A common question about the life and times of Valmiki, is in regards to his status as a former robber, before attaining enlightenment and writing the Ramayana. While Hindu scholars do not invest much time into debating the veracity of these claims, folklore and Hindu religious textbook knowledge of Valmiki coexist side by side, and for good reasons.
Valmiki, Adi Kavi – the first poet and composer of the first epic poem; the Ramayana that dates back to the first century BCE, is the subject of legends, folklore, and oral historical traditions, that do not necessarily require debate. As mentioned, prior, our knowledge of Valmiki from religious text and oral traditions can peacefully coexist, as they do not invalidate the greatness of the first poet and the ascetic.
However, if we must explore the truth behind Valmiki’s former dacoit status, let’s look closely into the folklore surrounding Valmiki, and his accounts of his own life, to learn valuable life lessons from this great saint. Read further to know more.
Legends, Folklore, and Oral Traditions
The notability of an individual is connected to the legends, folklore, and oral traditions concerning the individual. Yes, there are historical or religious texts that dominate what we know about such individuals. However, oral traditions add to their reverence. This is especially applicable to great saints and ascetics, such as Valmiki. Oral traditions often point to Valmiki’s past as a robber or dacoit.
The story goes that Valmiki, formerly known as Ratnakara, was born to the Brahmin sage Prachetasa. In his early childhood, he was separated from his father and mother, when he wandered deep into the forest while playing. Fortunately, he was rescued by a hunter and was brought up with great love and care by the hunter and his wife. Ratnakara took on the profession of his adopted father and soon became a proficient hunter.
However, he strayed from the right path when he started robbing villagers making their way through the forest from one village to the next. He was motivated by the greed of money, more money than what he could earn as a hunter. But destiny had something else in store for Ratnakara. One day, he came upon the sage Narada, making his way through the forest, and he proceeded to rob him just like he did to anyone else. But the wise Narada put forward a proposition for Ratnakara. He agreed to hand over all he had if Ratnakara would answer a simple question.
Narada asked him if his family would join him in robbing and looting as they were also benefiting from his loot. This got Ratnakara thinking, and he had to rush back to his father and mother to ask them if they would care to be involved in his sinful activities. The hunter and his wife were honest people, and as expected, they were angered and saddened by their son’s actions and questions.
Ratnakara immediately saw the error of his ways and came running back to Narada to beg forgiveness. He asked the sage to curse him so that he could do penance for his sins. But instead, Narada asked him to chant the name of Ram. Deeming himself unworthy of uttering the lord’s name, he chanted ‘Mara’ instead, which means death. His unceasing chanting and meditation led him to enlightenment, and thus he went from being Ratnakara to Valmiki – the first poet humankind has known and the composer of the first and arguably greatest epic poem; the Ramayana.
However, the story relayed above is part of the legend and oral traditions that surround Valmiki. In the Ramayana, Valmiki makes references to his own life, which are closely connected to the life and times of Lord Rama. Valmiki was not only a contemporary of Lord Rama, but he also gave shelter to Sita when her husband banished her. It was in his hermitage that Sita bore the sons of Lord Rama; Luv and Kush.
It was under his tutelage that Luv and Kush learned the Ramayana, and then recited it before Lord Rama when they finally reunited with their father in Ayodhya. Valmiki mentions his role as a tutor to Luv and Kush. He takes credit as the composer of the Ramayana. And, mentions his role as the provider of refuge for Sita in the Ramayana. However, nowhere in the Ramayana does he make mention of his past as a robber or dacoit. This minor difference between oral traditions and the religious text creates confusion for some, and thus the question persists ‘was Valmiki, a robber?’. Let’s delve deeper.
A General Consensus
Hindu scholars and knowledgeable Hindus, in general, put more emphasis on the transformation of Ratnakara, the ordinary and flawed man, to the enlightened being that was Valmiki. The oral traditions that emphasize the spectacular conversion of a robber to Hinduism’s greatest saint, and greatest devotee of Lord Rama, do not change what is written in the holy texts of the Ramayana. In fact, the oral traditions surrounding the life story of Valmiki lay further emphasis on this transformation. As such, the consensus is that the texts of the Ramayana and the oral traditions combine to shed light on the life of Valmiki. Hindus find inspiration in Valmiki and his devotion to Lord Rama through the oral traditions, and the shlokas of the Ramayana.
In a Worldly Sense
While the Ramayana and the oral traditions of Hinduism serve the purpose of spiritual learning and growth – in a worldly sense, characterizing Valmiki as a former robber as a fact, is discouraged. In May 2010, the Punjab and Haryana High Court concluded that Valmiki could not be factually characterized as a former robber based on research by an eminent scholar of Punjabi University.
The court did concede that the passage of time plays a significant role in our limited knowledge of Valmiki’s life. However, based on the Ramayana and any other existing religious texts dating back to the Vedic period and the 9th century BCE, no mention of Valmiki’s past as a robber is apparent, and as such, presenting the same as a fact is derogatory. This ruling was a result of a lawsuit by the Valmiki community, against the makers of the television serial Bidai. So we do know that specific subgroups of practitioners of the Hindu faith are offended by claims that Valmiki was a robber.
The good news is that you do not have to accept or reject this story. The Ramayana is integral to Hinduism, and the Ramayana should be the focus of any Hindu on the quest for spiritual knowledge. Folklore, legends, and oral traditions that emphasize the transformation of Valmiki from an ordinary robber to the greatest devotee of Lord Rama can only serve as an inspiration for Hindus. After all, it is the worship and reverence of Lord Rama that counts. Lord Rama and the lessons we can learn from his life was of the utmost importance to Valmiki and continues to be the focus of Hindus around the world.