Ramayana, commonly known as Ramayan, is one of the two major ancient epics from India. Within the entire range of the Hindu religious literature, the Ramayana Story or the Valmiki Ramayana is very much significant.
Basically, the Ramayan story revolves around the life of Rama, the crown prince of Ajodhya. As the events gradually unfold, Rama is sent on exile where his wife, Sita, is kidnapped by Ravana. Ravana is the powerful demon king from Lanka and is also a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva.
The central battle of the Ramayana was fought between Rama and Ravana. As a result, Sita was finally saved. The Ramayana story plays a major role in shaping the religious moralities of the followers of Hinduism.
In order to properly understand the significance of the Valmiki Ramayana, let’s take a brief look at its historical background. With its 24,000 verses, the Ramayan is, undoubtedly, one of the lengthiest epics of the Hindus. The actual origins of the text have been a much-debated topic and we haven’t reached any solid conclusion.
However, by general consensus, the ancient sage – Valmiki – is believed to have written the Ramayana. As for the time of creation, it is believed to be somewhere around the 5th century B.C.
Mahabharat is the only other Hindu epic that is as significant and as vast as the Ramayana.
The Ramayan Story
Basically, the Ramayana story depicts the adventures of Rama, who was King Dasharatha’s eldest son. His mother was known as Kaushalya.
Being the first son, Rama is the natural heir to the throne of Ajodhya. However, herein, Kaikei, Dasharatha’s second wife plays some tricks to make her son the king.
She manipulates Dasharatha into sending Rama away on exile for a period of 14 years. Sita and Laxman – Rama’s brother – decide to accompany him to the forests.
During their stay in exile, the eyes of the demonic King of Lanka, Ravana, fell on Sita. Overcome by her beauty, the ten-headed king decided to kidnap her and take her to Lanka.
When Rama becomes aware of the whereabouts of his wife, he plans to march on Lanka and rescue her. He is assisted by Laxman and his general is Pawanputra Hanuman.
Hanuman, the warrior, is a very significant character in the Valmiki Ramayana.
After the battle is over, Rama returns to Ajodhya along with Sita, Laxman, Hanuman, and the others. On returning, under public pressure, Rama asks Sita to establish her chastity by walking through fire. Sita is offended by this and, with the help of Mother Earth, she vanishes into thin air.
The Major Tropes of Ramayana
As expected of a lengthy epic like the Ramayan, it is a culmination of numerous themes and motifs. Although there are hundreds of smaller themes, there are a few very significant and major themes in the Valmiki Ramayana.
First, the relationship between Rama and Sita can be seen as the ideal matrimonial model for the Hindu society. Moreover, it imparts the essential knowledge of the need for love and true devotion.
Second, by asking Sita to prove herself, Rama expressed an ultimate nobility which all kings must strive to achieve. At the same time, Sita, by sacrificing herself gave the best possible evidence for her chastity.
Third, the voluntary decision of Laxman to accompany his brother in his tough times embodies the ideals of brotherhood. It also arouses a devotion towards familial loyalty.
Fourth, Hanuman is symbolic of bravery, as well as, of loyalty towards the sovereign.
The Ramayan Story and Popular Culture
The influence of the Ramayan story on the lives of the common people of India has always been rising steadily. In India, as you might know, a culture was practiced orally in the ancient times. Tales from Ramayana were narrated verbally within the family and, sometimes, also in the public. Many festivities and ceremonies in India revolve around significant events of the Ramayana.
For instance, the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana is celebrated on the day of Dussehra. It is a festival meant to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Dussehra is observed somewhere between September-October which, according to the Hindu calendars, coincides with the month of Ashvin. Another common expression of popular culture in India has been the folk theatre, also known as Jatra.
A large number of these theatrical performances have been based on adaptations of the Ramayana story.
Ramlila is one of the most famous folk dramas of this kind. Even today, it is regularly performed in many village fairs in different parts of India. With the advent of moving image, and eventually the TV, numerous stories from the Valmiki Ramayana hit the screens. They became the subject of many daily-soaps on TV and also in many movies. Even at the present moment, many cinematic adaptations of the Ramayana are being produced.
Apart from these, there have also been radio shows based on the Ramayana. Time and again, artists have found inspiration in the depictions of the epic.
Reading the Valmiki Ramayan
If you are thinking that the Ramayana is an easy read, I hope you know that you are seriously mistaken. Just like any other mature epic, the Ramayana is a complex web of relations and interrelations.
Moreover, the oral traditions of propagation have imparted a specific character to these epics, which makes them difficult to read. While trying to learn about the Ramayana, it is not unusual to confront many different versions of the same story. Various localized cultural experiences and knowledge have imparted their hues on the epic, filling the picture with many colors.
Although Ramayana is primarily regarded as a religious text, people from different religious communities unanimously regard it as a classic. Ramayana has a tremendous significance in the history of Indian literature.
For the western reader, quite a few translations of the epic are available. Among these, probably Steven Knapp’s translation is the most eloquent and accurate.
In all, Ramayana is truly an epical masterpiece owing to its vivid descriptions and the detailed image of Indian society.