The Ramayana: India’s Greatest Heroic Epic

The Ramayana is one of India’s two great Sanskrit Epics, the other being the Mahabharata of 200,000 lines. The 24,000 verses of the Ramayana make it one of the longest epics in ancient literature, and its story is divided into five parts. The narrative follows the epic hero Rama in his attempt to rescue his devoted wife Sita from abduction by the demon king Ravana. The Ramayana is a foundational text in Indian culture and portrays a set of characters who exhibit noble and idealized behaviors—father, son, servant, brother, husband, and king—engaged in relationships that portray the pinnacle of the Indian take on morality and virtue.

Bala Kanda

The first section of the Ramayana is called the Bala Kanda, which details the legendary birth of Rama. The story begins in Ayodhya, a mythical city founded by Manu, the first human. King Dasharatha ruled over Ayodhya with his three wives: Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Childless with all three, he performs a fire ritual that results in the birth of four sons: Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana, and Shatrughna (the last two being born to the same mother, Sumitra). The Hindu deity Vishnu endowed these sons with his essence, particularly Rama, in order to circumnavigate a prophecy stating that the oppressive demon Ravana could only be destroyed by a mortal. The four boys were raised as princes, receiving lessons in combat and religion.

When Rama was sixteen years old, a sage known as Vishwamitra came to Ayodhya to request help fighting demons and devils who were disturbing his religious rites. Vishwamitra chooses the teenage Rama to accompany him, and Rama in turn is accompanied by his paternal brother Lakshmana. Vishwamitra provides them with supernatural weaponry, and they fight against the demons.

The story then shifts to the kingdom of Mithila, where Janaka is king. He finds a female child in a deep furrow made by his plow, and regards the child as a miraculous gift, naming her Sita (a Sanskrit word for furrow). Sita grows into a beautiful woman. In order to find the perfect suitor, King Janaka presents a test: whoever can bend an string Shiva’s enormous bow will win Sita as the prize. Vishwamitra takes Rama to the contest, and the boy strings the bow successfully, even drawing back the string before it breaks. Janaka marries Sita to Rama, and three of his other daughters to Rama’s paternal siblings, the other three princes. After great festivities, the marriage parties leave Mithila and return to Ayodhya.

Ayodhya Kanda

In the next section of the Ramayana, the Ayodhya Kanda, Rama and Sita have been married for twelve years. King Dasharatha wants to crown Rama as king of Ayodhya, and the people support the idea. However, the maid Manthara stirs up jealousy in his wife Kaikeyi; she asks for Dasharatha to banish Rama into the jungle for fourteen years, and to make her own son Baharata the king.

Dasharatha owes her two boons and decides to stick to his word, but when the willing Rama departs with his wife Sita and his devoted half-brother Lakshmana, King Dasharatha dies of heartbreak. As it turns out, Bharata was away visiting his maternal uncle, and when he returned to Ayodhya and learned the news, he refused to accept the kingship. He journeyed to find Rama in the forest, but Rama was determined to honor his word and decides to live in self-imposed exile in fulfillment of his father’s request.

Aranya Kanda

In this section of the Ramayana, Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana have been living in exile for thirteen years. They journey along the banks of the River Godavari, where they build some cottages to live off the land in seclusion. A demoness named Shurpanakha who is the sister of Ravana tries to seduce Rama and Lakshmana, but they push her away, so she attempts to kill Sita, but is stopped by Lakshmana, who cuts off her ears and nose.

Shurpankha’s demon brothers Khara and Dushan organize an attack of rakshasas (man-eating demons) in retaliation, but Rama defeats them. Ravana hears about the battle and becomes resolved to destroy Rama by abducting Sita. Ravana has the demon Maricha turn into a golden dear that enraptures Sita, and she asks for Rama to capture it. Rama knows this is a trick of Ravana’s to lure him away from Sita, but he cannot dissuade her, so he chases it into the jungle, leaving her alone with Lakshmana. 

Sita became convinced she heard Rama calling out to her for help, and asked Lakshmana to run to help her husband. Lakshmana tried to assure her that Rama was most likely fine, and that it would be better for him to stay with Sita and continue to protect her. However, Sita insisted that Lakshmana check after his half-brother, and he finally agrees—but only if she would stay in the cottage and not let anyone in to see her. He drew a magical white chalk outline around the cottage, which would prevent anyone from entering, but would still allow one to exit the boundary. Lakshmana went off in search of Rama, and at that moment, Ravana himself appeared before Sita, disguised as a hermit in search of hospitality. Sita was tricked into leaving the circle of safety, whereupon Ravana carried her away. 

Rama’s vulture friend Jatayu tried to rescue Sita, but was mortally wounded in combat when Ravana cut off his wings. He is still able to tell Rama and Lakshmana about Sita’s abduction, and they set out to find her and save her. At this point, they encounter the demon Kabandha, who Rama kills in combat, thus freeing the demon from a curse. They then meet an elderly woman named Shabari, who points them toward the city of monkeys, Kishkinda.

Kishkinda Kanda

Rama and Lakshmana meet the ape Hanuman, who is actually a huge fan of Rama. Hanuman brings the brothers to Sugriva, another ape who is a claimant to the monkey throne of Kishkinda. Rama takes a liking to Sugriva and helps him defeat his identical brother Vali (also called Bali). Rama could not tell who was who during the battle, so Sugriva distinguished himself by wearing a garland of flowers, so that Rama was able to mortally wound Vali with an arrow.

In return for helping Sugriva seize the throne, he was supposed to help Rama and Lakshmana find Sita, but he forgot his promise, enjoying the pleasures of being king. Thankfully, Vali’s widowed ape-wife Tara steps up and reminds Sugriva of his promise. He sends out search parties to the four corners of the globe, and the one led by Hanuman returns with a tip from Jatayau’s brother Sampati that Sita has been taken by Ravana to the island of Lanka.

Sundra Kanda

Hanuman takes the form of  giant ape and leaps across the ocean to the island of Lanka. There he finds a demon, Lankini, who he bests in combat. Lankini knew from a divine vision that the end of Lanka would be at hand if ever she were defeated in combat. Hanuman scopes out the kingdom and spies on Ravana, eventually finding Sita in a grove of Ashoka trees, where Rava was attempting to woo her, alternating his pleas with threats.

When he can get close, Hanuman approaches Sita and lets her know that Rama is looking for her. He gives her Rama’s ring as an assurance, and even offers to carry her back to Rama, but Sita refuses, saying that Rama must rescue her himself and avenge her wrong in person if that turn of events is to have spiritual significance.

Hanuman understands and makes to leave, but as he does he goes on a wrecking spree around Lanka, killing many of Ravana’s demon-warriors. Finally, he allowed himself to be captured so he would be brought before Ravana, whom he berates about releasing Sita. Ravana is non impressed and lights Hanuman’s tail on fire, but Hanuman escapes, his blazing tail setting fire to Ravana’s castle before he makes a giant ape-leap back to the mainland.

Yuddha Kanda

This section of the Ramayana details the war between Rama and his monkey allies on one hand, and Ravana and his demons on the other. Rama and Lakshmana take in Hanuman’s report and make their way to the sea. There they meet Ravana’s brother, Vibhishana, who joins forces with them. The monkeys Nala and Nila build a magical floating bridge across the sea, using stones inscribed with Rama’s name. The party crosses over the bridge to Lanka, and a battle ensues.

Ravana’s demon-son Idrajit mortally wounds Lakshmana, and Hanuman once agains assumes the form of a giant ape. Leaping across the sea, he heads to the Himalayas to locate a life-giving herb on Mount Sumeru. However, he cannot pinpoint wich piece of greenery is the right palliative, so he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back to Lanka. The battle continues, and ends when Rama kills Ravana in single combat, fulfilling the prophecy that Ravana had surely hoped to avoid. In gratitude for his help, Rama installs Ravana’s brother Vibhishana on the throne of Lanka.

Sita and Rama are reunited, and she offers to be tested in fire to prove her chastity and devotion to Rama, since he is troubled by rumos that she caved into pressure from Ravana. Sita plunges herself into the sacrificial fire, but Agni the fire lord raises her from the flames unscathed and seats her upon a throne, proving her innocence and her devotion to her husband Rama.

The Popularity of the Ramayana

As you can see, the story of Ramayana is exciting. In addition to the adventure of Rama’s quest to find Sita, aided by monkeys and fighting against man-eating demons, there are powerful themes such as true love, fidelity, and loyalty. The Ramayana was not only popular in India, but made its way around Southeast Asia, to be recast in Thai, Indonesian, Burmese, Cambodian, and even Philippine versions. Speaking of which, if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to see some (or all ) of the 50 best cities in Asia, we’ve got some great info on that as well.