At some 24,000 verses, the tale of Rama, the Ramayana, is tricky to summarize. To further complicate things, there are at least 300 distinct versions from all over Southeast Asia – my personal favorite being the Ramakien, which is considered the national epic of Thailand.
Still, I’ll try to do justice to Rama’s tale by keeping the cast of characters to a working minimum.
Here we go:
King Dasharata of Ayodhya. He had three wives and four sons. He owes his first wife a life debt, which results in him banishing Rama.
Rama’s wicked step-mother:
Kaikeyi, who wants to see her son seated on the throne. She once saved Dasharata’s life in battle; as a result, he owes her a blood debt, which she finally claims.
She demands that Rama goes into exile in the wilderness for fourteen years, and that her son, Bharata, be crowned king.
Rama’s half brothers:
Bharata, Kaikeyi’s son. He refuses to rule the kingdom, but instead serves as Rama’s regent during the period of exile.
Lakshmana: Rama’s best friend and constant companion; he chooses to join Rama in exile. Rama’s third half brother, Shatrugna, is Lakshmana’s twin.
Sita: found in a furrow in the fields, she is an embodiment of the Earth, and the topic of some feminist debate regarding how her narrative ends. See the post Sita Sings the Blues for more on that.
Rama’s other best friend:
Hanuman is a semi-divine simian. A warrior in his own right with a vast array of magical powers, his devotion (bhakta) to Rama is a recurring theme in Hindu culture. He plays a critical role in the recovery of Sita.
Ravana, the ten headed demon king of Sri Lanka. Ravana abducts Sita, originally as an act of retribution for Lakshmana’s violence towards his sister. In time, he attempts to woo Sita, though it is maintained across all versions of the Ramayana that they were never intimate.
Surpanakha: an elemental demoness, or Rakshashi, and Ravana’s sister. Surpanakha attempts to seduce Rama and Lakshmana in the forrest; when this fails, she attacks Sita. Lakshmana responds by cutting off her ears and nose; this sets off a chain of events that result in war…
So, having established our primary cast, we can see how they play out in the life of Rama, the Seventh Avatar of Vishnu.
Kaikeya, Rama’s step mother, has him banished to the forest for fourteen years so her son, Bharata, can ascend to the throne. His father is forced to comply, and grief stricken, sends Rama into exile. Rama maintains his equanimity, and prepares to go alone. However, his half brother Lakshmana and his wife Sita insist on going.
During their exile, Rama and Lakshmana encounter a She-demon who attempts to seduce them. The affair ends violently, with Lakshmana hacking off her nose and ears.
Word of this gets back to her brother, the ten headed demon king Ravana, who plans to avenge his sister.
The plan involves a lure: one of his demons assumes the form of a beautiful golden deer – Sita is captivated by it. Rama goes to track it down, leaving Lakshmana to guard her. The demon then impersonates Rama’s voice, drawing Lakshmana away.
Lakshmana draws a Magic Circle around their hut, but Sita breaks the Circle when she is tricked out by an elderly beggar – who is Ravana in disguise. The demon whisks her away to his capital on the Isle of Lanka.
In pursuit of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana have many side adventures; the most significant of these results in an alliance with the monkey kingdom, and Rama’s subsequent bonding with Hanuman, the semi-divine monkey.
While Hanuman pays Sita a visit in Sri Lanka, she opts to stay; she feels that Rama should be the one to rescue her. Though Hanuman doesn’t recover Sita, he assures her that Rama is on his way, and then proceeds to wreak havoc all over Ravana’s capital.
In time, the monkeys assist Rama in building a land bridge to the Isle of Lanka; they proceed to take Ravana’s capital by force. In the battle that follows, Ravana is killed, and Sita is freed.
All’s well that ends well, right?
Was Sita faithful?
Well, just to be sure, Rama has her tried by fire.
Now, most scholars see this as a latter addition.
Unfortunately, no matter when it was added, it stuck.
(One of the reasons I prefer the Ramakien from Thailand is that is has a better ending).
Now, of course Sita passes the test, so you’d think her troubles would be over, right?
With their period of exile over, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana return to Ayodhya.
That’s when Rama starts to hear rumors…
Rumors about Sita…
And so, after all of the effort, violence and bloodshed that were expended in recovering Sita from Lanka, Rama banishes her…
Back into the woods.
The’re still one more mini-act to play out. It starts with the fact that Sita is pregnant with Rama’s child when she’s exiled; this child would be magically duplicated later on, giving Rama two sons.
There are variants as to how he encounters the boys; regardless of those events, he see Sita.
This time, Sita doesn’t wait for Rama to abuse her again. Instead, she invokes her Mother, the Earth; her Mother, in turn, swallows her whole, which of course, is where Sita’s story began – recall, she was found in a furrow in the fields…
And what of Rama? He lived many, many years, until he was summoned Home, back to the Source…
So, finally, Who Was Rama?
Making literary critiques of narratives that people hold as sacred is tricky business – no matter what, someone is bound to feel ill-served, be they devotees or academics.
That being said, here’s my analysis of Rama, via Freud.
In Freud’s model of the Psyche, or Soul, there are three players. The Id is desire; the Superego is restraint, morality typically understood as a culturally programmed construct; in between is the Ego, always trying to negotiate these two opposing factors.
Ego walks the tightrope between desire and guilt; a healthy Ego can integrate both impulses.
In Rama, there’s little sign of Id; Rama never does what Rama wants to do; he does what he’s supposed to do. Rama, in this sense, suffers from an inflated Superego, and while it might benefit his Kingdom, it certainly doesn’t do him, Sita or even Ravana any favors.
He dutifully took his banishment. He dutifully rescued Sita. He dutifully destroyed Ravana. And then, in his most questionable act of duty, he banished Sita, essentially undoing his entire Hero’s Journey.
Luckily, our next encounter with Vishnu will not be lacking in Id; quite the contrary. Up next, we’ll meet the sensual and chaotic Trickster God Krishna, the Eighth Avatar.