one of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana pervades the country's moral and cultural consciousness. Beleived to have been composed by Valmiki sometime between the eigth and sixth centuries BC, the Ramayana tells the tragic and magical story of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, an incarnation of Lord Visnu, born to rid the earth of the terrible demon Ravana.
An idealized heroic tale ending with the inevitable triumph of good over evil, the Ramayana is also an intensely personal story of family relationships, love and loss, duty and honour, of harem intrigue, petty jealousies and destructive ambitions-all this played out in a universe populated by larger-than-life humans, gods and celestial beings, wondrous animals and terrfying demons.
In her magnificent translation Arshia Sattar has successfully bridged both time and space to make this monumental ancient classic accessible to the present day reader.
Valmiki is almost indisputably the author of the Sanskrit Ramayana even though it is quite likely that the story of Rama's life was in circulation before Valmiki gave it its present form. As a poet and composer, Valmiki acts with in the story that he tells. Later legend has it that Valmiki was a bandit who was converted from his life of looting and pillaging by Rama's grace. His devotion then inspired him to compose and recite the story of Rama's adventures. While it is impossible to estabilish conclusive dates for Valmiki's life and there is nothing outside the Ramayana itself to prove that he was a historical figure, it is believed that this Sanskrit text was composed between 700 and 500 BC.
Arshia Sattar has a Ph.D from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisation at the University of Chicago. Her areas of interest are Indian epics, mythology and the story traditions of the subcontinent. Her articles appear in various national newspapers and magazines. Her translation of Tales from the Kathasaritsagara was published by Penguin in 1995.
The Story of Rama Spreads all over the cultures of the Indian Subcontinent and south-east Asia. It appears in literatures, in music, dance and drama, in painting and sculpture, in classical and folk traditions, in hundreds of languages, in thousands of telling and retellings from thousands of tellers. Each of these versions has its own special flavour, ambience and distinctive style. A.k. Ramanujan goes as far as to say that in India and south-east Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already”.
Valmiki Ramayana is Arguably the oldest surviving version we have of Rama’s tale, but in the multiplicity of Rama stories received today, Valmiki’s Sanskrit poem is just ome more version of Rama’s adventures. Nonetheless, scholars hold that this telling is perhaps the most prestigious and influential of them all.
Like any other monumental work of literature, the Ramayana has always functioned on a variety of levels. Through the millennia of its popularity, it has attracted the interest of many kinds of people from different social, economic, educational, regional and religious backgrounds. It has for example, served as a bedtime story for countless generations of Indian children, while at the same time, learned sastrins, steeped in the abstruse philosophical grammatical and metaphysical substletics of classical Indian thought, have found it a subject worthy of their intellectual energies.
Valmiki’s Ramayana tells the tragic story of a virtuous and dutiful prince, the man who should be king. Who is exiled because of his step-mother’s fit of jealousy. Rama’s real troubles begin when he enters the forest for fourteen brother Laksmana. Sita is abducted by the wicked raksana King Ravana who takes her away to his isolated kingdom on the far side of the southern ocean. Rama and Laksmana set out to rescue her and, along the way, they make an king’s advisor, Hanuman, becomes Rama’s invaluable ally and is instrumental in making the mission to rescue Sita a success. At the end of a bloody war with the raksasas, Ravana is killed and sita is reunited with her husband. Rama and his companions return to the city and and Rama reclaims the throne that is rightfully his.
Rama’s equanimity and grace in the face of all the terrible things that happen to him,
Sita’s unflinching devotion to her husband, Laksmana, and Hanuman’s fierce loyalty to Rama: these qualities have made the characters of the Ramayana ideals in Indian Culture, valued for their virtues and exemplary behaviour. Rama is not just the perfect man, he is the ideal son, the ideal brother, and, most important, the ideal king. Likewise, Sita, Laksmana and Hanuman loom large in the cultural imagination as the perfect examples of their social roles.
Within the idealized and heroic tale of public honour and kingship is another intensely personal and intimate story. It is one of family relationships, of love between fathers and sons, brother and brother, friends and allies, husbands and wives. The Ramayana is as much a tale of personal promises and private honour, of infactuation and betrayal, of harem intrigue, petty jelousies, destructive ambitions and enormous personal loss as it is a tale of rightful and righteous kings. Even as questions of kingly duty and nobility of character for the public realm are raised, the story revolves around fidelity, obligations and the integrity that refines individual relationships.
The Two Realms of the Ramayana
The universe in which this tale occurs is expanded by gods and celestial beings, boons and curses magical weapons, flying chariots, powerful sages, wondrous animals, heroic monkeys and terrifying raksasas. A crucial aspect of the expanded universe which includes the presence of the divine is the fact that Rama himself is an incarnation, an avatara, of the great god visnu. In valmiki’s Ramayana, Ramadoes not know this about himself. While the gods are on his side in all that he does and often appear to help him or his allies, he goes through the story not knowing that he was born mortal for the express purpose of killing Ravana. The gods’ divine plan becomes Rama’s personal destiny and must be played out to the bitter end. After the war is over, the gods appear and tell him who he is.
Valmiki's Ramayana is divided into seven books: Balakanda(Childhood), Ayodhyakanda
(Ayodhya), Aranyakanda (Wilderness), Kiskindhakanda(Kiskindha), Sundarakanda
(Beauty), Yuddhakanda (War) and Uttarakanda (Epilogue.) Of these, the first two and the last books
('Childhood,' 'Ayodhya' and 'Epilogue') are situated firmly
in the mundane world, in the kingdom of Ayodhya, where
Dasaratha and later Rama rule wisely and well. The other
books ('Wilderness', 'Kiskindha', 'Beauty' and 'War') are
located in the forests south of Ayodhya and in Lanka.
As with other Indian genres of literature, the magical
and mundane, the natural and the supernatural encounter
each other frequently in the Ramavana. Usually, the
supernatural and wondrous events occur outside the city,
in the uncharted and dangerous regions through which
the hero must pass. It is here, in the narrative freedom
of the forests, deserts, islands and mountains, that Rarna
meets monsters and magical beings. The magical and
monstrous beings of the forests and wilderness are, most
often, liminal creatures. They straddle the boundaries of
more than one species, more than one category of being.
Some of these liminal creatures test Rama, others become
his allies, as he goes further on his quest.
In the books located outside Ayodhya, when the story
enters the realm of magic and wonder, Rama has to
contend first with powerful sages and then with
marauding raksasas before he meets the friendly animals
who will help him get his wife back. While there are
isolated instances of the magical breaking into the
mundane world in the first and last books, the incidents
either occur outside the kingdom (like the princes'
encounter with Tataka in 'Childhood') or under highly
circums!ribed situations (like Sita's disappearance into the
earth during the sacrifice in 'Epilogue').
Once Rarna leaves the city, the known world has been left behind and from this point on, there are few
signposts. In 'Kiskindha.' when Sugrtva is directing his
monkey hordes to go out into the world and find Sita,
he provides a fascinating geography that begins with real
kingdoms and real peoples and then opens up into a
cosmology of wild and dangerous places where neither
the sun nor the moon shine, where there are people with
ears so long they can sleep inside them, and so on until
you reach the regions where the gods and celestial beings
It is in the enchanted forests south of the kingdom
that Rama is truly tested for valour, patience and fortitude.
Anything can happen here and it does. Rama's initial
encounters with the monstrous Viradha and Kabandha
are only preludes to the larger and deadlier conflicts that
await him in Janasrhana and Lanka. The forests, in a
sense, represent the underbelly of the Ramavana's idealized
human actors and the perfect city of Ayodhya. There
seem to be different rules of conduct in the forests and
wilderness and certainly a different set of narrative
parameters. Birds that speak, monkeys that fly,
form-changing raksasas and headless torsos that run amok
are not unnatural or bizarre. Rather, they seem to fall
into the normal course of events.
It has been suggested that these forest creatures,
particularly the monkeys and the raksasas , are the shadows
of the Ramavana's ideal principal characters.i' Because Rama
and Sita cannot or will not act out their baser impulses,
the monkeys and raksasas , who embody non-perfection,
do it for them. For example, the monkey Vali can banish
his younger brother Sugriva who usurped the kingship
of Kiskindha, but Rarna is bound by his dharma and his
model nature to let Bharata, his younger brother, keep the kingdom. Likewise, Surpanakha, the raksasi , can
express her carnal desire for Rama whereas Sita can only
express sublimated love and devotion.
These sets of contrastive figures provide the
poets with a vehicle for portraying the
ambivalence inherent in all real human beings
while keeping the central characters largely
free from inner struggle."
It is also in the same southern lands that Rama perpetrates the two acts that
apparently mar his shining dharmic nature: the unlawful killing of the monkey
Vali and the rejection of his faithful wife Sita. By implication, it would seem
that the strict moral and legal codes of Ayodhya and the world of humans do
not apply in the forests and the southern lands. Rama operates here under a
different code of ethics. In fact, in the early chapters of 'Wilderness', when
Rama, Laksmana and Sita have just entered the unpeopled forests, Sita tells
Rama that here they must abide by separate rules for behaviour. She says that
they must leave the codes of the city behind and learn to live by the rules
of the forest dwellers. Ironically, though, Rama's unlawful acts are the result
of his imposing the rules and dharma of human city living upon events that occur
outside the city.
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