The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of India, the other being the Mahabharata. The Ramayana is undoubtedly the most popular and timeless Indian epic. This webessay is a very brief account of the Ramayana and I have divided it into various sections. You can click on a sub heading below to reach that part of the essay.
The Ramayana is written in Sanskrit and has 24,000 verses. It is divided into the following seven "kandas" or books.
There are many characters in the Ramayana. In the table below, I have included only the ones that I have mentioned in the "story" part of my webessay.
The story of Ramayana starts with King Dasratha, the ruler of the kingdom of Kosala with Ayodhya as its capital. Dasratha had three wives namely, Kaushalya, Sumitra and Kaikai. His four sons were Rama, Lakshmana, Shatrughana and Bharata. Rama was Kaushalya's son. Lakashmana and Shatrughana were Sumitra's children and Bharata's mother was Kaikai. A time came when Dasratha decided to hand over the throne to Rama who was the eldest. This was not approved by Kaikai who wanted her son Bharata to be the king.
Kaikai suggested this to Dasratha who declined and said that the norm was that the eldest son inherits the throne. Kaikai reminded Dasratha of a wish he had once granted her. At the time Dasratha had granted her the wish, Kaikai told him that she did not want anything then but shall save the wish for a later time. That time had now come and Kaikai's wish was that her son Bharata should be crowned king and Rama to be banished from the kingdom of Ayodhya for fourteen years.
Dasratha though heartbroken, kept his word and yielded to Kaikai's wish. Bharata too was not happy with his mother's decision but bowed down to circumstances and to the wish of his elders. However, he did not fail in his duty. He begged Rama to give him his sandals. He did not sit on the throne but kept Rama's sandals on it and worshipped them everyday. Rama the obedient son, left Ayodhya with his devoted wife Sita and his dutiful half brother Lakshmana who insisted on accompanying him.
News of them being banished reached the evil king Ravana. Once when Sita was alone in the forest, Ravana abducted her. Rama was devastated. With the help of the monkey god Hanuman, Rama the devoted husband killed Ravana and rescued Sita. This victory is celebrated to this day as the festival of Dussera. Having lived in Ravana's palace, Sita had to prove her loyalty to Rama by going through "agnipareeksha" or "the test of fire." She sat in fire and emerged unscathed thereby proving her purity and loyalty to Rama. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya. This joyful event is celebrated as Diwali to this day. Unfortunately, Rama's subjects continued to question her loyalty to him. Rama the ideal king did not want his people's disapproval and so painfully banished his beloved Sita from his kingdom. Although the story goes a little beyond this, this is the main body of the Ramayana.
Ramayana embodies the domestic and religious life of ancient India, with all its tenderness, sweetness, endurance and devotion. Sorrow, suffering, trial and endurance are a part of the Hindu ideal of a perfect life of righteousness. Rama and Sita are the Hindu ideals of a perfect man and a perfect woman. Rama suffers for fourteen years in exile, before he ascends the throne of his father. The pious Hindu saw in Rama's life the ideal of a true Hindu life, the success and triumph which follow upon endurance, faith and duty. The tale of Sita was a tale of womanly faith, devotion and self denial which charmed and fascinated the Hindu world. No other character in Hindu imagination is higher and loftier than that of Sita's. She is the highest ideal of womanly love, truth and devotion.
Ramayana teaches us the values of ideology, devotion, duty, relationships, "dharma" and "karma." It has been a perennial source of spiritual, cultural and artistic inspiration, not only to the people of India but also to the people all over the world. It is not just a literary monument, but serves as an integral part of Hinduism, and is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it, is believed by Hindus to free them from sin and bless the reader or the listener.
Ramayana in today's India
The ancient ideal may seem far fetched in these days but the Ramayana is revered to this day. Mahatma Gandhi called it the "greatest book in the world." Generations of poets were never tired of adding to the descriptions of scenes that were dear to the Hindu and patient Hindu listeners were not and are still not tired of listening to these repetitions. It can be safely said that every individual among the one billion plus living in India today is aware of the Ramayana in some measure or the other. Ramayana 's popularity can be guaged well when India nearly shut down when a dramatized series of the Ramayana appeared on television in the 1980s.
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Revised January 14 2011