An Upakatha in Valmiki Ramayana: The Rshyasrnga Anecdote

An Upakatha in Valmiki Ramayana: The Rshyasrnga Anecdote
Partha Desikan

Of the two great epics of India, the Mahabharata is really filled with anecdotal side stories or upakathas, which take up nearly seventy-five percent of its size. Valmiki, the author of the other epic, Ramayana, has been a little more conservative in donating

space for anecdotes. The entire epic contains only 120 stories, 32 of them being present in the first book, called Balakanda. I shall try to present one of them, giving as literal a translation as possible. The tale chosen is interesting in being narrated entirely in the future tense. It is the answer given by Sanatkumara to sages who enquired from him of the prospects of King Dasaratha having children. Sumantra, Dasaratha's minister, quotes the entire story to the king to reassure him. Then, in answer to a question from Dasaratha, Sumantra tells a sub-story. The sub-story follows now in the past tense. I would like to draw attention to the simplicity and directness of the double narrative which can be felt even through the translation. The sage-poet does not engage in any artifice to exaggerate or gloss over any of the ‘happenings' through poetic techniques. I shall explain the purpose of splitting the tale into two parts at the end.


Part 1 in the Future tense

It is well known that the sage Kasyapa has a son named Vibhandaka by name. There will be born to him a famous son, who shall be called Rshyasrnga. This munikumara will constantly be roaming in the forest with his father and will not know anything of urban living. He will become reputed for his twofold brahmacharya-vrata, as a vrati who would live on alms and serve elders and eventually as a prajapatya, namely a married man who will have pleasure only with his wife and only at prescribed times.

Time will pass while this young sage practises his vratitva, tending to his sacrificial fire and serving his famous father. Meanwhile at Angadesa, there will be a valiant king named Romapada, well known for his prowess. This good king will do something seriously erroneous. As a result, there will come about, in Angadesa, a horrible famine that will last very long and instill great fear in all living beings there. The famine will bring great distress that will be felt equally by the king. He will call to his side Brahmanas who had learnt Vedas well from elders and ask them as follows:

‘Sirs, you have studied dharmas. You know the ways of the world. Kindly direct me to take appropriate steps for alleviating this suffering.'

Thus requested by the king, all the good Brahmanas well versed in Vedas will look at the son of Vibhandaka and exclaim in unison, ‘O king! By any means, please arrange to bring Rshyasrnga to your kingdom, honour him and get him to marry your daughter Shanta through proper rites with sincerity.' The king, hearing these words, will start worrying how exactly to bring the luminous brahmachari to his kingdom. The soulful king will discuss the issue with his ministers and then ask both the royal purohita and the ministers to go on the mission. Hearing the king's wish and at the same time fearful of the sage Vibhandaka, the purohita and the ministers will be downcast in self-doubt and will reply evasively. Thinking of suitable alternatives, they will tell him, O king! We will employ some clever ruse. This will not amount to a dosha.'

Thus the sage-son of vibhandaka will be brought to Anga Desa by King Romapada with the help of ganikas (women paid for pleasure). Parjanya, who rules over rains will bring a lot of rain to the land. King Romapada is going to be pleased and will give his daughter Shanta in marriage to Rshyasrnga. Since Shanta had been born as a daughter to King Dasaratha and given in adoption to King Romapada, Rshyasrnga will simultaneously become Dasaratha's son in law as well. He is going to help King Dasaratha beget worthy sons.'

Part 2, sub-part of Part 1 in the Past tense

Hearing the above words of sage Sanatkumara, repeated to him thus by his minister Sumantra, King Dasaratha became happy and urged Sumantra to tell him in detail, how exactly Rshyasrnga was persuaded to go from the forest to Angadesa. Sumantra began to tell him as follows, and it is interesting to note that the narrative is now appropriately in the past tense, like normal stories.

O King! I shall relate the events as they occurred leading to Rshyasrnga being brought to Angadesa. Please listen.

The purohita, accompanied by the ministers spoke appropriately, ‘O King, we have thought of a plan about which you need have no fear. It cannot fail.' He continued, ‘My king! Rshyasrnga resides in the woods. His occupation as well as hobbies are only doing penance and reciting the Vedas. He does not understand what women are, what the pleasures of grhastha living can be. Through engaging his senses with attractive girls, music, lovely fragrances and other mesmerizing devices, we shall bring him to our city. Please make preparations for his reception. Let beautiful, attractively dressed young ganikas go to his place. Let them persuade him by various suitable means to accompany them here'. The king gave his consent. The purohita and ministers went ahead with the arrangement.

The ganikas took the royal commission and went to a spot near Rshyasrnga's Ashrama and went about awaiting a chance to meet him in person. The young sage, however, fully contented with his austere life totally devoted to meeting the needs of his father, very rarely stepped out of his residence. Since his birth he had not met other men or women, and had not come into contact with anything connected with city life. One day, however, it just happened that this son of Vibhandaka felt like getting out. He also chanced to go where the ganikas were staying and see them. They were delighted. Attractively dressed, singing sweetly, they approached him and spoke to him, ‘O young Brahmana! May we know who you are? What are you doing all by yourself in this lonely forest?'

These girls were of a beauty which the young sage had not seen or imagined so far. Their question appeared irresistible to him and he wished to answer truthfully about his father and of other matters. He said, ‘My father is the sage Vibhandaka. I am his own son, named Rshyasrnga . Both my name and my penances are well known on earth. (No elaborate details of the alleged birth of this young sage to a female deer with the grace of sage Vibhandaka are given here. The name, deer-horn, Rshyasrnga, being well known is the entire hint.) O hermits of charming looks! Let me extend shastra-ordained hospitality to all of you. Please visit my Ashrama. (He takes them to be men and hermits in the bargain!).The girls listened and became eager to see the sage's Ashrama. They followed him there. Rshyasrnga offered them his dutiful hospitality. He washed their feet with padya water, gave them water in their palms for argya and served them good edible roots and fruit. The girls truly rejoiced. They were nervous about the senior sage returning while they were around and decided to leave. They gave him some sweet fruit to eat and told him that they were ones, which they considered very important and urged him to partake of them without delay. Then they embraced him in a great show of friendship, felt very happy and gave him modakas and other sweets to eat.

The son of the sage ate them with great relish, not having tasted anything like these before in his unchanging life in the forest. The girls then bid him farewell, giving karmanushthanas as an excuse for their leaving. The real anxiety was that they should avoid a meeting with Rshyasrnga's father. The young Brahmin descended in the line of Sage Kasyapa started missing the company of his guests. He felt desolate, the grief in parting from his friends increasing steadily. A day passed and on the next, full of thought about his sweet, well decorated friends, Rshyasrnga stepped out of the Ashrama and went to where he had found them earlier. He was thinking of their lovely looks and agreeable touch.

On seeing him, the ganikas were full of joy. Approaching him, they asked, ‘O handsome young sir, why don't you come over to our Ashramasthana in the city? We can do special pujas for you there. Various new roots and fruits are available there. Please come.' Their hearty and sweetly worded request was agreeable to the young sage, who agreed to go with them. They guided him to Angadesa. When this person of great virtue entered Anga, its accumulated evil karma receded. Parjanya became happy and it rained very well. The entire land rejoiced along with the King. Romapada was extremely pleased to have the darshana of the Rshi, who had arrived simultaneously with the rains on his account, went forward to receive him and prostrated humbly before him. He gave him argyaadi honours duly with a sound mind, and entreated him not to be offended but to accept his puja. He led him into the palace and gave his daughter Shanta's hand to him in wedlock. The shining ascetic Rshyasrnga happily accepted Shanta and grhastha state and lived in Angadesa for a long time well respected and in joy.

That is the end of the tenth sarga of Balakanda and of the composite story of Rshyasrnga.

Sage Sanatkumara, described as a Nityasuri and ayonija (a forever soul and one not born of a womb) is understood by Valmiki to be a saintly reticent narrator, who sticks to essentials, especially when he is making a prophesy (hence the future tense). King Dasaratha and his minister Sumantra are characterized by the Adikavi as men of the world. When the king hears a hint of enticements being offered to the saintly and innocent recluse, he is curious about details. The minister in giving an account obligingly goes into considerable detail (compare the relative sizes of parts 1 and 2). He is aware that he is now giving the part of the prophesy that has already taken place (hence the past tense). Sumantra is truthful too. While giving details, he does not make sordid additions to increase listening interest for his king. He is only truly aware of the greatness of the main subject of his tale.




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