The Rāmāyana of Vālmīki

An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VII: Uttarakānda

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Robert P. Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     2016.
     1544 pages.
     $175.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691168845.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The volume under review is a translation of the last book of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, the Uttara-kāṇḍa, which also happens to be the final volume of the translation of the critical edition of the epic published by the Oriental Institute in Baroda. Conceived at the end of the sixties, begun in the seventies, and bearing its first fruits in the form of an annotated translation of the first book in 1984, after more than four decades in which the main force behind the project were Robert P. Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman—responsible for the present volume as well—the entire critical edition is now available in a thoroughly annotated English translation.

The principal part of the volume is, naturally, the translation, which runs for little more than two hundred pages, followed by over eight hundred pages of notes. The translation reads smoothly, and the notes discuss material from the classical Rāmāyaṇa commentaries, the large body of scholarship on the Uttara-kāṇḍa, and about half a dozen prior translations in several European languages. The authors also include a translation the thirteen chapters that have traditionally been considered “interpolated,” and the volume ends with an exhaustive bibliography and a thorough index.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the present translation is the extensive introduction, where the authors, along with the common prefatory details such as the work summary and structure, character analysis, and so on., take up several complex and thorny questions concerning the composition history of the Kāṇḍa, its being organic to the Rāmāyaṇa or otherwise, and the significant moral concerns that it embodies and that have plagued its reception history, often giving rise to claims that that this last book of the Rāmāyaṇa is a misfit that must have been a later addition. 

Some of these questions concern the composite nature of the book and its linguistic and stylistic features that are different from the rest of the Rāmāyaṇa, in any case from books 2 through 6 which are commonly considered older. These include, for instance, defective grammar such as missing verbs or gender disagreement, awkward syntax, lexical choices different from the rest of the text, often poor construction of figures of speech (alaṅkāra), and so forth. 

Other questions are prompted by the marked differences in the depiction of the character of Rāma and Rāma’s controversial actions in two famous episodes. The first is Rāma’s abandonment of (the pregnant) Sītā occasioned by the circulation of unfounded rumors in Ayodhyā, and the second is the killing of the śūdra ascetic Śambūka as punishment for his performance of austerity, to which his status of a śūdra did not entitle him. Many famous retellings of the story of Rāma have dealt with these episodes in ways that betray uneasiness about their inclusion in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, such as omitting the whole Uttara-kāṇḍa or the two problematic episodes. There has also been a strong social response to them in modern days and “a tradition of animosity toward the Rāmāyaṇa in general” (97), turning the likes of Rāvaṇa and Śambūka into heroes and Rāma into an antihero. 

These and similar questions have posed the problem of how to account for the Uttara-kāṇḍa’s inclusion in Vālmīki’s poem as it has come to us. The authors of the present volume, while acknowledging that the composition of the kāṇḍa was likely later and conducted by several hands, nevertheless convincingly show that its content is integral to the original story. They do so by showing, first, how the Uttara-kāṇḍa responds to concerns about Rāma’s role in Hindu imaginations of him as an avatāra of Viṣṇu and as the ideal king, motifs that are so common, but are either not present in the rest of the Rāmāyaṇa or are not satisfactorily resolved. Nowhere in the Rāmāyaṇa prior to its final book do we see Rāma rule, and his avatāra is not concluded with his ascension on the throne. We need but compare Rāma’s story with the return of the Pāṇḍavas and Kṛṣṇa to the heavenly world in the Harivaṁśa and the Viṣṇu and Bhāgavata Purāṇas: it is only when Rāma gets to rule for ten thousand years in his utopian realm and return to heaven that his story is really complete. 

The most valuable and knockdown argument, however, is not the justification of the Uttara-kāṇḍa in terms of its religious significance, but in its nature as literature, understood as such through the rasa theory of art as aesthetic experience. The authors draw our attention to the framing of the Rāmāyaṇa in its ring structure as a work of poetry. The Rāmāyaṇa is commonly called the ādikāvya or the first poem because its frame is precisely that of a transformation of an edifying tale narrated in the first several chapters of the Bāla-kāṇḍa into the grand prototype of a mahā-kāvya. This frame is explicit in the opening and the closing sections of the Rāmāyaṇa through the technical descriptions of its performance by Rāma’s sons Lava and Kuśa and the emotional response that it creates in the audience. But, the key of appreciating of Rāmāyaṇa’s own rasa comes in the story where Vālmīki witnesses the killing of the crane by a hunter and the cries of its mate, an event that causes grief, śoka, in Vālmīki, prompting him to recite a verse, śloka. As the authors point out, the tradition of Indian aesthetics has interpreted the Rāmāyaṇa as being predominantly about the karuṇa-rasa, the aesthetic experience of the emotion of pity. To that dominant emotion, the happy ending of the Yuddha-kāṇḍa would have been aesthetically and emotively inappropriate. Seen in that light of literature, although both the first and the last book may have been composed later, they are so structural to the Rāmāyaṇa’s predominant emotion that any attempt of removing them would be misguided (54-64). 

All things considered, this final volume is a magnificent, crowning finish to this half-century long project, one of the most important in recent Indological scholarship. Robert P. Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman should be commended for their perseverance and heartily congratulated for their achievement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksandar Uskokov is Lecturer in Sanskrit Language & Literature at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert P. Goldman is the William and Catherine Magistretti Distinguished Professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and general editor of the Rāmāyaṇa Translation Project.

Sally J. Sutherland Goldman is senior lecturer in Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley, and associate editor of the Rāmāyaṇa Translation Project.

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