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The Ramayan of Valmiki  (BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V, BOOK VI)
Illustrations by Raja Ravi Varma


The Churning of the Ocean
The Avatars of Vishnu
Shiva and His Family
Rama and Sita
"Hymns of the Samaveda"
The Ramayan of Valmiki  (BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V, BOOK VI)
Illustrations by Raja Ravi Varma

Shorter of the two great epic poems of India, the other being the Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”). The Rāmāyana was composed in Sanskrit, probably not before 300 bc, by the poet Vālmīki, and in its present form consists of some 24,000 couplets divided into seven books.

The poem describes the royal birth of Rāma in the kingdom of Ayodhyā (Oudh), his tutelage under the sage Viśvāmitra, and his success in bending Śiva’s (Shiva’s) mighty bow at the bridegroom tournament of Sītā, the daughter of King Janaka, thus winning her for his wife. After Rāma is banished from his position as heir by an intrigue, he retreats to the forest with his wife and his favourite half brother, Laksmana, to spend 14 years in exile. There Rāvana, the demon-king of Lankā, carries off Sītā to his capital, while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them. Sītā resolutely rejects Rāvana’s attentions, and Rāma and his brother set about to rescue her. After numerous adventures they enter into alliance with Sugrīva, king of the monkeys; and with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanumān and Rāvana’s own brother, Vibhīnana, they attack Lankā. Rāma slays Rāvana and rescues Sītā, who in a later version undergoes an ordeal by fire in order to clear herself of the suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhyā, however, Rāma learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes her to the forest. There she meets the sage Vālmīki (the reputed author of the Rāmāyana) and at his hermitage gives birth to Rāma’s two sons. The family is reunited when the sons become of age, but Sītā, after again protesting her innocence, asks to be received by the earth, which swallows her up.

The poem enjoys immense popularity in India, where its recitation is considered an act of great merit. Many of its translations into the vernacular languages are themselves works of great literary merit, including the Tamil version of Kampan, the Bengali version of Krttibās, and the Hindi version, Rāmcaritmānas, of Tulsīdās. Throughout North India the events of the poem are enacted in an annual pageant, the Rām Līlā, and in South India the two epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, even today make up the story repertoire of the kathākali dance-drama of Malabar. The Rāmāyana was popular even during the Mughal period (16th century), and it was a favourite subject of Rājasthānī and Pahārī painters of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The story also spread in various forms throughout Southeast Asia (especially Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand); and its heroes, together with the Pāndava brothers of the Mahābhārata, were the heroes of traditional Javanese-Balinese theatre, dance, and shadow plays. Incidents from the Rāmāyana are carved in bas-relief on many Indonesian monuments—for example, at Panataran in eastern Java.




see also: Ramayana illustrations


Type of work: Poem
Author: Valmiki (fl. fourth century B.C.)
Type of plot: Religious epic
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: India
First transcribed: с 350 B.C.



Although relatively unknown to Western readers, the Ramayana is extremely popular throughout India, where it holds great religious significance. 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 are gods. Rama is a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and he and his wife Sita represent the ideal man and woman.


Principal Characters

Rama, King Dasa-ratha's son, partly an incarnation of Vishnu. The handsomest and strongest of the king's four sons, he wins Sita for his bride by bending the mighty bow of King Janak. Though his aging father wishes him to become regent, he is forced by Queen Kaikeyi into a fourteen-year exile, from which he finally returns triumphant to his throne.
Sita, Rama's wife, daughter of King Janak and the Earth Mother. She accompanies her husband into exile and is abducted by Ravan. Although she manages to remain faithful to Rama during her captivity, rumors of unfaithfulness are spread abroad and believed by her husband and the people. Finally her virtue is proved, but the Earth Mother takes her away from those who have doubted her.
Dasa-ratha, Rama's father, king of the Kosalas, who wishes his son to be regent but must send him, instead, into exile because of an old promise made to Queen Kaikeyi.
Queen Kaikeyi, one of King Dasa-ratha's wives and the mother of Bharat. Promised two boons by her husband, she asks that Rama be sent into exile and that Bharat be made regent.
Bharat, Rama's half brother. Though forced into the regency by Queen Kaikeyi, he recognizes Rama's claim to the throne, which he holds for him.
Lakshman, Rama's loyal brother and companion during his exile.
Satrughna, another of Rama's half brothers.
Mandavi, Urmila, and Srutka-kriti, Rama's sisters-in-law.
King Janak, Sita's father, who offers her as a bride to the one who bends his mighty bow.
The Earth Mother, Sita's mother, who takes her daughter back among the gods when her virtue is questioned by Rama and his people.
Ravan, demon-king of Lanka. He abducts Sita but is finally overthrown by Rama.
Bharad-vaja, Valmiki, and Agastya, hermits and holy men.
Hanuman, a leader of the monkey people.
Manthara, Queen Kaikeyi's maid.



The Story

King Dasa-ratha of the Kosalas, who kept his court at Ayodhya, had four sons, though not all by the same mother. According to legend, the god Vishnu, in answer to King Dasa-ratha's supplications, had given a divine liquor to each of the king's wives, so that they might bring forth sons, each of whom was partly an incarnation of Vishnu. Of the sons born, Rama was the handsomest and strongest of all, his mother having drunk more of the magic beverage than Dasa-ratha's other wives.
When Rama grew to manhood he heard of Sita, beautiful, talented, and virtuous daughter of King Janak and the Earth Mother. King Janak was the possessor of a wondrous bow, a mighty weapon that had belonged to the gods, and King Janak resolved that whoever could bend the bow should have Sita for his wife. The king knew, of course, that no ordinary mortal could possibly accomplish the feat.
Rama and his brothers traveled to the court of King Janak and were granted permission to try drawing the mighty bow. With ease Rama bent the bow, with such strength that the weapon snapped in two. King Janak promised that Sita should be Rama's bride and that each of his half brothers, too, should have a noble bride from the people of Videha.
So Sita became the wife of Rama; her sister Urmila became the bride of Lakshman, Rama's favorite brother; Mandavi and Sruta-kriti, cousins of Sita, became the wives of Bharat and Satrughna, the other half brothers of Rama. When all returned to Ayodhya, Dasa-ratha, fearing the rivalry between his children might create unhappiness and tragedy in his house, sent Bharat and Satrughna to live with their mothers' people.
Years passed, and King Dasa-ratha grew old. Wishing to have the time and opportunity to prepare himself for the next life, he proposed that Rama, his favorite son, should become regent. The king's council and the populace rejoiced in the proposal, and plans were made to invest Rama with the regency and place him on the Kosala throne. Before the preparations had been completed, however, Manthara, a maid to Queen Kaikeyi, one of King Dasa-ratha's wives, advised the queen that Rama's succession to the throne should be prevented and that Bharat, Queen Kaikeyi's son, should become regent. The ill advice was heard, and Queen Kaikeyi remembered that she had been promised two boons by her husband. So when King Dasa-ratha came to her, she asked that Bharat should be made regent and that Rama should go into exile for fourteen years. King Dasa-ratha was sad, but he had given his word and he must fulfill his promises. Like a dutiful son, Rama heard his father's decision and prepared to go into exile. He expected to go alone, but his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman prepared to go with him to share his lonely and uncomfortable exile in the dismal Dandak forest. The Kosala people mourned his departure and accompanied him on the first day of his journey away from Ayodhya.
Leaving his native country, Rama journeyed south. He and his companions crossed the Ganges River and came to the hermitage of Bharad-vaja, a holy man. After visiting with him, they went on to the hill of Chitrakuta, where stood the hermitage of Valmiki, a learned and holy man. There they learned that King Dasa-ratha had died the day after Rama's departure from Ayodhya, remembering in his hour of death a curse laid on him by a hermit whose son he had accidentally killed. Rama stayed with Valmiki for a time. Bharat returned to Ayodhya to become regent, as his mother had planned. However, he recognized Rama's claim and set out on a journey to find Rama and to ask him to become King of the Kosalas. But Rama, having given his word, remained in exile as he had vowed to do. Bharat returned to Avodhya to place Rama's sandals on the throne as a symbol of Rama's right to the kingship.
In order that his kinsmen might not find him again, Rama left Valmiki's hermitage and after a long journey he established his own hermitage near the dwelling of Agastya, a holy and learned man. There Rama, Sita, and Lakshman lived in peace until they were disturbed by a demon-maiden, enamored of Rama, who had been repulsed in her addresses by both Rama and Lakshman. Spurned and seeking revenge, she went to her brother, Ravan, demon-king of Lanka (Ceylon) and asked his help. Ravan was a powerful being who through asceticism had achieved power even over the gods. His domination, according to legend, could be broken only by an alliance of men and the monkey people. Ravan sent a demon in the disguise of a deer to lead Rama astray while on the hunt. When Rama failed to return, Sita insisted that Lakshman go look for him. In the absence of the brothers, Ravan came and abducted Sita.
Rama, having learned what had happened, allied himself with the monkey people in order to make war upon the demons and win back his beloved wife. Hanuman, one of the monkey people's leaders, found Sita at Ravan's palace and led Rama and the forces of the monkey people to Ceylon. There Ravan's city was besieged and many battles were fought, with combat between the great leaders of both sides and pitched battles between the forces of good and evil. Finally Ravan and his demon forces were defeated, Ravan was killed, and Sita was rescued and restored to her husband. Sita, who had remained faithful to Rama throughout her captivity, proved in an ordeal by fire that she was still virtuous and worthy to be Rama's wife.
Rama, Sita, and Lakshman returned in triumph to Ayodhya, where Rama was welcomed and became king of the Kosala people. Rumors were spread, however, that Sita had not been faithful to her husband; at last Rama sent his wife away, and she went to live at the hermitage of Valmiki. Shortly after her arrival at the hermitage, she gave birth to Rama's sons.
More years passed and the two sons grew up, tutored in their youth by the wise Valmiki, who took his charges eventually to Ayodhya. There Rama, recognizing them as his sons, sent for Sita and had her conducted to his court. Since her virtue had been in doubt she was asked for a token that she had been true to her marriage vows. The earth opened to a great chasm, and the Earth Mother herself rose up on her throne to speak on behalf of Sita and to take her to the land of the gods. Thus Sita was taken away from the husband and the people who had doubted her.



Critical Evaluation

The Ramayana is one of two great Hindu epics; the other is the earlier Mahabharata. Whereas the Mahab-harata is genuinely a heroic (or "folk") epic deriving from an oral tradition, the Ramayana is more nearly like a literary epic, written in conscious imitation of the heroic-folk tradition. But whatever the original may have been, the Ramayana has been altered many times by subsequent rewriting and recension. In its extant versions, the Ramayana contains about 24,000 couplets (less than one-fourth the length of the Mahabharata) and is divided into seven books, as compared with the eighteen books of Mahabharata. In terms of conventional Western epic form, the Greek heroic-folk epic contains twenty-four books; the English literary epic contains twelve. Of the seven books of the Ramayana, the central story is found in books two through six. Book 1 is introductory. Book 7 appears to be a species of an appendix called Uttara, or "Supplemental," and provides both epilogue to and critique of the foregoing six books. It also provides instruction for the recital of the Ramayana by minstrels in much the same way that medieval enseignements coached jongleurs in their repertoire and their performance. Finally, the Ramayana, like most Western epics and unlike the Mahabharata, has unity, which stems from concentration on one main story.
One of the major themes in the central narrative 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 obligatory nature of human promises hinges upon belief in the divine prerogative of retribution. Hence, King Dasa-ratha rescinds his proposal that Rama should succeed him as regent in order to honor his prior promise of 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 his fate, so also his brother Lakshman and his wife Sita accept theirs. But while Lakshman simply does his duty and perseveres, Sita is subjected to the most stringent of tests. After being kidnaped by Ravan, she is called upon to prove her virtue. The trial being so debilitating, Sita is finally rescued by her Earth Mother. All of these claims upon human endurance require intervention by the gods. The message of the Ramayana thus seems to be that human volition is subservient to divine will. The corollary also appears to establish the social order as subject to the divine order.
Closely allied to the theme of free will versus fate is the theme of duty. One aspect of this theme of duty is Rama's behavior, often cited as a model for other men to emulate. Rama's submission to his father's decision, his acceptance of exile, and his fidelity to his promise to remain in exile all bespeak Rama's filial piety and deference to duty. This view of duty follows the pattern traditional for warriors, princes, and kings; as such, it is compatible with ideals presented in the Mahabharata as well as with Western ethical assumptions. The other, and more important, aspect of the theme of duty is less conventional as an issue proper to epic consideration, for it concerns not wars and the affairs of state, the usual epic grist, but human love and domestic matters. This aspect of duty, then, deals with Sita's story, which, all things considered, constitutes the main plot line in the epic. Sita, like Rama, is held up as an exemplar of ideal behavior—for women. Her behavior is characterized by sweetness, tenderness, obedience, patient suffering, and, above all, faithfulness; her piety and self-sacrifice ultimately qualify her for relief from mortal travail by being reab-sorbed into her Earth Mother. She endures all without complaint and thus becomes a model of the perfect woman, wife, and mother, her image of duty unalloyed.
The Ramayana also deals with typical Hindu motifs. There is, for example, the Brahman's curse which King Dasa-ratha remembered on his deathbed. Also, there is the asceticism, as exemplified in Valmiki's hermitage and in Rama's own abstemious life after leaving Valmiki's hermitage. In addition, this asceticism reflects another Hindu value; the emphasis on social order, which is manifested in the caste system. The orderly functioning of society, with all people acknowledging their proper places in it, is a high priority in the Hindu ethos. Furthermore, the concepts of truth and duty provide the definitive guidelines for action. Truth and duty go hand in hand to create twin obligations for Dasa-ratha and Bharat as well as Rama and Sita and every devout Hindu. And the didactic elements of the Ramayana reinforce these typical Hindu motifs; most explicitly, the teachings of Valmiki convey the precepts. But the implicit message of the plot and of the human interaction conveys the ethical and moral substance even more clearly. Thus the Hindu ideals of faith and conduct are both taught and demonstrated in the Ramayana.
In addition to the Hindu motifs as well as the themes of duty and free will versus fate, the Ramayana also presents an interesting juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural. The central narrative begins with the natural or "real-world" events: the political machinations at the court of King Dasa-ratha; the banishment of Rama, Sita, and Lakshman; and the death of King Dasa-ratha and the subsequent dilemma of Bharat when Rama refuses the throne. But the next half of the narrative deals with the supernatural: the intrusion of the demon-maiden; the intervention of Ravan; the alliance with the monkey people; the real and allegorical battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil; and the Earth Mother's absorption of Sita. This combination of natural and supernatural worlds synthesizes the ethical and spiritual concerns of Hinduism, incorporating the concepts of fatalism and duty. Through this synthesis, the, Ramayana goes beyond the confines of a national cultural epic to become part of the sacred literature of Hinduism. As such, it joins company with the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas. This religious perspective has made the Ramayana one of the best known and best loved works in India.


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