Robert Goldman was a graduate student spending several years in India in the late 1960s, when, just for fun, he and a friend read the epic Sanskrit poem, the Valmiki Ramayana. Goldman was captivated by the adventures of the Hindu god Vishnu, who comes to earth on a divine mission in the form of the human hero, Rama.
“Think the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Bible in one package, and you might get a sense of it,” says Goldman, recalling the Ramayana’s simultaneously literary and religious stories of love and war, sex and violence, and mundane daily struggles sprinkled with multi-headed monsters and an army of shape-shifting monkeys.
During his original reading of the Valmiki Ramayana, he wished for a more readable English translation of the nearly 3,000-year-old classic, with its 24,000 verses constituting some 50,000 lines mostly in a 32-syllable meter. It seemed a worthy idea, considering that the legend, translated and transformed from Sanskrit into all Indian and Southeast Asian languages, sheds light on an ancient world and still influences Indian art, religion, politics and life today.
The translation saga
Shortly after joining the UC Berkeley faculty in 1971 as an assistant professor of Sanskrit, Goldman says he assembled a group of scholars, divvying up the seven books of the Ramayana among them. The Valmiki Ramayana Translation Project was off and running.
In addition to translating the story, Goldman also was determined to produce an exhaustive annotation of the Ramayana for scholars of the text that serves as a foundation for Hinduism and provided core primers for Buddhist, Islamic, Jaina and other South and Southeast Asian cultures.
Of course, there were complications.
What’s most correct?
The Ramayana originated from an oral tradition. For more than 1,000 years of the story’s telling, there were no surviving manuscripts, notes Goldman, and when the epic was written, it was copied in different scripts.
Some controversial segments were even excised from regional variants of the epic. Eventually a critical edition of the original poem Ramayana was produced in the 1960s and ‘70s by the Oriental Institute of Baroda, India, from dozens of manuscripts collected from across the Indian subcontinent. Older translations into European languages generally were laden with awkward “thees” and “thous,” says Goldman. They were, of course, also not based on the critically reconstructed text.
Over the years, Goldman has been its director, editor and principal translator. His wife, Sally Sutherland Goldman, a UC Berkeley senior lecturer of Sanskrit, has been its associate editor. It often was an uneasy job for all involved.
“We argued about it, we fought about it, we disagreed,” says Goldman, explaining that he and fellow scholars eventually would agree on the interpretation that sounds “most correct” in English.
An epic dream
This week, Princeton University Press publishes the project’s seventh – and final – volume, Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VII, the Uttarakāṇḍa. It spells the end of the project led by Goldman and a consortium of Sanskrit scholars from around the world.
What an ending.
The final book opens with a description of a demonic race and the violent career of Rama’s evil foe, Ravana. It recounts Rama’s dispatch of wartime allies and his short-lived romantic reunion with now-pregnant wife Sita, the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, who he then banishes due to scandal about her captivity by the lustful Ravana. As king, Rama continues to demonstrate the benefits of righteous rule and the perils for monarchs who don’t fill their subjects’ needs, according to Princeton’s summary.
The translation concludes by extolling the rewards awaiting all who read, recite or hear the Ramayana.
“One, of course, has mixed feelings about the end of what has been a roughly 40-year-long project,” says Goldman. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but was also a labor of love and we will miss working on it together.”
“Every time we looked at a verse, we made a discovery,” recalls Goldman.
Funding for the Translation Project came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, UC Berkeley research grants, Princeton University Press, the American Institute of Indian Studies, Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Mellon Foundation.
“As for what’s next, well we have already agreed to do a new translation of an ancient Sanskrit drama that offers a unique spin on the Rama story,” says Goldman, noting the work will be part of the Murty Classical Library of India series published by Harvard University Press.
A tale for all seasons
Even as the final volume rolls off the presses, the Goldmans will join in a symposium being held tomorrow at UC Berkeley to celebrate their Ramayana scholarship.
Friday’s program, titled “A Tale for All Seasons: The Ramayana from Antiquity to Modernity in South Asia,” will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies Library, Room 341 of Dwinelle Hall near the center of campus.
The program will complement “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Alley, Foe” exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through Jan. 15. The Goldmans also will participate in a seminar on the key characters of the Ramayana at the museum from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19. Tickets are available online.