The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Ramopakhyana Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Story of Rama
After Jayadratha had been driven away, Yudhishthir sits down with Markandeya and once again wonders about his misfortunes. ‘Draupadi is often called the incarnation of virtue, O Sage,’ he says, ‘and she is pure, born of fire.
‘But she is forever tainted by sinful men such as Jayadratha. We did return on time, and we did rescue her, but why is it that a woman of her qualities has to endure such suffering?’
Markandeya replies, ‘Do not fear that your worries have singled you out, O King. Hear of the story of Rama, whose wife Sita was born of Mother Earth herself.
‘She was abducted by a Rakshasa named Ravana, and Rama had to fight a war with the help of an army of Vanaras in order to rescue her.’
Yudhishthir asks the sage to tell him more about the Ramayana, and Markandeya proceeds to narrate the whole story.
The Birth of Ravana
We will not cover the entire conversation here (because the Ramayana is a separate epic after all), but I will include a few nuggets that in my view are not as well known as the main tale.
Here’s a little something about the birth of Ravana.
Ravana is the grandson of Prajapati, or the Grandsire of that time. Pulastya, the son of Prajapati, has a son called Vaishravana. (We know him as Kubera, the god of wealth.)
Vaishravana happens to be the favourite grandson of Prajapati, and becomes an immortal with the help of a boon. He also gains as his capital a city called Lanka, and a flying chariot by name Pushpaka. Here he resides, guarded by Rakshasas and Yakshas.
Now there is a sage called Visrava, who is Pulastya’s half-brother. He is forever angry at Kubera for having acquired for himself the status of a god without working for it. Kubera, though, always wishes to please his uncle.
Once, during Visrava’s visit to Lanka, Kubera sends three Rakshasa women to wait on the sage. Their names are Pushpotkata, Raka and Malini.
Out of their union come five children in all. To Pushpotkata are born Kumbhakarna and Ravana. Malini brings forth a son called Vibheeshana, and Raka has twin children named Khara and Surpanakha.
These five inherit their father’s dislike for Kubera, because they grow up with a desire of overthrowing their cousin and winning the city of Lanka for themselves. We will see just how they do it in the following chapter.
The Rise of Ravana
The Ravana siblings (let’s call them that) grow up on Gandhamadana, in the hermitage of Visrava. On occasion they would see Kubera arrive on the mountain in his Pushpaka, surrounded by servants and courtiers and wealth.
Smitten by jealousy and intending to snatch whatever their cousin had, they begin to perform penances at a young age.
Ravana, it is said, renounced all food and water and stood on a single leg for a thousand years in worship of Brahma. Kumbakarna chose to pray in an upside down position, his eyes closed the whole time.
Vibheeshana subsisted on only dry leaves while immersing himself in meditation. Khara and Surpanakha did not perform any austerities of their own but attended on their three brothers.
At the end of the thousand years, Ravana proceeds to cut his ten heads off one after the other and offers them to the sacrificial fire. This pleases Brahma enough to descend upon them and grant them wishes.
‘With the single exception of immortality, my sons,’ he tells them, ‘ask me for anything and I shall give it to you.’
Ravana is the first to ask for his boon. ‘Grant me, O Lord, that I may not be vanquished by gods, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, Asuras, Rakshasas, Yakshas, Nagas and Gandharvas.’
And Brahma answers, ‘You will not, my son. The only race that I cannot protect you from is the race of men.’
‘Ah,’ says Ravana, ‘I can protect myself from men well enough on my own.’
Kumbhakarna asks for a boon in which he can be afforded long-lasting sleep, and Brahma decrees that the boy will spend six months of a year sleeping, and the remaining six months feeding, much like a bear.
When it comes to Vibheeshana’s turn, he asks Brahma that he should be granted the strength not to swerve from the path of virtue no matter how strong the temptation.
Armed with these boons, Ravana assembles an army and overthrows Kubera from Lanka, confiscating his Pushpaka as well for good measure. Kubera curses Ravana with the following words:
‘This chariot will never carry you, O Vile One. It will ultimately belong to the man who will slay you.’
And while Ravana takes over lordship of Lanka, Kubera flees with his band of Yakshas to Gandhamadana, where he is still living when the Pandavas come to visit.
The Descent of Vishnu
It does not take long for Ravana to become a thorn in the flesh of the gods and sages of the world. They assemble before Brahma and ask him to check the power of the ten-headed king.
‘The son of Visrava grows in strength every passing day, O Grandsire,’ they say. ‘It is time, is it not, that you do something to stop him?’
‘He has procured a boon that protects him from all of us,’ Brahma replies. ‘The only way to defeat him is to make sure that Vishnu takes up an avatar in the form of a man.’
As it turns out, Brahma has already secured Vishnu’s agreement to descend to Earth in human form. Now he asks the rest of the celestials to beget offspring in the world of men in the form of monkeys and bears.
‘You will become allies of Vishnu in his battle against the Rakshasas of Lanka,’ he tells them. ‘Go now and offer parts of your essences to animals on Earth so that your sons will be born in time.’
Gandharvas as Vanaras
While the Gandharvas and the Danavas are off to do the Grandsire’s bidding, a Gandharvi by name Dundubhi is summoned for a special assignment. ‘Go and take the form of the hunchback, Manthara,’ says Brahma, ‘and enter the services of King Dasaratha in Ayodhya.’
The Danavas and the Gandharvas therefore become the monkey army that Rama would take to Lanka in order to rescue Sita.
And Dundubhi, with her canny knack for sowing discord in peaceful homes, instigates Kaikeyi to ask for a boon from Dasaratha to send Rama into exile.
Meanwhile, as these preparations are going on, Dasaratha and his three wives bring forth four sons after a long period of childlessness. Rama is born to Kausalya. Lakshmana and Shatrugna are born to Sumitra, and Kaikeyi gives birth to Bharata.
It is often said that Lakshmana is the incarnation of Adisesha, the divine serpent on which Vishnu sleeps. Bharata and Shatrugna are human manifestations of the conch and the discus which Vishnu always holds in his hands.
The Ramayana – Part One
What follows from Markandeya are a few pages of the Ramayana. In this section, I will quickly summarize the main events that the sage covers.
- Dasaratha decides that his eldest son, Rama, should be made king after him, and orders for preparations to be made for his coronation.
- But urged by Manthara, Kaikeyi, Dasaratha’s favourite queen, asks for two boons from the king: one, to make Bharata, her son, the king instead of Rama, and two, to send Rama away on exile for fourteen years.
- Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana go into the forest and live like ascetics while Bharata rules on behalf of his brother.
- Ravana spots Sita during this time and is possessed by a desire to have her for himself. Disguised as a Brahmin, he carries her away in the Pushpaka to Lanka, after sending Maricha, a henchman, disguised as a golden deer to distract Rama and Lakshmana away from the hermitage.
- Sita is imprisoned in the Ashokavana of Lanka, tended to by a group of Rakshasa women. To Ravana’s credit, he vows not to touch Sita against her wish.
- (Some say this is because he knows that he will be reduced to ashes if he tried. Others prefer to use this as an example of Ravana’s innate good nature.)
The Ramayana – Part Two
The Ramayana continues…
- Rama kills Vali and empowers Sugriva to become the king of the Vanaras. This good turn makes the monkey army beholden to Rama. As a token of goodwill, Sugriva sends Hanuman, one of his foremost warriors, in search of Sita.
- Hanuman meets Sita in the Ashokavana and introduces himself as Rama’s messenger. He offers to take her away but she remains steadfast, insisting that such an act would reflect poorly on her husband’s valour.
- Hanuman contents himself by burning Lanka to the ground after his tail is set on fire upon Ravana’s orders.
- After Hanuman’s return, it is clear to Rama that he has to fight Ravana in order to rescue Sita. Sugriva offers him use of his army. They build a bridge with stones and cross the ocean to get to Lanka.
- In the battle that follows, Rama defeats the Lankan army, kills Ravana, and brings Sita back to Ayodhya. Before this, though, he asks a question of how he – a virtuous king – can take back a woman who has lived in the abode of another man for so long.
- But all the celestials and the spirit of Dasaratha appear before him and advise him that Sita’s ‘character’ is beyond reproach.
- After his return to Ayodhya, Rama returns the Pushpaka to Vaishravana and is crowned the king of Ayodhya, with Sita by his side. He performs ten Ashwamedha sacrifices on the bank of the river Gomati to honour his forefathers.
Markandeya ends the narration of Ramayana thus.
Having concluded the story, Markandeya tells Yudhishthir, ‘O King, you have Dhananjaya, Bhimasena, Nakula and Sahadeva by your side. You have the illustrious Panchali as your wife.
‘Rama only had for companions an army of monkeys and bears, and he had to suffer separation from his wife for much longer than you ever had to, my son.
‘So do not grieve; every man that has come before you has had his share of troubles. Only those who encounter them with cheerfulness deserve to be called illustrious.’
With this ends the Ramopakhyana Parva, and the Pativrata Mahatmya Parva begins.