The epic Ramayana itself consisting of twenty-four thousand couplets is believed to be the first poetical work of purely human origin in Indian literature, being credited to Valmiki (c. fourth century BC), who is known as the first poet.
The Ramayana, like the later Mahabharata, was based on fact with much folklore and mystification added over the centuries. It is a Purana, or one of the “transitional” texts of the post-Vedic period. The origins of the work are thought to date back to about 800 BC and before the Buddhist period because Rama is not mentioned in late Vedic literature, such as the Brahmanas, but does appear in various Buddhist works. Ballads about Rama were widely song by Valmiki’s times, especially in the courts of northern and eastern India.
Valmiki incorporated these ballads into a long poem about a warrior king, his wife, and his companions, entitling it Ramayana, The Wonderings of Rama. It is believed that Valmiki wrote the first five of the seven books, other poets are thought to have been composed the last two books; but over the centuries unknown writers have added to the entire work. In Valmiki’s original version Rama was a mortal and noble king; his divination came later at the hands of other scribes, about the first century BC.
This highly complex epic may be summarized as follows: Rama is challenged by a series of tests that involve battles with kings and demons.
His wife, Sita, is kidnapped by a demon king and carried off in an air chariot to Ceylon. Rama’s chastity and faithfulness are tested; battles ensue; there is a happy ending, with Rama restored to the throne of Ayodha, and eventually, after more trials, he and Sita are united not on earth but in celestial abodes. With the arrival of the end of the story Rama and Sita are not only avatars of Vishnu but also exemplars of all the mundane and special qualities with which the cosmos is endowed.
The seven books, or sections, describe Rama’s birth, which is celebrated in the festival of Rama Navami, and his childhood; his life in Ayodhya and his banishment; his life in the forest and Sita’s abduction by Ravana; Rama’s life with his monkey allies; his crossing over the bridge to Sri Lanka; the battle and defeat of Ravana, celebrated in the festival of Dasara and the rescue of Sita; his life in Ayodhya, Sita’s banishment and return, their death and ascent to heaven, and contextualize the narrative by glorifying Rama as the avatar of Vishnu.
It is believed that whoever reads the epic associates himself with Rama. Whoever reads and recites the holy, life-giving, Ramayana is freed from sin and attains heaven.” The same effected by repeating Rama’s name in the ear of a dying person. Ram as a mantra is held, especially by the Vaisnavites, to contain the universe, and from that mantra all languages emerged.
The epic has special interest for historians and ethnologists, for many elements depict the social conditions of the peninsula of that period. It is involved in the conflict of the Aryans with the aborigines and the Aryanization of the latter; the monkeys and bears who were Rama’s allies were actually aborigines who bore the names of totems, as they currently do today.
The original story of Rama and Sita was in Sanskrit and told in various forms. Indian emigrants and merchants brought the Ramayana to Indonesia in the tenth century AD and other versions arrived over the next six centuries. Indochina and Thailand received their version during the 16th century. Currently it is popular in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Burma, as well as other countries. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 795 Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978, pp. 295-297