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The Story of the Hindu Epic Ramayana and its Main Characters

By CarolUpdated Apr. 21, 2021

The Ramayana is one of the oldest and longest epics in the world and was written sometime between 500 BCE and 100 BCE. This story has had a great influence on India's culture and is considered to be one of Hinduism's most important literary works along with the Mahabharata.

As the name implies, the Ramayana is the story of Rama who is the 7th avatar of Vishnu. Vishnu incarnated himself as Rama in order to restore order which had been disrupted by Ravana. This story is loved for its theme of duty, loyalty, courage, and devotion.

This story is told not only in India but also in many other Southeast Asian cultures. It commonly appears on temple walls, in dance-drama performances, and shadow puppet theatres.

Quick Facts

  • Rama is the avatar of the god Vishnu, while Sita is the avatar of the goddess Lakshmi who was the wife of Vishnu.
  • There are many variations of the story of the Ramayana, not only in India but also in other Southeast Asian countries.
  • Hanuman, who acts as Rama's aide in the Ramayana, is also a well-respected and worshiped god in Hinduism.
  • The defeat of Ravana is celebrated during Navratri by the burning of an effigy of the demon.
  • Rama's birthday is celebrated yearly during Ramanavani, which is a spring festival. In 2024 the holiday will take place on the 17th of April.

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The 7 Main Characters of the Ramayana

The Ramayana has an interesting plot with intertwined characters. To help you get a grasp of the plot, here is the summary of the Ramayana's most important characters:

1.Rama, Prince of Ayodhya

Ramayana revolves around the story of Rama, the prince of the Kosala kingdom who went into exile for 14 years due to an evil plan from his step-mother. Sita, his wife, and Lakshman, his half-brother, both accompanied him during his exile.

Rama is Vishnu's 7th avatar who was incarnated to defeat the evil king Ravana and restoring dharma, or moral order. In Indian culture, he is seen as the perfect man who acts with courage and righteousness.

2.Sita, Wife of Rama

Sita is the wife of Rama and daughter of the King Janaka. The marriage between her and Rama in itself is a story worth telling. King Janaka who prized his daughter dearly vowed to give Sita in marriage only to the man who could string a magic bow that he received from the god Shiva.

While other competitors were struggling to merely move the bow, Rama was able to pick it up. When he tried to string it, it was snapped into two. Then, Sita was given to Rama in marriage.

3.Dasaratha, King of Kosala

Dasaratha was the king of Kosala with three wives and four sons. He initially had trouble having a child with his wives. It was only after consultation with a priest that his wives were able to conceive.

Rama is his eldest son. His other sons include Lakshmana, Satrughna, and Bharata. Dasaratha loved Rama so dearly and was unable to bear Rama's departure that he passed away soon after Rama left in exile.

4.Bharata, brother of Rama

Bharata is Rama's stepbrother who ruled in place of Rama during his exile. Even though it was his mother who schemed for Rama's exile in order to have Bharata crowned, Bharata himself was loyal to Rama.

Bharata was only willing to reign as king during Rama's absence because Rama has asked him to do so.

5.Hanuman, Rama's Monkey Aide

Hanuman is the leader of a monkey tribe who assists Rama in finding Sita and defeating Ravana's army. Hanuman possesses spiritual powers such as flying and changing size.

In Hindu mythology, Hanuman is often worshiped along with Rama. He is a symbol of strength and energy and is admired for his loyal dedication to Rama.

6.Ravana, the Evil King of Lanka

Ravana was the king of Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka) and was a very powerful 10-headed king who was said to have acquired his powers from the god Shiva. His great power made him arrogant and he created havoc in the world.

His sister, Shurpanakha, attacked Sita because of jealousy of Rama's love for her. Lakshmana defended Sita and cut off Shurpanakha's nose. She then reported this to Ravana who was allured by the news of Sita's beauty and decided to abduct her.

7.Lakshmana, Loyal Brother of Rama

Lakshmana is Rama's loyal younger half-brother who accompanied him during his exile. He protects Sita from harm during the exile, including from the attack of Ravana's sister.

Lakshmana is married to Sita's younger sister, Urmila, who stayed back in Ayodhya when he accompanied Rama on his exile.

The Main Story of the Ramayana

The King of the ancient kingdom of Kosala was Dasaratha, its capital city was Ayodhya. Dasaratha had three wives, but he was upset that he did not have any children. With the recommendation of the priest Vahishtha, he performed a ceremony and was granted four sons from his three wives.

Rama is the eldest son of King Dasaratha, from his wife Kaushlaya. Dasaratha loves Rama dearly and wishes for him to be the next king.

Kaikei, who is another of King Dasaratha's wives, felt threatened by this as she wanted her own son, Bharata to be the successor instead. So, she made a plan to have Rama exiled for fourteen years in the dangerous forest so that Bharata could reign as king.

The Exile

Rama's wife and brother, Sita and Lakshmana, insisted on going together with Rama in exile. So they went together into the forest in search of a place to settle down. King Dasaratha passed away with grief soon after their departure.

Bharatha was infuriated when he found out what his mother had done that caused his father to die and Rama to be exiled. He then went after Rama to ask him to return, but Rama was firm in his decision to complete his pledge of fourteen years of exile. Rama gave Bharata his sandals to represent him as Bharatha reigned as king until the return of Rama.

Attack by Ravana's Sister

Sometime during the exile in the forest, the sister of Ravana, Surpanakha, saw Rama and fell in love with him for his handsome appearance. However, Rama loves Sita very much and kindly rejected her advances.

She then turned and approached Lakshmana who harshly rejected her. Infuriated, she attacked Sita. Lakshmana defended Sita and cut of Surphanakha's nose.

Angry, Surphanakha then sought revenge from her brothers. When her brothers, Khara and Dushana were defeated, she turned to Ravana for help.

Ravana Abducts Sita

When Ravana heard what had happened to Surphanakha and about Sita who was the most beautiful woman in the world, he was determined to abduct her. Sita was then abducted when Rama was away hunting a beautiful golden deer that was actually a demon in disguise.

With the help of Hanuman, Rama was able to locate Sita. Together with Lakshmana, they defeated Ravana in a fierce battle.

Sita's Proof of Innocence

Even though they were triumphant in defeating Ravana, Rama was initially reluctant to take back Sita since he had doubts about her chastity. To prove her chastity to Rama, she entered fire attempting to kill herself but was saved by the gods who thus proved her innocence.

The three then went back to Ayodhya as Rama had completed his fourteen years of exile. The people warmly welcomed them back and Rama became the King of Kosala, who ruled with righteousness for many years.

Alternate Ending

The story of Ramayana is often told with this happy ending. However, some versions of the story continue with the story of Sita being banished for refusing to go through the fire test the second time due to rumors spreading about her chastity.

Variation in the legend

It is said that there are up to three hundred versions of the Ramayana. This is partly due to adaptations as the story was exported to other countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The story is also present in Buddhist scriptures.

Because the story is present in many cultures, there are also many different ways that the story is performed including through Khmer dance, the Indian operatic tradition of Yakshagana, epic paintings on the walls of Thailand's Wat Phra Kaew temple, and Indonesia's shadow puppetry.

Festivals Involving the Ramayana

Rama Navami is a Hindu festival that usually takes place in April. It celebrates the birth of Rama. During this festival, the Ramayana text is read aloud. Apart from Rama, other characters in Ramayana are also revered during this festival including Sita, Hanuman, and Lakshmana.

Another occasion where you can gain insight into Ramayana's influence in India's culture is through Navratri, a Hindu festival that spans 9 nights, usually in September or October. The end of Navratri is Vijayadashami or Dussehra festival which in the northern and western states of India celebrates Rama's triumph over Ravana.

During this festival, you can witness the Ramlila, which is the re-enactment of the Ramayana. Giant effigies of Ravana are burned to symbolize the destruction of evil.

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