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The Rama Epic: The Story in Brief

Rama kills the demon warrior Makaraksha in combat, approx. 1790. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors on paper. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Rama kills the demon warrior Makaraksha in combat, approx. 1790. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors on paper. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

prince rama and princess sita  go into exile

The king of the demons Ravana has amassed enormous power and threatens the righteous order of the universe. To combat him the  god Vishnu takes human form and is born as Prince Rama. When Rama is a young man, a court intrigue forces his father to send him into exile. Rama patiently accepts his father’s command. He departs into the wilderness accompanied by his wife Sita and his brother, who insist on sharing his fate.

While living in the wilds Rama and his brother are propositioned by Ravana’s demon sister, who also threatens Sita. They reject the demoness and punish her by cutting off her nose and ears. When she has an army of warriors sent against them Rama kills them all. She reports this to Ravana, who determines to get revenge by abducting Sita.

sita is abducted and, after  a terrible war, is rescued

Ravana tricks Rama into leaving Sita alone, and, taking on the appearance of a seemingly benign holy man, approaches Sita and seizes her. He flies off with her to his island kingdom across the sea. There he holds Sita captive, cajoling and threatening her to submit to him. She fiercely refuses.

Meanwhile Rama forms an alliance with monkey warriors to gain help in finding and rescuing Sita. Eventually they learn that Sita is held in Ravana’s kingdom. Only the powerful monkey Hanuman has the ability to leap over the sea and locate Sita. Rama and his forces attack Ravana. After long and bloody battles, they kill him and free Sita.

at last, a happy ending.  or not . . .

Rama, however, expresses doubt that Sita could have remained faithful to him during her captivity, and rejects her. Sita insists on a test; she enters a raging fire and emerges unharmed with her integrity confirmed. Their exile over, Rama and Sita return home. Rama is crowned king amid rejoicing. For thousands of years his realm enjoys peace and prosperity.

Many versions of the story end here. In some, though, Sita’s virtue is again doubted and Rama once more follows what he sees as his duty and sends her away. In her new exile she gives birth to their twin sons. Years later Rama summons her to affirm her purity under oath once more. There, unwilling to endure further questioning of her fidelity, she calls on her mother the Earth to receive her and sinks out of sight. Rama is devastated to lose her. He rules righteously for many more years but finally returns to the heavens and is reabsorbed into Vishnu. 

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