Despite being the hero of the great Ramayana epic, Valmiki presented Rama as a complex, even flawed, character. Rama was not proud of his martial valour and he declined to assert his right to succeed to the throne. When finally enthroned, he refused to protect his beloved wife from the gossip of his people. He accepted all kinds of injustice, remaining in perfect control of his emotions. The moral of this tale lies not in Rama’s exemplary conduct, but in the triumph of good over evil, of love over obstacles, in the power of brotherhood and true friendship, and in the teacher-pupil relationship.
The Ramayana is divided into seven kandas, or sections, with the last probably being a later addition. I will summarise below the main thread of each kanda, with an emphasis on the events that are depicted in Khmer reliefs.
Being childless, King Dasaratha decided to perform the ashvamedha sacrifice, during which Vishnu appeared from the sacrificial fire with a pot of nectar for his wives to drink. Dasaratha gave half to Queen Kaushalya who gave birth to Rama (who was half divine), a quarter to Kaikeya, whose son Bharata was endowed with a quarter of the divine essence, and a quarter to Sumitra who gave birth to two sons, Lakshmana and Shatrughna (each having an eighth of divine essence).
The brothers were all close, but Lakshmana was especially devoted to Rama, while Shatrughna was very close to Bharata. The brothers grew up in Ayodhya under the tutorship of Vishvamitra, and when Rama was 16, he received the Sacred Formulas, Bala and Atibala, hence the name Bala for this section of the Ramayana.
While exploring the region under the guidance of Vishvamitra, Rama and Lakshmana entered the forest guarded by the ogress Tataka, a rakshasi, stronger than a thousand elephants, who could change her form at will, spreading terror and death. Her daughter Maricha, later in the Ramayana, tricked Sita and Rama by taking the form of a gazelle. When Tataka confronted Rama, Vishvamitra convinced him that it was his duty to kill her, the first of many such murderous acts Rama performed to free the world from evil beings.
Later, Vishvamitra took the brothers to the court of King Janaka at Mithila. The king had a daughter, Sita, whom he would offer in marriage to the one who could bend the massive mighty bow which once belonged to Shiva. Rama not only bent it, but broke it, successfully winning the contest (svayamvara) and gaining the hand of the princess who became his devoted wife.
At Ayodhya, Janaka decided to abdicate and preparations were made for the inauguration of Rama as his successor. However, Kaikeya, Baratha’s mother and one of the king’s youngest wives, claimed the boons the king had long promised her. She thus succeeded in having her son enthroned and Rama sent to exile for fourteen years. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana left Ayodhya but soon after King Dasaratha died, and Bharata refused to become king as he considered Rama the lawful heir. Instead, he agreed to rule as a regent until Rama's return.
On another occasion, they encountered the rakshasa Shurpanakha, sister of Ravana, who immediately fell in love with Rama. He repelled her advances and in her jealousy, she attacked Sita. This so enraged Lakshmana that he cut off her ears and nose. This proved to be a crucial moment, because she then went to demand revenge from her brother Ravana in Lanka and inspired in him a great passion for Sita.
Ravana found an accomplice in Maricha who took the form of a beautiful golden gazelle to attract the attention of Sita and distract Rama, who was guarding her from evil beings. Ravana himself took the form of a religious mendicant and managed to kidnap Sita and take her, on his flying Pushpaka chariot, to his kingdom in Lanka, where she was placed in one of his palaces under the surveillance of female rakshasass (rakshasi).
Finding Sita gone, Rama’s anguish was intolerable. While wandering around looking for her, he met Jatayu, the king of the vultures, who had been mortally wounded by Ravana in defence of Sita. Jatayu told Rama that Sita had been abducted by Ravana.
Later, Rama and Lakshmana met with a giant named Kabandha who, owing to a curse, had to assume a hideous form until his arms were cut off by Rama. Before dying, Kabandha counselled Rama to seek the aid of the monkey prince Sugriva.
At Jatayu’s suggestion, the two brothers proceeded to Pampa, Sugriva’s home. Meeting Hanuman, they were introduced to Sugriva who narrated the story of his rivalry and conflict with his brother Valin.
An agreement was reached: in exchange for Rama helping him recover his capital Kishindha by killing the usurper Valin, Sugriva would assist him in his quest for Sita. The alliance meant that Rama obtained the support of Sugriva’s entire army and his allies, as well as that of the incomparable Hanuman.
Hanuman managed to explore Lanka and spy on Ravana. He discovered that Sita was being held captive in a grove of ashoka trees and presented her with Rama’s ring as a sign of reassurance and good faith.
The army of the allies reached the shore in front of Lanka. Rama was in despair but Sugriva suggested building a causeway across the sea. With great difficulty this was achieved and the troops marched over to attack Lanka.
In the meantime, to try and force Sita to become his wife, Ravana used magic to conjure up Rama’s severed head and bow to make her think he was dead. However, Sita’s loyal assistant revealed that it was an evil deception.
When the monkey army arrived in Lanka, the battle started and fighting was fierce. Rama and Lakshmana were made prisoners by Indrajit’s (son of Ravana) magic arrows that transformed into binding snakes (nagapasha). Ravana took advantage of this precarious situation to bring Sita on the Pushpaka chariot to see the two brothers lying defenceless on the battlefield. However, Rama and Lakshmana were soon liberated by Garuda and healed with some miraculous herbs.
The ‘Battle of Lanka’ continued with considerable losses on both sides; generals of both parties fell dead, including the gigantic rakshasa Kumbhakarna. Lakshmana was hit again by Indrajit’s lethal spear, but was brought back to life by the magic herbs collected by Hanuman in the Himalayas.
With this section, the Ramayana reached its conclusion; the remainder of the story is told in the Uttara Kanda, a subsequent addition.
While ruling Ayodhya, Rama’s courtiers made him begin to suspect Sita’s purity while she was prisoner of Ravana. To prove her innocence, Sita volunteered to undergo the ordeal by fire, from which she was miraculously saved by Agni.
Nevertheless, further suspicions were voiced by Rama’s ministers who blamed him for having taken her back. Although she was pregnant, Rama decided to send her to spend the rest of her life at the hermitage of Valmiki. There she gave birth to twin sons, Kusha and Lava.
Later, Rama called Sita and his sons back to Ayodhya, and asked that she once again assert her innocence before the assembled court. Sita could not bear this further injustice and called upon the Earth for refuge, whereupon the ground opened up to receive her.
Rama, having wilfully allowed his wife to go, and tired of life, decided to follow her. In a great ceremony, he went to the banks of the river Sarayu and, walking into the waters, was welcomed into heaven, Vishnu’s abode.
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