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Life values of Valmiki the poet: An analysis

Valmiki's poetic creation is a portrayal of the ugly polity of his times. Society was in anarchy despite having a king. On the one hand there were rulers steeped in spirituality, neglecting material development of the State and on the other, there were hedonists who were destroying spiritual realizations

Dr Ram Vilas Sharma writes in one of his essays, “The republics of Bharata, Kaushal and Magadh played a decisive role in ancient India … The Bharatas followed the custom of sacrificial rituals. Magadhas were completely against it … The land of Magadh was the base for the launch of the Jain and Buddhist religions … Somewhere in between the Bharatas and the Magadhas were the Kaushals. They were neither ritualists nor did they propagate ideas that contradicted the Vedas. They were mainly poets and poetry-loving people. The two epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, have a close relationship with the Kaushal republic. Valmiki lived by the banks of the Tamasa river. He is famous as the adikavi (the original poet). In Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Bhasha aur Chhand (Language and Rhyme), Valmiki tells Narad, “Till now, poems were written on Gods; in my poem, I shall immortalize man .”[1]

Dr Sharma further writes, “Rabindranath did get to the heart of the matter. Valmiki was laying the foundation of a poetic tradition that was not about worshipping God but was deeply human. His epic does not begin with invocation of any God. He declares that the epic is not merely for the twice-born but also for the Shudras (Untouchables). His protagonist, Ram, proudly declares himself to be human.”[2]

Thus, the basis of Kaushal’s foundation makes it easy to study the poetic philosophy and values of Vedvyas, the creator of Mahabharata, as well as those of poet Valmiki. Therefore, Valmiki’s ideology is, perhaps, a mixed ideology. It does not contravene the Vedic traditions while also making non-Vedic materialist ideology a part of its humanism. Which way does he lean – towards worldly duties or spiritual contemplation? This can be debated but his overall point of view is one of harmony. In this harmony, his humanism, while clashing with feudal values, leads to progress.

A painting of Valmiki

The ideals and values of Valmiki are religious and for him religion means: ‘Ahunah satyam hi paraman dharma dharmavido janah.’ That is, for religion, truth is supreme. This is his definition of religion. One who expounds the truth practises religion. Religion does not lie in rituals. Neither does it lie in renouncing the world and singing hymns. Such religious people in fact annoyed him. He was sad for those who give up material comfort and seek sanctuary in religion. Such people simply suffer and die without enjoying any kind of happiness:

Arth dharmapara ye ye tanstha shochami netran

Te hi dukh mih praya vinashan pretya lebhire.[3] 

Religion is but a means for material comfort: “Dharmadarsha prabhavati dharmat prabhavte sukham.”  However, religion should not be neglected for material happiness. It is loathsome to be wealthy but immoral, and wrong to be religious but poor. Valmiki seems to have adopted this philosophy of the middle path from Buddha.

Religion (dharma), material wealth and physical desire – the three have been accepted as life’s most cherished goals. Religion results in wealth and wealth gives rise to desire. The latter is an important physical demand which cannot be ignored. However, immoral physical lust is degenerate and is an impure facet of desire. According to Valmiki, a man full of lust forgets his religion, abdicates his wealth and falls into ruin just like as Raja Dashrath:

Arthadharmon paritajya yah kamamanuvartate
Evamapadyate schipran raja dashrathi yatha.[4]

Three failings that are necessarily noticed in a person with excessive lust are his penchant for lying, adultery and callous behaviour towards others without any reason:

Trinyeva vyasananyatra kaam jaani bhavyunta
Mithya vakyan tu paramam tastad gurutaravubhon
Pardarabhigmanan vina bairam ch raudrata.[5]

Valmiki follows the middle path. Salvation (Moksha) lies in advancing on the road to religion, wealth and desire through this middle path.

Valmiki’s moral values, too, are remarkable. All preach about duty towards one’s mother, father and teacher. A son must obey his parents: Esh dharmashcha sushroni pitumatrushcha vashyata. However, significantly when one’s visible Gods – Mother, Father and Guru are present – how does one worship invisible Gods. Thus:

Aswadhinan katham daivam prakaryarbhiradhyate
Swadhinam samatikramya mataram pitaram gurum.[6]

There is no god as holy as these visible gods on Earth. Nanyadasti shubhapange tenedyabhiradhyate. But he warns that “a teacher who in his arrogance forgets his duty and takes the wrong path, is a candidate for punishment, not service. This bold expression is found in Valmiki only:

Gurorpyavaliptsya karyaakaryamjanatah
Utpantha pratipannasya karye bhavati shasanam.[7]

Preachers sermonize most on disinterested action. Action without self-regard may have a place of its own. But, in Valmiki’s opinion, only a fool will work without thinking of the consequences and rewards:

Gurulaghavamtharnmaramye karmana phalam
Dosham va yo na janati sa bal iti hochyate.[8] 

There are only two kinds of action: good and bad. Man experiences happiness or suffering as a consequence of an action.

Yada charati kalyani shubham va yadi vashubham
Tadev labhate bhadre karta karmajamatmanah.[9]

Ram killing Shambuk, a Shudra, at the behest of guru Vashishth

Herein lies the positive aspect of Valmiki’s humanism – one that moves towards welfare of society as well as self. His entire argument is about people’s welfare. If someone is cruel to people, he shall be killed just like a snake, even if he is a God presiding over the three realms.

Uadvejaniyo bhutanan nrishansah papkarmaddt
Trayanamapi loknamishvaroapi na tishthati
Karma lokviruddhan tu kurvanan shanadachar
Tikshanan sarvajanon hanti sarp dushtamivagatam.[10]

It is wrong to align oneself with a sinner. Valmiki is not of the view that one must only hate the sin, not the sinner. According to him, a sinner not only destroys himself but drags others onto the path of destruction. Just as the fish living in a pond inhabited by snakes is killed along with the snakes, an innocent person too is destroyed when he is in the company of sinners. It is difficult to find such a strong argument in favour of public welfare.

Akurvantohapi papani shuchyah paap sanshrayat
Parpapayvirnashyanti matsya naghante yatha[11]

Wrath, man’s biggest failing, is condemned by all. Valmiki also speaks of pacifying rage with forgiveness.

Yaha samuptit krodham kshamayav nirasyati

And, says he, One who has conquered wrath is valiant:

Kopmaryen yo hanti sa veerah purushottam

However, Valmiki also believes that people without rage are inert. Those who feel enraged by their opponents, are feared by all: Nishcheshtah kshatriya mandah sarvechandasya vibhyati

Well, isn’t that a principle as good as Nietzsche’s!

Valmiki’s words criticize the Gods as well as support them. That is probably a bewildering fact. When the subject was about squandering wealth on superstition and meaningless rituals, Valmiki puts forth Charvaka’s important philosophy on materialism. After all, squandering of wealth is against public welfare. But he is on the side of the Gods when it comes to spontaneity of life.

Guna dosho na nisichatya tyaktava daiv vyapashrayam 

Karishyamiti ya karyamupekshte sa naradham[12]

Thieving is considered a terrible sin by all the religions of the world. Valmiki’s character,
Vibhishan, calls a thief a villain. “Paran swarane yuktan … tyajyamahurduratman”. 

One cannot expect Valmiki to go into the origins of poverty. The matter was about safeguarding the wealth of the rich and the endowments which helped the working of his ashram. However, wherever he could, Valmiki did boldly stand by the truth. When Hanuman goes on a spree at the Ashok Vatika (garden in Lanka, the kingdom of King Ravan), killing the female demons, it is Valmiki’s voice that speaks through Sita: Whether sinner or saint, one should not wish destruction upon anyone because there is no human who has not sinned.


Papanan va shubhanan va vadhaharnamthapi va
Karya karunyamaryen na kashchinna paradhyati[13]

In this way, Valmiki also cleverly creates a mystery around Sita’s state of mind while she is held captive in Ashok Vatika – was she content or depressed? Valmiki is satirical but is able to get his point across with great finesse. It also needs to be appreciated that the above words uphold the status quo in the society.

In Valmiki’s epic, humanism wins in the clash with feudal values – not partially but completely. When Ram proceeds to do the Shradh ceremony for his father, Jabali calls it a sham. But the societal order is strong and Ram does not have the courage to negate it. Ram’s ideal was to strictly follow the codes of honour and the honoured arrangements. Similarly, when Ram kills the demons, Sita says it is not good to kill an innocent being:

Apradh bina hantu loko veer na mansyate.’

But Ram claims he was ready to give up everything but not the prescribed order:

Apyahan jeevithan jahyan twan sitae salakashmanam
Na tu pratigya sanshrutya brahamnebhya visheshta[14]

According to Valmiki, there are two kinds of friends: One, who is always has an eye on his friend’s wealth and the other, who is solely dependent on truth and duty:

Mitran hyarthgun shrestan satyadharmaparayanam. 

There can be no better definition of friendship. Money has plenty of friends. But it is an enemy of those who stand for Truth and Duty. In this, Valmiki accurately establishes a norm for societal progress.

’Strishudro Nadhiyatam’: It is said that women and Shudras should not be educated. The Magadh society treated the Shudras humanely but the Bharatas loathed them. However, the situation of woman was same in all societies. Truth and Duty were for men alone; for the duty of a woman was to idolize her husband. The then society had not recognized the qualities and strengths of a woman. And Valmiki too seems to speak like Manu when one of his characters in the epic, Kaushalya, declares that husband, son and father were the three sanctuaries of a woman. There is no fourth refuge for her.

Gatireka patirnarya dwitiya gatiratmaja
Tritiya gyatyo rajashchaturthi naiv vidyate[15]

How could Valmiki say that a woman was her own refuge. How could men belonging to the nobility tolerate the progress of a woman?

But Valmiki’s poet narrator is witness and sensitive to Sita’s anguish and is therefore progressive even while he speaks of codes of honour. Speaking to Ram, Sita says: “Bharturbhagyan tu naayerka praponati purushsharbha.” Not only does the line in the poem say that a woman has to follow her husband’s destiny, it also manages to convey a woman’s misery. If we ignore the few modern women, this idea holds today, too. After the victory over Lanka, when Sita comes to Ram, Vibhishan guided by the idea of “purdah”, begins to remove people. But Ram says that clothes, homes and shelters are not meant to conceal a woman: “Na grihani na vastrani na prakarstirskriya”. Valmiki is clearly progressive as he does not describe the veil as an ornament for women.

Valmiki’s poetic creation is a portrayal of the ugly polity of the times. The society, was in anarchy despite having a king. On the one hand there were rulers steeped in spirituality, neglecting material development of the State, and on the other, there were hedonists who were destroying all spiritual realizations. Then there were weaknesses in the espionage systems that were set up in the kingdoms. Both Ram and Ravan were able to learn of each other’s action plans. There is also a hint of contradiction in Valmiki’s political ideas. The contradiction is between two systems. Valmiki takes the middle path between the two systems.

Valmiki imagines an ideal State where people are safe and happy and there is material and spiritual prosperity. A king who goes against his subjects cannot protect his kingdom: “Na chati pratikulen navineete rakshasa”. Such a State is destroyed by its own ruler. “Sa tu vya seh rajyaen tyashcha karyervinarshayati”. People’s welfare is of utmost importance, no matter what the political system is. Disregard of the people will result in disregard of the system itself. In politics, deeds of one person can affect the entire State: “Vyasanan swamivyagunyat
prapnuvantitare janaah.” 
Therefore, only he who sleeps with his eyes closed but keeps his justice eyes open at all times, can be a popular ruler:

Nayanabhyan prasupto va jagrati nayachakshusha
Vyakt krodh prasadshcha s raja pujyate janeyh[16]

Leaving aside Buddhism, all Indian philosophies believe in the theory of eternalism – that is, everything in nature and its actions remain for eternity. The change that is visible is but an illusion. Under the spell of this illusion, humans are caught in the web of sufferings. Therefore, the only two ways for humans to free themselves are – to reject this illusion and devote themselves to the worship of God. On the contrary, Buddha believed that everything was in a state of flux. Life was a series of separate incidents and nature was like ripples in water, coming alive and dying every moment. Nothing is constant and therefore there is neither soul, nor God.

Eternalism is the philosophy of order while change is a philosophy of protest. One contains feudal values while the other has humanism. One has the sensation of profound imagination while the other contains utmost realizations of the intellect. In one, you see the rise of spiritual values while in the other the science that comes from the agony of reality. One tempts you with an afterlife while the other manifests the beauty of life itself. One orders in a harsh tone while the other advises as a friend. One believes in maintaining order while the other says that religion is like a barge that would take you across. Once across, you must discard it.

It is said that Valmiki chose to be midway between the philosophy of eternalism and the philosophy of change. But, there is no middle path in philosophy. Therefore, Valmiki’s is on a separate path. Buddha had found the origins of poverty in the feudal system but he could not campaign to end poverty for fear of the rulers. Then could Valmiki, a mere poet whose ashram was run with the patronage of the State, be expected to protest against the philosophy of eternalism? Just like Buddha, Valmiki also understood that freedom of humans did not lie in renunciation and prayer. So, when humanism turns into a message of escapism, it should be seen merely as the poet’s helplessness. This will be easy to understand if one looks at Shambuk’s example. Shambuk protested against the prevailing order and set about creating a new society. However, nothing changed but Shambuk surely lost his head! Valmiki did not see much value in becoming a martyr. But he did think it important to hold a mirror to contemporary society and mankind’s struggle. Where does the sympathy of the reader lie – is it with the order or with mankind’s struggle? If it is with the latter, Valmiki has been successful in his endeavours.

Let us now discuss some of his philosophical formulations. Ram says to Bharat, “All treasures will be ultimately destroyed and all worldly development are destined for the downfall”: ‘Sarve kshyanta nichayah patanantah samuchchhyah’ 

Should humankind therefore stop striving for progress? In many parts of the epic, Valmiki echoes ideas that seem to strengthen the feudal philosophical theories. Of course, it is a convenient theory for those who live on the wealth of others. And, it is this philosophy that keeps the creators of wealth in poverty. Thus Valmiki, through the words of Jabali, tells feudal Ram, “There is nothing other than this world, therefore take shelter in only that is visible to you”:

Pratakshyan yat tadatishtah parokshan prtishtatah kuru

Ram does not agree with the view of Jabali. But then Valmiki did not write his epic to persuade Ram to accept this view. Through Lakshman, he tells Ram: “The immoral are prospering whereas the righteous are in the midst of trials and tribulations. Therefore, virtue and vice hold no meaning.”

A painting of Buddha

Yasmadartha virvadhante yeshvadharmah pratishtitah
kilshyante dharmashilashch tasmadeto nirarthako[17]

Can a person belonging to the nobility speak against religion? This is poetic skill of Valmiki. Lakshman decides that to serve a religion, which is for the weak, will be wrong:

Athwa durbalah kleebo balam dharmanuvartate 

Durbalo hatmaryado na sewya iti may matih[18]

The bond between religion and weakness is strong. Where there is weakness, you will find religion and poverty. Religion was perhaps not a curse for Valmiki, but poverty was. Let us see his argument in favour of wealth:  The actions of those deprived of wealth suffer in the same manner as the small rivers that dry up in the summer. One with wealth alone is supreme. He is an expert and all his needs are satisfied. Happiness, desires, religion, rage etc, can only succeed with wealth. The lives of those immersed in prayer and meditation are destroyed for the lack of money.


Arthena he vimuktasya purushasyalpchetasah
Vichchidyante kriyah sarva grishme kusorito yatha
Yasyarthastsya mitrani yasyarthastsya bandhvah
Yasyarthah sa pumanlloke yasyarthah sa cha panditah Harshah kamashcha darpashcha dharmah krodhah kshomo damah
Arthadetani sarvani pravartante niradhipa
Yeshan nashtyayan lokshcharatan dharmacharinam[19]

This formulation of Valmiki is unlikely to be understood by writers who labour solely for the love of labour or sing verses of praise. Those who depend on charity for a living may well practise art for art’s sake. It seems that Valmiki’s words fell on deaf ears. Or else those tied to religion and deprived of wealth would have been on the path of progress.

Translation: Maitreyee, copy-editing: Ravinder Goel

References :

[1] Ramvilas Sharma, Parampara Ka Mulyankan, 1981, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, page 18-19

[2] Ibid page 19

[3] Ibid 3/9-3,4

[4] Maharishi Valmiki,Shrimadvalmikiya Ramayan, Part 1, Ayodhya Kand108/13

[5] Ibid  2/53-13

[6] Ibid 2/30-33

[7] ibid 2/21-13

[8] Ibid  2/63-7

[9] Ibid 2/63-6

[10] Ibid 3/29-3,4

[11] Ibid 3/38-26

[12] Ibid part 2, 6/6-10

[13] Ibid 6/113-45

[14] Ibid part 1 3/9-18

[15] Ibid 2/61-24.

[16] Ibid 3/33-21

[17] Ibid Part 2 6/83-21

[18] Ibid 6/83-26

[19] Ibid 6/83- 33, 38, 39, 40

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About The Author

Kanwal bharti

Kanwal Bharti (born February 1953) is a progressive Ambedkarite thinker and one of the most talked-about and active contemporary writers. Dalit Sahitya Kee Avdharna and Swami Achootanand Harihar Sanchayita are his key books. He was conferred with Dr Ambedkar Rashtriya Award in 1996 and Bhimratna Puraskar in 2001

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