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The Rama Epic

Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe
Oct 21, 2016 —
Jan 15, 2017


Rama, the Hero

Brave and righteous prince; a god, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu 
Rama kills the demon warrior Makaraksha in combat from a manuscript of the Ramayana 
Rama, the main character of the epic, is brave, virtuous and handsome. In short, he’s a heartthrob, and a strong one at that; he rids a forest of demons, bends a great bow that no one else has even been able to lift and kills thousands of attackers single-handedly. 

In addition, Rama is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu and, like the deity, is depicted with blue- or green-toned skin. For some Hindus, Rama (often together with Sita) is the Supreme Deity. 

Rama's patience, selflessness, obedience to elders and determination to uphold the approved social order have also made him a model for generations of men in India and beyond. When his father, the king, is forced to send him into a 14-year exile, Rama accepts his fate without protest. Similarly, when his own wishes clash with his duty, Rama more often than not chooses the latter. After he has conquered the king of demons Ravana and set his wife Sita free from captivity, he does not welcome her back, but rather questions her faithfulness. In his mind, his duty as a ruler requires it; only after Sita proves her purity and the people are reassured will he be able to accept her. 

While Rama is widely revered, some of his actions, such as questioning and rejecting Sita, have long caused discomfort and generated debate up to today. 

Image: Rama kills the demon warrior Makaraksha in combat, from a manuscript of the Ramayana, approx. 1790, by Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. India. Opaque watercolors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco., EX1992.95_01.

Sita, the Heroine

Faithful and virtuous wife of Rama; a goddess, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi 
Sita in the forest grove left Rama and Lakshmana stricken right folio from the Shangri Ramayana 
Princess Sita embodies beauty, dutifulness, obedience and quiet courage. Like Prince Rama, Sita has often been held up as a model of behavior. When Rama is condemned to years of exile and poverty, he expects his wife to stay behind, yet Sita insists it is her wifely duty to accompany him and share his misfortune. 

Her suffering only escalates. When Sita is abducted by the king of demons Ravana and held captive in his city, she endures every sort of psychological abuse, from cajolery and seemingly sincere professions of love to gruesome threats. She stalwartly refuses Ravana, swearing her fidelity to Rama. As her despair grows, she contemplates suicide. Hope returns only when the monkey warrior Hanuman arrives, bringing assurances from Rama. 

After Rama finally defeats Ravana and Sita is freed, she envisions the happiest of futures beside her husband. Immediately, though, Rama challenges her faithfulness in a humiliating spectacle. Sita insists on undergoing the ordeal of entering a huge fire to prove herself, and is vindicated. In some tellings of the story, rumors of her infidelity later circulate among the people, and she is abandoned to another long exile. 

Today some are troubled by Sita’s willingness to accept the authority of her male relatives and the rules of a patriarchal society. What is widely admired, though, is her fortitude in suffering. 

Image: Sita in the forest grove (left); Rama and Lakshmana stricken (right); folio from the “Shangri” Ramayana, approx. 1700–1710, by Bahu, Jammu and Kashmir. India. Opaque watercolors on paper. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Walter Foundation, M.91.348.2, EX2016.1.193_01.

Hanuman, the Ally

Strong, resourceful monkey ally of Rama; a god in his own right 
Hanuman leaps across the ocean 
The monkey warrior Hanuman is celebrated for his prowess, determination and loyalty. He finds Princess Sita after her abduction, helps achieve victories in combat and protects Prince Rama and his brother. He even has superhero qualities: he can change form, grow larger or smaller and leap vast distances. His bravery and resourcefulness are renowned, and he is unconquered on the battlefield. 

Hanuman has qualities that may be unexpected of a monkey. He speaks refined Sanskrit and has a talent for storytelling. He also shows tender allegiance to his human friends and is a paragon of devotion to Rama and Sita. 

In India people usually think of Hanuman as celibate, with all of his love focused on Rama and Sita. In Southeast Asia, however, Hanuman is often seen as a ladies’ man, romancing female creatures from mermaids to demonesses. 

Hanuman is a god in his own right, sometimes said to be the most widely worshipped Hindu deity in all of India. In modern times his importance seems to be growing and taking on new aspects. He has become a patron saint of wrestlers, and is represented as increasingly muscular. He has also come to be associated, for some, with burgeoning Hindu nationalism. 

Throughout the ages, people have speculated that Hanuman is the inspiration behind another lively simian character: the immensely popular Sun Wukong, or Monkey King, of the 16th-century Chinese novel “Xiyou Ji” (“The Journey to the West”). After much scholarly debate, no one can say definitively. Intrigued? Launch your own inquiry as you study the varied depictions of Hanuman in The Rama Epic

Image: Hanuman leaps across the ocean, approx. 1720, by Pahari region, Himachal Radesh. India. Pigments and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, RVI 840. Photograph © Rainer Wolfsberger, EX2016.1.150_01.

Ravana, the Foe

Mighty king of the demons who abducts Sita 
South India 
Ten-headed Ravana, king of the demons, is Rama's chief enemy. His vast ambition and lust drive him to abduct Princess Sita and engage in a devastating war against Prince Rama. He has immense power and a compelling personality, and uses them to crush anyone who stands in the way of his drive for domination. 

A worthy antagonist to Rama, Ravana is complex and larger than life in many respects. His demon kingdom is well ordered and prosperous. His erudition, including knowledge of ancient scriptures, is impressive. His sons and generals are loyal, though maybe as much out of fear as respect. His many wives seem contented and loving, and are drawn to his celebrated good looks and magnetism. 

In most versions of the epic, Ravana is always ready to resort to anger, viciousness and violence to reach his ends. He forcibly abducts numerous women, wipes out adversaries without a thought and ultimately threatens to plunge the universe into the chaos of selfishness and evil. 

People of different backgrounds and regions have long disagreed on how to evaluate Ravana’s character. For example, at the end of annual North Indian festival performances of the Rama epic, a huge effigy of a cartoon-like Ravana is set afire by Rama’s arrow, and everyone cheers. In South India, though, some have seen Rama as an enforcer of traditional North Indian cultural norms, and Ravana as a misunderstood or misrepresented emblem of South Indian resistance. 

Image: Sita in captivity in the ashoka grove, approx. 1725. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Colors and gold on paper. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George P. Bickford, 1966.143. Photograph © The Cleveland Museum of Art.