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Background Information

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The Rāmāyaṇa ( Devanāgarī: रामायण) is an ancient Sanskrit epic attributed to the Hindu sage ( maharishi) Valmiki and an important part of the Hindu canon ( smti). It was the original story on which other versions were based such as the Khmer Reamker, the Thai Ramakien, the Lao Phra Lak Phra Lam the Malay Hikayat Seri Rama and the Maranao Darengan.

The name Rāmāyaṇa is a tatpurusha compound of Rāma and ayana "going, advancing", translating to "Rāma's Journey". The Rāmāyaṇa consists of 24,000 verses in seven books, and 500 cantos (kāṇḍas) and tells the story of Rāma, whose wife Sita is abducted by the demon ( Rākshasa) king of Lanka, Rāvana. Thematically, the epic explores themes of human existence and the concept of dharma.

Verses in Rāmāyana are written in thirty two syllable meter called anustubh and the epic was an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry and Indian life and culture, primarily through its establishment of the śloka meter. But, like its epic cousin the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana is not just an ordinary story. It contains the teachings of the very ancient Hindu sages and presents them through allegory in narrative and the interspersion of the philosophical and the devotional. The characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanumān and Rāvana (the villain of the piece) are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India.

One of the most important literary works on ancient India, the Ramayana has had a profound impact on art and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The story of Rama has inspired great amounts of latter-day literature in various languages, notable among which are the works of the Tamil poet Kambar of the 13th century, Molla ramayanam in Telugu and the 14th century Kannada poet Narahari Kavi's Torave Ramayan,fifteenth century Bengali poet Krittibas Ojha, known as the Krittivasi Ramayan and the sixteenth century Hindi poet Tulsidas. The Ramayana became popular in Southeast Asia during the 8th century and was represented in literature, temple architecture, dance and theatre.


Traditionally, Ramayana is ascribed to a single author, Vālmiki. Textual scholar Robert P. Goldman concludes that, in the face of unanimous Indian tradition and the uniform character of much of the work, there is no reason to believe that a man named Valmiki did not write the main portion of the Ramayana. However, the work as it is now known is believed to have many interpolations of a much later date than the original kernel of the work. The Ramayana was a "growth of centuries, but the main story is the creation of one mind."


According to literary scholarship, the main body of the Ramayana first appeared as an oral composition somewhere between 750 to 500 BC. Cultural evidence (the presence of sati in the Mahabharata but not in the main body of the Ramayana) suggests that the Ramayana predates the Mahabharata Traditionally the epic belongs to the Treta Yuga, one of the four eons (yuga) of Hindu chronology, and is dated as far back as 880,000 years in the past. Rama is said to have been born in the Treta Yuga to King Daśaratha in ikshvaku vansh (clan)

The Story

Rama (right) seated on the shoulders of Hanuman, battles the demon-king Ravana.

Valmiki's Ramayana, the oldest version of Ramayana, is the basis of all the various versions of the Ramayana that are relevant in the various cultures. The text survives in numerous complete and partial manuscripts, the oldest surviving of which is dated from the eleventh century AD. The current text of Valmiki Ramayana has come down to us in two regional versions from the north and the south of India. Valmiki Ramayana has been traditionally divided into seven books, dealing with the life of Rama from his birth to his death.

The story is about Rama, a prince in the city of Ayodhya - the capital of Kosala kingdom, belonging to Suyvavansh (the Sun dynasty) - sometimes referred to as Raghuvansh (Raghu dynasty, named after Raghu, one of his illustrious forefathers). The story starts from just before his birth and ends after his death when his two sons ascend to power.

The story operates at multiple levels: at one level, it describes the society at that time: vast empires, the life of a prince destined to become the next king, the rivalry between mothers and stepmothers, the bond of affection and loyalty between brothers, contests to win the hands of a princess, male chauvinism, etc. At a second level, it describes how a ethical human being and a leader of men conducts himself at all times, facing situations with equanimity, raising to occasions to lead his people independent of his own personal tragedies and limitations, cultivating affection and respect of his people. At yet another level, it is a story of the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, incarnating as a human this time, combating evil, restoring justice in the land, fully aware of his divinity and yet resorting to using his superhuman powers only when absolutely necessary.

The story is as follows: Dasaratha, the king of Kosala, has been childless for a long time, and is anxious that land should not be king-less after him. He performs a ritual ( Puthrakameshti Yagna) for the gods to bless him with progeny. The gods present him with a bowl of divine nectar. His three queens partake of this, and in due course four princes - Rama, Lakshmana, Shatrughna, and Bharata - are born to them. Rama, being the eldest, is naturally being groomed as the future king. All the brothers are close-knit, with Lakshmana forming the closest bond with his elder brother. Together, they are schooled in archery. Vishwaamitra, one of the legendary seven sages of Hindu mythology, trains them in the art of firing missile-arrows imbibed with secret chants that could cause the arrows to shower fire or water on its enemies, and even follow them through the seven worlds until they're killed.

Vishwamitra leads Rama and Lakshmana to Mithila, the capital city of the kingdom of Videha ruled by king Janaka. Janaka's daughter Sita (also called Janaki, Vaidehi, Mythili) is to wed, and the king is holding a contest to select the best prince for his daughter. Rama wins the contest and returns home to Ayodhya with his new bride.

The time comes for Dasaratha to coronate Rama as the next king. Kaikeyi, the third and youngest of Dasaratha's queens, reminds her husband of his promise to her a long time ago that he'll grant her any two wishes she had. (This happened when Dasaratha was wounded in his chariot on the battlefield once, and Kaikeyi saved his life by taking over the reins and driving the chariot to safety.) Kaikeyi demands that she would like to have 1) her son Bharata be the next king, and 2) Rama be banished to the forest for fourteen years, far away and long enough for him to do any damage to Bharata's reign. The king, unable to refuse the wishes, accedes to them. The coronation preparations are halted and Rama told to prepare to leave for the forest. At first, Rama decides that he'll go to the forest alone. But Sita and Lakshmana will have none of it and convince Rama that, for them, "Ayodhya is wherever Rama is".

The king goes into grief when the three leave for the forest, and dies soon afterwards. All this while, Bharata and Shatrughna have been away from the kingdom. They are summoned upon their father's death, and when they arrive, understand what happened. Bharata is aghast at his mother's greed (ostensibly for his good), and promises the kingdom and he'll restore Rama as the king. He travels to the forest to convince Rama to return to Ayodhya. Rama refuses on the grounds that a promise is a promise, but allows Bharata to take Rama's sandals back to Ayodhya so that Bharata can symbolically coronate Rama's sandals and rule as Rama's proxy.

The story is sprinkled with the experiences of the trio in the forest, especially how the royals, used to soft living and multitudes of servants, train themselves to live spartanly amongst nature and be self-sufficient, and the interaction between them and the various hermits and sages living in the forest, some of who realize the divinity of Rama. Rama and Lakshmana frequently battle the forest demons that plague the hermits' meditations.

One of the demons who had been defeated soundly by them decides to take revenge. She describes the beauty of Sita to her brother, Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka). Ravana decides that he must possess Sita, and has one of his brothers take the form of a deer to attract Sita's attention. Sita sends out Rama to capture the deer for her as a pet. The deer leads Raama far away from their cottage, and when Rama realizes that this is no ordinary deer, he kills the deer. The dying demon shouts Sita's and Lakshmana's names in Rama's voice, causing Sita to now send Lakshmana out to help Raama. When the cottage is thus unguarded, Raavana sweeps in, kidnaps Seetha and flies off to Lanka. When Raama sees Lakshmana approaching him, he at once realizes the trick. They both run back to the cottage to find it empty.

The rest of the story is about how Raama and Lakshmana trek to Lanka to fight and kill the demon king and to get Seethaa back. They start out by traveling south (in the direction Raavana was seen to have flown with Seetha), killing demons and helping hermits and sages along the away, until they reach Kishkinda, where Raama befriends Sugriva, the king of a troupe of monkeys. His belief that they're on the right track is reinforced when the monkeys show him a bundle of jewels that fell from the sky - Seethaa had removed her jewels and dropped them to earth while being carried away. Sugriva sends groups of monkeys in all four directions to scout out the location of Raavana. The group that travels south contains Hanumaan, Sugriva's minister. Being the son of the Wind God, Hanumaan is endowed with supernatural strength and power. When the troupe reaches the southern tip of India and are at a loss to know how to proceed, Hanumaan decides to leap across the sea to Lanka and continue the search there. He locates Seetha imprisoned there, identifies himself, and assures her that help is forthcoming. He also has skirmishes with the demon king's army and informs Raavana that his days are numbered.

Upon Hanumaan's return from Lanka, the entire monkey troupe and Rama and Lakshmana march to Lanka (building a bridge across the sea that Hanumaan leapt across), battle against Raavana's army for eighteen months and demolish the kingdom. Seetha is restored to Raama. Raama commands Seetha to walk through fire to prove that she had remained faithful to him during his absence, and Seetha walks through fire unscathed.

By this time, the required tenure of fourteen years comes to an end. Raama returns to Ayodhya and is crowned as king. He rules as a just king for several decades. He exiles Seetha to the forest when he overhears a conversation casting doubts on her fidelity: "unlike Seetha, my wife has never left my household". In the forest, Seetha, now pregnant with Raama's twins, is taken care of by the sage Vaalmiki (another one of the seven legendary sages of Hindu mythology). (Many stories in Hindu mythology have some autobiographical segments, where the author features in the story.) Raama's twin sons Lava and Kusha are born and brought up in the sage's hermitage.

As emperor, Raama performs a horse sacrifice ( Ashwamedha Yagna) to enlarge his empire. (The horse sacrifice is a ritual where an emperor sends out a horse accompanied by a huge army to various neighboring lands. Into whichever kingdom the horse wanders, the local king can allow the horse to wander - signalling that his kingdom may be annexed, or tie up the horse - indicating that he's ready to battle the emperor's army to prevent his kingdom from being annexed. The horse wanders into the forest where Raama's twin sons live and they tie the horse, not knowing its significance. When confronted by the accompanying army, they refuse to untie the horse and soundly defeat the army. (They had been trained well by the sage Vaalmiki since he knew that one day they would be kings.) Raama hears of this and correctly guesses that two kids at a hermitage who can defeat an entire army can be no ordinary kids, and introduces himself and meets his sons for the first time. He also meets Seetha again.

Some time later, as the sons are grown up, Seetha decides that her time on the earth is nearing end, and ends her life by asking mother earth to open and swallow her. The sons go Ayodhya to live with their father until they inherit the kingdom.

The epic contains the following books:

  • Bala Kanda – Book of the Childhood (birth and training of the princes and marriage of the princes)
  • Ayodhya Kanda – Book of Ayodhya (life in Ayodhya as a prince after marriage to Sita)
  • Aranya Kanda – Book of the Forest (life in exile in the forest)
  • Kishkindha Kanda – Book of Kishkindha (life in the kingdom of monkeys - on their search for the captured Seetha)
  • Sundara Kanda – Book of Auspiciousness (Hanumaan's journey to Lanka and his meeting with Seetha)
  • Yuddha Kanda – Book of the War (battle between Raama's armies and Raavana's armies)
  • Uttara Kanda – Book of the Afterword (Epilogue: Raama's life after returning to Ayodhya and Sita's second exile)

There have been speculations on whether the first and the last chapters of Valmiki's Ramayan were written by the original author. Many experts are of the opinion that they are integral parts of the book in spite of the many differences in style and some contradictions in content between these two chapters and the rest of the book. It is believed that Uttar Kanda was written by Tulisadas because there is no reference of this chapter in Valmiki's Ramayan. These two chapters contain most of the interpolations found in the Ramayana, such as the miraculous birth of Rama and his divine nature as well as the numerous legends surrounding Ravana. It is also inferred that the story of Rama's beheading shudra Shambuka as well as the one relating to Shravana kumara were not written by Valmiki.


Rama seated with Sita, fanned by Lakshamana, while the monkey-god Hanuman pays his respects.
  • Rama is the hero of this epic tale. He is portrayed as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. He is the eldest and the favorite son of the King of Ayodhya, Dasharatha. He is a popular prince loved by one and all. He is the epitome of virtue. Dasaratha, forced by one of his wives Kaikeyi commands Rama to relinquish his right to the throne for fourteen years and go into exile by his father. While in exile, Rama kills the demon king Ravana using an arrow.
  • Sita is the beloved wife of Rama and the daughter of king Janaka. Sita is also known as Janaki. She is the incarnation of Goddess Laxmi (Lord Vishnu's wife). Sita is the epitome of womanly purity and virtue. She follows her husband into exile and there gets abducted by Ravana. She is imprisoned in the island of Lanka by Ravan. Rama rescues her by defeating the demon king Ravana.
  • Hanuman is a vanara belonging to the kingdom of Kishkindha. He is portrayed as an incarnation of Lord Shiva. He worships Rama and helps find Sita by going to the kingdom of Lanka crossing the great ocean.
  • Lakshmana, the younger brother of Rama, who chose to go into exile with him.He is portrayed as an incarnation of the Sheshnag Kaal. He spends his time protecting Sita and Rama. He is forced to leave Sita, who was deceived by the demon Marichi into believing that Rama was in trouble. Sita is abducted by Ravana upon him leaving her.
  • Ravana, a rakshasa, is the king of Lanka. He received a boon from Brahma that he cannot be killed by either gods, demons or by spirits, after performing a severe penance for ten thousand years. He has ten heads and twenty arms, the former of which he began to cut off and throw into the sacrificial fire until Lord Brahma appeared to him. After getting his reward from Brahma, Ravana begins to lay waste the earth and disturbs the deeds of good Rishis. Vishnu incarnates as the human Rama to defeat him, thus circumventing the boon given by Brahma.
  • Dasharatha is the king of Ayodhya and the father of Rama. He has three queens, Kousalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, and three other sons; Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Kaikeyi, Dasharatha's favourite queen forces him to make his son Bharata heir apparent and send Rama into exile. Dashratha dies heartbroken after Rama goes into exile.
  • Bharata is the second son of Dasharatha. When he learns that his mother Kaikeyi had forced Rama into exile and caused Dasharatha to die broken hearted, he storms out of the palace and goes in search of Rama. When Rama refuses to return from his exile to assume the throne, Bharata obtains Rama's sandals and places them on the throne as a gesture that Rama is the true king. Bharata then rules Ayodhya as a representative of Rama for the next fourteen years.
  • Vishvamitra is the sage who takes Rama into the forest in order to defeat the demons destroying his Yagna ceremonies. On the way back he takes Rama into Mithila where Rama and Sita meet each other for the first time and Rama participates in her swayamvara.

Theological Significance

Rama, the hero of Ramayana, is a popular deity worshiped in the Hindu religion. Each year, many devout pilgrims trace his journey through India, halting at each of the holy sites along the way. The poem is not seen as just a literary monument, it serves as an integral part of Hinduism, and is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it, or certain passages of it, is believed by the Hindus to free them from sin and shower blessings upon the reader or listener. According to Hindu tradition, Rama is an incarnation ( Avatar), of the god Vishnu. The main purpose of this incarnation is to demonstrate the righteous path ( dharma) for all living creatures on Earth.

Contemporary versions

Hanuman as depicted in Yakshagana, popular folk art of Karnataka

The TV serial by Ramanand Sagar contains a vast, near comprehensive collection of stories drawn from many different retellings of the Ramayana. A plot summary is found on the Ramayan (TV series) article.

Other contemporary versions of the Ramayana include Sri Ramayana Darshanam by Dr. K. V. Puttappa ( Kuvempu) in Kannada and Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu by Viswanatha Satyanarayana in Telugu, both of which have been awarded the Jnanpith Award. A prose version called Geet Ramayan (Geet = song) in Marathi by G.D. (Gajanan Digambar) Madgulkar (also known as Ga Di Madgulkar or GaDiMA) was rendered in Music by Sudhir Phadke and is considered to be a masterpiece of Marathi literature. The popular Indian author R. K. Narayan wrote a shortened prose interpretation of the epic, and another modern Indian author, Ashok Banker, has so far written a series of six English language novels based on the Ramayana. In September 2006, the first issue of Ramayan 3392 A.D. was published by Virgin Comics, featuring the Ramayana as reinvisioned by author Deepak Chopra and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur.

The Ramayana has been adapted on screen as well, in a television series from the 1980s of the same name by producer Ramanand Sagar, which was based primarily off of the Ramcharitmanas and Valmiki Ramayana. In the late 90s, Sanjay Khan made a series called Jai Hanuman. This series not only recounted the stories of the birth, childhood and later life of Hanuman but also chronicled in detail the life of the various other characters in the Ramayana like Rama, Ravana, Sita, Meghanada, Mandodari, Dasharatha, Janaka, Bali and Sugreeva etc as well as some lesser known characters. This serial was based on various sources including Valmiki Ramayana, Ramacharitmanas, Krittivas Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana, Paumacariyam etc. A Japanese animated film called Rama - The Prince of Light was also released in the early 1990s.

US animation artist Nina Paley retold the Ramayana from Sita's point of view (with a secondary story about Paley's own marriage) in the animated musical Sita Sings the Blues.

Amboo Sharma, depicted in the Sahitya Akademi's "Whos who of Indian Writers" both as 'Amboo Sharma' and as 'Ambika Charan Mhamia' is a 74 year-old Rajasthani scholar and journalist living in Calcutta (Kolkata), India. He is the author of a modern day Ramayana in Rajasthani language named, AMBOO RAMAYANA. it is an epic written in thousands of verses and an original composition against a popular belief that it must also be a poetic translation of the original Valmiki Ramayana. Sharma has also written many a literary books in Rajasthani and most of them were published long ago. These include--MAHABHARAT SATSAI and YEESHU HAZARO, poetic translation of one thousand verses from Bible. All his published books are almost out of print but one copy of each can be seen at the National Library, Kolkata. Sharma has been publishing and editing a Rajasthani socio-literary monthly magazine, NENASI (named after the ancient historian of earstwhile Rajputana, Nainasingh Muhnot) for the last 30 years from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. His research work on Rajasthani Manuscripts has been published by The Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

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