The Râma myth cycle is especially complex because there are so many literary and oral versions, each language of India having its own variations, as well as expressions in art, dance, drama, and film or video.
Since Râma was an incarnation of Vishnu, his story is nested within the Vishnu myth cycle, requiring stories about the need for another incarnation and its outcome. Some of the power of the basic story can be suggested by the fact that it traveled all the way to the island of Bali (then considered a part of greater India), to be performed there to this day.
While the variations are complex, the plot would be simple without nested stories about previous births and rebirths. Râma was the elder son of King Das´aratha by his first wife Kausalyâ. Râma was a one-half incarnation of Vishnu, being conceived from a half portion of divine pudding, given by Vishnu.
Das´aratha’s other wives, Kaikeyî and Sumithrâ, received the other half and also conceived sons. (For more details see entry on Das´aratha.) Das´aratha prepared to crown Râma as king or as king-regent, but his second wife Kaikeyî demanded that she be granted now boons she had won long ago.
Râma helped his father with the decision to grant her the boons, so that he could fulfil his duty (svadharma). Thus Râma, his brother Lakshmana, and his wife Sîtâ went into exile, according to the wish of his stepmother. After about ten years of exile in the forest, the three moved, on the advice of the sage Agastya, into a region where there were dangerous râkshasas (demons).
One of them, Sûrpanakhâ, saw Râma and fell in love. What happened next, Râma’s rejection of her and Sûrpanakhâ’s mutilation at the hands of the brothers, provoked her older brother Râvana to seek revenge. (For more details see Lakshmana.) Râvana abducted Sîtâ, though fortunately prevented by a curse from raping her as he had done to so many women, including his nephew’s wife.
Râvana took Sîtâ to Lanka. Râma won the aid of Hanuman and Sugrîva and their monkey armies. (Was this a disguised reference to South Indians, Dravidians, helping Râma?) Hanuman built a causeway or bridge from the Indian subcontinent to Lanka, and Râvana was finally defeated.
Technically, the reason for Vishnu’s incarnation was complete. However, the myth’s significance for modern India continued, with Râma’s return to Ayodhyâ and setting up of his divine rule there. (In 1992 and 2002 Ayodhyâ was the focus of communal killings in the hundreds provoked by a desire to set up another period of ideal Hindu rule from Râma’s birthplace and capital.)
Râma’s rule restored virtue and order (dharma) and brought a golden age. Nevertheless, several incidents marred this perfect period. Râma did not support Sîtâ powerfully against the charge that she was polluted after she had lived in the house (or palace) of another man. Sîtâ was forced to perform a fire ritual to prove her purity, then banished anyway into the ever dangerous forests for most of her life, or in some versions, the rest of it.
This ending has been revised constantly because it is central to the theme of the relationship between the perfect king and the perfect wife. This conflicted aspect of the myth cycle has been reworked in numerous ways in order to attempt to overcome some of the ambiguities. The following is generally agreed: Sîtâ was blameless, an ideal wife.
She followed her husband to the forest and waited for Râma to come and rescue her in Lanka without yielding to Râvana’s temptations. She was both courageous and faithful in every way. After her rescue and Râvana’s death, her life took a sad turn. Râma abandoned the pregnant Sîtâ because of the verdict of the people of his country: that Sîtâ must not be pure after having stayed in Lanka for such a long time.
In many versions of the myth, public opinion led Râma to denounce Sîtâ. There are several endings to this myth. One brings Sîtâ back to the throne; another has her returning to her mother, the earth. They begin in much the same way. After abandoning Sîtâ, Râma ruled the country for many years.
Once his sons by Sîtâ, Lava and Kusa, came to visit him. They pleaded that he take their mother back. They, along with their mother, were being looked after by the sage Vâlmîki. Râma accepted Sîtâ back and restored her to the palace as his queen.
The latest versions—with this correction—end happily here. However, the earlier versions had a different ending. After her return to the palace, the murmuring of the people began again: she was not chaste (pure) enough to be the wife of Râma. And Râma abandoned Sîtâ again. This time she chose to return to the earth, her mother (Bhû-devî). The earth split apart and took her—entering back into the furrow from which she was born.
Râma did not live long after Sîtâ’s death. He drowned himself in the river Sarayu. (Or, it was also said that he went through water purification to heaven.) Râma and Sîtâ returned to Vaikuntha and were merged into Vishnu and Lakshmî.