Acquainted with Grief

Journal of the American Oriental Society 142 (4):883-914 (2022)
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Abstract

The authors of the numerous medieval and early modern Sanskrit-medium commentaries on the various recensions and sub-recensions of the Vālmīkirāmāyaṇa frequently found themselves in a somewhat awkward hermeneutical position. The epic itself, like many Indic texts, is highly revered both as a religious text, one of the earliest and most influential Vaiṣṇava texts, and as a literary work that is not only a great poem but indeed the very first poem and the fons et origo of all subsequent poetry. Moreover, like Vyāsa, the author of the Rāmāyaṇa’s sister epic, the Mahābhārata, Vālmīki was regarded not merely as an inspired poet and sage, but as a ṛṣi, that is to say an inerrant seer whose speech, in his case inspired directly by the creator divinity Brahmā and the god’s gift of a divine vision, must therefore be accepted as absolutely true and authoritative. The problem facing the work’s commentators is that Vālmīki’s text portrays its hero, Rāma, as not only a god in the form of a man, but as one who, ignorant of his own divinity, suffers all of the mental, emotional, and physical pain to which ordinary mortals are prey. In this Rāma differs sharply from the subsequent Vaiṣṇava avatāra and central figure of the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa, who, fully aware of his godhood, rarely suffers in any way mentally or physically. But the Rāmāyaṇa’s commentators are living and writing in a world in which the development of the medieval bhakti movements has led poets and theologians to conceive of and write about Rāma as an omnipotent and omniscient figure very much like Kṛṣṇa. The present essay discusses the lexical, grammatical, and hermaneutical strategies the commentors adopted to negotiate the tension between Vālmīki’s apparent depiction of the suffering of his hero and a proposed deeper meaning in which the avatāra conforms more fully to what became the medieval and modern theology of god on earth.

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