The Ramayana belongs to a class of literature known in Sanskrit as kavya (poetry), though in the West it is considered to belong to the category of literature familiar to readers of Homer, namely the epic. It is one of two epics, the other being the Mahabharata, which have had a decisive influence in shaping the nature of Indian civilization. The Ramayana existed in the oral tradition perhaps as far back as 1,500 BCE, but the fourth century BCE is generally accepted as the date of its composition in Sanskrit by Valmiki. Though some right-wing ideologues in recent years, eager that the Ramayana should have the same kind of historicity attached to it as do the scriptures of Christianity and the Koran, have sought to date the Ramayana back to at least 6,000 years and even furnish an exact date for its composition, it by no means diminishes the importance of the text to suggest that the historicity of the Ramayana is the least interesting of the questions that can be raised about it and its characters. Whether in fact its hero Rama, who in Hindu mythology is an avatar of Vishnu but a principal deity in his own right, and who is also worshipped in parts of north India as a king, existed or not is scarcely of any importance. The other kind of excess is to view him merely as a trope — as a sign of patriarchy, for example, or as an insignia of valiant and militant kshatriyahood, which is what the present generation of Hindutvavadis have turned him into.

The main frame of the story of the Ramayana is exceedingly well-known in India, imbibed by every Indian with, so to speak, mother’s milk. The Koysala country, with Ayodhya as its capital, is presided over by Dasaratha. Though his eldest son Rama, son of his queen Kausalya, is entitled to the throne, and Dasaratha is himself keen that Rama should ascend to the kingship, Dasaratha’s other queen Kaikeyi contrives to have Rama sent into exile for fourteen years, as well as have her own son, Bharatha, installed as king. Though Bharatha is not a party to the plot, and is devoted to his elder brother, Rama nonetheless proceeds to the forest, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana, who is one of two sons of Dasaratha’s third queen, Sumithra, as well as by his wife, Sita, renowned for her beauty and matchless virtue. In the forest, Rama and his party have numerous adventures, but it is the abduction of Sita by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, which sets the stage for the epic battle between Rama and Ravana. In his efforts to find Sita, whose whereabouts are unknown, Rama is aided by Hanuman, the monkey god or god of wind. In Indian literature and mythology, there is no greater exemplar of the perfect devotee than Hanuman. Eventually, Ravana, his kin, and his entire force is defeated by Rama and his military allies, and in triumph Rama returns to Ayodhya with Lakshmana and Sita and is crowned king.

It is important to recognize that there is not one Ramayana in India. Indeed, the original composition in Sanskrit by Valmiki is seldom read these days, and the most common Ramayanas are in the ‘vernacular’ Indian languages. In south India, for instance, the Ramayana of Kamban, written in Tamil in the eleventh century, prevails; in north India, the Ramayana of Tulsidas, called theRamacaritmanas, has become legendary. Even among the Hindus living in far-flung places of the Indian diaspora, such as Fiji and Trinidad, the Ramacaritmanas is the devotional text of Hinduism par excellence. There are Ramayanas in virtually all the major Indian languages, and a few dozen translations, mainly abridged, and “transcreations” in English. In the Bengali version of the story, Ravana is turned into the hero; and this narrative was again taken up by the nineteenth century Bengali writer, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), whose own epic retelling of the Ramayana portrays Rama as a weak and effeminate figure representing an earlier stage of political naivete and parochialism. It is no surprise that one American scholar, Paula Richman, has written of the “many Ramayanas” in a book by the same title.

Though the main story of the Ramayana may appear to be without much complexity, the epic presents numerous problems of interpretation, as has already been suggested. True, Rama appears in popular Indian representations (especially in the north) as the very model of the monogamous husband and just and good king; similarly, Sita has been seen as the supreme model of the virtuous, self-sacrificing, and obedient wife, the supreme embodiment of femininity as much as womanhood. But even a superficial reading of the Ramayana puts this interpretation at some risk. One problem is that the Ramayana appears in many versions, and the variant endings illustrate the nature of the diverse readings. In the commonly accepted version of the story, after Rama had rescued Sita and brought her back to Ayodhya, numerous rumors arose about the questionable fidelity of Sita that had the effect of unsettling Rama. Though Rama realized that his wife was the very paragon of virtue untainted, and that she would not have submitted to the sexual advances of Ravana, in whose captivity she had remained for many years, some doubts began to creep into his own mind; besides, as a king, it was his duty to put to rest the anxieties expressed by his subjects. Consequently, he subjected Sita to a public test: if she could emerge from the flames of the fire unscathed, that would be the touchstone of her unimpeachable moral character. Sita passes the test (agnipariksha) with flying colors, and henceforth takes her place besides Rama, and together they preside over Ayodhya. In a variant ending, Sita is sent to pass the rest of her life at the hermitage of Valmiki, where she gives birth to the twins Lava and Kusa; and eventually, pleading with the earth, from which she is descended, to be her witness, Sita [the word means “furrow”] returns to the earth from where she had come forth. This can be seen as a reprimand to Rama, as a reaffirmation of the feminine principle against the masculinity of realpolitik. One recent and moving reinterpretation of the Ramayana by Ramachandra Gandhi suggests that the portion about the agnipariksha is not part of the story as it appeared in the oral tradition, being added at the instance of patriarchal men who came to exercise increasing influence in Indian society.

Even the character of Rama is not without its blemishes [see Rama]. Contrariwise, even Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas, which is the most patriarchal of the widely read versions, recognizes that Ravana was not without certain admirable qualities. Indeed, the tales about the Ramayana suggest a wonderful self-reflexivity. When Rama agrees to go into exile, he attempts to dissuade Sita from following him; she is advised that as a princess, accustomed to all the luxuries that life has to offer, the hardships of a meager and hard existence in the forest are not for her. But, as a Hindu wife, Sita suggests that she will willingly share her husband’s life, and that at this critical moment she cannot abandon him. The Indian writer Ananthamurthy has written about one version of the Ramayana, where Rama pleads with Sita to remain behind in Ayodhya; finally, exasperated by his presumption that women must not undergo the hardships of life, Sita says to Rama: “If in all other Ramayanas I accompany you, how can I not do so in this Ramayana.”

THE TEXT: The Valmiki or Sanskrit Ramayana contains nearly 50,000 lines of verse, and is much longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The narrative is broken up into seven books, as follows:

  1. Bala-kanda: the boyhood and adolescence of Rama;
  2. Ayodhya-kanda: the court of Dasaratha, and the scenes that set the stage for the unfolding of the story, including the exchange between Dasaratha and Kaikeyi, and the exile of Rama;
  3. Aranya-kanda: life in the forest and the abduction of Sita by Ravana;
  4. Kishkindhya-kanda: Rama’s residence in Kishkindhya, the quest for Sita, and the slaying of Bali;
  5. Sundara-kanda: description of the landscapes over which Rama roams, and the arrival of Rama and his allies in Lanka; sundara means beautiful, and this portion of the book has passages of lyrical beauty;
  6. Yuddha-kanda, also known as the Lanka-kanda: the book of war: the defeat of Ravana, the recovery of Sita, the return to Ayodhya, and the coronation of Rama; and
  7. Uttara-kanda: the “later section”, detailing Rama’s life in Ayodhya, the banishment of Sita, the birth of Lava and Kusa, the reconciliation of Rama and Sita, her death or return to the earth, and Rama’s ascent into heaven.

There are numerous translations of the Ramayana available in English. One popular, but extremely condensed, version — based on the Tamil of Kamban — is by R. K. Narayan (Penguin Books); in India, just as popular is the version, also in prose but longer, by C. Rajagopalachari (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan). Another easily available abridged version in verse is by William Buck. The most scholarly, and complete, English translation of the Ramayana, is the multi-volume version by Robert Goldman, Sheldon Pollock, and others, published by Princeton University Press.