Another review I originally wrote for the book reviews section of my old site. All translations and versions are different, so the one I based this review on won’t be the same as other people have read. For example, Sita’s famous ordeal near the end wasn’t depicted as permanent immolation in my version. I still found it hugely sexist and insulting, but at least it was revealed to be “only” some final test Rama put her through to prove she really had been faithful the entire time she’d been held hostage. Thank God I don’t live in ancient India!
Ravana is the demon king of the evil Rakshasas, and he’s going around on a terror spree, killing people, raping other men’s wives (including those of the gods), disrupting the sacrifices the rishis in the woods are trying to carry out, and even pissing off powerful gods such as Shiva. In short, nobody likes this terrible demon with ten heads and twenty arms.
His behaviour reaches a new low when he goes spoiling for a new fight, which he feels will be his greatest victory. He engages in warfare with the god of death himself, Yamaraja, feeling that if he can defeat the lord of death, he’ll be the most powerful being who’s ever lived. Yamaraja is about to kill this evil little upstart when the lord of all the deities, Brahma, tells him he cannot kill him, evil as he may be, since he once granted him a boon due to his extreme religious devotion to Brahma. No god can kill Ravana, not even the very lord of death himself.
But they both know that not just any human being will be able to kill someone so powerful, tricky, and evil. This is where Lord Vishnu decides to take on his seventh avatar, for he always takes on a human form when human suffering is at a very high point and people need an extraordinary human being (or, in his earliest incarnations, an animal) to deliver them.
Dasarath has been ruling the city of Ayodhya for thousands of years, but he has no children by any of his three wives, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Finally, as he’s getting older, it’s decided that the only way to get an heir is to have a special sacrificial ceremony, offering up a horse which has been specially trotted around the kingdom for a year in preparation for this occasion.
Right after the horse has been sacrified, the three wives are made to drink a special ambrosia. Half goes to Kaushalya and the other half to Kaikeyi, the youngest of the three wives in addition to the king’s favourite. They in turn give part of their portions to Sumitra.
And what a surprise, all of the four children they give birth to are boys! Kaushalya has the virtuous Rama, Kaikeyi has Bharata, and Sumitra has twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Lakshmana is very devoted to Rama and never leaves his side; Shatrughna is similarly devoted to Bharata. The other three brothers are incarnations of the weapons of Vishnu, while Rama of course is the Lord himself.
The boys grow up in sumptuous and lavish conditions, with Rama being the king’s special favourite, until one day the sage Vishvamitra comes to tell the king that Rama is needed in the forest to help the rishis, since their sacrifice is constantly being thwarted by the evil Rakshasas, who always pour blood over their fires and throw huge rocks down at them. He also must get an education in the ways of the holy man.
Dasarath is very loath to do it, but once Vishvamitra reveals Rama’s true identity, he agrees to send him off. Lakshmana of course follows his favourite brother, and they do many virtuous deeds while off in the woods with the sage. During this time, they learn of a wondrous bow bequeathed to King Janaka by Lord Shiva; whomever can string that bow will win the hand of his beautiful daughter Sita. Many people have tried and failed, but Rama, being Vishnu incarnate, is able to do it, as easily as if it were a piece of plywood. Lakshmana is married to Sita’s sister Urmila, and Bharata and Shatrughna are married to Sita’s cousins Mandavi and Srutakirti, respectively, in a quadruple wedding ceremony, and they start back to Ayodhya.
Not long after arriving back, Dasarath begins thinking about making Rama, his pet child, the Prince Regent. Everybody loves Rama dearly, and so his request is met with wild public approval. But this is not yet destined to be a happy ever after story, for Manthara, the evil hunchbacked maid of the favourite wife Kaikeyi, puts evil ideas into her head, turning her against Rama, whom she’d loved as much as her own blood son, and begging her to ask the king to finally grant her two boons he once long ago gave her for having saved his life.
The king is furious and heartbroken when he goes to Kaikeyi’s chambers that night, but must obey his own promise, esp. since he thrice swore by Rama that he’d do whatever she might ask him. Kaikeyi asks him to instead put Bharata on the throne and to send Rama into exile in the forest for fourteen years.
Nobody is happy about this, but Rama feels it must be done, so great and superhuman is his devotion to whatever his father says. Nobody can convince him to stay and fight, nor to disregard this edict as something hatched by a spiteful jealous wife and a senile easily-influenced old man. Lakshmana and Sita follow him into the forest, and only Kaikeyi, her heart turned to evil and her mind deliberately confused by the gods, is happy when the three of them depart. Very soon after poor King Dasarath dies of a broken heart.
Meanwhile the other two brothers, Bharata and Shatrughna, have been off living in their new father-in-law’s kingdom and dealing with affairs of state, as Sita’s uncle has no sons. They sense something’s wrong when word is sent that they must come back to Ayodhya unexpectedly. When they do arrive, Bharata in particular is furious when he finds out what’s going on and what his mother did for his sake.
He refuses to rule in place of his righteous brother Rama, whom he also feels must rule because of the law of primogeniture, and decides he’ll set out to find Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita, who are already in the forest beginning the fourteen years of exile. Many of Ayodhya’s citizens had followed after them initially, but Rama finally was able to lose them and convince those who managed to follow him anyway to go home. Now everyone in Ayodhya sets out to find Rama and to try to convince him to come home and be King.
Rama is glad to see his other two brothers, his mother, and her two co-wives, but once again remains firm in staying in the dangerous woods for fourteen years, because their father ordered it and he had to keep his promise to Kaikeyi to grant her the boons. So Bharata gives his brother a beautiful pair of sandals, has him put them on briefly, and then takes them back to Ayodhya. The sandals are coronated on the throne in place of Rama, and for the entire fourteen years Bharata worships the sandals and brings affairs of state before them, while living some distance away in a hut, refusing to even partake in being the king when he feels his oldest brother has to do that.
The most famous part of this ancient Indian tale begins when the evil Ravana kidnaps the beautiful and virtuous Sita. He coerces Maricha, whose life Rama earlier spared and who’s since become an ascetic living in the woods because he’s so afraid of doing battle with Rama again, into taking part in this evil plot. Maricha, very reluctantly, since he knows he’ll soon die, turns himself into a magickal deer which attracts the eye of Sita. She demands that her husband and his brother capture it and take it back to Ayodhya with them as her pet when the fourteen years expire soon, since it’s so tame and otherwordly beautiful.
The brothers know it must be a trick of some sort, since it doesn’t look like any ordinary deer, and Rama begins chasing after it to see if it really is a deer. His suspicions are proven right when he chases it for over an hour and is unable to catch it. When he shoots it, it turns back into Maricha, who imitates Rama’s voice in his dying breath. Lakshmana feels this too is a trick, since Rama is miles away by now and his voice couldn’t possibly carry so far. He and Sita have a fight, and finally she forces him to go after his brother. Following this Ravana makes his move and kidnaps her.
He assumes the form of a holy brahmin, but quickly reveals his true identity, eventually changing back into his real form as a hideous demon. His words cannot coax Sita into leaving her husband and becoming his most favoured wife, so he has to take her by force.
On their flight out of the forest, Jatayu, an old friend of Dasarath’s who’s been turned into a vulture and has been following her, her husband, and her brother-in-law, springs into action and tries to kill Ravana, but only succeeds in killing the charioteer and the horses pulling it. Jatayu lies mortally wounded, but hangs on till Rama and Lakshmana come his way.
After getting information from him, they get more information from Kabandha, who’s been turned into a demon with eight-mile-long arms and his mouth in his stomach. Kabandha is glad to find out the identity of the two princes he was going to eat, for he was told that as soon as he found them, he could depart this world. After they cremate him, he’s able to give them all the information, and he directs them to a cave with five monkeys in it, foremost among them the exiled Prince Sugriva, who had a nasty falling-out with his brother Vali, who also stole his wife Ruma, and Sugriva’s chief advisor, the noble Hanuman.
After Rama helps Sugriva get his kingdom back and to kill that turncoat Vali, they have to wait four months in a cave nearby before the search for Sita can begin, since the monsoon season is about to begin. At the beginning of the search, the monkeys grow despondent and afraid, for they have been looking low and high and still no sign of Sita. They are afraid Rama and Lakshmana will kill them for not having found her, until they come across Sampati, the vulture brother of the late Jatayu.
He tells them where Ravana lives, and Hanuman is found to be the strongest of the monkeys and the only one able to leap 800 miles to Lanka and back. Once upon a time he was very strong and always doing incredibly physical feats, but he got proud and had his abilities taken away from him, on the condition that he would only get them back when someone reminded him of how strong and powerful he was. So Hanuman leaps off to Lanka and enters the city in a very small monkey form. In this way he finds Sita in Ravana’s beautiful residence, after looking a very long time all over Lanka and the mansion for her.
Sita accepts the ring with Rama’s seal and tells Hanuman to relate to Rama a story only the two of them would know, but refuses to leap back to her husband on the monkey’s back; she feels it would be improper for a married woman, let alone any woman, to touch another man (or monkey in this case). Hanuman realises she’s right (at least as far as the moral codes of that ancient age went), but decides to stay on a little while longer to fight some Rakshasas, just to see how strong they are so he can tell the other monkeys what to expect when he gets back.
He begins tearing up the beautiful garden they’re in and kills a great many Rakshasas in battle, including one of Ravana’s own sons, Aksha. Ravana’s oldest son Indrajit goes out to battle with him next and temporarily stuns him with a powerful weapon, though thanks to a boon from Brahma, this weapon is unable to kill the noble little monkey. He is brought before Ravana himself as he’s coming out of his stunned state, and he threatens Ravana, telling him he’s Rama’s servant and that it’s in his best interests to release Sita, or else there will be a lot of trouble.
Ravana wants to murder him, but his brother advises him against it. Instead they decide to lead Hanuman through Lanka with his tail set on fire, but through Hanuman’s prayers, his tail isn’t harmed by the fire and he’s able to swing it around and set fire to a lot of roofs and houses. As he’s about to leap back to Rama with a full report, however, he sees the fiery carnage he’s wrought and is afraid that Sita too has died in it. A voice from the gods assures him that though Lanka is burning to a crisp, Sita is unharmed.
Ravana hasn’t slept with Sita yet, though he’s given her a year from the time of her abduction to submit to him, or else his cooks will chop her up and feed her to him for his morning meal. He’s unable to just rape her because once upon a time he raped his nephew Nalakuvera’s wife Rambha, uncaring that this was a relation of his and indeed the wife of a god. Many people ran to try to rescue her upon hearing the screams, but upon seeing Ravana were afraid to intervene. Angry and violated, Rambha ran off to her godly husband right after and complained about what had happened. Because of Brahma’s boon, Nalakuvera was unable to kill his evil uncle, but he did pronounce a curse upon the demon: he will fall dead instantly if he ever again rapes a mortal woman.
At first no one knows how they’re possibly going to get to Lanka, but then under the direction of the monkey Nala, a bridge is built across the 800 miles of ocean in just five days. Meanwhile back at Ravana’s place, more and more of his advisors and relatives, including his own grandfather, are warning him against warfare, saying there are bad omens about, and it would be best to just give back Sita while he can.
Ravana’s little brother Vibhishana and four of his friends feel so strongly about this, in fact, that they defect and go over to Rama’s side before the bridge has even been built. Vibhishana’s wife, the Rakshasi Sarama, is also virtuous and against the evil Ravana, and is telling Sita to take heart, most especially when Ravana, after the first day of battle, has one of his magicians make a bow and head looking like Rama’s to display to her, in the hopes that she might sleep with him if she thinks Rama’s dead. But nothing can hold back the wrath of either side, and the war that ensues is very bloody, with many monkeys and bears on Rama’s side struck down as well as plenty of Rakshasas on the other side.
This is an epic story as grand as that of The Iliad or The Aeneid, with heroes, villains, grand battles, carnage, miracles, help from the gods, romance, and magickal animals. Of course good wins over evil; Vishnu did after all take on human form as Rama in order to rid the world of the evil Rakshasa king Ravana.
As a modern person, I’m far from alone in being disturbed at how he receives Sita when they’re finally reunited; Rama tells her that after having spent nearly a year in another man’s residence, how can he be sure she was faithful to him? Who could believe that any woman spent so long in another man’s house without having once slept with him? If he continues to keep her as his wife, even after the huge war he fought to get her back, he’ll look bad and it’ll set an example of unchastity and suspiciousness.
Lakshmana, Vibhishana (who’s been installed as the King of Lanka after Ravana’s slaying), and the monkeys are all aghast and horrified, not believing what the highly virtuous and kind Rama is saying to his own wife, after they all went to so much trouble on her behalf.
Sita then immolates herself out of shame and disbelief, praying beforehand that if she is sinless, as indeed she was, she will emerge unharmed. There are several versions of what happens next; in my version she comes out of the fire carried by Agni, the god of fire, and Rama believes and accepts that she was always 100% faithful to him, thinking of only him during the entire time they were apart. Then he claims he only did it to test her virtuousness.
How far we’ve come, when most women nowadays would have left such a man, daring to suggest that she was unfaithful when she was kidnapped and held against her will by a very evil man and then saying they only accused her of infidelity in order to test her chastity!
Following this ordeal they all joyously go back to Ayodhya; Bharata, who’s still living as an ascetic in a hut outside the city and going before the sandals on the throne every day, gratefully gives the kingdom over to Rama. Everyone is happy to see them back, and Rama and Sita, Vishnu and Lakshmi incarnate, are installed upon the throne as the rightful rulers of Ayodhya.
I found Rama depicted as an extraordinary human being here, a hero and highly virtuous religious person (though with perhaps a bit too much obedience to his elders, even though ultimately his exile was for a good cause), though it was easy to lose sight of the fact that this is Vishnu incarnate and not just some exemplary man.
It’s an incredible story, but my favourite of Vishnu’s avatars is that of Krishna, whom I found it easier to see and relate to on a host of different levels. In that incarnation one can see the Divine as baby, sneaky little boy, lover, husband, brother, father, dear friend, warrior, etc., as his heroic feats there are not the entire backbone of what he came to Earth in human form that time around to accomplish. He just had a different purpose when he came to Earth in his seventh incarnation. Hare Rama!