One of the most famous epics in Hindu literature, the Ramayana tells of the life and adventures of Rama, a legendary hero who is worshipped as a god in many parts of India. Probably written in the 200s bce, the Ramayana is attributed to Valmiki, a wise man who also appears as a character in the work. Based on numerous legends, the Ramayana also incorporates sacred material from the Vedas, a collection of ancient Hindu religious texts.
Early Life of Rama According to the Ramayana, Rama (pronounced RAH-muh) was the seventh incarnation—or bodily form—of the god Vishnu (pronounced VISH-noo). Born as the eldest son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya (pronounced ah-YOH-dee-uh), he was conceived when Vishnu gave three of the king's wives a special potion to drink. Dasaratha's senior wife, Kausalya (pronounced kow-SAHL-yuh), gave birth to Rama. The other wives gave birth to Rama's brothers—Bharata (pronounced BAH-rah-tah), and the twins Lakshmana (pronounced LAHK-shmah-nah) and Satrughna (pronounced shah-TROO-gnuh). Rama inherited half of Vishnu's supernatural power, while his brothers shared the rest.
The four brothers grew up as close friends, particularly Rama and Lakshmana. One day a wise man named Vishvamitra (pronounced vish-VAH-mi-truh) asked Rama and his brothers to help defeat Taraka (pronounced TAH-rah-kah), queen of a race of demons called the Rakshasas (pronounced RAHK-shah-sahs). Rama and Lakshmana agreed to help, and Rama killed Taraka. Vishvamitra then took the brothers to the court of King Janaka (pronounced JAH-nah-kah), where Rama entered a contest for the hand of Ska (pronounced SEE-tah), the king's daughter. By bending and breaking a sacred bow given to the king by the god Shiva (pronounced SHEE-vuh), Rama won the contest.
Soon after the marriage of Rama and Sita, King Dasaratha decided to turn over his throne to Rama. However, his wife Kaikeyi (pronounced kye-KEE-yee), the mother of Bharata, reminded Dasaratha that he had once promised to grant her two wishes. Reluctantly, the king granted Kaikeyi her wishes—to banish Rama and place Bharata on the throne.
A dutiful son, Rama accepted his banishment and went to the Dandaka (pronounced DAHN-duh-kuh) Forest with Sita and Lakshmana. King Dasaratha died of grief soon after they departed. Bharata had been away during these earlier events. When called back to take the throne, he agreed to rule only during his brother's absence and acknowledged Rama as the rightful king.
Battling the Rakshasas During his exile in the forest, Rama helped defend the wise men living there against the evil Rakshasas. One of these demons, the hideous giantess Surpanakha (pronounced shur-PAH-nah-kah), offered to marry both Rama and Lakshmana. When they refused, the giantess attacked Sita, but the brothers cut off Surpanakha's ears and nose and drove her away. Surpanakha sent her younger brother Khara (pronounced KAH-ruh) and an army of demons to avenge her, but Rama and Lakshmana defeated and killed them all.
Furious at this defeat, Surpanakha went to her older brother Ravana (pronounced RAH-vuh-nuh), the demon king of Sri Lanka, and plotted revenge. When the giantess told Ravana about the beautiful Sita, he went to Dandaka Forest. Disguised as a beggar, the demon king kidnapped Sita and carried her back to his kingdom. He then tried to get Sita to marry him, but she rejected all his advances—even when he threatened to kill and eat her.
Meanwhile, Rama and Lakshmana set off in search of Sita. Along the way they met the monkey king Sugriva (pronounced soo-GREE-vuh), son of the god Surya (pronounced SOOR-yuh), and formed an alliance. They helped him win back his throne from his wicked half-brother Vali (pronounced VAH-lee). In return, the brothers received help from the monkey armies. After the monkey god Hanuman (pronounced HAH-noo-mahn) discovered where Sita had been taken, the monkey armies marched to Sri Lanka and defeated the Rakshasas in a series of battles. During the fighting, Rama killed Ravana and was reunited with Sita.
Rama and Sita After their reunion, Rama wondered whether Sita had remained faithful while held captive by Ravana. Sita proclaimed her innocence and proved it by passing through a fire unharmed. The fire god Agni (pronounced AG-nee) also spoke on her behalf, and Rama accepted her innocence.
The couple returned to Ayodhya, and Rama began a long reign of peace and prosperity. But the people still questioned Sita's faithfulness. In time, Rama began to doubt her innocence as well, and he banished her. While in exile, Sita found refuge with an old wise man named Valmiki (pronounced vahl-MEE-kee), and she gave birth to Rama's twin sons, Kusa and Lava.
After many years, the two boys visited Ayodhya. When Rama saw them, he recognized them as his sons and called Sita back from exile. Sita returned, and exhausted from having to continually protest her innocence, she called on Bhumidevi, the Earth Goddess, to release her from this world. Bhumidevi granted her wish, and the earth opened up beneath Sita and swallowed her.
Grief stricken by the loss of Sita, Rama asked the gods to end his sorrow. The gods told Rama that he must either enter heaven or stay on earth. Rama chose to follow Sita to eternity, so he walked into the river Sarayu and drowned. Upon Rama's death, the god Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh) welcomed the hero into heaven.
The Ramayana in Context
The Ramayana has been extremely influential in India and Southeast Asia since the early Middle Ages. Its stamp can be seen in visual arts, architecture, dance, and poetry throughout the region. Like the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey , the Ramayana is significant on both an artistic and cultural level, as the story of Rama has become inextricably linked to Indians' sense of national identity. The Ramayana presents, in allegorical form, many Hindu concepts, including the idea of dharma (pronounced DAR-muh) or duty, and Indian cultural values such as loyalty and respect for the family. Despite India's rapid modernization, the Ramayana remains extremely popular. The Indian film and television industry frequently draws on the tale in its productions.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes in the Ramayana is the importance of faithfulness and keeping one's word: Dasaratha wanted to place Rama on the throne, but his wife insisted that he keep his word to her; Rama accepted and understood that Dasaratha had to fulfill his promise, and accepted his banishment without bitterness; and Sita proved over and over that she was a faithful wife.
Another theme at the core of the Ramayana is that of a rightful heir returning to his throne. Rama is considered by King Dasaratha to be the best choice for ruling the kingdom, but is banished due to the influence of one of the king's jealous wives. The bulk of the tale involves his banishment and ultimate claiming of the throne. The story of the monkey king Sugriva also mirrors Rama's tale: he also must win back his rightful throne from his half-brother.
The Ramayana in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Not only is the Ramayana one of the most popular tales of India, it has also been embraced by other cultures from Tibet to the Philippines. The Chinese epic Journey to the West may also be inspired by the Ramayana. The epic was used as the basis for the wildly popular Indian television series Ramayan (1987), which earned over 100 million viewers and caused a virtual shutdown in businesses and public services throughout India during its time slot. The comic book series Ramayan 3392 A.D. (2006), conceived by doctor and author Deepak Chopra, is a futuristic retelling of the legend that aims to popularize the tale among English-speaking readers.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The predicament faced by Rama—jealousy and resentment at his status as first-born son by his father's later wife—is not unlike some of the complicated dynamics found in modern families. Do you think Rama's situation is similar to that of a child whose parent remarries and has additional children with the new spouse? What issues do you think are shared by both Rama and modern children from split-parent households? In what ways are the issues facing modern families different from Rama and his clan?