The story of Rama is one of the most popular tales among the people of India, where it holds great religious significance. The tale has been recounted for generations, and there are several versions of the story, but the main outlines remain the same, with Rama and Sita as the idealized versions of man and woman. To the Western reader the characters may appear to be human beings with supernatural powers, roughly equivalent to certain figures in Greek legend and myth, but to Hindus the characters of the Ramayana (the fortunes of Rama) are more than this; they are gods. Scholars disagree on which of the various versions of the Ramayana came first, and the problem of which parts are found in the original story and which are additions by later generations of storytellers will perhaps never be solved. The best approach for a general reader is probably to accept the story as it is told.
The Ramayana is one of two Hindu epics, the other being the earlier Mahabharata. Whereas the Mahabharata is a heroic (or folk) epic deriving from an oral tradition, the Ramayana is more nearly a literary epic, written in conscious imitation of the heroic tradition. Whatever the original may have been, the Ramayana has been altered many times by subsequent rewriting and critical revision. In its extant versions, the Ramayana contains about twenty-four thousand couplets (less than one-fourth the length of the Mahabharata) and is divided into seven books (the Mahabharata has eighteen books). Of the seven books of the Ramayana, the central story covers books 2 through 6; book 1 is introductory. Book 7 appears to be a species of appendix; it provides both epilogue to and critique of the preceding six books. It also provides instruction for the recital of the Ramayana by minstrels, in much the same way that medieval texts coach jongleurs in their repertoire and their performance. The Ramayana, like most Western epics and unlike the Mahabharata, has unity, which stems from its concentration on one main story.
One of the major themes in the central narrative of the Ramayana is the relationship between destiny and volition, with the consequent consideration of personal responsibility or the lack of it. The key questions ultimately revolve around the power of the gods, for the keeping of human promises hinges on belief in divine retribution. Hence King Dasa-ratha rescinds his proposal that Rama should succeed him as regent in order to honor his prior promise to Queen Kaikeyi. So, too, Rama dutifully accepts Bharat as regent and goes into exile, in deference to the king’s expressed wishes (really, the gods’ demands). Just as Rama accepts...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)