The Ramayana


The Text
The Ramayana circulates throughout South Asia in many versions. The oldest authoritative version is attributed to the sage Valmiki, who plays a role in the story itself, a common motif in Hindu literature. Researchers sense that, stylistically, Valmiki’s Ramayana was mostly composed by one person, although there were certainly additions to it over the centuries, through the insertion or deletion of words, verses, episodes, or even entire books into the body of the text. ... Thus there are numerous variations on the story, even in its written forms. Valmiki’s Ramayana took shape between 500 BCE and 300 CE, although the events of the story are said to have taken place in the Treta Yuga. (IH, 155)

At the beginning of the Mahabharata Earth (personified as a goddess) finds herself overrun by asuras (anti-gods) and other demons. Defeated by the devas [gods] in heaven, they have taken embodiment among men, especially among ksatriyas, disrupting a golden age. They multiply to such an extent that the Earth can no longer support herself. (In more abstract terms, adharma is in the ascendant.) Tyrannized in this fashion, Earth appeals to the god Brahma for help. He instructs the gods to help relieve Earth’s burden by being born with a part of themselves among men. Thus the cosmic battle against the asuras will be fought out on earth, dharma will be pitted against adharma in the world of men. Most significantly, this entails the ‘descent’ (avatara) of the great god Visnu, who is embodied with a portion of himself as Krsna Vasudeva [or as Rama in the Ramayana]. Here ... a pattern is established in which Visnu makes regular ‘descents’ to relieve the earth of adharma. (The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahabharata, xxix)

The Protagonist

Rama’s life and journey is one of adherence to dharma despite harsh tests and obstacles and many pains of life and time. He is pictured as the ideal man and the perfect human. For the sake of his father’s honour, Ram abandons his claim to Ayodhaya’s throne to serve an exile of fourteen years in the forest. His wife Sita and brother Lakshmana decide to join him, and all three spend the fourteen years in exile together. While in exile, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the Rakshasa monarch of Lanka. After a long and arduous search, Rama fights a colossal war against Ravana’s armies. In a war of powerful and magical beings, greatly destructive weaponry and battles, Rama slays Ravana in battle and liberates his wife. Having completed his exile, Rama returns to be crowned king in Ayodhya and eventually becomes emperor, rules with happiness, peace, duty, prosperity and justice — a period known as Ram Rajya. (

The Antagonist

According to the Ramayana story, Ravana was the son of a rishi, a Brahmin father, and a kshatriya Rakshasa mother, thus attaining a status of Brahmarakshasa. (wiki/Ravana)
It is said that Rakshasas were created from the breath of Brahma when he was asleep at the end of the Satya Yuga. As soon as they were created, they were so filled with bloodlust that they started eating Brahma himself. Brahma shouted “Rakshama!” (Sanskrit for “protect me!”) and Vishnu came to his aid, banishing to Earth all Rakshasas (thus named after Brahma’s cry for help). (wiki/Rakshasa)
Ravana ... wins the boon of near invincibility from Brahma by generating extreme tapas. (It is only because Ravana fails to take seriously the fine print in his contract, specifying every creature but humans, that Rama is able to defeat him.) ... Such ogres may stand for humans who, through precisely that sort of religious activity, unmediated by priestly interventions, usurped the privileges of the Brahmins. As shape-shifters who pretend to be what they are not, the ascetic ogres are (super)natural metaphors for people who try to become more powerful than they have a right to be, the wildcat yogis who are not members of the Brahmin union. (The Hindus, 247)

Rama and Sita are the protagonists in one of the most famous love stories of all time. Described as being deeply in love, Sita and Rama are theologically understood as Incarnations of Lakshmi and Vishnu respectively. When Rama is banished from the kingdom, he attempts to convince Sita not to join him in a potentially dangerous and certainly arduous existence in the jungle, but Sita rejects this. When Rama orders her in his capacity as husband, Sita rejects it, asserting that it was an essential duty of a wife to be at her husband’s side come good or ill.[41] Rama in turn is assiduously protective and caring for Sita throughout the exile.

When Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, both Sita and Rama undergo great personal hardships during their separation. Sita protects her chastity assiduously, and survives over a year in captivity on the strength of her love and attention to religious values and duty. She is completely unfettered in her resolve despite Ravana’s courting, cajoling and threats. Meanwhile Rama, not knowing who had kidnapped Sita or where was she taken, often succumbs to despair and tears, denouncing himself for failing to defend her and agonizing over her safety and pain. Sita knows that it is in Rama’s destiny to fight to rescue her (she refuses to be rescued thus by Hanuman, who discovers her), but is deeply anxious for his safety and fearful of Ravana’s power.

The ‘Wedding of Rama and Sita’ concerns two entities coming together to form a whole. ... Rama’s marriage to Sita on earth parallels the celestial union of VishnuLakshmi; each deity took birth on earth, and so when Rama marries Sita, he is actually reuniting with his divine consort Lakshmi, Goddess of Good Fortune, who brings prosperity to Kosala. At an allegorical level, the union of Rama and Sita represents the relationship between God and the devotee, with Rama as the beloved divine king and Sita as his devotee. (wiki/Rama and Sita)
The Original Ending
While Sita expected Rama to rush to see her, he asked that she bathe, adorn herself and be brought before him. There he explained that he had fulfilled his dharma by slaying Ravana and rescuing her. However, since her chastity was in question since she had been touched by Ravana and had spent a year in captivity with him, she should be banished. Shocked and dismayed, Sita pledged to prove her fidelity and chastity by surviving a fire ordeal. Entering the flames, she was delivered from them, unburned, by Agni himself. The god of fire told Rama that Sita was pure and that he should not treat her harshly. The heroes all returned to Ayodhya triumphantly, and Rama was restored to his rightful kingship.
       Unfortunately, after returning to Ayodhya, the citizenry still did not fully accept Sita’s purity, and Rama’s capacity to rule effectively was being jeapordized. Unaware that she was pregnant, Rama got rid of her. Abandoned in the forest, Sita eventually made her way to the hermitage of the sage Valmiki, the author of the epic. There she gave birth to twin sons Lava and Kusa, who learned the epic from Valmiki. When they had grown up, Lava and Kusa visited Ayodhya and recited Valmiki’s Ramayana to Rama. As the tale reached the end, Rama realized that Sita had not perished, and that the bards were his own sons. He sent for Sita, hoping to restore her to her rightful place as queen, but she no longer wanted any part of that life. She beseeched the Earth to receive her if she was truly pure. For Sita, king Janaka’s daughter, had not been born in the conventional manner, but was discoered in a furrow (sita) of the Earth as her father ploughed it in a sacrificial rite. Instantly, the ground opened and Sita was swallowed up by the Earth, from whence she had originally come. 
(IH, 160-1; cf. The Hindus, 224-9)

The Bollywood Ending
The Faithful Monkey
My Hanuman Is Bigger Than Yours

In addition to other, Shakta-influenced expansions already noted, Krittibasa’s Bengali narrative includes many colorful stories ... [including, for the first time] the beloved story of Hanuman’s cracking open with his teeth the gems of a priceless necklace, presented to him by Sita, in an effort to see whether they contain the name of Ram; when onlookers chide him that objects can be valuable without containing “Ram” — one’s body for example — Hanuman tears open his own chest to reveal Ram and Sita enshrined in his heart .... (“My Hanuman Is Bigger Than Yours,” 228-9)
A Long and Winding Tail
Even a casual visitor to India ... rapidly encounters Hanuman’s muscular form with its distinctive simian face and tail in many banal contexts: placed at the feet of pipal trees, adorning garish teashop calendars, or standing pluckily on the dashboard of countless buses and trucks; one of his epithets — Maruti (“son of the wind”) — now designates the Indo-Japanese sedans which choke all urban thoroughfares. Yet despite Hanuman’s visual ubiquity, textual sources for the study of Hinduism rarely accord him more than passing mention (if they mention him at all) as one of “the lesser deities of the Hindu pantheon ... the monkey-king whose devotion to Rama is held up as a model of what human devotion to God should be.” Scholarly neglect of Hanuman, reflected in the paucity of published research, is indicative of the lingering classicist and text-oriented bias of Indological research, for the Hanuman cult has been justifiably termed “a relatively late and marginal phenomenon within Vaisnavism,” and nothing turned off the old-school Indologist more quickly than the discovery that a phenomenon lacked an authoritative body of (preferably pre-Gupta) textual underpinning. (“My Hanuman...,” 217)
It remains to offer some speculative explanations for this phenomenon and to bring it forward to the present — that is, to link this striking efflorescence with the contemporary narrative of monumental sculptural installations with which this essay opened. Given the chronology of these religious developments, one obvious thesis presents itself for consideration: that the rise of devotion to Hanuman and indeed to Ram reflects the response of the Hindu elite of northern and central India to the changed political and cultural context caused by Islamic incursions and eventual conquests from the northwest. (“My Hanuman...,” 234)

[I] propose that we recognize in the varied aspects of Hanuman a god who has functioned, at least during the past millennium, as something of an “open category” of deity — capable of absorbing meanings as readily as he is said to have absorbed, while yet an infant, the powers of preexisting divinities. ... [W]hen inverviewees were questioned about their devotion to Hanuman, they would almost invariably respond by citing him as a perfect embodiment of both “shakti and bhakti” — indeed, this formula has become virtually a slogan among his devotees. The relevant semantic field of these two terms is far broader than the conventional translation “power and devotion” suggests and implies the bridging of two worldviews.
As an embodiment of shakti, Hanuman expresses the raw life (and death) forces of nature and the deities who control them and also the spritual orientation which aims toward increasing personal mastery over these cosmic forces: toward the attainment of personal strength and autonomy, and also occult powers, perfection, and ultimate immortality — the adamantine perfection of the spiritual hero, the tantric magician and yogi with his “diamond-like” body. ...
As an example of bhakti, Hanuman stands for the emotional power of self-effacing love, service, and sacrifice and for the religious paths which seek salvation through self-surrender to a loving god. Here the predominant metaphor is of the fluidity and ultimate melting away of the ego-self; hence, in this aspect, the adamantine warrior becomes tearful, even (by Western standards) syrupy: bazaar posters show him chanting the divine name, with tears streaming from half-closed eyes. (“My Hanuman...,” 240-1)



To be vigorously and devotedly involved in the Ramlila for one month is to take an excursion out of ordinary space and time. The Ramcharitmanas, along with mainstream devotional Hinduism, teaches that the universe is lila, or play, which in Sanskrit as in English means both “drama” and “game.” The idea of lila is closely akin to that of maya, which we may say here refers to the transient and illusory world of forms. I believe that the Ramlila is constructed in such a way as to produce an actual experience of the world as lila or maya.
       The participant not only sees the drama but finds himself acting in it. A vast world is created before and around him. This world is built physically and psychologically performance after performance. The devotee’s days are curved around the necessity of being there. Including transportation, attendance often takes seven hours, sometimes more. The tawdry samsara life pales while the Ramlila world becomes ever more vivid, brilliant, and gripping.
       The large space of the Ramlila is extended to a semblance of infinity by the fact that the “play” is set in the “
real world.” Our stage embraces town, village, field, forest, lake. Our floor is the earth, and our roof is the sky, often awesome during the moments of transition between day and night, in this season of transition between the rains and autumn. (The Life of Hinduism, 124-5)
We the audience have the same relationship to the Ramlila that God has to the play of the universe: we are watchers of the show. At the same time we are participants in the show; and, in a way ... we are even creators of the show. ... On several occasions Ram acts like a human being by showing what seem to be petty emotions. He mourns pathetically when his wife is abducted. He becomes furious when Sugriva, the monkey king, forgets his promise to help. We may be inclined, like Parvati, to complain that either this is no Lord of the Universe or that he is indulging in an absurd charade. ... [However,] Ram behaves the way we humans do not because he is like us, but to get us to realize that we are like him. We are in a dream of conflict, gain, and loss. If we could wake up we would see, as the Lord sees, that it is all a Lila. He is mirroring us (which is, by the way, a time-honored theatrical exercise). (The Life of Hinduism, 130-1)

If you ask people why they come to Ramlila, the great majority will say, “To get God’s darshan.” Darshan means “vision.” Hindus take darshan of a holy person, object, or place, believing that its mere presence, particularly the sight of it, conveys blessings. There is a special term for the darshan available at Ramnagar: it is called sakshat, or “direct-witness” darshan. In some sense, one is looking directly at God. The crowned boy with gleaming decorations on his face is not a symbol. But the full experience of sakshat darshan does not occur automatically; it requires the proper attitude and openheartedness on the part of the devotee. (The Life of Hinduism, 128)