Comparable to the Odyssey or the Bible, the Ramayana is a classic of world literature. The poem details the adventures of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, along with his devoted wife Sita and his dear brother Lakshmana. Written in classical Sanskrit and dating between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE, the Ramayana is a massive epic poem consisting of more than 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 Sanskrit poetic forms.
In addition to being one of the great classics of India, the Ramayana is also a text with deep religious significance. Many devout Hindus believe that reading the Ramayana will erase one's sins and bring numerous spiritual benefits. The story of the Ramayana has spread throughout South Asia, becoming 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 began to exercise enormous political power. Rama's dedication to mercy and justice stands in sharp contrast to the historical reality of murder and deception in early Indian dynasties. It is possible that the story of Rama was meant in part to offer a model for the ideal king.
The Ramayana was one of the first Indian texts to describe the concept of the avatara, a God who has taken on human form. The idea of the avatara stems from the much older idea of reincarnation: that our souls may be reborn as gods, animals, people, or supernatural creatures. The avatara offered a powerful vision of an individual who drew his power from his identity as a deity, but also lived in a human form.
The Ramayana was also shaped by the social and religious context of the time in which it was written. Buddhism (which focuses on individual spiritual effort rather than devotion to deities) and Jainism (which emphasizes non-harm to an advanced degree) also began to compete with Hinduism at the time the Ramayana was composed. Some of Rama's virtues (particularly his mastery over his passions) reflect a Buddhist and Jainist influence.
The Ramayana has inspired a very large number of adaptions. The Ramayana has been condensed into books for children, and numerous schools of South Asian theater have adapted it for stage performances. There have been dozens of film adaptations of the Ramayana, most recently the 2010 computer animated film, "Ramayana: The Epic."
Numerous translations of the Ramayana exist in English. This ClassicNote consults the 2001 Ramesh Menon translation for reference to literary devices and quotations. The details of the plot, essay prompts, and quiz questions may be applicable to all translations of the Ramayana.