Rāma-Nāma is touted as the tāraka-mantram or the proverbial cruise that ferries man across the ocean of materialistic existence. Much has been said about the efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma. The Viṣṇu-Sahasranāma glorifies a single utterance of the Rāma-Nāma as a peer to the chanting of all thousand names. The most compelling testimony to the efficacy of the Nāma is offered by the anecdote of the dacoit Ratnākara, who miraculously transformed into Sage Vālmīki.
श्रीरामनामसामर्थ्यमतुलं विद्यते द्विज।
नहि पापात्मकस्तावत्पापं कर्तुं क्षमः क्षितौ॥
śrīrāmanāma-sāmarthyam-atulaṁ vidyate dvija|
nahi pāpātmakas-tāvat-pāpaṁ kartuṁ kṣamaḥ kṣitau||
The efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma is such, there is not a sinner upon the phase of the earth whose sin can surpass the ability of the Rāma-Nāma to expiate it.
Ratnākara was a feared dacoit who held sway over an entire forest. Anyone who crossed paths with him owed Ratnākara everything he or she carried on their person. Once, Ratnākara encountered a rather odd individual in the forest. This recluse was dressed in modest garb, but carried a golden vīṇā. It was none other than the celestial sage, Nārada.
Ratnākara said ominously, ‘hand over all that you carry, should you wish to live.’ Nārada’s face belied no fear. Innocent as a rose, he looked up at Ratnākara with eyes drenched in compassion. He said to Ratnākara, ‘why do you thieve? Do you not know it is sinful to covet?’ Ratnākara’s response belied a subtle sense of dharma that lay buried deep within. He said, ‘I thieve not for myself, but for the benefit of my wife and child. It is my duty as a husband and a father, to provide for them.’ Nārada posed in return, a thought provoking question that left Ratnākara rather confused. Nārada posed, ‘Do you believe your wife and child would participate in the consequences of the sin you commit by thieving and terrorizing?’ Unsure, Ratnākara decides to run back to his hut deeper in the forest to find out. He ties Nārada to a tree nearby and rushes homeward. He finds to his utter consternation, neither his wife nor his child is willing to bear the burden of his karma.
Ratnākara recognizes that he alone is responsible for his actions, and the fruit of his actions accrue to him alone. Remorseful of all the sins he had committed in the past, Ratnākara rushes to Nārada, seeking a way to expiate his sins. Compassion incarnate, Nārada consoles the desolate Ratnākara and convinces him, his life too can be redeemed. Nārada endeavors to initiate Ratnākara in the Rāma-Nāma, but Ratnākara’s tongue, inured by the falsehood and cruel words he had uttered, was precluded from pronouncing the redeeming Nāma. Yet again, the compassion of his guru came to Ratnākara’s rescue.
Nārada split the syllables up and inverted them. He initiated Ratnākara, ‘Ma…. Rā…., Ma… Rā…, Ma.. Rā.., Ma. Rā, Marā, Marāmarāmarāma….’ Ratnākara’s cup overfilled with gratitude. He became consumed by the Nāma, lost track of the world around, his mind stilled in the most charming of sounds he had ever heard. Hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Ratnākara was no longer Ratnākara. He communed with the Nāma, becoming inextricably one with it. One fine day, his rapturous trance ended. He opened his eyes and stood up, startling those around. He had just emerged from an anthill that had covered his person. An anthill had formed over him while he was wrapped in the Divine Nāma, oblivious as much to his body as the world outside. He came to be known as Vālmīki from that day forward, born as he was, off an anthill (valmīkaḥ.) Not only had the Rāma-Nāma washed away the dross of his sinful ways, but had transformed him into the perfect receptacle through which would flow the peerless Rāmāyaṇam.