- "Upon his string the hero laid
An arrow, like a snake that hissed.
‘Twas feathered with the rushing wind;"
- "It is astonishing that every soul should forget its own nature, and think itself as a living soul residing in the body… as if confined in a pot"
If Homer is the semi-mythical father of the epic poem in the Mediterranean, Valmiki is the same in India. He was a rishi, a sacred hermit (a role that still exists across India and Southeast Asia), someone who lives a life of rural poverty in order to contemplate nature and religion. Valmiki is often referred to as the inventor of the shloka, a Sanskrit poetic form. Valmiki’s most famous work, composed some time around 500 BC, is the Ramayana.
The Ramayana is the story of how Vishnu, the Hindu god of kingship, sought to destroy a demon, Ravanna, who had become invulnerable to all of the gods’ weapons. Vishnu incarnates as a human, Rama, whose wife, Sita, Ravanna conspires to steal. When Ravanna whisks Sita off to Lanka (often situated in present-day Sri Lanka), Rama and his allies, including the monkey god Hanuman, undertake an epic journey to bring her back. The story has intriguing similarities with Homer’s work – a hero gathers a group of friends to fight another man who has sailed off with his wife.
Valmiki’s works were influential in the creation of a shared (if widely altered, adapted, and re-interpreted) culture on the shores of the Indian Ocean, a Sanskrit world reflected in every place from the names of Siamese kings to Indonesian shadow puppets to the Chinese story of the Monkey King. Echoes of the story resonate from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.