The Ramayana

The Ramayana 1. Rama's Initiation Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dasaratha spends his days in his assembly hall meeting with dignitaries and citizens alike. One afternoon, his messengers announce the arrival of Sage Viswamithra. Viswamithra used to be a king until he chose to become a sage. As a sage, Viswamithra is in complete control of his body and mind. Dasaratha greets him politely, and Viswamithra explains that he's planning a sacrifice at a holy place near the Ganges river. However, this location is filled with powerful evil creatures.
Again, the supernatural world and the real world are one and the same in the logic of this story. Here though, the reader is introduced to the fact that it's not just positive and good deities that exist in the human world; evil demons also exist to make life (and performing one's duty through sacrifices) difficult for humans.
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Dasaratha offers to protect Viswamithra during the sacrifice, but Viswamithra suggests Dasaratha send Rama in his place. This shocks the king. Viswamithra is offended, and states that he wants Rama to protect him. The king miserably says that Rama is too young, and offers again to send an army to protect Viswamithra.
Dasaratha struggles to figure out where his duty and loyalty actually lies. He can’t decide whether he's duty-bound to offer Viswamithra the exact help he asks for, or if he's instead responsible for protecting his young son from possible danger.
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Viswamithra ignores Dasaratha and begins to walk out of the assembly hall. Dasaratha's priest encourages Dasaratha to convince Viswamithra to return, and hurries forward himself to stop Viswamithra's exit. The priest reminds Viswamithra that he himself was once a king, and implores him to use his experience as an "ordinary man" to be more empathetic of Dasaratha's feelings. Viswamithra agrees to return and discuss the matter further.
The narrator begins to draw up major differences between sages (individuals who have dedicated their lives to spiritual pursuits) and "ordinary men." Viswamithra straddles both worlds, which allows him to connect with both gods and humans. Because of the strength of his spirituality, he seems far less interested in fighting "human" fights, like his attempt to make Dasaratha send Rama.
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The priest tells Dasaratha that there's surely a divine reason that Viswamithra asked for Rama. Dasaratha, still worried, seems to concede his position, and Viswamithra kindly reminds the king that people you love won't always be in close proximity, and he promises to keep Rama safe. Dasaratha asks if Rama's brother Lakshmana can go as well, and orders his minister to fetch the boys.
The priest essentially suggests that Rama is destined to follow Viswamithra, and that Dasaratha shouldn't get in the way of his destiny. Viswamithra's kind words foreshadow Rama's later departure from Ayodhya, while Dasaratha's insistence that Lakshmana go too also foreshadows later events.
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Rama and Lakshmana follow Viswamithra until they reach a spot where Shiva once meditated. Viswamithra explains that ever since then, saints who pray to Shiva have come here to perform sacrifices. Viswamithra and the boys stay overnight, and the next afternoon they come upon the driest, most desolate desert Rama has ever seen. Rama and Lakshmana notice animal bones and feel worried, so Viswamithra mentally transmits them two mantras on which to meditate. Through meditation, the boys feel as though they're walking through a cool stream. Rama asks why the desert is so awful, and Viswamithra tells the boys the story of Thataka.
Places become sacred when gods perform spiritual activities there; these locations allow humans to connect more fully with deities and demonstrate their loyalty to the gods. Rama and Lakshmana's worry is indicative of their youth and inexperience, which leaves room for them to grow up and develop over the next several chapters. Again, by meditating and becoming mentally and emotionally closer to the gods, the humans can escape the negative aspects of the mortal earth.
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Thataka was a demigod's daughter who married a chieftain and had two sons, Subahu and Mareecha. Her sons and husband delighted in destroying the landscape and its animals. Finally, this caught the attention of a minor saint, and the saint cursed Thataka's husband and killed him. Thataka and her sons went to seek revenge, but the saint cursed them as well to become asuras (demons). Thataka's sons left, while Thataka remained in this deserted place to breathe fire, harass hermits, and eat anything that crosses the desert. Viswamithra explains that this demon's presence destroys the landscape in the same way that meanness destroys a person's personality.
Thataka's story acts as a morality tale that encourages Rama and Lakshmana to never act cruelly—if they do, they're liable to end up in an arid, uninhabitable desert. Rama and Lakshmana complete much of their growing up process as they listen to and internalize the stories that Viswamithra tells them. This adds another layer to the idea of storytelling as a teaching tool, as the reader or listener is encouraged to internalize the story in a similar fashion.
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Rama asks where he can find Thataka, and she suddenly arrives. She spits fire and roars that she will eat the party. Rama hesitates, thinking that she's still a woman and therefore shouldn't be killed. Viswamithra tells Rama that "a woman of demoniac tendencies loses all consideration to be treated as a woman," and says it's Rama’s duty to kill Thataka. Rama agrees, and counters Thataka's attacks with his own bow and arrows. Rama successfully kills the demon, and the gods assemble in the sky and tell Viswamithra to give Rama all his knowledge. Viswamithra obliges the gods and teaches Rama about weaponry, and the asthras (supernatural beings that control specific weapons) pledge themselves to Rama.
Rama shows that he has a very developed sense of right and wrong already—though he understands initially that Thataka is evil and should be killed, he also knows that it's a very bad thing to kill a woman. Viswamithra then makes the rather disturbing suggestion that when women don't behave appropriately, they become less female and therefore lose the protections afforded to women in this society. Rama's success here is an indicator of his divine roots and his goodness, as evidenced by the gods' reaction to his victory.
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Later, Viswamithra tells Rama and Lakshmana the story of Mahabali. He explains that the ground where they're walking was once where Vishnu meditated. While Vishnu was thus engaged, Mahabali seized earth and heaven and crowned himself the ruler of both. To celebrate, he performed a sacrifice to honor all learned men. The gods went to Vishnu to ask for help, and Vishnu decided to take the form of a Brahmin dwarf. When Vishnu in his disguise appeared before Mahabali, Mahabali realized the little man had power and greeted him politely. Vishnu flattered Mahabali, and Mahabali offered the disguised Vishnu to ask for anything. Vishnu asked for as much land as he could cover in three steps.
Mahabali's story begins to develop Vishnu's role as a protecting god and a righter of wrongs, but it also suggests that gods like Vishnu are certainly not invincible if someone can so easily take earth and heaven from him. This adds a distinctly human quality to the gods' characters and makes it easier for a reader to connect to them. Note too that even though Mahabali did a horrible thing by stealing earth and heaven, he's still relatively generous and wants to keep his promises (as evidenced by promising Vishnu land).
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Mahabali agreed, but one of his advisors tried to steer him away from granting Vishnu's wish. Mahabali told the advisor that it would be improper to not grant this request, poured water on Vishnu's small hand, and asked him to take his three steps. Vishnu then grew to a massive size and took one step that covered the earth and another that covered the heavens, leaving no space for a third step. Mahabali offered his own head for the third step, and Vishnu stomped him down to the netherworld.
Again, Mahabali may be the “villain” of the story, but he's still bound by duty and loyalty to his promises. Further, once Vishnu has demonstrated his own power and goodness to Mahabali, Mahabali is entirely powerless to go back on his promise and must allow Vishnu to stomp him down from the earth.
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Viswamithra reaches the spot for his sacrifice and instructs Rama and Lakshmana to protect him and the other saints who mean to join Viswamithra in this sacrifice. The asuras assemble with deadly weapons and try to intimidate the humans below. Rama assures the saints of their safety, and he and Lakshmana begin shooting arrows at the asuras. Rama shoots Thataka's sons, killing Subahu and wounding Mareecha. The other demons leave in a panic, and Viswamithra thanks Rama for his help. Viswamithra explains that next they'll travel to Mithila City for a sacrifice performed by King Janaka, and he phrases it as a pleasant diversion for Rama.
Rama and Lakshmana, though they're just boys or teenagers, are already extremely skilled in battling demons. This again delineates Rama in particular as being divine and predestined to become the perfect hero. Here, Rama's arrows act as a tangible symbol of his proficiency and his goodness. Rama also has the interpersonal skills to assure the saints of their safety, which alludes to the fact that he'll one day be a good ruler.
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By evening, Viswamithra, Rama, and Lakshmana reach the Ganges River. Viswamithra tells the story of Ganga, the goddess of the river. Long ago, a man planned to perform the "Horse Sacrifice," a very important sacrifice in which a horse is set free to run through kingdoms that then become vassal kingdoms of the horse's owner. Because the horse's owner can challenge the god Indra after completing this sacrifice, the gods become nervous when they hear that this sacrifice will happen.
Though the gods are certainly more powerful than humans, there are things humans can do that allow them to truly meet the gods as equals. Further, the fact that this sacrifice makes the gods nervous suggests that it's not just good humans who can challenge Indra after this sacrifice; this sacrifice has the potential to truly upset the power balance between mortals and deities.
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This man's horse set out but was quickly abducted by Indra and taken to the underworld, where Indra hid the horse behind a sage. The man's sons began digging, discovered the horse behind the meditating (and innocent) sage, and tormented the sage. The sage turned the sons to ashes, and only one grandson survived. They did free the horse, however, and the horse sacrifice was completed.
As we'll soon see, Indra doesn't play by the rules; he'd rather try to take matters into his own hands. The sage's actions show that being particularly pious gives people exceptional powers, while tormenting those who are pious can have disastrous results.
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When the grandson of one of the men turned to ash learned that his grandfathers' souls were stuck in limbo, he prayed to Brahma for a way to help the souls reach salvation. He prayed to Shiva and then Ganga for thousands of years. It soon became a war between Shiva and Ganga. Finally, Ganga descended to earth in a "roaring deluge." Shiva stood strong and absorbed Ganga's water into his hair. Shiva then allowed a trickle of water out of his hair, which the son used to wash his ancestors' bones.
The story presents an extremely duty-bound individual, which sets a good example for Rama and for listeners alike. It shows too the importance of familial relationships and insuring that one's family members maintain a good relationship with the gods. Though Rama is, of course, already very dutiful to his father, this will impress upon him the importance of familial loyalty.
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When Viswamithra, Rama, and Lakshmana catch sight of Mithila City, Rama brushes a slab of stone that turns into a beautiful woman. She bows and stands aside. Viswamithra introduces her as Ahalya, and tells her story to Rama. Brahma created her to be absolutely perfect. Indra wanted Ahalya, but Brahma found a sage to raise her instead. When it was time for the sage to return Ahalya to Brahma, Brahma appreciated the man's purity of mind and told the sage to marry her. They married, but Indra remained obsessed with Ahalya. One day, Indra drew the sage away from the house, assumed the sage's form, and tricked Ahalya into having sex with him. Her husband returned and caught the two in bed. Ahalya stood ashamed, while Indra turned himself into a cat and tried to escape.
Again, Indra doesn't follow codes of conduct and is driven by his own selfish desires which continues to develop the idea that gods are powerful, but are at times driven by very human desires. This story introduces the idea of a god-created, perfect and good woman. However, Ahalya's actions (or gullibility) show that women aren't infallible, even when they're literally created to be perfect. The story suggests that female purity is exceptionally important to a marriage. This includes both physical purity as well as mental and emotional purity.
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The sage cursed Indra the cat to be covered with a thousand "female marks," and Indra slunk away back to his world. The sage then accused Ahalya of sinning and cursed her to be a piece of granite that could only be returned to human form by Rama. Indra became a joke and refused to show himself, and was therefore unable to perform his duties as a god. Later, Brahma asked the sage to somehow remedy the situation. The sage then turned Indra's thousand “marks” into eyes.
Ahalya's punishment continues to suggest that it's an unforgivable mistake for a woman to even accidentally accept another man's advances—essentially blaming the woman for the man’s suspicions or even crimes. The method of redemption, however, again suggests Rama's divinity and his fate to restore peace and goodness on earth.
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Viswamithra addresses Rama, saying that he was born to restore righteousness and eliminate evil. Rama tells Ahalya to return to her husband. She joins Viswamithra's party and when they pass her husband's hermitage, Viswamithra tells the sage that Ahalya's heart is purified. Viswamithra, Lakshmana, and Rama then continue to Mithila City.
After spending an indeterminate number of years thinking about her "misdeeds," Ahalya is once again able to serve her husband properly. This is meant to show that through meditation, people are capable of making themselves better and aligning themselves with good.
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