Why does Rama have blue skin?
Rama’s blue skin signals that he is an avatar of Vishnu (like Krishna and the Buddha in Vaishnava Hindu traditions).
What is Rama a god of?
As an avatar of Vishnu, Rama is an embodiment of the god of preservation; he is charged with maintaining dharma, the cosmic order.
Why was Rama banished?
Rama was banished because Kaikeyi, queen of Ayodhya, wanted her son to rule the kingdom instead of Rama.
In Hindu traditions, Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and the central figure of the epic poem the Ramayana, thought to be composed by the sage Valmiki. The epic tells of Rama, son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, and his adventures while exiled from his father’s kingdom. Important episodes include the abduction of his wife, Sita, by the demon king Ravana and Rama’s war to free her from the kingdom of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka).
Rama is the archetypal warrior-king: after assuming the throne of Ayodhya, he ruled righteously for 11,000 years. His bond with the monkey hero Hanuman is a symbol of bhakti, devotional worship.
According to Monier Monier-Williams, the word rāma comes from the Sanskrit root √ram, which has several definitions, including “to rest, lie down, enjoy for sport, delight in, be fond of, or have intercourse with.” Thus, rāma can be translated as a noun meaning “delight, joy, pleasure, or lover,” as well as an adjective meaning “pleasurable or pleasant.” In the Atharva Veda, we find the word rāmaḥ also used as an adjective meaning “dark, black, or dark blue in color” (rāmaḥ śakuniḥ, “black bird”).
Rama or Rāma राम
Titles and Epithets
Raghava (राघव), “Descendant of Raghu”
Ramachandra (रामछन्द्र), “Rama Moon”
Dasharathi (दाशरथि), “Son of Dasharatha”
Sitapati (सीतापति), “Husband of Sita”
While Rama is a divine figure (owing to his status as an avatar), he does not traditionally have attributes in the same way that Vishnu, Shiva, and other Hindu gods do. In art, however, Rama is usually depicted holding his favored weapon, the bow.
- Kaikeyi (stepmother of Rama)
- Sumitra (stepmother of Rama)
The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of Indian literature (the other being the Mahabharata) and is easily the shorter of the two, coming in at about 24,000 shlokas. Most traditions attribute the epic to the sage Valmiki, who sat so long concentrating on his compositions that anthills formed around him. As a result, he received the nickname Valmiki, from the Sanskrit valmīka, meaning “anthill.”
Dating the Ramayana is no easy task. Much like the Mahabharata, it was composed as much as a millennium after the events it describes. But scholars generally agree that both epics are based on oral histories that reach back into otherwise unrecorded Indo-Aryan history. Considering this—and the fact that there are several distinct versions of the Ramayana—it is more accurate to say that the work was compiled over several centuries rather than penned by a single author, with oral versions circulating long before the epic was consolidated in writing.
The climate of South Asia complicates any attempts to date early Indian manuscripts, as very little organic material survives for long. Those manuscripts that have survived were usually stored in arid and mountainous environments, such as northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Of the seven books of the Ramayana, A. L. Basham argues that both the first and seventh books “are certainly later additions” and that the Ramayana “was perhaps committed to verse in the form in which we have it, but excluding the first and last books, a little before the commencement of the Christian era.”
Wendy Doniger agrees that the first and seventh books were later “accretions framing the earlier six books.” Moreover, she asserts that the Ramayana in its general outline “was certainly known in India for centuries before Rāma was elevated to the status of an avatar of Viṣṇu.” Bolstering her claim is the fact that only the first and last books characterize Rāma as a god.
As an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, Rama was born in order to right any wrongs in the cosmic order. In his case, the threat came from Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (demons). He rampaged across the heavens, conquering and oppressing the gods thanks to the blessings granted to him by the god Brahma. In response, the heavenly beings approached Brahma and begged for an end to Ravana’s destructive conquests:
This Lord of Rakshasas has persecuted the three worlds and having overthrown the guardians of the earth, he has even humbled Indra himself … he even controls the sun’s rays and the wind’s power, even the ocean in his presence is still … O Giver of Boons, be pleased to bring about his destruction.
Hearing of their pitiable state, Vishnu vowed to be born as a human to defeat the demon, for Ravana’s blessings meant that he could not be killed by any yaksha, gandharva, or god.
Just then, King Dasharatha of Ayodhya lamented the fact that he had no son, despite having three queens and ruling for many years. His courtiers, advisors, and gurus implored him to perform an ashvameda, an elaborate and potent Vedic ritual; only by means of this powerful sacrifice, his priests said, could he appease the gods and be granted a son.
Upon performing the sacrifice, a titanic being of immense height strode out of the sacrificial fire and offered the king a vessel filled with payasa, a type of gruel. He then told the king to give the payasa to his queens so that they may bear him sons. Dasharatha quickly obeyed, giving half the payasa to Kaushalya, just over a third to Sumitra, and an eighth to Kaikeyi. Soon their wombs swelled, “glowing like the fire in the sun,” and in time Sumitra gave birth to Lakshmana and Shatrughna, Kaikeyi to Bharata, and Kaushalya to Rama.
Because the payasa had been divided among the three wives, each of their four children proved to be an avatar of Vishnu. But since Kaushalya had received the lion’s share of the gruel, her son Rama grew to be the mightiest and flourished with the greatest part of Vishnu. The four sons lived in harmony with each other, avoiding the rivalry and jealousy that often afflicts the children of kings.
Svayamvara and Marriage with Sita
Just as Rama and his brothers grew of age, word spread that Sita, the daughter of the king of Mithila, was ready for marriage. As is customary for high-ranking princesses in epic Indian literature, Sita’s father did not pick her suitor. Instead, she chose her own husband through a svayamvara competition (literally “self-choice” or “her own choice”). Warriors and princes from all the neighboring lands came to prove their mettle and thereby win her hand.
Their task was simple, though not easy: they had to string the mighty bow of Shiva, “which required three hundred bearers to bring” to the ceremonial hall. Hundreds tried in vain to even lift the mighty bow. All failed save for Rama, who “like unto a cub of an elephant sportively picking up a sugar-cane, lifted up the formidable bow … strung it, drew it and broke it in the middle.” The sound of the bow snapping was like that of lightning cleaving a mountain, and everyone stood in awe of his strength.
The Bhagavata Purana adds a curious detail to this story: on his way back from the svayamvara, Rama encountered none other than Parashurama, another avatar of Vishnu. This version notes that Rama “humbled down the overbearing pride and arrogance of Paraśurāma, the chief of Bhr̥gus who extirpated the Kṣatriya race from the earth thrice seven times,” but says nothing more about these two avatars meeting face-to-face.
All was going well for Rama at this time: he and his brothers had married splendid women, and the kingdom was secure. His father, King Dasharatha, wished to retire to a hermitage in the forest and practice religious austerities, so he appointed Rama as his heir. With the approval of the ministers, all of Ayodhya was decorated for Rama’s crowning ceremony.
But Kaikeyi, Rama’s stepmother, had other designs on the throne. She feared for the life of her son, Bharata, thinking that no potential claimant to the throne would be safe so long as Rama was king. Thus, she plotted to ensure that her own son ruled Ayodhya.
Her servant Manthara reminded her that years ago, Kaikeyi had accompanied King Dasharatha on one of his many wars. In the thick of battle, Dasharatha was gravely wounded, and Kaikeyi herself carried her husband from the battlefield. For her service, he granted her two wishes to be claimed whenever she chose.
Manthara advised the queen to claim them now and to be decisive with her wishes:
tau varau yāca bhartāraṃ bharatasyābhiṣecanam
pravrājanaṃ ca rāmasya tvaṃ varṣāṇi caturdaśa[[object Object]]
Ask your husband for two wishes: the anointing of Bharata as king
And Rama’s banishment for fourteen years.
Manthara reasoned that with Rama banished to the forest for fourteen years while Bharata ruled, the people of Ayodhya would become accustomed to seeing Bharata as the rightful king, and they would have no need to resort to bloodshed.
Kaikeyi agreed. Wearing ragged and stained clothing, she writhed sorrowfully on the floor of her chambers and moaned terrible cries. The king, taking pity on her, said he would do anything within his power to relieve her suffering. Kaikeyi then reminded him of the two wishes he had previously granted her and revealed her desires.
Being a pious king who honored dharma, the cosmic order of the universe, he could not honorably refuse her requests. Though it pained Dasharatha to banish his beloved son and heir Rama to the forest, possibly to meet his death by some demon, in the end he had no choice but to bow to Kaikeyi’s wishes.
For his part, Rama agreed to the banishment with no hesitation whatsoever. Even when his brother Lakshamana offered to install Rama as king through force and military might, Rama refused. Aside from being a warrior without equal, he was the ideal son who obeyed the wishes of his father without complaint or argument. In fact, he resolved to leave Ayodhya that very day. With him came his dutiful wife, Sita, and Lakshamana.
After willingly setting out into the forest for their exile, Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana beheld the beauty of Citrakuta Mountain, Dandaka Forest, and the rivers that were to be their home for many years. They styled their dwelling as a hermitage, for to their minds their exile was more akin to a religious retreat than outright banishment.
But their sightseeing was interrupted just a few days later when they spotted clouds of dust off in the distance, as if being kicked up by the march of thousands of soldiers. They assumed that it was none other than Bharata, who now ruled Ayodhya in their absence, coming with his army to end their lives and remove any potential threat from their return.
They were partially right: Bharata had come with his army, but his goal was to bring them back home to Ayodhya and install Rama as the rightful king. He also brought the terrible news that their father, Dasharatha, had died of grief in Rama’s absence. Yet Rama, still wishing to obey his father’s command, refused the offer to rule as king. As a concession, he gave Bharata his sandals, which Bharata placed upon the throne in Ayodhya. In this way, Rama symbolically ruled while Bharata acted as regent until the fourteen years of exile were finished.
It was then that Rama uttered the verse that perhaps most reveals his character:
yad abravīn māṃ naralokasatkṛtaḥ pitā mahātmā vibudhādhipopamaḥ
tad eva manye paramātmano hitaṃ na sarvalokeśvarabhāvam avyayam[[object Object]]
I consider the greatest good to be only what my father,
the great-souled one like Indra himself, honored by the world of men,
decreed for me, not even endless lordship over the whole world.
While Rama was undoubtedly stronger than any mortal, this verse shows that his true power was his unyielding adherence to dharma. He would rather dwell as a pauper in a forest hermitage than rule the world unrighteously against his father’s will. From his point of view, he would never truly be king so long as people doubted his moral compass.
Shurpanika and Abduction of Sita
During their exile in the forest, the three ingratiated themselves with the hermits of the area and slew many demons who threatened the ascetics. One of these demons, the rakshasi Shurpanika, would prove to be the cause of countless worries for them in the future.
As Shurpanika roamed the forest, her gaze fell upon the heroic Rama, and she was consumed with lust for him. Though she offered herself as Rama’s consort and told him to abandon Sita, he rejected her in no uncertain terms, for he could see straight away that she was a rakshasi: her large, red hair, squinty eyes, harsh voice, protruding belly, and hideous appearance left no room for doubt. Rama suggested that Lakshmana would be a better choice, but he too refused.
Shurpanika was in no mood for rejection, and she fell upon Sita and Lakshmana in a rage. But quick as a flash, her ears and nose fell away from her face: Lakshmana had disfigured her with his sword.
With blood pouring down her face, she fled to the court of her brother Khara, who sent an army of demons to the forest to avenge his sister. But even this was not enough: the entire army fell to Rama’s arrows. By chance, a survivor of the massacre came to the court of the demon king Ravana, brother of Khara and Shurpanika, and relayed the tale of their defeat.
Reasoning that even he could not defeat Rama, Ravana vowed to weaken Rama’s resolve and will to fight by abducting Sita and bringing her back to his kingdom of Lanka. The next day, he soared across the sky in his flying chariot, heading right for Rama’s forest. Along the way he took counsel with the rakshasa Maricha, who advised against abducting Sita but nevertheless agreed to accompany Ravana.
Upon reaching Rama’s hermitage, they got right to work. Maricha transformed into a beautiful multicolored deer with jeweled antlers that shed their light upon the hermitage. Sita was entranced, and Rama decided to pursue the deer, seeking to either capture it alive and keep it as a curiosity or kill it and use its skin for a rug.
The hunt was arduous, but before long the demon lay on the ground, mortally wounded. With his dying breath, Maricha imitated Rama’s voice and called for Sita and Lakshmana to come. Lakshmana obeyed the call but insisted that Sita remain behind for safety.
And so it was that Sita was left behind, alone in the forest. Now Ravana seized his opportunity and stole her away in his flying chariot back to his kingdom of Lanka. Along the way, Ravana encountered the great bird Jatayu, who tried to rescue Sita. But Ravana dealt him a mortal wound, and he survived just long enough to tell Rama and Lakshmana of Ravana’s intent. Although the demon begged Sita to marry him and forsake Rama, she remained devoted to her husband.
Hanuman and Sugriva
Rama and Lakshmana were left alone to search for Sita. After learning from Jatayu that she had been abducted and taken to the south, they rushed in that direction, eventually coming upon the great monkeys Sugriva and Hanuman. The brothers discovered that Sugriva had been wrongly cast out from his kingdom by his brother and sought to return to his rightful place as king of the monkeys. In this way, their plight mirrored that of Rama and Lakshmana, who waited for their time to reclaim Ayodhya.
In return for Sugriva’s promise to lend his aid and warriors to rescue Sita, Rama and Lakshmana overthrew his brother, Vali, and helped Sugriva assume the throne of the monkey tribes. They sent out scouts to every corner of India searching for Sita, and after a series of adventures, Hanuman found her in Ravana’s capital of Lanka. He handed her a ring given to him by Rama so that she might recognize him as a genuine messenger of hope.
War with Ravana
Now knowing the location of his wife’s prison, Rama resolved to free her. But their task would not be an easy one: the city swarmed with elephants and war chariots and was surrounded on all sides with a golden wall and several moats—to say nothing of Ravana’s million demon soldiers.
Even getting to Lanka posed a problem, as the kingdom was on an island that could only be reached by crossing the ocean. In frustration, Rama threatened Sagara (variously the ocean itself or the personified god of the ocean) with his arrows. This in itself was nearly an apocalyptic event, for Rama’s arrows risked drying up the ocean with their heat; the waves began to churn and crash, and sea monsters raged in defense. Only when sages begged Rama to put down his bow did he relent.
Rather than dry up the ocean, Rama and the assembled heroes resolved to build a bridge between the mainland and Lanka. Sugriva’s monkey soldiers brought logs and parts of nearby mountains, and soon they had built a causeway ten leagues wide and a hundred leagues long.
The ensuing war was anything but easy. Heroes, demons, and monkeys fought and died on all sides. Sugriva bested Ravana in a duel but flew away before dealing the fatal blow. Hanuman slew the demon Akampana. Demon after demon fell until Indrajita, Ravana’s son, came onto the battlefield and loosed a storm of arrows onto the entire monkey army, slaying them all at once.
It was only Hanuman’s resourcefulness that saved them. Upon hearing of some magical herbs on Mount Kailasha that had the power to revive the army, he flew away after them. But after searching the mountain, he realized with anguish that he did not know what the herbs looked like. Thus, he picked up the mountain—trees, roots, animals, and all—and carried it back to Lanka. With the herbs now in their possession, they could bring their army back to life.
As the war continued, Lakshmana loosed his own arrows upon Indrajita and severed his head from his shoulders. Finally, Rama and Ravana met face-to-face on the battlefield. Hundreds of arrows blocked out the sun—some aflame, some poisoned, and others resembling snakes. Each broke the other’s bow. Ravana fled the field first and climbed onto his flying chariot, and Indra, the king of the gods, gave Rama his own chariot out of a sense of fairness.
They continued their fight among the clouds, with each loosing great arrow shafts and hurling javelins. The skies above Lanka resembled the dissolution of the world at the end of a cosmic cycle. Finally, Rama hurled a javelin given to him by Indra, and his weapon shattered Ravana’s and pierced the demon. Not leaving anything to chance, Rama shot Ravana so many times that he looked like a pin cushion filled with arrows. At last, Ravana lay still on the ground, finally dead.
Repudiation, Revelation, and Return
With Ravana dead, things could now be set right. Rama installed Vibishana—who, despite being Ravana’s brother, had fought on Rama’s side—as king of Lanka. He then sent for Sita to come to him, and they were at last reunited.
But their reunion was not the celebration many expected: Rama was convinced that Ravana would not have been able to control his passion and had therefore sexually assaulted Sita. Though she was his wife, Rama reasoned that she was now tainted, declaring:
I have done all that a man should do to wipe out an intolerable insult at the hands of an enemy. I won you, Sītā, just as the great-souled sage Agastya won the unassailable southern realm for the world of living creatures, by means of his asceticism. But let it be known, if you please, that this great battle effort accomplished by means of the heroism of my friends was not undertaken by me for your sake. I protected my own reputation and expunged completely the scandal and degradation which had been cast upon my own famous family line … I have no attachment to you, and you may go from here as you wish.
He told her that she could marry Lakshmana, Bharata, Sugriva, or Vibishana for all he cared.
Rightly amazed and distressed, Sita saw no hope for herself but to undergo an ordeal by fire. She ordered that a great pyre be made, and she swore before the assembled army that the fire would not burn her if she had remained true to Rama throughout her entire abduction, untouched by Ravana. Without hesitation, she leapt into the flames.
Just then, the gods came down to earth in their flying chariots and expressed their dismay at Rama’s distrust of Sita. He was none other than Vishnu, the almighty preserver god, they proclaimed. Meanwhile, Agni, the god of fire, kept Sita safe and put out the flames.
To everyone’s surprise, Rama seemed overjoyed at the gods’ pronouncement, declaring that of course Sita was blameless; Ravana could no more assault her, even in mind, than the ocean could violate the seashore. He had only played at being angry at her, he now claimed, because he knew that public opinion and suspicion would always plague them unless Sita underwent the ordeal.
By this time, the fourteen years of exile had come to an end, and Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana were free to return. Bharata freely stepped down as caretaker of the throne, and Rama assumed his rightful role at last. More adventures awaited him and his brothers throughout his reign, but his greatest challenge was now behind him.
A. L. Basham writes that the mythical figures of Rama and his father Dasharatha bear some relation to historical figures from around the eighth or seventh century BCE—much later than the traditional dates given, which range from 1000 to 3000 BCE. Though their exploits were later exaggerated, they did rule over a small kingdom along the Ganges River, at a time when Vedic culture continued its eastward expansion across northern India:
For all [Rama’s] later fame the literature of the period ignores Rama and his father Daśaratha completely, so we must conclude that they were comparatively insignificant chieftains, whose exploits were by chance remembered, to be elaborated and magnified by later generations of bards until, around the beginning of the Christian Era, they received their final form. It is not even certain that Rama was a king of Kosala at all, for the earliest version of the legend that we possess makes him a king of Banāras, which for a time was a kingdom of some importance, but was conquered by Kosala towards the end of this period.
Basham adds that, “Though he was believed to be an earlier incarnation than Kr̥ṣṇa, his cult developed later than Kr̥ṣṇa’s, and does not appear to have been very important” until after the Turkic and Muslim invasions of northern India.
For Basham, it is no coincidence that Rama’s influence grew as foreign invasions increased. In the Ramayana, demons and rakshasas are sometimes used as stand-ins for non-Hindu groups. Thus, when Rama slayed these demons, it may have been interpreted as him slaying the incoming waves of Turkic invaders, thereby adding to his popularity. Kalkin, another avatar of Vishnu, is prophesied to be born in a future era in order to annihilate similar invaders.
Festivals and/or Holidays
Rama is closely associated with the festival of Diwali, immensely popular throughout South Asia. The name of the five-day celebration derives from the Sanskrit dipavali, meaning “line of lamps,” because of the multitudes of lamps that people light during the festival. Aside from lighting lamps, revelers enjoy setting off fireworks, wearing brightly colored clothes, and feasting on richly colored sweets.
The origins of the celebration vary from region to region, though it is often viewed as a commemoration of Rama and Sita’s return to Ayodhya and the defeat of the demon king Ravana. More broadly, the lamps lit during Diwali celebrate the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.
Temples to Rama are common throughout South Asia, with many boasting brilliant displays of color and decoration. Notable examples include the Ramaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu, India, the Rama Mandir in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, and the Raghunath Temple in Jammu.
Rama and his exploits remain a popular source of entertainment and devotion throughout South and Southeast Asia. The television series Ramayan, which follows the events of the Ramayana, first aired in 1987 and ran for 78 episodes. The show was re-aired in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, leading to a record-breaking viewership of 77 million as of April 16, 2020. Ramayan easily surpassed the runner-up, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which boasted 19.3 million viewers.
A Hindu Balinesian dance form called kechak depicts battle scenes from the war against Ravana, with dancers taking the part of Rama’s primate warriors and Ravana’s demons.
In 2006, Virgin Comics released the comic series Rāmāyan 3392, written by Shamik Dasgupta and inspired by Deepak Chopra. The series casts the events of the Ramayana in a post-apocalyptic setting with hyper-advanced technology.