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.