The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic attributed to the poet Valmiki and is an important part of the Hindu canon. The name Ramayana is a tatpurusa compound of Rama and ayana “going, advancing”, translating to “the travels of Rama”. The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses in seven cantos (kandas) and tells the story of a prince, Rama of Ayodhya, whose wife Sita is abducted by the demon (Rakshasa) king of Lanka, Ravana. In its current form, the Valmiki Ramayana is dated variously from 500 BCE to 100 BCE, or about co-eval to early versions of the Mahabharata. As with most traditional epics, since it has gone through a long process of interpolations and redactions, it is impossible to date it accurately. Indian tradition regards the Ramayana as part of Ithihasa, or history, with Valmiki’s version as the oldest written form and the most authentic.
The Ramayana had an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry, primarily through its establishment of the Sloka meter. But, like its epic cousin Mahabharata, the Ramayana is not just an ordinary story. It contains the teachings of ancient Hindu sages and presents them through allegory in narrative and the interspersion of the philosophical and the devotional. The characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana (the villain of the piece) are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India.
The Ramayana is ascribed to a single author, Valmiki. Its exact date of creation is unknown, and is estimated to lie between the 4th and 2nd century B.C “The Cultural Heritage of India”, Vol. IV, “The Religions”, The Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture, says: “The first and the last Books of the Ramayana are later additions. The bulk, consisting of Books II–VI, represents Rama as an ideal hero. In Books I and VII, however Rama is made an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, and the epic poem is transformed into a Vaishnav text. As per the traditional astronomical back-projection by Vedic system, the event of the war between Rama and Ravana is supposed to have happened 880,148 years ago, as of April 9, 2006. It should be added, however, that “attempts to date events or read history or allegory” from “the description of stars and planets” are not always persuasive. This is consistent with the treatment of evidence from archaeo-astronomy in other cultures.
Structure of Valmiki Ramayana
Valmiki’s Ramayana, the oldest version of Ramayana is the basis of all the various versions of the Ramayana that are relevant in the various cultures. The text survives in numerous complete and partial manuscripts, the oldest surviving of which is dated from the eleventh century AD. The current text of Valmiki Ramayana has come down to us in two regional versions from the north and the south of India. Valmiki Ramayana has been traditionally divided into seven books, dealing with the life of Rama from his birth to his death.
- Bala Kanda – Book of the young Rama which details the miraculous birth of Rama, his early life in Ayodhya, his slaying of the demons of the forest at the request of Vishvamitra and his wedding with Sita.
- Ayodhya Kanda – Book of Ayodhya in which Dasharatha comes to grief over his promise to Kaikeyi and the start of Rama’s exile.
- Aranya Kanda – Book of the Forest which describes Rama’s life in the forest and the abduction of Sita by Ravana.
- Kishkindya Kanda – Book of Kishkinda, the Vanara kingdom in which Rama befriends Sugriva and the Vanara army and begins the search for Sita.
- Sundara Kanda – Book of Sundara (Hanuman) in which Hanuman travels to Lanka and finds Sita imprisoned there and brings back the good news to Rama.
- Lanka Kanda – Book of the War, which narrates the Rama-Ravana war and the return of the successful Rama to Ayodhya and his coronation.
- Uttara Kanda – Epilogue, which details the life of Rama and Sita after their return to Ayodhya, Sita’s banishment and how Sita and Rama pass on to the next world.
There have been speculations on whether the first and the last chapters of Valmiki’s Ramayana were written by the original author. Many experts are of the opinion that they are integral parts of the book in spite of the many differences in style and some contradictions in content between these two chapters and the rest of the book. These two chapters contain most of the mythological interpolations found in the Ramayana, such as the miraculous birth of Rama and his divine nature as well as the numerous legends surrounding Ravana.
Rama is the hero of this epic tale. He is portrayed as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. He is the eldest and the favorite son of the King of Ayodhya, Dasharatha. He is a popular prince loved by one and all. He is the epitome of virtue. Dasaratha, forced by one of his wives Kaikeyi commands Rama to relinquish his right to the throne for fourteen years and go into exile by his father. While in exile, Rama kills the demon king Ravana.
Sita is the beloved wife of Rama and the daughter of king Janaka. She is the incarnation of Goddess Laxmi(Lord Vishnu’s wife). Sita is the epitome of womanly purity and virtue. She follows her husband into exile and there gets abducted by Ravana. She is imprisoned in the island of Lanka by Ravana. Rama rescues her by defeating the demon king Ravana. Hanuman is a vanara belonging to the kingdom of Kishkinda. He worships Rama and helps find Sita by going to the kingdom of Lanka crossing the great ocean.
Lakshmana, the younger brother of Rama, chose to go into exile with him. He spends his time protecting Sita and Rama. He is deceived by Ravana and Maricha into believing that Rama was in trouble while Sita gets abducted.
Ravana, a rakshasa, is the king of Lanka. He received a boon from Brahma that he will not be killed by either gods, demons or by spirits, after performing a severe penance for ten thousand years. He was also the most intelligent and erudite living being of his time. He has ten heads and twenty arms. After getting his reward from Brahma, Ravana begins to lay waste the earth and disturbs the deeds of good Brahmins. Rama is born a human to defeat him, thus overcoming the boon given by Brahma.
Dasharatha is the king of Ayodhya and the father of Rama. He has three queens, Kousalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, and three other sons, Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Kaikeyi, Dasharatha’s favourite queen forces him to make his son Bharata heir apparent and send Rama into exile. Dashatara dies heartbroken after Rama goes into exile. Bharata is the second son of Dasharata. When he learns that his mother Kaikeyi had forced Rama into exile and caused Dasharata to die broken hearted, he storms out of the palace and goes in search of Rama. When Rama refuses to break his exile to return to the capital to assume the throne, he requests and gets Rama’s sandals and places them on the throne. Bharata then rules Ayodhya as a representative of Rama.
Vishvamitra is the sage who takes Rama into the forest at the behest of defeating the demons destroying his Vedic sacrifices. On the way back he takes Rama into Mithila where Rama sees and falls in love with Sita.
Rama, the hero of Ramayana, is a popular deity worshiped by Hindus, the route of his wanderings being, each year, trodden by devout pilgrims. The poem is not a mere literary monument, it is a part of Hinduism, and is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it, or certain passages of it, is believed by the Hindus to free them from sin and grant every desire to the reader or hearer. According to Hindu tradition, Rama is an incarnation (Avatar), of the god Vishnu, who is part of the Hindu Trinity. The main purpose of this incarnation is to demonstrate the righteous path (dharma) for the life on earth.
Rama breaking the bow of Siva at Sita’s Swayamvara in Mithila, by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)Brahma, creator of the universe, could not revoke a boon he gave the demon king Ravana, as a reward for his severe penances, that he should not be slain by gods, demons, or spirits. Having been then rewarded, Ravana began with the help of his evil supporters, the Rakshasas, to lay waste the earth and to do violence to the good, especially the Brahmin priests, disturbing their sacrifices. All the gods, watching this devastation, went to Brahma to find a way to deliver themselves and the earth of this evil. Brahma went to Vishnu and conveyed the anguish of the gods and requested that Vishnu incarnate on earth as a human to destroy Ravana, as Ravana had not asked for protection against humans or beasts in his wishes to Brahma.
Meanwhile, the good king Dasharatha of Ayodhya, who had ruled over his kingdom of Kosala for a long time, was beginning to become anxious about his successor, for he had no sons to take over the kingdom after him. Taking advice from his ministers and priests Dasharatha organised a Putrakameshti Yagna, a sacrifice for progeny. Vishnu decided to be born as the eldest to Dasharatha and caused a divine being to emerge from the sacrificial fire. The divine being gave Dashratha a golden vessel filled with nectar and asked him to give it to his queens. Dasharatha divided it amongst his three queens, Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi. In due course they became pregnant and gave birth to four sons: Queen Kausalya gives birth to the eldest son, Rama. Bharata is born to Queen Kaikeyi, and twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna, are born to Queen Sumitra.
The boys grew up learning the scriptures and the art of bowmanship from the sage Vasishta. One day, the sage Vishwamitra visited the kingdom and asked King Dasaratha to send Rama to protect him from demons who had been disturbing his sacrifices. Although very reluctant, Dasharatha agreed to send Rama and Lakshmana with Vishwamitra. As the brothers fulfilled their duties, Vishwamitra was pleased with them and bestowed upon them various celestial weapons.
Towards the end of their stay with Vishwamitra, Rama chanced to pass near the kingdom of Mithila and heard that its king, Janaka, had offered his peerless daughter, Sita, in marriage to the man who could bend the mighty bow of god Siva, which had been kept at Janaka’s court. Rama at once was determined to accomplish the feat, which had been tried in vain by so many suitors. When he presented himself at court, Janaka was at once won over by his youth and beauty. Five thousand men drew in the mighty bow, resting upon an eight-wheeled chariot. Rama, without any apparent effort, bent it until it broke and Janaka gladly gave him his beautiful daughter. After the splendid wedding ceremonies were over, the happy pair travelled back to Ayodhya.
King Dasharatha began to feel weary of reigning and decided to make Rama, his eldest son and heir-apparent, the co-regent (Yuvaraja). His happy people received the announcement of his intention with delight and the whole city was in the midst of the most splendid preparations for the ceremony. Dasharatha went to discuss the celebrations with his wives. However, Queen Kaikeyi’s jealousy was aroused by her evil maid Manthara, because the son of Kausalya and not her own son Bharata, at that time absent from the city, was to be made king. She fled to an ante-chamber where Dasharatha found her in tears.
To Dasharatha’s concerned queries, Kaikeyi recalled that, ages ago, the old king had granted her two boons. This was as a result of a war that the king was in before his children were born. He was riding in a chariot when the wheel was about to fall off. Queen Kaikeyi was with him, and sacrificed her finger by putting it into the wheel to hold it into place, thus saving her husband’s life. To show his gratitude, he offered her 2 wishes/boons. She gratefully accepted them, and told him that she had no use for them at present, and would use them when the need arose.
She now demanded the fulfillment of these before she would consent to smile upon him. Dasharatha agreed and Kaikeyi revealed her demands. She required him, first, to appoint her son Bharata as co-regent and, second, to exile Rama for fourteen years to the terrible forest of Dandaka. Dasharatha was heart-broken, but had to abide by his promise. Rama, the obedient son, immediately agreed to relinquish his claim to the throne and started to leave for his exile. His faithful wife Sita and his loving brother Lakshmana also decided to go along with Rama. With Dasharatha lying grief-stricken, Rama left for the forest, followed by the lamenting people of Ayodhya. Soon after, king Dasharatha died, overcome by grief.
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left behind Ayodhya and its people, crossed the river Ganges and went into the forest. They found an idyllic place called Chitrakuta (Chhattisgarh) to establish their hermitage. No more beautiful place could be imagined. Flowers of every kind, delicious fruits, and on every side the most pleasing prospects, together with perfect love, is stated to have made their hermitage a paradise on earth. In the forest, Rama befriended the old vulture-king, Jatayu.
Meanwhile, Bharata returned to Ayodhya and, being also devoted to Rama, became furious with Kaikeyi for her role in exiling Rama and for the death of his father. Determined to bring back Rama, he headed for the forest. When he found Rama and pleaded with him to return and assume the throne, Rama politely refused, saying that he was duty-bound to see that his father’s promise was fulfilled. Reluctantly Bharata agreed to return to the kingdom, requesting that Rama give to him his sandals. Back in Ayodhya, Bharata placed Rama’s sandals on the throne of Ayodhya, and ruled as Rama’s proxy from a village called Nandigrama near Ayodhya, awaiting his return. He also vowed to end his own life if Rama failed to return after fourteen years.
One day, the rakshasi Surpanakha, a sister of the demon king Ravana, chanced upon Rama’s hermitage and saw the handsome Rama and became enamored. Taking the form of a beautiful young girl, she tried to seduce Rama. Rama, ever faithful to his wife Sita, did not respond and asked her to approach Lakshmana. Lakshmana too refused, stating his duty towards his brother and his sister-in-law while in exile. An infuriated Surpanakha blamed Sita for the men scorning her and charged at her in her original demonic form. However, Lakshmana saved Sita by severing Surpanakha’s nose and ears. Surpanakha flew back to Ravana complaining about the young exiles. Ravana, after hearing of the beautiful Sita from Surpanakha, resolved to kill Rama in revenge and take Sita for himself. He enlisted the aid of the demon Maricha. Maricha turned himself into a golden deer that Sita wanted for herself. She asked Rama to get it for her, but after Rama left to find it, Maricha began screaming to trick Lakshmana. Lakshmana, convinced Rama was in danger, resolved to go out and find his brother. Before leaving Sita alone in the hut, Lakshmana drew a circle in the dirt saying that Sita would be safe as long as she stayed in the circle. Ravana approached the hermitage in the guise of an old man and asked Sita to give him some food. Initially hesitant to step out of Lakshmana’s circle, Sita finally stepped out to give the old man some food. At this moment Ravana grabbed Sita and fled in his airborne vehicle (Pushpaka Vimana). Jatayu, seeing them fly, attempted to save Sita, but Ravana engaged Jatayu in combat and chopped off the vulture’s wings. On returning to the hermitage, Rama and Lakshmana found it empty and anxiously began a search. Through Jatayu, whom they found lying mortally wounded, Rama and Lakshmana learnt of Sita’s fate. Jatayu breathed his last in Rama’s arms.
Continuing their search, they encountered the vanara king of Kishkindha, Sugriva, and Hanuman, one of his generals, among whom Sita had dropped from the chariot her scarf and some ornaments. Sugriva had been deposed from his kingdom by his brother, Vali, who had also taken his wife Roma from him. Rama agreed to defeat Vali if Sugriva would assist in the search for Sita. The agreement made, Sugriva challenged Vali to a duel. While the duel was progressing, Rama shot from his bow and killed Vali. Sugriva regained his kingdom and his wife.
Sugriva and Rama sent the vanara soldiers in various directions in search of Sita. However, their efforts didn’t bear fruit until they met another ancient vulture, Sampati, who was the brother of the slain Jatayu. Sampati was earthbound and deformed – his wings were burnt when he flew too close to the Sun (a story that can be considered to be similar to that of Icarus’s). His brother, being hardier, had saved him from falling to his death. While Jatayu was the physically stronger of the two, Sampati possessed a compensating gift of vision. Sampati’s vision was incredibly powerful, spanning several hundred yojanas and enabling him to see farther than anyone else. On hearing of Ravana’s killing his brother, he readily agreed to help the vanaras. He was soon able to spot Sita in the southern direction. He could see her imprisoned in a garden of Ashoka trees on the island of Lanka, beyond the southern ocean.
Hanuman in Lanka
Sugriva dispatched his army to the south with his nephew Angada at the head. Hanuman went with Angada as his general. When they reached deep south, they found a great ocean stretching between them and land of Lanka. They could find no means by which to cross the ocean. Commanding his soldiers to remain where they were, Hanuman expanded his body to enormous proportions, leaped the vast expanse of water, and alighted upon a mountain Trikuta from which he could look down upon Lanka. Perceiving the city to be closely guarded, he assumed the form of a cat, and thus, unsuspected, crept through the barriers and examined the city. He found Ravana in his apartments, surrounded by beautiful women, but Sita was not among them. Continuing his search, he at last discovered her, her beauty dimmed by grief, seated under a tree in a beautiful asoka grove, guarded by hideous rakshasas with the faces of buffaloes, dogs, and swine.
Assuming the form of a tiny monkey, Hanuman crept down the tree, and giving her the ring of Rama, took one from her. He offered to carry her away with him, but Sita declared that Rama must himself come to her rescue, and as proof of finding her Sita gave Hanuman a priceless jewel to take back to Rama. While they were talking together, Ravana appeared, and, after fruitless wooing, announced that if Sita did not yield herself to him in two months he would have her guards “mince her limbs with steel” for his morning repast.
In his rage, Hanuman destroyed a mango grove and was captured by the rakshasa guards, and brought before Ravana. Hanuman proclaimed that he was a messenger of Rama, and demanded that Ravana restore Sita to Rama or fall victim to Rama’s wrath. Furious at hearing Hanuman’s words, Ravana ordered Hanuman’s death.
Vibhishana, Ravana’s righteous brother, intervened and counseled Ravana to follow the scriptures, reminding that it was improper to execute a messenger, and instead told him to exact the appropriate punishment for Hanuman’s crime. Ravana accepted and ordered his rakshasas to set fire to Hanuman’s tail. As soon as this was done, Hanuman made himself very small, slipped from his bonds, and, jumping upon the roofs, spread a conflagration through the city of Lanka. He leaped back to the mainland, conveyed the news of Sita’s captivity to Rama and Sugriva, and was soon engaged in active preparations for the campaign.
Battle of Lanka
Rama decided that as long as the ocean was not bridged, it was impossible for any one but Hanuman to cross it. Rama meditated for three days without food or water, until from the terrified waves arose Varuna, the god of the ocean. Varuna was perplexed that Rama was meditating on him since he (Rama) was an avatar of Vishnu, one of the highest ranked Gods of Hinduism. Rama explained that because he is a human, he must perform the duties (dharma) of a human to call on Varuna. Hence, Varuna promised him that if the architects Nila and Nala (from Rama’s army) were to build a bridge of any kind, by throwing any material into the ocean, the ocean would support the bridge as though it were built on land.
Terror reigned in Lanka at the news of the approach of Rama. Vibishana, Ravana’s brother, deserted to Rama, because of the demon’s rage when he advised him to make peace with Rama. Fiercely fought battles ensued, in which even the gods took part–Vishnu and Indra taking sides with Rama, and the evil spirits fighting with Ravana.
After the war had been fought for some time, with varying results, and a great number of troops on both sides were killed, it was decided to determine the victor by single combat between Ravana and Rama. Even the gods were terrified at the fierceness of the conflict. At each shot Rama’s mighty bow cut off a head of Ravana, which at once grew back, and the hero was in despair until Vibhishana told him to aim at Ravana’s belly-button. Rama took careful aim as the source of “amrit” or divine nectar that allowed the regeneration of Ravan’s head was stored in his belly button. Subsequently, Rama killed Ravana using Bramha’s divine weapon, the Bramhastra.
As Ravana fell by this weapon, flowers rained from heaven upon the happy victory, and his ears were ravished with celestial music. Touched by the grief of Ravana’s widow, Mandodari, Rama told Vibhishan to conduct the funeral in the manner deserved by kings.
Sita was led forth, beaming with happiness at finding herself re-united to her husband; but her happiness was destined to be of short duration. Rama received her with coldness and with downcast eyes, saying that she could no longer be his wife, after having dwelt in the house of Ravana. Sita assured him of her innocence; but on his continuing to revile her, she ordered her funeral pyre to be built, since she would rather die by fire than live despised by Rama. The sympathy of all the bystanders was with Sita, but Rama saw her enter the flames without a tremor. Soon Agni, the god of fire, appeared, bearing the uninjured Sita in his arms. Her innocence thus publicly proved by the trial by fire, she was welcomed by Rama, whose treatment she tenderly forgave. Rama reveals to Lakshmana why the pyre was necessary. Earlier during the exile, Rama already knew Ravana would be kidnapping Sita. If Ravana had attempted to touch Sita, her devotion to her husband, her purity and chasity would have burned Ravana’s hands. Hence, the only way to let Sita be kidnapped was for her soul to be sent with Agni, the fire god, whereas a physical form of Sita remained. Hence, when Rama told Sita to prove herself with fire, he was really asking Agni, the fire god, to give him back his Sita.
The conquest won, Ravana defeated, and Sita restored, Rama returned in triumph to Ayodhya, and assumed the governance to the great delight of Bharata and the people of Ayodhya.
Ayodhya was prosperous, the people were happy, and for a time all went well. It was not long, however, before whispers concerning Sita’s long stay in Lanka spread through the city, and Rama came to hear the whisperings that a famine in the country was due to the guilt of Sita, who had suffered the caresses of Ravana while in captivity. Under the pressure from the citizens of Ayodhya, Rama banished her to the forest in which they had spent together the happy years of their exile. Sita was already several months pregnant when she was banished by Rama.
Without a murmur the unhappy Sita dragged herself to the forest, and, torn with grief of body and spirit, found the hermitage of Valmiki, where she gave birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusha. Here she reared them, with the assistance of the hermit, who was their teacher, and under whose care they grew to manhood, handsome and strong.
It chanced that about the time the youths were twenty years old, Rama began to think the gods were angered with him because he had killed Ravana, who was the son of a Brahman. Rama became determined to propitiate them by means of Ashvamedha, the great sacrifice, in which he caused a horse to be turned loose in the forest. When his men went to retake it, at the end of the year, they found it caught by two strong and beautiful youths who resisted all efforts to capture them. When his men couldn’t retake the horse, Rama went to the forest in person, only to learn that the youths were his twin sons, Lava and Kusha. Struck with remorse, Rama recalled the sufferings of his wife Sita, and on learning that she was at the hermitage of Valmiki, requested her to come with him.
Sita had had time to recover from the love of her youth, and the prospect of life with Rama, she felt, was not altogether pleasant. She appealed to the earth, if she had never loved any man but Rama, if her truth and purity were known to the earth, let it open its bosom and take her to it. While the people stood trembling with horror, the earth opened, a gorgeous throne appeared, and the goddess of earth, seated upon it, took Sita beside her and conveyed her to the realms of eternal happiness, leaving the too late repentant Rama to wear out his remaining years in penitence.
Morals in Ramayana
In his Ramayana, Valmiki expresses his view of human code of conduct through Rama: life is evanescent and the hedonistic approach to it is meaningless. However, that should not allow one to be indifferent to one’s own rights and duties laid down in the ancient texts. He thus adopts the view that Dharma is what is proclaimed in the Veda and it should be followed for its own sake, not for what it brings you in pain or pleasure. Doing this will ensure one’s welfare in this and the next world. In addition, Ramayana also reinforces the need for thinking about the consequences before making promises, for if you make them you must keep them, no matter how hard it may be.
Sankshepa Ramayana, the brief narration of the entire Ramayana story by the sage Narada to Valmiki, forms the first sarga of Valmiki Ramayana. Narada lists the sixteen qualities of the ideal man and says that Rama was the complete man possessing all sixteen of these qualities. Although Rama himself declares “he is but a man, and never once claims to be divine, Rama is regarded by Hindus as one of the most important Avatar of the god Vishnu and as an ideal man.
Valmiki portrays Rama not as a supernatural being, but as a human with all the attendant shortcomings, who encounters moral dilemmas but who overcomes these by simply adhering to the dharma–the righteous way. There are several instances narrated in Valmiki Ramayana which cast shadows on the pristine character of the hero and reinforce the theme of Rama struggling with mortal flaws and prejudices whilst struggling to follow the path of dharma. When Rama killed Vali to aid Sugriva regain his throne, it was not in fair combat, but while hiding behind a tree. When Sita was freed from Ravana’s prison, Rama forced Sita to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove her purity and later as the king, Rama killed the Shudra Shambuka for performing a yogic penance not in keeping with his perceived low station in the society, though this latter incident is contested and may have crept in because of reinterpretation later on.