Traditionally, the Ramayana is attributed to Valmiki. The Hindu tradition is unanimous in its agreement that the poem is the work of a single poet; the sage Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama and a peripheral actor in the drama. The story's original version in Sanskrit is known as Valmiki Ramayana, dating to approximately the 5th to 4th century BC. While it is often viewed as a primarily devotional text, the Vaishnava elements appear to be later accretions, possibly dating to the 2nd century BC or later. The main body of the narrative lacks statements of Rama's divinity, and identifications of Rama with Vishnu are rare and subdued even in the later parts of the text.
According to Hindu tradition—and according to the Ramayana itself—the Ramayana belongs to the genre of itihāsa, like the Mahabharata. The definition of itihāsa has varied over time, with one definition being that itihāsa is a narrative of past events (purāvṛtta) which includes teachings on the goals of human life. According to Hindu tradition, the Ramayana takes place during a period of time known as Treta Yuga.
In its extant form, Valmiki's Ramayana is an epic poem of some 50,000 lines. The text survives in several thousand partial and complete manuscripts, the oldest of which is a palm-leaf manuscript found in Nepal and dated to the 11th century CE. The text has several regional renderings, recensions, and subrecensions. Textual scholar Robert P. Goldman differentiates two major regional recensions: the northern (n) and the southern (s). Scholar Romesh Chunder Dutt writes that "the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a growth of centuries, but the main story is more distinctly the creation of one mind."
There has been discussion as to whether the first and the last chapters of Valmiki's Ramayana were composed by the original author. Most Hindus still believe they are integral parts of the book, in spite of some style differences and narrative contradictions between these two chapters and the rest of the book.
Famous retellings include Gona Budda Reddy's Ramayanam in Telugu, Kamban's Ramavataram in Tamil (c. 11th–12th century), Madhava Kandali's Saptakanda Ramayana in Assamese (c. 14th century), Krittibas Ojha's Krittivasi Ramayan (also known as Shri Rama panchali) in Bengali (c. 15th century), sant Eknath's Bhavarth Ramayan (c. 16th century) in Marathi (which is spoken in Maharashtra), Balaram Das' Dandi Ramayana (also known as the Jagamohan Ramayana) (c. 16th century) in Odia, Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas (c. 16th century) in Awadhi (which is an eastern form of Hindi), and Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan's Adhyathmaramayanam in Malayalam.
Some cultural evidence (the presence of sati in the Mahabharata but not in the main body of the Ramayana) suggests that the Ramayana predates the Mahabharata. However, the general cultural background of the Ramayana is one of the post-urbanization period of the eastern part of north India and Nepal, while the Mahabharata reflects the Kuru areas west of this, from the Rigvedic to the late Vedic period.
By tradition, the text belongs to the Treta Yuga, second of the four eons (yuga) of Hindu chronology. Rama is said to have been born in the treta yuga to king Daśaratha in the Ikshvaku vamsa (clan). Maharishi Valmiki—the writer of Ramayana and a contemporary of Lord Rama—has described in three shlokas. The positions of planets at the time of birth of lord Rama.
The names of the characters (Rama, Sita, Daśaratha, Janaka, Vashista, Vishwamitra) are all known in late Vedic literature. However, nowhere in the surviving Vedic poetry is there a story similar to the Ramayana of Valmiki. According to the modern academic view, Vishnu—who, according to bala kanda, was incarnated as Rama—first came into prominence with the epics themselves and further during the "puranic" period of the later 1st millennium CE. Also, in the epic Mahabharata, there is a version of Ramayana known as Ramopakhyana. This version is depicted as a narration to Yudhishtira.
There is general consensus that books two to six form the oldest portion of the epic, while the first and last books (bala kanda and uttara kanda, respectively) are later additions. The author or authors of bala kanda and ayodhya kanda appear to be familiar with the eastern Gangetic basin region of northern India and with the Kosala and Magadha region during the period of the sixteen janapadas, based on the fact that the geographical and geopolitical data is in keeping with what is known about the region. The knowledge of the location of the island of Lanka also lacks detail. Basing his assumption on these features, the archeologist Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia has proposed a date of the 4th century BC for the composition of the text. However, the historian and indologist Arthur Llewellyn Basham is of the opinion that Rama may have been a minor chief who lived in the 8th or the 7th century BC.
The seven kandas (books)
The epic is traditionally divided into several major kāndās (books), which deal chronologically with the major events in the life of Rama. The division into 7 kāndās is as follows:
|1||Bāla Kāṇḍa (Book of childhood)||The origins and childhood of Rama, born to king Dasharatha of Ayodhya and destined to fight demons. Sita's swayamvara and subsequent wedding to Rama.|
|2||Ayodhya Kāṇḍa (Book of Ayodhya)||The preparations for Rama's coronation in the city of Ayodhya, his exile into the forest, and the regency of Bharata.|
|3||Araṇya Kāṇḍa (Book of the forest)||The forest life of Rama with Sita and Lakshmana, his constant companion. The kidnapping of Sita by the demon king Ravana.|
|4||Kishkindha Kāṇḍa (Book of the monkey kingdom)||Rama meets Hanuman and helps destroy the monkey people's king, Vali, making Vali's younger brother, Sugriva, king of Kishkindha instead.|
|5||Sundara Kāṇḍa (Book of beauty)||Detailed accounts of Hanuman's adventures, including his meeting with Sita. Traditionally read first when reading the Ramayana, this book's name derives from the fond name given to Hanuman by his mother.|
|6||Yuddha Kāṇḍa (Book of war, also known as Lanka Kanda)||The battle in Lanka between the monkey and the demon armies of Rama and Ravana, respectively. After Ravana is defeated, Sita undergoes the test of fire, completes exile with Rama, and they return to Ayodhya to reign over the ideal state.|
|7||Uttara Kāṇḍa (Last book)||The detailed story of Ravana's life, his encounter with Lord Shiva , Vali, Sugreeva's brother and Kartha Veera Arjuna and many others until Shurpanakha's humiliation in the Aranya Khanda is retold by sage Vashishta to Rama and Sita. Rumors of impurity lead to Sita's banishment, during which she gives birth to and raises Lava and Kusha.Later, in course of time Sita disappears into the earth. The twin boys of Sita later ascend the throne of Ayodhya, after which Rama reaches vaikuṇṭa upon requests from the gods. People of Ayodhya who followed Rama were offered santhanika lokas.|