Books, Culture, Literature

The Ramayana: Celebrating Its Timelessness and Universality

Last weekend, I revisited my love for one of the greatest epics of our time, The Ramayana. I was watching the 1995 version of The Little Princess and felt compelled to read this grand and fascinating tale because of the inspiring inserted scenes in the film. Also, my trainer just got back from India and brought back curry and tea for me, so my soul has been traveling in that part of the globe. I blame the world for conspiring to awaken my dormant love for India, and literary analysis, and so comes this post about one of the most beautiful stories about love and virtue. 


The literary canon of the modern world has expanded immensely over time and is motivated by the diversity of world cultures. However, every once in a while, there is a story that transcends all these to deeply affect people from all nations. The Ramayana is a Hindu epic that has inspired not only India, but different parts of the globe as well for many years past until the present. According to Frank Gaetano Morales in Hinduism Today, one of the most significant problems of modern Hinduism is “Radical Universalism”. He states that there is a difference between having tolerance for other religions and the fallacious claim that all religions are the same. The philosophy and influence of Hinduism should not be mistaken as a means to automatically identify one’s self as “Hindu”. Appreciation and value for great Sanskrit epics such as The Ramayana is a different concept however. It remains to be popular in India and throughout the world. It is filled with virtues that Hindus deem to be ideal and supreme. However, the epic also contains moral and ethical virtues that may be accepted by all. The Ramayana inspires great and receptive audiences in India and in many nations through its illustration of fundamental Hindu uprightness and universal quest for human consciousness. 

The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic attributed to the Hindu poet Valmiki and is considered to be one of the most well known in the Hindu canon. Traiditonally, it belongs to the Treta Yuga of the Hindu chronology and dates back as early as 5th Century BCE. It is a long epic; 24,000 verses or slokas in seven cantos or kandas that deal with Prince Rama’s life from his birth to death. It is however, considerably shorter than the 100,000 verses of the “Mahabharata”. According to Gavin Flood, in Hindu narrative tradition, both the “Mahabharata” and the “Ramayana” have two major recessions— “the northern and the southern”. Although both have become important influences in the ancient literature of India, The Ramayana. through allegory in narrative, illustrates the relevance of philosophy and devotion.

The Ramayana is an essential story, which portrays Prince Rama of Ayodhya as the hero and the ideal. As I mentioned earlier, the epic consists of seven kandas: (1) the Bala Kanda or the book that depicts the birth of Rama, (2) the Ayodhya Kanda which, marks the beginning of Rama’s exile through the evil machinations of Kaikeiyi,  (3) the Aranya Kanda or the Book of the Forest which shows Rama’s life in exile with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, (4) the Kishkinda Kanda which is about the Kingdom of Vanara and Rama’s alliance with Sugriva in order to rescue Sita, (5) the Sundara Kanda or the Book of Hanuman, (6) the Yuddha Kanda or the Book of War that illustrates Rama’s war with Ravana to fight for Sita and finally; (7) the Uttara Kanda which portrays life back at Ayodhya, Sita’s banishment and their deaths. Through the epic’s form, it is able to tell a story about courtly intrigue, heroic renunciation, fierce battles and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.


The plot revolves on how Prince Rama is sent into exile in the forest of Dandaka because of the evil machinations of his father Dasharatha’s favorite wife Kaikeiyi in order to place her son Bharata on the throne. Prince Rama, accompanied by his devoted wife Sita and loyal brother Lakshmana begin their hermitage in Chitrakuta. In the forest, they encounter the demon Rakshasas until the demon king Ravana abducts Sita. He flies her to Lanka yet she never yields to Ravana and steadfastly reminds him of her vow to Rama. Rama and Lakshmana in the quest to save Sita form an alliance with Hanuman and his army. They save Sita through force and a frightful battle. In the end, good prevails and Rama discovers his divinity; that he is an incarnation of the great Vishnu. As Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya to resume their lives, rumors questioning Sita’s purity emerge. Because no just ruler can reign over doubts of immorality, Rama banishes Sita to the forest where she gives birth to their children Kusa and Lava.

The virtues in The Ramayana center on the personas of Rama and Sita. Rama is the ideal in every aspect as a son, husband, and king. According to Vasudha Narayanan in William Oxtoby’s World Religions, when Rama banishes Sita, he is trying to protect the principle of a righteous ruler. In order to erase the cloud of rumors going on among his subjects with respect to Sita’s chastity when she was held captive by Ravana, he let her go into exile. Because there is no way of proving her innocence and he does not want to create a legal precedent for excusing a wife who has slept outside, Rama banishes Sita. This represents how Rama also emphasizes on the virtue of being a political ideal. Also, Rama is honest, brave, a fulfiller of all his ethical responsibilities. Rama attains the status of maryada purushottam, exemplar of rectitude.

Sita too is considered to be the ideal woman. Devdutt Pattanaik in Margaret Case’s The Inner Journey: Views from Hindu Tradition talks about the concept of Sita’s banishment at the end of the The Ramayana to be due to Laxmana-rekha. It is defined to be “the line that must not be crossed, the line that circumscribes Hindu ideas of duty, decorum, chastity, and civilization. At the heart of the plot, in the Ayodhya Kanda, Lakshmana using an arrowhead traces a line for Sita to not cross or allow anyone to come into. Ravana tries to trick her by transforming into a mendicant and easily abducts her. Had Sita not crossed the line, her reputation as a chaste wife would have remained intact. Incorporated in the oral transmission of The Ramayana, young girls are taught about the Laxmana-rekha and how stepping out of the line brings dishonor, shame, and ultimately leads to social ostracization. Sita dies by asking Mother Earth to be swallowed by the ground. Hindus see Sita as a model of strength and virtue, and that many agree with the deeds of Sita are indeed great.

Rama and Sita as ideals have strengthened the epic’s acclaim. The ancient Hindu epic is revered to the point that several regional versions still remain preserved in their rich culture and history. In 12th Century AD, a poet Kamban wrote the Ramavatharam, more famously known as the Kambaramayanam in Tamil. Although it has been modified to address the Tamil culture, it remains a true classic. Also, Valmiki’s “Ramayana” inspired Tulasidas in 1576 to write the Sri Ramacharit Manas. This version was written in Awadhi, a Hindu dialect, which falls under the bracket of bhakti literature and considered a masterpiece of India. Other versions include, a Bengali version by Krittivas in the 14th century, in Oriya by Balarama Das in the 16th century, in Marathi by Sridhara in the 18th century, a Telugu version by Ranganatha in the 15th century, a Kannada Ramayana by the 16th century poet Narahari, Kotha Ramayana in Assamese by the 14th century poet Madhava Kandali and Adhyathma Ramayanam Kilippattu, a Malayalam version by Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan in the 16th century. For thousands of years down to the present day, Rama’s life is celebrated in religious festivals, temple ceremonies, public holidays, and private ceremonies. Hindus have also designated places of pilgrimage where they flock every year. People in villages do not cease to tell the story of the hero Rama to their children. Even the last words of the famous statesman Gandhi were, “Ram-ram” before his assassination. The worship of Rama became widespread in the medieval period in Northern India and the name "Ram" became a synonym for God. Furthermore, there is such a thing as the cult of Rama, and there are still many active centers of Rama-worship in Janakpur and Uttar Pradesh. Also, there are still sects like the Ramanandi order found in Nepal that predominates worship to Ram. For many Hindus, especially those devout to Vishnu, The Ramayana is mainly a religious poem describing the avatara of God on earth, his struggles with the powers of evil and his victory.

However, even those who are not particularly oriented with Hinduism may appreciate The Ramayana as a fascinating tale of adventure, heroism, and uprightness. The story itself is filled with exciting plots and vivid imagery. For instance, the battle scene between Hanuman’s monkey-army and the frightful demon Rakshasas can capture one’s imagination easily. One may also be affected by the romance and emotion in particular scenes such as Rama’s exile to the forest, how Rama experiences loss over Sita’s abduction, or Sita’s suffering in Lanka when Ravana imprisons her. The Ramayana attempts to bring back its readers, audiences to real life experiences and sentiments with a high degree of consciousness and morality.

There is no doubt that a story like The Ramayana would garner such heights of approval in India and rest of the world. Although clearly the fallacy of radical universalism is qualified earlier, there is a kind of universality to what the epic depicts and attempts to teach. Many other cultures have adopted The Ramayana, particularly Asian nations. For example, in Indonesia, they have two variations of the Ramayana: (1) Kakawin Ramayana, which is a Javanese version that stays true to the epic and; (2) Phra Lak Phra Lam, which is in the Lao language depicting Rama and his brother Lakshmana’s life as the previous life of Buddha. In the Philippines, the popular versions of the epic are portrayed with the influence of local customs. The Philippine Rama story and the Maradia Lawana make it quite difficult to discern the original Rama-Sita plot. In Thailand, one of their national epics, Ramakien tries to remain identical to the “Ramayana” however many aspects such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature were modified to suit Thai context. The epic’s widespread, popular appeal is apparent in its contemporary variant versions through language that is beautiful in its detailed descriptions, extremely incredible costumes and make-up for plays and how the story is recounted in another culture yet manages to stay true to itself.

Whatever the interpretation, the story of Rama, Sita, and their devotee Hanuman has endured through the centuries in simple and complex forms, engaging the piety and adoration of generations of Hindus. So has it also persisted in other great cultures. The Ramayana is a beautiful story that captures the proper way of approaching life. For Hindus, life is not supposed to be meaningless. Life is in accordance to one’s own rights and duties as laid down in ancient texts. The story adopts the most well known view that Dharma is what is proclaimed in the Veda and it should be followed for its own sake, not for what it brings you in pain or pleasure. For other cultures, the epic captivates human senses and brings us to the essence of human consciousness, to choose what is right and the prevalence of good over evil.

I feel compelled to say that the story of Rama and Sita will be told as long as the rivers flow on earth and as long as human beings live. Especially in our world today, for The Ramayana to remain as praised and admired, the story has established its timelessness and success. So many virtues in Hinduism remain clear and evident from it but these are all the same values people must have as human beings. Although beliefs vary from now and then and from here and there, and the world continues to change, there are certain universal ideals that societies and cultures must stand for. The Ramayana is not at all lacking in providing these standards. The principles that Rama and Sita have are important lessons not only for Hindus but also for every human being. A tale that emphasizes on the path to righteousness, duty, and responsibility claims for the same kind of devotion and interest that it has garnered. The epic’s revivals and translations will live on. The Ramayana is powerful and enduring and whether one is Hindu or not, every one may celebrate its timelessness and magnificence.