Vālmīki Composes the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Rāmāyaṇa, a Sanskrit poem attributed to Vālmīki, became the national epic of India and has continued to influence poetry, art, drama, and religion in South and Southeast Asia.

Summary of Event

The Rāmāyaṇa (c. 550 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889) or Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa, is an epic poem of ancient India. The title is taken to mean “the adventures of Rāma.” The epic’s central narrative is a romance, recounting the birth of Rāmacandra, heir to the throne of the city-state Ayodhyā (a town by that name still exists); his banishment through a palace intrigue; and his subsequent wanderings throughout central and southern India, accompanied by both his wife, Sītā, and brother Lakṣmaṇa. Sītā is abducted but is rescued, and Rāma is eventually restored to his rightful place as king in Ayodhyā. Vālmīki

The poem’s long sixth book is a detailed description of a battle pitting Rām and his allies, the monkey army (vānaras), against Rāvaṇa, the demon-king of Lanka who has abducted Sītā. A prominent character is the monkey Hanumān, Rāma’s friend and helper. In some parts of the epic, Hanumān is said to be the son of the wind god, a status that grants him supernormal abilities.

The vānaras have produced much commentary, especially in India. Some readers have interpreted them as human beings of tribal origin. Such a theory, however, does not adequately account for their tails and other monkeylike attributes. They represent a fairy-tale or fable motif in the epic: talking monkeys with admirable traits who aid the hero. Sītā, Rāma’s wife, also has significant connections with early Vedic myth and may be divine in origin. This is suggested by her wondrous birth in a furrow (the meaning of her name), as recounted in book 1.

The poem, in its shortest version, consists of more than eighteen thousand stanzas, divided into seven books (called kāṇḍas), and about six hundred cantos (called sargas). It was composed in a style of Sanskrit comparable in most ways to the style of India’s other ancient epic poem, the Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896). However, the Sanskrit text also has earned the name ādi-kāvya, “the first art poem,” making it the first in a tradition of elaborate court poems, such as those by Kālidāsa in the fourth century c.e. The date of composition of the Rāmāyaṇa can only be estimated to between 750 and 500 b.c.e., although an important scholarly study by Alf Hiltebeitel has redated the epic to 150 b.c.e. or a century later. Most of the action of the epic takes place in the far southern region of the Indian subcontinent. Sītā is abducted to Lanka, a legendary isle often identified with modern Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). This distinguishes the Rāmāyaṇa from the Mahābhārata, which takes place in the northern Gangetic plain. The precise place of composition can only be surmised: Because it is the royal family of Kosala that is celebrated, that region may be where the epic originally arose.

Certain features—most prominently the use of formulaic repetitions with slight variations—suggest an origin in ancient oral tradition. Extant, however, are two main manuscript traditions, associated with north and south India. It is controversial among textual scholars which of the two manuscript traditions preserve the more original text. The Baroda Oriental Institute, which edited the standard edition, the seven-volume The Vālmīki-Rāmayana (1960-1975), decided in favor of the southern recension.

Of the epic’s seven books, books 2-6 are generally agreed to represent the older core of the poem, and this section can be ascribed to the poet Vālmīki. The first book (Bāla-kānḍa, or the book of the boy-prince) was seemingly added at a later time to explain the birth and youth of the hero of the epic, Rāma or Rāmacandra. This first section also relates the story of the sage Vālmīki, including how he came to compose the epic and, in the process, to invent the most common epic poetic meter, the anuṣṭubh or śloka. The latter is a thirty-two-syllable stanza constructed in four quarters of eight syllables each. It is easily memorized and flexible enough to allow an oral poet to compose new stanzas extemporaneously in front of an audience.

The Rāmāyaṇa contains an apparently old core (books 2-6) and two later sections, books 1 and 7, although parts of book 1 might also be early (see Robert Goldman’s translation, The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki). In these later sections, Rāma is clearly an incarnation of Vishnu, the important central deity in later Hinduism. The earlier books, by contrast, do not portray Rāma’s godhood as explicitly, which has led some scholars to theorize that Rāma, as a human hero, came to be valued as a god only subsequently, as the text grew and developed through retelling. Thus, between the period the older books represent and the creation of the later books, storytellers elevated Rāma from prince to an incarnation of Vishnu—a theory known as euhemerism in the history of religions. Sheldon Pollock dealt with this topic and cast doubt on such theories in an article, “The Divine King in the Indian Epic,” that appeared in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 1984. Pollock focuses on a key feature of the Rāma narrative: Rāvana, the chief villain of the epic, received the boon that no god or other celestial power could harm him, yet he neglected to obtain protection from humans or animals, for they were beneath his notice. As Pollock points out, men were powerless to harm the demon king, but Rāma was special—a god-man. This suggests, perhaps, that some idea of Rāma’s divinity was present from the earliest composition of the poem. Moreover, the tradition of divine kingship in ancient India is known from other sources.

The final, seventh book, was added to tell the story of what happened to Rāma after the conclusion of his central adventure. Throughout the poem, however, are found lines, passages, or entire groups of cantos that textual critics label as later interpolations.


Who was the intended audience for this poem? Book 1 suggests the answer: In the prologue to the epic (book 1, chapters 1-4), a pair of bards, who in this case happen also to be Rāma’s own sons, after learning the entire epic by heart from its author Vālmīki, “sing” the epic before an audience consisting of sages, learned Brahmans, and ascetics. Later they repeat the recitation to King Rāmacandra and his royal assembly. From this one can assume a twofold audience for the epic: the Brahmans, or priestly class, and the ruling class, for whom the poem is a court epic, or mahākāvya. Thus elements appealing to both groups are incorporated into the epic. There is no mention here of a recitation before the less exalted classes of either city people or villagers. Later the text became broadly popular and was understood to be a religious scripture.

The Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa has given rise to later versions in various languages, most prominently the Raghuvaṁśa (traditionally c. 50 b.c.e., probably c. 390 c.e.; The Dynasty of Raghu, 1872-1895), composed in polished Sanskrit by Kālidāsa, and the Rāmcaritmānas in Avadhi from North India by Tulsidās (late sixteenth to early seventeenth century c.e.), the latter often thought of as the bible of northern India. Folk drama, sophisticated stage plays, and puppet shows have been based on the Rāma story. Television and film adaptations, as well as comic-book versions, remain very popular. Its popularity spread to the Indianized states of Southeast Asia, particularly to Indonesia. Hanumān is hugely popular in India, where he is understood as the paragon of religious devotion. As a result, the Rāmāyaṇa, in its various versions, is probably the single most influential literary work India has produced.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockington, John. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1998. A basic reference work on famous Sanskrit epic works, including the Rāmāyaṇa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Robert P., ed. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984-1996. The latest scholarly translation of the epic, as yet incomplete; includes valuable introductions and detailed annotations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. An important study that argues for redating the Rāmāyana.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollock, Sheldon. “The Divine King in the Indian Epic.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104 (1984): 505-528. Examines the divine and human nature of Rāma.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richman, Paula, ed. Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Focuses on the retellings of the Rāmāyaṇa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorp, Burt. “When Bhīmasena Met Hanumān.” In The Persistence of Religions, edited by Sara J. Denning-Bolle and Edwin Gerow. Malibu, Calif.: Undena Publications, 1996. An article discussing the relationship of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata and the character of Hanumān.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Kālidāsa; Vālmīki. Rāmāyaṇa (Vālmīki)[Ramayana (Valmiki)]

Categories: History