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Literature / Ramayana

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Ravi Varma's depiction of Sita being abducted
When to the end the tale was brought,
Rose in the sage's mind the thought;
Now who throughout this earth will go,
And tell it forth that all may know?

The Ramayana is an Epic Narrative Poem written by one of Ancient India's oldest poets, Valmiki. It has also been influential in Hinduism as many Hindus celebrate Diwali in honor of the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana from their exile of 14 years.

The epic begins in the city of Ayodhya whose king, Dasaratha, is in despair since he has no children to inherit his kingdom. He performs a great fire sacrifice and his three wives, in consequence, bear four sons: Rama, Bharata, and twins Lakshmana and Shatrughna. When Rama, his eldest and favorite son, turns sixteen, the sage Vishwamitra requests his help in taking down the demons. In other news, the neighboring King Janaka despairs that nobody can complete the Engagement Challenge to win the hand of his beautiful daughter Sita, as many suitors have tried and failed to even lift the bow of Shiva (which he ordered must be strung). Rama, naturally, breaks the bow, and marriages are arranged left and right between the two kingdoms. Rama and Sita reside together in peace for about a decade.

Dasaratha, having grown old, is about to hand over his position to Rama, however his youngest and favorite wife Kaikeyi convinces him to fulfill The Promise he had made years ago. She then asks that Rama be exiled for fourteen years and her son, Bharata, be crowned. Dasaratha reluctantly does so, but he dies of heartbreak not long after. Lakshmana tags along with Rama and Sita, leaving his own wife and twin brother behind in Ayodhya. Meanwhile, Bharata finds Rama in the forest and declares that the throne rightfully belongs to the latter. When Rama refuses, Bharata accepts, but threatens to kill himself if Rama doesn't promptly return when his exile ends.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita eventually settle into a life of exile. Surpanakha, a sister of the demon king Ravana, is entranced by the brothers' good looks and tries to seduce them. Ever faithful, Rama and Lakshmana deny her advances, and the latter cuts off her nose. Naturally, when Ravana hears of this, he's pissed off and orders the shape-shifting demon Maricha to turn into a golden deer. Sita is entranced by the deer, and asks Rama to capture it for her. He reluctantly leaves her under Lakshmana's guard, but when Sita thinks she hears him cry for help, she convinces Lakshmana to go after him. Of course, it was all a distraction, as Ravana kidnaps Sita and brings her to the island city of Lanka, separated from the mainland by a giant ocean, where he tries to force her to marry him.

The rest of the epic describes the Roaring Rampage of Rescue Rama embarks upon with Hanuman — greatest of the monkey heroes, trickster archetype, and son of a wind god — who helps him search for Sita when Sugriva, his leader, is returned to the throne of Kishkinda. Hanuman meets Sita clandestinely in Lanka and asks her to return home with him, but she denies his request, saying that Rama should be the one to rescue her. He is captured by Ravana's forces, but Ravana's righteous brother Vibheeshana convinces Ravana not to kill him and instead only burn his tail. Hanuman then torches the entire city.

What follows is Rama and company attacking Lanka by building a giant bridge. A lengthy battle then happens, in which Ravana is defeated. Sita is returned to Rama, but he doubts her chastity. She then goes through the Agni Parishka, where she steps into a fire to prove that she did not sleep with Ravana. The flames do not burn her, she is declared innocent, and the party returns to Ayodhya where they rule peacefully.

The Ramayana is a testament to the belief that good will always triumph over evil. Its characters are also what Indians believed to be "ideal" - ie. Rama is the perfect man, Sita is the perfect wife, etc. It has been adapted countless times and reproduced in India, Indonesia, Thailand, and most of South East Asia. It is subject to tons of Alternative Character Interpretation and Sadly Mythtaken. It also bears some similarities to The Odyssey and Journey to the West.

Received two television adaptations. The well known one was by Ramanand Sagar in 87-88, while a more obscure one was made by BR Chopra in 2000.

A rather unusual animated musical version of the story was released online, Sita Sings the Blues.

For a darker, longer ancient Indian epic, see the Mahabharata. It too also forms an integral part of Hinduism.

Tropes in Ramayana include:

  • Abduction Is Love: Averted; Ravana kidnaps Sita, wanting her for himself, but she refuses every one of his advances and remains faithful to her husband.
  • Accidental Murder: A young Dasaratha accientally killed a boy named Shravan Kumar, by mistaking him for a deer and shooting him with his arrows. Shravan's dad, a blind hermit, curses him: since Dasaratha killed his son, albeit by accident, he will also die without having his son by his side... Which is what happens after he banishes Rama to keep his word to Kaikeyi.
  • Achilles' Heel: Ravana's belly button.
  • Action Girl: Kaikeyi is a princess when she rescued King Dasaratha as a charioteer when he was injured. Dasaratha was so impressed that he married her and promised her to give anything she asks for. This bites him in the ass later on.
    • Sita in the Adbhuta Ramayana; A more Goddess-Centered version and Sequel. She becomes Kali and single-handedly destroys Ravana's elder brother (also named Ravana) and his army.
  • An Aesop:
    • One has to be good to one's parents.
    • Parents should not begrudge their children or stepchildren.
    • One should be careful not to shoot humans while hunting.
    • An exception to family loyalty: if your brother is pursuing a disastrous course of action that will destroy one's kingdom (Vibeeshna)
  • All for Nothing: Two major examples impact the epic:
    • Kaikeyi asking Dasaratha to crown Bharata king and exile Rama backfires horribly: Bharata disowns her, lives as an ascetic and rules in Rama's name, happily ceding the crown when his brother returns.
    • Rama rescuing Sita ended up proving fruitless, as he later exiles her while she is pregnant with twins.
  • Annoying Arrows: Like all Hindu tales, all battles LOVE this trope.
  • Really Gets Around: Ravana's proclivity for hitting on anything that moves and kidnapping the wives of his enemies as well as trying to rape the daughters of sages like Vedavati, never mind kidnapping Sita.
  • Artistic License
  • Author Avatar: Valmiki appears as himself in the end of the Ramayana (or at least the extended version anyway).
  • Badass Adorable: Rama's sons Lava and Kusha. They're sweet kids and superb singers, but in a fight, no one other than Rama can defeat them. As for the rest, it's just one Curb-Stomp Battle after another. They only start the fight because they like the horse that their father has been parading through the countryside, and think a fight will be fun.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Averted. Jambavan is very intelligent and capable as a bear, and he's thoroughly on the good side.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished
  • Berserk Button: When Ravana shoots down Lakshmana, Rama takes his fighting up to eleven and to say the least, that's the end of Ravana's good day.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: There are only 3 (justified) occasions where Rama loses his temper, and when he does, the whole universe must urgently find a way to appease him, and fast!
  • Being Good Sucks: Rama's life is full of it because of his insistence on being good or dutiful.
  • Blood Knight: Lav and Kush are mild examples of the trope; when they find their father's sacrificial horse, it has a declaration that whoever tries to take the horse will have to fight Rama's entire army. The twins just smile and say, "A fight it is" and initiate Curb-Stomp Battle, one after another.
  • Burn the Witch!: Hanuman wrecked the Ashoka Garden in Lanka, Ravana's kingdom when he went to Sita as a messenger. The enraged Ravana ordered his tail to be burned. This ends badly when Hanuman uses his burning tail to burn down the entire city of Lanka.
  • Cain and Abel: Ramayana has tons of brothers seemingly at odds.
    • In the story of brothers Vali and Sugreeva, Vali suspects Sugreeva of plotting to take over his throne, exiles him and takes his wife for himself. Later, Sugreeva meets with Rama and Lakshmana who decide to help him kill Vali.
    • Also played straight in the tale of Big Bad Ravana and his younger brother Vibheeshana. Vibheeshana allies himself with Rama and against his brother. When Lanka is defeated and Ravana is killed, Vibheeshana is crowned emperor.
    • Averted in the case of Rama and his younger brother Bharata in that Bharata did not want to rule the Kingdom and ruled it only as a surrogate during Rama's exile, contrary to Kaikeyi's expectation that Bharata would be glad to be sole ruler.
    • Also averted with Lav and Kush, Rama's sons who are identical twins. In fact, when one of them gets injured in battle, the other takes up the fight angrily and wins.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When Rama's sons hear his tale from Sage Valmiki, albeit with the names changed, they comment that Rama was cruel to Sita. Later they forgive him after they learn he is their father, somehow.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Dasarath's palace in Ayodhya is described in lavish detail as a place of near-heavenly luxury. On many festive occasions, it is custom to give extremely generously to any brahmins present.
  • Cool Airship: Pushpaka Vimana, Ravana's city-sized flying chariot.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Zig-Zagged with Rama's exile. After Kaikeyi requests that her husband banish Rama instead of crown him, Rama mentions he would have gone to the forest if she had asked Rama to go and not invoked her boon. At the very least, Dasaratha wouldn't have been forced to made that Sadistic Choice.
  • Damsel in Distress: Sita. However, in The Adbhuta Ramayana, a later, Shakta adaptation, she undergoes Xenafication and is revealed as Kali-Mata herself!
  • Death by Despair: Dasaratha dies of a broken heart, although it is also in part due to the curse he'd gotten from his hunting accident.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Sita crosses it after Rama comes across her sons and doubts asking her to come back, because he's worried about what his subjects may say about her. Sita, done with the humiliation, asks the divine earth to swallow her up.
  • Disk One Nuke: Rama gains the weapons of the gods early on in the story, before he faces any enemies.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Rama exiles Sita after the events at Sri Lanka because a washerman threw out his wife saying that he was not like "Rama, whose wife lived in another home for a year!" In some versions Sita goes along with this passively, or even willingly goes into exile, but still.
  • Double Standard: Rama doubts Sita's chastity even though Sita was kidnapped against her will by the Demon King Ravana and did not do anything with him. She proves her chastity through the Agni Pariksha where she sat on a funeral pyre. The fire did not burn her, vouching for her chastity. In the extended adaptation whose chapters are of a more recent visage, Sita's chastity is mocked by a washerman in Ayodhya who verbally abused his wife. For that, Rama exiles her to the forest and away from the Kingdom of Ayodhya.
  • Downer Ending: Depending on the version followed. The original Six Kanda (kandas are like 'sections', each with a number of chapters) version ends happily but the later, expanded Seventh Kanda Version is a big fat Shoot the Shaggy Dog downer-o-rama. Sita is cast out of Ayodhya while pregnant with twins to Valmiki's hermitage and asks Mother Earth to swallow her up when Rama asks for her to come back a second time. Rama commits suicide by drowning in the Sarayu. Rama and Sita's twins are therefore brought up without their parents.
  • The Dragon: Indrajit, the son of Ravana. He is stated to be stronger than his father.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The Original Six-Khanda Version. The struggle was not fruitless: Rama saves Sita and after the Agni Pariksha scene, they are crowned and live happily ever after. The Downer Ending is from the Seventh Khanda which is a much later addition.
  • Easily Forgiven: Rama is willing to completely forgive Ravana if he surrenders (which he doesn't), but after Ravana is killed, Rama forgives him.
    • After Rama returns from his exile, he bears no ill will towards Kaikeyi choosing to see her actions as the actions of a mother who sought what was best for her children.
    • The twins also forgive Rama for abandoning their mother and them by proxy in the forest. At least, they return with him to Ayodhya.
  • Engagement Challenge: Rama won over Sita's hand when he strung the bow of Shiva when many others were not even able to lift it.
  • Evil Overlord: Ravana.
  • Exact Words: When a crowd of people want to follow Rama into the forest as he leaves Ayodhya, he tells all men and women to go home. When he comes back 14 years later, he finds that the hijras, being neither, stayed where he gave the speech. He was so impressed, he granted hijras the boon to confer blessings on people during auspicious inaugural occasions like childbirth and weddings. This boon is the origin of badhai, in which hijras sing, dance, and give blessings.
  • Faking the Dead: Ravana shoves Rama's dead head at Sita's feet to convince her that he is dead. Of course, Rama is not dead and the head is fake but it does reduce Sita to tears. Fortunately, one of Ravana's wives Sarama informs Sita of the truth.
  • Fidelity Test: The Agni Pariksha.
  • Forged by the Gods: Rama's Weapon of Mass Destruction is his own special arrow, which can be charged with enough power to destroy everything in the universe and no enemy can stop it. He never uses it except to threaten but just the sheer havoc it wreaks by putting it on the bow shows a sample of what it can do.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Sita. An exception would be the golden deer, who is actually a demon in disguise.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: During their childhood, Sage Valmiki tells the twins Lav and Kush the story of their parents, with the names changed. The twins on hearing of Sita's exile, all because of what a washerman said, call Rama "cruel" to do such a thing.
  • Gilded Cage: Although a prisoner, Sita is kept in a beautiful palace for a year, with servants and everything. Instead of living in the lavish palace, however, she remains in the garden.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Suparnaka's copper hair is used to describe her more puerile character. Sita by contrast is described as having long black hair.
  • Happily Married: Subverted with the later additions to the story. Played straight in the original.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Ravana's brother.
  • Heir Club for Men: The beginning of the story.
  • Heroic Sacrifice / You Shall Not Pass!: The vulture Jatayu is killed trying to stop Ravana from taking Sita.
  • Honor Before Reason: The unquestioning performance of duty, even if it leads to negative consequences, is one of the major themes of the text.
    • Dasarath exiles his beloved son Rama because he is bound by an oath he gave to Kaikeyi.
    • Rama willingly goes into exile, both out of filial obedience and to help his father fulfill the terms of his vow, despite everyone in Ayodhya except Kaikeyi (his father included) pleading with him to ignore the command.
    • Hanuman offers to carry Sita out of Ravana's garden and back to her husband; she says she can't go that way, that he must win her back honorably. This means thousands of men and rakshasas dying in battle.
  • I Gave My Word: King Dasarath when asked to enact The Promise.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills
    • Rama is easily the greatest archer of all in Hindu literature. Even Arjuna of the Mahabharata doesn't quite match him there.
      • As a kid training in archery, he once practices a shot where he knocks off a woman's nose ring with one arrow and a second arrow mid-flight deflects it to go into her nose again exactly through the holes. Without hurting her.
      • He creates a complete shield of arrows to stop demons from polluting a fire sacrifice. He also sends one of the demons flying hundreds of miles out to sea with a single shot.
      • He single-handedly defeats 14000 demons and two of Ravana's Dragons, whom even the Gods couldn't beat.
    • Dasharatha gets his name because he's capable of fighting enemies surrounding him in ten directions, including up and down. He is capable of hitting the target dead on only by hearing the noise it makes, although he gets into some serious trouble when he accidentally kills an ascetic this way.
  • Immortality
  • It's Personal: Why Ravana kidnapped Sita; Ravana's sister had tried to woo Rama and kill Sita, losing her nose and ears in the process thanks to Lakshmana.
  • Like Cannot Cut Like: Vali was blessed by Shiva that whoever fight him will loss half of their strength, while Vali himself gain equal strength to their losing power. However, this ability doesn't work on Hanuman, for he's embodiment of Shiva's power as well.
  • Loophole Abuse: Big Bad Ravana wishes to never be defeated by any God, making only an exception for humans since he thinks they don't amount to much. Of course, the (technically) human Rama defeats him. Vali also has the ability to defeat him but is a problem all his own.
  • Love at First Sight: Sita sees Rama from the verandah and immediately falls in love with him.
    • Surpanakha falls in love with Rama as well, although her attempts to court him are much less successful.
    • In some versions, Ravana falls in love with just the description of Sita.
  • Meaningful Name: Sita means "furrow". Janaka, her adopted father found her when he tilled a farmland in a box. Also Indrajit means "the one who defeated Indra", his original name is Meghanada.
  • Messianic Archetype: Interestingly enough, Rama comes across as a Christ figure... despite predating Christ by several hundred years.
  • Multishot: In battles, Rama is constantly shooting several arrows at once. Up to a thousand fit on his string.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: Vishnu turns himself into celestial porridge for Dasaratha to feed his wives. All three of them eventually give birth to sons endowed with Vishnu's essence.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Rama feels this way after Sita asks the earth to swallow her up, long after he has exiled her and reunited with his sons. He asks the earth to swallow him up as well, and Valmiki has to comfort him.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: If Lakshmana hadn't cut off Surpanakha's nose and ears to protect Sita, Ravana would've had no reason to kidnap Sita.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Ravana's idea to set fire to Hanuman's tail not only allows him to escape, but in the process he burns down the entire city of Lanka, and now the heroes have all the info they need to fight Ravana. Not to mention that his attempts to stop Hanuman resulted in the deaths of 2 of his sons, several commanders and a good chunk of his army.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: Jatayu and Sampaati, two noble, heroic vultures.
  • Noble Demon:
    • Ravana's brother Vibhishana is one, both figuratively and literally. He makes a Heel–Face Turn and joins Rama.
    • Ravana himself, strangely enough. He is bound by a personal code of conduct, and never forces himself on Sita during the years in captivity, although this might at least be partly attributable to a previous curse note . Ravana acquired his great power by spending a thousand years performing austerities in honour of Shiva.
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Rama and Lakshmana, respectively, the former being serene, wise & forgiving while the latter is more impetuous, quick-tempered and has a good bullshit detector.
  • Nosebleed: Surpanakha proves that women can get it too.
  • One-Winged Angel: After being decapitated by Rama, Ravana becomes a monster with ten heads and several arms, his 'true form'.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Kumbhakarna
  • Papa Wolf: Vayu was so angry when Indra injured Hanuman that he refused to leave a cave where he hospitalized his son. It shouldn't have been a problem except that Vayu is the personification of air and even breathing became impossible when he stopped moving.
  • Power Limiter: Hanuman was cursed since childhood for his mischievous deeds. The curse makes him forget the extent of his power. The wise bear Jambavan later reminds Hanuman of the time he tried to eat the sun and automatically lifts this curse.
  • The Promise: Dasaratha made a promise to his favorite wife Kaikeyi that he would give her anything she asked for. She asks for the exile of his favorite son Rama for 14 years. The sorrow at being forced to carry out this deed leads to Dasarath's Death by Despair.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Ravana and his demon crews wage war against AND defeat the gods. That's when Meghanada became Indrajit...
  • Reincarnation Romance: Some versions have Rama and Sita as the incarnations of the married gods Vishnu and Lakshmi respectively.
  • Roaring Rampage of Rescue: What Rama embarks on when Sita is kidnapped.
  • Sacred Bow and Arrows: King Janaka of Mithila used an exceptionally heavy bow, given to him by Shiva, as an Engagement Challenge for his daughter Sita’s suitors to prove themselves worthy. Prince Rama of Ayodhya was the only one who manages to wield it, and he breaks it in half when he tries to fire it.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Surpanakha. Subverted in that both Rama and Laxmana see through it and refuse her advances.
  • Slave to PR : Rama decides to have Sita exiled because one man scorned him for keeping Sita after she was kidnapped. It doesn't matter she is pregnant or that she passed on the purity test, the approval of one subject - a jerkass - is more important than your wife.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Sita was beautiful and thus kidnapped by Ravana.
  • Spell My Name With An S: There's a lot of different transliterations of the names, the most common being the "a"s at the end (Ravana/Ravan) and the "i"/"e" thing (Sita/Seeta). Much of this is down to the differences between Sanskrit and modern Hindi, as well as different approaches to transliterating Indian languages to the Latin alphabet.
  • Steal the Surroundings: Possibly the Ur-Example. Hanuman flies to a distant mountain in order to obtain a herb necessary to cure Lakshmana. Having some difficulty identifying the proper herb, he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back to those who can.
  • Undying Loyalty:
    • Hanuman is legendary amongst Hindus as the living incarnation of loyalty. Pretty much all his deeds (and there are MANY) are, beyond anything else, shows of devotion and love to Rama. In fact, Hanuman declared that, as long as Rama's name was known and people were devoted to him, he'd stay on Earth. So yes, Hanuman became immortal because of how devoted he is to Rama.
    • Sita and Lakshmana willingly follow Rama into exile in the forest. Much of the population of Ayodhya, including his mother Kaushalya) is also willing to follow him, but Rama commands them to stay in the city.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Suparnaka and Maricha. And Ravana.
  • Warrior Prince: Rama.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After asking Dasharatha to banish Rama, and getting disowned by her son, Kaikeyi disappears from the saga. The maid that convinced her to invoke that boon got her back broken by Shatrughana in a fit of anger.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Rama's sons when they hear that he exiled their mother over what a washer-man said are less than amused. Granted, they hear the story with the names changed, so they don't realize it's their father, but they tell the storyteller Valmiki that it's a cruel thing for a man to do.
    • Likewise, Sita when she and Rama reunite refuses to come back to Ayodhya. She tells him she's tired of the humiliation and his refusal to stand up for her, and asks the Earth to swallow her. Rama realizes too late that he messed up and begs the Earth to give her back or kill him as well, to not avail.
  • Wicked Cultured: Ravana is supposed to be one of these.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Rama, his brother Laxman and his wife were exiled from their Kingdom for 14 years because Kaikeyi, his stepmother wanted her son Bharat to be king. Zigzagged in that she was actually portrayed as being like Rama's own mother, being magnanimous and kind and absolutely overjoyed when she learned that Dasarath, the King wanted to crown Rama as the Crown Prince. The influence of her evil maid and the gods themselves hardening her heart lead her to make her request to Dasarath.
  • Woman Scorned: Suparnaka. Also Sita in some versions.
  • World's Strongest Man: Kumbhakarna
  • Xenafication: Sita in a later, Shakta re-adaptation of this story, which also acts as a sequel, The Adbhuta Ramayana, Rama must now fight Ravana's even-more-powerful brother (also named Ravana). However, things are going pretty darn crappy for Rama until Sita comes along and morphs into the Goddess, Kali, lays waste to Ravana & his army and saves the day!
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Rama is exiled for 14 years, and is determined to wait out the full length of his exile out of moral duty.
  • You Owe Me: Kaikeyi saved Dasarath's life in a war when she was his charioteer. He promised that he would grant her two wishes. She decided to save them for the future. She calls it in when she asks for her son to be made heir.

Alternative Title(s): The Ramayana