Ramayana: The Grand Epic of Ancient India
Ramayana is an integral part of life for millions of Hindus across the globe. It is one of the two most popular epics written in Sanskrit from ancient India, the other one being Mahabharata. Attributed to Sage Valmiki, this epic is also revered as the Adikavya (meaning the first poem; Aadi=first, Kavya = poem).
Ramayana, along with Mahabharata, is considered to form the Hindu Itihasa, i.e. the history of Hindus. Two distinct features of the Itihasa genre are: one, that the author should have witnessed the events first hand and, two, the teachings are woven into the stories so that they remain relevant to all generations and eras. Valmiki had witnessed parts of the events of Ramayana unfolding during his lifetime.
Ramayana is the tale of mystics and ancient traditions, great battles with fantastical feats, mythical creatures and vivid landscapes, golden lessons about morals, ethics, and the beacon to an ideal way of life. It is the one epic that binds millions of people together and there is an urgent need to create products that preserve and propagate the knowledge and wisdom preserved in our precious, surviving ancient scriptures. TheRamayana™ is the labor of love of a team of 25 scholars who are mythology and culture enthusiasts, where I lead the content and research. TheRamayana™ is founded by an IIT-D alumnus, Bhuwan Arora who has created a deep learning model that understands Indian values based on Indian stories.
An artist's impression of Sage Valmiki composing the Ramayana. (Public Domain)
Unfolding the Epic
In 24,000 Sanskrit verses, the epic chronicles the legendary life of Prince Rama, who is celebrated as the 7th incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Through the various life events revolving around Rama, lessons on morality, ethics, politics, and philosophy emerge. There are innumerable perspectives of viewing the Ramayana. The valiant sees the courage, the feminist draws lessons of equality, and the religious person finds solace in the God-like personas of Rama-Sita. The lessons are unique to each reader.
The original Ramayana is said to have 6 Kandas (books) narrating the various stages of Rama’s life, with the 7th Kanda popularly considered as a later addition by researchers.
Sage Narada is considered the initiator of Ramayana. The ascetic Valmiki had asked Narada, “Who really is that person in this present world, who is virtuous and vigorous, a conscientious one, one who is mindful of good deeds done to him, and also a speaker of truth and who is determined in his deed. Who is appropriate in disposition... who is interested in the welfare of all beings... who is adept and also an able one... also uniquely pleasant to look at.”
The first book is the Bala Kanda (the Book of Boyhood). It begins with the conversation between Sage Narada and Sage Valmiki, where Valmiki gets divine guidance to compose the epic. This book details the birth of Rama and his brothers to the great King Dasharatha and his three queens, Kaushalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, of Kosala Kingdom (with the headquarters at present-day Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India), their education, the journey of Rama and his younger brother, Lakshmana with Sage Vishwamitra through the forests to safeguard the yagnas (fire sacrifices) of sages.
This journey is centered around Sage Vishwamitra educating the brothers and imparting wisdom about the art of weaponry, philosophy, and important legends associated with culture and life. The book culminates in Rama’s marriage with Sita, the princess of Videha Kingdom.
The wedding party of Rama and Sita returns to Ayodhya. (Public Domain)
The second book is Ayodhya Kanda (the book of Ayodhya), which focuses on the importance of honoring one’s words. King Dasharatha chooses Rama as his rightful heir and the kingdom prepares for his coronation, but his step-mother exercises the two boons offered by her husband and this is the beginning of a major turning point in Ramayana. Rama is exiled into the forest for 14 years and he accepts the exile without any objections for the sake of keeping his father's honor. Sita and Lakshmana also relinquish the kingdom to accompany him.
Left: The Death of King Dasharatha, the Father of Rama: A Ramayana Islamic, Mughal period folio (1526–1858), ca. 1605. Right: Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana Begin Their Life in the Forest India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra, ca. 1800–1810. (Credit: The Met New York Ramayana exhibition on Architectural Digest)
The third book is Aranya Kanda (the book of the forest). After settling into a life of exile, the trio travel miles into the dense forest and meet numerous enlightened and spiritually advanced Sages and hermits at the backdrop of the spiritual-scape of the ashramas. Thirteen years of exile pass almost peacefully, but then pivotal incidents occur. The sister of the powerful demon King Ravana wanders into the forest and takes a fancy to Rama. This is an event of importance because it sets into motion a series of incidents that lead to the eventual abduction of Sita by Ravana and the quest of Rama-Lakshmana to find Sita begins.
Ravana abducts Sita and the divine bird, Jatayu, tries to rescue her. (Public Domain)
The fourth book is Kishkindha Kanda (the book of the kingdom of Vanaras). It details the forging of a strategic alliance between Rama and the Vanara army, which enables Rama to form a crew to help him in his quest to find Sita. The Sanskrit word "Vanara" is made of two words, Vana (forest) and Nara (man) which means a man from the forest. Over the years, the term Vanara has come to mean monkeys and that’s how Vanaras are depicted in popular literature and art.
But the Sanskrit word for monkeys is " Kapi" and it seems likely that though the word, " Vanara" has been interpreted as monkeys, it actually stood for a man who dwells in the jungle. Under the leadership of the Vanara chief and commander, Hanuman and Angada, the Vanaras learn about the whereabouts of Sita from the vulture King, Sampati.
Rama embraces Sugriva on hearing the mighty deeds of the gathered Vanaras. (Credit: Simon Ray/Indian & Islamic Works of Art)
The fifth book is Sundara Kanda (the book of beauty). It details the adventures of Hanuman, the only one who can cross the Southern Ocean and make a leap to reach Lanka. This is the only book in Ramayana where the hero is not Rama but Hanuman, the divine Vanara chief. Overcoming immense barriers and tests, Hanuman is able to finally locate Sita.
He also comes face to face with King Ravana, who commits a grave crime by ordering the killing of the envoy, and the entire kingdom pays for this dastardly act, when Hanuman lights all of Lanka on fire and returns to Kishkindha with news.
Hanuman meets Sita in Ashoka Van. (Public Domain)
The sixth book is Yuddha Kanda (the book of the war). It is generally considered the greatest of the Kandas (it is also the longest book), which details the war between Rama and Ravana, following the construction of Rama Setu (the bridge connecting Rameshwaram and Lanka) through which the Vanara army crosses the ocean. The grand war goes on for 13 days with glorious descriptions of the battle, weapons, tragedies, losses, and moments of joy. In the end, Rama defeats demon King Ravana and reunites with Sita. The victorious Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita return to Ayodhya, where they are greeted with magnificent celebrations amid festivities.
Top: The Combat of Rama and Ravana. India, Coromandel Coast, late 18th century. (Credit: The Met New York Ramayana exhibition on Architectural Digest) Bottom: Sita, Rama and Laksmana enter Ayodhya by Ramadasa-abhirama Dasa. (Credit: Diwali in Indian Culture)
The seventh book is Uttara Kanda (the book of answers), it is considered a later addition to Valmiki’s Ramayana and details the final years of Rama and Sita. Due to the events that unfold, Sita has to endure another exile in the forest and during the exile she gives birth to her twin sons, Lava and Kusha, who are brought up in the care of Sage Valmiki in his hermitage.
The details of the hardships of another term in exile for Sita are vividly described. While organizing a large sacrifice, in a dramatic sequence Rama encounters the two young warriors and then he accepts them as his sons. Queen Sita, considered an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi returns to her abode and King Rama also gives up his person and descends into the river Sarayu to take Jala Samadhi (giving up life by the aid of the element of water).
Sita is sent on her second exile. Painting by Raja Ravi Verma. (Public Domain)
The Ramayana unfolds across a robust landscape where one can imagine armies, the miracles, boons and curses, the saints and sages, exotic flora, mythical characters with interwoven lessons about truth, moral dilemma, relationships, politics, ethics, faith, penance, endurance. It communicates a spiritual truth while also containing several social truths.
The Omnipresence of Ramayana: Interpretations Preside over Southeast Asian Culture
India is a culturally rich and diverse country. Due to this medley of a thriving milieu of cultures, traditions, and communities, there are now over 300 versions of Ramayana as the themes are so broad that they have been adapted and interpreted in a diverse array of regional cultures and artistic mediums. Ramayana is central to Indian education and festivals and is the one epic that can be said to unite all Indians together - as it lives in the memory and nostalgia of millions.
Valmiki wrote the first version of Ramayana but in the south regions of India, Ramavataram, popularly referred to as Kamba Ramayanam, is the most popular. It is a Tamil epic that was written by the Tamil poet Kambar during the 12th century. Whereas in the northern regions of India, Ramcharitmanas is a part of the daily life of millions of Hindus. It is an epic poem composed in the Awadhi language by the 16th-century Indian bhakti (devotional) poet Goswami Tulsidas.
Ramayana, in its entirety, is a gamut of verses, stories and ideas where new additions continuously enter and only the ones that survive the test of time are retained and celebrated.
The monumental scale at which this remarkable saga exists can be ascertained from its presence in several countries where it is considered to be an inseparable part of the local life and culture. It is a story that is characterized by vastness and extensiveness. It is a story that deserves to be retold and rediscovered so that its immortality does not fade.
Due to the movement of Southern Indian traders, teachers, and missionaries towards Southeast Asia until 1500 AD, Hinduism and Buddhism permeated through the region, and with the spread of Hinduism, occurred the spread of this epic saga. Sculptures and inscriptions from Ramayana can be found in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries.
Even today dramas, dances, puppets, and shadow shows take place in Southeast Asia revolving around this popular legend. The Indonesian or Javanese version of this epic is called Kakawin Ramayana. The 9th century Prambanan temple, a Hindu temple in Yogyakarta (which is a transliteration of Ayodhya), Indonesia holds the carvings of various characters from Ramayana and reminds us how this story has engulfed the region for such a long time.
Hanuman on his chariot, a scene from the Ramakien in Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok. (Public Domain)
The Thai version of the legend came to be known as Ramakien. Believed to be present in the region since the 13th century in its original form, Ramakien was only written down in the 18th century. Considered a national epic, paintings from Ramakien proudly depict the monkey armies and Ramakien has given birth to several other distinctive art forms such as the famous Khon, a masked dance-drama, which has also become a great tourist attraction.
In a similar manner, despite originating from India, the remarkable story of Ramayana has engulfed nearly the entirety of Southeast Asia. Although defined by different versions and interpretations, all these stories have become epics and are revered and celebrated by the locals as the pride of their community and nation.
Festivals, Traditions and Celebrations – A Potpourri of Emotions
The celebration of the lives of Rama and Sita happens through the year across India. The calendar is dotted with festivals and theatrical performances. In March-April, 9 days are celebrated marking the birth of Rama. During these auspicious days, devotees read the timeless epic, with many fasting during the entirety of the 9 days. It is common for temples to hold a non-stop recital of the epic.
In the months of September or October, Dussehra is celebrated across the country to mark the victory of good over evil. The day culminates with a 9-day fasting period of Navratri in the Hindu culture. The festivities are accompanied with performances of the Ramlila (a short version of the epic Ramayana which can go on for days), fairs and food festivals, puppet shows, theatrical skits and performances and on the 10th day, the burning of the effigies of Ravana happens.
Ravana is depicted as having 10 heads, which symbolize the negative emotions that exist in humans. Each of his 10 heads relate to an aspect that must be conquered: lust ( kama vasana), anger ( krodha), delusion ( moha), greed ( lobha), pride ( mada), jealousy ( matsara), selfishness ( swartha), hatred ( durmati), cruelty ( amanavta), and ego ( ahankara).
A scene from the theatrical performance of Ram Lila. (Ankit Gupta/CC BY SA 3.0)
Twenty days after Dussehra, Diwali – the festival of lights – is celebrated across the country. It celebrates the spiritual victory of light over darkness as Prince Rama had returned to Ayodhya after defeating the demon King Ravana.
Diwali, the festival of lights. (Public Domain)
The major locations Rama had visited during his exile are popular places of worship for many Hindus. The capital city of Kosala Kingdom, Ayodhya, where Rama was born and from where he ruled, is visited by millions of devotees from across the world every month. Hundreds of grand temples adorn the path that Rama had taken across the subcontinent during his exile.
The Unfailing Truth about Ramayana
Sage Valmiki details the geography, flora-fauna, and astronomical events of Ramayana in an astonishingly accurate manner. It is obvious that the epic could only have been written by a person with a deep knowledge about the land and its vegetation, for he writes numerous passages describing the land surface, biodiversity, degrees of wilderness, and geography. Several studies have been done by researchers that confirm the flora, fauna, and geography that has been described by him.
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- The Diwali Festival of Lights: A Celebration of Freedom and Good Triumphing over Evil
Thousands of years before, how a man was able to know these diverse fields in such great detail may come as a shock to a few, but ancient sages and seers from India carried precious treasures of wisdom and knowledge, they were the creators of Vedic literature. The astronomical events observed and mentioned by Sage Valmiki has been subject of various extensive studies, where the dates of the major events of Rama’s life have been calculated.
Like archaeological evidence, the eternal existence and cyclical movement of the astronomical bodies is a matter of fact. Building upon the astronomical cues mentioned by Valmiki, the researchers have been able to discern past astronomical periods that match precisely with Valmiki’s description of them.
In a bustling country where religion manifests in innumerable forms and media, where animist religions still exist, where vibrant festivals and fairs are a part of daily life - this scientific confirmation of the events of Ramayana bodes well for the future generation. As even the current generation casts a curious eye and tries to question and understand every tradition that comes its way, the logical reasoning and scientific proofs will probably arrest their imaginations and Ramayana will continue to live in its glory in our memories.
In an effort to digitize the culture of this vivacious epic, TheRamayana™ mobile application (built for Android and iOS) is a virtual museum of the Indian epic Ramayana with 350+ written and audio short summarized stories, perspective polls, and quizzes in Hindi and English based on the Tulsidas and Valmiki Ramayana.
Top Image: Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Source: Public Domain
By Brinda Singh