‘Valmika’ means an anthill in Sanskrit. The sage, who composed the great epic, Ramayan, under the inspiration of Lord Brahma and Brahmarshi Narad, got the name after intense austerities. During his austerities termites built a mound around him. Before he became a sage, Valmiki led a life of crime as a robber called Ratnakar. Originally he belonged to the family of Bhrigu Rishi. But as a boy, he got separated from his parents in a forest and they could not trace him despite vigorous search. Finally, they gave up the futile search thinking their son may have fallen prey to wild animals. Actually, the missing child fell into the hands of a childless robber couple. They took kindly to him and brought him up as their own son. That is how Ratnakar began his career as a robber. (Adhyatma Ramayan).
Ratnakar married a shudra woman and had children by her.
One day he had an encounter with the seven rishis in a forest and that changed his life for the better and turned him into a great sage and a premier saint-poet. Ratnakar tried to rob the sages of their clothes. They tried to convince the robber that his activities were very sinful. It was for the first time that somebody was speaking to him in such gentle language. Initially, their words did not seem to have any effect on Ratnakar, who thought what he was doing was in the best interests of his aged parents and other members of his family. After reasoning with the robber, the sages noticed a change in his gruff behaviour. The robber said he was supporting his family by looting wayfarers and that he was about to return empty-handed when he saw the munis. They at once drove home the advantage. They explained to him that his justification did not absolve him of the resultant sin. Then followed a long dialogue where they dinned into Ratnakar’s ears the enormity of his criminal activities. In the end, the rishis suggested a way out to the robber. He should go to his family and find out whether they would be willing to share the sin.
After getting an assurance from the sages that they would be there awaiting the reply, Ratnakar went home to consult them. Their replies came as an eye-opener to him. His family said they would not share the burden of his sins. The crestfallen robber reported the failure of his mission to the sages.
Then he fell at the feet of the sages. They assured him that Ram would certainly save him.
According to another version, it was Devarshi Narad who reformed the robber. The other details are more or less the same. In the case of Narad, it was his vina that Ratnakar wanted to rob. The robber was reluctant to go home as he thought that the sage would run away if he went home to consult his family. Sensing the hesitation, Narad volunteered to allow himself to be tied to a tree to facilitate the consultation.
According to the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayan, Valmiki was the tenth son of Prachetas and a friend of Emperor Dasarath. The Mahabharat and Purans describe Valmiki as a Bhargav. Such was the lineage of the personage who is acclaimed as the Adikavi (original poet). Macdonnell, an indologist and Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, says, “Perhaps no work of world literature, secular in its origin, has ever produced so profound an influence on a people as the Ramayan.’’ According to Swami Vivekanand, “Ramayan and Mahabharat are two encyclopaedias of the ancient Aryan life and wisdom, portraying an ideal civilization, which humanity has yet to aspire after.’’ Even in our own day, Mahatma Gandhi, who is known as the architect of India’s independence from British rule, asked his followers to aim at Ramrajya. That has remained an ideal ever since.
Now coming to the main story, the sages then administered Ratnakar the Ram mantra. The robber, however, pronounced it as ‘Mara’ after changing the order of letters. And, after repeating it constantly for one thousand years, he got it right. But by then the termites had built the mound around his body. The sinner was thus saved after a long lapse of time through Ram’s grace and thanks to the guidance provided by the sages. Finally, the sages came on the scene once again and opened the termite hill. The penitent sinner came out of the anthill. The sages say, “You have a rebirth, you shall hereafter be known as Valmiki” (Adyatmya Ramayan). This episode is also mentioned in the Skand Puran. But there Ratnakar’s name before becoming a rishi is mentioned as Agnisarman.
According to another version Narad paid a second visit to see how Valmiki was faring in his new role as acharya. By then Valmiki had disciples, chief among them being Bharadwaj. who was to become a distinguished rishi. Valmiki has been called a kulapati (chancellor). That title signifies an acharya who has 10,000 disciples under him. A visit by a luminary like Narad was always treated as a special event. After paying due obeisance to him, Valmiki asked a question, “O venerable Devarshi! You move around a great deal. I would like you to enlighten me about one thing, ‘Is there anywhere a man who is valorous and, versed in the Vedas and Vedangas, of pleasing countenance, and other such virtues?’’’
The list was a long one. In other words Valmiki wanted to know a person endowed with noble qualities, a veritable paragon of virtue. Narad had already met such a noble soul in the course of his wanderings. He also knew why Valmiki was asking the question. He was destined to write about such a high-souled person. Without hesitation the great sage replied, “Yes, I have met such a paragon of virtue. He is Shri Ramchandra, the king of Ayodhya.”