Once upon a time, in a huge forest there lived a man called Ratnakar.
Ratnakar was very skilled with the use of bows, arrows and the sword. His father Sumali very often remarked that Ratnakar was the best weapon-wielder that he had ever seen.
The words of his father made Ratnakar very proud.
When Ratnakar grew up, he had a huge family to support.
Deciding to use his skills, Ratnakar became a highway robber. He would rob the innocent travelers passing through the forests.
Ratnakar robbed his victims of all their money and belongings. In case any of the travelers did not part with their belongings easily, Ratnakar did not even hesitate to kill his victims. Ratnakar cared nothing about killing innocent people. For him, it was just a means of earning his livelihood.
Once, when Ratnakar lay hidden on the top of a tree in the forest, waiting for a fresh victim, his keen eyes spotted an ascetic coming into the forest.
The ascetic was clad in a very simple manner. The ascetic's clothes were made of tree bark. But he did not seem to care. His hair was wild and matted but despite that a quiet wisdom was shining through the ascetic's eyes. He had mischievous and twinkling eyes as he was plucking the strings of the tamboora which was lying on his shoulders. He was humming a melodious soft song to go with the tune of the tamboora as he was walking through the forests.
Though it did not look like the ascetic had any valuables, Ratnakar had decided to rob the man. Ratnakar's keen eyes realized that the tamboora was out of place in the entire scene. The thief could not understand why any man would come to a jungle with a musical instrument – which gave the thief an obvious answer – the man was actually very rich and that he had hidden his valuables inside the tamboora and was pretending to be a poor ascetic.
Ratnakar leapt down from the tree and with practised ease he landed on his feet in the rough forest ground.
He saw with satisfaction as the ascetic was momentarily startled with his sudden appearance.
Ratnakar slowly pulled out his knife and pointed it at the ascetic.
However, on seeing the knife, the ascetic recovered. A few seconds later, the ascetic was amused as he looked at the knife in the thief's hands.
"What do you want, son?" The ascetic asked. The ascetic's voice was soft but it was laced with mischievousness.
Ratnakar bristled with anger on hearing the ascetic. The ascetic was not even getting afraid of him whereas all the nearby kingdoms quaked with fear when they heard his name.
"Give me all your belongings, old man." Ratnakar said as he was carelessly waving his knife. "And I mean everything. " He said threateningly. "If you try to act smart," Ratnakar looked at his knife menacingly. "I will kill you."
Ratnakar got irritated when he saw that the ascetic burst out laughing when the ascetic heard him.
"Belongings? Do I look like someone who has any belongings?" The ascetic pointed at his tamboora. "I have this tamboora. You can keep it, if you want it." The ascetic removed the tamboora off his shoulder and nodded at the thief.
For the first time since the encounter, Ratnakar felt uneasy.
Why was the man not getting afraid? He did not mind handing over the tamboora. Was he a royal guard in disguise?
Ratnakar felt slightly angry at himself for not thinking about this earlier. He caught hold of the ascetic roughly by the arm and using the ascetic as a shield, the thief looked keenly around the forest and he was trying to see whether anyone else had come with the man.
He saw no one and then turned to the ascetic.
"Have you come alone?" He harshly asked the ascetic. "Is there anyone else with you?"
The ascetic smiled and shook his head. "I always go everywhere alone. I have Lord Narayana to help me in case of need"
Ratnakar got angry at the man's words.
"Who are you?" He asked clutching his knife dangerously at the ascetic's throat.
The ascetic laughed. "Narayana! Narayana! I am Narada. I am Brahma's son."
Ratnakar was momentarily shaken.
Brahma's son. Narada. The Narada who roamed about the earth and carried messages from all over, to the Devas. That Narada?
It seemed impossible.
If I let him escape, the man may go and tell others where to find me. Why... he may even warn the royal guards. It was too dangerous to let the man live.
Ratnakar pressed his knife more closely at Narada's throat. "I do not believe you. I think you are just an ordinary man and I am going to kill you! Otherwise you would go and tell others where to find me."
Narada seemed to be amused as he looked at the thief. "Ratnakar, you do know that what you are doing is a sin, don't you?"
Ratnakar gave a uneasy laugh when he heard the sage's words. "So? Who cares? I do what I have to do, to feed my family. If I do not rob people, my family will starve. There is no sin in this."
Narada looked at him quietly. "Fine, if you feel so! Can I ask you one small question before you kill me?"
Ratnakar brandished his knife and stepped closer to Narada. "What do you want to know?"
Narada was calm. "You said you were doing all this for your family. Will you just go and ask your family whether they are willing to share your sins?"
Something about the way Narada said it made Ratnakar think.
I do everything for my family. If my actions amount to a sin, then my family should be willing to share my sins.
He suddenly felt that he had to know the answer to that question before he killed the ascetic.
"I am going to tie you up here, least you get any ideas of escaping. I am going to meet my family and come back and then I will kill you."
Narada did not say anything but he nodded his head.
It had started.
Ratnakar angrily tied Narada around a tree and checked whether the bonds binding the sage were strong. He saw that the ascetic was sitting with his eyes closed and there was not a trace of fear in the ascetic's face. This made Ratnakar even more angry. He stomped his foot and walked back home.
As he neared home, he saw his father outside the house and the old man was relaxing in the shade of the trees.
"Son, you are back. What did you get today?" Sumali asked.
"Father, I have a question to ask you." Ratnakar said without any preamble as he seriously looked into his father's face.
His father looked at Ratnakar warily and motioned the thief with his hand to ask the question. The father had instinctively felt that something was different with his son, which explained why he had come back home without any loot and with such an expression
"Father, I am a thief. I rob and sometimes kill people."
His father winced when he heard this.
Ratnakar continued. "I have committed many acts to make sure you and the rest of our family are all fed and clothed. I want to know.... whether... whether...” Ratnakar took a deep breath. “If my activities are considered as sins, then would you share the burdens of my sins?" Ratnakar was looking at Sumali steadily.
Sumali was furious when he heard his son's words. "Share your sins with you?" Sumali asked as if Ratnakar had said something in another language. "Why should I? It is your duty to take care of your parents when they are old. You are not doing anything special by looking after me. Taking care of your parents is your duty. How you do that is your choice. Why should I share your sins, for doing your duty?"
Ratnakar felt like he had been slapped, when he heard this.
But he was not in a mood to convince his father into seeing his point of view. He was very angry as it is.
Ratnakar doggedly went to his wife and repeated the question.
Ratnakar felt doomed when his wife also refused to share his sins. She also gave him the same reason - it was the duty of the husband to provide for his family and that he had done nothing special by looking after them and so she did not feel the need to share his sins.
Slowly he asked everyone in his family.
No one in the family felt that they had to share his sins.
Ratnakar slowly realised one thing - all his mistakes, his troubles. they were his own doing and nobody felt like they had to share it with him.
Like a man in pain, Ratnakar went back to where he had tied Narada.
Narada was sitting there with his eyes closed, praying.
When Ratnakar came near, Narada opened his eyes and saw him.
Narada did not say anything and just looked at Ratnakar.
Ratnakar slowly untied the sage and he was speaking to himself. "No one was willing. Everybody said it was my sin and I alone was responsible. Me, all alone."
Ratnakar shuddered as he cut the last rope tying Narada.
When Narada had got on his feet, Ratnakar looked at Narada steadily and suddenly fell at Narada's feet and sobbed out aloud.
"I am a sinner. I have committed many bad... bad...." Ratnakar sobbed unable to go on as the images of all the people he had hurt, came before him.
Narada gently picked up Ratnakar by his shoulders.
"Ratnakar!" Narada said leading the thief to a clearing in the jungle. "Please listen to me. Once you start repenting for your sins, there is always a way. "
Ratnakar looked at Narada with desperate eyes. "You mean I can make all this go away?"
Narada nodded. "Sit here." He said pointing at the forest floor.
Without any question Ratnakar sat on the ground.
"There is a great man called Rama." Narada said softly. "Rama is a Deva among men. Close your eyes and keep chanting his name. It will wipe away all your sins."
Ratnakar nodded his head desperately. He asked Narada with wild eyes. "For how long.. should I... do that?"
Narada smiled. "Till I come to get you Ratnakar. "
Ratnakar nodded and sat down and started his chanting.
Narada looked at Ratnakar and smiled.
His work here was completed and Narada vanished from there.
Days and nights passed, months came and years went. Yet Ratnakar never moved from the spot. He just sat there chanting the name of Rama.
Ants from the forest came and built an anthill around him. However Ratnakar never knew about it – he was so caught up in his chanting.
Suddenly Ratnakar felt something inside him change. He knew that he had committed bad acts and he also knew that he was forgiven for it. He now had a clean slate.
He had attained the supreme state of a great sage - one who is at peace with himself.
It was at this time that Narada came and broke the anthill.
Narada looked at the now peaceful Ratnakar with proud eyes. "Open your eyes, Ratnakar."
When Ratnakar opened his eyes, Narada looked at him and smiled. "Your past will no longer trouble you. You are born new today. You will be called as Valmiki [one who has come from an anthill] henceforth. Go and lead your life to the full. "
Valmiki got up and fell at the feet of Sage Narada and thanked him.
Then Valmiki asked him the one question that he had wanted to ask all these years.
"Sage Narada, who is this Rama. Please tell me about him?"
Narada smiled and gave a brief outline of Rama's story.
After this Narada left for his home.
Valmiki fell asleep that night and woke up the next morning. As he was going to take bath in the river, he saw two birds – a male and a female happily dancing and singing in the branch of the trees of the forest.
Valmiki smiled when he saw it.
It was at that minute that a hunter killed the male bird with his arrow. The female bird screeched wildly. Valmiki saw all this and without his own knowledge uttered the first 'sloka" [hymn] at the sight of the wailing female bird.
These slokas were the first poetry in Sanskrit.
Valmiki went on to write the epic of Ramayana – the story of Rama – based on the outline given by Sage Narada.
As he is the first poet in Sanskrit, Valmiki is also called as Adikavi, the first Poet.