Ramayana Essay - Critical Essays

Ramayana

Introduction

Ramayana

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Santosh N. Desai (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 10281 words.)

S. Sahai (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 5016 words.)

K. M. Kannampilly (essay date 1976)

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...

(The entire section is 1575 words.)

R. Raphael (essay date 1979)

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....

(The entire section is 8738 words.)

A. K. Ramanujan (essay date 1987)

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....

(The entire section is 12132 words.)

Frank E. Reynolds (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 7121 words.)

Gregory D. Alles (essay date 1994)

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.]

I

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....

(The entire section is 16155 words.)

Linda Hess (essay date 1999)

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?

...

(The entire section is 14539 words.)

Charles B. Dodson (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 2809 words.)

Velcheru Narayana Rao (essay date 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 11198 words.)