Underlying the poems ascribed to Vlmki is the idea of poetry as magic. Verse began as Vlmki’s curse, which shortened the hunter’s life. Both The Ramayana and The Supreme Yoga mention numerous effective spells. For example, both poems allude to a myth about the chief god Indra, who commits adultery with the wife of a holy man and is castrated by the man’s words, then healed by another ritual. A major portion of the narratives in each of the poems concerns the characters’ efficacious prayers, liturgies, chanting of mantras (magical words), and incantations. Near the conclusion of The Ramayana, the chief sacrifice (that of a horse) is part of a ceremony in which Rma’s two sons recite the entire Ramayana from memory—24,000 verses of thirty-two syllables each. The performance lasts for twenty-five days. The enormous length of the work suggests that memorizing (or even sitting through it all) involves an act of tapas: psychic energy obtained in altered states of consciousness induced, for example, by prolonged immobilization while magic words are spoken. The experience is associated even more closely with the supernatural, when Rma and the rest of the audience hear their listening to it described in that epic and their future predicted. Vlmki’s style (in both poems) subtly contributes to this eeriness by depending less on detailed description than on metaphor. In classical Greek poetry, detail makes a narrated setting seem more solid and real, but Vlmki’s metaphors tend to compare the human world to mythological exemplars, increasing fantasy. Rma’s royal father, for example, is habitually likened to Indra, ruler of the gods.
Although shorter than the other great Indian epic (Mahbhrata, c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Mahabharata, 1834), The Ramayana may contain sections that predate it, if one judges by depiction of social customs. It has seven kandas (books), yet Western scholars tend to consider the first and last kandas to be later additions. The first book, for example, makes Rma an incarnation of the god Vishnu—an identification not mentioned in the passages deemed oldest (since devotion to Vishnu grew in Hinduism).
The basic plot is a love story, albeit one that runs quite counter to modern Western notions of romance. Rma wins his wife St by drawing a great bow no one else can string, comparable to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (c....
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