The Ramayana, one of the two great epic poems of India is known, not just throughout India, but all of southeast Asia, and to an extent, throughout the world. It has captured the hearts of billions of people over millennia.
Briefly, this is the story of Rama and Sita, who are believed to have lived around 1,000 BC:
One of four brothers, Rama, as the eldest son of King Dasharatha, is about to be proclaimed the crown prince. Before this can happen, one of the wives of Dasharatha, Kaikeyi, demands that her own son, Bharata, be named crown prince instead, and that Rama be sent off to live in the forest for fourteen years. She demands this as her right because, once, many years before, she had saved the life of Dasharatha during a battle. At the time, he promised her two wishes, which she never claimed, and spurred on by her scheming maid, she chooses this moment to claim the two wishes.
Virtually everyone in the city of Ayodhya is aghast at the thought of the beloved Rama, who is adored by all the people, being exiled to the forest. No one is more profoundly distressed than his father Dasharatha, who worships the ground that Rama walks on. Only Rama himself seems unperturbed and calmly accepting of his fate.
Dasharatha is king, and as king he must honor his commitments, whatever the cost. He promised the two boons to his wife, and he must not go back on his word. He has no choice but to grant the two wishes, pledged so many years ago, and to send his beloved son into the forest.
Rama leaves for the forest, accompanied by his loyal brother Lakshmana and his wife, Sita, who has insisted on going with her husband to live in the forest.
After spending over twelve years living in the forest, one day Sita is abducted by the demon, Ravana and is carried off to Sri Lanka, Ravana’s kingdom. Rama, in despair, sets off to find Sita, and is only kept going by the help of his brother, and the many friends he meets along the way, including an army of monkeys and a wise old bear. One of the greatest heroes—perhaps the true hero of the story, Hanuman, is a divine monkey, who exemplifies the qualities of absolute loyalty and selfless devotion to Rama.
With the assistance of so many loyal friends, Rama is able to defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. The two return to Ayodhya triumphant and, with the fourteen years of banishment over, Rama, with Sita at his side, is crowned king, in a happy conclusion.
This is only the barest outline of the story which is infinitely complex, with every character existing on multiple levels, good and bad – divine and human –demonstrating nobility and a higher purpose, as well as human failings and flaws.
The overarching theme of the story is that Rama illustrates the profoundly Indian concept of dharma – or righteousness. Never deviating from his appointed path, he is unfailingly loyal and obedient, first and foremost to his father. It is Rama himself who is determined to obey his father and who never hesitates a moment, following his destiny, to endure a hard life in the forest for fourteen years.
This theme of loyalty, respect for one’s parents, and profound humility has carried through all of Indian culture, throughout the millennia, and is very much alive today in the heart of every Indian.
The story of Rama and Sita, the greatest legend of India, and perhaps the world, was for a long time relegated by western historians to the unhistorical status of myth. One of the extraordinary reasons early European writers gave for this was that James Ussher, an Archbishop of Ireland in the seventeenth century, had calculated, based on the Bible, that the earth itself had been created on October 23, 4004 BC. Consequently, any records, anywhere in the world, which went back before that date must be mistaken. Rama and Sita thus fell into the category of myth, and there they remained until recent years.
During the Ramayana Festival Conference at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai, India, February 1-3, it became abundantly clear that the age-old tale is in fact based on history and is not simply mythical.
Indian scholars and authorities are increasingly questioning the assumption by western authorities that the tale is nothing more than a story.
Every event in the story is firmly based on geography, having a precise location that can be pinpointed on a modern map. The Ramayana is filled with lovely descriptions of trees and plants which are all geographically and scientifically precise.
The trees near the kingdom of Ayodhya are those species that are found there today. The trees in the various forests where Rama and Sita lived – and those on the mountain where they met the army of the monkeys are all real, botanically correct trees.
Amazingly enough, though this is quite hard to explain scientifically, there is a mountain in Sri Lanka that is pointed, not rounded like the surrounding mountains. On it grow plants and trees that are found only in the Himalayas, over a thousand miles away.
In the Ramayana, Hanuman, the monkey god, is sent off in the midst of a major battle, to bring back an essential herb that is found only in the Himalayas. Hanuman flies through the air, finds the mountain, and then realizes that because he is not a herbalist or a botanist, he has no idea how to recognize the herb he has been sent to get, which is urgently needed to revive Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, who is lying unconscious on the battlefield. All the herbs and plants look alike to Hanuman. Perplexed, he solves the problem, by picking up the entire mountain and flying back to Sri Lanka with it held aloft in one hand.
Lakshmana is given the correct herb and recovers. Whatever all this means, who knows, but the herbs and plants growing on the only pointed mountain in Sri Lanka, grow nowhere else except in the Himalayas.
The tribal peoples of India have many legends about Rama, Sita, and Ravana. The Gond people, for example, have legends that Rama and Sita visited them. These stories are unique to them, and are not found in the standard story of the Ramayana. This means that they have had a separate, native origin. They are not simply derived from the Sanskrit version of Rama’s and Sita’s life. This fact serves to confirm the authenticity of the historical reality of Rama and Sita – since they exist not only in Sanskrit stories, but quite independently – in tribal sources.
The evidence for the historical reality of the lives of Rama and Sita grows only stronger as time passes. Tales and legends from many cultures throughout the world are being found to be not just made up as had for so long been the assumption, but to be based on the actual lives of people and on real history.
Top photo and second photo: Sharon St Joan / Students from the Grove School enacting scenes from the Ramayana.
The Grove School is run by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and the students took part in the Ramayana Festival.
Third photo: Raja Ravi Press /1920’s / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / “The lord Rama portrayed as exile in the forest, accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana”
Fourth photo: Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) / Original Raja Ravi Verma Lithograph / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / Hanuman carrying the mountain from the Himalayas
To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.