Ramayana, like Mahabharata is a Hindu epic poem which dates back to somewhere around the 5th century B.C. It was written by the sage, Valmiki and has around 2400 verses. It describes the journey of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya as he is exiled to the woods for 14 years and his journey back to the throne. Ramayana is dominated with power games, royal politics, battles, and family drama. Yet somehow it edifies us the true meaning of love, sacrifice, loyalty, and brotherhood.
RAMAYANA: Birth of Rama
Ramayana begins in the kingdom of Ayodhya ruled by King Dasharath. He had no offspring. Longing for an heir to his riches and throne, he called for a sacrifice. At the ceremony the god of fire, Agni appeared in the flames and bestowed the king with a golden vase containing nectar. Agni said, “ I am pleased with your sacrifice. In return, I present to you this vase. It contains divine nectar. Give this to your queens and your heart’s longing shall be fulfilled” and vanished.
Dasharath had three wives. To his first and eldest, Kaushalya he gave half of the nectar. To his third and youngest, Kaikeyi he gave the other half. However, to his second wife Sumitra he gave the remaining portions of the drinks which Kaushalya and Kaikeyi couldn’t finish. After a while, Kaushalya gave birth to Rama, the eldest among all siblings. Sumitra gave birth to the twins Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Kaikeyi gave birth to Bharata.
Marriage with Sita
After a few years, the four princes had grown into strong yet generous men. One day, sage Vishwamitra arrived at King Dasharatha’s court and said that he needed the help of Rama and Lakshman to get rid of demons plaguing his hermitage and sabotaging every ritual by throwing blood and bones into the sacrificial fires. The king agreed and the princes accompanied Vishwamitra to his hermitage and killed off all the demons. Happy with the princes, Vishwamitra took Rama and Lakshman to the nearby kingdom of Mithila.
The kingdom of Mithila was organizing a ‘Swayamvar’ ( a ceremony where a princess picks a groom for herself from a pool of worthy suitors) for its princess, Sita. Sita was born of the earth. She was found in a rice field and was adopted by the king of Mithila, Janaka as his own. He had declared that anyone who could pick up the Divine bow of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and string it would be worthy of marrying his daughter. But this was no ordinary bow and therefore couldn’t be lifted by any ordinary man.
Prince Rama and Lakshman entered the court alongside sage Vishwamitra. The Bow of Shiva lied at the center of the room, still unstrung. Rama walked over to the bow, picked it up effortlessly, and bent the bow to tie the string. But the bow crushed under his force and broke into two. The entire court fell silent. Soon after, Rama happily married Princess Sita. Later on, his three brothers married Sita’s younger sister and her cousins.
Rama sentenced to exile
After a few years of peaceful reign, King Dasharatha decided to retire and abdicate the throne and pass it on to his eldest, Rama. Everyone was ecstatic about the decision. But Kaikeyi’s handmaiden, Manthara was extremely vile. She poisoned Kaikeyi’s mind and brainwashed her into believing that Bharata was the true heir to the throne. She went to Dasharatha with her suggestion.
Kaikeyi wanted Bharata to be the new king and Rama to be exiled into the forest for 14 years so that he doesn’t claim his right to the throne. Dasharatha was shocked and immediately refused the notion. In order to force the king to do her bidding, she reminded Dasharatha of a promise he made to her a few years back. He had promised to fulfill one wish of her’s, no matter the request.
Dasharatha refused to uphold his promise, but Rama being the ideal son decided to honor his father’s old promise. Accompanied by Lakshman and his wife Sita, they gave up all their royal possessions and dressed as commoners, left for the woods. Dasharatha was so shocked and traumatized by this that he died within two days.
Meanwhile, Bharata and Shatrughna were away at Bharata’s maternal grandfather’s kingdom for vacation. They were summoned back to Ayodhya by Kaikeyi. Upon arrival, Bharata was furious when he learnt what had happened in his absence. He reprimanded his mother for her actions which tore the family apart and refused to ascend the throne.
Bharata gathered some men and headed for the woods to get his brothers and sister-in-law back. But Rama refused to go back with him because he wanted to honor his father’s promise. Heartbroken, Bharata returned back with Rama’s sandals and placed them on the throne. He continued to rule the kingdom in the name of his brother until he returns.
Rama along with Lakshman and Sita decided to move deeper into the woods so that no one from Ayodhya could find them and beg him to go back.
RAMAYANA: Sita is abducted
Its been a few years in the woods. Rama, Lakshman, and Sita have built themselves a hut and have settled down. One day, a demoness named Surpanakha happened to pass through the area. She glanced at Rama and instantly fell in love. She approached him, but Rama turned her down pointing at Sita and stating that he already has a wife. He asked her to talk to Lakshman instead. This time also, she was turned down. Furious, she pranced towards Sita to finish her off, but Lakshman jumped between them and cut off her nose and ears.
Enraged, Surpanakha flew to Lanka (present day Sri Lanka), the kingdom of her ten-headed demon brother Ravana. Even though he was a demon, he was extremely intelligent and smart. He had the knowledge of scriptures and was an ardent worshiper of Lord Shiva, god of destruction.
Surpanakha approached her brother and described the entire incident in detail. Ravana was angry beyond measure and decided to avenge his sister’s honor. He called the demon Marich, who was a shapeshifter. He asked Marich to disguise himself as a deer with a golden hide and wander around Rama’s hut.
Marich obliged. Sita, on seeing the breathtaking golden deer asked Rama to get it for her. Before leaving, Lakshman drew a circle around the hut called Lakshman Rekha (Lakshman’s line) and asked Sita not to cross it no matter what. Then, they headed out in pursuit of the golden deer.
Ravana was hiding in the nearby bushes all this time. Once the brothers left, he approached the hut in the guise of an old sage. He called on Sita and asked her if he could have some food. Sita crossed the line to help him and immediately, Ravana revealed his real self. He abducted Sita and flew to his kingdom, Lanka in a flying chariot.
Jatayu, a divine bird noticed the beautiful woman crying for help and attacked the chariot. However, Ravana strikes back and cuts off his wings. Sita in complete desperation and helplessness throws her necklace in the hope of Rama finding it.
Rama gathers an army of monkey:
After returning back to an empty hurt, Rama and Lakshman are worried. They start looking around for Sita. They come across a now injured and on the verge of death, Jatayu who informs them about the abduction. He then breathes his last and the brothers bury him nearby. Heartbroken, Rama continues his quest.
On his way, he comes across the monkey king Sugreeva and helps him win a battle against his wicked brother. As a sign of gratitude, Sugreeva vows to help Rama. He gathers an army of monkey and together they decide to march south. Among the monkeys was Hanuman, born of the wind. He swore his loyalty to Rama and flew to Lanka to pinpoint Sita’s location.
RAMAYANA: Ravana’s Kingdom
The ten-headed demon King, Ravana had kept Sita in a beautiful garden called ‘Ashok Vatika’, with three demonesses as guards. On several occasions he had forced Sita to concede and marry him, but she turned down all his offers. Hanuman flies over Lanka and finds a depressed Sita in the garden, siting under the shade of a tree and chanting Rama’s name.
Seeing her, he bows down and introduces himself. Sita is suspicious but Hanuman shows Rama’s ring he was carrying, and she immediately recognizes it. Hanuman promises that Rama and his army are marching south to rescue her and she shouldn’t lose hope.
Before leaving, Hanuman wanted to have some fun. He deliberately let himself get caught by the royal guards. They tie him up and take him to the court. Ravana enquires him about his intentions, but Hanuman refused to answer any of his questions.
Furious, Ravana orders his men to wrap clothes around Hanuman’s tail and set it on fire. The men oblige. However, as soon as they set his tail on fire, Hanuman releases himself from the bonds and flies around and incinerates the entire city. Once done, he flew back to Rama with Sita’s location.
RAMAYANA: THE FINAL BATTLE
Rama and his army march south. Upon reaching the tip of the Indian subcontinent, they face a rather difficult challenge. Lanka was a small island in the Indian Ocean, several miles off the coast. They decided to build a bridge. But every time the army threw large boulders into the ocean, it drowned. Then someone came up with a unique idea.
On every single rock they wrote “Sri Rama” ( Sri is a title of respect written before the name of a god or man) and threw it into the ocean. Surprisingly it remained floating. Soon after, they constructed the bridge and the army marched into Lanka.
A fierce battle was fought. Ravana had invited all his demon brothers to fight alongside him except Vibhishana who sided with Rama. After few days, the battle ended with Rama killing Ravana and his army. Vibhishana was declared the new ruler of Lanka.
After the war, an ecstatic Sita walks towards Rama but he refused to take her back because she had been ‘living’ with Ravana. Heartbroken, Sita jumped into a nearby pyre to end her life. But to everyone’s astonishment she rose in the arms of Agni, the god of fire who announced that Sita was free of any sin. This event came to be known as ‘Agni Pareeksha’ meaning trial by fire.
By this time, 14 years of exile were over. Rama returned to Ayodhya along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman. People of his kingdom lit earthen lamps to celebrate his homecoming and the triumph of good over evil. This is how the festival of ‘Diwali’ came to be celebrated. Ramayana celebrates the triumph of good over evil. In the end, Bharata steps down and Rama is crowned as the new ruler of Ayodhya.