This is an essay on Hinduism which was written by Mrs. Fuengsin Trafford whilst she was working for the Multi Faith Centre in Harborne Birmingham:
The Epic of Ramayana
For millions of men, women and children in India, The Epic of Ramayana has a profound effect on their spiritual progress and culture. It is not just a book of beautiful poetry, it is a Dharma Shastra expounding lofty ethical ideals. The Epic is one of the great works of Hindu literature and later on became devotional, marking the end of the classical period in which Sanskrit was the language of holy writ [which few rural folk were able to read]. The devotional Hindus had the message of God. “God’s love for all men irrespective of caste difference.” So the two great Epics, Mahabarata and Ramayana bind together people of different castes and languages.” This started the Third phase of Hinduism.
The Ramayana was written in the 4th Century B.C. by a saint called Valmiki. There were altogether five books. It seemed that the story of Rama had been known before the Poet’s time as it was sung by generations of bards who travelled everywhere and were also popular at courts.
Valmiki had been a robber named Ratnakara, a Brahmin. After his encounter with Rishi Narada, he reformed and recited a sacred mantra, the name “Rama”. For years, he sat on the same spot and ants built their nests over him. That was how he got the name Valmiki, meaning “ant-hill”.
One day he was very sad when he saw a bird killed by a hunter and its female companion in distress. Valmiki cursed the hunter and it came out as a sort of verse. Suddenly Narada appeared and said, “Valmiki, you must write a poem in the same metre as that in which you cursed the hunter.” Valmiki agreed and wrote the story of Rama. So the Ramayana was composed.
The Epic in its present form is from the age of the Sutras. It is made up of three elements: story, genealogy and instruction, each of which may be traced in their remote origin to the Rigveda which contains certain stories in verse on Yama, Surya, Vishnu and others.
The story in short started in Vaikuntha where the Gods and rishis assembled and prayed for the destruction of the evil King Ravana of Lanka who was oppressing and torturing saints and molesting women. God Vishnu promised to confront Ravana and kill him. Therefore he was incarnated as Rama, the Solar King of Ayodhaya and the Goddess Lakshmi, his wife, became Sita, Rama’s Queen. Because of his jealous stepmother, Rama was banished to the forest for fourteen years. Then Ravana abducted Sita. Rama, supported by the monkey army led by Hanuman, fought against him. In the end, after a great battle, Rama killed Ravana and rescued Sita. They went back to Ayodhaya and Rama was enthroned.
In Valmiki’s work, Rama is portrayed as a great and uniques man. He is a human hero. All the characters are human beings with heightened human qualities.
The literary and poetic talent of the Hindus, once so brilliant, was almost entirely lost under the early Muslim dynasties. But during Emperor Akbar’s reign, peace and the establishment of spiritual harmony returned. He was a tolerant head of state. The Poet Tulsi Das appeared on the scene and wrote the Epic of Ramayana in Hindi. As a result, ordinary people had the opportunity to read The Epic. It was not just a translation of Valmiki’s original poems but emphasised Rama as a God incarnate. His actions are therefore divine and serve as models for imitation. The Rajputs of the present days almost unconsciously take Rama as their model. Hindu women will follow Sita for her devotion to her husband. So Tulsi Das’s version is a poem of Bakti. A lot of people of North India acknowledge him as their guide. The book is a mixture of Bhakti theology and healthy moral spirit of the poet.
The Tamil version was written by Kamban. He wrote it in the 11th Century A.D. It is said that he spent every night in studying Valmiki’s Sanskrit original, analytically, with the help of scholars; and every day in writing several thousand lines of his own poetry. He follows Valmiki closely but added many beautiful passages from his own imagination. He made very few changes while Tulsi Das dealt freely with the story. At that time it was accepted that Rama was the incarnation of Vishnu and Kamban was also a devotee. Later on, Hanuman, son of Vayu who was brave, pure and wise, was also worshipped as a God.
Though Asuras and Raakshasas were usually evil, did not see any value of the Dharma and enjoyed all wicked behaviour, there were a few wise ones among them: for example, Ravana’s brother, Vibhishana, who later became king of Lanka. Now he is revered as a God and the Sri Lankan have a shrine for him. The Devas were generally upholders of the dharma and had the responsibility of conquering the Raakshasas.
Some historians believed that the Ramayana told the story of the extension of the Aryan civilisation to the south as far as Sri Lanka. It seemed that the King of Ayodhaya (Kosala) existed and Hanuman was in reality a chief of a Dravidian tribe which had been the Aryan king’s ally.
Buddhism also has a connection with the Ramayana. In the [Mahayanan] Lankavatara Sutra, which is the most important teaching of the Yogacara School, the Buddha was invited by Ravana to teach the doctrine of inner perception and the real existence of mind. After preaching to the nagas beneath the ocean, the Buddha went in glory to Lanka in Ravana’s chariot with some Bodhisattvas. The Buddha created a mountain peak on which he and Ravana were seen. Suddenly they all vanished and Ravana was alone. He had a sudden revulsion of feeling (paravritti) and realised that what he perceived was only his own mind. From his own previous good karma, he could understand every treatise, and with his contemplative power, he could see things as they really were. When Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Zen School, went to China, he took with him only the Lankavatara Sutra. The Tibetan Buddhists also use the same scripture. It is the discourse of the sole reality of the Absolute Mind.
The Ramayana has also had an effect on the culture and art of the countries in South East Asia. The Hindu religion and culture were practised during the Khmer Empire. Indian immigrants, mainly from South India who went to Indo China before the 3rd Century B.C., brought Buddhism to the indigenous people. Today, the story of Rama and Sita in the forms of shadow plays and dance dramas are very popular in Java, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma.
The Epic’s influence on Thai culture was and still is profound. People of all classes and education levels know the story from their childhood. King Rama 2nd translated the Indian version into Thai and it is included in school and university curricula. It has become part of Thai literature and has been adapted to suit Thai culture.
As for Thai art and architecture, the story is in the form of mural paintings in the cloisters of the Royal Temple. The statues of enormous Asuras stand around the temple with their clubs to protect the place.
There are beautiful pictures of the main characters on pieces of material and papers. Some are printed on shirts and skirts. Dolls representing the characters are very popular with the tourists.
All kings of the Chakri Dynasty are named “Rama” as well as another title. The present one is King Bhumipol Adulyadej, Rama 9th. So the Ramayana has a very strong influence on the Thai way of life, from Royalty to commoners.
So far this ancient Book of Poems has appealed to a vast number of people not only in India, where it originated from, but also in other countries nearby. It shows no sign of losing popularity. The story of Ramayana is currently [198?] being shown on television in India and is watched by virtually the entire country’s viewing population. When it is shown, life in the cities, towns and villages comes to a standstill. Conches are blown in celebration and incense sticks burnt on top of T.V. sets. Until an episode is over, milk goes undelivered, telephone calls remain unanswered and political rallies have had to be postponed on order to avoid clashing with the series. The Ramayana pervades Indian cultural life in one form or another at all times. People are always spiritually uplifted when they hear the story as it was blessed by God Brahma saying, “As long as the mountain peaks stand and the rivers flow, so long will people find solace by listening to the Ramayana.”
- J.N. Farquhar, “A Primer of Hinduism”
- Radha Kumud Mookerji, “Hindu Civilisation”
- G. Rajagopalachari, “Ramayana”
- R.H. Zaehner, “Hinduism”
- Adolf Waley, “A Pageant of India”
- R.K. Narayan, “The Ramayana”
- Swami Nirliptananda, “The Ramayana for Children”
– Fuengsin Trafford