The Ramayana: India's Most Beloved Epic Tale

India's Most Loved Epic

Prayer beads, a man meditating, Varanasi, India
David Clapp / Getty Images

The Ramayana is undoubtedly the most popular and timeless Indian epic, read and loved by all. The term Ramayana literally means "the march (ayana) of Rama" in search of human values. The story is the narration of the struggle of Prince Rama to rescue wife Sita from the demon king, Ravana. As a literary work, it has been said to combine "the inner bliss of Vedic literature with the outer richness of delightfully profound story telling."

The true origins of the story are debated, but the authorship of the epic as we generally know it is assigned to the great sage Valmiki and is referred to as the Adi Kavya, or original epic. About the Valmiki Ramayana, Swami Vivekananda has said: "No language can be purer, none chaster, none more beautiful, and at the same time simpler, than the language in which the great poet has depicted the life of Rama."

About the Poet

Universally acclaimed and accepted as the first among Sanskrit poets, Valmiki was the first to discover a metrical expression of epic dimension and vision to match the emotional ecstasy of the story of Rama. According to a legend, Valmiki was a robber who one day met a hermit who transformed him into a virtuous being. Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom was believed to have assured the sage by standing at his side and guiding him to visualize the events of Ramayana and eulogize them with epic dignity and secular simplicity.

The Seven 'Kandas' or Sections

The epic poem is composed of rhyming couplets (known as slokas in high Sanskrit), employing a complex meter called anustup. These verses are grouped into individual chapters, or cantos called sargas, in which a specific event or intent is told. The sargas themselves are grouped into books called kandas.

 

The seven kandas of Ramayana are:

  • Bal Kanda, the boyhood section
  • Ayodhya Kanda, Rama's life in Ayodhya, until his banishment
  • Aranya Kanda, Rama's life in the forest and Sita's abduction by Ravana
  • Kishkindha Kanda, Rama's stay at Kishkindha, the capital of his monkey ally, Sugriva
  • Sundara Kanda, Rama's passage to Sri Lanka
  • Yuddha Kanda or Lanka Kanda, Rama's battle with Ravana, the recovery of Sita, and return to Ayodhya 
  • Uttara Kanda, the section narrating Rama's life in Ayodhya as king, the birth of his two sons, Sita's test of innocence and return to her mother, and Rama's demise or ' ala samadhi (water-tomb).

Time of Composition

There was a long period of oral tradition before the Ramayana was actually written, and the original strand of the story drew upon various pre-existing folk tales about Rama. Like many other classical poems written in ancient times, the exact date and time of the genesis of Ramayana are yet to be determined accurately. The reference to the Greeks, Parthians, and Sakas shows that the time of composition of Ramayana cannot be earlier than the second century BCE. But the consensus is that Ramayana was written between the 4th and the 2nd centuries BCE, with augmentations up to about 300 CE.

Linguistically and philosophically, a period just after the Vedic age would most suit the content of the epic.

Versions and Translations

The heroic deeds of Rama and his exciting adventures have inspired generations of people, and for centuries, the epic existed only orally in Sanskrit. Other famous versions of Ramayana include:

  • Shri Ramcharitmanas in Avadhi (old Hindi) by Goswami Tulsidas 
  • Kamban's Kambaraamayanam in Tamil 
  • The Patala Ramayanam in Malayalam
  • The Bengali Ramayana by Krittivas Ojha

This monumental work had a deep influence on almost all Indian poets and writers of all ages and languages, including  Ranganatha (15th century), Balarama Das and Narahari (16th century), Premanand (17th century), Sridhara (18th century), et al.

Valmiki's Ramayana was first introduced to the West in 1843 in Italian by Gaspare Gorresio with the support of Charles Albert, the King of Sardinia.

Universally regarded as one of the world's most important literary works, Ramayana has had a profound impact on the art, culture, family relations, gender, politics, nationalism, and militancy in the Indian sub-continent. The everlasting value of this epic tale has been extolled through the centuries, and it has been largely responsible for molding the Hindu character. However, it would be wrong to say that Ramayana belongs only to the Hindus.

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

Long ago, the Ramayana became popular in Southeast Asia and manifested itself in the text, temple architecture and performance--particularly in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia. Today, it belongs to the whole humanity because it is capable of serving as a code of ethics for all human beings, irrespective of caste, creed, color, and religion.

Unparalleled Popularity of the Ramayana

The characters and incidents in Ramayana provide the ideas and wisdom of common life and help to bind the people of India, regardless of caste and language. It is no wonder that two of India's greatest festive events--Dusshera and Diwali--are directly inspired by the Ramayana. The first commemorates the siege of Lanka and Rama's victory over Ravana; the second, the festival of lights, celebrates Rama and Sita's homecoming to their kingdom in Ayodhya.

Even now, the Ramayana continues to inspire a great many books interpreting its messages or presenting illustrated versions of the tale. 

International Ramayana Conference

Every year scholars from different countries get together for the International Ramayana Conference (IRC), which includes presentations on various themes and workshops based on Ramayana.

The IRC was held in India three times, two times in Thailand and one time each in Canada, Nepal, Mauritius, Surinam, Belgium, Indonesia, the Netherlands, China, Trinidad & Tobago and the US.

Ramayana Week & Ramnavami

The Ramayana Week begins nine days before Ramanavami, the birthday of Lord Rama. Every year, the Ramayana Week coincides with the beginning of Vasanta Navratri and culminates on the day of Ramnavami.

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Das, Subhamoy. "The Ramayana: India's Most Beloved Epic Tale." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-ramayana-1770168. Das, Subhamoy. (2017, August 22). The Ramayana: India's Most Beloved Epic Tale. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ramayana-1770168 Das, Subhamoy. "The Ramayana: India's Most Beloved Epic Tale." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ramayana-1770168 (accessed November 21, 2017).