Vālmīki Biography


(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 entire section is 543 words.)

Vālmīki Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Indian sage poet{$I[g]India and Sri Lanka;Vālmīki[Valmiki]} Vālmīki composed the first epic poem of India, a work describing the life of Prince Rāma.

Early Life

The historicity of Vālmīki (val-MEE-kee) is somewhat uncertain because the traditions referring to him are late and unsupported by anything other than still later texts repeating, modifying, or elaborating on the stories. Though the Rāmāyana (c. 550 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889) does not contain any information on Vālmīki’s early life, we know from the Purānas, the Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896), and the seventh book of the Rāmāyana itself that he was born in the lineage of the Vedic savant Mahariśi Bhrigu. As Vālmīki is often mentioned with his patronymic Prachetasa, it is reasonable to speculate that his father’s name was Prachetas.

In the first book of the Rāmāyana (Bāla-kānda), which was a later interpolation, Vālmīki is introduced as a gifted saint who lived with his gifted pupils, such as the sage Bharadwaja, in a hermitage in the valley of the river Tamasa. The Adhyātma Rāmāyana (esoteric Rāmāyana), an anonymous work in Sanskrit, composed probably in the fifteenth century, describes him as a Brahman youth who associated with brigands and burglars and took to a violent life of an outlaw even as a married man with a family of his own. According to popular tradition, this wayward youth, named Ratnakara, was the tenth son of Varuna, one of the eight guardian deities of the quarters. When, in the course of one of his escapades, he overpowered seven sages, his victims reminded him that his sins incurred on account of his violent and lawless habits would not be shared by his family. He found this admonition to be right on the mark when in fact his wife and children refused to share his sins. Panicking, the hapless highwayman rushed to the hermits for spiritual help. They taught him the Vedas and counseled him to utter the name of Rāma even if it be in reverse order, Mara. Thereupon the penitent reprobate began chanting Rāma’s name oblivious of time; gradually his body was covered under an anthill (vālmīka).

Life’s Work

Years later, the sages rescued him from the anthill and the reformed bandit came to be known as the sage Vālmīki. He built a hermitage on the bank of the River Tamasa (some miles south of Ayodhyā in north central India) and acquired disciples. The seventh book of the Rāmāyana relates that one day, finishing his ritual bath in the Tamasa, Vālmīki saw a hunter shoot down a bird in the midst of its mating. Upset by the violent killing, the sage burst forth into a curse for the cruel archer expressed in a musical verse composed in the anustubh meter (a thirty-two-syllable stanza constructed in four quarters of eight syllables each).

No fame be thine for endless time,
Because, base outcast, of thy crime,
When cruel hand was fain to slay
One of this gentle pair at play.

Returning to his cottage, the saint brooded until he had a vision of the god Brahma appearing before him and advising him to write the lore of Rāma, the king of Ayodhyā.

The Rāmāyana, consisting of some fifty thousand lines, is divided into seven books or parts (kāndas): Bāla-kānda (“the book of childhood,” describing the childhood and adolescence of Rāma), Ayodhyākānda (“the book of Ayodhyā,” depicting the court of King Daśaratha and the scenes of Daśaratha’s exchanges with his second queen Kaikeyī leading to the exile of Rāma in the forest of Dandka), Aranyakānda (“the book of the forest,” describing life in the forest and the abduction of Sītā by Rāvana), Kiśkindhākānda (“the book of Kiśkindhā,” describing Rāma’s residence in Kiśkindhyā, his quest for Sītā, and his murder of Vālin, the monkey warrior), Sundarakānda (“the book of beauty,” describing the beautiful terrains over which Rāma roamed in search of his abducted wife, the arrival of Rāma and his simian allies in Lankā, and Rāvana’s kingdom), Yuddhakānda (also known as Lankākānda, “the book of battle,” describing Rāvana’s defeat, Sītā’s release, and Rāma’s return to Ayodhyā and his coronation), and the Uttarakānda (“the last book,” detailing Rāma’s life in Ayodhyā, Sītā’s banishment, the birth of Lava and Kuśa, the reconciliation between Rāma and Sītā, Sītā’s death or entry into the earth, and Rāma’s suicide or ascent into heaven).

Rāma is the eldest son of King Daśaratha of Ayodhyā through his first wife, Kauśalyā. Though he is the legal heir to the throne, his father’s other queen, Kaikeyī, contrives to have the heir apparent sent into exile for fourteen years and have her own son, Bharata, installed as king. Though Bharata is not a party to the plot—he in fact is a very loyal and respectful elder brother—Rama decides to defer to his stepmother’s wishes and proceeds to the forest, accompanied by his wife Sītā and his brother...

(The entire section is 2192 words.)

Vālmīki Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

According to one Hindu tradition, Vlmki was an incarnate god who wrote in 867,000 b.c.e. Western scholarship argues that if a person named Vlmki actually existed, he probably lived around 500 b.c.e. In the first century c.e., the Buddhist author Ashvagosha praised Vlmki in a manner that establishes that some portion of The Ramayana had already been written. There are, however, many passages in The Ramayana that were composed in the very elaborate kvya style, of which Ashvagosha’s writings are the first known example. Therefore, the kvya passages in The Ramayana most likely were composed in the first century c.e. or later. The standard version of The Ramayana states that Vlmki is its author, although these attributions are made in sections written in third person that appear to be later additions and not written by Vlmki himself. Similarly, in its standard version, The Supreme Yoga has a third-person account that attributes its writing to Vlmki, but attempted reconstructions of the original text presume that it (and its use of characters from The Ramayana) come from the first century c.e. or later, when The Ramayana perhaps was adapted to changes in Indian religion and literary taste.

According to the Adhyatma Rmyaṇa...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Vālmīki Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 Rmyaṇa 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 Rmyaṇa, such as linguistic features and style, formulaic expression and proverbs, manuscript studies, and religion, by a renowned scholar.

Griffith, Ralph T. H., trans....

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Vālmīki Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Vlmki (vahl-MEE-kee) is one of those ancient authors who tantalize scholars because so little is known or can be known about them. According to Hindu tradition, Vlmki lived in 867,000 b.c.e.; Westernized scholars have offered their own guesses ranging from about 700 b.c.e. to approximately 500 c.e. Vlmki may be a legend that people long ago created to account for a great work of literature. The traditional story is that Vlmki was a highway robber. Priests told him to ask his family, whom he supported through his thefts, whether they would be willing to share in hell the torments he would reap for his sins. His relatives declined. Distraught,...

(The entire section is 363 words.)