The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - Vishnu and his Avatars Pt. 2 - Rama

The seventh incarnation of Vishnu - Rama - was born to destroy the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, who, through his penances, had been granted immunity from being killed by gods or demons.  This story forms the epic ‘Ramayana’, which is also the story of Diwali; the lighting of lamps during the Festival of Lights is in remembrance of Rama’s defeat of evil.

Rama is always depicted holding a bow, indicating his readiness to destroy evil

For this incarnation, Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, chose to be born on earth as Sita, so she would not have to endure another long separation.

Rama was born as the eldest son of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya; his mother was the king’s first wife.  Rama’s half-brothers included Bharat and Lakshmana, whose mother was the king’s second wife, Kaikeyi.

When he was of marriageable age, Rama went to the kingdom of the wise King Janaka, who had organised a ceremony for his daughter, Sita, to choose her husband herself from the gathered suitors – an ancient Indian custom.  Whosoever could bend the great bow of Shiva would be destined to marry Sita.  But none of the suitors could even lift the bow, never mind bend and string it.  Rama easily lifted it with one hand, and bent it so hard, it broke.  After their marriage, Rama took Sita back to Ayodhya.

The old king, Dasharatha, decided it was time to give his kingdom to Rama.  But Kaikeyi chose that moment to claim the promise that Dasharatha had made to her years before when she’d saved his life – he’d promised to fulfil whatever two wishes she desired.  First, she wanted him to give the kingdom to her son, Bharat; and secondly, she wanted him to banish Rama for fourteen years.  Shocked and heartbroken, Dasharatha did as she wished to uphold the truth of his promise to her.  Rama went into exile, content that he was doing his duty as a son by helping his father fulfil his vow; both Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana accompanied him.

Rama in exile

Unable to bear being separated from his son, Dasharatha died soon after.  Bharat went to the forest Rama had chosen for his exile to ask his brother to return and claim the throne that was rightfully his.  But Rama refused, for that would mean breaking his promise to his father.  Knowing he would never be able to change Rama’s mind, Bharat took Rama’s sandals and returned to Ayodhya where he placed the sandals on the throne; he then served the kingdom on Rama’s behalf, until his return.

One day, Ravana’s sister, Surpnakha, caught sight of Rama and decided she wanted him for her husband.  Transforming herself into a beautiful maiden, she approached Rama and asked him to marry her.  But he refused, telling her he was already married.  Angry, she changed back to her original form, and rushed to kill Sita.  Lakshmana was too quick for her, and stopped her, cutting off her ear and nose in the process.  Surpnakha went to her brother to avenge her, but could only engage his interest when she said that Sita would be a fitting wife for him.

Ravana sent a golden deer into the forest to lure the brothers away.  When she saw the deer, Sita wanted it for a pet, and asked Rama to capture it.  Though he was loath to leave her, still he could not refuse her.

Leaving Lakshmana to watch over Sita, Rama went after the deer.  It led him a merry chase deep into the forest.  When he began to tire of the chase, Rama shot the deer in the leg, to wound it and slow it down.  But the moment the arrow struck the deer, a voice shouted through the forest – a voice that was exactly as Rama’s: “Sita!  Help me.  Lakshmana!”

When they heard the cry, Sita, believing Rama to be hurt, pleaded with Lakshmana to go to Rama, but he refused to leave her, recognising that the voice was not that of his brother.  It was only when she said she’d go herself that he finally relented.  But first he drew a circle around the hut with his arrow, warning her not to step outside of it.

Minutes after Lakshmana left, a poor, old man appeared, leaning on a stick and walking with difficulty.  He called out for help, and Sita stepped out of the hut.  He asked for food and water, and she brought him some.  He started to walk towards her, but as his foot crossed the line that Lakshmana had drawn, a wall of flame shot up, knocking the old man backwards.  He cried out that he was only hungry and thirsty, and meant no harm.  He asked Sita to bring the food to him, or watch him die.  Without hesitation, she made her way to him.  In that instant, the old man turned into Ravana.  Grabbing her, he dragged her into his chariot and flew off.

But the kidnapping had been witnessed by Jatayu, the king of the birds, and an old friend of Rama’s father.  He tried to stop Ravana, but was fatally wounded.  Making his way to Rama’s home in the forest, he clung to life long enough to tell Rama what had happened.

The brothers left the forest, heading south towards the island of Lanka.  One evening, as they walked along a path, they came across a large, old monkey lying in the way.  Rama told Lakshmana that they should stop and pay their respects for the old monkey was none other than Hanuman, son of the god of the wind.  The moment Rama said his name, the old monkey transformed into the mighty Hanuman.  

He knelt before the brothers, saying that it was not for them to bow to him, but for him to bow to the great princes of Ayodhya.  When they told him that they were going to Lanka to rescue Sita, he lifted them onto his shoulders, and flew them to where the sea separated them from the island.

Hanuman then summoned an army of monkeys.  While they built a great bridge across to the island by throwing huge rocks and stones into the sea, Hanuman flew across to try and find Sita.

Imprisoned by Ravana, Sita had remained true to Rama, continuously rejecting Ravana’s many devious tactics and threats to make her marry him.  When Hanuman found her, he promised that she would soon be free, for Rama was on his way.

Crossing the sea, Rama and his army battled with Ravana’s demons, and were victorious.  When it came down to single combat between Rama and Ravana, Rama took his great bow and arrow, and shot Ravana, not through the heart, but in his stomach, for this was where the seat of his power lay; the demon king fell dead.

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana, accompanied by Hanuman, returned to Ayodhya, where the people had lit countless oil lamps to welcome them home, and to honour, Rama, Ayodhya's rightful king.

Rama, Sita, his brothers, and Hanuman