edition in seven volumes. But if you want to experience the beauty and emotional power of the Ramayana, you need another kind of translation.

In addition to the academic choices that get in the way of the lay reader, there is a leaden quality to the Goldmans’ translations. They made a serious effort to render their scholarly rendition more accessible, but they could have done more. In their fastidiousness, they tend to follow the Sanskrit sentence structure, which abounds in passive verbs and gerunds that fragment the English sentences and make them awkward, when they might have rethought the whole verse in the more active syntax that is natural to English speakers and lets the verses flow easily.

In their translation of the passage about the hunter, for example, the poet “uttered these words” instead of “said,” and elsewhere after quoted speech they add, superfluously, “When he had spoken in this fashion,” translating literally the formulaic and constantly repeated phrases that in Sanskrit only serve the functions of open- and close-quotation marks and, when translated over and over, dilute the English text. In general, the Goldmans’ translation leaves far too much Sanskrit in the English.

This need not have been so. Volumes 2 and 3 of the scholarly edition were translated by Sheldon Pollock, widely and rightly regarded as the finest American Sanskritist of his generation, and these volumes are a pleasure to read. Pollock finds ways around the formulaic repetitions and restructures the sentences into elegant English patterns. Just as accurate as the Goldmans, he also somehow always fashions passages that flow smoothly and elegantly. Moving from the Goldman translation of volume 1 to the Pollock translation of volume 2 is like walking out of a dense forest into a sunny meadow.

Does this matter? Should one quibble about grace and fluency in a translation that has worked so hard to be full and accurate? I think in this case one should. The whole point of the passage about the hunter is that it describes the invention of poetry. Non-Indian scholars tend, Eurocentrically, to call the Ramayana an epic because of its resemblance to the Iliad. The Iliad, like the Ramayana, tells of a great battle fought to retrieve an abducted woman, and both texts inspired later retellings that protected the reputation of the abducted heroine (Sita, Helen) by imagining that she was never abducted at all, but remained safely in hiding while an identical image of her caused all the trouble.* Most Indians, however, regard the Ramayana not as an epic but as a poem—indeed, the foundational poem. If you lose the poetry in a translation of the Ramayana, you’re losing the heart of it.

But one can’t have everything. Exhaustiveness and concision are mutually exclusive, as are, almost always, academic precision and literary grace. The great scholarship of the seven-volume translation simply cannot be squeezed into a single readable, let alone elegant, volume. Really, the only solution is for everyone to learn Sanskrit.