The Ramayana (Sanskrit: vehicle of Rama) is part of the Hindu smriti, written by Valmiki (c.250 BC). This epic of 24,000 verses tells of a Raghuvamsa prince, Rama of Ayodhya, whose wife Sita is abducted by the rakshasa, or demon, Ravana. The Ramayana had an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry, primarily through its establishment of the Sloka meter. But, like its epic cousin, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is not just a grand epic. It contains the teachings of the ancient Hindu sages and presents them through allegory in narrative and the interspersion of philosophic and devotional discourse. The characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana (the enemy of the story) are all fundamental to the grander cultural consciousness of India.
The Ramayana contains seven chapters, or kandas.
The Cultural heritage of India, Vol. IV , The Religions, The Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture, says:
The Ramayana is set in the Treta Yuga. Many interpret this as 8000 BC (based on astronomical data in the Ramayana). There are some who believe that it's even older.
According to Hindu mythology, Rama is an avatara, an incarnation of Vishnu or God. The main purpose of his incarnation is to demonstrate the ideal human life on earth. Ultimately, Rama slays the rakshasa king Ravana and reestablishes the rule of religious and moral law on earth known in Hinduism as dharma.
Bala Kanda or The Book of the Youth
When King Dasaratha of Ayodhya performs a Putrakameshti Yajna, the sacrifice for progeny, a divine being, purusha, emerges from the holy fire and offers a pot of payasam milk sweet. Dasharatha distributes the dessert to his three wives, the Queens Kaushalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi, in accordance with the status of each, and each wife conceives. As a result, Queen Kaushalya gives birth to the oldest son, Rama. Bharatha is born to Queen Kaikeyi and Lakshmana, and Shatrughna are born to Queen Sumitra. When the princes are young boys, the sage Vishwamitra visits King Dasharatha and asks him to send Rama and Lakshmana to protect him from demons who have been disturbing his sacrifice ritual. Reluctantly, King Dashrath agrees, and Rama and Lakshmana are sent to live with Vishvamitra for the latter's protection. The brothers meet with a many adventures, and the sage trains them in the dharma, or path, of the prince-warrior. As the brothers fulfill their duties, the sage is pleased with them and bestows upon them various heavenly weapons.
Toward the end of their stay with Vishvamitra, they receive an invitation to King Janaka's kingdom of Mithila on the occasion of his daughterSita's Swayamvara, in which she will choose her future husband. A competition is held in which princes and heroes from numerous kingdoms vie to display their prowess and win her hand. For many years, the unwieldy divine bow Shiva Dhanush has been idle because no one was strong enough to lift it, and King Janaka challenges the suitors to bend and string it. After all the suitors fail, Rama succeeds in mastering the bow, not only effortlessly bending and stringing it, but also breaking it into two pieces. He wins the hand of Sita, and after a sumptuous wedding attended by the illustrious from both heaven and earth, he returns with her to Ayodhya. Sita is the incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi and, in her worldly form, becomes the ideal helpmate and consort to Rama. Together they live the life after which all persons on earth model their own.
Ayodhya Kanda or The Book of Ayodhya
After some time, Dasharatha, feeling his advancing years, decides to abdicate and retire to the forest. He designates his first-born son Rama to succeed him as King of Ayodhya. Astrologers are consulted and a date is set for the coronation. Just before the fateful day, Kaikeyi, one of Dasharatha's three wives, falls under the influence of a malicious servant who awakens Kaikeyi's jealousy toward her co-wife, the mother of Rama. Kaikeyi goes before the king and demands to redeem the two boons he had granted her long ago after she saved his life in war. Exploiting this promise, which the helpless Dasharatha is honor-bound to fulfill, she asks for the two boons as follows:
1) Her own son, Bharata, should be crowned instead of Rama;
3) Rama should be exiled from the Kingdom for 14 years.
Aranya Kanda or The book of the Forest
Rama, being an obedient son, leaves for the jungle with Sita and Lakshmana, who in spite of repeated requests, decides to shun the kingdom and follow his older brother devoutly in his time of crisis. Meanwhile, Bharata returns to Ayodhya and, being also devoted to Rama, becomes furious with Kaikeyi for her malicious deeds committed in his absence. He travels to the forest and tries to persuade Rama to return to the kingdom and assume the throne. Rama politely refuses, saying that he is duty-bound to see that his father's promise is fulfilled. Reluctantly Bharata agrees to return to the kingdom, requesting Rama to present to him his sandals. He formally treats Rama's sandals as the reigning entity, and ascribes himself as the representative ruler of the rightful king Rama in his absence. Dasharatha meanwhile dies of sorrow from having to be separated from his son.
The demoness Surpanakha, sister of the demon king Ravana, becomes enamored of the handsome Rama and tries to seduce him during his stay in the jungle. Rama, renowned for his practice of Ekapatnivrata, the vow to practice unassailable loyalty to one's wife, is unresponsive. But Rama's brother Lakshmana, infuriated by Surpanaka's act of willful lasciviousness, cuts off her nose. Surpanakha runs home crying to her brother Ravana. To avenge his sister's loss of nose, Ravana uses the demon Maricha to lure Rama and Lakshmana away, leaving Sita unguarded. At her moment of vulnerability, Ravana abducts Sita in his airborne vehicle, the Pushpaka Vimana.
Kishkindha Kanda or The book on the empire of holy monkeys
The disconsolate Rama, with Lakshmana, wanders the forests in search of Sita, and obtains clues to the direction of their flight from the vulture king Jatayu who lies dying after having valiantly fought Ravana. He reaches the Rishyamukha mountain range, and meets the Vanara (monkey) king Sugriva. He helps Sugriva kill his violent brother King Vali, and installs him to the throne.
Sundara Kanda or The book of the beauty
Yudhdha Kanda or The book of the War
Rama, overjoyed at the news of the welfare of Sita, sends a peacekeeping mission, which Ravana rejects. Rama prepares for war and, ably helped by his Vanara army, builds a bridge across the Palk Strait, somewhere in the area surrounding Rameshwaram in modern day Tamil Nadu.
Space images taken by NASA reveal a mysterious ancient bridge in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. The recently discovered bridge currently named as Adam's Bridge is made of a chain of shoals, c.18 mi (30 km) long. The bridge's unique curvature and composition by age reveals that it is man made. The legends as well as archeological studies reveal that the first signs of human inhabitants in Sri Lanka date back to a primitive age, about 1.750.000 years ago and the bridge's age is also almost equivalent.
Having reached Lanka, Rama is left with the only choice of slaying Ravana, which he does to get back his wife Sita. Rama, in an act which is often debated for the ethical aspects, asks Sita to prove her celibacy through a test by fire. Sita passes the test successfully and is reunited with Rama. Rama, having finished the fourteen years in exile, gets back to Ayodhya and assumes the throne from Bharata and rules his kingdom with rigor and ensures justice for all his subjects. This period is often called Ram Rajya (The reign of Rama), a phrase often used in modern Indian society, as a metaphor for the ideal rule of law.
Uttara Kanda - (literally The Book Beyond (Ramayana)) The epilogue
Lessons from Ramayana
Thus Ramayana has established a code of conduct which is widely considered by Hindus to be the benchmark for posterity.
Literary Masterpieces Inspired By the Ramayana
Valmiki's Ramayana inspired the Sri Ramacharit Manas by Tulasidas, an epic Hindi version with a slant more grounded in a different realm of Hindu literature, that of bhakti. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of India. A similar work was done by Kamban as Kambaramayanam in Tamil.
Interesting slants on the epic have been created that view the Ramayana from the eyes of the asura king of Sri Lanka, Ravana, and his clan. Dravidian Tamil books such as the Ravanakaviyam and Kambarasam are the oldest of this genre. A more recent reprisal of this theme, curiously analogous to Virgil's Aeneid in relation to the Iliad and Odyssey, was created by the famed Bengali writer Michael Madhusudan Dutta, who rendered what he appelled the Meghnadh Bodh Kobbo (Tale of the Death of Meghnadh) in Bengali epic poetic form. Of course, all these texts share a similar opposition to the traditional hero-role of Lord Rama.