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 fifteenth century Bengali poet Krittibas Ojha, known as the Krittivasi Ramayan; the sixteenth century Hindi poet Tulsidas, Tamil poet Kambar of the 13th century, Molla ramayanam in Telugu and the 14th century Kannada poet Narahari Kavi's Torave Ramayan. The Ramayana became popular in Southeast Asia during the 8th century and was represented in literature, temple architecture, dance and theater.
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 - Raama, Lakshmana, Shathrugna, and Bharata - are born to them. The princes grow up as princes everywhere. Raama, being the eldest, is naturally being groomed as the future king. All the brothers are close-knit, with LakshmanaVishwaamitra, one of the legendary seven sages of Hindu mythology, trains them in the art of firing missiles - 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. forming the closest bond with his elder brother, a bond that'll last for the rest of his life. Together, they are schooled in archery.
Vishwaamitra leads Raama and Lakshmana to Mythila, the capital city of the kingdom of VidehaJanaka. Janaka's daughter Seetha (also called Jaanaki, Vaidehi, Mythili) is to wed, and the king is holding a contest to select the best prince for his daughter. Naturally, Raama wins the contest and returns home to Ayodhya with his new bride. ruled by
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 Bharatha be the next king, and 2) Raama 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 Raama told to prepare to leave for the forest. At first, Raama decides that he'll go to the forest alone. But Seetha and Lakshmana will have none of it and convince Raama that, for them, "Ayodhya is wherever Raama is".
The king goes into grief when the three leave for the forest, and dies soon afterwards. All this while, Bharatha and Shatrughna have been away from the kingdom. They are summoned upon their father's death, and when they arrive, understand what happened. Bharatha is aghast at his mother's greed (ostensibly for his good), and promises the kingdom and he'll restore Raama 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 Bharatha to take Raama'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 Raama. Raama 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 takes revenge. She describes the beauty of Seetha to her brother, Raavana, the demon king of Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka). Raavana decides that he must possess Seetha, and has one of his brothers take the form of a deer to attract Seetha's attention. Seetha sends out Raama to capture the deer for her as a pet. The deer leads Raama far away from their cottage, and when Raama realizes that this is no ordinary deer, he kills the deer. The dying demon shouts Seetha's and Lakshmana's names in Raama's voice, causing Seetha 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. [This is one of the places where the epic demonstrates the then prevailing male chauvinism, but is also inconsistent in its claim that Raama knew he was divine, since this is one occasion where one would expect Raama to use his divinity to know that she had been faithful to him and spare Seetha any humiliation.]
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. The male chauvinist in him is still there - 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
- Ayodhya Kanda – Book of Ayodhya (life as a young price)
- Aranya Kanda – Book of the Forest (life 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 and Raavana's armies)
- Uttara Kanda – Book of the Afterword (Raama's life after returning to Ayodhya)
There have been speculations on whether the first and the last chapters of Valmiki's Ramayan 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. 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.