Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Along with the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana is considered one of the major epics in Hinduism. It is believed that the great sage Valmiki wrote the epic around the 4th century BCE, although it existed in the oral tradition for centuries before that. However, no single version of the text exists today and there have been several versions in various languages throughout South Asia, Southeast asia and other parts of the Hindu diaspora. There are also versions where the central narrative unfolds in radically different ways.
Most commonly, the Ramayana is divided into seven different books. The theme of dharma (the fulfillment of one's duty) dominates the narrative as different characters act in ways that demonstrate the ideal of their social position. For example, Sita as Rama's wife demonstrates the virtues of the ideal wife. Hanuman, the half-human/half-monkey represents the ideal devotee as he faithfully serves Rama throughout his various missions.
While each episode within the Ramayana is narratively complex, below is a highly abbreviated summary of the main events in chronological order of each book. At the beginning of each summary, the main themes or plot-advancing actions of the narrative are given in parentheses to provide an even more simplified backbone of the central events;
First book (Rama's initial displays of divine strength): The narrative begins in the kingdom of Ayodhya which is ruled by the king and queen Dasharatha and Kausaliya. Rama is the oldest of their sons. Rama has three brothers named Bharatha, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. In this book, Rama protects an ashram by defeating an evil demon at the request of the sage of the ashram. Rama also competes for and wins Sita's hand in marriage. Each competitor must properly shoot a special bow and arrow and Rama proves to be the only one who can do it.
Second book (Rama and Lakshmana's banishment to the forest): The king is ready to install Rama in the throne. However elements of evil interfere as the youngest queen reminds the king of his promise to fulfill two wishes in exchange for her having saved his life. By the coercion of her evil maid, the queen insists not only that her son, Bharatha, be installed on the throne but also that Rama should be banished to the forest far away from the throne. Even though he is heartbroken, the king fulfills both wishes as a demonstration of faithfulness to his promises. The king eventually dies because of his sorrow.
Third book (The abduction of Sita): While in the forest, an evil demoness tries to seduce Rama by taking the form of a beautiful woman. But Rama affirms his loyalty to Sita which enrages the demoness. In vengeance, the demoness asks her brother Ravana, the ruling demon of Lanka, to capture Sita. He lures Sita away by disguising himself as a deer.
Fourth book (Rama and Hanuman join forces): Rama helps the exiled half-human/half-monkey king, Sugreeva, who has been exiled by a demon who has taken power. Rama does so with the help of Hanuman, the brave half-monkey/half-human who leads Sugreeva's army. Hanuman helps Rama by becoming a messenger to Sita, letting her know that help is on the way.
Fifth book (Hanuman's adventures): This book focuses exclusively on the adventures of Hanuman but is often taken alone as a narrative text.
Sixth book (Rama defeats Ravana): Ravana tries to kill Hanuman but is unsuccessful. Rama's army then fights Ravana's army. Lakshmana is wounded for which Hanuman brings curing herbs that can only be found in the Himalayas. To make sure he found the right herb, Hanuman carries back the entire mountain. The image of Hanuman carrying the entire mountain is a popular one in the Hindu imagination. Eventually, only Ravana and Rama are left on the battlefield and Rama defeats Ravana with a special weapon.
Seventh book (Rama returns to the throne, Sita is banished again, and their twin sons rule): In the final book, Rama returns to Ayodhya and assumes the throne along with Sita. However, there are rumors of Sita's infidelity in exile and Rama feels pressure to banish her to the forest. In the forest, she gives birth to twin sons who eventually assume the throne.