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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Vālmīki (vawl-MEE-kee) is a largely legendary figure credited with composing the Rāmāyana (c. 500 b.c.e., some material added later; English translation, 1870-1889). He is said to have been a contemporary of its hero Rāma, who—while also a product of legend—may have been drawn from a historical personage who ruled the kingdom of Kośala in Northern India in the sixth century b.c.e. According to legend, Vālmīki was born the son of a forest sage but eventually turned to robbery to support his large family. After an encounter with the sage Narada, however, he abandoned his life of crime for one of meditation. In one fanciful story, he meditated in one position for so long that an anthill covered him; Narada dubbed him Vālmīki, playing on the Sanskrit word for anthill. Vālmīki is said to have become a poet after witnessing a hunter kill a bird with an arrow. He castigated the hunter by uttering a spontaneous śloka, or Sanskrit couplet, the form he later expanded in the Rāmāyana.


As the Rāmāyana is designated the adikāvya, or “first poem,” in Hindu tradition, so Vālmīki has earned the title of adikavi, or first poet. He is credited with establishing both the metrical structure and narrative form of the classical Hindu epic.

Further Reading:

Blank, Jonah. Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Tracing the Ramayana Through India. New York: Grove, 2000. A journalist travels India, visiting places mentioned in the Rāmāyana as a meditation on the state of modern India.

Brockington, J. L. Epic Threads: John Brockington on the Sanskrit Epics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A collection of essays on specialized aspects of the Rāmāyana, such as linguistic features and style, formulaic expression and proverbs, manuscript studies, and religion, by a renowned scholar.

Griffith, Ralph T. H., trans. The Rāmāyana of Vālmīki. 1915. Reprint. Yucaipa, Calif.: Light Mission Publishing, 2003. An elegant translation in rhymed verse.

Kam, Garrett. Ramayana in the Arts of Asia. Singapore: Select Books, 2000.

Pandurangarava, Ai. Valmiki. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1994.

Pati, Madhusudana. The Ramayana of Valmiki: A Reading . Bhubaneswar, India: Orissa Sahitya...

(The entire section is 543 words.)