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The Ramayana (Sanskrit: vehicle of Rama) is part of the Hindu smriti, written by Valmiki(c.250 BC). This epic of 24,000 verses tells of a Raghuvamsa prince, Rama of Ayodhya, whose wife Sita is abducted by the rakshasa, or demon, Ravana.
The Ramayana contains seven chapters, or kandas.
The Cultural heritage of India, Vol. IV , The Religions, The Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture, says:
“The first and the last Books of the Ramayana are later additions. The bulk, consisting of Books II–VI, represents Rama as an ideal hero. In Books I and VII, however Rama is made an avatara or incarnation of Vishnu, and the epic poem is transformed into a Vaishnava text. The reference to the Greeks, Parthians, and Sakas show that these Books cannot be earlier than the second century B.C….”
According to Hindu mythology, Rama is an avatara, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The main purpose of his incarnation is to demonstrate the ideal human life on earth. Ultimately, Rama slays the rakshasa king Ravana and reestablishes the rule of religious and moral law on earth known in Hinduism as dharma.
When King Dasaratha of Ayodhya performs a Putrakameshti Yajna, the sacrifice for progeny, a divine being, purusha, emerges from the holy fire and offers a pot of payasam milk sweet. Dasharatha distributes the dessert to his three wives, the Queens Kaushalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, in accordance with the status of each, and each wife conceives as a result.
Queen Kaushalya gives birth to the oldest son, Rama. Bharatha, Lakshmana, and Shatrughnaare born half-brothers of Rama to Queens Kaikeyi and Sumitra respectively. When the princes are young boys, the sage Vishwamitra visits King Dasharatha and asks him to send Rama and Lakshmana to protect him from rakshasas while he performs his Yajna, or penance. Though King Dasharatha is reluctant at the beginning, not wanting to earn the wrath of the sage and after consultation with his Raja Guru Vasishta he bids Rama and Lakshmana farewell and asks them to protect Vishwamitra. The brothers meet with a many adventures on their way and the sage trains them in the dharma (path) of the prince-warrior. The brothers fulfill their duty by protecting the sage from Maricha and Subahu, the rakshasas who try to wreak havoc during the penance (also called Yajna) performed by the sage. The sage is pleased with the brothers and bestows upon them various heavenly weapons.
Toward the end of their stay with Vishvamitra, they receive an invitation to King Janaka‘s kingdom of Mithila on the occasion of his daughter’s Swayamvara, in which she will choose her future husband. A competition is held in which princes and heroes from numerous kingdoms vie to display their prowess and win her hand. For many years, the unwieldy divine bow Shiva Dhanush has been idle because no one was strong enough to lift it, and King Janaka challenges the suitors to bend and string it. After all the suitors fail, Rama succeeds in mastering the bow, not only effortlessly bending and stringing it, but also breaking it into two pieces. He wins the hand of Sita, and after a sumptuous wedding attended by the illustrious from both heaven and earth, he returns with her to Ayodhya. Sita is the incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi and, in her worldly form, becomes the ideal helpmate and consort to Rama. Together they live the life after which all persons on earth model their own.
After some time, Dasharatha, feeling his advancing years, decides to abdicate and retire to the forest. He designates his first-born son Rama to succeed him as King of Ayodhya. Astrologers are consulted and a date is set for the coronation. Just before the fateful day, Kaikeyi, one of Dasharatha’s three wives, falls under the influence of a malicious servant who awakens Kaikeyi’s jealousy toward her co-wife, the mother of Rama. Kaikeyi goes before the king and demands to redeem the three boons he had granted her long ago. Exploiting this promise, which the helpless Dasharatha is honor-bound to fulfill, she asks for the three boons as follows:
1) Rama should not be crowned;
2) Her own son, Bharata, should be crowned instead; and
3) Rama should be exiled from the Kingdom for 14 years.
Rama, being an obedient son, leaves for the jungle with Sita and Lakshmana, who in spite of repeated requests, decides to shun the kingdom and follow his older brother devoutly in his time of crisis. Meanwhile, Bharata returns to Ayodhya and, being also devoted to Rama, becomes furious with Kaikeyi for her malicious deeds committed in his absence. He travels to the forest and tries to persuade Rama to return to the kingdom and assume the throne. Rama politely refuses, saying that he is duty-bound to see that his father’s promise is fulfilled. Reluctantly Bharata agrees to return to the kingdom, requesting Rama to present to him his sandals. He formally treats Rama’s sandals as the reigning entity, and ascribes himself as the representative ruler of the rightful king Rama in his absence. Dasharatha meanwhile dies of sorrow from having to be separated from his son.
The demoness Surpanakha, sister of the demon king Ravana, becomes enamored of the handsome Rama and tries to seduce him during his stay in the jungle. Rama, renowned for his practice of Ekapatnivrata, the vow to practice unassailable loyalty to one’s wife, is unresponsive. But Rama’s brother Lakshmana, infuriated by Surpanaka’s act of willful lasciviousness, cuts off her nose. Surpanakha runs home crying to her brother Ravana. To avenge his sister’s loss of nose, Ravana uses the demon Maricha to lure Rama and Lakshmana away, leaving Sita unguarded. At her moment of vulnerability, Ravana abducts Sita in his airborne vehicle, the Pushpaka Vimana.
The disconsolate Rama, with Lakshmana, wanders the forests in search of Sita, and obtains clues to the direction of their flight from the vulture king Jatayu who lies dying after having valiantly fought Ravana. He reaches the Rishyamukha mountain range, and meets theVanara (monkey) king Sugriva. He helps Sugriva kill his violent brother King Vali, and installs him to the throne.
Rama, overjoyed at the news of the welfare of Sita, sends a peacekeeping mission, which Ravana rejects. Rama prepares for war and, ably helped by his Vanara army, builds a bridge across the Palk Strait, somewhere in the area surrounding Rameshwaram in modern dayTamil Nadu. Having reached Lanka, Rama is left with the only choice of slaying Ravana, which he does to get back his wife Sita. Rama, in an act which is often debated for the ethical aspects, asks Sita to prove her celibacy through a test by fire. Sita passes the test successfully and is reunited with Rama. Rama, having finished the fourteen years in exile, gets back to Ayodhya and assumes the throne from Bharata and rules his kingdom with rigor and ensures justice for all his subjects. This period is often called Ram Rajya (The reign of Rama), a phrase often used in modern Indian society, as a metaphor for the ideal rule of law.
an ideal son, an ideal king and ideal husband through Rama.
an ideal wife through Sita.
an ideal brother through Lakshmana and Bharata (another half-brother of Rama).
an ideal unassuming and loving devotee through Hanuman
The dangers of lust and ego as seen in Ravana
Thus Ramayana has established a code of conduct which is widely considered by Hindus to be the benchmark for posterity.
Ramayana inspired the Sri Ramacharit Manas by Tulasidas. In fact, the Ramcharitmanas is an epic devotional poem much alike in grandeur to Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic literary poem whose basis lies in the Ramayana but in fact goes into a different realm of classic,Hindu bhakti literature. In it, Tulsidas brings to life stories of the Ramayana and creates verse that is designed, through retellings and personal understandings of the poet, to laud the majesty of Rama. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of India.
More on Hinduism
Texts: Ramayana | Mahabharata