Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which literally translates into “the splendid lake of Ram’s exploits”, is arguably the greatest ode to Lord Ram. Based on the much earlier Sanskrit epic Ramayana (dated variously between the fifth century BCE to the first century BCE), written by Valmiki, the Manas is a shorter version of the same story, but with the inimitable stamp of Tulsi’s loftiness of mind and poetic genius. Although shorter, it is nevertheless an epic, consisting of 12,800 lines divided into 1,073 stanzas, and seven kands or sections.

Goswami Tulsidas’s work is a lyrical outpouring of the greatest devotion – bhakti – to Ram. The poet is well-versed in the philosophical intricacies of Hinduism, including the dichotomy between a nirguna (attributeless absolute) and a saguna (attribute-full) deity, but while displaying deep insight into these arguments, of which he gives great evidence, his personal preference is to overarch them, and posit the argument of unblemished and unalloyed devotion to the fount of grace and compassion – Lord Ram.

Mahatma Gandhi regarded the Ramcharitmanas “as the greatest book in all devotional literature”. In north India, in particular, the Manas is equivalent to the Bible for most Hindus. The book also ranks among the greatest works of literature in the world. The work is noteworthy not only for its scintillating poetic skills, but also its philosophical sophistication, its earthy wisdom and, above all, its great devotional fervour.

It is significant that Tulsi decided to write the work in Awadhi, not Sanskrit.

It is believed that Shiva and Parvati once appeared to him in a dream and asked him to write the Manas in Awadhi, the spoken and understood language of the masses. Whatever the veracity of the legend, Tulsi’s decision to write in Awadhi was a continuation of a historical trend wherein bhakti literature was removed from the classical pedestal of Sanskrit to embrace the ordinary person in his or her own language.

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, a host of poets wrote in the language spoken by the common man. Chandidasa, who lived in the confluence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, wrote in his native Bengali and is regarded by many as the founder of modern Bengali literature.

Vidyapati (1352-1448), a younger contemporary of Chandidasa, lived in Mithila, Bihar, and wrote in the language he knew best, Maithili. Surdas in the sixteenth century wrote in Braj, as did Bihari (1595-1664), and Govindadasa, a contemporary of Surdas, wrote in Brajboli, a local dialect having elements of both Bengali and Maithili.

Tulsidas (1532-1623) was only continuing this tradition of linguistically democratising devotional literature. The difference between him and the other poets cited above is that while their deity of devotion was Lord Krishna, Tulsi’s was Ram. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say, that because of the phenomenal popularity of the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsi single-handedly made Ram – the subject of his devotional ardour – the greatest object of personal veneration in the popular mindset.

Even so, there appears to have been opposition to Tulsi’s choice of Awadhi rather than Sanskrit. Many Brahmins in Varanasi felt that he should not have renounced Sanskrit.

According to a popular legend, they decided to test the worth of the book. A copy of the Ramcharitmanas was kept at the bottom of a pile of Sanskrit texts in the sanctum sanctorum of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, and the doors were locked. In the morning when the doors were opened, the Ramcharitmanas was found at the top of the pile. The words “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram” – truth, auspiciousness and beauty – were inscribed on the Manas, with the signature of Shiva.

Attempts were also made to steal the manuscript, but it was miraculously protected. Tulsidas sent one copy of the manuscript for safeguarding to his friend, Todar Mal, the finance minister of the Mughal emperor, Akbar.

No exhaustive or complete account is available of Tulsi’s life. Although views vary, the generally accepted version is that he was born in 1532 at Rajapur in UP situated on the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that due to the inauspicious astrological configuration of his birth, he was abandoned by his parents. At the age of five, the orphan was adopted by Narharidasa, a Vaishnava ascetic of Ramananda’s monastic order. It was from him that Tulsi repeatedly heard the story of Ramayana.

Apparently, his marriage played an important role in his becoming a renunciate. The story goes that he was greatly in love with his wife. Once, without asking him, she went to her father’s home. Tulsi was so bereft without her that he followed her there. This angered his wife, who said: “Have you no love for Ram? My body, to which you are so attached, is just a collection of skin and bone.” This reproach greatly affected Tulsi, and he promptly left her and returned, taking a vow to renounce domestic life, and adopt the life of an ascetic.

Tulsi spent the early years of his life in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram. He began to write the Manas in 1574, on Ram Navami, the birth date of Ram.

After writing the first three sections of the book, he wrote the other four in Kashi, for which he had to depart because of a dispute with one of the religious sects in Ayodhya. During his lifetime, there are many stories of how Ram and Lakshman, and Hanuman, appeared before him and blessed him.

He died in Kashi in 1623, at the age of ninety-one. The Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi is named after his long association with the city. By then he had acquired great fame for his unwavering dedication to Ram, and his remarkable literary skills. The historian Vincent Smith has called him the greatest man of his age in India, greater than even Akbar himself. The linguist Sir George Griffith has described him as “the greatest leader of the people after the Buddha”.

The sincere attempt of my book is to bring selections of Tulsidas’s great ode to Ram to the largest numbers of readers in a readable, accessible and enjoyable form. The Ramcharitmanas is an epic. It is a remarkable literary work, scintillating from beginning till end. However, since it is an epic, and is written in Awadhi, not everybody may be able to – in spite of their best intentions – read it from beginning to end, or to comprehend the full meaning of the stanzas.

Yet, it is too great a work of literary and spiritual value, not to be read at all. The attempt, therefore, is to present a briefer version of the epic, with carefully chosen selections which reflect the best examples – from my point of view – of the greatness of Tulsi’s writing, and the inspiring profile of Lord Ram. Given the enormous richness of the material, the selection itself was a very onerous task.

Along with the selection, translations in both Hindi and English are provided. These have been taken from the Gita Press, which stand out for their fidelity and linguistic quality compared with other such publications.

Finally, a commentary has been appended to each selection, so that the reader can assimilate not only the actual text, but also the context, background, characters, reasoning, and meaning of the poet’s narrative. My hope is to thus take the greatness of the Manas to the largest number of readers, helping them to enrich their lives, understand the real value of maryada purushottam Ram, and realise the exquisite quality of one of the greatest literary works in the world.

The Greatest Ode To Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Selections & Commentaries

Excerpted from the introduction to The Greatest Ode To Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Selections & Commentaries, Pavan K Varma, Westland.