The epic, traditionally ascribed to the Hindu Valmiki, narrates the life of Rama, the legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom. It follows his fourteen-year exile to the forest from the kingdom, by his father King Dasharatha, on request of his second wife Kaikeyi. His travels across forests in India with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, the kidnapping of his wife by Ravana, the great king of Lanka, resulting in a war with him, and Rama’s eventual return to Ayodhya to be crowned king.
There have been many attempts to unravel the epic’s historical growth and compositional layers; various recent scholars’ estimates for the earliest stage of the text range from the 27th to 24th centuries BCE, with later stages extending up to the 23rd century CE.
The Ramayana is one of the largest ancient epics in world literature. It consists of nearly 24,000 verses (mostly set in the Shloka meter), divided into seven Kandas and about 500 sargas (chapters). In Hindu tradition, it is considered to be the adi-kavya (first poem). It depicts the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal husband and the ideal king. Ramayana was an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry and Hindu life and culture. Like Mahabharata, Ramayana is not just a story: it presents the teachings of ancient Hindu sages in narrative allegory, interspersing philosophical and ethical elements.
The characters Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman, Shatrughna, and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
- Dasharatha – king of Ayodhya and father of Rama. He has three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra, and four sons: Bharata, and twins Lakshmana,Shatrughna and Rama. Once, Kaikeyi saved Dasaratha in a war and as a reward, she got the privilege from Dasaratha to fulfil two of her wishes at any time of her lifetime. She made use of the opportunity and forced Dasharatha to make their son Bharata crown prince and send Rama into exile for 14 years. Dasharatha dies heartbroken after Rama goes into exile.
- Rama – main character of the tale. Portrayed as the seventh avatar of god Vishnu, he is the eldest and favourite son of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya and his Chief Queen, Kausalya. He is portrayed as the epitome of virtue. Dasharatha is forced by Kaikeyi to command Rama to relinquish his right to the throne for fourteen years and go into exile. Rama kills the evil demon Ravana, who abducted his wife Sita, and later returns to Ayodhya to form an ideal state.
- Sita – another of the tale’s protagonists. She is a daughter of Mother Earth, adopted by King Janaka, and Rama’s beloved wife. Rama went to Mithila and got a chance to marry her by breaking the Shiv Dhanush (bow) while trying to tie a knot to it in a competition organized by King Janaka of Mithila. The competition was to find the most suitable husband for Sita and many princes from different states competed to win her. Sita is the avatara of goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu. Sita is portrayed as the epitome of female purity and virtue. She follows her husband into exile and is abducted by the demon king Ravana. She is imprisoned on the island of Lanka, until Rama rescues her by defeating Ravana. Later, she gives birth to twin boys Luv and Kusha.
- Bharata – is the son of Dasharatha and Queen Kaikeyi. When he learns that his mother Kaikeyi has forced Rama into exile and caused Dasharatha to die brokenhearted, he storms out of the palace and goes in search of Rama in the forest. 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 the regent of Rama for the next fourteen years, staying outside the city of Ayodhya. He was married to Mandavi.
- Lakshmana – younger brother of Rama, who chose to go into exile with him. He is the son of King Dasharatha and Queen Sumitra and twin of Shatrughna. Lakshmana is portrayed as an avatar of Shesha, the nāga associated with the god Vishnu. He spends his time protecting Sita and Rama, during which time he fights the demoness Shurpanakha. He is forced to leave Sita, who was deceived by the demon Maricha into believing that Rama was in trouble. Sita is abducted by Ravana upon his leaving her. He was married to Sita’s younger sister Urmila.
- Shatrughna – son of Dasharatha and his third wife Queen Sumitra. He is the youngest brother of Rama and also the twin brother of Lakshmana. He was married to Shrutakirti.
Allies of Rama
- Hanuman – vanara belonging to the kingdom of Kishkindha. He is an ideal bhakta of Rama. He is born as son of Kesari, a Vanara king in Sumeru region and his wife Añjanā. He plays an important part in locating Sita and in the ensuing battle. He is believed to live until our modern world.
- Sugriva – vanara king who helped Rama regain Sita from Ravana. He had an agreement with Rama through which Vali – Sugriva’s brother and king of Kishkindha – would be killed by Rama in exchange for Sugriva’s help in finding Sita. Sugriva ultimately ascends the throne of Kishkindha after the slaying of Vali and fulfills his promise by putting the Vanara forces at Rama’s disposal.
- Angada– vanara who helped Rama find his wife Sita and fight her abductor, Ravana, in Ramayana. He was son of Vali and Tara and nephew of Sugriva. Angada and Tara are instrumental in reconciling Rama and his brother, Lakshmana, with Sugriva after Sugriva fails to fulfill his promise to help Rama find and rescue his wife. Together they are able to convince Sugriva to honour his pledge to Rama instead of spending his time carousing and drinking.
- Jambavan/Jamvanta – Riksharaj (King of the Rikshas). Rikshas are bears. In the epic Ramayana, Jambavantha helped Rama find his wife Sita and fight her abductor, Ravana. It is he who makes Hanuman realize his immense capabilities and encourages him to fly across the ocean to search for Sita in Lanka.
- Jatayu – son of Aruna and nephew of Garuda. A demi-god who has the form of a vulture that tries to rescue Sita from Ravana. Jatayu fought valiantly with Ravana, but as Jatayu was very old, Ravana soon got the better of him. As Rama and Lakshmana chanced upon the stricken and dying Jatayu in their search for Sita, he informs them of the direction in which Ravana had gone.
- Sampati – son of Aruna, brother of Jatayu. Sampati’s role proved to be instrumental in the search for Sita.
Foes Of Rama
Ravana, a rakshasa – is the king of Lanka. He was son of a sage named Vishrava and daitya princess Kaikesi. After performing severe penance for ten thousand years he received a boon from the creator-god Brahma: he could henceforth not be killed by gods, demons, or spirits. He is portrayed as a powerful demon king who disturbs the penances of rishis. Vishnu incarnates as the human Rama to defeat him, thus circumventing the boon given by Brahma.
Indrajit or Meghnadha – The eldest son of Ravana who twice defeated Rama and Lakshmana in battle, before succumbing to Lakshmana. An adept of the magical arts, he coupled his supreme fighting skills with various stratagems to inflict heavy losses on Vanara army before his death.
Kumbhakarna, brother of Ravana, famous for his eating and sleeping. He would sleep for months at a time and would be extremely ravenous upon waking up, consuming anything set before him. His monstrous size and loyalty made him an important part of Ravana’s army. During the war he decimated the Vanara army before Rama cut off his limbs and head.
Shurpanakha, Ravana’s demoness sister who fell in love with Rama and had the magical power to take any form she wanted.
Vali – was king of Kishkindha, husband of Tara, a son of Indra, elder brother of Sugriva and father of Angada. Vali was famous for the boon that he had received, according to which anyone who fought him in single-combat lost half his strength to Vali, thereby making Vali invulnerable to any enemy. He was killed by Lord Rama, an Avatar of Vishnu.
- Bala kanda
- Ayothya kanda
- Aranya kanda
- Kiskindha kanda
- Sundhara kanda
- Yudha kanda
- Uttara kanda
Dasharatha was the king of Ayodhya. He had three wives: Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra. He was childless for a long time and anxious to produce an heir, so he performs a fire sacrifice known as putra-kameshti yagya. As a consequence, Rama is first born to Kaushalya, Bharata is born to Kaikeyi, Lakshmana and Shatrughna are born to Sumitra. These sons are endowed, to various degrees, with the essence of the Supreme Trinity Entity Vishnu; Vishnu had opted to be born into mortality to combat the demon Ravana, who was oppressing the gods, and who could only be destroyed by a mortal. The boys are reared as the princes of the realm, receiving instructions from the scriptures and in warfare from Vashistha. When Rama is 16 years old, sage Vishwamitra comes to the court of Dasharatha in search of help against demons who were disturbing sacrificial rites. He chooses Rama, who is followed by Lakshmana, his constant companion throughout the story. Rama and Lakshmana receive instructions and supernatural weapons from Vishwamitra and proceed to destroy the demons.
Janaka was the king of Mithila. One day, a female child was found in the field by the king in the deep furrow dug by his plough. Overwhelmed with joy, the king regarded the child as a “miraculous gift of god”. The child was named Sita, the Sanskrit word for furrow. Sita grew up to be a girl of unparalleled beauty and charm. The king had decided that who ever could lift and wield the heavy bow, presented to his ancestors by Shiva, could marry Sita. Sage Vishwamitra takes Rama and Lakshmana to Mithila to show the bow. Then Rama desires to lift it and goes on to wield the bow and when he draws the string, it breaks. Marriages are arranged between the sons of Dasharatha and daughters of Janaka. Rama gets married to Sita, Lakshmana to Urmila, Bharata to Mandavi and Shatrughna to Shrutakirti. The weddings are celebrated with great festivity in Mithila and the marriage party returns to Ayodhya.
After Rama and Sita have been married for twelve years, an elderly Dasharatha expresses his desire to crown Rama, to which the Kosala assembly and his subjects express their support. On the eve of the great event, Kaikeyi – her jealousy aroused by Manthara, a wicked maidservant – claims two boons that Dasharatha had long ago granted her. Kaikeyi demands Rama to be exiled into the wilderness for fourteen years, while the succession passes to her son Bharata. The heartbroken king, constrained by his rigid devotion to his given word, accedes to Kaikeyi’s demands. Rama accepts his father’s reluctant decree with absolute submission and calm self-control which characterises him throughout the story. He is joined by Sita and Lakshmana. When he asks Sita not to follow him, she says, “the forest where you dwell is Ayodhya for me and Ayodhya without you is a veritable hell for me.” After Rama’s departure, King Dasharatha, unable to bear the grief, passes away. Meanwhile, Bharata who was on a visit to his maternal uncle, learns about the events in Ayodhya. Bharata refuses to profit from his mother’s wicked scheming and visits Rama in the forest. He requests Rama to return and rule. But Rama, determined to carry out his father’s orders to the letter, refuses to return before the period of exile.
After thirteen years of exile, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana journey southward along the banks of river Godavari, where they build cottages and live off the land. At the Panchavati forest they are visited by a rakshasi named Shurpanakha, sister of Ravana. She tries to seduce the brothers and, after failing, attempts to kill Sita. Lakshmana stops her by cutting off her nose and ears. Hearing of this, her brother Khara organises an attack against the princes. Rama defeats Khara and his raskshasas.
When the news of these events reach Ravana, he resolves to destroy Rama by capturing Sita with the aid of the rakshasa Maricha. Maricha, assuming the form of a golden deer, captivates Sita’s attention. Entranced by the beauty of the deer, Sita pleads with Rama to capture it. Rama, aware that this is the ploy of the demons, cannot dissuade Sita from her desire and chases the deer into the forest, leaving Sita under Lakshmana’s guard. After some time, Sita hears Rama calling out to her; afraid for his life, she insists that Lakshmana rush to his aid. Lakshmana tries to assure her that Rama is invincible and that it is best if he continues to follow Rama’s orders to protect her. On the verge of hysterics, Sita insists that it is not she but Rama who needs Lakshmana’s help. He obeys her wish but stipulates that she is not to leave the cottage or entertain any stranger. He draws a chalk outline, the Lakshmana rekha, around the cottage and casts a spell on it that prevents anyone from entering the boundary but allows people to exit. With the coast finally clear, Ravana appears in the guise of an ascetic requesting Sita’s hospitality. Unaware of her guest’s plan, Sita is tricked into leaving the rekha and is then forcibly carried away by Ravana.
Jatayu, a vulture, tries to rescue Sita, but is mortally wounded. At Lanka, Sita is kept under the guard of rakshasis. Ravana asks Sita to marry him, but she refuses, being eternally devoted to Rama. Meanwhile, Rama and Lakshmana learn about Sita’s abduction from Jatayu and immediately set out to save her. During their search, they meet Kabandha and the ascetic Shabari, who direct them towards Sugriva and Hanuman.
Kishkindha Kanda is set in the ape (Vanara) citadel Kishkindha. Rama and Lakshmana meet Hanuman, the biggest devotee of Rama, greatest of ape heroes and an adherent of Sugriva, the banished pretender to the throne of Kishkindha. Rama befriends Sugriva and helps him by killing his elder brother Vali thus regaining the kingdom of Kishkindha, in exchange for helping Rama to recover Sita. However Sugriva soon forgets his promise and spends his time in enjoying his powers. The clever former ape queen Tara (wife of Vali) calmly intervenes to prevent an enraged Lakshmana from destroying the ape citadel. She then eloquently convinces Sugriva to honour his pledge. Sugriva then sends search parties to the four corners of the earth, only to return without success from north, east and west. The southern search party under the leadership of Angada and Hanuman learns from a vulture named Sampati (elder brother of Jatayu), that Sita was taken to Lanka.
Sundara Kanda forms the heart of Valmiki’s Ramayana and consists of a detailed, vivid account of Hanuman’s adventures. After learning about Sita, Hanuman assumes a gargantuan form and makes a colossal leap across the sea to Lanka. On the way he meets with many challenges like facing a Gandharva kanya who comes in the form of a demon to test his abilities. He encounters a mountain named Mainakudu who offers Lord Hanuman assistance and offers him rest. Lord Hanuman refuses because there is little time remaining to complete the search for Sita.
After entering into Lanka, he finds a demon, Lankini, who protects all of Lanka. Hanuman fights with her and subjugates her in order to get into Lanka. In the process Lankini, who had an earlier vision/warning from the gods that the end of Lanka nears if someone defeats Lankini. Here, Hanuman explores the demons’ kingdom and spies on Ravana. He locates Sita in Ashoka grove, where she is being wooed and threatened by Ravana and his rakshasis to marry Ravana. Hanuman reassures Sita, giving Rama’s signet ring as a sign of good faith. He offers to carry Sita back to Rama; however, she refuses and says that it is not the dharma, stating that Ramayana will not have significance if Hanuman carries her to Rama – “When Rama is not there Ravana carried Sita forcibly and when Ravana was not there, Hanuman carried Sita back to Rama”. She says that Rama himself must come and avenge the insult of her abduction.
Hanuman then wreaks havoc in Lanka by destroying trees and buildings and killing Ravana’s warriors. He allows himself to be captured and delivered to Ravana. He gives a bold lecture to Ravana to release Sita. He is condemned and his tail is set on fire, but he escapes his bonds and leaping from roof to roof, sets fire to Ravana’s citadel and makes the giant leap back from the island. The joyous search party returns to Kishkindha with the news.
Also known as Lanka Kanda, this book describes the war between the army of Rama and the army of Ravana. Having received Hanuman’s report on Sita, Rama and Lakshmana proceed with their allies towards the shore of the southern sea. There they are joined by Ravana’s renegade brother Vibhishana. The apes named Nala and Nila construct a floating bridge (known as Rama Setu) across the sea, using stones that floated on water because they had Rama’s name written on them. The princes and their army cross over to Lanka. A lengthy war ensues. During a battle, Ravana’s son Indrajit hurls a powerful weapon at Lakshmana, who is badly wounded. So Hanuman assumes a gigantic form and flies from Lanka to the Himalayas. Upon reaching Mount Sumeru, Hanuman was unable to identify the herb that could cure Lakshmana and so decided to bring the entire mountain back to Lanka. Eventually, the war ends when Rama kills Ravana. Rama then installs Vibhishana on the throne of Lanka.
On meeting Sita, Rama asks her to undergo an Agni Pariksha (test of fire) to prove her chastity, as he wants to get rid of the rumors surrounding her purity. When Sita plunges into the sacrificial fire, Agni, lord of fire raises Sita, unharmed, to the throne, attesting to her innocence. The episode of Agni Pariksha varies in the versions of Ramayana by Valmiki and Tulsidas. In Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas, Sita was under the protection of Agni (see Maya Sita) so it was necessary to bring her out before reuniting with Rama. At the expiration of his term of exile, Rama returns to Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshmana, where the coronation is performed. This is the beginning of Ram Rajya, which implies an ideal state with good morals. Ramayan is not only the story about how truth defeats the evil, it also teaches us to forget all the evil and arrogance that resides inside ourselves.
Uttara Kanda concerns the final years of Rama, Sita and Rama’s brothers. After being crowned king, Rama passes time pleasantly with Sita. After some time, Sita gets pregnant with twin children. However, questions about her “purity” spread among the populace of Ayodhya and the people reject the Agni Pariksha (“fire ordeal”) as proof of her purity. They refuse to accept Sita as their queen because, despite her innocence, they believe she is of soiled reputation. Rama yields to public opinion and reluctantly banishes Sita to the forest, where the sage Valmiki provides shelter in his ashrama (“hermitage”). Here, she gives birth to twin boys, Lava and Kusha, who become pupils of Valmiki and are brought up in ignorance of their identity.
Valmiki composes the Ramayana and teaches Lava and Kusha to sing it. Lava and Kusha sing the Ramayana in the presence of Rama and his vast audience. When the twins learn how Rama banished Sita to the forest, they leave the palace, angry at the treatment meted to Sita by Rama. Later, Rama decides to conduct the Ashwamedha yagna which requires the presence of his wife. Due to Sita’s absence, the sages recommend Rama to remarry so that he can conduct the yagna. Rama refuses to do so saying that he wishes to remain loyal to Sita and instead decides to use an idol of Sita for the yagna. He asks the idol to be made of gold, symbolic of what he thinks of her purity. When the yagna’s horse, while travelling all over the world, reaches Valmiki’s ashram, Lava and Kusha tie the horse to a tree, preventing it from going further. When Rama comes to know about the horse’s capture, he reaches Valmiki’s ashram where he sees Sita and learns that Lava and Kusha are his children. Seeing them, Rama becomes grief-stricken and wants them to return to Ayodhya. However, questions about Sita’s “purity” and the legitimacy of Rama’s children still persist in people’s minds. Realizing this, Rama asks Sita to prove her purity before the people of Ayodhya. Tired of repeated trials by a patriarchal society, Sita calls upon the Earth, her mother, to receive her if she has always been loyal to Rama. The ground opens and she vanishes into it, finally laying to rest doubts about her “purity” and the legitimacy of her children. Rama, grief-stricken at Sita’s departure, returns to Ayodhya with his children. Many years later, a messenger from the Gods appears and informs Rama that the mission of his incarnation is over. Rama hands over the kingdom of Ayodhya to his children and returns to his celestial abode along with his brothers.