[Starting this Rāmanavami, every Friday, Prekshaa presents a condensed prose rendering of the Vālmīki-rāmāyaṇa based on the critically constituted text. We attempt to present the best aspects of the grand epic and also capture as many poetic details as possible. As envisioned by literary stalwarts like Prof. A R Krishnasastri and Dr. D V Gundappa, we hope this English rendering of the Rāmāyaṇa serves to be an easily accessible pen-picture of the vast landscape of the epic, with all its nuances.]
Sage Vālmikī once asked Nārada, the master of language, who was immersed in austerities and the study of Vedas – “In our contemporary world, is there a human endowed with the best of qualities and is also courageous, well-versed in dharma, filled with gratitude, truthful and of unwavering resolve? I also wish to know if such a person is noble in conduct, is compassionate to all beings, well-read, charming in appearance, self-controlled, free of anger, radiant and not envious; even the devas fear him enraged in a war. O Maharṣi! Only you can know a human endowed with these attributes.”
Upon hearing the question posed by Vālmikī, the delighted Nārada, the knower of the three worlds, said, “Many and rare are the qualities you have enlisted; yet, I will tell you of a human who possesses these qualities. There lives a man, born in the lineage of the Ikṣvākus, known to the world as Rāma. He is radiant, steadfast, valorous, and self-controlled; a man of towering intellect, well-versed in nīti, charismatic, and a subduer of enemies. His shoulders and arms are strong; his neck is shaped like the conch and his jaws are well-built. He possesses a mighty chest and wields a powerful bow; his collar-bone is well-padded. His muscular arms reach down to the knees; he has a perfectly shaped head, a lofty forehead, and a majestic gait. Rāma is neither too tall nor too short; his body parts are well-proportioned and charming; he is endowed with a pleasing complexion and is brilliant in appearance. He has wide eyes and his physical form is appealing. He knows dharma, is truthful, and always strives for the well-being of his people. He is popular among his citizens, knowledgeable, pure, self-controlled, and eternally focussed on the Sublime Principle. He is the protector of the living world and of dharma. He has mastered the essence of the Vedas and vedāṅgas and is an expert in dhanur-veda. He has grasped the heart of all śāstras and has an impeccable memory. Rāma is supremely talented. He is kind to everyone and is loved by the entire world. He possesses a dauntless spirit and is extremely competent. Just as the rivers are naturally drawn to the sea, noble people are attracted to him. He is impartial and his very presence causes delight to everyone.
This noble soul, endowed will the best of qualities, is the delight of Kausalyā’s heart; he is deep like the ocean and steadfast like the Himālayas. He is like Viṣṇu in his valour and delightful like the moon; he is like the deadly fire when angry and like the earth in his forbearance.
King Daśaratha, out of immense affection for his eldest son, wished to anoint Rāma as the crown prince. Looking at the arrangements being made for his coronation, the king’s third wife, Kaikeyī demanded two boons, which were promised to her by the king in the past – i. exile of Rāma and ii. coronation of Bharata. The king, bound by his word and fettered by dharma, sent away his favourite son to the forest. The valorous Rāma entered the forest in accordance with his vow, as per the instructions of his father, and to please Kaikeyī. The delight of Sumitrā’s heart and embodiment of modesty, Lakṣmaṇa, followed Rāma out of his affection for him. Just as the star Rohiṇī always follows the moon, Sītā too, the best among women and brilliant in her qualities, went along with Rāma to the forest. They were followed by desperate citizens as well as by their father Daśaratha to a large distance. Rāma sent back the charioteer Sumantra in the Śṛṅgavera-pura on the banks of the River Gaṅgā.
Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, and Sītā went from forest to forest and crossed over rivers with gushing waters. They stayed at Citrakūṭa as per the suggestion of Sage Bharadvāja. With Rāma entering the Citrakūṭa, Daśaratha, tormented by grief for his son, entered svarga, bewailing him. With the father gone, Vasiṣṭha and other dvijas insisted Bharata to accept the kingdom; however, Bharata, with no desire to do so, went to the forest hoping to propitiate Rāma. Offering his own sandals as a trust for ruling the kingdom, the elder brother repeatedly persuaded Bharata to return to the city. Failing to achieve his desire, Bharata ruled from Nandigrāma, paying respects to the sandals of Rāma and longing for his return. Rāma, foresaw the possibility of people visiting him there again and again, and to avoid which, he entered the Daṇḍakāraṇya. There, he slew the rākṣasa Virādha, and visited the sages Śarabhaṅga, Sutīkṣṇa, Agastya, and his brother. As per the words of Agastya, Rāma received a bow, a sword, and an inexhaustible quiver of arrows. Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, and Sītā lived with the forest-dwellers; the ṛṣis often requested him to vanquish the asuras and rākṣasas.
During their stay in the Janasthāna, Śūrpaṇakhā, who could take the form she desired, was disfigured by them. Śūrpaṇakhā instigated Khara, Dūṣaṇa, Triśiras, and other rākṣasas, who were eventually vanquished by Rāma. He thus killed fourteen thousand rākṣasas. Upon hearing about the slaughter of his kin, Rāvaṇa almost went unconscious with rage. He sought the help of the rākṣasa Mārīca—who tried his best to dissuade him from the evil act. Mārīca said, “It is not wise to provoke enmity with a strong opponent.” Paying no heed to his words, Rāvaṇa, prompted by his Fate, went with Mārīca to the āśrama of Rāma. Distracting the princes with the help of Mārīca and drawing them away to a distant place, Rāvaṇa abducted Rāma’s wife. He fought Jaṭāyu, the great and noble eagle. Seeing the dying Jaṭāyu and hearing about the abduction of Maithilī (Sītā), Rāghava (Rāma) was overcome with immense grief.
Searching for his beloved Sītā, Rāma (and Lakṣmaṇa) came across the ugly-looking rākṣasa Kabandha and defeated him. He advised the brothers to visit Śabarī, a dhārmic lady and an ascetic. Receiving her homage, Rāma proceeded to the shore of Pampā, where they met Hanūmān, a vānara. As per his suggestion, Rāma met Sugrīva, to whom he narrated everything about himself. Moved by affection, and overcome by grief, Sugrīva spoke about his enmity with his brother Vāli and described the latter’s might. Rāma vowed to kill Vāli. As Sugrīva was assailed by doubts about Rāma’s prowess, Rāma, with his big toe, tossed the huge body of Dundubhi ten yojanas away. He also shot a single arrow through seven palm trees, which went further through a hill into the Rasātala – he did this to assure Sugrīva that he was skilled. Now confident, Sugrīva entered Kiṣkindhā along with Rāma. Sugrīva let out a fierce roar, provoked by which, Vāli came out to fight. As per the words of Sugrīva, Rāma struck him down and installed Sugrīva as the ruler of the kingdom.
Sugrīva, the king of the vānaras, summoned them all and sent them in different directions to search for Sītā. Upon the advice of the great eagle Saṃpāti, Hanūmān leaped over the salty ocean, a hundred yojanas wide. Reaching the city of Laṅkā, ruled by Rāvaṇa, Hanūmān spotted a meditative Sītā in the Aśoka-vana. Displaying the ring as a token of recognition to Sītā, Hanūmān consoled her. He then destroyed the outer gate of the garden and also killed five army-chiefs and seven sons of ministers. He slew Akṣa and got himself captured. Later, he put the city of Laṅkā on fire, except for the place where Sītā lived. He rushed back to convey the good tiding to Rāma and said – “I saw her – Sītā!”
Rāma went with Sugrīva (and others) to the shores of the ocean and caused turmoil with his arrows, which were bright like the Sun. The lord of the rivers, Samudra, then showed himself. As per the words of Samudra, Rāma got Nala to build a bridge. Crossing over to Laṅkā over the bridge, Rāma vanquished Rāvaṇa in a battle and anointed Vibhīṣaṇa on the throne of Laṅkā.
The devas, ṛṣis, as well as the animate and inanimate beings of the three worlds were supremely delighted with Rāma’s deeds. He was worshipped by the devas and received many boons from them. He got on to the puṣpaka-vimāna and went towards Nandi-grāma. There, he shed his matted locks and along with his brothers and Sītā, got back his kingdom.
The citizens of Ayodhyā were extremely delighted and contended; they were dhārmic during Rāma’s rule and were free from bodily and mental ills. There was neither famine nor fear. Never did children die before their parents; women never knew widowhood and were pati-vratās. There was no fear of fierce winds and no deaths from drowning in water; there was no fear of fire accidents just as in the Kṛta-yuga. Rāma ritualistically performed a hundred Aśva-medhas, gifted large amounts of gold, and millions of cows to the learned. People belonging to all the four varṇas were devoted to their dharma. Having ruled the kingdom for eleven thousand years, Rāma will proceed to the Brahma-loka.
Anyone who reads this story of Rāma, that is akin to the Vedas, is cleansed of all pāpas. Reading this saga, known as the Rāmāyaṇa, a man will attain the svarga with his sons and grandsons. A brāhmaṇa who reads this will gain mastery over language, a kṣatriya will gain the ability to be a good king, a vaiṣya will obtain the fruits of his trade, and a śūdra will attain prosperity.
To be continued...
 Some manuscripts also narrate the popular episode of Sītā’s agni-parīkṣā, which however does not occur in the critically constituted text in this segment.