Rama Traditions in Hinduism
Although the Rama story is not, as such, a Hindu story, Hindu versions are very ancient. They have been a prominent element in Hindu religious life over the centuries and continue to play a prominent role in contemporary Hinduism. Moreover, certain dominant features in many Rama traditions— both in India and in Southeast Asia—can be clearly identified as Hindu.
Most of the literary versions of the classical Hindu Rama story are attributed to an author recognized as a religiously inspired sage or poet. In some cases the reputed author (for example, Valmiki) seems from our perspective more or less a mythic figure. In other cases the reputed author is a relatively identifiable historical personage (for example, Tulsidas). Either way, the author is considered to be a Hindu virtuoso possessing special religious insight and poetic inspiration.
For the most part, these Hindu crystallizations set the story of Rama in a primordial time situated at or near the beginning of the present eon when the gods are very much involved in human affairs and the character of the world as we know it is just being established. At a certain moment, the proper order in the cosmos and society is challenged by a countervailing force that threatens to disrupt the world with injustice and disharmony. In order to prevent this situation from getting out of hand, a prominent god (usually Visnu) becomes incarnate in the person of Rama, a prince of a northern kingdom usually identified with the city of Ayodhya in northeastern India. In his incarnation as Rama Visnu is surrounded by a host of companions and helpers, many of whom are themselves the embodiments or descendants
of members of the Hindu pantheon—although the particular deities and the relationships involved vary significantly from one account to another. In some Hindu versions Rama and his companions are presented in a way that highlights Rama's divinity and thus evokes devotion directed toward him. In other versions Rama and his companions are depicted as semidivine exemplars who embody the virtues that Hindus are expected to cultivate. In still other versions a greater degree of moral ambiguity is evident.
In most classical Hindu accounts Rama is denied his rightful succession to the throne through the machinations of one of his father's wives, who seeks the throne for her own son. But the primary opponent of Rama and his illustrious companions—the figure around whom the forces of disorder are most fully marshalled—is Ravana, the ruler of the kingdom of Lanka in the south. Like most of the major characters in the story, Ravana is usually depicted as the embodiment, descendant, or assistant of one of the Hindu gods, generally one not in particularly good favor with the tellers of the tale. As for Ravana himself, he is a more or less demonic figure who acts in ways that generate disorder in the cosmos and turbulence in society. In some tellings of the tale Ravana is presented as a thoroughly evil character with no redeeming virtues. In others he is more a kind of flawed hero whose demise, though necessary and appropriate, is not devoid of truly tragic dimensions.
According to most classical Hindu versions, the battle between the forces of order and disorder, between Rama and his companions on the one hand, and Ravana and his allies on the other, is fully joined when Ravana becomes desirous of Rama's wife, Sita, and kidnaps her. But, after winning the initial round of his battle with Rims, Ravana is twice defeated—first by Sita, who, despite her position as a powerless captive, rebuffs his advances, and then by Rama, who invades Ravana's capital, overcomes his armies, and finally kills him in personal combat. Thus the forces of disorder and injustice that were threatening the cosmos and society are destroyed. With his mission accomplished, Rama returns to Ayodhya with Sita at his side and takes the throne that is rightfully his.