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What is the Ramayana?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit tale considered one of the major texts of the Hindu religion. It is believed to have been written between 500 and 100 BCE, and is attributed to a revered Hindu sage, Valmiki. The Ramayana is the story of Prince Rama, whose wife, Sita, is kidnapped by a ten-headed evil king, Ravana.

The main plot of the Ramayana involves the life of Prince Rama and his attempts to retrieve his kidnapped wife. Rama is the favored son of a king, but is the victim of an evil plot by one of the king’s wives and is forced to go into exile for fourteen years. His wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana, go into exile with him.

Sita is kidnapped through the deceptions of Ravana, a king who wishes to have her as his wife. Ravana tempts Rama away from their home by having a demon disguise himself as a beautiful golden deer. Rama becomes spellbound and hunts the deer, leaving Lakshmana to tend to Sita. Ravana convinces Lakshmana with an illusion that Rama is in dire trouble. Despite the additional protection of Jatayu, an enormous vulture loyal to Rama, Ravana steals Sita away and returns to his kingdom of Lanka.

Following Sita’s abduction, Rama rages terrific war against Lanka. Hanuman, a monkey general and friend to Rama, destroys the city and locates Sita, but she will not come with him, insisting that it would insult Rama’s honor if he does not rescue her himself. Rama rescues Sita, and then controversially forces her to survive trial by fire to prove that she has not been dishonored by Ravana.

The story illustrates a central Hindu concept, that of dharma. Dharma states that each human has a divine or righteous path before them, and their job in life is to satisfy dharma. Those who betray it, as Ravana does in the Ramayana by separating Sita and Rama, are doomed to death and punishment. Rama and Sita are both held up as models of Hindu virtue, as neither considers betraying their dharma throughout the epic.

Rama is considered by some to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and is revered by some Hindus. The journey he undertakes across India is used as a pilgrimage by the devout. The birthday and wedding day of Rama are celebrated on the ninth day of the Hindu lunar calendar with a festival called Rama Navani. The festival is usually celebrated with plays and stories read from the Ramayana.

The Ramayana is not considered to be mere allegory, but serves as a religious text similar to the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah. Reading certain key passages is believed to protect and bless the audience. Rama’s strict adherence to dharma makes him the prime example of proper Hindu behavior, much as stories of Jesus’ life make him a model for Christians.

The Ramayana is extremely long and involves many side plots and additional stories. In its original form, it is made up of seven books comprising 24,000 verses and 500 epic poems or cantos. As such a long story, adaptations of the work have been historically problematic. However, several Indian television series have tried to produce on-screen versions of the Ramayana. One of these, Ramayan ran from 1987 to 1988 in India and proved extremely popular, giving a comprehensive look at the entire story.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Historical Index. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

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Discussion Comments
By anon924221 — On Jan 02, 2014

The people of Ram's kingdom did not believe Sita refused Ravana, and so in order to maintain order in his kingdom, Ram was forced to have Sita do the trial by fire. He had to follow his Dharma.

By stoneMason — On Dec 30, 2013

I've never read the Ramayana but I have seen plays and movies about it. It's true that Rama doesn't trust Sita but it's actually Sita's idea to go through trial by fire. She says that she is innocent and she will prove it by going through the fire. She does and the fire turns into flowers proving her innocence.

There is also an Indian movie called Raavan which was basically the story of Ramayana. But the movie was different in that it showed that Rama was not as good as he appeared and Raavan was not as evil as he appeared. I think the film was the humanization of deities. The story was the same but the characters were very much regular people.

By ysmina — On Dec 29, 2013

I know that the Ramayana is a holy text and I don't mean any disrespect to those who believe in it. But I find it odd that Rama makes Sita go through trial by fire. She goes through so much trouble and refuses to go away with Hanuman thinking of Rama's honor and he can't even trust her!

Why does he do that? Isn't it unfair to Sita? She survives the fire right?

By bluedolphin — On Dec 28, 2013

I'm not Hindu but I'm interested in Indian culture and I know that the Ramayana is a very important part of Hindu culture. As far as I know, there is a festival where Ravana, the ten headed demon is burned. Huge dolls of Ravana are made for this festival and burning arrows are fired at it. As the Ravana burns, people celebrate the victory of good versus evil.

Every culture and religion has different stories, but this theme of good versus evil is present in every single one. I think these stories are great ways to teach children about right and wrong.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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