Tradition has it that the goddess Shakti once asked Shiva what will give man hope in the Kali Yuga, the spiritually bereft final quarter of the world’s life cycle. Shiva replied that hope would come from the hearing of Ram’s tale. Narada heard Shiva narrate the whole story to the goddess. He in turn passed it on to a highway robber called Ratnakar, who later in life became known as Valmiki. Ratnakar ( Sage Valmiki) A highway robber called Ratnakar once attacked Narad with the intention of stealing his lute. ‘Please, before you strike me, tell me why are you doing this?’ Narad asked, as Ratnakar was about to kill him. ‘I have no other means to feed my family,’ Ratnakar replied. ‘So you are doing this for your family. Does that mean they will share the burden of this crime?’ Narad inquired. ‘Yes, of course,' said Ratnakar. ‘Are you sure?’ Narad persisted, making Ratnakar suddenly unsure. ‘Why don’t you confirm this with them?' Narad suggested. So Ratnakar tied Narad to a tree and went home and asked his wife and son if they would share the burden of his crime. 'Why should we?’ asked his wife. ‘It is your duty to feed us. What you do for that is solely your responsibility.’ Ratnakar realized at that moment that ultimately one is responsible for all of one's actions; one cannot blame others for it. He returned to Narad a changed man. ‘How do I cleanse myself of this burden of crime?’ he asked. 'Chant Ram’s name,’ said Narad. But Ratnakar was such a terrible criminal that Ram’s name could not even form on his tongue. Narad then said. ‘Chant mara- mara repeatedly.’ Mara means ‘die’. Being a killer, Ratnakar could utter the word easily. 'Mara-mara-mara ... die-die-die ... ’ Slowly the sound changed, ‘Ma-ra-ma-ra-ma-ra-ma- Ram-Ram-Ram.’ Thus the word meaning death reversed itself to become the name of God who liberates one from death. So intense was Ratnakar’ s chanting that he lost all sense of the world. When he finally awoke from his meditative trance he found he was covered by a termite hill made of sand or valu. As a result Ratnakar came to be known as Valmiki. Valmiki then learnt from Narada the story of Ram and he took it upon himself to turn this story into a song that would inspire all of humanity. A pair of parrots heard Valmiki’s composition. According to the Padma Purana, the parrots narrated this tale to Sita before her marriage. But they did not know the whole tale. Angry, Sita locked them up in a cage and one of the parrots died. The survivor cursed Sita that she too would experience separation from her husband. And that is why Sita was abandoned by Ram soon after their return to Ayodhya. How could Sita hear the Ramayan when she played a role in it? The explanation given is that the Ramayan that was narrated by Shiva, then Narad, then Valmiki and finally the parrot was the Satakoti Ramacharitra or the timeless Ramayan, which becomes reality in every Treta Yuga, the second quarter of the world’s life cycle. In traditional Hindu thought, the Ramayan is an eternal story, not the creation of one poet, not restricted to one period. Thus the Valmiki Ramayan is not the ‘original’ Ramayan. It is simply the oldest known Ramayan retold by a sage called Valmiki. Valmiki’s Ramayan is generally treated as Adi Kavya, the first Sanskrit poetry ever written. While it was part of oral tradition for centuries, it reached its final form somewhere between 200 BCE (Before Common Era, formerly known as BC) and 200 CE (Common Era, formerly known as AD). The content took a lyrical form after Valmiki experienced a painful episode. From pain comes poetry Valmiki once saw a hunter shoot down one of a pair of lovebirds. The surviving bird flew around in circles over the corpse of its beloved, wailing and moaning and finally dying of heartbreak. Pained by this sight, Valmiki cursed the hunter for his crime. The curse came in the form of a verse and Valmiki realized that the roots of poetry lay in pain. As he witnessed the pain of Sita’s life, who took shelter in his hermitage after she was cast away by Ram for no fault of hers, he was inspired to compose the epic of Ramayan. He taught it to Sita's twin sons. So sweet was their rendition of this song that they were invited to sing before Ram himself in Ayodhya. They did not know that the man before them was their father. And Ram did not know that the young children singing his song were his own two sons. The Ramayan also happens to be part of the Mahabharata, dated between 300 bce and 300 ce, Where it is called the Ramopakhyan. When the Pandavas bemoaned their thirteen years of forest exile, Rishi Markandeya retorted by telling them how Ram suffered for fourteen years and while the Pandavas deserved their punishment for gambling away their kingdom, Ram did not deserve his fate— he was simply obeying his father. Though Buddhists and Jains turned away from mainstream Hinduism, they could not turn away from Ram. The Buddhist Dashrath Jatak, written in Prakrit and dated to around 300 ce, identifies Ram as a Bodhisattva, or Buddha in an earlier life. Ram of the Buddhists is portrayed as a man full of integrity, compassion and wisdom who is fully aware that all things in this world, from kings to kingdoms, are impermanent. The Story of Ram Dashrath, king of Ayodhya, had three wives but no children. So he conducted a yagna and invoked the gods who gave him a magic potion that was divided amongst his three queens. In time the queens gave birth to four sons. Ram was the eldest, born of the chief queen, Kaushalya, Bharat was the second, born to Dashrath's favourite queen, Kaikeyi and Lakshman and Shatrughna were the twin sons of the third queen, Sumitra. Ram completed his early education under the tutelage of Rishi Vasishth. He was then asked to defend Rishi Vishwamitra's hermitage from attacks by the demons known as Rakshasas. Accordingly, Ram killed many Rakshasas in the time that he spent under Rishi Vishwamitra's care including a female Rakshasa called Tadaka. Pleased with his actions, Vishwamitra’s taught him many potent magical chants that transformed ordinary arrows into potent missiles. Vishwamitra then took Ram to Mithila capital of the kingdom of Videha. On the way, they came to the hermitage of Gautam, who had cursed his wife Ahalya to turn into stone because she had been unfaithful to him. Ram placed his foot on the stone that was Ahalya and she was instantly released from the curse, such was the purity of Ram's character. At MithiIa, Ram participated in the swayamvar being held by Janak, the king of Videha. The young prince broke the mighty bow of Shiva that was in the king's custody and by this display of strength, won the hand of Janak's daughter, Sita, in marriage. Sita was no ordinary woman. She had been ploughed out of the earth by Janak who had then raised her as his own daughter. On Ram's return to Ayodhya, Dashrath decided it was time to pass the crown to Ram and retire from worldly life. Unfortunately, on the eve of Ram’s coronation, the maid, Manthara, poisoned Kaikeyi's mind against the coronation. Thus influenced, Kaikeyi demanded that her husband grant her the two boons he had promised her years ago when she had saved his life in battle. As her first boon, she wanted her son, Bharat, to be crowned king and for the second, she wanted Ram to live as a hermit in the forest for fourteen years. Bound by his word, Dashrath sent for Ram and informed him of the situation. Without any remorse or regret, to the amazement of all, Ram removed his royal robes and left the city of Ayodhya dressed in clothes of bark, as hermits are supposed to, armed only with his bow. Despite protests, Ram's wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshman, followed him to the forest; Sita, because she refused to leave her husband's side and Lakshman, because he could not bear to be parted from his brother. Watching the three leave the city, overwhelmed by the calamity befalling his household, Dashrath died of a broken heart. Much to Kaikeyi's disappointment, her son, Bharat, refused to take a kingdom obtained through such trickery. He decided to live as a hermit too, outside the city gates in the village of Nandigram and serve as Ram's regent until Ram's return. He placed Ram's footwear on the throne to proclaim Ram's undisputed kingship. In the forest, Ram, Lakshman and Sita endured the vagaries of nature stoically. Wandering from place to place, through dense forests and over high hills, they never stopped at any one place for too long. Sometimes they took shelter in caves and at others they built themselves little huts using leaves and twigs. Often they fought demons who harassed them and encountered sages such as Atri and Agastya who showered them with gifts and wise words. So passed thirteen years. In the fourteenth year of exile, a woman called Surpanaka saw Ram in the forest. Smitten by his beauty, she openly expressed her desire to be his lover. Ram politely refused on grounds that he already had a wife. Lakshman also turned her down as his only desire in life was to serve his brother and his sister-in-law. Surpanaka blamed Sita for this rejection and tried to kill her. Lakshman rushed to Sita's rescue. Raising his sword he cut Surpanaka's nose and drove her away. Surpanaka, who was in fact a female Rakshasa ran to her brother, Ravan, who was the ten-headed king of the Rakshasas. When the demon-king saw his sister's mutilated face, he was furious. He swore to teach Ram a lesson by abducting Sita and forcing her to be part of his vast harem. At Ravan's behest, a shape-shifting demon called Marichi took the form of a golden deer and enchanted Sita who begged Ram to catch it for her. Ram pursued the deer and was drawn deep into the woods. When struck by Ram's arrows, Marichi shouted for help mimicking Ram's voice so perfectly that a frightened Sita ordered Lakshman to rush to Ram's rescue. With no one around to protect Sita, Ravan approached her in the guise of a sage and asked for some food. Sita stretched out her hand and offered whatever she had in the house, taking care not to cross the line marked out by Lakshman around the hut; so long as she stayed within the line, Lakshman had said, she would be under Ram's protection and hence safe. Ravan, however, displayed mock fury at the way the food was being offered to a sage, forcing Sita to step out. Ravan immediately revealed his true identity, grabbed Sita, leapt on to his flying chariot and made his way across the sky to his island kingdom of Lanka. The two brothers returned to an empty hut after killing Marichi. Nearby was the vulture called Jatayu who had been mortally wounded while trying to stop Ravan's chariot. Before dying, Jatayu informed Ram that Ravan had carried Sita somewhere to the south. On learning of his beloved's fate, Ram was overwhelmed by grief. Determined to rescue Sita, Ram and Lakshman made their way south. They passed the terrifying forests of Dandaka, crossed the Vindhya Mountains and eventually reached Kishkinda, the land of monkeys, where they met Sugriva, a monkey who had been driven into exile by his brother, Vali, King of monkeys, following a misunderstanding. Ram and Sugriva came to an agreement: if Ram helped overpower Vali, Sugriva would help rescue Sita. On Ram’s advice, Sugriva challenged Vali to a duel. Sugriva was no match for his much stronger brother and would surely have been killed had Ram not raised his bow and shot Vali from behind the bushes while the two brothers were fighting. A dying Vali accused Ram of being unfair to which Ram retorted that those who live by the law of the jungle must allow themselves to be killed by the law of the jungle. After becoming king, Sugriva asked all the monkeys of Kishkinda to go in every direction in search of Sita. After a long search, the strongest and wisest of all the monkeys, whose name was Hanuman, learnt from another vulture called Sampati that Ravan's kingdom, Lanka, stood in the middle of the vast ocean that stretched beyond the southern horizon. Hanuman increased his size and leapt across the sea, surviving many dangers along the way, and made his way into the island of demons. There he found Sita sitting forlorn in a palace orchard, under the ashok tree, rejecting Ravan's amorous advances, totally convinced that her husband would eventually come to her rescue. As soon as she was alone, Hanuman approached Sita, identified himself, gave her Ram's ring as proof of his identity and assured her that Ram was truly on his way. Overjoyed, Sita blessed Hanuman and gave him her hair­ pin as proof of her discovery. Hanuman then let himself be caught by Ravan's guards. Identifying himself as Ram's messenger, he warned Ravan with dire consequences if he did not let Sita go. Ravan laughed and ordered his guards to set Hanuman's tail on fire. No sooner was his tail set alight than Hanuman jumped free and ran amok in Lanka setting buildings on fire. He then leapt across the sea, returned to Kishkinda and revealed Sita's exact whereabouts to Ram. Hanuman helped Ram raise a vast army of monkeys, bears and vultures. Together they built a bridge across the sea to Lanka. As the bridge was being constructed, Ram got help from an unexpected quarter. Vibhishan, declaring that Ravan was morally wrong to keep a married woman in his palace against her will. At long last, the bridge was built and Ram found himself on the shores of Lanka with his army behind him separated from Sita by the formidable walls of Ravan's citadel. All attempts for a peace full resolution were rejected by Ravan who felt it beneath his dignity to even consider proposals made by a man with a monkey army. War was finally declared. On one side stood Ram, Lakshman, Vibhishan, Sugriva, Hanuman and other denizens of the forest. On the other stood Ravan and his demon hordes. The monkeys fought with sticks and stones and the demons with weapons and magic. The battle was long and fierce with terrible casualties on both sides. Lakshman was hit by a lethal arrow shot by Ravan's son, Meghnad, and would have died had Hanuman not flown north and brought back the mountain of magical herbs. Hanuman also rescued the two brothers from the sorcerer, Mahiravan. Eventually the battle turned in Ram's favour. Ravan lost many of his sons including Meghnad. He even lost his brother Kumbhakarn, a giant, who had been roused from his long slumber and sent to battle. Finally, Ravan came face to face with Ram. A long duel ensued with the two showering powerful-missiles at each other. Ram soon realized that Ravan had the power to replace his heads and Ram's efforts to overpower and kill him would be futile if he did not unlock the secret of the demon-king's apparent invincibility. Vibhishan then revealed to Ram that Ravan's life rested within his navel and he thus could not be slain by beheading. Ram immediately released a deadly arrow that punctured Ravan's navel and killed him instantly. As Ravan fell, the monkeys cheered. A victorious Ram declared Vibhishan king of Lanka. It was time for Ram and Sita to be reunited. When Sita, released from her prison, approached Ram, he demanded that she prove to the world that she had been a faithful wife during her stay in Ravan’s palace. Sita, startled by even the suggestion of infidelity, walked through fire. Protected by the power of- her chastity, Sita emerged from the fire unscathed. At the end of this ordeal, Ram, Lakshman and Sita returned home to Ayodhya on Ravan’s flying chariot accompanied by Hanuman who accepted Ram as his lord and master. The fourteen years of exile were at an end. The residents of Ayodhya, including Bharat rejoiced when they saw Ram. Great celebrations followed the coronation of Ram which was attended not only by sages and gods but also by monkeys and demons. The joy was doubled when Sita declared a few months later that she was pregnant. Not long after this happy occasion, Ram heard that his subjects gossiped about Sita's stay in Ravan's palace; they did not want a woman of soiled reputation as their queen. A heartbroken Ram ordered Lakshman to take Sita to the forest and leave her there. Lakshman obeyed with great reluctance. Abandoned for no fault of hers, Sita took shelter in the hermitage of the poet-sage Valmiki where she gave birth to twins, Luv and Kush, and raised them on her own·. Despite his personal loss, Ram ruled his kingdom diligently. His reign was so perfect that the rains came on time and no accidents ever took place. Everything was predictable and rhythmic. There was peace and prosperity in every direction. Years later, Ram was advised to conduct the Ashvamedha yagna so that Ram's rule could spread around the world. The royal horse would be allowed to travel freely across the world; all the lands it traversed unchallenged would come under Ram's suzerainty. But to perform this ambitious ritual, it was necessary for the patron to have a wife. With Sita gone, the people of Ayodhya asked Ram to marry again. Ram refused to do so. He had abandoned the queen his people did not want but not his wife. So he had a golden effigy of Sita made, which was placed by his side when he conducted the ritual. The royal horse was let loose. Following it was Ram's army led by Lakshman and Hanuman. When the horse entered Valmiki's hermitage, Sita's sons caught hold of it and refused to let it go, thereby challenging Ram's authority. A great battle followed in which the two young boys were able to defeat. Lakshman, Hanuman and All of Ram’s soldiers without much effort. Finally Ram himself challenged the two boys to a fight. Tragedy was averted when Sita intervened and introduced her sons to her husband. It was clear that Sita's children defeated Ram's army because righteousness rested with Sita and not with the kingdom of Ayodhya that had rejected her. Ram begged Sita to prove her chastity once more, this time before his subjects, so that the stain on her reputation was wiped off forever and she could take her rightful place beside him as queen. Sita, tired of her character being questioned repeatedly, begged the earth to take her into its folds if she had truly been a faithful wife. Instantly the earth split open and Sita disappeared under the ground. The people of Ayodhya now had their proof but it came at the price of Ram losing his wife. Unable to live on earth without his beloved, Ram decided to renounce his mortal body. Passing on the crown of his forefathers to his children, he walked into the Sarayu River and never rose again. A few authors project Ram as ordinary who did extraordinary thinks, triumphing in life against all odds to become hero first then God. But for his devotees he is the most perfect earthly manifestation of God to be worshipped for one’s salvation. Every year the day of Rams birth is celebrated in spring (Ram Navami) while the day of triumph and his coronation are celebrated in autumn (Dusshera and Diwali). In temples, he is the only deity to be enshrined as a king. When times are difficult, one is advised to read the Ramayana because of Rams up righteousness in the face of all adversities offers hope, peace and salvation.