Valmíki, a sage, is wandering in the forest when he sees “an inseparable pair of sweet-voiced krauñcha birds wandering about.” Just then a Nishada hunter, “filled with malice and intent on mischief,” fatally wounds the male of the pair. While the stricken bird writhes on the forest floor, his mate utters “a piteous cry” and the sage is filled with compassion. As he listens to the grieving bird, the sage says, “Since, Nishada, you killed one of this pair of krauñchas, distracted atthe height of passion, you shall not live for very long.” As he meditates on his own words, Valmíki realizes their true nature: “Fixed in metrical quarters, each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of shoka, grief, shall be called shloka, poetry, and nothing else.” Thus was the Ramáyana, and indeed, poetry itself, created.
The occasion of Ormsby's long essay on Sanskrit literature is an ambitious new publishing venture, the Clay Sanskrit Library, which plans to bring out about a hundred English translations of Sanskrit classics over the next five years. Among the first batch of titles, released in February 2005, are three of the first four books of the Ramayana, Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and Much Ado About Religion, a satirical play by the ninth-century author Jayanta Bhatta.
I'd better get talking with some of my bookseller contacts about when these titles will be available in India.