The Ramayana written by poet Valmiki is perhaps the most ancient and glorious epic ever to be written in the Sanskrit language. It is known as the Adikavyam—the first poem. Ramayana exercises a great molding power on the life of man. It contains object lessons for husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. Prince Rama was the eldest of four sons and was to become king when his father retired from ruling. His stepmother, however, wanted to see her son Bharata, Rama’s younger brother, become king. Remembering that the king had once promised to grant her any two wishes she desired, she demanded that Rama be banished and Bharata be crowned. The king had to keep his word to his wife and ordered Rama’s banishment. Rama accepted the decree unquestioningly. “I gladly obey father’s command,” he said to his stepmother. “Why, I would go even if you ordered it.” When Sita, Rama’s wife, heard Rama was to be banished, she begged to accompany him to his forest retreat. “As shadow to substance, so wife to husband,” she reminded Rama. “Is not the wife’s dharma to be at her husband’s side? Let me walk ahead of you so that I may smooth the path for your feet,” she pleaded. Rama agreed, and Rama, Sita and his younger brother Lakshmana all went to the forest.
The interaction between man and nature is quite evident throughout the poem. In the Ramayana, Rama and Sita travel through the forest in exile. Rama resists seductive Ravana’s (the antagonist) sister, and they travel as “pilgrims” (Valmiki 1026). An overarching ideology that is shown through this epic poem is that that those in exile become pilgrims in nature since nature tends to bring out the very human and instinctive qualities of people. It brings the message that in nature, humans are better able to express ourselves and perhaps recover hidden qualities. In the poem, the forest for Rama and Sita separated them from the royal world and united them in their natural love. Another instance, which formed the source of the epic poem, is the episode of Valmiki cursing a hunter who shot down a heron bird when it was in union with the female counterpart. The following verse bursts forth from the mouth of Valmiki which became the “first” verse to be composed by a man: “Maa Nishaada pratishtaam tvam agamah saashvatee samaah, Yat Krauncha-mithunaad ekam avaadheeh kaama-mohitam” (Valmiki 2). This translates to: “O hunter! You will not live for long since you shot down the male one out of a pair of heron birds as it was making love.” This suggests the importance attached to the preservation of life in forests. None was entitled to kill any animal, bird or animal in the vicinity of the penance groves (tapovana) or even the forests unless it was absolutely necessary.
Moreover, Valmiki’s writings compel the readers to take a step back and ponder about nature’s influence on society. Though his words were written down thousands of years ago, they still apply to everyone to this day. Though Valmiki consistently writes about more respect for animals, this sense of ease can be dangerous as seen by the “strange gazelle” (Valmiki 1031) of the Ramayana. Although the gazelle is possessed or bewitched, the qualities related to nature are what attract Sita: “it was the color of gold splashed with silver, its flanks speckled as if with jeweled moons, its ears like lapis and its tail like rainbow, and it seemed to give off a flickering light” (Valmiki 1031). The small beauties of nature like the moon and rainbows combine together to create splendor and unnatural beauty. What tricks Sita, however, are the normal actions that the gazelle partakes in as it “move[s] back and forth, nibbling a blade, taking a gambol, twitching its blue ears” (Valmiki 1031). The dual side of the gazelle, being both fantastic and realistic, captivates Sita while the natural aspects of the animal hazardously make her believe in and desperately want it. Sita’s desperate desire to attain the gazelle, in fact, shows the connection that humans have with nature, which makes us identify with creatures (Narayan). The gazelle captivates its audience just as the exquisiteness of nature leads poets and writers to glorify and explore meaning of nature itself and life in general.
Not only does Valmiki glorify the gazelle in the story, he also mentions forests as the most striking features of the land surface. During the Ramayana age, there were dense forests, such as Dandaka Aranya and Naimisha Aranya (Dutt). A very interesting and eventful part of Rama’s life is associated with his wanderings in the dense forests of India. An example of a forest frequently mentioned during the Ramayana age is the Dakshina Desa, a largely forest tract with few inhabited regions. The most reputed of all the forests was Dandaka, stretching from Chitakoota Hill and comprising the region between the modern Bundelkhand and the river Krishna (Sankalia). According to some, it stretched well up to the territory of the Tamil kingdom (all the way in the Southern regions of India). According to the epic peom, it was situated between the Vindhya and the Sivali mountains and a part of it was called Janasthaana (Narayan). Agastya narrated the details of this forest to Rama which was once conquered by Dandaka, an ancestor of Rama and brought under (Dutt). Mentioning forests and their background stories, Valmiki attracted many of his followers and readers to care more about Mother Earth and her resources.
Great importance was attached to the preservation of environment during the Ramayana period. The utility of forests was realized by all. In particular, great importance was attached to afforestation. In the Sundarakanda, readers have description of the destruction of the prestigious Ashoka Garden of Ravana by Hanuman (the monkey God) which enraged the demon King. Also, when Hanuman came back with the good news of having located Sita in the capital of Ravana, the monkeys celebrated the event by generating anger and terror in the heart of Dadhimukha, the garden keeper. The monkeys not only drank honey and ate fruits to their hearts’ content, but also destroyed all the trees in drunken frenzy. In the Yuddha Kanda, there is the description of Hanuman bringing the Sanjeevani Mountain which contained valuable medicinal herbs with the help of which Lakshmana was revived (Narayan).
Forests became the abodes of sages, as well demons and demonesses, who were war-mongering anti-social elements. They disturbed the peace of the forest. When Rama entered the Dandaka forest, the sages were happy since he protected them by punishing the demons. This naturally enraged the demons, who fought with Rama. Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, was living at Janasthana. It was because of her misadventure with Rama and Lakshmana, the entire tribe of Rakshasas met with their end.
The Ramayana thus provides vast and interesting information about nature in all her variety. Living in conformity with nature is the way of the civilized and this was welcomed by all. Going against nature was considered unethical and disastrous. The holy sages living in forests and meditating on the banks of rivers were honoring Mother Nature. Those who made the forests and sacred spots their hideouts for macabre and unscrupulous activities were put down by Rama with an iron hand. The description of nature in Ramayana is most sublime and beautiful. One can actually feel that the hills, the rivers, the trees, and the birds are really one with human joys and sorrows.
Dutt, Manmatha Nath, ed. The Ramayana. Vol. 1. Girish Chandra Chackravarti, 1891.
Narayan, Rasipuram Krishnaswami. The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (suggested by the Tamil Version of Kamban). Penguin. com, 2006.
Sankalia, Hasmukh Dhirajlal. Ramayana: myth or reality?. People’s Publishing House, 1973.
Valmiki, Robert P. Goldman, and Sally J. Sutherland. The Ramayana of Valmiki. Princeton University Press, 1983.