From the beginning, the Ramayana resisted singularity. Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana is the earliest extant version of Rama’s story, written 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. Thousands of handwritten manuscripts of Valmiki’s text survive today, and no two are identical. Like the Mahabharata, its sister epic, Valmiki’s Ramayana was an “open” text, subject to alterations and additions with every new handwritten copy in premodernity.
Over time, the thousands of editors substantially changed Valmiki’s epic. Valmiki, or at least some single individual, likely authored the bulk of books two through six of the seven-book text, and most of the first and seventh books were added later. Notably, for Valmiki, Rama was probably more a man than a god. His deification was grafted onto the epic—or at least seriously amplified—in later centuries, transforming Rama into Lord Ram, an incarnation of Vishnu, as he is known to Hindus today. But, whether he was viewed as human or divine, Valmiki’s Rama was never beyond reproach.
Valmiki could pack quite a punch in his poetry, and he used derisive language to admonish Rama at times, often voiced by other characters in the tale. For example, when Rama shoots Vali in the back, a blatant violation of the rules of war, the monkey king upbraids him for being two-faced, treacherous, vile, and cruel. When Rama tries to leave Sita behind in Ayodhya while he goes to the forest, Sita likens him to a śailūṣa. In a 2004 article titled “Resisting Rama,” the scholar Robert Goldman, who has devoted his career to studying Valmiki’s text, translated the term, a bit zestily, as “pimp.”
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