Hindu Gods And Heroes, Studies in the History of the Religion of India
Lionel D. Barnett author
CHAPTER III - II
Rama is the hero of the Ramayana, the great epic ascribed to Valmiki, a poet who in course of time has passed from the realm of history into that of myth, like many other Hindus. The poem, as it has come down to us, contains seven books, which relate the following tale. Dasa-ratha, King of Ayodhya (now Ajodhya, near Faizabad), of the dynasty which claimed descent from the Sun-god, had no son, and therefore held the great Asva-medha, or horse-sacrifice, as a result of which he obtained four sons, Rama by his queen Kausalya, Bharata by Kaikeyi, and Lakshmana and Satrughna by Sumitra. Rama, the eldest, was also pre-eminent for strength, bravery, and noble qualities of soul. Visiting in his early youth the court of Janaka, king of Videha, Rama was able to shoot an arrow from Janaka's bow, which no other man could bend, and as a reward he received as wife the princess Sita, whom Janaka had found in a furrow of his fields and brought up as his own daughter. So far the first book, or Bala-kanda. The second book, or Ayodhya-kanda, relates how Queen Kaikeyi induced Dasa-ratha, sorely against his will, to banish Rama to the forests in order that her son Bharata might succeed to the throne; and the Aranya-kanda then describes how Rama, accompanied by his wife Sita and his faithful brother Lakshmana, dwelt in the forest for a time, until the demon King Ravana of Lanka, by means of a trick, carried off Sita to his city. The Kishkindha-kanda tells of Rama's pursuit of Ravana and his coming to Kishkindha, the city of Sugriva, the king of the apes, who joined him as an ally in his expedition; and the Sundara-kanda describes the march of their armies to Lanka, which is identified with Ceylon, and their crossing over the straits. Then comes the Yuddha-kanda, which narrates the war with Ravana, his death in battle, the restoration of Sita, the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, and the crowning of Rama in place of Dasa-ratha, who had died of grief during his exile. Finally comes the Uttara-kanda, which relates that Rama, hearing some of the people of Ayodhya spitefully casting aspersions on the virtue of Sita during her imprisonment in the palace of Ravana, gave way to foolish jealousy and banished her to the hermitage of Valmiki, where she gave birth to twin sons, Kusa and Lava; when these boys had grown up, Valmiki taught them the Ramayana and sent them to sing it at the court of Rama, who on hearing it sent for Sita, who came to him accompanied by Valmiki, who assured him of her purity; and then Sita swore to it on oath, calling upon her mother the Earth-goddess to bear witness; and the Earth-goddess received her back into her bosom, leaving Rama bereaved, until after many days he was translated to heaven.
Such is the tale of Rama as told in the Valmiki-ramayana—a clean, wholesome story of chivalry, love, and adventure. But clearly the Valmiki-ramayana is not the work of a single hand. We can trace in it at least two strata. Books II.-VI. contain the older stratum; the rest is the addition of a later poet or series of poets, who have also inserted some padding into the earlier books. This older stratum, the nucleus of the epic, gives us a picture of heroic society in India at a very early date, probably not very long after the age of the Upanishads; perhaps we shall not be far wrong if we say it was composed some time before the fourth century b.c. In it Rama is simply a hero, miraculous in strength and goodness, but nevertheless wholly human; but in the later stratum—Books I. and VII. and the occasional insertions in the other books—conditions are changed, and Rama appears as a god on earth, a partial incarnation of Vishnu, exactly as in the Bhagavad-gita and other later parts of the Mahabharata the hero Krishna has become an incarnation of Vishnu also. The parallel may even be traced further. Krishna stands to Arjuna in very much the same relation as Rama to his brother Lakshmana—a greater and a lesser hero, growing into an incarnate god and his chief follower. This is thoroughly in harmony with Hindu ideas, which regularly conceive the teacher as accompanied by his disciple and abhor the notion of a voice crying in the wilderness; indeed we may almost venture to suspect that this symmetry in the epics is not altogether uninfluenced by this ideal. This, however, is a detail: the main point to observe is that Rama was originally a local hero of the Solar dynasty, a legendary king of Ayodhya, and as the Puranas give him a full pedigree, there is no good reason to doubt that he really existed "once upon a time." But the story with which he is associated in the Ramayana is puzzling. Is it a pure romance? Or is it a glorified version of some real adventures? Or can it be an old tale, perhaps dating from the early dawn of human history, readapted and fitted on to the person of an historical Rama? The first of these hypotheses seems unlikely, though by no means impossible. The second suggestion has found much favour. Many have believed that the story of the expedition of Rama and his army of apes to Lanka represents a movement of the Aryan invaders from the North towards the South; and this is supported to some extent by Indian tradition, which has located most of the places mentioned in the Ramayana, and in particular has identified Lanka with Ceylon. In support of this one may point to the Iliad of Homer, which has a somewhat similar theme, the rape and recovery of Helen by the armies of the Achæans, the basis of which is the historical fact of an expedition against Troy and the destruction of that city. But there are serious difficulties in the way of accepting this analogy, the most serious of all being the indubitable fact that there is not a tittle of evidence to show that such an expedition was ever made by the Aryans. True, there were waves of emigration from Aryan centres southward in early times; but those that travelled as far as Ceylon went by sea, either from the coasts of Bengal or Orissa or Bombay. Besides, the expedition of Rama is obviously fabulous, for his army was composed not of Aryans but of apes. All things considered, there seems to be most plausibility in the third hypothesis. Certainly Rama was a local hero of Ayodhya, and probably he was once a real king; so it is likely enough that an old saga (or sagas) attached itself early to his memory. And as his fame spread abroad, principally on the wings of Valmiki's poem, the honours of semi-divinity began to be paid to him in many places beyond his native land, and about the beginning of our era he was recognised as an incarnation of Vishnu sent to establish a reign of righteousness in the world. In Southern India this cult of Rama, like that of Krishna, has for the most part remained subordinate to the worship of Vishnu, though the Vaishnava church there has from early times recognised the divinity of both of them as embodiments of the Almighty. But its great home is the North, where millions worship Rama with passionate and all-absorbing love.