Smriti: The Ramayana

A scene from the Ramayana. Sita becomes enchanted by a magician diguised as a deer. Rama goes to catch the deer and Ravana kidnaps Sita.

The Ramayana, “the Journey of Rama,” is a Sanskrit epic compiled by the poet-sage Valmiki. Scholars say that it received its present shape perhaps as late as the second century CE, but that it contains much older material. Indian scholars date Valmiki to the third millennium BCE.

Though academics consider the Ramayana a mythical account, Hindus consider Rama a historical figure, and an avatar of Vishnu. Some date him back to the Treta-Yuga, whereas others consider him far more recent.

There are two principal vernacular versions; the Hindi Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and a Tamil version by Kambha. Tulsidas’s version is extremely popular, but is shorter than Valmiki’s, excluding the final chapter about Sita’s banishment, the birth of her twin sons, and her disappearance. The Ramayana is the subject of many art forms, particularly drama, and is increasingly well known outside the Hindu community.

Brief summary of the story

A painting of Hanuman shortly after finding Sita. Ravana’s men subsequently captured Hanuman. They set fire to his tail, but he escaped and burned down much of the city.

The story tells of how Rama was cheated out of his throne and unfairly banished to the forest. His wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana, chose to go with him. Despite the hardships, Rama actually enjoyed forest life, for it allowed him to keep company with the many sages and saints who lived there. Ravana, king of the Rakshasa race (man-eaters), heard of Sita’s beauty and kidnapped her. Rama was beside himself with grief, but resolved to rescue his wife. He eventually formed an alliance with a race of Varnaras (monkey-like people). Their general, Hanuman, eventually found Sita on the isle of Lanka. Thereafter, Rama ordered his army to throw boulders in the ocean. Miraculously they floated, and the monkey warriors constructed a floating bridge to Lanka. The two armies met outside the city gates. Rama’s army managed to gain the upper hand and many of Ravana’s sons were slain. Eventually Rama killed Ravana, was reunited with Sita, and returned to his capital, Ayodhya. During his reign everyone was freed from misery.

The triumphant restoration of Lord Rama to his own kingdom is celebrated during the famous festival of lights, Divali. Rama, with Sita, Lakshman, and his entire army, returned on the night of the new moon. It was pitch dark, and the jubilant citizens lit the way with thousands of divas (lamps).

Related Values and Issues

  • Duty/dharma (of husband, wife, leader, son, brother, etc.)
  • Stewardship and “secondary proprietorship”
  • Good over evil

Personal Reflection

  • Sita, although a princess, chose to go with Rama to the forest, despite the hardships. Have we ever loved someone, or felt so good in their company that we would accept so much personal hardship just to be with them? Or do we tend to love only when the going is good?

Scriptural Passage

“If one surrenders unto Me sincerely, saying, ‘My Lord, from this day I am fully surrendered unto You,’ I always give that person protection. That is My vow”

Ramayana, Yuddha-kanda