by Carole Losee © 2005-2020





by Carole Losee © 2005

There are many retellings of the Ramáyana that are available to us on the web, from short summaries to lengthy translations of the original Sanskrit. What makes Elizabeth Seeger's version so captivating and unique is that it is told by a remarkable storyteller/teacher. She has culled out the storyline from the longer poem and as she describes in her introduction, has added some tales from other related texts to fill out the narrative.

We are introduced to the roots of Indian culture and learn of its spiritual ideals, its concept of filial duty and obligation, and its code of honor and justice. We are at times charmed, amused, educated, touched, and sometimes even alarmed, but we are always caught up in the wonderful sweeping drama of this spellbinding Ramáyana that Elizabeth Seeger has presented to us.

Carole Losee
Bridgehampton, New York
April, 2005


by Elizabeth Seeger © 1969

The Ramáyana is one of the two great epic stories of India, the other being the tale of the Pándavas and Kúravas, which is the core of the vast cyclopedia that is the Mahabhárata. Whereas there is much added material, much digression and repetition in the latter book, the Ramáyana is a straightforward, sequential, romantic tale, composed by one person, though others have added to it and elaborated it. It is a poem of 24,000 couplets, about a quarter as long as the Mahabhárata.

The events that form the story must have taken place in the early days of the Aryan occupation of northern India. For an unknown length of time it was told and retold, enlarged and embroidered, until it was composed in its present form by the sage Valmiki. Scholars believe that he lived during the fourth century B.C. and that the poem was not written down in Sanskrit until the end of the sixth century A.D. During the intervening centuries it was learned by heart, with the prodigious memories of men who cannot read or write, and recited by them in ever-increasing areas of the country, starting in the northeast and penetrating to the west and to the farthest south, just as the story itself starts close to the border of Nepal in the north and proceeds through the forests of central India to Ceylon and back again. In our Middle Ages, written versions of it appeared in the different vernaculars of India, notably that composed by Kamban in Tamil, as early as the ninth century, and the rhapsodic poem of Tulsi Das in Hindi, as late as the sixteenth. This latter, far shorter than the original, has been widely read in northern India from the time of its writing to the present day.

It is always tempting to speculate on the origins of great legends. We cannot know how many centuries before Christ Rama may have lived, the son of a chieftain of a small state, in far more primitive circumstances than the splendor and luxury described in the poem. Yet he and his brothers and his wife, people indistinguishable in appearance and habits from hundreds and thousands of others, were so imbued with the high moral standards and spiritual aspirations that characterize the earliest thought of the Aryans, that they have lived for more than two millennia in the hearts and minds of a great people, more vividly, perhaps, than in their own indiscoverable lifetimes. It is heartening, too, at the present time, when moral and spiritual values are largely disregarded and scoffed at, to realize that virtue and nobility are cherished beyond all things and held fast in the hearts of men, both in the East and in the West.

The monkeys, who also form such an important and lovable part of the story, are supposed by scholars to have been a friendly tribe of people who inhabited the enormous forests of central India, far less civilized than the Aryans, still fighting with clubs and stones, not yet using the bow and arrow. And the demons were probably an alien race, established on Ceylon and beginning to invade the southern mainland, who were more civilized but more savage than the forest tribes. It would be a mistake, however, for the storyteller to take the historical point of view and to deny the monkeys their tails and the demons their magic. For what would the story be without Hánuman's frisking over the roofs of Lanka with his flaming tail; how much less dramatic the abduction of Sita if she had not been carried through the sky by her demon captor and looked down upon the monkeys, Sugriva and Hánuman, standing on their mountain top!

But it is not the history of this great poem or its captivating story that is the most important aspect. The Ramáyana is a gospel, whose teachings, mostly personified in its principal characters, have been and are now as important as any other of the Hindu scriptures. Rama is an avatar, an incarnation of God, as in a lesser degree are his brothers; Sita is his consort, as woman and a deity. In the Hindu Trinity, God, as the creator, is Brahma; as the protector and maintainer, he is Vishnu; as the destroyer and recreator, he is Shiva. Vishnu is the one who steps in when there is great trouble in heaven or on earth and sets things right. Rama and, later, Krishna are two of his avatars. This idea, of course, entered into and dominated the story long after its inception, as Rama and Sita became more loved and admired, as their fame increased, and as the tale, learned by one storyteller from another, told by one generation to the next, was elaborated until it reached its final form.

Rama and Sita are the ideal man and woman, the examples that are held before the vision of Indian boys and girls, men and women. Rama is not a solitary figure, like Buddha and Jesus, who left the ties of home and made their disciples their family; he is the perfect son, brother, husband, warrior, and king, whose example may be followed by those who are concerned with the daily life of the world, as most people are. Sita is the perfect wife and woman, tender, beautiful, and compassionate. Innumerable boys and girls are named after these two; in some places the words of King Jánaka, as he married his daughter to Rama, are a part of the marriage service, and young brides learn by heart the words that Sita spoke to Rama as she followed him in his exile. When Gandhi fell under the assassin's bullet, he cried out, "Ai, Ram!" as a western saint might say, "O God!" as St. Joan, when the flames reached her, cried out, "Jesu!" 1

This unbroken religious tradition, from the earliest times to the present day, is strange to us of the West, for our own tradition was broken irrevocably by the powerful entry of Christianity into Europe from Asia. The old polytheisms are gone for good or changed beyond recognition; the epic stories of the Teutons and Greeks are, for most of us, relegated to the bookshelves. But Sita wore a sari, the same beautiful garment that Indian women wear today. The Indian people live on the same ground that was trodden by their heroes: they make pilgrimages to Chitrakuta; to the place whence, it is believed, Sita was carried away by Rávana; and to the great temple at Rámeswaram, on an island which is part of the causeway built by the monkeys to Lanka.

The Ramáyana has never ceased to be a vital part of daily life. It is told by mothers to their children, by storytellers to rapt, illiterate listeners in towns and villages. In September and October, in northern India, the festival of Rama is held in cities and villages and lasts for fifteen days. The Ram Lila, the play of Rama, is acted out, with great splendor in cities like Benares and Lahore, crudely and even grotesquely in small places, but always with devotion and understanding, always before a delighted audience which knows every speech and incident and never tires of them. The story traveled wherever the Indian culture prevailed: into the countries of southeast Asia and Indonesia. Incidents from it are portrayed in the highly stylized dances of Thailand, Burma, Java, and Bali and in the puppet and shadow plays of Indonesia. They are carved on the walls of Angkor in the exquisite low reliefs of the great Khmer sculptors; there Hánuman may be seen in a wild melee of monkeys and demons.

It seems extraordinary that after centuries of intercourse between East and West a writing of such importance to so many people should be unknown, except to very few, in Europe and America. How many, even among those who are highly educated, know even the names of Rama and Sita? A few years ago, among the Christmas cards issued by UNICEF, there was one with a picture of Sita and a little deer. How many of those who bought the cards in this country knew what was meant by that scene, as familiar to every Hindu as the manger is to us? Yet it is part of our own culture, if we wish to look beyond the Aryan migration into Europe. Besides the pure enjoyment we may gain from the artistry of the story, it behooves us to know the vital elements of the culture of India. For we live, indubitably, in one world, though it is not yet a happy or a brotherly one. Whatever leads to increased understanding between the peoples of that world, to increased delight in each other's unique gifts, should lead to truer unity. This book and its companion were written in the belief that any attempt, however inadequate, to bring these great stories to the attention of Western readers may increase that understanding.

I have taken more liberties with this tale than with the adventures of the Pándavas, for several reasons. The Ramáyana is a much shorter and, in some ways, a thinner narrative than the Mahabhárata, which is so lavish in incident, adventure, and interpolated stories of all kinds that one need only choose between them. In the Ramáyana, for example, ten years of the hero's exile in the forest are recorded with only a statement that the years have passed. To fill out the chapter I have borrowed the lovely story of Savitri from the Mahabhárata, justified, I hope, by the fact that Sita said to Rama that she would follow him as Savitri followed her husband. To explain the purpose of the ascetics' life in the forest I have borrowed, again from the Mahabhárata, an explanation of the search for God.

I am very grateful to the Shanti Sadan, of London, who published the English translation of the Ramáyana by Hari Prasad Shastri, for their permission to use it. Except for a few incidents taken from other versions of the poem, I have used Mr. Shastri's translation.

Elizabeth Seeger
Bridgewater, Connecticut
June, 1968

1. In the course of time the final a has been dropped from many of the Sanskrit proper names. The Ramáyana becomes the Ramayan; Rama, Ram; Bhárata, Bhárat. I have kept the final a, fearing that Ram would be pronounced Ram and that other a's might be shortened.

 Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. xi-xvi.