A collection of written and oral, verse and prose narratives on the life, values, conflicts, and adventures of the Lord Rama; indigenous to India and Asia.
Originating in India and dating from at least the third century b.c., the Ramayana is an episodic epic story reflecting religious, political, and social beliefs and moral doctrines. Primarily of Hindu origin, the Ramayana also exists in other versions within some Buddhist and other Asian religious traditions. There are texts of Ramayana in several regional languages, including Sanskrit, Chinese, Thai, Telugu, Bengali, Kashmiri, and Tamil. The Ramayana story combines magic, fantasy, romance and adventure as it recounts the life of Rama—the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, his brother Lakshmana—his wife Sita, his opponent Ravana, a host of demons, and an army of monkeys loyal to Rama led by Hanuman. It has remained a vital story through the present time in India, and is widely accepted as a religious text among Hindus.
The Ramayana is not a single text, but instead is comprised of many texts, as well as oral renditions. According to K. Watanabe, writing in 1907, the earliest record of the Ramayana is a Chinese Buddhist text of disputed date. The most authoritative text of the Ramayana is the Indian epic poem dated between the fourth and the second centuries b.c., and attributed to the Brahmin sage and poet Valmiki. Although Valmiki's historical existence is not firmly established, he is supposed to have written the Ramayana at the request of Rama's banished wife, Sita, for the benefit of Rama's children, Luv and Kush. Valmiki's text is the forerunner of innumerable written “tellings,” a term coined by A. K. Ramajuna in order to convey the authority of every version. Notable among other Ramayana texts is the pre-Christian, Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka, a variant Hindu version attributed to Tulsidas, the Laotian Buddhist Phra Lak/Phra Lam, the twelfth century Cambodian Kampan, and the Thai Ramakirti. There are also the post-eighteenth century Buddhist/Hindu hybrid Ramakien, written by several Thai kings, each with “Rama” included in his royal name, the sixteenth-century Bengali Ramayana Kriitibasa, by Chandravati, and the eighteenth-century Kashmiri Ramayana of Divakar Prakash Bhatt. The many texts reflect the cultures in which they were written and differ from each other in myriad ways, including variances in character, stories, and motives. In 1979, a group of South Asian women presented a feminist, anti-neo-nazi version of the Ramayana in London, and in 1989, an elaborate production of the Ramayana was serialized on Indian television, achieving immense national popularity.
Plot and Major Characters
The Valmiki version of the Ramayana is a long, complex text, composed of nearly fifty thousand verses. There are many separate stories embedded in it, and it exists in many, sometimes contradictory, versions. Despite the importance of other versions, it is this one that is considered the most fundamental. According to this narrative, when Dasaratha of Ayodhya chooses his son Rama as his successor, Kaikeyi, one of his three wives, implores him to make her son, Bharata, king. Dasaratha, having previously given his word to grant her a wish, must accede, and banishes Rama to the forest for fourteen years. Rama's wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana, accompany him. In the forest, the demon Surpanakha sees Rama, and falls in love with him. He rebuffs her, and Lakshmana wounds her as she attempts to assault Sita. She flees to the island kingdom of Lanka, where her demon brother, Ravana, who has ten heads and twenty arms, rules and uses his formidable powers to suppress sacred rituals. She tells him of Sita's beauty and he, inflamed with desire, battles Rama for her. When he fails, he disguises himself, tricking Rama and kidnapping Sita to take her back to Lanka. Imprisoned in Ravana's garden, Sita maintains her virtue and her fidelity to Rama. The monkey general Hanuman, an ally of Rama, who had saved his kingdom, eventually finds Sita, and Rama and Lakshmana, along with Hanuman's monkey army, attack Lanka. After many battles, they kill Ravana and rescue Sita. Because Sita has lived with another man, Rama requires her to walk through fire to prove her chastity. Rama returns to Ayodhya, where his stepbrother, Bharata, entreats him to take the throne. He does so, but shortly thereafter he banishes Sita to the forest because of his doubts about her virtue. In the forest, Sita contemplates drowning herself, but the sage and poet Valmiki appears in the poem, imploring her not to do so. She heeds his advice, and in her isolation bears twins to Rama. Once the boys, Luv and Kush are born, she asks Valmiki to write Rama's story for them. It is several years before Rama realizes his mistake and finally comes to bring Sita home. When the family is reunited, the twins sing the Ramayana for their father. Sita, in order to prove her virtue, implores the earth to swallow her up, leaving Rama to care for their sons. After a thousand-year reign Rama steps into the river Sarayu, returning to heaven as the god Vishnu.
Even though the moral weight of the individual characters may vary from version to version, in all versions of the Ramayana, the conflict between good and evil, the deceptiveness of appearance, and the wiliness of evil are principal themes. Similarly, although the many narratives exhibit varying attitudes towards class relationships, proper social order, untouchability, and the duties and responsibilities of men and women to themselves, to the social world, and to each other, these are all addressed in one way or another in all versions of the Ramayana.
The Ramayana is an enduring literary classic and a religious text that has a great deal of influence even today. In Asia and India in particular, it has the stature of such western epics as The Iliad and The Odyssey. In some instances, it carries even more authority than those works because, for many of its readers, it is a holy text as well as a guide to social practices and attitudes.
The Ramayana (translated from the original of Valmiki; a modernized version in English prose, by Makhan Lal Sen) 1950
The Ramayana of Valmiki. 3 vols. (translated by Hari Prasad Shastri) 1952-59
Ramayana. 2 vols. (translated by Shudha Mazumdar) 1953
The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen 1954
Sri Paduka: The Exile of the Prince of Ayodhya (translated from the text by Kampan, by S. M. Ponniah) 1969
The Ramayana; a shortened modern prose version of the Indian epic (Suggested by the Tamil version of Kamban) (translated by R. K. Narayan) 1972
The Ramayana of Valmiki: an epic of ancient India. 5 vols. (translated by Robert P. Goldman) 1984
(The entire section is 99 words.)
SOURCE: Desai, Santosh N. “Ramayana— An Instrument of Historical Contact and Cultural Transmission between India and Asia.” Journal of Asian Studies 30, no. 1 (November 1970): 5-20.
[In the following essay, Desai surveys a number of versions of the Ramayana in order to trace the spread and transmission of the tale between India and Asia.]
This paper examines the role of the Hindu epic Rāmāyana in the historical and cultural contact between Asia and Hindu India. In the process of this analysis, an attempt will be made to determine and evaluate the nature of the Hindu culture diffused in Asia through Rāma story.
Historians generally have drawn more attention to the spread of Buddhism from India to Asia. The movement and diffusion of Hindu1 elements from India to Asian countries is also an equally spectacular phenomenon. The Rāmāyana has played the most significant role in this process. The presence of the Rāma story in almost all the countries of Asia certainly proves the close cultural contact between Hindu India and Asia. Hindu literature—especially the two epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata—evoked a great deal of interest and respect. These epics were adopted and absorbed along with Buddhist Pali Canon and Sanskrit Sūtras.
The Rāmāyana seems to have traveled from India to...
(The entire section is 10281 words.)
SOURCE: Sahai, S. “Sources of the Lao Ramayana Tradition.” Indian Horizons 21, nos. 2-3 (April-July 1972): 70-81.
[In the following essay, Sahai compares Southeast Asian versions of the Ramayana with Valmiki's Indian text.]
Constant and continuous cultural contacts from the first centuries of the Christian era created favourable circumstances in South East Asia for understanding and appreciation of Indian ideas and values as expressed through the classical works of literature. In literary works like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the people of South East Asia found indeed some fine human values similar to those which they cherished most. This would explain partly the rapidity with which the Ramayana, one of the most important Indian epics, became so popular in this part of Asia.1
As early as the seventh century A.D., the epigraphic texts of Cambodia make pointed references to the Ramayana.2 In the same epoch, an inscription of Champa records the construction of a temple of the celebrated poet Valmiki, author of the Indian epic, whose image was installed therein.3 The sculptors of Angkor Vat who executed the exquisite bas-relief representing the story of Rama had been thoroughly acquainted with the Indian Epic.4 In Indonesia, the story of Rama has been immortalised in the relief panels of Prambanan...
(The entire section is 5016 words.)
SOURCE: Kannampilly, K. M. “Ramayana in South East Asian Life.” Indian Horizons 25, nos. 3-4 (1976): 5-8.
[In the following essay, Kannampilly discusses the widespread influence of the Ramayana in South East Asia.]
For over 14 centuries now, the Ramayana has continued to be a living force among the people of South East Asia, influencing their hearts and thoughts, inspiring their artistic creations and forming the mainspring of their cultural life. To them the hero and heroine of the Ramayana have always been models of chivalry, nobility and faithfulness, characters of great spiritual beauty.
The story of the Prince of Ayodhya was known throughout the South East Asian region. In Burma perhaps the first version was the Rama Thagyin composed in 1775 by U Aung Phyo. A decade or so afterwards the story was dramatised, and starting from then, it has continued to be popular on the dance stage in Burma. The story was perhaps introduced into Burma after the Burmese conquest of Thailand, where the Ramayana was already popular. There is, however, some reason to believe that the story was known much earlier than U Aung Phyo's time, since there was the story of a Burmese King in the 12th Century who had declared himself to be a descendant of Rama. There are at least eight known different Burmese versions of the Ramayana, written between the 18th and the...
(The entire section is 1575 words.)
SOURCE: Raphael, R. “Heroic Sublimity in Valmiki's Ramayana.” Indian Horizons 28, no. 3 (1979): 16-34.
[In the following essay. Raphael argues that the Valmiki Ramayana is a sublime and heroic poem.]
I have always been fascinated by the majestic grandeur of Vālmīki's Rāmāyana, for the Rāmāyana, besides being a splendid poem on a heroic theme, is also one of the most important sources of our living cultural tradition, a mirror of the highest ideals of the Hindu view of life and civilization. It gives a vividly realistic picture of the social, economic, religious and political aspirations and achievements of our ancestors, says Dr. S. N. Vyas in India in the Rāmāyana Age (Atma Ram & Sons, Delhi, 1967). Dr. Vyas adds that its “importance as a source for the reconstruction of the cultural history of post-Vedic India is further enhanced by the fact that … it is intimately linked with the present religious faith of the millions in India.” Consequently, a knowledge of the Rāmāyana is essential for an understanding of the Indian mind, because Vālmīki gives us the most graphic picture of the life and manners of our ancestors. In short, a reading of the Rāmāyana gives us vital insights into the presentness of our past, to use a phrase from T. S. Eliot.
The Rāmāyana is about people, and what they do to each...
(The entire section is 8738 words.)
SOURCE: Ramanujan, A. K. “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” In Many Rāmāyanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, edited by Paula Richman, pp. 22-49. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, originally presented at a conference in 1987, Ramanujan compares several versions or “tellings” of the Ramayana.]
How many Rāmāyanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Rāmāyanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Rāmāyanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.
One day when Rāma was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanumān, was at his feet. Rāma said to Hanumān, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”
Now Hanumān can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.
He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It's fallen from above!” Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thāli). The King of Spirits...
(The entire section is 12132 words.)
SOURCE: Reynolds, Frank E. “Rāmāyana, Rāma Jātaka, and Ramakien: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Buddhist Traditions.” In Many Rāmāyanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, edited by Paula Richman, pp. 50-93. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Reynolds describes several Buddhist versions of the Ramayana.]
In the history and literature of religions few stories have been told as many different times in as many different ways as the story of Rāma. For at least two thousand years—and probably longer—various versions of the story have been told in India and Sri Lanka; for over a thousand years—and probably much longer still—these and other versions have been told in Central and Southeast Asia, in China and Japan. Now, increasingly, the story is being told in the West as well.1
The story of Rāma has been recited, sung, and commented on by bards, priests, and monks. It has been dramatized and danced in royal courts and in rustic villages. It has been depicted in the sculpture and art of innumerable temples in capital cities and faraway provinces. Its characters have been the subjects of worship, and the events that the story recounts have been associated with famous places that mark the geography of various locales.
What is more, certain episodes in the story have...
(The entire section is 7121 words.)
SOURCE: Alles, Gregory D. “Poetic Works and Their Worlds.” In The Iliad, The Rāmāyana, and the Work of Religion: Failed Persuasion and Religious Mystification, pp. 49-75. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Alles compares the social and mythological contexts of the Ramayana and The Iliad, arguing that both poems reflect the problem social communities face when persuasion breaks down.]
The Iliad and the Rāmāyana rehearse what happens when persuasion fails. Achilles takes to his hut, and the order of society is not fully restored until the Olympians intervene. Rāma retreats to the forest and does not return until he has slain the mightiest demon of all.
It has been quite some time since American scholars, at least, have argued seriously about whether these events actually occurred. Most of them simply assume that the stories we have are fictitious, whatever actual events might have inspired Homer, Vālmīki, or their predecessors. Discussions about the universes of the poems have been more serious. Within living memory, respected scholars like M. I. Finley and S. N. Vyas have tried to reconstruct “the world of Odysseus” and “India in the Rāmāyana age” partly from literary, partly from archaeological sources.1 But so far as I can see, their critics...
(The entire section is 16155 words.)
SOURCE: Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man's Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no. 1 (March 1999): 1-32.
[In the following entry, Hess discusses the sexual politics of male domination and female subjugation as expressed in the Ramayana, exploring responses to those doctrines.]
This article could also be called “The Mysteries of Normative Texts.” Who decides what's normative? Who decide who's normal? Who benefits and who suffers from declarations of normality? In the inevitable flow of time and change, how do people manage both to cling to norms and to alter them?
Pardon me if I sound monolithic, but for 2,000 years the god-king Rama1 has been way in front of all contenders for the title of Official Ideal Man in Hindu India. In the opening lines of the Sanskrit poem that is fountainhead to all later Rāmāyana textual traditions, sage and soon-to-be First Poet Valmiki questions sage Narada: “Is there a man in the world today who is truly virtuous? Who is there who is mighty and yet knows both what is right and how to act upon it? Who always speaks the truth and holds firmly to his vows? Who exemplifies proper conduct and is benevolent to all creatures? Who is learned, capable, and a pleasure to behold? Who is self-controlled, having subdued his anger? Who is both judicious...
(The entire section is 14539 words.)
SOURCE: Dodson, Charles B. “Using Homer to Teach The Ramayana.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 28, no. 1 (September 2000): 68-73.
[In the following essay, Dodson explores similarities and differences between the Ramayana and the Iliad and Odyssey.]
Using more familiar works as benchmarks can effectively expand students' understanding and enjoyment of unfamiliar nonwestern literary works. For example, by the time I get to Valmiki's Indian epic, the Ramayana, in a sophomore world literature survey, the class has already read, among other things, a large chunk of the Iliad and all of the Odyssey. I can then ask students to read the Ramayana with the Homeric epics in mind and to look for both general and specific likenesses and differences in cultural assumptions, content, and style. My hope is that in this way they will come to recognize and appreciate the delights of a work that is sometimes strikingly similar to, yet often exotically different from, the more familiar western ethos and manner of Homer.
I begin the course by assuming the students have little knowledge of the Homeric epics beyond a general awareness of the Trojan war, a few major characters, and probably some of the adventures of Odysseus. Our discussions stress, in addition to details of the action, such matters as the traits of the heroic figure, the...
(The entire section is 2809 words.)
SOURCE: Rao, Velcheru Narayana. “The Politics of Telugu Ramayanas: Colonialism, Print Culture, and Literary Movements.” In Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, edited by Paula Richman, pp. 159-85. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Rao reviews a variety of political and ideological criticism, rewritings and readings of the Ramayana.]
When the play Śambuka Vadha (Shambuka Murdered) was published in 1920, it caused a considerable stir.1 The play is based on a story from the Ramayana but was presented in a manner that repelled its readers, who had been used to reading devotional stories of Rama. The author of the play, Tripuraneni Ramasvami Chaudari (1887-1943), whom I will introduce more fully later, depicts the killing of the Dravidian Shambuka as a murder committed by the Aryan Kshatriya king Rama at the behest of his Aryan Brahmin advisers. All traditional readers of the Ramayana in Telugu know that Shambuka is the Shudra who violates the law of hierarchically ordered social classes—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra—which determines a person's status by birth (varnadharma). Shambuka performs asceticism, a practice reserved for Brahmins, according to the dharma. As a consequence of this violation, a young Brahmin boy dies, and the father brings the corpse to Rama to seek explanation...
(The entire section is 11198 words.)
Allcott, Kenneth. “Matthew Arnold's ‘The Terrace at Berne’, ll. 45-8, and The Ramayana.” Notes and Queries 15, no. 5 (May 1968): 182-83.
Sees The Ramayana as a possible source for some verses by Arnold.
Blank, Jonah. Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing The Ramayana through India. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992, 51 p.
Explores the Valmiki Ramayana in the form a travel diary through the geographical landscape of the poem.
Booth, Gregory D. “Traditional Content and Narrative Structure in the Hindi Commercial Cinema.” Asian Folklore Studies liv, no. 2 (1995): 169-90.
Examines the influence of the Ramayana on Hindi cinema.
Brockington, J. L. Righteous Rama: The Evolution of an Epic. Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1984, 363p.
Provides a comprehensive study of the Ramayana focusing on linguistics, chronology, and the religious, social and cultural milieux of the poem.
Kapp, Dieter B. “The Ālu Kurumba Rāmāyana: The Story of Rāma as Narrated by a South Indian Tribe.” Asian Folklore Studies 48, no. 1 (1989): 123-40.
Examines a Dravidian language version of the Ramayana taped during ethnographic studies in the Nigri...
(The entire section is 348 words.)