A great Hindu epic poem. Written in Sanskrit and containing some twenty-four thousand verses, the Story of Rama is attributed to the poet and sage Valmiki. It is also very old, dating back perhaps to 300 B.C. although some scholars hold that its current version may have been compiled as late as the first century A.D.
The Ramayana is the life story of Rama, a prince of the north Indian city of Ayodhya. Rama is educated by a religious sage, wins the heart and hand of Sita at a tournament, and becomes a warrior-king. After being banished from his homeland as the result of a family squabble, he spends fourteen years in exile in the forest along with Sita and Lakshmana, his half brother.
While he and Lakshmana were away hunting, Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka (likely today's Sri Lanka). Rama then sets about rescuing her, enlisting the help of, among others, Hanuman, the dutiful monkey-god. After many adventures.
Rama ends up killing Ravana and setting Sita free. The stories of heroism turn to ones of morality when Sita finds it necessary to prove that she was faithful to Rama during her captivity. She passes through a trial by fire but, even then, the people of Ayodhya do not believe in her fidelity and Rama banishes her to the forest.
There she meets the sage Valmiki and bears two children, the sons of Rama. Even though the family eventually reunites, Sita remains unable to fully clear her name and, at her own request, she is swallowed up by the earth. The Ramayana is one of Hinduism's great sources of ethical teachings, particularly with regard to Rama and Sita, who are considered the ideal husband and wife.
Rama, meanwhile, provides a model for the proper conduct of not only a husband but a leader and a man in general, while Hanuman is the epitome of loyalty. The poem does not shy away from conflict among these various teachings; despite his love for Sita, Rama places his duties as a king higher when he decides to banish her because of his people's charges of her infidelity. Meanwhile, religious interpretations of the poem focus on how the god Vishnu enters human affairs from time to time in order to protect the world from evil.
According to these teachings Rama is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, and not merely a heroic human figure. The poem remains extremely popular, especially in its vernacular translations. For Hindus it can be the source of arcane religious lessons or meditative processes or, alternatively, a popular story of heroism and romance.
In many parts of northern India, an annual month long festival known as the Ram-lila offers an enactment of the poem while in the south it provides the source for much dance and drama. The Ramayana spread to various parts of Southeast Asia where it contributed to the local folk culture, and Rama and Sita are renowned as ideal lovers in these regions as much as they are in India. The seventeenthand eighteenth-century capital of the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), was Ayutthaya (Ayodhya), named after Rama's birthplace and a sign of the enduring popularity of the tale.
SEE ALSO: Mahabaratha; Sita; VishnuStories from Ramayana | Bhagavatam-katha.