In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rāmāyaṇa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Texts
  • Translations
  • Geography
  • Sanskrit Commentators
  • Poetry and Style
  • Society, Religion, and Politics

Hinduism Rāmāyaṇa
Simon Brodbeck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0045


Rāmāyaṇa means “The Career of Rāma,” or perhaps “The Going [to the Forest] of Rāma.” The title can be applied to any number of artistic products that take Rāma as their subject, but this article concentrates primarily upon the oldest and most authoritative known version of the story of Rāma, the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa attributed to Vālmīki. This text, one of the most influential and consequential texts in human history, is often studied in tandem with the Mahābhārata as a Sanskrit “epic.” Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa comprises seven kāṇḍas (books) of varying lengths. After a brief preface, the first book (Bālakāṇḍa) narrates Prince Rāma of Ayodhyā’s birth and childhood, his adventures and education with Viśvāmitra, and his marriage to Sītā, daughter of King Janaka. In Book 2 (Ayodhyākāṇḍa), Rāma’s father, King Daśaratha, intends to install Rāma as his successor, but his junior wife, Kaikeyī, persuades him to install her son Bharata instead, and to exile Rāma for fourteen years. Bharata refuses to accept the kingship, but nonetheless Rāma—who is actually Lord Vishnu but starts out not knowing this—goes into exile with Sītā and his brother Lakṣmaṇa. In Book 3 (Araṇyakāṇḍa), Rāma occasions the enmity of Rāvaṇa, a powerful, ten-headed rākṣasa (demon) king, who abducts Sītā and takes her to Laṅkā. Book 4 (Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa) describes how Rāma wins an alliance with a community of monkeys who agree to help him find Sītā; in Book 5, (Sundarakāṇḍa), Hanumat (or Hanuman) finds Sītā on Laṅkā, where she is holding out against Rāvaṇa’s sexual advances. In Book 6 (Yuddhakāṇḍa), Rāma and the monkeys wage a successful military campaign against Rāvaṇa and his rākṣasa warriors. Rāma then rejects Sītā because, having lived in another man’s house, her virtue is in doubt, but she proves her innocence to him through an ordeal by fire. Brahmā tells Rāma he is actually Lord Vishnu, and Agni tells him to take Sītā back. His exile over, he returns to Ayodhyā and becomes a paradigmatically good king. Book 7 (Uttarakāṇḍa) begins with a long section in which Agastya tells Rāma details of the careers of Rāvaṇa and Hanumat. When the main narrative resumes, the citizens begin to gossip about Sītā’s purity, and so Rāma has her abandoned in the hinterland, where she gives birth to Rāma’s sons at Vālmīki’s āśrama. Vālmīki teaches them Rāma’s story, and they tell it to Rāma at Rāma’s horse sacrifice: this is the telling we have been hearing. Rāma now seeks to have Sītā publicly prove her innocence, but, reiterating her innocence, she calls upon the goddess Earth and descends into it. Rāma lives out his remaining days in misery, eventually returning to his heavenly abode via the waters of the River Sarayū.

General Overviews

These sources are good places for the researcher to begin, and some of them bear returning to again and again. Goldman and Goldman 2004 is a compact all-round introduction to the Rāmāyaṇa phenomenon in history. Hiltebeitel 2006 concentrates more specifically on Vālmīki’s text, as does Shulman 2001, focusing on the question of poetic effect. Thapar 1982 compares Vālmīki’s version with Buddhist and Jaina Rāmāyaṇas. Brockington 1998 is a standard source for both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata and the most in-depth of the sources mentioned here. Sitaramaih 1972 is included as an example of a Hindu literalist approach.

  • Brockington, John L. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1998.

    A detailed handbook of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata as Sanskrit texts and as objects of scholarship, with chapters also on the Harivaṃśa and on the texts’ influence and cultural significance. Approaches the texts from a decidedly text-historical perspective.

  • Goldman, Robert P., and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman. “Rāmāyaṇa.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene R. Thursby, 75–96. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    A rounded overview by two of the Princeton translators. Tells the story in seven pages, then discusses “levels of significance” in the text (the aesthetic, the social, and the religious), before summarizing Rāma’s later treatment in literature and the wider arts and Vālmīki’s treatment within academia.

  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. “Rāmāyaṇa.” In Encyclopedia of India. Vol. 3. Edited by Stanley Wolpert, 390–399. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

    Begins with a discussion of the text’s self-designations and of its first few chapters, and ends with a discussion of the Mahābhārata’s story of Rāma (the Rāmopākhyāna), arguing that the Mahābhārata predates Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. The main body of the article is a detailed kāṇḍa-by-kāṇḍa synopsis of Vālmīki’s text.

  • Shulman, David Dean. “Toward a Historical Poetics of the Sanskrit Epics.” In The Wisdom of Poets: Studies in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. By David Dean Shulman, 21–39. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    First published in International Folklore Review 8 (1991): 9–17. An insightful article discussing the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa as paradigms of two contrasting poetics: respectively, the poetics of dilemma and the poetics of perfection. Suggests that itihāsa is to be spoken, and kāvya sung. Good on the story of Vālmīki.

  • Sitaramiah, Venkatasamiah. Valmiki Ramayana. Delhi, India: Sahitya Akademi, 1972.

    Provides an overview of the text from a reverent and historically realist point of view. Contains little in the way of reference to the secondary literature. Includes chapters on Vālmīki’s poetry, on the main characters, and on “types of family life.”

  • Thapar, Romila. “The Rāmāyaṇa: Theme and Variation.” In India: History and Thought: Essays in Honour of A. L. Basham. Edited by S. N. Mukherjee, 221–253. Calcutta, India: Subarnarekha, 1982.

    Approaches the Rāmāyaṇa as “a charter of validation for the monarchical state” and discusses differing versions of the story in historical context in terms of their interventions and interpretations in this regard: the parallels to Rāmāyaṇa themes in the Jātaka texts, the Vālmīki version, and Vimalasūri’s Jaina Paümacariya.

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