RĀMĀYAṆA . Along with the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa is the most influential epic of India. Attributed to the sage Vālmīki, it is a poem of about fifty thousand lines narrating in Sanskrit the tale of Rāma and his wife, Sītā. The core of the epic is the story surrounding Rama's birth, his marriage to Sītā, his exile, Sītā's abduction by the demon king Rāvaṇa, the battle leading to the killing of the demon, and the recovery of Sītā.
The origins of the epic are obscure and beyond definitive recovery. The epic is available in three recensions—the Northeastern, the Northwestern, and the Southern. The recensions vary considerably; approximately a third of the text of each is not common to the other two. However, the variations, substantial as they are, do not alter the main theme of the epic.
The Rāmāyaṇa consists of seven books called kāṇḍa s. The story contained in these seven books is divided into two unequal parts, the first part consisting of the first six books and the second part covered by the seventh book. The content of these books is too complicated to capture in a summary, but the main storyline is recounted here.
Daśaratha, the king of Ayodhyā, is childless. He performs a sacrifice to obtain sons. At that time the gods, who are disturbed by the atrocities of the ten-headed demon Rāvaṇa, pray to the god Viṣṇu for protection. Viṣṇu responds to their prayers and decides to incarnate himself as a human being. He will be born as Rāma, son of Daśaratha. At the end of the sacrifice Daśaratha's three wives give birth to four sons, Queen Kausalyā to Rāma, Queen Kaikeyī to Bharata, Queen Sumitrā to Lakṣmaṇa and Śatrughna. Rāma is the favorite son of the king, and Lakṣmaṇa is devoted to his elder brother Rāma. While the boys are still young, the sage Viśvāmitra takes Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa to the forest and instructs them in the use of magic weapons.
King Janaka of Videha, who has the mighty bow of Śiva in his possession, declares that the prince who can wield the weapon will be eligible to marry his beautiful daughter Sītā. Rāma wields the weapon and with his superior strength breaks it, then marries Sītā.
In Ayodhyā King Daśaratha decides to have Rāma installed as prince regent. The decision, which was made while Kaikeyī's son Bharata was away, causes Kaikeyī, on the advice of her maidservant, to rebel against the king. Kaikeyī insists that Bharata should be declared prince regent and that Rāma should be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king, who owes Kaikeyī two wishes, is compelled to obey her desire. Obeying his father's command, Rāma leaves the capital city accompanied by his wife, Sītā, and his brother Lakṣmaṇa. Daśaratha dies from the pain of separation from his most beloved son.
In the forest a demoness, Śurpaṇakhā, the sister of Rāvaṇa, attempts to seduce Rāma. Frustrated in her efforts, she attempts to kill Sītā. Rāma punishes Śurpaṇakhā by having her ears and nose mutilated. Śurpaṇakhā complains to her mighty brother. Enraged by Rāma's action and attracted by Sītā's beauty, Rāvaṇa decides to abduct Sītā. Rāvaṇa sends his subject Mārīca to lure Rāma away. Mārīca assumes the form of a golden deer and attracts the attention of Sītā. Consenting to her request, Rāma chases the deer, leaving Lakṣmaṇa to guard Sītā. Sītā persuades Lakṣmaṇa to go in protection of his brother. Once Sītā is alone, the demon Rāvaṇa appears at her doorstep dressed as an ascetic and carries her off by force.
When Rāma learns that Rāvaṇa has abducted Sītā, he secures the friendship of the monkey king Sugrīva. Sugrīva's minister Hanumān flies across the ocean to the island of Laṅkā and locates Sītā in a forest grove. Rāma, aided by the monkey army, besieges Laṅkā, defeats Rāvaṇa's armies, kills Rāvaṇa, and brings Sītā back.
The seventh book of the Rāmāyaṇa describes how Rāma abandons Sītā, this time by his own choice. The inhabitants of Ayodhyā doubt the purity of Sītā's character because she has lived in another man's house. Sītā, now pregnant, is given shelter by the sage Vālmīki. In the sage's hermitage, Sītā gives birth to two sons, Lava and Kuśa. Vālmīki composes the story of Rāma and teaches the boys to sing the story.
In Ayodhyā, Rāma begins a sacrifice that Vālmīki attends with the twin boys. The boys sing the epic for Rāma, who then discovers that the boys are his own sons and that Sītā is alive. Vālmīki announces before the assembled crowd that Sītā is pure and without fault. Rāma accepts Lava and Kuśa as his sons. Sītā appears before the guests and prays that her mother, the earth, receive her as a proof of her purity. The earth breaks open, and Sītā is received on a golden throne. Rāma, saddened by the loss of his queen, gives the kingdom to his sons and returns to the world of the gods.
According to tradition, the Rāmāyaṇa is believed to belong to the legendary tretayuga, the second of the four mythic ages. Historically, the date of the epic is a matter of considerable controversy and nearly impossible to fix with certainty. Extensive scholarly work on the linguistic, stylistic, sociological, geographical, and political data narrows down the possible dates of the epic in is current form to the period between 750 and 500 bce.
Western scholarly opinion is fairly unanimous in agreement with Hermann Jacobi's finding that substantial parts of the first and seventh books of Vālmīki's version are later additions to the core of the five books. In the Hindu scholarly tradition, however, it is believed that the epic is the first poem (ādikāvya ) and is composed by a single poet, Vālmīki, who is called the first poet (ādikavi ). Thus it is believed to predate the other Indian epic, the Mahābhārata. Comparative dating of these two epics is a tangled issue because both the epics evolved together, borrowing extensively from each other. Although no evidence is available to establish Vālmīki as a historical personage, the stylistic evidence suggests that the central core of the five books of the Rāmāyaṇa are most likely to be the work of a single author.
The origins of the Vālmīki text are most likely to be folk oral narratives of the hero Rāma, a prince of the eastern Indian state of Kosala. Vālmīki's version itself has been sung orally for centuries by bards, known as kusilava s, before being set down in writing. Secular and heroic in quality, the Vālmīki version depicts the story of a perfect hero, steadfast in virtues and devoted to the control of his passions. The secular, heroic, and tragic messages of the Rāmāyaṇa have continued to influence generations of poets like Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Bhavabhuti, as well as a number of poets from the regional languages of India.
A major shift in the interpretation of the Rāmāyaṇa took place during the Middle Ages. Rāma was then identified as an avatara (incarnation) of Viṣṇu. The story of Rāma was read as an allegory of the conflict between good and evil in which the good always succeeds under the leadership of God. Prominent among such devotional (bhakti) Rāmāyaṇa s is Kamban's Iramavataram (twelfth century), in Tamil. A further development in the devotionalization of the Rāmāyaṇa becomes popular with Tulsidas's Ramcaritmanas, in the sixteenth century. In Tulsidas all the characters of the Rāmāyaṇa, including the demon Rāvaṇa, are Rāma's devotees. All the conflicts of the story and its tragedy are eliminated to produce a harmonious, balanced, lyrical world of God and his devotees.
In addition to literary Rāmāyaṇa s, there are a number of folk/oral versions all over India with significant variations in emphasis and messages. Folk versions of the Rāmāyaṇa sung by women emphasize the role of Sītā and portray her as more independent than she is in the literary versions.
Bulcke, Camille. Rāma-kathā (1950). 2d ed. Allahabad, 1962.
Goldman, Robert P., trans. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, vol. 1, Bālakāṇḍa. Princeton, N.J., 1984.
Jacobi, Hermann. Das Rāmāyaṇa: Geschichte und Inhalt nebst Concordanz der gedruckten Recensionen. Bonn, 1893.
Raghavan, V., ed. The Rāmāyaṇa Tradition in Asia. New Delhi, 1980.
Shastri, Hari Prasad, trans. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki. 3 vols. London, 1962.
Smith, H. Daniel. Reading the Rāmāyaṇa: A Bibliographic Guide for Students and College Teachers. Syracuse, N.Y., 1983.
Richman, Paula, ed. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley, 1991.
Richman, Paula, ed. Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition. Berkeley, 2001.
Velcheru Narayana Rao (1987)
One of the most famous epics in Hindu literature, the Ramayana tells of the life and adventures of Rama, a legendary hero who is worshiped as a god in many parts of India. Probably written in the 200s b.c., the Ramayana is attributed to Valmiki, a wise man who appears as a character in the work. Based on numerous legends, the Ramayana also incorporates sacred material from the Vedas, a series of ancient Hindu religious texts.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
incarnation appearance of a god, spirit, or soul in earthly form
Early Life of Rama. According to the Ramayana, Rama was the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu*. Born as the eldest son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya, he was conceived when Vishnu gave three of the king's wives a special potion to drink. Dasaratha's senior wife, Kausalya, gave birth to Rama. The other wives gave birth to Rama's brothers—Bharata and the twins Lakshmana and Satrughna. 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 asked Rama and his brothers to help defeat Taraka, queen of a race of demons called the Rakshasas. Rama and Lakshmana agreed to help, and Rama killed Taraka. Vishvamitra then took the brothers to the court of King Janaka, where Rama entered a contest for the hand of Sita, the king's daughter. By bending and breaking a sacred bow given to the king by the god Shiva, 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, 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 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.
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
Battling the Rakshasas. During their exile in the forest, Rama helped defend the wise men living there against the evil Rakshasas. One of these demons, the hideous giantess Surpanakha, offered to marry both Rama and Lakshmana. When they
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
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 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, 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, son of the god Indra, and formed an alliance. They helped him win back his throne from his wicked half brother Bali. In return, the brothers received help from the monkey armies. After the monkey god Hanuman 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 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, 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 protested her innocence again. She called on Mother Earth to verify that she was telling the truth. In response, the earth opened a crack 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* welcomed the hero into heaven.
See also Brahma; Devils and Demons; Hinduism and Mythology; Indra; Rama; Vedas; Vishnu.