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Ramayana

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Lord Ram, Laxman, Sita and Hanuman(crouching)

The Ramayana (Sanskrit: march (ayana) of Rama) is part of the Hindu smriti, written by Valmiki (c.3000 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 had an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry, primarily through its establishment of the Sloka meter. But, like its epic cousin, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is not just a grand epic. It contains the teachings of the ancient Hindu sages and presents them through allegory in narrative and the interspersion of philosophic and devotional discourse. The characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana (the enemy of the story) are all fundamental to the grander cultural consciousness of India.

The Ramayana contains seven kandas (chapters or books).

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...."
Contents

Timeline

The Ramayana is set in the Treta Yuga. Many interpret this as 3000 BC (based on astronomical data in the Ramayana). There are some who believe that it is even older.

Synopsis

According to Hindu mythology, Rama is an avatara, an incarnation of Vishnu or God. 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. It has been said that Brahma promised Valmiki, so long as the mountains and seas endure, so long shall the Ramayana be read by men.

Book I: Bala Kanda or The Book of the Youth

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 and instructs Dasaratha to distribute the dessert to his three wives, the Queens Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, in accordance with the status of each. However, there wasn't enough payasam for Sumitra, so Kausalya and Kaikeyi give portions of their dessert to her. As a result, Queen Kausalya gives birth to the oldest son, Rama. Bharatha is born to Queen Kaikeyi and the twins Lakshmana, and Shatrughna are born to Queen Sumitra. When the princes are young boys, the sage Vishwamitra visits King Dasaratha and asks him to send Rama and Lakshmana to protect him from demons who have been disturbing his sacrifice ritual. Reluctantly, King Dasaratha agrees, and Rama and Lakshmana are sent to live with Vishwamitra for the latter's protection. The brothers meet with many an adventure, and the sage trains them in the dharma, or path, of the prince-warrior. As the brothers fulfill their duties, the sage is pleased with them and bestows upon them various heavenly weapons.

Toward the end of their stay with Vishwamitra, they receive an invitation to King Janaka's kingdom of Mithila on the occasion of his daughter Sita'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.

Book II: Ayodhya Kanda or The Book of Ayodhya

After some time, Dasaratha, 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 Dasaratha's three wives, falls under the influence of a malicious servant, Manthra, who awakens Kaikeyi's jealousy toward her co-wife, the mother of Rama. Kaikeyi goes before the king and demands to redeem the two boons he had granted her long ago after she saved his life in war by her expert charioteering. Exploiting this promise, which the helpless Dasaratha is honor-bound to fulfill, she asks for the two boons as follows:

  1. Her own son, Bharata, should be crowned instead of Rama;
  2. Rama should be exiled from the Kingdom for 14 years.

Book III: Aranya Kanda or The Book of the Forest

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.

Book IV: Kishkindha Kanda or The Book of the Empire of Holy Monkeys

Rama searhing for Sita meets Sugriva who has been unjustly dethroned by Bali. Bali had also kidnapped Sugriva's wife. Sugriva's followers include Hanuman and Jambuvanta (wise bear). With Rama's help, Bali is slain and Sugriva is crowned king of Kishkindha and agrees to help Rama in his search for Sita.

Book V: Sundara Kanda or The Book of Sundara (another name of Hanuman)

Sugriva sends his loyal follower Hanuman on a reconnaissance mission to discover the whereabouts of Sita. Hanuman flies to the island of Lanka, finds her, and returns to Rama with the news.

Sundara Kanda not only deals with the Hanuman finding Sita (and subsequently informing Rama, but it has a lot to say about the behaviour of a man in difficult situations. Here, every step of Hanuman teaches us how to overcome our difficulties.

Hanuman, with Rama and Lakshmana head South in search of Sita. On their way, they meet the vulture Jatayu, a devotee of Rama. Jatayu says that his brother Sampati and he, fought Ravana when they found him taking Sita to Lanka. Sampati lost his life and Jatayu lost his wings and was mortally wounded. Jatayu tells them that he saw Ravana heading towards Lanka. He then breathes his last in Rama's lap. The team head further south until they reach the Indian Ocean. However, they are unable to cross. The only person who has the ability to cross is Hanuman. However, due to a curse by rishis, Hanuman cannot remember his own strength unless he is reminded of it. Everyone encourages Hanuman, who finally remembers his strength. He then flies to Lanka to find Sita.

Hanuman finds Sita imprisoned in Ravana's palace garden and assures her that help is on the way. He then proceeds to destroy Ravana's Asoka Grove. Ravana's demon soldiers rush in to capture him, and he then lets himself be captured by them. Viewed as a spy, Hanuman who has killed Ravana's younger son Aksa in battle, is delivered to Ravana for retribution. Impressed with Ravana's charm, nobility, heroism, and splendor, Hanuman notes the fact that Ravana is, however, "devoted to unrighteousness." Similarly struck by Hanuman's "majesty of appearance and strength," Ravana attempts to ascertain the purpose of Hanuman's visit and his reason for laying "Asoka-grove to waste." Proclaiming that he is a messenger for Sugreeva, Hanuman states that he acted in self defense and pleads with Ravana to restore Sita to Rama or to fall victim to Rama's wrath. Furious at hearing Hanuman's words, Ravana orders Hanuman's death.

Vibhisana, Ravana's righteous brother, intervenes at this point and counsels Ravana to follow the scriptures. He reminds him that it is improper to execute a messenger, and instead tells him to exact the appropriate punishment for Hanuman's crime. Ravana appreciates the counsel and acceptes it. He chooses, instead, to order his demons to set fire to Hanuman's tail in an effort to show that such mischief is intolerable. Enduring the punishment, Hanuman seizes the opportunity to observe Lanka during the day in an effort to gather military information for the future. Hanuman is "intrigued" that the fire does not burn or hurt him and concludes that it is Sita's grace and Rama's glory that prevent injury to him. Hanuman frees himself from his bonds, and with his tail ablaze, flies around Lanka, destroying the town. After which, he returns to Rama with news about Sita.

Book VI: Yuddha Kanda or The Book of War

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 water.

Having reached Lanka, Rama is left with the 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.

Book VII: Uttara Kanda or The Book Beyond

The Uttarakanda is the most controversial book, as it contains the story of Rama banishing Sita from Ayodhya, and of his beheading a shudra named Shambuka for performing religious worship not appropriate for his varna. To many, both these actions seem to detract from Rama's reputation as a model of ideal conduct: when he banished Sita in spite of her innocence, merely because the people were gossiping, he is said to have preferred falsehood to truth; and by attacking Shambuka in a state of helplessness (i.e. while he was meditating), Rama violated the Kshatriya code of honour.

Significantly, these episodes are not found in any early version of Rama story. The Mahabharata, the Harivamsha, and the Vayu, Brahmanda, Kurma, Garuda and Vishnu Puranas all give more or less detailed versions of the story, but none of them mention either the banishment of Sita, or the slaying of Shambuka. Some consider the entire Uttara Kanda to be an addition, not written by Valmiki.

Lessons from the Ramayana

Ramayana illustrates

  • Dharma in the form of Rama, who is the personification of this Hindu concept of duty and harmony.
  • 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.

In addition, Ramayana also has the following morals which are not readily apparent

  • Think well before promising something. This is exemplified in the suffering of King Dasaratha which was born out of his promise to Kaikeyi.
  • Keep promises no matter how hard it may be. King Dasaratha kept his promise to Kaikeyi inspite of her demands being very unfair and painful.
  • Willingness to forgive even one's worst offenders, if the offender atones for his/her misdeeds. In Ramayana's context, the offensive deed was done by Ravana in coveting Rama's wife and kidnapping her. Yet Rama had the compassion to forgive Ravana if he simply returned Sita.
  • Violence (war) is the last resort. All through, Rama only asked Ravana to return Sita to him and only when all attempts failed did he resort to war and slay Ravana.

Thus Ramayana has established a code of conduct which is widely considered by Hindus to be the benchmark for posterity.

Literary works inspired by the Ramayana

Valmiki's Ramayana inspired the Sri Ramacharit Manas by Tulasidas, an epic Hindi version with a slant more grounded in a different realm of Hindu literature, that of bhakti. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of India. A similar work was done by Kamban as Kambaramayanam in Tamil. More modern ones include Shri Ramayana Darshanam by Dr.K.V.Puttappa in Kannada and Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu by Viswanatha Satyanarayana in Telugu, both of which have been awarded the Jnanpith Award.

Many other Asian cultures have adapted the Ramayana, resulting in other national epics. These include the Kakawin Ramayana of Java, Indonesia, Ramakien of Thailand, to be witnessed in elaborate illustration at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok, the Ream Ker of Cambodia, and the Pra Lak Pra Lam of Laos.

Historical evidence

Though it is believed that Ramayana is just an epic, there are many who believe that it has a historical basis.

Sugriva's cave of Hampi

Hampi, one of the UNESCO cultural heritage site, is home for natural caves. Amongst the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire, is a cave known as Sugriva's Cave. The cave is marked by coloured markings. The place holds its similiarity to the descriptions of 'kishkinda' in Sundarakanda. Rama is said to have met Hanuman here. The place is also home to the famous Hazararama temple (Temple of a thousand Ramas).

See also

Mahabharata, epic poetry, Golden age, millennialism

External links

Topics in Hinduism
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