Image Credit: From the Metropolitan Museum of Art , via Open Access

The Ramayana originated in north India as an oral epic poem, performed with musical accompaniment and dance. Written, illustrated manuscripts of the poem were later produced from Pakistan to Indonesia. This means that the Ramayana has expressions in oral performance, dance, music, literature, and illustration. Modern iterations of the tale extend to film, television, comic books, and animation.

The Hero's Journey: Ramayana

Interview with Robert Goldman

This interview with Robert Goldman analyzes the Ramayana through the lens of the Hero's Journey. 


How was the epic transmitted?

The Valmiki Ramayana is a monumental epic poem about the exemplary hero and divine incarnation, Lord Råmacandra, of the ancient North Indian kingdom of Kosala.  The way the poem came to be composed is itself an interesting story, which is told in the opening chapters of the epic itself.  One day the legendary sage Valmiki received a visit in his ashram (forest hermitage) from the divine seer Narada.  The sage asked his guest if there were any truly noble, heroic, and virtuous men in the world of their day.  Narada replied by narrating briefly the virtues and history of King Rama.  Upon the seer's departure, Valmiki walked to the banks of the nearby river to perform his obligatory ritual bath. There he became entranced by sight of pair of beautiful cranes mating.  As the enraptured sage watched the birds a tribal hunter, taking advantage of the couples’ absorption in one another, shot and killed the male bird.  Witnessing this terrible act and hearing the piteous cries of the bereaved hen crane, Valmiki spontaneously cursed the hunter.  To his astonishment, the curse emerged from his mouth as a perfectly formed metrical verse, suitable for recitation to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

Valmiki returned to his ashram, pondering this strange event. Suddenly his musings were interrupted by the arrival of the great creator divinity, Lord Brahma.  The god informed the sage that it was he himself who had inspired him to create a new medium of verbal expression that had enable him to transform the powerful emotion of grief (shoka) into poetry (shloka). Brahma further informed Valmiki that the purpose of this divine inspiration was to enable the sage to render the highly edifying tale of Lord Rama that he had been told by Narada into a great epic poem that would be both morally uplifting and aesthetically pleasing. Valmiki with the benefit of the divine insight granted him by the god, then composed the Ramayana, a massive epic in seven books (kandas) containing some 50,000 lines of Sanskrit verse.

Valmiki then taught his orally composed poem, which was designed for public musical performance, to his disciples.  The most apt and talented of these are a pair of twin boys named Lava and Kusha.  We learn in the course of the epic, that the two are actually the sons of Rama, who is, however, unaware of their existence.  The two young bards take their show on the road, as it were, and perform the epic in the towns and villages of Kosala.  After some time, King Rama, who is ruling in the capital city of Ayodhya, hears of these two brilliant singers of tales and summons them to a command performance at the royal court.  There the twins perform the epic for its hero. 

From this charming story, which serves as the prologue to the Valmiki Ramayana, we learn that the epic was orally produced, performed, and transmitted in the early years of its existence.  Although this oral transmission was long ago supplanted by manuscript transmission, as the principal means of handing the epic down from one generation to another, many traditions and types of Ramayana performance- including recitation, folk and ritual drama, stage play, songs, puppet theater, and video and cinema-have continued to keep the epic tale with its heroes, heroines, and villains alive for Indian and Southeast Asian audiences down to the present day.


How is the hero's pedigree mythically established?

The society depicted in the Sanskrit epics was divided into four great social/functional classes known as varnas.  These classes, which were thought to derive originally from the parts of the body of a primal sacrificial human, were the brahman or priestly class, the kshatriya or ruling class, the vaishya or mercantile/agricultural class, and the shudra or servile class. The varnas were ranked in a strict hierarchical order of prestige, purity, and authority from the brahman to the shudra and were considered to impermeable categories, from which an individual could not escape during the course of a single lifetime.  Of the four classes only the three highest are fully admitted into the socio-religious fold of brahmanical society through their eligibility for participation in the vedic rituals and rites of passage.  For the purposes of the Sanskrit epics, however, only the brahmans and the noble kshatriyas are worthy of the poets notice.

Of the various royal kshatryia lineages known to the ancient Indian texts, two stand out above the rest for their antiquity, nobility, pedigree, and near divinity.  These are the dynasties that trace their pedigree all the way back to the sun and the moon respectively.  The ruling family of Kosola into which the epic's hero, Råma, is born, is the great solar dynasty [suryavamsa] also known as the Raghu and Ikshvaku dynasty after two of its most celebrated dynasts.  Thus, the epic assures us that the hero of the noblest possible pedigree.

Although birth in the Raghu dynasty is considered among the noblest possible, Rama's birth is more noble still because of a set of divine circumstances that set him apart even from his noble forebears.  At the time of Rama's birth, the epic tells us the universe itself was in a state of acute crisis. The Hindu gods had been defeated in battle by a terrible and monstrous demon enemy, the great ten-headed rakshasa tyrant Ravana.   Through severe austerities, this demon had secured a boon from Lord Brahma, which granted him invulnerability to the gods and all other supernatural beings.  In his arrogance, however, Ravana had neglected to ask for immunity at the hands of lowly humans.

Oppressed by Ravana's tyranny and distressed at his disruption of the vedic sacrificial religion, the gods sought refuge at the feet of the great lord Vishnu.  In his compassion for the suffering of the gods and brahmans and in his desire to restore the rule of dharma or righteousness, Vishnu agrees to take birth as a kind of god-man who will thus be able to circumvent the terms of Brahma's boon and destroy Ravana.  Seeking a lofty enough lineage in which to take on human form, he selects the noble House of the Raghus.

At this very moment, the childless King Dasharatha, the reigning solar dynast, is performing a sacrifice, the purpose of which is to produce for him a son and heir.  Suddenly a divine being emerges from the sacrificial fire bearing a great golden vessel containing milk-pudding [payasa], infused with the essence of Lord Vishnu.  Dasharatha feeds the payasa in varying portions to his three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra, who conceive and give birth four sons.  These are Rama, Bharata, and the twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna.

In this way we see that the pedigree of Rama is, in fact, over-determined as the purest possible for an earthly king.


What calls the hero to take action?

In consequence of the political intrigue at the Kosalan capital, Rama along with his faithful wife Sita and devoted younger brother Lakshmana is forced into exile as a forest hermit for fourteen years on the very eve of his consecration as king.  During his exile, he approached by groups of forest ascetics and sacrificers who complain of their continual harassment at the hands of the impious and bloodthirsty rakshasas. As a representative of royal authority it is Rama's obligation to protect the virtuous brahmans and he vows to do so.

In the meanwhile, he is accosted in his own sylvan retreat by the lustful sister of the demon king Ravana.  This creature, called Shurpanakha, proposes that Rama abandon his wife, in favor of her.  Rama teases her for awhile, but when she turns to attack Sita, he has Lakshmana disfigure her and drive her away.  She runs to her powerful brothers, the rakshasas Khara and Dushana, who lead a huge punitive expedition against the royal brothers.  Rama, however, exterminates virtually all of his rakshasa enemies.  At length Shurapanakha throws herself before her eldest brother Ravana, bewailing her brutal treatment at Rama's hands.  Lustful Ravana, however, is more interested in his sister's description of the beautiful Sita than in her own tale of woe.  He then sets in motion a plan whereby he can abduct and possess this exquisite woman thus avenging himself on her husband.

Ravana compels one of his subordinates to take on the form of a irresistibly beautiful deer, which will captivate Sita who will then send Rama and ultimately Lakshmana in pursuit of it. Ravana then takes on the form of a kindly forest hermit to approach Sita.  Taking on his terrible native form, Ravana seizes Sita and carries her off to his island fortress of Lanka.

The abduction of his beautiful and beloved wife is, of course, the ultimate provocation to Rama, who sets out in pursuit of her and to avenge himself on her abductor.


What are the qualities of a hero revealed during the tests?

Rama faces several severe tests during the course of the epic. The first comes when he participates in a contest of strength and military skill at the court of King Janaka of Mithila.  Janaka has vowed that no man shall merit the hand of his exquisite daughter Sita if he cannot prove his manhood by lifting the immensely heavy bow of Lord Shiva that is in his possession.  Although the mightiest kings of India have failed at this test, Rama though still a mere boy easily lifts and breaks the great bow. In so doing he reveals the qualities of strenght, courage, confidence, and fortitude, as well as the superhuman power that is inherent in him as an earthly manifestation of the great Lord Vishnu.

Rama's second great test comes when he is abruptly informed by his stepmother Kaikeyi on the very eve of his consecration as king that he must immediately abandon his wealth, power, and possessions, and dwell a homeless and penniless wanderer in the wilderness for fourteen years.  In his response to this dramatic reversal of fortune, Rama reveals what are among his most noteworthy qualities, including stoicism, self-sacrifice, equanimity, and above deference to the wishes of his elders.

Rama again is tested by the abduction of his beloved wife, Sita.  Although his immediate reaction to this calamity is one of almost unbounded rage and grief, the hero is able to compose himself and marshal his resources sufficiently to recruit a vast army of monkeys, build a great causeway across the ocean, lay siege to the impregnable fortress of Lanka, and in the end slay the immensely powerful Ravana in single combat.  In so doing he reveals his qualities of self-control, leadership, courage, strength, and martial skill.

Rama's final test is perhaps the strangest and most controversial of all. Once he has returned victorious from war and exile and has at last been consecrated with his beloved queen in Ayodhya, he learns through his spies some disturbing news.  He hears that people of the city gossiping about the king's having taken back into his household a woman who has lived in the house of another man.  Although Rama loves Sita deeply and is fully confident of her absolute faithfulness he takes the deeply disturbing and controversial step of having her banished from the kingdom.  In this distressing episode reveals the qualities of idealized Indian monarch, who places what he sees as the public good and the people's confidence in the integrity of their ruler above the personal and emotional.

Helpers & Tools

Where does the hero's power come from?

In the course of his quest to recover his abducted wife, Rama encounters many helpers.  The vulture king Jatayu confronts Ravana as he is abducting Sita, and dies in the attempt to stop him.  Before his death, however, the mortally wounded bird is able to inform Rama that Ravana has carried his wife away.

Rama then forms an alliance with the king of the monkeys, Sugriva, who places his vast armies at Rama's disposal.  Many of these monkeys offer signal service to Rama in his campaign but none is so important or helpful as the mighty son of the wind god, the monkey Hanuman.   Hanuman leaps over the ocean to discover Sita in her captivity, reassures the despairing princess, lays waste to the city of Lanka, slaying many of its warriors, and confronting Ravana himself.  Later in the epic, when Rama and his brother have been struck down by the poisonous weapons of the rakshasas Hanuman flies to the Himalayas and carries back a mountain, on which the herbs needed for their recovery are growing.

Rama is also powerfully aided by Ravana's brother Vibhishana, who reveals to Rama many of the military secrets of the rakshasas.

Finally and most significantly Rama is everywhere aided and protected by his loyal younger brother Lakshmana whom the poet describes as Rama's virtual second self.

Råma's principal tool in accomplishing his quest is his great bow, which he wields with unparalleled skill and effectiveness.

Return & Elixer-prize

What does the hero accomplish?

Rama's accomplishment of his quest and his mission is complete.  As a warrior hero he has managed to traverse the ocean, defeat a powerful enemy and recover his abducted wife.  As an exemplar of idealized Indian social conduct he unflinchingly obeys the reluctant command of his father, lives out his appointed years of exile, and returns triumphant to rule his ancestral kingdom and inaugurate a new golden age of justice and righteousness.  Finally an incarnation or avatar of Lord Vishnu, he destroys the demonic forces of unrighteousness and restore the rule of dharma and the sovereignty of the gods.

Ramayana through Dance


Map of route taken in Ramayana

Modern digital versions of maps depicting the route of the Ramayana augment older images.

Perform a Ramayana Shadow Play in Class!

Shadow Play Image

Ramayana Resources

Read summaries of the narrative, including one illustrated with art from different regions. See a beautiful digitized version of the tale. Watch a controversial modern film based on the epic.