The ancient Indian epic poem Ramayana is one of the most important in Hindu literature. It follows the adventures of Prince Rama as he rescues his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana and espouses lessons in morality and faith for Hindus the world over.
Background and History
The Ramayana is one of the longest epic poems in Hinduism, with more than 24,000 verses. Although its precise origins are unclear, the poet Valmiki is generally credited with writing the Ramayana in the 5th century B.C. The text is considered one of India’s two major ancient epics, the other being the Mahabharata.
Synopsis of the Story of Ramayana
Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is the eldest son of King Dasharatha and his wife Kaushalya. Although Rama is his father’s choice to succeed him, the king’s second wife, Kaikei, wants her own son on the throne. She schemes to send Rama and his wife Sita into exile, where they remain for 14 years.
While living in the forest, Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, the 10-headed ruler of Lanka. Rama pursues her, aided by his brother Lakshmana and the mighty monkey general Hanuman. They attack Ravana’s army and succeed in killing the demon king, freeing Sita after a fierce battle and reuniting her with Rama.
Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya and are warmly welcomed back by the citizens of the kingdom, where they rule for many years and have two sons. Eventually, Sita is accused of being unfaithful, and she must undergo a trial by fire to prove her chastity. She appeals to Mother Earth and is saved, but she vanishes into immortality.
Though their actions in the text, Rama and Sita come to embody the ideals of matrimony through their devotion and love for one another. Rama inspires loyalty among his people for his nobility, while Sita’s self-sacrifice is seen as the ultimate demonstration of chastity. Rama’s brother Lakshmana, who chose to be exiled with his sibling, embodies familial loyalty, while Hanuman’s performance on the battlefield exemplifies bravery and nobility.
Influence on Popular Culture
As with the Mahabharata, the Ramayana’s influence spread as Hinduism expanded throughout the Indian subcontinent in the centuries after it was written. Rama’s victory over evil is celebrated during the holiday of Vijayadashami or Dussehra, which takes place in September or October, depending on when it falls during the Hindu lunisolar month of Ashvin.
The folk drama Ramlila, which recounts the story of Rama and Sita, is frequently performed during the festival, and effigies of Ravana are burned to symbolize the destruction of evil. The Ramayana has also been a frequent subject of movies and TV miniseries in India, as well as an inspiration to artists from ancient to contemporary times.
With more than 24,000 verses and 50 chapters, reading the Ramayana is no simple task. But for the Hindu faith and non-Hindus alike, the epic poem is a classic worth reading. One of the best sources for Western readers is a translation by Steven Knapp, a practicing American Hindu with an interest in the faith’s history and scholarship.