Ramayana Influence on Hindu Beliefs

by Benna Crawford
Hanuman, Rama, Sita and Lakshman statues are common throughout India.

Hanuman, Rama, Sita and Lakshman statues are common throughout India.

The Hindu religion and culture are ancient, colorful and theatrical, and nothing illustrates this better than its two major epic poems: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana has traveled throughout the centuries from an oral tradition, much like the tales of Homer, to a written text studied by an educated elite, to a proliferation of stories, artworks and devotional practices. Its hero, Rama, has become a god and its lessons have profoundly influenced Hindu beliefs.

A "Remembered" Story

The Ramayana, 24,000 couplets that tell one of the classic Indian stories, is a sacred smriti text in the Hindu religion. Smriti, or "remembered" texts, are considered slightly less significant than shruti, the ancient Vedas, or received scriptures conveyed directly by God to humans who "heard" the words and taught them to others. The Ramayana probably dates from between 1500 B.C. and A.D 300, although some academics argue it is much older. According to Manas, a UCLA Division of Social Sciences website about India, Valmiki is the sage credited with transcribing the story of Rama and his consort from oral tradition to Sanskrit. The Ramayana is a practical primer for leading a spiritual life, stories that exist as examples of how to fulfill one's duty or dharma. Its high drama, calamitous love story and cunning strategies to defeat evil contain lessons for ordinary humans.

True Love, Blackest Evil and a Monkey

The Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama, his beautiful and virtuous consort Sita, a plot to deny Rama his inherited throne and a terrible demon-king who covets Sita. Rama ventures into exile in the forest with Sita and his closest courtiers, led by his stepbrother Lakshmana. Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the demon-king, and Rama's efforts to free her are the heart of the story. Rama relies on his perfect devotee, Hanuman, the monkey god, who invents strategies to outwit the depraved king. Epic battles ensue, tricks are played, good triumphs over evil, Rama and Sita return to his kingdom, where he is crowned. The persistence of Rama, the devotion of the clever Hanuman, the steadfast virtue of Sita, the unrepentant fiendish behavior of Ravana -- all point to the correct motivations and choices for leading a righteous life, a model for following the Hindu dharma, or duty.

Rama as Avatar

Vishnu the Preserver is part of the Hindu trinity, along with Shiva and Brahma, but only Vishnu has avatars. Avatars are reincarnations of a god, born in times of great spiritual turmoil to restore the faithful to the path of righteousness. Lord Rama, the eponymous hero of the Ramayana, is the celebrated seventh avatar of Vishnu, who symbolically slays the representative of demonic behavior, Ravana. As an incarnation of Vishnu, Rama embodies the qualities of fearless leader, faithful husband, devoted son and brother, noble soul and fierce warrior. He is worshiped as a god in the Hindu pantheon and Sita is linked with Vishnu's consort, the goddess of abundance, Lakshmi. Emulating the highest qualities of avatars, gods and goddesses ensures adherence to Hindu beliefs.

Tulsidas and TV

Tulsidas was a 16th-century poet, a wandering holy man with an intense devotion to Rama who rewrote the Ramayana in the popular vernacular. His version, which he claimed Lord Rama directly inspired during periods of fervent devout practice, was accessible to common people with far less education than the Brahmin class who read Valmiki's Ramayana. Both versions inspired the 1987-88 televised episodes of the Ramayana which transfixed the entire country of India for 78 consecutive Sunday mornings. For more than two thousand years, Rama, Sita and Hanuman have appeared in stories, songs, poems, paintings, statues, plays and temples, in the words and depictions of devotees, poets and Hindu teachers throughout Asia. The Ramayana has its critics, who object to the patriarchal culture it portrays, but even the critics agree that it captures important and enduring values that continue to inform and shape Hindu beliefs today.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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