Ramayana of Valmiki ed. by Sternfeld (audiotape set)

Michael Sternfield, ed. The Ramayana of Valmiki. A dramatic reading of the unabridged Srimad Valmiki Ramayana translated from the Sanskrit by N. Raghunathan. Published by Vedic Audio Knowledge Productions. 306 E. Madison, Fairfield, IA 52556. Toll free: 888-867-4396; www.ramayanaudio.com
Volume 1 (14 90-minute cassettes; books 1-2), 1999. Volume 2 (16 95-minute cassettes; books 3-5), 2000. Volume 3 (; c. 18 100-minute cassettes; books 6-7) released in late 2002.

Like Krishna, Prince Râma is a well-loved hero in India. His gripping and inspiring story is told in the Râmâyana ascribed to Sage Vâlmîki, which in its present Sanskrit version may date back to c. 200-600 B.C. But this version is based on much older material, and Râma lived prior to Krishna (c. 1500 B.C.) and, according to the recently revised chronology of India, belongs to c. 2000 B.C.

Many written and cinematographic versions of the Râmâyana exist to which we may now add Michael Sternfeld’s unabridged audiorecording of this timeless work. Sternfeld, a student of the famous Maharshi Mahesh Yogi (spiritual head of the still influential Transcendental Meditation movement), first became interested in Râma’s tale in 1991. In 1995, he produced an “outdoor theme park” involving more than 400 children in a re-enactment of some of the episodes in the Râmâyana. Two years later, he formed Vedic Audio Knowledge (VAK) to breathe new life into Vâlmîki’s creation by producing this unabridged audio version.

This production consists of two volumes with a total of 30 audiotapes. The readings are based on the translation by N. Raghunathan (1893-1982). For thirty years, Raghunathan served as assistant editor of The Hindu and, in 1957, retired from this well-known English daily as its chief editorial executive. After his retirement, he translated both the Râmâyana and the Bhâgavata-Purâna. The in-progress translation by the Râmâyana Translation Consortium, which is based on the critical edition of the text, is more accurate than Raghunathan’s rendering. But the latter has the distinct advantage of being complete and also of retaining something of the Indian flavor.

The text of the first two of seven chapters (volume 1) are by artist, singer, and actor Richard Ross, while the next three chapters (volume 2) are read by actor and director Stephen White (alias Steve Black). The remaining two chapters (volume 3) are still in production and are expected to be released toward the end of 2002. The readings follow Raghunathan’s translation almost verbatim, but some changes have been made to render the spoken word more fluent.

Briefly, the heart of the Râmâyana epic is as follows: On the day of his coronation, instead of being enthroned as the whole country was hoping for, Râma is ignobly exiled for fourteen years. TheRâmâyana epic is a 25,000-stanza-long poetic account of how this tragedy occurred, what Râma did during his exile, and how in the end after much hardship, he finally won his rightful place at the helm of the kingdom.

The heart of the story is the abduction of the virtuous Sîtâ, Râma’s wife, by the demon king Râvana, who rules over Lankâ (Shri Lanka). Râma enlisted the assistance of the monkey king Hanûmân (stem: Hanûmat), who was able to change his size at will and managed to infiltrate the palace and locate Sîtâ. He then had an enormous bridge constructed across the ocean, so that his and Râma’s armies could march on Râvana’s capital. After fierce fighting, Râma succeded in killing the demon king and free his loving wife. His happiness, however, was clouded by nagging doubt about her fidelity. Following ancient custom, he asked her to pass the fire test, and she emerged from the flames unscathed.

But the nasty rumors about Sîtâ did not die, and so, tragically, Râma distanced himself from her to assuage public opinion. Seven months pregnant, Sîtâ opted to retire to Sage Vâlmîki’s hermitage, where she gave birth to Râma’s son Lava. One day, when the boy was missing, Vâlmîki thought he had been carried off by wild beasts and by the power of his yogic mind quickly created an identical child out of kusha grass, which explains the name of Sîtâ’s second son, Kusha. In the end, with everyone’s consent, Râma was able to take Sîtâ back to the palace, but again their marital happiness was short-lived. Râma’s mother Kaikeyî, who was jealous of Sîtâ, managed to renew Râma’s suspicions about his wife, and he condemned her to death.

Just as Sîtâ was about to be killed, Mother Earth swallowed her up. Râma, filled with grief over her loss, drowned himself in the Sarayû River, resuming his divine status and reuniting with Sîtâ, an incarnation of the Goddess Lâkshmî. His purpose on Earth-which was to slay the demon king Râvana-had long been accomplished.

The story is one of plots within plots, incredible feats of heroism, unshakeable idealism, divine interventions, the unfathomable play of karmic forces, magic, and a great deal of toil and trouble. Stripped of its local color, the story of the Râmâyana is a universal quest for what is right and good to which any feeling person can relate, whatever his or her cultural or ethnic background may be. We learn from the legend that even a life dedicated to virtue is filled with tragedy. In the end, only liberation from the endless cycle of phenomenal existence ( samsâra) can bring us true happiness.

We all can benefit, too, from hearing Râma’s and others’ heroic exploits and being reminded of that invisible guidance that makes itself felt in our lives if only we allow ourselves to become cognizant of it.

Reading the Râmâyana is one thing, hearing it narrated-as it has been for countless generations in India-is quite another. Even though we cannot enjoy the magic of Sanskrit, with its mantric sounds, hearing Râma’s tale in English still can hold us spell bound. It is advisable to allow leisurely time for this delight, so that our mind and ear can focus adequately and we benefit from the adventurous wisdom of this timeless narrative.

The Râmâyana is a classic of world literature. Michael Sternfeld’s production is destined to become a classic in Western efforts to preserve the spiritual traditions of India. His audio cassettes make a wonderful addition to any personal or public library, and he deserves our gratitude and compliments for undertaking this labor of love.

Originally reviewed © Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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