- The Ramayana, the story of the “adventures” (ayana) of RAMA, is one of the two great Hindu epics. It was composed originally in SANSKRIT in an epic of about 25,000 verses. The author, VALMIKI, is called the “first poet” of India and the Rama-yana is considered the first long poem composed by humans (as opposed to the VEDAS, which are much older and are considered to be eternal and uncreated).The SANSKRIT Ramayana dates to 600 to 400 B.C.E. Told in seven chapters, the story is in brief as follows: the gods ask VISHNU to take a human incarnation in order to fight the demon king RAVA N A, who gained powers by extreme aus-terities and cannot be defeated by a god. Vishnu agrees to incarnate as RAMA. Rama is born to King Dasharatha and his wife, Kaushalya. Dasharatha has three other sons: Bharata, Lakshmana, and Shatrughna.While Dasharatha is joyfully preparing to retire from the world and leave the kingdom to his virtuous oldest son Rama, a second wife of his, Kaikeyi, demands, as the fulfillment of a boon he had given her, that her own son, Bharata, be raised to the throne and that Rama be exiled in the forest for 14 years. Dasharatha, true to his word, must grant her wish, but he dies soon after of a broken heart. Rama, the most obedient of sons, accepts his father’s request with equanimity and prepares to go to the forest. Lakshmana, his younger brother, will go with him. Sita, his wife, is asked to stay behind, as travel in the forest will involve great travail, but she argues strongly that she wants to be at her husband’s side. Rama relents and allows her to go with him.As they enter the forest, they are found by Bharata. Bharata insists he has no desire for the kingdom and asks that Rama give him his sandals to put on the throne during his absence, as a sign that it is Rama who is king. Wandering in the forest, Rama and Lakshmana meet Shurpanakha, sister of the demon king Ravana. She becomes smitten with Rama and changes her horrific form into that of a beautiful maiden.Rama sees through Shurpanakha’s guise, but to play a joke on his brother he tells her that while he himself is married, Lakshmana is not. When she approaches Lakshmana with passion, Lakshmana enters into the joke by sending her back to Rama, saying he is unworthy of her. Shur-panakha then returns to Rama and jealously tries to kill Sita. At this Lakshmana cuts off her nose and ears.Eventually, Surpanakha persuades her brother Ravana to try to steal Sita away from Rama. Ravana has the demon Maricha take the form of a golden deer. When Rama chases after the deer, by means of ruses Ravana carries off Sita in his flying chariot and takes her to his island kingdom of Lanka.In a frantic search for Sita, Rama and Lak-shmana befriend the monkey Sugriva and his friends, including the virtuous and faithful HANUMAN. Hanuman is sent to Lanka to recon-noiter. He finds Sita but is caught by the demon Rakshasas. They put a cloth on his tail and set it afire, but he escapes and burns Lanka by jump-ing from building to building with his tail in flames.Hanuman returns to Rama, and they make a plan to defeat Ravana and his demon hordes and get Sita back. They are successful and Sita returns, but Rama and others question her fidelity. She offers to undergo a trial by fire, passes the test, and joins Rama on the throne.The last and final chapter, omitted in some vernacular versions, tells of the origin of the rakshasas, the demon hordes, and the history of Ravana. It also tells of Hanuman’s childhood and other diverse tales. Sita’s faithfulness, however, is once more questioned.Sita is forced to flee to the forest while preg-nant with Rama’s two sons. She goes to live at the ashram of none other than Valmiki himself, the author of the RAMAYANA story. Some years later, while Rama is conducting an ashva medha (HORSE SACRIFICE), Valmiki arrives with his two disciples, Kusha and Lava, the sons of Rama. They recite the Ramayana story for Rama and he learns of their existence. He calls Sita back to court, where she admonishes him and asks the Earth to swallow her up rather than that she return to a husband who has wronged her.The Ramayana story is an ocean from which a vast array of stories, myths, plays, and celebrations have emerged in Sanskrit and every vernacular. It is one of the central narratives of Indian culture; every region of the country has a variety of sites for pilgrimage and visitation that are connected to its characters—Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and the others.Celebrated versions of the Ramayana have been written in nearly every Indian language, including the Islamic-associated Urdu. Among such notable and beloved vernacular Ramayanas are the Krittivas Ramayana in Bengali, the Tulsidas Ramcaritmanas in Old Hindi, the Tamil Kambara-mayanam, the Pampa Ramayana of Nagachandra in Kannada, Ranganatha’s Ramayana in Telugu, and the Vilanka Ramayana in Oriya. Numerous Sanskrit versions of the story have also been com-posed, including the Adhyatma Ramayana and Yogavasishtha Ramayana.Tales in Sanskrit about the Rama dynasty both before and after the events in the Rama-yana have proliferated, such as Raghuvamsha and Uttararamacharita. The Jains as well tell stories of Rama, Ravana, and other characters from the Ramayana in Sanskrit and other lan-guages. Every year in northern India the Ram Lila festival is celebrated, culminating in a grand burning of the effigies of Ravana, his son, and his brother.The Ramayana story also traveled widely out-side India. Thai and Indonesian versions are still popular.Further reading: S. P. Bahadur, trans., The Complete Works of Gosvami Tulsidas (Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan, 1978–2005); J. L. Brockington, Righteous Rama: The Evolution of an Epic (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985); Harry M. Buck, The Figure of Rama in Buddhist Cultures (Bhubaneswar: Mayur, 1995); Robert Goldman, trans. and ed., The Ramayana of Valmiki, 6 vols. (Princ-eton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984–2005); George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz, trans., The Forest Book of Kampan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Phillip Lutgendorf, The Life of a Text: Perform-ing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Shantilal Nagar, trans., Jain Ramayana-Paumacariu (Delhi: B. R., 2002); Sheldon I. Pollock, Ramayana, book 2, Ayodhya by Valmiki (New York: New York University Press, JJC Founda-tion, 2005); Paula Richman, ed., Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Paula Richman, ed., Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.