Synopsis of the Rama Story
Scholars familiar with the Ramayana story will want to move on to the next section of this introduction. Meanwhile, for other readers, it is useful to provide an outline of the story's basic events. Such an enterprise, however, is fraught with difficulties, for "the story" is inseparable from the different forms it takes, forms which reflect differences in religious affiliation, linguistic allegiance, and social location. Nonetheless, those who are not Ramayana specialists need at least a skeletal knowledge of incidents, characters, and locations in the Ramayana tradition in order to appreciate the essays in this volume, which analyze different ways in which the Ramayana has been told.
I have therefore chosen to present a synopsis of the story of Rama based on Valmiki's Ramayana . Most scholars would agree that Valmiki's Ramayana , the most extensive early literary treatment of the life of Rama, has wielded enormous influence in India, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Many later Ramayana authors explicitly refer to it either as an authoritative source or as a telling with which they disagree. For centuries it has been regarded as the most prestigious Ramayana text in many Indian circles. It has also drawn the most attention from Western scholars.
However, I present Valmiki's rendition here not as an Ur -text but only as the story of Rama with which the majority of Western Ramayana scholars are most familiar. My goal is not to privilege Valmiki's Ramayana but to give the nonspecialist reader some necessary background, since in explaining the components of other tellings of the story the contributors to this volume often take a knowledge of Valmiki for granted. In addition, to tell other Ramayanas here would be to preempt the work of the rest of this volume.
In order to maintain our perspective on Valmiki's telling as one of many Ramayanas rather than as the authoritative Ramayana , I will summarize the story in as neutral a way as possible, avoiding, for example, moral evaluation of the characters and their actions. My aim is to present readers with the plot of an extremely influential Ramayana without encouraging them to view as normative the events, characterizations, and particular ideological commitments of Valmiki's Ramayana .
As the story opens the ruler of Lanka, the demon Ravana, has gained apparent invincibility by winning a promise from the gods that he cannot be
destroyed by any divine or demonic creature: he is vulnerable only to human beings, who are too weak to be of account. Meanwhile in the city of Ayodhya, we learn, King Dasaratha has no male heir. In order to remedy this problem his ministers urge him to perform a special sacrifice, which causes his three wives to conceive sons. Firstborn among them is Rama, son of Queen Kausalya; then come his three half-brothers, Bharata, son of Queen Kaikeyi, and Laksmana and Satrughna, the twin sons of Queen Sumitra. Rama begins his career as a warrior while still a youth, when he defends a sage's sacrifice by killing the demons that threaten its success. Subsequently, Rama wins his bride, Sita, by stringing an enormous divine bow.
When King Dasaratha decides to retire, he chooses as his successor Rama, beloved among Ayodhya's citizens for his wisdom and compassion. Soon, however, the king's youngest queen, Kaikeyi, becomes convinced that if Rama were to become the sovereign, her fortunes and those of her son, Bharata, would suffer disastrous consequences. So Kaikeyi calls for the king to redeem two boons that he awarded her when once she saved his life on the battlefield: she asks first that Rama be banished to the forest for fourteen years and, second, that her own son, Bharata, be crowned in his place. Rama willingly accepts his fate, vowing to honor his father's wishes, and sets off at once for the forest, accompanied by his wife, Sita., and his half-brother Laksmana. When Bharata returns from a visit to his uncle and hears of the events that have transpired while he was away, he goes to the forest to persuade Rama to return. Rama, however, adheres to his vow, whereupon Bharata installs Rama's sandals on the royal throne, agreeing only to serve as regent until Rama's return from exile.
In the forest the threesome meet ascetic sages, travel through both beautiful and frightening landscapes, and eventually settle in a little hermitage. One day there appears a demoness named Surpanakha who falls in love with Rama and boldly offers herself to him in marriage. When Rama refuses her offer, she deems Sita the obstacle to her plan and prepares to eat her. In response, Laksmana mutilates Surpanakha, prompting the demoness to flee to her brother, Ravana. When she complains of the cruelty of the two princes and tells of the extraordinary beauty of Sita, her words arouse in Ravana a passionate desire for Sita. By enlisting the aid of another demon, who takes the form of a golden deer, Ravana lures first Rama and then Laksmana away from their hermitage. Then, posing as a wandering holy man, Ravana gains entrance to the dwelling and carries Sita off to his island kingdom of Lanka.
In the course of his attempt to determine where Sita has been taken and then to gather allies for the fight against Ravana, Rama becomes involved in the politics of a monkey kingdom. There Rama meets Hanuman, who becomes his staunch devotee, and Sugriva, an exiled prince who, like Rama, has also suffered the loss of wife and kingdom. Sugriva and Rama make a pact: if Rama will help Sugriva win back his wife and throne—both currently under the control of his brother, Valin—then Sugriva will aid Rama in his
search for Sita. During a battle between Sugriva and Valin, Rama conceals himself behind a tree and shoots Valin from this position of hiding, an act that violates the warrior's code. Some time later Sugriva sends his warriors off in every direction seeking news of Sita's whereabouts. Finally they learn that Sita has been imprisoned in Lanka.
Hanuman crosses the ocean to Lanka and locates Sita, dwelling under guard in a grove near Ravana's palace. After he watches Ravana alternately threaten her life and attempt to seduce her, he gives her Rama's signet ring, assuring her of imminent rescue. Then, when he allows himself to be brought to Ravana's court, his tail is set afire. Escaping his captors, he sets the city on fire and then returns to help Rama's forces prepare for war, adding the intelligence about the walled city of Lanka that he has gathered to information provided by Vibhisana, a brother of Ravana who has repudiated him to join Rama. The monkeys build a bridge to Lanka so that the army can cross. The ensuing battle sees great losses on both sides. Rama ultimately kills Ravana in one-to-one combat, whereupon Rama makes Vibhisana the new ruler of Lanka.
Rama at first refuses to take Sita back, since she has lived in the household of another man. After she successfully undergoes a trial by fire, however, he deems her worthy to take her place by his side. But continuing rumors questioning his wife's chastity cause Rama to banish Sita—who is now pregnant—from his kingdom. Banished, she finds refuge with the venerable sage Valmiki, to whom the composition of the Ramayana is traditionally attributed, and in the shelter of his hermitage gives birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Eventually, Sita abandons this world to return to the bosom of the earth, whence she came. Bereft by the loss of his wife, Rama finally ascends to heaven with members of his retinue.