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The second great Indian epic, the Ramayana, the Career of Rama,' is with the Mahabharata one of the two great Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Both have been a national possession for at least 2000 years, deeply influencing the literary production as well as the moral and religious thought of the Indian population. But they offer several contrasts. The Mahabharata in its literary aspect represents the type of old popular legendary tale called purana, while the Ramayana belongs to the class called kavya, or artificial epic, in which form is regarded as more important than the story, and poetical ornament (alamkara) is abundantly applied.

These stories make up the main part of the Ramayana, and refer to a period which has been loosely assigned to about 1000 BC, although the poem could not have been put together in its present shape many centuries before the birth of Christ. Parts of it may be earlier than the Mahabharata, but the compilation as a whole apparently belongs to a later date. The question of the age of the Ramayana is involved in some doubt, because the arguments bearing on it are rather inconclusive. There is no evidence to show that either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana existed even in its earliest beginnings before the end of the Vedic period (c. 800 BC). As regards the relative age of the two epics, it is probable that the original form of the Ramayana was finished before the epic nucleus of the Mahabharata had assumed definite shape. For, while the leading characters of the latter are not referred to in the Ramayana, the story of Rama is often mentioned in the sister epic. Again, two of Valmiki's lines (vi. 81, 28) are quoted in a passage of the Mahabharata (vii. 143, 66) which there is no reason to regard as a later addition. There is an episode of Rama (Ramopakhyanam) in the Mahabharata that presupposes the existence of the extended Ramayana, in which Rama was already deified as Visnu. The Ramayana, moreover, was along with its later additions a complete work by the end of the 2nd century AD, and was already an old book by the time the sister epic had more or less attained its final shape in the 4th century AD.

The earliest elements of the original Mahabharata may be older than the original Ramayana, because the former has certain archaic features compared with which Valmlki's poem shows an advance. Thus, while speakers are introduced in the longer epic with prose formulas such as 'Yudhisthira spoke,' in the sister poem such expressions invariably form part of the verse. The Ramayana, too, comes decidedly nearer the classical poets in the use of poetical figures. Some positive evidence would place the composition of the original Ramayana appreciably later than the rise of Buddhism, c. 500 BC. Excepting in two passages, which have been shown to be later additions, the Ramayana contains no reference to the Greeks, who first came into direct contact with India during Alexander's expedition in 327 BC.

The political conditions described in the Ramayana indicate the patriarchal rule of kings possessing only a small territory, and never point to the existence of more complex states; while the references of the poets of the Mahabharata to the dominions in Eastern India ruled by a powerful king, Jarasandha, and embracing many lands besides Magadha, reflect the political conditions of the fourth century BC. The cumulative evidence of these arguments makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the kernel of the Ramayana was composed before 500 BC, while the more recent portions were probably not added till the second century BC and later.

The Ramayana describes the divine actions of Bhagwan Ram when he appeared in ancient India. Through His righteous living He set an example of how to live by dharma - actions, thoughts and practices that promote happiness in the world and ensure God realization. Another belief, karma, explains the importance of living according to dharma.

The warfare in the epic nucleus of the Mahabhdrata is that of heroic human combatants on both sides ; in the Ramayana it consists of conflicts with monsters and demons such as are described by writers of fairy-tales without firsthand knowledge of real fighting. The Mahabharata was composed in the western portion of N. India, the ancient Madhyadesa, or Middle Land, which lies between the eastern confines of the Panjab and the city of Allahabad, while the Ramayana arose in the ancient kingdom of Kosala, which lay to the north-east of the Ganges, and roughly corresponds to the modern Oudh.

The Ramayana consists of seven books and 24,000 slokas, or about 45,000 lines. The Ramayana, as it has come down to the present, consists of seven books ; but careful and detailed research has shown that the first and last were later additions. The former not only contrasts as inferior in language and style with the original, but contains both internal contradictions and statements conflicting with the following books. Unlike the Mahabharata, its composition is assigned not to a compiler (tydsa) in the abstract, but to a named poet, Valmiki. On the other hand, the personages and episodes of the Ramayana have an abstract or mythological character, which contrasts with the matter-of-fact stories of the Mahabharata. The heroine of the Ramayana, Sita, is literally the 'field-furrow,' to whom the Vedic hymns and early Aryan ritual paid divine honor. She represents Aryan husbandry, and has to be defended against the raids of the aborigines by the hero Rama, an incarnation of the Aryan deity Vishnu, born of his divine nectar, and regarded by Weber as originally identical with Balardma, the 'Ploughbearer' (Halabhrit).

The abduction of Sita by an aboriginal or demon prince, her recovery by Rama, and the advance of the Aryans into Southern India, form the main story of the Ramayana. It differs therefore from the central legend of the Mahabharata, as commemorating a period when the main arena of Aryan enterprise had extended itself far beyond their ancient settlements around Delhi; and as a product of the Brahman tendency to substitute abstract personifications for human actors and mundane events. The nucleus of the Mahabharata is a legend of ancient life; the nucleus of the Ramayana is an allegory. Its most modern form, the Adhyatma Ramayana, still further spiritualizes the story, and elevates Rama into a saviour and deliverer, a god rather than a hero. Its reputed author, Valmiki, forms the central literary figure in the epic, as well as its composer. He takes part in the action of the poem, receives the hero Rama in his hermitage, and afterwards gives shelter to the unjustly banished Sita and her twin sons, nourishing the aspirations of the youths by tales of their father's prowess.

As the Mahabharata celebrates the lunar race of Delhi, so Ramayana forms the epic chronicle of the solar race of Ajodhya or Oudh. The two poems thus preserve the legends of two renowned Aryan kingdoms at the two opposite, or eastern and western, borders of the Middle Land (Madhya, the local desa). The opening books of the Ramayana recount the wondrous birth and boyhood of Rama, eldest son of Dasaratha, King of Ajodhya; his marriage with Sita, as victor at her swayam-vara, by bending the mighty bow of Siva in the public contest of chiefs for the princess; and his selection as heir apparent (or Juva-rajd) to his father's kingdom.

An intrigue ends in the youngest wife of Dasa-ratha obtaining this appointment for her own son, Bharata, and in the exile of Rama, with his bride Sita, for fourteen years to the forest. The exiled pair wander south to Allahabad, already a place of sanctity, and thence across the river to the hermitage of Valmiki, among the Banda jungles of Bundelkhand, where a hill is still pointed out as the scene of their abode. Meanwhile Rama's father dies, and the loyal youngest brother, Bharata, although the lawful successor, refuses to enter on the inheritance, and goes in quest of Rama to bring him back as rightful heir. A contest of fraternal affection takes place; Bharata at length returning to rule the family kingdom in the name of Rama, until the latter should come to claim it at the end of his fourteen years of banishment. So far, the Ramayana merely narrates the local chronicles of duction of the court of Ajodhya.

In the third book the main story begins. Ravana, the demon or aboriginal king of the far south, smitten by the fame of Sita's beauty, seizes her at the hermitage while her husband is away in the jungle, and flies off with her in a magic chariot through the air to Ceylon. The next three books (4th, 5th, and 6th) recount the expedition of the bereaved Rama for her recovery. He makes alliances with the aboriginal tribes of Southern India, under the names of monkeys and bears, and raises a great army. The Monkey general, Hanuman, jumps across the straits between India and Ceylon, discovers the princess in captivity, and leaps back with the news to Rdma. The monkey troops then build a causeway across the narrow sea, the Adam's Bridge of modern geography, by which Rama marches across and, after slaying the monster Ravana, delivers Sita.

The rescued wife proves her unbroken chastity, during her stay in the palace of RaVana, by the ancient ordeal of fire. Agni, the god of that element, himself conducted her out of the burning pile to her husband; and, the fourteen years of banishment being over, Rama and Sita return in triumph to Ajodhya. There they reigned gloriously; and Rama celebrated the great horse sacrifice (aswa-medha) as a token of his imperial sway over India. But a famine having smitten the land, doubts arose in Rama's heart as to his wife's purity while in her captor's power at Ceylon. He banishes the faithful Slti, who wanders forth again to Valmiki's hermitage, where she gives birth to Rama's two sons. After sixteen years of exile, she is reconciled to her repentant husband, and Rama and Sita and their children are at last reunited.

In the story of the Ramayann, as told in the original books, two parts can be clearly distinguished. The first is an ordinary narrative of life without any admixture of mythological elements. Beginning with the intrigues of a queen at the court of Ayodhya to ensure the succession of her son to the throne, it describes the results that followed. Had the poem ended with the return of Rama's brother Bharata to Ayodhya after the death of their father, King Dasaratha, it might have passed for an epic based on historical events. On the other hand, the second part, being fonnded on myths, is full of marvellous and fantastic adventures. The theory was formerly held (by Lassen and Weber) that the narrative is an allegorical representation of the spread of Aryan culture to the south of India and Ceylon. This view ia, however, not borne out by the statements of the epic itself. The poet is evidently unfamiliar with the south, which he tills with the fabulous beings that might easily be imagined to haunt an unknown country. There is much more probability in Jacobi's theory that the second part of the original Ramayana represents a narrative of terrestrial events based on mythological elements traceable to the earliest Veda.

Village storytellers, street theater players, the movies, and the national television network all have their versions of this story. In many parts of the country, but especially in North India, the annual festival of Dussehra celebrates Ram's adventures and his final triumph and includes the public burning of huge effigies of Ravana at the end of several days of parties. Everyone knows that Ram is really Vishnu, who came down to rid the earth of the demons and set up an ideal kingdom of righteousness -- Ram Raj -- which stands as an ideal in contemporary India. Sita is in reality his consort, the goddess Lakshmi, the ideal of feminine beauty and devotion to her husband. Lakshmi, also known as Shri, eventually became the goddess of fortune, surplus, and happiness. Hanuman, as the faithful sidekick with great physical and magical powers, is one of the most beloved images in the Hindu pantheon with temples of his own throughout the country.

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