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Authors: Ramesh Menon

The Ramayana

BOOK: The Ramayana


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Title Page

Copyright Notice



A Note on Hindu Time

The Demon's Boons











Ravana's Daughter: A Southern Tale

The Story of Viswamitra







The Ramayana is an epic tale set in the forested India of prehistorical times. One of India's most beloved and enduring legends, it represents historical fact to millions, who worship Rama, prince of Ayodhya, as an incarnation of the God Vishnu. Regardless of their religious orientation, Indians see it as a great work of literature, the story of a war between good and evil, and as a document prescribing a code of conduct that is still widely regarded. Rama is the hero of the legend, and the
is his journey, both physical and spiritual.

The plot is fairly simple, but the path that the main characters have to follow to fulfill their missions and attain grace is arduous. Prince Rama is about to be crowned
, the heir apparent, by his father King Dasaratha, who wants to hand his kingdom down to his adored eldest son. Instead, a palace intrigue involving one of the king's wives ends in Rama's banishment to the forest for fourteen years. His wife Sita, whom he has just married, and his brother Lakshmana accompany him.

Wandering in exile, the three encounter several sages, or
, living austere lives in
, hermitages, and meditating in the wilds. From them the travelers hear many wondrous legends of bygone ages, the beginnings of the world. The
, the warrior princes Rama and Lakshmana, also rid the jungles of countless
, demons that prey on the hermits who, by their constant worship, are the very holders of the earth.

When Ravana, Emperor of the
, hears that thousands of them have been slain, and when he is told of Sita's peerless beauty, he abducts her to his island home of Lanka (the Sri Lanka of today). Rama and Lakshmana immediately set out to rescue the princess. A race of monkeys with extraordinary powers, called
help them find her. A
army, which includes Hanuman, who is the son of the wind and worshipped as a God in India, goes with the brothers to fight Ravana and his awesome demon legions and to rescue Sita.

As a reward for years of penance, the God Siva has granted Ravana a boon of invincibility from death at the hands of any of the greater races of divine and demonic beings. Ravana has quickly become undisputed monarch of the world, “the greatest of all the created beings of his time.” Though he is a matchless warrior, a powerful king, and an unequaled scholar, he is the epitome of evil, and his blood-thirsty demons have overrun the earth to tyrannize and corrupt helpless humankind. However, Ravana had not asked Siva for invincibility against mortal men, believing them too puny to harm him. Thus Vishnu, the Blue Savior in the Indian Trinity, is born as a human prince, Rama, to rid the world of the Demon. As an Avatara, a divine incarnation, Rama has the qualities of a human being but the weaponry and the strength of a God. Rama comes to kill the
break the bonds of darkness, and restore
to creation. The notion of
is as old as the Indian tradition; its meaning encompasses such broad concepts as duty, work, righteousness, morality, justice, cosmic law and harmony, and eternal truth.

The themes of the Ramayana are timeless and universal. Goodness and love figure in significant ways—a father's love for his son, a son's love for his father, four brothers' love for one another, a husband's love for his wife and a wife's for her husband, and, not least, the love of friends for each other—as do avarice, evil, deceit and treachery, nobility of character, and selflessness and devotion. In short, all the experiences and values of the human spirit are woven throughout the legend, though they are rendered in titanic proportions.

Rama himself is the
Maryada Purushottaman
: the man of perfect honor; the perfect man. He is perfect because he is God incarnate. Yet, because of who he is and because his mission is in essence to save humankind, he must suffer more than any other man. In this sense, the epic certainly invites comparison to that other great ancient work, the Bible. The spirit of the extraordinary prince Rama permeates the epic, even as the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth does the New Testament. Both suffer and each one is crucified in his way, to save humankind. Both finally triumph.

More than anything else, reading the Ramayana brings the reader close to the noble, holy, and living spirit of Rama. Regardless of which religion one professes, or if one is an agnostic or an atheist, the touch of Rama's spirit is a profound, healing contact. This is the essential aim of the epic, for, like Christ, the prince of Ayodhya is an embodiment of goodness and gentleness, of sacrifice, and, above all, of love.

The Ramayana is also infused with the spirit of Rama's wife Sita. Hindus believe that she was an incarnation of the God Vishnu's consort, the Goddess Lakshmi. To this day Sita remains the archetypal image of chaste Indian womanhood. The Ramayana says that Ravana of Lanka was so powerful that even more than Rama's prowess, it was Sita's chastity and courage that ultimately were needed to vanquish the Demon. Ravana, whom no woman, no queen or princess of any race of heaven, earth, or the netherworlds had ever resisted, finds Sita proof against his every temptation, blandishment, and threat. This undermines and finally breaks his spirit before Rama actually kills him.

If Rama is the perfect man, Sita is no less the perfect woman. She suffers at least as much as he does, perhaps more. In the end she proves herself even Rama's superior. The image of the faithful Sita and her immaculate love and devotion for her husband have flowed down the ages to become unfading symbols of the ideal woman and wife.

The classical Indian artistic tradition is a devotional one, whether in music, literature, dance, painting, sculpture, or architecture. The sole object of art is worship, to give praise and to invoke
, religious adoration and ecstasy, both in the artist and in those that experience his or her work. The purpose of the Ramayana was never less than to awaken the reader spiritually and set him on the great journey that finally, if after many lives, leads to the last goal of all existence—to
moksha, nirvana
, the truth that frees, to God. Without exception, the masters of old have said that listening to the Ramayana or reading it serves to exorcise one's sins, from this life and others, and to purify one's soul.

At the same time, the Ramayana is an expression of a liberal and earthy tradition, one that deals with the realities of greed, lust and power, war and kingship, nobility, tolerance, heroism, and suffering, and with the magnificent, joyful, and tragic inevitability of fate—the human condition. In this sense, the legend has all the hallmarks that distinguish an immortal classic of literature: it enshrines the deepest, most timeless values of humankind, while also being an incomparably enchanting tale. Above all, the Ramayana is a love story, written more than a thousand years before romantic love became one of the defining themes of Western literature.

The Ramayana is based on some of the oldest surviving legends in the world, though its exact age remains indeterminate. Modern scholars say it is more than two thousand years old, and place its approximate date of composition somewhere around 300
. The devout Hindu believes it was composed several hundred millennia ago, in the
treta yuga
. The epic was called the Adi Kavya, the first poem of the world. A
is the work of a
, “one who sees”—a seer-poet, a visionary. It is said that the poet Valmiki was first inspired to tell the story of Rama by the God Brahma, the Creator himself. Valmiki composed the legend as an epic poem, in twenty-four thousand
, couplets, in high Sanskrit, in a complex meter called the
. The
were grouped into
, chapters, which formed seven
or sections.

The epic has come to us through countless generations of
, masters and disciples, transmitted through the ages in the ancient oral tradition. Since its original composition there have been many interpolations and embellishments by numerous, now nameless, raconteurs—from saints and bards to grandmothers passing the story on to their grandchildren during long summer nights—in many languages and traditions.

Since it was first composed, the Ramayana has remained an essential component of the arts. Portions of it have been rendered as song and dance, in the classical and folk traditions of the many regions, languages, and dialects of India. In Kerala, the southernmost state, episodes from the Ramayana are performed in the heavily stylized Kathakali dance form. The dancers wear exaggerated, padded costumes and lofty wooden crowns and paint their faces in bright vegetable dyes to portray the mythic characters. A short episode from the epic is performed over several hours, traditionally in the courtyard of a temple. The Kathakali begins at dusk and extends into the small hours by the light of oil lamps.

In northern India, during the
, the season of lamps, the Ramayana is performed in full as open-air theater, usually at a large fairground. These nightlong performances are called
—literally, the play or romance of Rama—and people from every walk of life throng to them, wrapped in thick blankets and warm shawls to keep the cold at bay.

Scenes from the Ramayana have been carved in stone on the walls of temples across India and beyond. The legend of Rama, most wise and loving, powerful and self-effacing prince and deliverer, has spread throughout Southeast Asia, to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia, where it is read, told, sung, and danced in a dazzling array of native forms and idioms.

At least four retellings of the Ramayana into other Indian vernacular languages are literary classics in their own right: the
the Tamil Ramayana by the poet Kampan (twelfth century); the Bengali Ramayana of Krittibas Ojha (late fourteenth century); Tulsidas's
in Hindi (sixteenth century); and Ezhutthachan's
(or spiritual)
in Malayalam (also sixteenth century).

There is a brief and relatively recent tradition of English translations and retellings of the Ramayana by Indian and Western writers. A number of these are far too short to capture the magnitude and grandeur of the original; others are rather too secular in presenting what is also basically scripture. In India, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari's Ramayana, first published in 1951, R. K. Narayan's slender 1972 volume, and Kamala Subramaniam's, published in 1981, are retellings by writers of generations before my own. They have all been very popular, each going into several editions. With the exception of Subramaniam's book, they are too short to be anywhere near epical. Also, all three either use “Victorian” or “Shakespearean” English or are very matter-of-fact in style. A more recent English Ramayana, contemporary in tone, was written by Arshia Sattar, whose rendering is elegant and knowledgeable but is also a secular and scholarly one.

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