Before becoming the famous sage who authored the Ramayana, Valmiki was a highway robber named Ratnakara. In this story, from The Upside-Down King: Unusual Tales about Rama and Krishna, read about how a chance encounter with Narada brought about a change of heart.
By Sudha Murty
Ratnakara was a highway robber who would hide near roadsides and loot all the travellers who passed by on horseback or on foot. If people resisted his attack or tried to run away, Ratnakara would murder them and take away their belongings. He shared the wealth he thus obtained with his large family.
One day, while Ratnakara was crouched behind a bush waiting for his next victim, he saw a sage pass by him. The sage wore saffron robes and carried a tambura in one hand. He was busy singing to himself as he walked. Ratnakara thought, ‘The man must be carrying something valuable in the tambura, and has disguised himself as a sage to discourage thieves from stealing from him.’
So he came out from behind the bush and stood in the sage’s path.
‘Give me all you have!’ he yelled.
The sage smiled. ‘I only carry God’s name with me. So I can share all my learning with you if you like.’
‘Don’t get smart with me. Where are you coming from, and what is really in your tambura?’ Ratnakara barked.
‘My name is Narada, and I am coming from Lord Vishnu’s house. I don’t know where I’m headed. I will go to the home of whoever remembers me,’ the sage replied pleasantly.
The strange answer intrigued Ratnakara. Unlike others, this man wasn’t scared of him.
Narada spoke again with affection. ‘O innocent man, I know that you don’t realize what you are doing or the sins that you are stacking up. Tell me, why are you wasting this life? You should use it to become a better person.’
Ratnakara didn’t understand a word. ‘What sins am I collecting?’ he asked, nonplussed.
‘When you hurt somebody intentionally, you are committing a sin. You will have to pay for it eventually,’ Narada explained.
‘But I am not doing this just for myself. I share what I collect with my family,’ replied Ratnakara.
‘May I ask you a question?’ asked Narada.
Ratnakara did not respond but continued to stare at him.
‘If you are also collecting sins along with wealth, will your family members share that with you too?’
‘Yes, of course,’ Ratnakara replied confidently.
‘Go home now and ask your family if they will share the punishment for your sins. Until then, I will wait here,’ said Narada.
‘And while I’m gone, you will run away,’ retorted Ratnakara.
‘I will not go anywhere. But if you don’t believe me, then tie me to this tree. I will wait here till you bring me your family’s answer.’
Ratnakara had never seen such a bold traveller before. Narada was confident and happy, and didn’t seem perturbed by his threats at all. Something about the sage attracted Ratnakara.
Hurriedly, he went home. When his wife, children and relatives saw him come back early, they were happy, thinking that Ratnakara had chanced upon a huge loot. But when they
saw that he was empty-handed, the disappointment was starkly visible on their faces.
Ratnakara stood in front of his family and addressed everyone who was present. ‘I have just learnt from a traveler named Narada that hurting people and stealing from them is a sin. I must have already piled up many sins by now, and some day I will have to face the punishment too. I did what I did not just for me but also for all of you. So you are also my partners in crime and must share my sins. Do you agree?’
At first, everyone was silent. Then someone said, ‘Ratnakara, you rob people for us, and we share the wealth with you. But we have never asked you to hurt anyone in the process. How you obtained that wealth was your decision, so we will not share your sins with you.’
Ratnakara was taken aback. Speechless, he turned to his children. Taking a cue from the elders, they too denied any share in their father’s sins.
Saddened, Ratnakara finally looked at his wife. He was confident that his life partner would share his losses as much as his gains, and help reduce the burden of the sins on his soul. But she too shook her head.
Ratnakara realized the truth in the sage’s words and ran back to him. He found Narada sitting under a tree chanting, ‘Narayana! Narayana!’
Ratnakara fell at his feet and began to cry. ‘O Great Sage! You have opened my eyes. Not one person wants to share the load of my sins. I want to get away from this lie of a life. Tell me how to atone for my misdeeds. Please guide me.’
Narada held him by his shoulders. ‘Child, mistakes are bound to take place if one doesn’t receive proper guidance,’ he said gently. ‘Now focus on God and meditate. Eventually, you will understand the meaning of life. Just chant the word Rama repeatedly. It is, after all, the name of the lord.’
Ratnakara tried his best to say ‘Rama’, but his tongue was unable to pronounce the pure name of God, no matter how much he tried.
After some time, Narada suggested, ‘Let’s try something else. Do you know anyone called Mara?’
‘Yes, I had a friend named Mara,’ Ratnakara replied.
‘Excellent! Then just chant that repeatedly,’ said Narada with a smile. He stood up, bid Ratnakara goodbye and departed.
Ratnakara found a comfortable place to sit and began chanting, ‘Mara Mara Mara Mara.’ Soon, it seemed as if he were chanting, ‘Rama Rama Rama Rama.’
Years went by and an anthill began growing around Ratnakara. But he did not stop chanting and remained lost in meditation. Seeing this, people started referring to Ratnakara as Valmiki, or the man within the valmika, an anthill. As more years passed, Ratnakara’s original name was forgotten, and he came to be known only as Valmiki.
At last, Narada came to see him and removed the anthill.
Valmiki finally opened his eyes. Narada blessed him and encouraged him to start an ashram. Soon, Valmiki’s fame as an enlightened sage spread far and wide.
One day, Valmiki was heading to the river Ganga for a bath when he came across a stunning stream called Tamasa. Valmiki thought, ‘The water is so clear—just like a pure
mind. I think I will have a bath here today.’
He placed his things at the base of a big tree on the banks of the water and happened to notice a pair of beautiful white cranes. He smiled at the peaceful sight.
Suddenly, an arrow struck the male crane and the bird died. Filled with agony, the female crane screeched and cried until it also died of grief and shock. Valmiki’s heart burst with pain, and anger coursed through his body. He looked around to see who had shot the bird and spotted a hunter with a bow and an arrow a few feet away. Furious, he cried out,
Maa nishada pratishtham tvamagamaha shaasvati samaaha
Yat kraunchamithunaadekam avadhi kaamamohitam.
O hunter! May you suffer forever and find no rest, because you have killed one of the most devoted and passionate bird couples.
Later, when Valmiki composed the Ramayana with the blessings of Lord Brahma, the above became the first shloka of the epic.
Today, Valmiki is respected as the first poet or adikavi, and the Ramayana is called the first kavya or composition (adikavya).
(Excerpted with permission from The Upside-Down King: Unusual Tales about Rama and Krishna by Sudha Murty, published by Puffin.)