Was Rama Based on a Real Historical Figure?
Rama, one of the principle figures of the Hindu text the Ramayana is revered throughout India and the world. Many historians doubt that Rama was an actual person, however, many Hindus believe he was a real historical figure and argue that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the legends about Rama, although written in a fanciful way, may have been based on real events.
Ancient Stories May Not All be Myth
Recent archaeological and historical discoveries have shown that certain texts previously considered unreliable by some scholars have a real historical foundation. An example of these texts is the Iliad, which accurately describes aspects of the geography of the region surrounding the ancient city of Troy during the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Religious texts such as the Bible are also being re-evaluated as they are found to contain historically accurate descriptions of locales, customs, and historical figures that were present at the time.
The Story of Rama
In the Ramayana, Rama is born when the god Vishnu appears to his father Dasharatha, king of Koshala, after the gods send Vishnu into the world to find a way to defeat the demon-king Ravana. Vishnu gives the king a pot of nectar. Dasharatha gives half of it to his wife. When she becomes pregnant after drinking the nectar, the son to which she gives birth is partly divine.
Rama. (Shrriramsughir/CC BY SA 4.0)
Rama’s brother Laksmana and his loyal servant, the monkey god Hanuman, go on a number of adventures, slaying demons. Eventually, Rama encounters the king Janaka of Videha who receives him as guest. While there, Rama meets the king’s beautiful daughter, Sita, whom he promises to give in marriage to any man who can bend a legendary bow that once belonged to the god Shiva. Rama, in love with Sita and determined to win her hand in marriage, takes the bow and breaks it in half.
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When it comes time for Rama to ascend the throne as king in Ayodhya, the capital city of the kingdom of Koshala, he encounters trouble. Manthara, a hunchback servant of Rama’s deceased mother, becomes jealous of him and turns his stepmother, Kaikeyi, against him. Kaikeyi convinces King Dasharatha to place Bharata, her son, on the throne and Rama is sent into exile for fourteen years.
At the end of the fourteen years, Bharata, believing that it was unjust what happened to Rama, willingly abdicates and allows Rama to take the throne. After this Rama finally slays the demon king Ravana, ruler of Lanka, the island of Sri Lanka, after Ravana kidnaps Rama’s wife Sita, forcing him to rescue her.
Rama spurns the demon lover as he stands beside his wife, Sita. (Public Domain)
Many Places in the Ramayana Actually Exist
Rama is considered a model of purity for his devotion and faithfulness to his wife Sita. He is a god associated with virtue in Hinduism. There are several famous temples dedicated to him across India and at least thirty locations associated with Rama in Sri Lanka.
Many of the places mentioned in the Ramayana associated with or visited by Rama are known to exist, such as Ayodhya. This and the widespread and profound influence that Rama has had on both Hindu and Buddhist thought in India has led some to suggest that Rama was at least partially based on a historical figure, even if many of the stories were embellished and transformed.
The Rama story carved into stone as an 8th-century relief artwork in the largest Shiva temple of the Ellora Caves. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/CC BY 2.0)
Was Rama a Real Historical Figure?
Is it possible that Rama was a historical figure or at least based on a historical figure? Most historians doubt that there is enough evidence to say that he existed. It is true that there is not much direct evidence for Rama’s existence except for the Ramayana itself, and other ancient texts that refer to him. This however doesn’t necessarily mean that he did not exist, since we also only have textual evidence of the existence of figures like Socrates, Jesus, and Confucius, and their existence is not doubted by most historians.
There is, however, one problem with this comparison. Religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha or “enlightened one”) were all primarily teachers. Jesus is of course considered to be more than just a teacher of morals in Christian tradition, but in practical historical terms, he was a teacher. Moral and religious teachers typically do not have their names inscribed on coins or monuments, at least not until their religion becomes the state religion of an empire or other major polity, and are typically remembered mostly through writings of their disciples. It is thus expected that we wouldn’t find any coins or monumental inscriptions referring to Jesus or Confucius until much later.
A 5th century terracotta sculpture depicting Rama. (Public Domain)
Rama on the other hand was a king who would have commissioned monumental inscriptions which would have featured his name or some sort of symbol or image representing him. It is of course possible that Rama was actually a prehistoric chieftain who lived before monumental architecture became common in India, but for now this is just speculation.
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The lack of monuments and coins referring to Rama do not necessarily make him entirely mythical. It simply makes it more challenging to explain the lack of monumental structures or coins bearing his name if he were an important king. It is also possible that archaeologists simply haven’t found any such inscriptions yet.
Scenes from the Ramayana. (cascoly2 /Adobe Stock)
In the Biblical case, many scholars doubted the historicity of King David until the Tel Dan inscription was discovered which made a reference to the dynasty of King David showing that David at least had existed as an Israelite king or chieftain. Additionally, many of the locations mentioned in the Ramayana have been found just like Biblical sites such as Jericho and Classical sites such as the city of Troy.
The existence of locales visited by Rama in the Ramayana do not necessarily prove that Rama was historical or based on a historical figure, but it does lend credence to the idea since other ancient texts have been historically validated in the same way. For now, the evidence is at best inconclusive.
An illustration of Rama. (nikhilmishracreation /Adobe Stock)
Top Image: An illustration of Rama. Source: CC BY SA 4.0
By Caleb Strom
Updated on November 4, 2020.
RAMA KING OF SUMER by Ranajit Pal (N.D.). Available at: http://www.ranajitpal.com/rama.html
“Lord Rama: Fact or Fiction” by Stephen Knapp (N.D.). Available at: http://www.stephen-knapp.com/lord_rama_fact_or_fiction.htm
“Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible” (2016). Biblical Archaeology Society. Available at: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/the-tel-dan-inscription-the-first-historical-evidence-of-the-king-david-bible-story/
“Was there a Trojan War?” by Manfred Korfmann (2004). Archaeology Magazine. Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/0405/etc/troy.html