The Ramayana

The Ramayana stands beside the Mahabharata as one of the two great epics of ancient India, and, like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana informs a variety of significant performing traditions.  In addition to Ram Lila theatre, a tradition of staging the Ramayana story that originated in the seventeenth century, the Ramayana text itself has been a recited text—in its original Sanskrit version and in vernacular versions, as well—for centuries.  The Ramayana has been adapted in extremely popular television serials, films, cartoons.  Like the Mahabharata and other classical tales, the Ramayana appears in comic books throughout India.  Like the Mahabharata, the content of the Ramayana pervades Indian culture.  The two foot-bridges that allow pedestrians in Rishikesh to cross over the Ganges river, for example, have been dubbed Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula.  The 2004 Bollywood film Main Hoon Na features two half-brothers named Ram and Lakshman.

The ways in which many Indians revere the Ramayana and its content are similar to the ways they regard the Mahabharata.  The characters of the Ramayana are often regarded having lived in a time of mythic history—unlike and apart from the mundane history of humanity, but nevertheless real.  The characters are revered as divine and saintly.  Religious devotion to Ram as a manifestation of divinity is to be found throughout India.

But the Ramayana is distinctly different from the Mahabharata in fundamental ways.  Whereas the Mahabharata is a work of many authors over the course of centuries, the Ramayana has a single author.  Although he did not invent the story, but adapted it from pre-existing sources, nevertheless, the poet Valmiki composed the Sanskrit version of the Ramayana between the third and second centuries, BCE.  The Ramayana is also only about a quarter of the length of the Mahabharata.  Furthermore, the narrative of the Ramayana is less fractured than the Mahabharata’s.

We might also point out that the Ramayana has infiltrated Western culture more than the Mahabharata (unless one accounts for the influence the Bhagavad Gita has had on the West).  If you have read the novel, or attended one of the stage versions, or seen one of the film adaptations of A Little Princess (The first film adaptation of which is at least as old as Shirley Temple), you know something of the Ramayana, already.

The Story

Like the Mahabharata, and a million other folk tales, the Ramayana concerns a royal rivalry that begins with an evil stepmother.

Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya, has four sons by three wives.  The oldest, and the sole child of Dasharatha’s first wife, is Ram, a fine, upstanding, never-causes-any-problems-for-his-parents sort of kid who stands to inherit his father’s throne.  When Dasharatha’s second wife reminds him that she saved his life once, and that he promised her anything she wanted as a consequence, the king sees that getting your life saved and making wild promises doesn’t always work out for the best.  Dasharatha’s second wife demands that her son, Bharata, be placed on the throne.  To free his father from this pickle, Ram willingly abdicates his claim to the throne and volunteers to go into exile to alleviate any fears that he might try to foment any rebellion in Ayodhya.  Ram and his equally fine, upstanding, never-causes-any-trouble wife Sita go into exile in the forest, accompanied by Lakshman, one of two sons born to Dasharatha’s third wife.  For his part, Bharata doesn’t seem to want any part of the scheme.  Rather than sit on the throne during Ram’s exile, Bharata places Ram’s shoes there.

Ram, Sita, and Lakshman built a little hut in the forest and settle in for a nice, peaceful exile.  Only a demon named Surpanaka happens by and sets in motion events that make their exile anything but peaceful by developing a crush on Ram.  Ram, ever-faithful to Sita, rebuffs Surpanaka’s advances, and Lakshman, ever-faithful to Ram, cuts off the demon’s nose.  Surpanaka rushes off to her demon brother Ravana, who develops a crush on Sita when he goes into the forest to investigate.  Determined to have her, but certain that he can’t take her from under Ram’s nose, Ravana arranges for another demon to go prancing by Ram’s and Sita’s hut in the form of a golden deer.  Sita decides she’s got to have the deer as a pet, and while Ram and Lakshman reluctantly go chasing after the deer, Ravana swoops in and carries Sita off.  Literally.  Ravana has a flying chariot in which he escapes with Sita screaming on his arm.  Jatayu, a valiant bird, tries to stop Ravana in vain, and the only clue that Ram and Lakshman have as to Sita’s whereabouts once they return from their wild goose (deer) chase is Jatayu’s last word: Ravana.

Ram vows to get Sita back, and Lakshman vows to do whatever Ram says.  For some time the brothers wander around aimlessly, looking for information and having adventures.  At one point they meet a monkey named Sugriva, who complains to them that his brother Vali has usurped his throne and taken his wife.  In exchange for a vow of fealty, Ram agrees to help Sugriva reclaim his throne and his wife.  This is one of those complicated bits of epic in which it is very difficult to explain the transcendently virtuous protagonist’s behavior.  According to plan, Sugriva challenges Vali to a wrestling match, during which, from cover, Ram puts an Arrow in Vali’s back.  Vali dies.  Sugriva reclaims the throne.  And Ram gains as an ally a monkey army, including Hanuman, an especially great monkey (and, according to the Mahabharata, half-brother to the Pandava brother Bhima).  Hanuman reinvigorates the search for Sita, and, indeed, investigating a rumor that requires Hanuman to make a mythic leap across the ocean, he finds her imprisoned in Ravana’s palace on the island kingdom of Lanka.

To ensure his news will be taken seriously back on the mainland, Hanuman steals to Sita’s side under cover of night and takes from her a ring by which Ram would know that his wife, indeed, had been found.  And, for the fun of it (because this is the kind of monkey he is), once he has secured the ring, Hanuman allows Ravana’s security forces to capture him.  Ravana decides to make a massage out of Hanuman, and lights the monkey’s tale on fire.  Hanuman, at this point, breaks his bonds and jumps all over Lanka, spreading fire and mayhem everywhere, before taking a last, heroic leap back across the water.

Ram’s forces gather at the seaside, and build a bridge to Lanka by tossing stones on which the name “Ram” is written into the sea.  The rocks float and bond together, and the army begins its assault on Lanka.  As in the Mahabharata (and Homer’s Iliad), the climactic battle is chronicled mostly in the narratives of extraordinary individuals on either side.  At one point, Ravana sends his son Indrajit onto the battlefield.  Indrajit pours buckets of arrows on Ram’s army, which falls almost to a man (or a monkey).  Only thanks to Hanuman’s vigor and ingenuity does the army survive.  Hanuman makes a terrific leap from Lanka to the Himalayas to find a particular medicinal flower that can restore Ram and his soldiers.  Once he gets to Mount Rishaba, though, where the flower is said to grow, he finds a mountain full of flowers and he’s not certain what the flower he needs looks like.  No matter.  Hanuman picks up the whole mountain and leaps it back to Lanka to let the pharmacologists sort out which flower is which.  In due time, Ram and his army recover.

Ravana sends out other champions, and Ram’s subordinates meet them with varying degrees of success.  But the narrative cannot avoid the inevitable confrontation.  In the end, Ravana and Ram have to face each other.  The battle between Ram and Ravana is, as they say, epic, but the conclusion is foregone.  Ram defeats Ravana with a flaming arrow.  Most everyone laments Ravana’s death, and attend his body with rites appropriate for fallen heroes.

The war won, Ravana dead, Ram joyously reunited with Sita, there’s only one last thing to do before leaving Lanka.  Ram builds an enormous bonfire and tells Sita to step into it.  Seems Ram has heard some of the rumors about Sita’s long stay in someone else’s palace.  To put the rumors to rest, Ram puts Sita through a trial by fire.  Sita goes into the fire and comes back out again, unscathed, affirming that, even in mythic days, the victim shouldn’t be villainized.  The company returns triumphant to Ayodhya.  Bharata happily invites Ram to resume the throne, which Ram happily does, following a tremendous, happy entry procession.  And they all lived happily ever after.

Unless you read the Uttara Kanda.  A lot of people regard this very last chapter as a later addition to Valmiki’s poem.  Nevertheless, Ram’s story continues here in a way that is surprising and daunting.  In the Uttara Kanda, though he sits comfortably on Ayodhya’s throne and has put all his enemies behind him, Ram is uneasy.  The rumors about Sita’s time in Ravana’s palace still pick at Ram’s brain.  To silence the rumors, Ram exiles Sita.  An exile in the forest, Sita takes refuge with the forest-poet Valmiki, himself, and gives birth to Ram’s two sons.  Valmiki teaches them to sing his Ramayana poem, and when they get into Ram’s palace to sing it for Ram (who does not know the buys’ identity), the king gets all verklempt over the poetic depiction of Sita’s final banishment.  Ram calls Sita back, and she returns to the capitol just long enough to tell the earth to open and swallow her as a testament to her fidelity.  Ram is left alone.  He goes on ruling Ayodhya, but his heart isn’t in it.  Finally, he hands the throne back to Bharata, walks out of Ayodhya, into the wilderness, and into a lake, where the water closes over his head.

Many Ramayanas?

The Ramayana has more incarnations than Vishnu.  A version of the story appears in the Mahabharata.  In 1600, CE, the poet Tulsidas produced a vernacular Hindi version of Valmiki’s Sanskrit poem.  Many people regard Valmiki’s and Tulsidas’s versions as authoritative, sacred history, and many people treat these texts with the reverence due to scripture.  Many people read Ram in both Valmiki’s and Tulsidas’s poem as infallible, Ravana as irredeemable, and all the people aligned with the one or the other as virtuous or villainous.  But most every cultural tradition in India has its own version of the Ramayana, and many of these versions tell a different story.



Further Reading

Narayan, R. K.  The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Richman, Paula, ed.  Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.