The Ramayana (pronounced approximately as Raa-MEYE-a-na) is somewhat reminiscent of the Odyssey while the Mahabharata is somewhat reminiscent of the Iliad. Composed around the the same time as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is written in 24,000 couplets. It is essentially a story of love and banishment. The symbolism of the story has been interpreted a number of ways but is widely seen as a story of good overcoming evil, with dharma or duty. [Source: BBC]
The Valmiki or Sanskrit Ramayana contains nearly 50,000 lines of verse. It is much longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The narrative is broken up into seven books.
There are numerous translations of the Ramayana available in English. One popular, but extremely condensed, version — based on the Tamil of Kamban — is by R. K. Narayan (Penguin Books); in India, just as popular is the version, also in prose but longer, by C. Rajagopalachari (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan). Another easily available abridged version in verse is by William Buck. The most scholarly, and complete, English translation of the Ramayana, is the multi-volume version by Robert Goldman, Sheldon Pollock, and others, published by Princeton
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) iep.utm.edu/adv-veda ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs ; Hindu Texts: Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org
History of the Ramayana
The Ramayana has been performed throughout India and Southeast Asia for at least 2000 years. The earliest written text dates back to 400 AD, and was written by the poet Valmiki who brought together stories, songs and prayers connected to Rama and Sita.
Vinay Lal, a professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “The Ramayana belongs to a class of literature known in Sanskrit as kavya (poetry), though in the West it is considered to belong to the category of literature familiar to readers of Homer, namely the epic. It is one of two epics, the other being the Mahabharata, which have had a decisive influence in shaping the nature of Indian civilization. The Ramayana existed in the oral tradition perhaps as far back as 1,500 B.C., but the fourth century B.C. is generally accepted as the date of its composition in Sanskrit by Valmiki. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA, Asia Society +++]
“Though some right-wing ideologues in recent years, eager that the Ramayana should have the same kind of historicity attached to it as do the scriptures of Christianity and the Koran, have sought to date the Ramayana back to at least 6,000 years and even furnish an exact date for its composition, it by no means diminishes the importance of the text to suggest that the historicity of the Ramayana is the least interesting of the questions that can be raised about it and its characters. Whether in fact its hero Rama, who in Hindu mythology is an avatar of Vishnu but a principal deity in his own right, and who is also worshipped in parts of north India as a king, existed or not is scarcely of any importance. The other kind of excess is to view him merely as a trope — as a sign of patriarchy, for example, or as an insignia of valiant and militant kshatriyahood, which is what the present generation of Hindutvavadis have turned him into.” +++
According to the British Museum: “The epic's origins are in India and Hinduism, but over the centuries the story has crossed seas and mountains, languages and religions, performance styles and art forms. There are Muslim versions in Java, and Buddhist versions in Thailand. The story exists as shadow plays in Indonesia, temple carvings in Cambodia, dances, plays and ritual enactments throughout India. The text lives in books made of ola leaf in Sri Lanka and on painted boxes in North India. One of the phenomenons of this epic is its migration around the world, which has led to multiple versions and tellings, each storyteller re-composing the story for each audience. Ramayana is still a living performance tradition today.” [Source: British Library]
History Background of the Ramayana
According to scholars, the entire Ramayana is not the product of one hand. Their investigations have demonstrated that apart from minor interpolations in other portions, the first and seventh books were definitively added afterwards. For here occur statements in conflict with those in later books and Rama is transformed into an incarnation of the universal god Vi§nu, whereas in the original poem (II- VI) he is merely a human hero. This process of deification must have taken some time, and it may even be that the genuine and spurious parts are divided by centuries. Now, to what period are we to assign the epic kernel itself? There can be no doubt from the insertion of the Kamopdkhydna in the third book of the Mahabharata that “the poem of Valmiki must have been generally known as an old work before the Mahabharata assumed a coherent form.” Besides, it is significant that the Ramayana does not refer to Pataliputra, founded by Udayin; the capital of KoSala is still called Ayodhya, and not Saketa, which was its name in Buddhist and other later works. Buddha is mentioned only once, and that too perhaps in an interpolated verse, and the political conditions indicate the paternal rule of kings, exercising sway over small states. A consideration of all these and other points has led Dr. Macdonell to suppose that “the kernel of the Rdmayapa was composed before 500 B.C., while the more recent portions were probably not added till the 2nd century B.C. and later.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
The approximate determination of the date of the Ramayana does not, however, solve the difficulty of the chronological setting of its heroes. This problem, of course, does not disturb the average Hindu. To him, Rama is a divine figure, who lived “once upon a time,” and the account of his deeds is a source of inspiration as well as a mine of absolute historical facts. But the critical reasoning of the historian is unable to find much useful information of the latter class. Indeed, some scholars even doubt if the narrative contains any history at all. For instance, Lassen and Weber take the Ramayana to represent allegorically “the first attempt” of the Aryans to conquer the non-Aryan South, and spread their culture there. Macdonell and Jacobi, on the other hand, believe that it is a fanciful creation based on Indian mythology.
According to this interpretation, Sita is the personification of the furrowgoddess; Rama stands for Indra; and his conflict with Ravana may be traced to the old Indra-Vritra myth of the Rigveda. Without labouring the point further, it amply illustrates how the story of the Kamayana offers a fruitful ground for speculation. There is no doubt that it is thickly interwoven with mythological fiction, but to discredit the historicity of Rama altogether appears too wide an assumption. He is mentioned in the Buddhist DaJaratba Jataka, where we see him in his normal form divested of divine attributes. It is also known that Kosala was an important kingdom in Madhyadeta ever since Aryan expansion eastwards. What, therefore, may be taken as the nucleus of fact is that Rama was a real person, who belonged to the royal Iksvaku house of Ayodhya, and whose achievements both in war and peace left a deep impression upon the popular imagination. The epoch of Rama’s beneficent rule is, however, as uncertain as the contemporary political condition of Northern or Southern India.
The Ramayana is one of India and Southeast Asia's best known and most loved tales. Essentially a tale of love and banishment, it tells the story of Prince Rama who was sent into exile in the forest with his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshamana. Sita is abducted by the evil demon Ravana but ultimately rescued by Prince Rama with the help of the Monkey God, Hanuman.
The Valmiki or Sanskrit Ramayana is broken up into seven books, as follows: 1) Bala-kanda: the boyhood and adolescence of Rama; 2) Ayodhya-kanda: the court of Dasaratha, and the scenes that set the stage for the unfolding of the story, including the exchange between Dasaratha and Kaikeyi, and the exile of Rama; 3) Aranya-kanda: life in the forest and the abduction of Sita by Ravana; 4) Kishkindhya-kanda: Rama’s residence in Kishkindhya, the quest for Sita, and the slaying of Bali;
5) Sundara-kanda: description of the landscapes over which Rama roams, and the arrival of Rama and his allies in Lanka; sundara means beautiful, and this portion of the book has passages of lyrical beauty; 6) Yuddha-kanda, also known as the Lanka-kanda: the book of war: the defeat of Ravana, the recovery of Sita, the return to Ayodhya, and the coronation of Rama; and 7) Uttara-kanda: the "later section", detailing Rama’s life in Ayodhya, the banishment of Sita, the birth of Lava and Kusa, the reconciliation of Rama and Sita, her death or return to the earth, and Rama’s ascent into heaven. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA, Asia Society]
Variations of the Ramayana
Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA wrote: “The main frame of the story of the Ramayana is exceedingly well-known in India, imbibed by every Indian with, so to speak, mother’s milk....It is important to recognize that there is not one Ramayana in India. Indeed, the original composition in Sanskrit by Valmiki is seldom read these days, and the most common Ramayanas are in the ‘vernacular’ Indian languages. In south India, for instance, the Ramayana of Kamban, written in Tamil in the eleventh century, prevails; in north India, the Ramayana of Tulsidas, called the Ramacaritmanas, has become legendary. Even among the Hindus living in far-flung places of the Indian diaspora, such as Fiji and Trinidad, the Ramacaritmanas is the devotional text of Hinduism par excellence. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA, Asia Society +++]
“There are Ramayanas in virtually all the major Indian languages, and a few dozen translations, mainly abridged, and "transcreations" in English. In the Bengali version of the story, Ravana is turned into the hero; and this narrative was again taken up by the nineteenth century Bengali writer, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), whose own epic retelling of the Ramayana portrays Rama as a weak and effeminate figure representing an earlier stage of political naivete and parochialism. It is no surprise that one American scholar, Paula Richman, has written of the "many Ramayanas" in a book by the same title.” +++
Beginning of the Ramayana
Ramayana is essentially a story of love and banishment. It begins with the gods awakening Vishnu from a deep cosmic sleep and urging him to go to earth to rid the world of Ravana, who through a promise by Brahma can not be defeated by gods and must be defeated by a man. Vishnu descends to earth as the man Rama and woos and wins Sita. Rama is given Sita's hand in marriage by the king because he is able to pull Shiva's bow.
Rama is the eldest of Dasharatha, King of Koysala, with Aydohya as its capital. The king has three wives and four sons. Rama’s mother is Kaushalya. Bharata is the son of his second and favorite wife, Queen Kaikeyi. The other two are twins, Lakshman and Shatrughna. [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website ~]
Sita, renowned for her beauty and matchless virtue, is the daughter of a ruler in a neighboring city. When it was time for Sita to choose her bridegroom, at a ceremony called a swayamvara, the princes were asked to string a giant bow. No one else can even lift the bow, but as Rama bends it, he not only strings it but breaks it in two. Sita indicates she has chosen Rama as her husband by putting a garland around his neck. ~
Later Dasharatha decides it is time to give his throne to Rama and retire to the forest to seek moksha. Everyone seems pleased. This plan fulfills the rules of dharma because an eldest son should rule and, if a son can take over one's responsibilities, one's last years may be spent in a search for moksha. In addition, everyone loves Rama. However Rama's step-mother, the king's second wife, is not pleased. She wants her son, Bharata, to rule. Because of an oath Dasharatha had made to her years before, she gets the king to agree to banish Rama for fourteen years and to crown Bharata, even though the king, on bended knee, begs her not to demand such things. Broken-hearted, the devastated king cannot face Rama with the news and Kaikeyi must tell him. Bharatha becomes king even though he is not a party to the plot, and is devoted to his elder brother Rama. ~
Rama and Sita in the Forest
Rama, always obedient, dutifully agrees to his banishment. Sita convinces Rama that she belongs at his side. His brother Lakshmana, who is one of two sons of Dasaratha’s third queen, Sumithra, also begs to go along. Rama then proceeds to the forest, accompanied by Lakshmana and the uncomplaining Sita.
While in the forest the two men live like ascetics, with no complaints from Sita, and have many adventures. Rama and Lakshman destroy the rakshasas (evil creatures) who disturb the sages in their meditations. In one episode a rakshasa kidnaps Sita. Just as it is about to devour her Rama and Laksama rescue her and slay the demon.
Bharata, whose mother's evil plot has won him the throne, is very upset when he finds out what has happened. Not for a moment does he consider breaking the rules of dharma and becoming king in Rama's place. He goes to Rama's forest retreat and begs Rama to return and rule, but Rama refuses. "We must obey father," Rama says. Bharata then takes Rama's sandals saying, "I will put these on the throne, and every day I shall place the fruits of my work at the feet on my Lord." Embracing Rama, he takes the sandals and returns to Aydohya. [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website]
Years pass and Rama, Sita and Lakshman are very happy in the forest. They have more adventures. One day a rakshasa princess tries to seduce Rama, and Lakshmana wounds her and drives her away. She returns to her brother Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka, and tells her brother — who has a weakness for beautiful women — about lovely Sita.
Sita's Abducted by Ravana
The evil Ravana, King of the Demons, who had 10 heads and 20 arms, spied beautiful wife Sita in the forest and fell in love with her instantly. Ravana is entranced by Sita's beauty and angry at Rama because he rejected Ravana’ sister, who had fallen in love with him. Ravana conspires to abduct Sita with the help of Marica, who disguises himself as a golden deer to lure Rama and Laksmana away from Sita.
While Rama and his brother are distracted, Ravana arranged for his servant Maricha to disguise himself as a golden deer and tempt Rama and Lakshman away from Sita. Lakshman drew a circle in the dust around Sita to protect her and told her not to step out of the circle. But Ravana cleverly disguised himself as an old beggar man, and begged Sita for food and drink. Sita took pity on him and stepped out of the circle. The beggar man turned back into Ravana, catching Sita in his arms and pulling her into his magic flying chariot. Sita cried for help and a fierce bird Jatayu attacked Ravana in an effort to stop him. But Ravana cut off the bird's wings with his sword. Sita threw her necklace to the ground, in the hope that Rama would save her. [Source: British Library]
Rama is broken-hearted when he returns to the empty hut and cannot find Sita. A band of monkeys offer to help him find Sita. Ravana in the meantime has taken Sita back to the Golden City of Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka). Ravana tries to force Sita to be his wife. In one version of the story he puts her in a grove and alternately sweet-talks her and threatens her in an attempt to get her to agree to marry him. Sita will not even look at him but thinks only of her beloved Rama. In another version of the story Sita is kept captive in Ravana's castle. The demon threatens Sita with torture unless she marries him. In the meantime Rama and Laksmana go through a series of adventures and battles trying to rescue Sita. They are helped by Hanuman, who discovers where Sita is kept. [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website]
Hanuman Flies to Lanka to Rescue Sita
In his efforts to find Sita, whose whereabouts was not known, Rama is helped by Hanuman, the monkey god and general of a monkey army. In Indian literature and mythology, there is no greater example of devotion than Hanuman. Hanuman can fly since his father is the wind god Vyu. Hanuman had his father's energy and swiftness, power and strength. When Hanuman was a child he thought the sun was a ripe fruit and tried to jump up and catch it. He jumped so high that he nearly got burnt, but the Sun was impressed and gave Hanuman the gift of immortality as a reward for his courage and cleverness. [Sources: British Library, Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA, Asia Society, Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website]
Rama gave Hanuman his ring, to give to Sita. Monkeys and bears decided that since Hanuman was the son of the wind god and he was good at jumping and flying he must leap to Lanka to look for Sita. Hanuman prayed to his father and flew to Lanka, leaping over the ocean and escaping from several devouring demons that he met on the way. Hanuman's leap has been the subject of many paintings. One famous one shows him jumping through the jaws of Surasa, a sea monster, on his way to Lanka.
Having shrunk to the size of a mouse, Hanuman ran through Lanka, looking for Sita. He found her held captive in an ashok grove near Ravana's palace. She was guarded by hideous demonesses and harassed by Ravana, who wanted her to forget Rama, and marry him instead. She was sitting under a tree crying. Meanwhile Hanuman climbed the tree, dropped Rama's ring into her lap, and told her Rama will come and save her. [Source: British Library]
But demons caught Hanuman, squeezing him tight, and carrying him to Ravana. Ravana and the Demons decided to set fire to Hanuman's tail. They wrapped his tail in strips of cotton and soaked the cotton in oil. As the Demons began to to prepare Hanuman's tail, Hanuman cast a magic spell, making his tail grow longer and longer and longer (the subject of many paintings). The demons soon ran out of cotton and oil. They set light to his tail anyway. But Hanuman shrank back to the size of a mouse, and so his tail shrinks too. In this way he managed to escape, setting Ravana's throne alight in the process, and leaving a trail of flames throughout Lanka. Once free Hanuman dipped his tail into the sea, and leapt back to Rama, Lakshman, and the bears and tells Rama where Sita is. [Ibid]
Battle Between Ravana and Rama and Hanuman’s Army
When Rama could not get to the island of Lanka he sought the help of Hanuman, rallied his monkey army to cast stones into the sea and form a bridge to Lanka. Tiny palm squirrels helped by carrying pebbles to the waters edge and Rama, touched by their efforts, stroked one, marking it with the stripes – hence giving the five-striped palm squirrels their name. Rama crossed the bridge with the monkey army following him to do battle with Ravana’s demon army. A mighty battle ensues. Rama kills several of Ravana's brothers and then Rama confronts ten-headed Ravana, who is know for his cleverness.
The battle — pitting Rama, and the armies of Hanuman and Surgriva against Ravana and the demons — is the central event of the Ramayana. It begins after Hanuman sets fire to Ravana's city and continues through a long series of offensives, counterattacks and battles. Ravana's forces fire arrows that turn into serpents and wind around their victims necks like nooses.
All looks doomed when Indrajit — a prince of Lanka and a conqueror of Indra Loka (heaven) — almost kills Laksmana and the armies of Sugriva are on the verge of defeat. At this point Hanuman travels off to the Himalayas and brings back some magic herbs. In some version on the story Indrajit kills Rama and Laksmana and the magic herb is sought to bring them back to life.
Hanuman Flies to the Himalayas to Get Magic Medicine
During the battle between Ravana's demon army and Rama's animal army, Lakshman was so badly wounded it seemed that he would die before sun-rise. (In some versions of the story, many monkeys and bears are wounded too.) The monkeys and bears decided that Hanuman must leap to the Himalayas and bring back the healing herb from the Medicine Mountain to save Lakshman's life. So Hanuman leapt over the ocean, and across the whole of India to the Himalayas. [Source: British Library]
Arriving in the Himalayas, it took a long time to find the fabled Medicine Mountain. Hanuman found it at last -covered with herbs, but he didn't know which was the magic healing herb. So he wrapped his arms around the whole mountain, pulled it out of the ground and lifted it onto the palms of his hand. He then flew with the mountain back to Lanka. On the way the sun began to rise. So Hanuman decided to capture the sun under his arm so that he could arrive back before sunrise in time to save Lakshman. The healing herb was picked and given to Lakshman. Lakshman was healed and filled with energy.
With Laksama back from near death, he and Rama revive the armies of Sugriva. In a pair of duels Laksmana manages to kill Indrajit and Rama kills Ravana with an arrow. Eventually, all of Ravana’s kin, and his entire force is defeated by Rama and his military allies. In triumph Rama returns to Ayodhya with Lakshmana and Sita and is crowned king.
Sita's Fire Test and the End of the Ramayana
Rama was reunited with Sita after 14 years but was suddenly unable to trust her, suspecting her of infidelity. He believed that she has betrayed him with Ravana. In order to set a good example and waylay his own fears, Rama demanded that Sita prove her purity before he could take her back as his wife.
Outraged and protesting her innocence, Sita told Lakshmana to build a fire that would burn her if she had done anything wrong. Rama forced his brother to build the fire. Sita leaps into the flames. The flames crackled and burned but refused to burn her. Sita walked through the flames, unharmed. As she walked the flames turned to flowers. Afterwards Rama begged for forgiveness. [Source: British Library]
Rama, Sita and their loyal followers then traveled home, to the Kingdom of Ayodhya in northern India. The band set off and crossed the bridge. When they got to the other side, the bridge dropped down under the sea, leaving only a trail of rocks jutting out in the sea towards Lanka (the chain of shoals known today as Adam’s Bridge). The band walked across India and on the way, people came out of their houses and placed little lamps on their doorsteps to light their way. Following these lamps, the band was able to find their way home. This journey is celebrated today with the Festival of Lights – Divali – where people place lights in their windows to welcome Sita/Lakshmi, wealth and prosperity, into their homes.
Some versions of the epic ends with Rama banishing innocent Sita to appease his subjects. By the time Rama realizes that she has been faithful it is too late: she has been swallowed up by the earth. The self-sacrificing Sita is regarded as model for the dutiful wife. Some versions of the story have a “happier” ending, with Rama realizing that she has been true when she throws herself in a fire, proving she had in indeed been true. According to these versions, after Sita proves here purity, she and Rama return to Ayodhya and Rama becomes king. His rule, Ram-rajya, is an ideal time when everyone does his or her dharma and "fathers never have to light the funeral pyres for their sons." Mahatma Gandhi dreamed that one day modern India would become a Ram-rajya. [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website]
Virtuous Rama, Sita and Bharata
Rama, Sita and Bharata are all examples of people following their dharma. Jean Johnson of New York University wrote: “The hero, Rama, lived his whole life by the rules of dharma; in fact, that was why Indian consider him heroic. When Rama was a young boy, he was the perfect son. Later he was an ideal husband to his faithful wife, Sita, and a responsible ruler of Aydohya. "Be as Rama," young Indians have been taught for 2,000 years; "Be as Sita." [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website \=/]
“Prince Rama was the eldest of four sons and was to become king when his father retired from ruling. His stepmother, however, wanted to see her son Bharata, Rama's younger brother, become king. Remembering that the king had once promised to grant her any two wishes she desired, she demanded that Rama be banished and Bharata be crowned. The king had to keep his word to his wife and ordered Rama's banishment. Rama accepted the decree unquestioningly. "I gladly obey father's command," he said to his stepmother. "Why, I would go even if you ordered it." \=/
“When Sita, Rama's wife, heard Rama was to be banished, she begged to accompany him to his forest retreat. "As shadow to substance, so wife to husband," she reminded Rama. "Is not the wife's dharma to be at her husband's side? Let me walk ahead of you so that I may smooth the path for your feet," she pleaded. Rama agreed, and Rama, Sita and his brother Lakshmana all went to the forest. \=/
“When Bharata learned what his mother had done, he sought Rama in the forest. "The eldest must rule," he reminded Rama. "Please come back and claim your rightful place as king." Rama refused to go against his father's command, so Bharata took his brother's sandals and said, "I shall place these sandals on the throne as symbols of your authority. I shall rule only as regent in your place, and each day I shall put my offerings at the feet of my Lord. When the fourteen years of banishment are over, I shall joyously return the kingdom to you." Rama was very impressed with Bharata's selflessness. As Bharata left, Rama said to him, "I should have known that you would renounce gladly what most men work lifetimes to learn to give up."” \=/
Vinay Lal, a professor of history at UCLA wrote: “Ravana appears in the Ramayana as the demon-king of Lanka and the principal antagonist of Rama. In all versions of the Ramayana, he is vanquished and killed by Rama in a ferocious battle where both are compelled to call upon all the resources at their command, including the most awesome weapons. Thus is Sita, who had been abducted by Ravana, restored to her husband. If Rama stands forth as a shining example of the virtuous ruler, Ravana is, in the common imagination, the very sign of evil. In Hindi, for instance, a man who behaves wickedly is described as behaving like Ravana, and the effigies of Ravana that are burnt at Dusshera mark the triumph of good over evil. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA +++]
“There are Indian traditions, however, where Ravana is not only vindicated as a figure of immense moral and physical strength, but where he appears as the chief protagonist of the Ramayana. His immense penance, learning, and devotion to Brahma earned him the latter’s gratitude. Brahma conferred on Ravana the boon of near invulnerability, making him immune from destruction by gods or (other) demons; he also acquired the capacity to change his form, and in the Ramayana he is described as having ten heads and twenty arms. He was endowed with the strength of moving the seas and splitting the tops of mountains. Ravana’s body bore all the marks of one who had fought the devas: the thunderbolt of Indra, the tusks of Indra’s elephant Airavata, and the discus of Vishnu had all scarred him. +++
“If Ravana had a fatal flaw, it was doubtless his hubris. When Brahma conferred on him a boon, and Ravana asked that the devas should be unable to inflict harm on him, he did not think it worthwhile to ask for protection from men or animals. Consequently, Vishnu had to incarnate himself as a human being, Rama, and it is an army of monkeys, led by Hanuman, which assists Rama in liberating Sita from Ravana’s clutches and vanquishing him. Ravana’s hubris extends so far that at first he refuses to take Rama seriously, since he thinks that the idea that any human being could pose a threat to him is utterly contemptible. When Rama and Ravana meet in battle, it is characteristic of Ravana that he flaunts his prowess, and speaks arrogantly of crushing Rama to bits; Rama, meanwhile, simply goes about his task. When Rama sends his final weapon, the "Brahmasthra", hurtling towards Ravana, he aims it at his heart. Though Ravana had sought invincibility, and could replace his head or arms with another set, he had not thought of safeguarding his heart. Perhaps in recognition of the fact that he had nearly met his match, or that Ravana was a Brahmin by birth, well-versed in the Vedas and prolific in his knowledge of Sanskrit, Rama ordered that the funeral arrangements for Ravana be those befitting his grandeur. +++
“No one who has read the Ramayana can have failed to wonder why Ravana, who lusted after Sita and kept her in captivity for years, did not violate her. He repeatedly urged her to become his wife, and on more than one occasion threatened to put an end to her life; but she was just as persisting in refusing his advances. Devout readers are prone to the interpretation that Sita’s purity made her inviolable. Yet Ravana had the advantage of strength, and she was his captive. The Ramayana itself suggests a number of other readings. It is said that one of Ravana’s wives dissuaded him from violating Sita. Ravana is himself said to have been incapacitated by a curse to the effect that if he made any attempt to molest her, he would be reduced to ashes. And it is even possible to argue that, having kidnapped her, Ravana wished to have Sita for himself only if she gave her consent; to do otherwise was to abandon the badge of honor that he, the mightiest of the asuras or demons, carried. What is remarkable is his extraordinary discipline and tapasya: right beside him, subject to his overwhelming power, was a woman for whom he had a burning desire, and yet he restrained himself. Would being burnt to ashes have been so high a price to pay for so unimaginable a good? +++
“Certainly some interpreters, such as the nineteenth-century Bengali writer, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), have been inclined to the view that Ravana displayed the qualities of masculinity, honor, consistency, reliability, and justice to a greater extent than did Rama. How could Rama, a hero of an earlier, pastoral, village republic commend himself to the attention of moderns, and what was so particularly noble about a hero who, having allowed himself to be exiled, showed himself incapable of protecting his own wife? If the welfare of the nation had been entrusted in the past to inept and feminine leaders like Rama, and these supposed heroes were still held up for emulation, was it any surprise that India had come under British rule? Though the character of Ravana may seem like a closed book, there is sufficient plurality in Indian traditions that even Ravana is capable of some recuperation.” +++
Contradictions, Flaws and Variant Endings of The Ramayana
The Ramayana tells about life in India around 1000 B.C. and offers models in dharma. Professor Lal wrote: “Though the main story of the Ramayana may appear to be without much complexity, the epic presents numerous problems of interpretation, as has already been suggested. True, Rama appears in popular Indian representations (especially in the north) as the very model of the monogamous husband and just and good king; similarly, Sita has been seen as the supreme model of the virtuous, self-sacrificing, and obedient wife, the supreme embodiment of femininity as much as womanhood. But even a superficial reading of the Ramayana puts this interpretation at some risk. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA, Asia Society +++]
“One problem is that the Ramayana appears in many versions, and the variant endings illustrate the nature of the diverse readings. In the commonly accepted version of the story, after Rama had rescued Sita and brought her back to Ayodhya, numerous rumors arose about the questionable fidelity of Sita that had the effect of unsettling Rama. Though Rama realized that his wife was the very paragon of virtue untainted, and that she would not have submitted to the sexual advances of Ravana, in whose captivity she had remained for many years, some doubts began to creep into his own mind; besides, as a king, it was his duty to put to rest the anxieties expressed by his subjects. Consequently, he subjected Sita to a public test: if she could emerge from the flames of the fire unscathed, that would be the touchstone of her unimpeachable moral character. Sita passes the test (agnipariksha) with flying colors, and henceforth takes her place besides Rama, and together they preside over Ayodhya. +++
“In a variant ending, Sita is sent to pass the rest of her life at the hermitage of Valmiki, where she gives birth to the twins Lava and Kusa; and eventually, pleading with the earth, from which she is descended, to be her witness, Sita [the word means "furrow"] returns to the earth from where she had come forth. This can be seen as a reprimand to Rama, as a reaffirmation of the feminine principle against the masculinity of realpolitik. One recent and moving reinterpretation of the Ramayana by Ramachandra Gandhi suggests that the portion about the agnipariksha is not part of the story as it appeared in the oral tradition, being added at the instance of patriarchal men who came to exercise increasing influence in Indian society. +++
"Even the character of Rama is not without its blemishes [see Rama]. Contrariwise, even Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas, which is the most patriarchal of the widely read versions, recognizes that Ravana was not without certain admirable qualities. Indeed, the tales about the Ramayana suggest a wonderful self-reflexivity. When Rama agrees to go into exile, he attempts to dissuade Sita from following him; she is advised that as a princess, accustomed to all the luxuries that life has to offer, the hardships of a meager and hard existence in the forest are not for her. But, as a Hindu wife, Sita suggests that she will willingly share her husband’s life, and that at this critical moment she cannot abandon him. The Indian writer Ananthamurthy has written about one version of the Ramayana, where Rama pleads with Sita to remain behind in Ayodhya; finally, exasperated by his presumption that women must not undergo the hardships of life, Sita says to Rama: "If in all other Ramayanas I accompany you, how can I not do so in this Ramayana." +++
Hanuman’s Bridge Disrupted by Dredging?
April 2007, Hindu groups launched an international campaign to halt India’s plans to create a shipping channel by dredging the sea between the shoals between India and Sri Lanka said to have been created Hanuman in The Ramayana. R. Gledhill and J. Page wrote in The Times of London, “They say that the project will destroy an ancient chain of shoals known as Adam’s Bridge, believed to have been built by the army of monkeys to allow Lord Rama to cross to Lanka to rescue his abducted wife. They are also protesting on environmental grounds, arguing that the 30-mile string of limestone shoals, known as Ram Sethu, protected large parts of India from the 2004 tsunami. [Source: R. Gledhill & J. Page, The Times of London, April 5, 2007]
“The bridge is as holy to Hindus as the Wailing Wall is to the Jews, the Vatican to Catholics, Bodh Gaya to Buddhists and Mecca to Muslims,” said Kusum Vyas, president and founder of Esha Vasyam, a US Hindu environmental lobbying group. “It is an unacceptable breach of the religious rights of over one billion Hindus to destroy such a sacred landmark without even consulting us.” The £280 million Sethusa-mudram project has been mired in controversy ever since it was inaugurated by Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, in July 2005. The Government says that the 167 km (104 mile) channel through the Palk Strait will cut an estimated 400 km (and 30 hours) off the journey between the east and west coast of India. The fastest current route is around Sri Lanka.
“It argues that Adam’s Bridge is a natural geological formation and that its plans to dredge to a depth of 12 metres will not cause serious environmental damage. It also says that the plan will benefit millions of people in the area by allowing the development of a commercial fishing industry. The project is due to be completed next year, by which time an estimated 48 million cubic metres of silt will have been removed from the Palk Strait. However, Hindu leaders appear determined to thwart those plans. In a rare show of unity, they are urging Hindus across the world to protest to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, to the Indian Minister for Shipping and to Indian embassies in Britain and the US. They are also planning protest marches near the site as well as demonstrations around the world.
Ranbir Singh, the chairman of Hindu Human Rights, said: “The Government of India is entitled to take care of the country’s trade and commercial interests, but not at the cost of destroying a site that is revered by one billion Hindus in the world.” Central to the controversy is the question of whether Adam’s Bridge is man-made or a natural formation. The bridge is believed by some to have been passable on foot as recently as the 15th century. According to the epic poem the Ramayana, it was built about 3,500 years ago. Its purpose was to allow Lord Rama, one of the great kings of ancient India and an avatar of Vishnu, to travel from India to Sri Lanka, where he defeated the demonic tyrant Ravana and rescued his wife, Sita.
“In 2002, Hindu nationalists cited NASA satellite photographs of the shoals as evidence that the events described in the Ramayana really took place, although NASA has distanced itself from those claims. This month a panel of Indian scientists concluded that the bridge was “a geological formation, which took place about 17 million years ago”. They could not, however, explain a mysterious series of accidents which have stalled work. First, the dredging vessel ‘Duck’ sank. It was replaced by the Dredging Corporation of India’s biggest dredging vessel, but its spud broke. Another ship was then sent to retrieve the spud, but its crane snapped and crashed into the sea. At least one Hindu leader has suggested that the bridge is being protected by Lord Hanuman, the monkey god.”
In September 2007, dredging at Adam’s Bridge was suspended for “administrative reasons”. The Hindu reported: “Dredging work under the ongoing Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) has been suspended on the southern side of Adam’s Bridge in the Palk Strait.
Citing administrative reasons, dredgers deployed at the bridge were temporarily withdrawn. The southern part of the Adam’s Bridge is the area of contention, where a portion of the proposed alignment of the SSCP is located. The apprehension in some quarters is that the alignment will hit the ‘Ramar Sethu’ if dredging is undertaken. Union Minister for Shipping T.R. Baalu inaugurated the dredging work at the bridge on December 12, 2006. A few months ago, Aquarius, the Netherlands-made cutter suction dredger of the Dredging Corporation of India (DCI) was sent for repair to Cochin Shipyard after its spud broke during dredging. Following this, the DCI engaged three dredgers. Among them, Dredger-XVI, a trailer suction hopper of DCI, was sent to Chennai Port for periodic maintenance. It has still not returned to the dredging site...According to an official, there is no dredger in the Adam’s Bridge area at the moment. [Source: The Hindu, September 19, 2007]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2020