In the Hindu culture, there is a well-known poem, that consists of nearly 24,000 verses. The ancient Indian epic poem narrates the struggle of prince Rama and his adventure to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. The poem tells the story behind Rama’s 14-year exile to the forest from the kingdom, by his father King Dasharatha – on the request of his second wife Kaikeyi. The travels take him through the forests of India with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. During the time, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, Rama goes to war to save her, and then he returns to Ayodhya to be crowned king.
The Ramayana is one of the largest ancient epics in world literature. It is divided into seven books and approximately 500 chapters. Hindus believe that the story depicts several important elements and concepts within relationships. The poem portrays ideal characters like the father, servant, brother, wife and ultimately the king. The Hindu culture takes the story very seriously because they believe it presents the teachings of ancient Hindu sages in a narrative allegory, insightful philosophical insights and ethical elements.
There are several versions of Ramayana in Indian languages, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain adaptations. In addition, there are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Malaysian versions.
Hindus believe that the story of Ramayana is ultimately a teaching on the goals of human life. People love the story of redemption and the journey one must take to become greater than they originally anticipated. Moreover, everyone also loves a little drama because it adds intensity and proposes unforeseen obstacles.
However, for readers not familiar with Hinduism, it’s helpful to know the general background and dynamics of the characters of Ramayana.
- Dasharatha is king of Ayodhya and father of Rama. He has three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra. He also has three sons, Bharata, and twins Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Dasharatha’s favorite queen Kaikeyi forces him to make their son Bharata be crowned the prince. She then tells Dasharatha that he must exile Rama and send him away. Soon, Dasharatha dies from a broken heart after Rama is banished.
- Rama is the main protagonist of the tale. He is the eldest and favorite son of Dasharatha. He is portrayed as the epitome of virtue because of his banishment to exile and adventure to prevail. Rama kills the evil demon Ravana, who kidnapped his wife Sita, and later returns to Ayodhya to claim his ruling.
- Sita is another protagonist. She is a daughter of Mother Earth, adopted by King Janaka, and Rama's wife. Rama ventured to Mithila and received a chance to marry her by breaking the Shiv Dhanush while trying to tie a knot to it in a competition. The event was organized by King Janaka of Mithila in Dhanusa. The competition was put together in order to find the most suitable husband for Sita. Princes from different states competed to win her. In the story, Sita is portrayed as the epitome of female purity and virtue. She follows her husband into exile and is abducted by the demon king Ravana. She is imprisoned on the island of Lanka, until Rama rescues her by defeating Ravana. Later, she gives birth to twin boys Luv and Kusha.
- Bharata is the son of Dasharatha and Queen Kaikeyi. When he learns that his mother Kaikeyi has forced Rama into exile and caused emotional turmoil onto Dasharatha, he storms out of the palace and goes in search of Rama in the forest. But Rama refuses to return from his exile to take over the throne. Upon his return, Bharata took Rama's sandals and placed them on the throne as a gesture that Rama is the true king. Bharata then ruled Ayodhya, alongside his wife Mandavi, as the regent of Rama for the next 14 years.
- Lakshmana is one of Rama’s younger brothers. He chose to go into exile with Rama. He is the son of King Dasharatha and Queen Sumitra and twin of Shatrughna. He spends the majority of his time protecting Sita and Rama. During this time, he fights the demoness Surpanakha. Lakshmana is forced to leave Sita, who was tricked by the demon Maricha into believing that Rama was in trouble. Sita is abducted by Ravana upon Lakshmana leaving her. Lakshmana was married to Sita's younger sister Urmila.
- Shatrughna is a son of Dasharatha and his second wife Queen Sumitra. He is one of Rama’s younger brothers - twin brother of Lakshmana. He was married to Shrutakirti. Shatrughna does not follow Rama and Lakshmana into exile.
Scenes from the 24,000-versed poem have been depicted through terracottas, stone scriptures, bronzes and paintings. Notably these artistic expressions include the stone panel at Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh depicting Bharata’s meeting with Rama at Chitrakuta. In addition, the Ramayana has become popular in Southeast Asia and is represented in literature, temple architecture, dance and theater. Today dramatic reenactments of the story are performed.
All in all, Rama is a Hindu hero and one of the most popular deities worshipped within the Hindu religion. To pay homage to Rama, each year, pilgrims retrace the steps taken during his journey through India and Nepal. Many followers believe that Rama is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Modern Hindus have integrated Rama and his story into pop culture, by featuring the story line and characters in films, tv shows and mainstream plays seen by thousands.
For the Hindu culture, Rama is a soldier that never allowed anything to hold him down. While he directly felt the wrath of exile, he found strength within his turmoil to be braver than anyone gave him credit for. For the individual not tied to Hinduism, the story represents the underdog. While all odds were against him, he chose to never give up and find internal strength to get him through the journey ahead. Rama represents the hero we all strive to be on a daily basis, when we’re in the trenches of day-to-day difficulties and life changing circumstances.