Rāmāyaṇa where ideology and arts meet narrative and historical context

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Nalini Rao, Assoc. Prof. of World Arts, SUA, CA

The epic, Rāmāyaṇa, is a living topic of contemporary relevance. It constitutes a substantial part of Indian historical collective memory that influenced the socio-cultural, religious, and political landscape of India to a large extent. Hence, creative minds through ages and across different cross-sections of Indian society have re-interpreted and re-created the epic narrative in varied forms through diverse media. This article examines the interaction between ideology, narrative and historical context with artistic traditions that substantiated relevant values of cultural life. History was made intelligible through religious and social values, visual arts, and geographical locale. Thus, there was a transformation of the protagonist, Rama, into a divinity that resulted in his icons in Hindu temples. Numerous stories about Rama were an outgrowth of an earlier cultural process that ultimately became a dynamic method that sustained kings, kingdoms and the populace.


The Sanskrit epic Rāmāyaṇa is divided into seven cantos with 24,000 verses. It is the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya. He is about to be crowned king when Kaikeyi, one of the wives of his father, Dasaratha, demands that her son Bharata be crowned instead. Rama is forced into exile with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. In the forest, Ravana the king of Lanka, who has coveted Sita, abducts her. Rama assembles an army of monkeys and they invade Lanka, killing Ravana and rescuing Sita. She proves her chastity through a trial by fire. After fourteen years, Rama finally rules Ayodhya, leading to a golden age.

The epic itself, like many Indic texts, is highly revered as religious text. It is one of the earliest and most influential Vaiṣṇava texts, and literary work that is not only a great poem but indeed the very first poem and the forerunner of all subsequent poetry. The story has variations in Indian and S.E.Asian history. Texts on Rāmāyaṇa range from 7th century BCE to 4th century BCE. The most authoritative one was written by Valmiki in Sanskrit in 2nd, century BCE[1].

In the 16th century ACE, it was rewritten by Tulsidas in the 16th century Awadhi dialect under the title Rāmacharitamānas.

There are innumerable versions of the tale; to name a few, they include the 12th-century Tamil language Rāmāvataram, 12th-century Kannada Rāmachandra Charitapurāṇa or Pampa Rāmāyaṇa by Nagachandra, 13th-century Telugu language Sri Ranganatha Rāmāyaṇam, 16th-century Rāmcharitmānas, and the 17th-century Adhyathmarāmāyaṇam Kilippattu. There have been many commentaries in Sanskrit on the epics from the 11th C to the 17th century ACE examining their meaning and intention. For example, a substantial tradition of writing narratives based on the life of lord Rama, which can be traced in Kashmiri literature as early as the 19th century. Around seven Rāmāyaṇas are available namely:

  1. Rāmāvatāracharita (1847)
  2. Shankar-Rāmāyaṇa (1870)
  3. Vishnupratap-Rāmāyaṇa (1904-14)
  4. Ānanda Rāmavatāracharita (1888)
  5. Rāmmāyan-i-Sharma (1919-26)
  6. Tarachand Rāmāyaṇa (1926-27)
  7. Amar-Rāmāyaṇa (1950)

Ramavatāracharit, which is available in published form, is the most well-known and significant of these. Among the available and unavailable Rāmāyaṇas of Kashmiri mentioned above, 'Rāmavatāracharit ' has a special place in Kashmiri literature and stands out for its popularity. In S.E Asia are the Khmer Reamker, the Old Javanese Kakawin Rāmāyaṇa; the Thai Ramakien, the Lao Phra Lak Phra Lam; and the Burmese Yama Zatdaw.


There are many reasons to consider the epic or a part of it as historical truth. Rāma, is portrayed as a living personality; he suffered mental, emotional and physical pain to which ordinary mortals are prey but he is also as an ideal king. Secondly historicity as we understand it today, was not of much concern to the authors and audience of past times; it was an oral tradition which was considered as a historical document. The journey of the triad and territorial identity should be included by the historian noting that past documents could have been lost. The Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa in its original form was an oral narrative which became a sacred book and a text on dharma. There is reason to believe that some part of it happened in the past. It was refashioned time and again to convert into a religious text or for other purposes. Rāma who is worshipped as the supreme form and main manifestation of Vishnu did not rise into prominence before the 11th and 12th Centuries CE.

Oral Tradition to Narrative[edit]

There are several versions of the Rāmāyaṇa that vary according to historical period, regional literary tradition, religious affiliation and political and social context. The original text, an epic composed by bards, was recited at sacrificial rituals, during feasts and the courts of the kings[2]. The hero, Rama, rules from the city of Ayodhya over the kingdom of Kosala situated in the middle Ganges plain, claims descent from the solar dynasty. Rama is the chief of the righteous fighting against Ravana, a demon who fills the world with terror. Rama is the personification of an ideal king and his reign is symbolic in social memory, being a period of prosperity that has the term in Rāma-rājya.

History or Myth[edit]

Tales of the king’s adventures through the journey can be read as we see the architecture and arts in Ayodhya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Hampi and Anegundi. In UP and Bihar, stories were appropriated as their own story, providing a sense of history. Lanka, Nepal, Karnataka and several other places were associated with the epic. From Rishyamuk Parbat to King Bali’s cave, local folklore connects many spots to the stories in the Ramayana[3]. Hofmeister writes: No tradition survives without imitation, contestation of, or allusion to its established forms and ideas). That he was deified as a god was equally relevant during the early medieval period as found in artistic traditions of sculpture and architecture. Naturally a question mark has been put about the reality of incidences that has been narrated in the text. The debate whether the king Rama, is a mythical character or a real-life ruler can run on for hours. The spreading of the epic throughout the human society from years after years was accompanied orally by many disciples from generation to generation. As it had been carried through oral recitation there was a lot of possibilities of addition and alteration at different stages of such progress.

But an inevitable question always arises whether the personality of Rāma mentioned in the epic is fact or fictitious? So, always there is a question mark whether the epic contains any historical fact, or it is a simple epic novel? It is quite evident that there are several portions found in the story which seems to be exaggerated. The composed verse was being spread from generation to generation through preceptors. During the passage of long journey quote from memory addition and alteration were incorporated. However, aggrandizement and magnification was a very common issue in the ancient period and can be compared to what was in ancient Greece. Thus it is difficult to dismiss it as mythology. There are many archaeological sources that have been lost, given the heavy building layered activity in areas associated with the Rāmāyaṇa. While positive evidences have been found regarding the Mahābhārata [4]. it is possible that some evidence will be found about Rāmāyaṇa in the future.

Historical Context[edit]

The question that should be asked is what was the historical circumstances that led to the rise of the hero and might have happened in the context of ancient Indian historical evidence[5]. The reason that there are different versions of it is that it was an oral tradition[6]. and hence the poets’ imagination of an ideal king reigns supreme. However, it might have been true that Rama was a more compassionate leader than earlier ones. Secondly there was a reason why people had collective memory and built upon the ideology of Rama, his personality, and the narrative stories that were told and retold. They struck a chord to every class and group of people. A glance at the ancient historical period of various cultures gives us an idea why epics and narratives were exaggerated or held in historical memory. It was the historical context in which Rāma ruled that made him an ideal king, perhaps due to many wars or confusion, jealousies, intrigues, tribals, forest areas, that occur in the epic.

The historical circumstances during the post Indus Valley and pre-Buddhist period, the post second urbanization era, rise of kingdoms, strife at various levels probably contributed to his rise. Historically during a troubled period of confusion, a leader with values made sense. The epic was created with an adventure - a variety of personal, public, and popular themes and ideals.

The intervention by Rāma for a degenerating society; his enlightened way of living was the ideal. Historical circumstances probably provoked it as it had done during the ancient Greek period, when Homer wrote the Iliad. Authors exaggerated the accomplishments of the king, his ideals, his humanistic values of a king who stood for some sort of an ideal of dharma and justices. Society was perhaps, illogical, and unjust; elders were not respected; there was discord between man and nature, self and society. There was a quest for the infinite that provided a basis for understanding behavior and relationships, social relations, norms, practices, interests conflicts, difference of opinions, which was idealized by Rāma through respect, love and sacrifice. The epic built a social system that discouraged selfishness, anger, hate, greed, lust particularly among family members and turned towards stability through individual and social values of patience, tolerance, and duty.

Rama’s heroism was not merely on the battlefield but on his sacrifices and ideals that were magnified in the epic. It was going to be a golden Age where hope comes back; a peaceful era, with wealth and harvest and renewal. Rāma stood for renovation, continuity and preservation of ancient values. There was hope for man. It is not surprising that they associated him to be an avatār of Vishnu, the god of Preservation.

A cultural context normally gives rise to unknown events, unique leaders as it was in Greece. Perhaps, there was famine or environmental disturbances during the period; there might have been problems with village economies and hunger, and the hero promised release from these. History has been what is relevant, and useful in collective memory not what was necessarily written in India, which is different from western viewpoint. History (like art) constructs what is educative, useful, dramatic and enlightening.

Indian culture recognized the insecurity in man, environment and injustices. It strove to elaborate a condition and an atmosphere that portrayed stability, to reflect upon what is right and wrong[7]

The Rāmāyaṇa provided the theoretical and peaceful structure for Indian culture. To the unlettered, purely as a narrative of India, it provided roots to tap into many places which were named by kings with sites associated with the epic, that lent a sacredness to the local territory[8] He writes: Sacred sites are not only contested as markers of space but also as markers of time[9]. In UP and Bihar, stories were appropriated as their own story, providing a sense of history. Lanka, Nepal, Karnataka and several other places were associated with the epic [10].

Rāma, among royalty, has reinforced a certain image of political leadership and kingly power that stood for an ideology of respect, righteous leadership and a peaceful life[11]. Hence later kings called themselves as Rāma. The Guptas, Chalukyas, Gangas, Cholas and Rajputs, all considered themselves as Rāma and renamed their territories as one of the sites related to Rāmāyaṇa[12]

Dramatization of Themes[edit]

Survival demanded imagination. The epic of Rāmāyaṇa is particularly interesting in its various themes, namely, the leadership of a king, his trials and tribulations, and his success. The Rāmāyaṇa evokes emotional and intellectual interests. Whether it is the Surpanakha’s episode or Bali-Sugriva duel, or for that matter, Vibhishan’s role in bringing down the downfall of his brother, the writers have not navigated the space between the right and the wrong.

The impact of the epic is due to numerous reasons. The narrative of Rāma in the forest evokes sympathy, his success in the war and return to his kingdom is refreshing and joyful. The story is magical, Hanuman could fly to the magical mountain[13] ; his rescue of Sita and uproot the mountain, the devotion of Lakshmana shows his magnanimity and most importantly, Rāvaṇa the evil king of Lanka led to the rise of an ideal king of dharma. Sita is the queen of the Hindu womanhood, and her devotion to Rama was unflinching[14]

It is not uncommon in mythology to create elaborate stories around historic heroic figures to elevate them to the level of gods who have time and again formed the basis for the development of religious sects. The same was true with the Greeks who created their gods. In the epic Iliad, there are mentioned more gods than what is mentioned in the Rāmāyaṇa. A critical comparative examination of ancient epics and narratives within a historical context will provide a reasonable understanding and interpretation of the epic[15].

Rāmāyaṇa created a god out of a person, and it did not matter whether he ruled a small or a big kingdom, whether Kaikeyi loved or hated Rama, whether Ravana was a real demon with ten heads, or whether Sita was born in Nepal or India, or whether Rama built the bridge to Sri Lanka. Rama’s banishment was unjust, the personality of Kaikeyi, Manthara are ugly, unnerving, Dasaratha’s guilt, his obligations, and despondency impactful.

In the forest, far from the anguish of family politics, the moral imagination of Rama and Sita has expanded. As honored guests of the forest and its inhabitants, they begin to reconsider what it means to be human-not divine, armed and separate from the earthly habitat, but mortal, disarmed and in harmony with nature. The visual images are hypnotic. They are not merely illustrations, but condense different narrative incidents leading up to a crucial moment[16].

Sita is a vital moral presence whose imagination is alert to the strangeness and wonder of the forest world. She understands that here is something profound and essential for a life to be called good life from which all social, traditional, or religious presuppositions have been erased. For instance, before meeting Jatayu, Rama had promised Agastya he would kill the asuras. Overcoming her shyness, Sita tells Rama that while he is the embodiment of dharma his vow is morally wrong. The desire for power can lead to adharma, she says. In her hierarchy of evil acts, three are particularly dangerous. Telling lies is bad and adultery is shameful. It is a moment of ethical choice for Rama; of reconsidering human responsibilities and duties and she wants Rama to think and act like an ideal he aspires to be rather than a theologically bound prince. With respect and love, Sita tells Rama a story about how violence destroys an ethical man. Sita's moral stature is thus equal to that of Rama's.

Dramatic aspects of emotion, conversation, ethics, idealism, were woven around as the story of Rama was an oral tradition that was spread by word of mouth. They were enacted in folk theaters, and given detailed content in Valmiki’s Ramayana dynamically adapted to social and cultural changes. The narrative enforce the people with meaning - religious, theological through poems, Sanskrit writings, and folk stories. Valmiki’s epic poem (ca. 750–500 BCE) was enticing for generations. Hence we encounter a number of Rāmāyaṇa, produced – written, painted, sculpted, enacted with vividness, on a human and divine level.

There is truth and beauty in them due to philosophical, spiritual, real and fictious portraits, that provides an unending theme to the artist. In it we find the power of imagination - a variety of emotions of grief, longing ecstasy, vindictiveness. Subjects, kings, parents, children all can relate to it. It realizes the complexities of life; faithfulness, dharma, righteousness, filial piety, martial power, governance, land and leadership. The dramatization of Ram Lila dramatization, a fostered divinization. The Hanuman chalisā shaped the world of the medieval. The imaginary of ordinary folk was important .The institutional frameworks and environments in which these artistic works exist are multiple and serve as a methodological tool for understanding folk art practices from India, for they are often found in local communities, museums, private collections, or the handicraft market simultaneously.

Arts, Sacredness and Divinization[edit]

The epic is dramatic; it is a story to focus upon in drama, theater, dance, music, painting, sculpture, metal work and textiles. Emotional and intellectual content was appealing to all arts. Deification of Rama was achieved through various means, narrative, enactments, ethics, belief, drama and folk lore and particularly via artistic media - in visual and performing arts all considered on an equal plane.

In Indian folklore, songs, oral traditions and practices, the popular worship of Ram and Sita as one entity has existed from time immemorial. Mela of Rāmāyaṇa promotes the original Awadhi composed by Tulsidas between 16th and 17th centuries CE. Other rishis such as Rishi Valmiki, Acharya Vasishtha, Rishi Vishwamitra, Agastya Muni, Nishad, Jatayu and Mata Sabri were minor deities. Bhajans and Kirtans, the Ramcharit Manas Path, and Sunderkand, Ram Stuti are recited and followed by Shuddh Nritya (pure dance) including todas, paran, tukada, tihai and jugalbandi are enacted.

On the walls of temples, in the Pappanatha in Pattadakal, are embodiments of the story, in the paintings in Mewar, on textiles are the combat of Rama and Ravana, prints of Raja Ravi Verma, and on photographs of devotion. Mewar, Kishangarh, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Chamba, Kangra or Guler assumed that the paintings had merit because they were illustrations of either religious motifs, legendary heroes, courtly life or decorative styles. This gave miniature art a social, moral and sacred purpose. It succeeded in making miniature paintings part of our social, moral world. The artist created his sublime visions. Sita is a simple lady, compassionate, and listens to Jatayu’s tales. The forest is sacred, with birds, deer, trees. Nature is seen through beauty. Arts capture the peaceful, the tranquil, and the elementary. Models of goodness that avert tragedy were portrayed. Ravana with his multiple heads and arms, his golden palace as a dramatic battle can be seen on stage, poetry and paintings. The waking of Kumbhakarna and his going to the battle is hillarious. Hanuman’s journey to obtain the herb and taking back the entire mountain on his back as he soars through the air is captivating. The story telling devices in paintings of perceptual, conceptual view and continuous narration is common in Indian arts. The artist's facility in organizing the space is remarkable. A sense of balance Himalaya in search of the special herb that will save between the figures, landscape is depicted with a sense of time and space.

Many times when patronized by kings had a political function of propaganda as it was with the Rajputs. In the temple complex of Prambanan Indonesia is the iconographical programme with innumerable narrative scenes from the epic patronized by kings. The temple houses an outstanding iconographic program in its architecture, comprising scenes from the epic. Ramayana has disseminated across many parts of Southeast Asia in different ways, irrespective of the religious beliefs of these societies. Lanka is associated with Ravana and Sita’s vana.

The plant sanjivani - a herbal medicine that Lord Hanuman brought by lifting the mountain on which it was planted to cure Lord Ram's brother Lakshman) from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was central to the Hindu epic the Ramayana, being the scene of the battle between the Indian king Rama and the Sri Lankan Ravana. The epic had an important place in the unlikeliest places in Southern Sri Lanka, the Muslim Malay community. In Java, as in the rest of South East Asia and became a part of the local folk culture from the 9th C. CE onwards. Given that it spans more than one kind of society, the epic was immensely popular both as a linear narrative of the heroic as well as in the embroidered intricacies of the stories, all of which led to Rama being a God, avatar of Vishnu that changed the character of the epic.


The Rāmāyaṇa is an integral part of Indian culture. It is an epic of unending themes that arose within an historical and cultural context. The dramatic narrative weaved royalty, leadership, narrative, family life and values simultaneously. The interaction between ideology, narrative, and artistic traditions substantiated relevant values of cultural life. Ultimately Rama deified as a god that was equally relevant during the early medieval period. It was a dynamic method that reverberated and sustained kings, kingdoms and the populace in ancient and medieval times. The narrative unfolds chronologically keeping in mind the human aspect of Rama as well as his ideology. The collective psychology of the people that needed the story of Rama and its spread and spatial occurrence is not a new phenomenon in the ancient world. History was made intelligible through folk lore, locale, drama and visual arts and geographical locale that was an outgrowth of earlier cultural process.

There is a range of texts, beliefs, and practices regarding the ritual and divine status of the image. A single sculpture possesses a range of possible meanings and significations depending upon its cultural context. It is essential to recognize the importance of the arts as influential factors for the sacredness of the epic. Historians need to recognize this fact and value its importance for a multitude of purposes. Narratives and arts acted together, and are interwoven in the religious, social, political, artistic, philosophical realms. The history of this interaction between Hindu imagery and practitioners, priests, curators, reformers, leaders can be still found today.

Rama and Sita should be viewed together by historians as it was and is in public consciousness. From ancient times, Rama and Sita preserved in public and historical memory suggests a discourse based on an ordered society on ideas of duty, compassion, and service. They are are cultural icons. Rama as an ideal leader and king. Sita is often seen as the uniting force, the ideal and keeper of dharma and human love. In Indian folklore, songs, oral traditions and practices, arts and the popular worship of Ram and Sita as one entity has existed from long.

A comparative understanding of the particular circumstances that led to the rise of the Rama will provide an accurate understanding of the hero. Rāmāyaṇa is not a purāṇa. The nature and function of an epic is tremendous, its spread, retention in collective memory, territorial relation, imaginative literature, substantiation in artistic modes is tremendous. Literary masterpieces are a product of historical circumstances.


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