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home  > article index > ramayana in brief - background info (pg 1)
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Ramayana page index
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Ramayana - background info (pg 1)

Indian epics

Religious epics are extremely popular in India. The two most famous are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the stories of which every Indian will be able to tell. They've heard the story when they were children, they saw the television series, movies and theatre enactments revolving around the stories.

The Ramayana TV series

One of India's most astonishing TV success stories is brilliantly recounted in Mark Tully's "No Full Stops in India", describing the making of the weekly Ramayana television series in the 1980s and the effect this series had on the nation. The director/producer was Ramanand Sagar; the 78 part series was broadcast in 1987-1988 on Doordarshan, India's national TV station. Every Sunday morning during that period India's population was glued to the telly, be it in private homes, at friends houses or in shopping areas with TVs. Streets were empty, weddings missed, political meetings postponed, incense burned on top of the TV set and conches blown.

The origin of the Ramayana

The Ramayana (lit. "Rama's way") describes the life of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. It was written by the poet/saint Valmiki in Sanskrit; possibly before that the story of Rama was sung by bards and so passed on to later generations. The date of origin is disputed, earlier it was thought to have been written in the 15th century BC, now many assume it to have been written around the 4th century BC. Over the centuries Valmiki's Ramayana was translated, rewritten, reinterpreted by many other poets and writers, resulting in a multitude of versions.

Victory of good over evil

The Ramayana is principally a story of "victory of good over evil". The basic storyline is: Rama (who is an incarnation of the God Vishnu) goes into exile into the forest with his brother Laxman and his wife Sita (an incarnation of the Goddess Laxmi). When Sita is abducted by the evil Ravana from Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka), Rama and his allies head out to rescue his wife and to destroy the ten-headed Ravana. See the next few pages for a more detailed summary.

The Ayodhya dispute

The epic contains a lot of references to desirable moral and behavioural codes of conduct. The basis of the story has long been the source for Hindu-Muslim friction, in recent years culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and resulting in communal violence across the country, and more recently the Godhra train massacres in Gujarat 2002. The problems stem from references in the Ramayana to Ayodhya - a town in the state of Uttar Pradesh - as Rama's birthplace. Unfortunately on the supposed spot stood a 16th century mosque, which militant Hindus demolished on the 6th December 1992, incited by politicians with ulterior motives. Many Muslims were outraged and communal riots and massacres followed leaving thousands dead. The Indian courts decided to have the site excavated by the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) in an attempt to prove the veracity of rival claims. The recently published results by the ASI claiming to show an ancient temple on that spot are disputed, and no clear proof of Rama's birthplace at that spot has come forward. Hardline Muslims and militant Hindus are digging their heels in and are headed on a collision course, while polls in the Hindustan Times newspaper have shown that many secular Indians suggest scrapping the whole idea of a place of worship, instead putting up a hospital, school or another secular building on the disputed spot. Anyway, historians are not sure whether the Ayodhya mentioned by Valmiki is actually the present day city of Ayodhya or whether it might have been located somewhere else. The claim by Thailand though, that Rama's birthplace Ayodhya was the former capital of Siam Ayutthea - about 100 km north of Bangkok - is very likely wrong.

Festivals in India

The Ramayana is also the origin of two of India's major festivals: Dussehra, which celebrates the slaying of Ravana; and Diwali which honours the home coming of Rama and Sita back to Ayodhya.

Ramayana retold in many different versions

Many different versions of the Ramayana exist. Here I am just offering a summary of the story as told in RK Narayan's book "The Ramayana - A great Indian epic retold by a great Indian writer". Narayan based his version on the 11th century AD Tamil poet Kamban's "Ramayana".

Additional information:
 the Ramayana and Indian epics:
 A Tribute to Hinduism - Ramayana tales told differently
 The Tribune - Indian epics on TV
 Inter-Faith: The Epic of Ramayana
 Laurent's version of the Ramayana in poem form
 HVK Archives - The Hindu: What a TV epic did to India
 background to the Ayodhya dispute:
 BBC timeline of Ayodhya events
 BBC - Q&A: The Ayodhya dispute
 BBC report - Godhra train massacre
 Human Rights Watch - Context of violence in Gujarat
 BBC report - initial ASI findings on temple site

page 2: character list >>

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