Symbolic Significance of Ramayana

Lord Rama

by Jayaram V

This essay describes the symbolism and significance of the epic Ramayana and its main characters.


Rāmāyana is one of the most popular epics in the world. It is deeply interwoven into the sociocultural history of India. With 24000 verses, which are divided into six sections (kandas), it is also one of the oldest and largest epics in the history of the world. Originally composed in Sanskrit, its original authorship is ascribed to Valmiki. However, there are many versions and adaptations of the epic. Since the earliest times until now, it has been rendered into multiple languages by numerous scholars from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions both in India and outside in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia Thailand, China, Burma, and Malaysia.

Place in Hinduism

In Hinduism, the epic along with Mahabharata belongs to the genre of ancient history (Itihasa). Hindus believe that the events described in both the epics are historic and happened at some point in the history of the planet. The two epics also exerted great influence upon Hindu art, architecture, literature, dance and drama, apart from serving as major conduits for the dissemination of popular religious themes and moral percepts to the public.

Rāmāyana is not just a long and convoluted epic story. It contains many sub plots, and stories and stories within stories, which makes the narrative very complex. Its main story is explicit and does not require much effort to understand. It brings to the fore the major percepts of Hindu Dharma and appeals to the readers the importance of character and righteous conduct for the order and regularity of the world. At the same, one may discern in it hidden symbolism and implicit teaching.

Ramayana means

Etymologically, Rāmāyana is derived from the root word rām or rāma, or simply ram (with the short vowel a). Rām is the reference to the hero of the epic, Rāma, who is revered by Hindus as the incarnation of Vishnu and as God himself in a human form. Ram (with short vowel a) means to enjoy or to take delight. Rām or Rāma means the enjoyer or the one who delights in the play of creation. It is a reference to the Self (Isvara) or God himself. Ayanam means going, moving, walking, etc.

Thus, Rāmāyan or Rāmāyanam means the journey of Rāma or the wandering of Rāma. Symbolically we may interpret it as the wandering (transmigration) of the soul in the field of Prakriti or in the mortal world. Rāma also means a beautiful woman, a beloved or a wife. Thus, hidden within the original meaning of the epic is a reference to Sīta, the wife of Rāma. From this perspective, Ramayana is not just about Rāma or his wandering in the wilderness. It also refers to the journey of Sīta, the Mother Goddess, and her difficulties in the mortal world as a partner in Dharma to Rama.

Symbolism of the main story

The symbolic significance of Rāmāyana has been interpreted variously by various scholars. At the most basic level, the epic represents the vulnerabilities to which human beings are susceptible due to their weaknesses and impurities, and the conflict between good and evil forces which may arise from them. It portrays the deep connection between God and his devotees and the power of devotion. It also suggests how with virtue and righteousness and with the help of God mortal beings can surpass even gods in their ability to destroy evil.

The epic Rāmāyana teaches many valuable lessons. It brings to the fore the vulnerability of human life and the message that even God is not free from suffering when he incarnates upon earth. We learn from it that in the midst of difficulties, human beings should not lose their moral imperative. They should follow the example of Rāma and remain on the path of righteousness, without succumbing to evil temptations and without surrendering to evil powers. They should also learn from the example of Rāvana that knowledge and power can become destructive if it is tainted by the impurities of ignorance, desires, egoism, and delusion.

The epic symbolizes the power of devotion in human life and the deep connection between God and his devotees. God incarnated upon earth as Rāma to provide the humans with an ideal role model which they can follow to achieve liberation. The following is the symbolism of the main story of Ramayana. It is presumed that the readers are familiar with the main story of the epic. Hence, no attempt is being made to narrate the story or describe the characters. Those who want to study the epic in its original format by Valmiki with Sanskrit text, translation and explanation, may please check the link at the bottom of this page

1. Rāma symbolizes the auspicious qualities and the Supreme Self. He descends into the mortal world (the body) in search of the individual Self (Sīta), his devotee, from which he is separated in the beginning of creation.

2. Rāvana symbolizes the ego with ten evil qualities, who defies God and asserts his individuality due to his tamasic and demonic nature.

3. The body represents Lanka, which is ruled by the ego (Rāvana) who holds the embodied Self (Sīta) in captivity because of delusion and demonic pride.

4. God (Rāma) assembles the army of monkeys, represented by senses and other bodily parts which are by nature restless and fickle.

5. With the help of intelligence (Lakshmana), breath (Hanuman) and the restrained senses (army of devout monkeys), he builds a bridge (channel) across the ocean of consciousness (mind) to descend into the being and find the Self.

6. He destroys the ego (Ravana) and its army of evils and reconnects with the individual Self (Sīta). Upon finding the individual Self, he subjects it to purification in the fire of austerities (tapah) just as Rāma did to Sīta, and removes all the impurities which accumulated around the Self during its captivity and bondage in the body.

7. Rāma and Sīta depart from Lanka (body) and ascend to the immortal heaven (Ayodha) through the ethereal plane or the mid-region (Puspak Vimānam), along with the whole army of monkeys and devotees (the divinities or the tattvas in the body).

Symbolism of the main characters

The following is the symbolic significance of the major characters in the Rāmāyana and what qualities and aspects of creation they represent. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I have avoided elaborate explanation and mentioned only the qualities and aspects each character represents or symbolizes. These descriptions (and the aforementioned symbolism) are solely based upon my understanding and observation, and in writing them I have not relied upon or referred to any book or writing by another scholar.

Rāma

Vishnu, incarnation, Isvara, perfect human being, ideal son, ideal disciple, ideal brother, ideal husband, ideal king, fearless warrior, purity or sattva, virtue, righteous conduct, dutifulness, loyalty, leadership, perfection, strength, valor, upholder of Dharma, compassion, sameness, resolve or firmness, ideal friend, unified awareness, divine justice...

Lakshmana

Ideal brother, intelligence (buddhi), Adishesha, Ideal companion, advisor, protector, virtue, dutifulness, duality, kinship, wakefulness, selfless service, devotion, devotee, selfless surrender, loyalty, fealty, shadow, dedication, commitment, humility, obedience, unconditional love, support…

Sīta

The earth, Lakshmi, the body, the embodied Self or the individual Self, ideal wife, ideal woman, goddess, mother, suffering, patience, endurance, strength, perfection, virtue, Dharma, Nature (Prakriti), beauty, femininity, chastity, purity, civility, loyalty, unconditional love, devotee...

Hanuman

God’s carrier, devoted mind, devotion, devotee, servant, the wind, Shiva, warrior, loyalty, service, surrender, unconditional love, strength, valor, humility, agility, courage, resolve, purity, sincerity, minister, protector, auspiciousness, supernatural power, sanctifying power, purifying breath, remover of evil, oneness with God, absorption in God, immortal power, associate god…

Rāvana

Evil, demon, ego with ten senses, ego with ten chief evils, ego with multiple identities, ego with ten delusions, ego with ten evil desires, lust, pride, delusion, tamas, rajas, immorality, cruelty, vanity, demonic qualities, selfishness, deluded devotion, uncontrollable ambition, lack of judgment or discernment, materiality, grossness in the body, deluded scholar, perversion, obstacle, adversity…

Other characters

Apart from the above main character, many other characters also form part of the Rāmāyana narrative. The symbolic significance of important ones is stated below.

Dasaratha: Deluded human being, dutiful householder and loving father and husband, who is subject to karma, desires, duality, delusion, death and rebirth.

Kaikeyi: Fruit of karma, Time, providence, adversity and selfish love.

Ahalya: Deluded mind or intelligence enveloped by the impurities of the material world.

Jatayuvu: Conscience, voice of the reason, divine messenger, guardian of law.

Vibhishana: Light in darkness, devotee, courage.

Kumbhakarna: Tamas, deluded soul, brute power, ignorance, mental torpor.

This, in short, is the symbolism of the Rāmāyana.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

This text, Valmiki Ramayana is an excellent source for authentic Sanskrit text, translation and commentary