The Ramayana (Sanskrit: Vehicle of Rama) is part of the Hindu Smriti, written by Valmiki (c.250 BC). The epic tells of a Raghuvamsa prince, Rama of Ayodhya, whose wife, Sita, is abducted by Ravana. The text contains 24,000 Sanskrit verses. Many great writers, authors and critics have written volumes on this great epic.
According to Hindu mythology, Rama is an avatara or incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The main purpose of His incarnation is supposed to be a demonstration of an ideal human life on this planet earth. Rama slays the evil and its propagator Ravana at the end of the story and establishes Dharma. Many call Rama the epitome of idealism. This has in fact been a topic of debate amongst great writers and critics alike.
Rama is the eldest son of the King Dasaratha of Ayodhya and the half-brother of Lakshmana, Bharata (not to be confused with the King Bharatha after whom India has a name Bharatavarsha) and Shatrughna.
When the princes are but young boys, Sage Viswamitra comes to visit King Dasaratha and asks the king to send Rama and Lakshmana to protect him from demons while he performs his penances. Though King Dasaratha is reluctant at the beginning, not wanting to earn the warth of the sage and after consultation with his Raja Guru Vasishta he bids Rama and Lakshmana farewell and asks them to protect Sage Viswamitra. The brothers meet with a few adventures on their way including the slaying of Taraka, and many more legends are explained on their way. The brothers fulfill their duty by protecting the sage from Maricha and Subahu, the demons who try to wreak havoc during the penance (also called Yaga) performed by the sage. The sage pleased with the brothers, bestows them with heavenly weapons. Further along their journey they reach the land of Mithila. There the Swayamvara of Sita is held. She is the daughter of King Janaka and the princess of the land. The king poses a challenge that whomsoever bends the Shiv Dhanush and strings it would get to marry Sita. Many a princes who want to marry the beautiful Sita try to string the mighty bow. When all others fail, Rama is asked to handle the Shiv Dhanush. Rama does this with effortless ease, and in fact breaks it into two pieces. Thus, he gains the hand of Sita in marriage and proceeds to his kingdom, where Dasaratha plans his coronation.
Just before the day of his coronation, Kaikeyi, under the influence of a deceptive consort, demands the throne to Bharata, who was born to her. Helpless Dasaratha has to yield to her demands because of a promise he had made to her in the past. He had promised Kaikeyi, that he will grant her three boons, to be availed by her any time. Taking advantage of the promise, Kaikeyi demands the following three boons.
- Rama should not be coronated
- Bharata should be coronated
- Ramu should spend 14 years in exile
Surpanakha, Ravana's sister, enamoured by the handsome Rama, tries to seduce him, during his stay in the jungles. Rama, renowned for his practice of Ekapatnivrata (the vow to practice unassailable loyalty to one's wife) is unperturbed. But,infuriated by this act of wilful seduction, Lakshmana cuts off her nose. Surpanakha, complains to her brother Ravana who is the Lankan Rakshasa emperor. He manages to trick Lakshmana and Rama away from Sita one day with the help of Mareecha, and abducts her in his Pushpaka Vimana (an airborne vehicle) to avenge his sister's loss of nose.
Inconsolable 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 the Vanara (monkey) king Sugriva. He helps Sugriva kill his violent brother King Vali, and installs him to the throne. Sugriva starts a reconnaissance mission to find out the whereabouts of Sita through his loyal follower, Hanuman, who flies to the Lanka island and gets back to Rama declaring her presence in the kingdom of Lanka.
Rama, overjoyed at the news of the welfare of Sita, sends a peace-keeping mission, which Ravana rejects. Rama prepares for a war, and ably helped by his Vanara army, builds a bridge across the Palk Strait, somewhere in the area surrounding Rameswaram in modern day Tamil 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 devotee through Hanuman
- what not to do through Ravana.
Ramayana was translated into Hindi as Sri Ramacharit Manas by Tulasidas.
See also: Mahabharata, epic poetry, Golden age, millennialism