Ramayana: summary, plot, characters, and more

The Ramayana is a classic of world literature. The book recounts the adventures of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, together with his devoted wife Sita and his beloved brother. Written in classical Sanskrit and dated between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC, the Ramayana is a massive epic poem of over 24,000 verses.

Relatively little is known about the author of the text, but it is traditionally attributed to Valmiki, a sage who is also credited with developing poetic forms in Sanskrit. You may be interested in reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Summary of the Ramayana

The Ramayana is an epic poem involving a variety of human, animal and supernatural characters involved in a series of conflicts, mainly about love and power. The different episodes of the story deal with various themes, including: good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, promise and commitment, love and honour. Originally written in Sanskrit by Valmiki, it was condensed and translated into English prose by RK Naryan.


The main character of the story, Rama, the chosen son and successor, King Dasharatha, had to overcome a series of challenges to claim his rightful place as king and be reunited with his wife, who spends much of the story as a demon captive. Early in his life, Rama had the experience of throwing demons while being trained by the former king to wield enchanted weapons. In addition, Sita’s beautiful hand acquires a distinction that only the bow of Shiva, a goddess, can bend.

Trouble begins for Rama when Dasaratha’s favourite wife, Kaikeyi, asks Dasaratha to fulfil his promise to grant her two wishes. Kaikeyi wants her son Bhataha to take the throne in Rama’s place and for Rama to be sent into exile. Although Bhataha is reluctant to take Rama’s place, Dasaratha feels obliged to fulfil his promise to Kaikeyi and appoints Bhataha as regent while Rama is sent into exile with Sita, his betrothed and Rama’s brother.


Soorpanaka falls in love with Rama, but after several violent attempts to separate Rama and Sita, Soorpanaka finally retreats to the land of Lanka to seek help from his brother Ravana, a 10-headed, 20-armed creature given by the gods the power to control the weather. Soorpanaka’s request does not have the expected result: upon hearing Soorpanaka’s description of Sita, Ravana becomes enchanted by Sita and makes it his mission to win her for himself.

Ravana devises a plan to kidnap Sita. While another demon, under Ravana’s coercion, appears as a golden deer to lure Rama and Laxman, Ravana takes Sita away in a chariot. After searching unsuccessfully for some time, Rama and Laxman befriend a group of monkeys who have found some of Sita’s jewels and agree to help them search for Sita after the rainy season.


The monkeys form a number of different search parties that scour the earth but find no sign of Sita until they are informed by Sampathi, a giant bird, that Sita is being held on an island called Lanka. A member of the monkey search party, Hanuman, who can transform himself into any size, travels to Lanka to contact Sita and tell her that a rescue mission is on its way.

Unable to persuade the sea god to break free of the ocean, Rama and company work together to build a huge bridge across the ocean to Lanka and prepare for battle. During the battle, Rama and Laxman are pierced by serpent arrows. Rama and Laxman appear to be tired until Garuda, the enemy of the snakes, appears, causing the snakes to leave and Rama and Laxman to regain consciousness.


As the battle progresses, many of Ravana’s top military leaders are killed, including Indrajit, Ravana’s son, and Kumbakarna, a great warrior. Ravana is in such a bad state at this point that Rama takes pity on him and allows him to leave, returning with new weapons for the final battle. Be sure to read Gulliver’s Travels.

The final battle between Rama and Ravana continues. The armies of both sides are destroyed. Neither Rama nor Ravana can gain the advantage through the use of ordinary weapons such as arrows, nor through an arsenal of supernatural weapons such as illusion and darkness, nor through the command of monsters. The tables are turned, however, when Rama aims a special weapon once used by Shiva, called the Brahmasthra, at Ravana’s heart. Ravana dies and the war ends.


After the war, Rama does not immediately take Sita as his lover. Although Rama recognises his duty to save Sita, he is unwilling to meet her because his honour has been compromised by her living with another man. Sita is devastated by Rama’s rejection and, in response, throws herself into the fire to commit suicide. However, Agni, the god of fire, protects Sita and she is not burned by the fire.

Rama interprets Sita’s preservation as a sign of her integrity and takes her back as his lover. Rama, Sita and their entourage return to Ayodhya, the land from which Rama had been exiled 14 years earlier, in a thought-powered plane. Upon their return, a grand celebration is held, during which Rama assumes the position of King of Bharata, who had been eagerly awaiting Rama’s return.


Chapter-by-chapter summary of the Ramayana

Book One: The story begins in the city of Ayodhya in the land of Kosala. The righteous and great king Dasaratha rules over this land, but he has a great sadness in his life: despite his three wives and his advanced age, he is childless. His guru Vasishta tells him to perform a horse sacrifice under the guidance of Rishi Rishyashringa, which the king does.


Brahma points out that Rama has foolishly forgotten to ask for human protection and will die at the hands of a mortal man. The gods ask Vishnu, the sustainer of the world, to accept birth as a mortal man in order to kill Ravana. Vishnu accepts and tells the gods that he will be born as the son of King Dasaratha. If you want to read a different genre, I recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Suddenly a holy messenger emerges from the fire and tells Dasaratha and Rishyaringa that the queens should drink from the cup he holds. Dasaratha takes the cup to his queens, Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, who drink from it. A few months later, the queens announce that they are pregnant.


Book Two: For the next twelve years, Rama and Sita live happily in Ayodhya. Rama grows in virtue and wisdom; he has a deep understanding of every person he meets and moves among his people as an equal. He masters his anger and remembers only the good that others do for him. Rama’s relationship with Sita is one of devotion and tenderness.

His joy increases when King Dasaratha decides to name Rama as his heir. Dasaratha is growing old and wants the joy of seeing his beloved son ascend the throne. All the ministers and citizens unanimously applaud this decision and the king begins to prepare for the ceremony. Rama and Sita begin the ritual cleansing, fasting and purification.

Book Three: The three companions, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, leave Chitrakuta, haunted by the memory of the visitors to Ayodhya. On their travels, they visit various holy men and women (such as the yogini Anasuya and the magnificent Rishi Sharabhanga) and kill many evil Râkshasas (such as the terrible Viradha, who was like a cursed goblin living as a Râkshasa).

Agastya offers the two princely brothers various magical and supernatural weapons, including the mighty bow of Vishnu and armour that cannot be pierced by any weapon. He tells the brothers that they must go south to eliminate the Rakshasa threat, and sends them to a place called Panchavati. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana follow his orders and travel to this enchanting place.


Book Four: From his position on a mountaintop, Sugriva sees Rama and Lakshmana approaching. He is terrified that they are warriors sent by his brother Vali to kill him, but his advisor Hanuman reassures him and descends to determine the identity of the two men. I recommend The Sound and the Fury.

Appearing before Rama and Lakshmana as a brahmana (a member of the priestly class), Hanuman asks them why they have come to this isolated place. The brothers explain the story of their exile and the kidnapping of Ayodhya and Sita. Hanuman tells them that their king was also exiled and his wife kidnapped.


Book Five: With the help of his father, the wind god Vayu, Hanuman flies through the air to Lanka. He overcomes many obstacles along the way: flying over magical mountains, tricking a snake goddess and killing an evil rakshasi.

Finally he arrives in Lanka. Shrinking to a small size to avoid detection, he sneaks into the city at night. Lanka is a beautiful place with a high wall and beautiful gardens, but its people are wicked and corrupt. Hanuman witnesses a number of orgies and other sinful behaviour. If you want to read a Russian novel, I recommend The Brothers Karamazov.


Book Six: On the coast of India, Rama and his army of Vanara try to find a way to cross the distant ocean. This seems an impossible task until a Vanara named Nala builds a bridge across the ocean; Rama ensures their safe passage by securing the blessing of the ocean god Varuna.

Back in Lanka, Ravana convenes two councils to advise him on the coming war. The first is made up of his advisors; they assure him that he is invincible and should welcome the coming confrontation with Rama. The only dissenting voice is that of the king’s brother Vibheeshana, who warns him that he is treading the path of adharma (injustice), which will only lead to ruin; Ravana should return Sita to Rama and be done with it.

Book Seven: Agastya, the great sage, visits Rama’s court and blesses the king. He marvels at how Rama was able to defeat Ravana and his evil court and tells him more about the king of Rakshasa.

After an ancient battle between Rakshasasas and gods in Lanka, Ravana’s father Vaisravana wandered lost through the worlds. The young Kaikasi girl comes to him at an unfortunate moment while he is meditating, and he curses her, telling her that she will have terrible demons for his children. However, he relents and says that her third child will be a man of Dharma. She gives birth to a boy whom she names Dasagriva, a terrible child with a mouth full of fangs.

Plot of the Ramayana

Ramayana is the epic story of Shri Rama, which teaches about ideology, devotion, duty, Dharma and Karma. The word Ramayana literally means Rama’s march (ayana) in search of human values. Written by the great oak Valmiki, Ramayana is known as Adi Kavya or the original epic.


The epic is composed of rhyming couplets, called slokas in High Sanskrit, in a complex metre called anustup. The verses are grouped into chapters called sargas, each of which contains a specific event or purpose. The sargas are grouped into books called kandas. The Ramayana has a total of 50 characters and 13 locations. Don’t miss reading The Stranger.


Ramayana characters

Rama: The protagonist, son of King Dásarata and Queen Kausalya, Rama is the prince of Ayodya. He is an avatara of Vishnu, the blue god and preserver of the worlds. He is also a virtuous, strong and righteous man in his own right. He is married to Sita, whom he loves very much. He also has a strong bond with his brother Lakshmana.


Sita: Sita’s father, King Janak, found her lying in a furrow in sacred ground and decided to raise her as his daughter. She marries Rama and loves him so much that she follows him into exile. Famous for her virtue and beauty, she is considered an avatara of the goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu.

Ravana: Ravana is a Rakshasa who spent many years doing penance for Lord Shiva in return for a great blessing from the god: he cannot be killed by any god, demon or other divine being. His arrogance, combined with great intelligence and power, has led him to rule much of the world, spreading terrible evil wherever he goes.


Lakshmana: Son of King Dásarata and brother of Rama. He is deeply devoted to his brother, whom he follows through many adventures and dangers. He is married to Sita’s younger sister Urmila.

King Dasaratha or Dásarata: King of Ayodhya, father of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna. Of all his three sons, he loves Rama the most and tries to protect him from all dangers. He is a good king, kind, just and loved by his people. If you want to read a novel, I recommend Dead Houses.


Viswamitra: Viswamitra is a great sage and wise man who was once a king. Through long meditation he has acquired various magical powers. He takes Rama on a mission to defeat a demon and raise the bow of Shiva, the first step in the future king’s great journey.

Ganga: a goddess, the daughter of Himavan. Because of her incomparable beauty, she was given to the Devas and became the Milky Way. Later Siva brought her down to earth and she became the river Ganges.


Siva: Siva is part of the great trinity in Hinduism, along with Vishnu and Brahma. He is a great ascetic and often sits in meditation. He is able to tame the power of other gods, devas and supernatural beings, and often grants blessings and wishes to those who sit in devotional meditation (‘tapasya’). His wife is Parvati.

Lava: Along with Kusha, one of the young men to whom Valmiki taught the Ramayana, which he had received from Narada. He is one of Rama’s sons, but does not know it.

Kusha: Along with Lava, one of the young men whom Valmiki taught the Ramayana he had received from Narada. He is one of Rama’s sons, but does not know it.


Vasishta: Guru to King Dasaratha, offering religious advice to the king and the royal family.

Rishyaringa: A great Rishi; he presides over the sacrifice King Dasaratha makes for a son. He is sometimes depicted as a combination of a deer and a man.

Tataka: A beautiful woman who was transformed into a demon (rakshasi) when she tried to seduce the Rishi Agastya. As a demon, she drinks the blood of living creatures and kills everything she sees. In one of her first great acts, Rama breaks her curse by killing her.


Kaikeyi: The third and youngest wife of King Dasaratha and mother of Bharata. She was famous for her beauty. After saving Dasaratha’s life in battle, she offered to grant him anything he asked for. He later asks for this favour so that Bharata is crowned king and Rama is sent into the forest, inspired by the worlds of his maiden, Manthara.

Sumitra: Second wife of Dasaratha. Mother of Lakshmana and Shatrughna.

Kausalya: First wife of Dasaratha and mother of Rama. She is the eldest wife and very kind and wise. She does not have a close relationship with her husband, but loves her son Rama very much.


Manthara: An old maid of Kaikeyi. She is an evil woman who gives Kaikeyi the idea of asking Dasaratha to banish Rama and crown King Bharata in her place.

Guha: King of the hunters, he rules near the desert in Shringiberapura. He is very loyal to Rama.

Kausalya: Wife of Dasaratha, mother of Rama. She is wise and kind, but not close to her husband; the greatest joy in her life is Rama.


Bharata: Son of King Dasaratha and Queen Kaikeyi, he is the half-brother of Rama, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. He is devoted to his brother Rama and desperately tries to undo the wrongs of his mother Kaikeyi.

Shatrughna: Son of King Dasaratha and Queen Sumitra (he drank two sips from the sacred cup and had twins as a result). His twin brother is Lakshmana and his half-brothers are Rama and Bharata. He follows his brother Bharata everywhere.

Sumantra: Dasaratha’s chief advisor. He is the one who unwittingly leads Rama into exile.


Surpanakha: Ravana’s sister, a powerful rakshasi. She tries to seduce Rama and kill Sita, but is attacked by the brothers. She tries to rally the Rakshasa army against Rama.

Maricha: A Rakshasa, Ravana’s uncle. Rama defeated him with a magical purifying weapon and renounced his evil ways to become a Rishi.

Khara: A Rakshasa, Ravana’s cousin. He rules the Janasthana region near Rama’s exile forest. He is very powerful and enjoys killing Rishis and plundering sacred rituals.


Jatayu: A mighty golden eagle who speaks with a human voice. He was loyal to King Dasaratha and pledged his service to Rama. He dies defending Sita from Ravana.

Kabandha: A hideous Rakshasa who has the form of a legless and headless body, with only arms and an open mouth. He was transformed into this ugly form by Indra; previously he was a celestial archer. He tells the brothers to look for Sugriva, the prince of the Vanaras.

Sugriva: The rightful king of the Vanaras, a race of magical monkeys. He has been usurped by his brother Vali and pledges his service to Rama and Lakshmana if they can restore him to his throne.


Hanuman: Advisor to Sugriva. He is the son of the wind god Vayu and a Vanari woman.

Angada: A young Vanara, son of Vali and nephew of Sugriva. He is brave and intelligent.

Vibheeshana: Ravana’s young brother. Although a Rakshasa, he is wise and good. When Ravana refuses to listen to his advice, he joins Rama’s army.


Sampati: A large golden eagle, brother of Jatayu. His wings were burnt when he flew too close to the son.

Jambavan: King of the Riksharaj (magic bears). An ally of Sugriva and Rama. He is known for his gentle wisdom and quiet strength.

Indrajit: Ravana’s favourite son and most powerful warrior. He earned his name after capturing Indra, the king of the gods.


Kumbhakarna: Brother of Ravana, a giant of infinite strength who sleeps for six months at a time before waking up and eating everything he can see.

Agastya: An older and extremely powerful Rishi who blesses Rama. Later, when Rama is king of Ayodhya, he comes to Rama’s palace and tells him secret stories about the people he has met on his travels.

Literary Analysis of the Ramayana

The Ramayana is also a text of profound religious significance. Many Hindu devotees believe that reading the Ramayana will erase sins and bring many spiritual benefits. The story of the Ramayana has spread throughout South Asia and has become a treasured story in countries such as Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia.


The text was also shaped by a number of historical forces. The Ramayana was written at a time when kingdoms were becoming powerful and kings were beginning to wield enormous political power. Rama’s devotion to mercy and justice contrasts sharply with the historical reality of murder and deceit in the early Indian dynasties. It is possible that Rama’s story was intended in part to provide a model for the ideal king.

The Ramayana was one of the first Indian texts to describe the concept of the avatara, a god in human form. The idea of the avatar stems from the much older idea of reincarnation: that our souls can be reborn as gods, animals, humans or supernatural creatures. The Avatar offered a powerful vision of an individual who drew power from his identity as a deity, but who also lived in human form.


The Ramayana was also shaped by the social and religious context of the time in which it was written. Buddhism (which emphasises individual spiritual effort rather than devotion to deities) and Jainism (which emphasises non-harm to a high degree) were also beginning to compete with Hinduism at the time the Ramayana was written. Some of Rama’s virtues (particularly his mastery of his passions) reflect a Buddhist and Jain influence.

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