Can the Historicity of Ramayana be established?

A detailed analysis to legitimise the Ramayana as a historical event rather than just an epic.


Sri Rama, the hero of Ramayana was an ideal son, ideal husband and ideal friend. He was known for his valour, sense of fair play and justice. His rule was so perfect that the term Ramarajya is synonymous for ideal governance. If we are to agree with the statement of Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle that history is the biography of great men, then bereft of Rama and Ramayana, ancient Indian history would be incomplete. But as of now history books in India refer to Ramayana as an epic and do not ascribe historicity to it. While a foreign scholar like Pargiter says that there is historical truth in the story of Rama’s exile and invasion of Ceylon,1 an Indian scholar like D.C.Sircar says that Valmiki’s story is an imaginary treatment of a legend supposed to represent an earlier age.2 In these circumstances is it possible to establish the historicity of Rama and Ramayana?

First we shall make a list of probable issues which causes skeptics to question the historicity of Ramayana including that raised by D.C.Sircar in his work Problems in Ramayana. They are:

  1. Fanciful date assigned to Rama and Ramayana
  2. Antecedents of Valmiki
  3. Was Rama an incarnation of Vishnu?
  4. Is not Rama abandoning pregnant Seeta a blemish on his character?
  5. If Vanaras were monkeys how could have Rama communicated with them?
  6. The absurdity of Ravana flying the Aerial Car (Pushpaka Vimana)
  7. Did Ravana have ten heads and did Hanuman fly with a mountain peak?
  8. Was it possible for Rama to undertake such a hazardous expedition?

The colonial and Marxist historians by propagating the Aryan Invasion Theory had messed up ancient Indian chronology to such an extent that it was difficult to place the chronology of historical figures like Rama and Krishna. But thanks to the painstaking efforts of objective historians, today we know the ulterior motives of the above school of historians in dishing out such theories and also aware of the fact that the so-called Harappan civilization is nothing but the urban representation of the Vedic civilization and it corresponds to the period when the Upanishads were composed. Just like progress in the field of astronomy was possible only after the geocentric theory of the universe was discarded, similarly chronology for persons and events associated with ancient Indian history can be fixed if the Aryan Invasion Theory is discarded.3 Hence for establishing the historicity of Rama and Ramayana we have to:

  1. Abandon the Aryan Invasion Theory.
  2. Critically examine the text of Ramayana and
  3. Interpret fanciful incidents in Ramayana based on reasoning.

Mahabharatha War, Sheet Anchor for fixing ancient Indian Chronology

Date of Rama

According to traditional accounts, Rama is assigned to the 2nd of the four yugas, viz, Sathya or Krita yuga (which lasted for 17,28,000 years), Treta yuga (which lasted for 12,96,000 years), Dvapara yuga (which lasted for 8,64,000 years) and Kali yuga (which will last for 4,32,000 years). As Kali yuga of the present cycle started in 3102 BCE, this places Rama time in the Treta yuga nearly 8,69,000 years, many millennia before the development of human civilization on the earth. Also, Rama is said to have ruled for 16,000 years. Hence D.C.Sircar questions the absurd antiquity to which Rama is assigned by the Indian tradition. Yes, Sircar is right in arriving at this conclusion; but he himself says that the Yuga division was fabricated by the astronomers about the age of the Imperial Guptas.4 Moreover as Pargiter has mentioned, the theory of the four ages did not apply to the whole world and it was declared repeatedly that these ages prevailed in India.5 Hence we need not take the date assigned to Rama by Indian traditions seriously. But how to arrive at the date of Rama?

The date of Rama can be fixed if we accept one of the few proposed dates of the occurrence of Mahabharata war (either 3067 BCE or 2449 BCE.) In the list of Ikshavaku kings given in the Vayu Purana, Rama’s number is 65. He lived 29 generations before Bhrihadbala who participated in the Mahabharata war. If we take 2449 BCE as the date of Mahabharata war and allot 40 years for each king, then the date of Rama can be fixed at 3609 BCE.6 This date corresponds very nearly to the late Veda-Brahmana period. (Navaratna Rajaram (From Saraswati River to the Indus Script- Changing Perceptions, p.73)

Date of Ramayana

Scholars like R.G.Bhandarkar and D.R.Bhandarkar presume that the Ramayana was composed not earlier than 4th century BCE while V. Gopala Iyengar in his work- A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature (p.14) writes that the original portion of the Ramayana was composed clearly before 500 BCE., whereas additions (which now scholars have identified as Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda) must have been made some time about 200 BCE. This does not mean that Valmiki composed Ramayana in 5th or 4th century BCE. Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama and the latter had visited the former’s ashram during his life in exile in the forest.8 Hence Ramayana was composed during the time when Rama lived and the original Valmiki’s Ramayana consisted of book II-VI. The Ramayana composed by Valmiki was passed on from one generation to another orally just like other ancient Indian works like the Vedas and Upanishads. The Mahabharatareproduces the story of Rama while the Ramayana makes no mention at all of the former. This makes sure that the Ramayana must have been famous before Mahabharata took a definite shape. As the poem grew very popular, interpolations were made purely for professional needs. Hence the dating for the composition of Ramayana by modern scholars should be understood in the sense that over the centuries some portions of the story had gone into oblivion and the scholars of that period (5th or 4th century BCE) were able to retrieve those portions to codify the Ramayana.

Critical examination of Ramayana

Antecedents of Valmiki

Prof. Jacobi after a careful study of the Ramayana has concluded that the original text consisted of only five Kandas, namely: Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkinda, Sundara and Yuddha. The argument of Jacobi is based on the following grounds:

  • The logical conclusion of the plot is found in the coronation of Rama found in the Yuddha kanda. The story is complete with Ramapattabhisheka and even now the usual recital of Ramayana stops with it.
  • Indian poets usually conclude their works with a happy incident. Rama’s coronation described at the end of the Yuddha kanda provides a happy and natural ending to the work. The seventh book, Uttara kanda ends with the disappearance of all the main characters which is generally regarded as unhappy and inauspicious.
  • There are statements in the Bala Kanda which contradicts those in the others- for example Rama tells Shurpanaka in the Aranya Kanda that Lakshmana is not married while in Bala Kanda describes Lakshmana as married.
  • In the Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda, Rama is spoken as an incarnation of Vishnu, while in the other five Kandas he has been treated only as a human being.
  • In the 1st and 7th books (Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda), there are many stories which have no direct bearing on the main plot of Ramayana while in books II to VI, a single connected story is narrated in the kavya style. The stories of Rishyasringa, Vishwamitra, Gangavatarana, etc. narrated in Bala Kanda have no connection with the story of Rama and the Uttara Kanda which contains biographical notes on the characters of the original story and can only be treated as a supplement, added at a later stage.9

With regards to the antecedents of Valmiki, we have scanty information and have to depend mainly on hearsay for the life history of this sage.10 It is in the interpolated work, book I (Bala Kanda) that we have the story of Valmiki. Even this account is taken from another work Adhyatma Ramayana which is an extract from the Brahmanda Purana. In this, Valmiki describes his past of how by birth he was a Brahmin and unable to control his passion, had many children from a Sudra woman and resorted to robbery to feed them. Once confronting a muni (sage) the latter asked Valmiki whether his wife and children consent to Valmiki’s participation in the numerous sins and when Valmiki got a reply, ‘no’ from them, he turned a new leaf, meditated upon the name of Rama and later composed Ramayana.11 As Valmiki himself appears as a character, he could not have composed them.12 Then who was Valmiki? What is his background? For this, we can postulate that he was a poet whose earlier occupation must have been that of a hunter. This should not be a surprise as during that age an individual’s worth was not based on his occupation. To give an example, we have the story of Dharma Vyadha in the Mahabharata whose profession was that of a butcher and who taught the essence of Vedanta to a Brahmin. In ancient India, people followed the ashrama dharma and during the grihasthashram stage, Valmiki followed the profession of a hunter and during the vanaprastha and sanyasa stage, left for the forest, built an ashrama (Rama during his exile had visited this ashrama) and later composed Ramayana as he knew about Rama and his exploits.

Was Rama an incarnation of Vishnu?

In the Ramayana, Rama is depicted as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu for which R.C.Dutt argues that Vishnu had not risen to prominence at the time of the Ramayana and it was Indira who was the chief god in the epic age.13 But it should be remembered that Valmiki’s Ramayana depicts Rama as a human being and not as an avatarapurusha. It is only in the Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda, both of which have been identified as interpolations to the original Ramayana, that Rama is spoken as an incarnation of Vishnu. Hence in the original, Valmiki’s Ramayana consisting of book II- VI, Rama is treated as a hero and not as an incarnation.

Is not Rama abandoning pregnant Seeta a blemish on his character?

The story of Rama abandoning pregnant Seeta is not found in the Ramayana written by Valmiki. This story is mentioned in the Uttara Kanda added to the original centuries later.

Interpreting fanciful incidents based on Reasoning

If Vanaras were monkeys how could have Rama communicated with them?

The name Vanaras does not have to mean monkeys just like Nagas does not mean snakes. According to Pargiter, many powerful races such as the Danavas, Daityas, Rakshasas, Nagas were reduced to subjugation and later the names of these races become scornful until they ceased to possess any ethnological force and turned into purely evil appellations. For instance, the word asura become synonymous with the meaning demon and pishacha the original name of a tribe was turned to mean an impish goblin.14 The Vanaras along with the Rakshasas, Kinnaras and Yakshas are said to be the progenitors of rishi Pulastya, one among the eight mythical rishis from whom the Brahmin families claim descent.15 The word Vanar originally meant ‘the dweller of the Vana (forest)’ (Nobin Chandra Das- A Note on the Antiquity of the Ramayana, 1899). Therefore the rakshasas were human beings and so also were the Nagas and the Vanaras. It may be noted that the hero of Mahabharata, Arjuna, had married a Naga princess, Ulupi and his brother Bhima had married a rakshasa woman Hidambi. As regards to the language, the Ramayana itself (Sundara Kanda) speaks of two varieties of Sanskrit which were in vogue during that time; one Manushi Samskrita, the popular dialect and the other, Samskrita dvijatiriva, the language spoken by the cultured Brahmins, the shishtas. Hanuman the hero of the Vanaras was a cultured linguist and could speak in both varieties.16

The absurdity of the Aerial Car, Pushpaka Vimana

D.C.Sircar questions the epic narrators’ idea of Ravana carrying away Seeta in an aerial car (Pushpaka Vimana) and the return of Rama from Lanka to Ayodhya by the same car. If flying cars were in use in ancient India, foreigners like Alexander’s historians and the Chinese and Arab travellers like Hiuen Tsang and Al biruni would have certainly mentioned them especially as they were unknown in their own countries.17 Sircar’s reasoning is quite appropriate. But why did Valmiki speak about the Pushpaka Vimana? We must remember that Valmiki was a poet and to indulge in imagination is every poet’s right. Valmiki may have used the word Pushpaka Vimana as a metaphor to describe the swift moving chariot used by Ravana to flee to Lanka after abducting Seeta. It was through this royal chariot that Rama returned back to Ayodhya from Lanka.

Communicated through Ramasetu

Then the question arises as to how Seeta was abducted or rakshasas like Ravana and Surpanaka traversed between Lanka and Janasthana (south India). For this we have to hypothesize that through the bridge (Ramasetu) which existed between India and Lanka, the asuras including Shurpanaka came to India. In the Aranya Kanda, it is said that Ravana possessed a narrow strip of land along the coast of south India, while the rest of south India, then known as Kishkinda, was in the possession of Vali.18 By this we can presume that a bridge already existed for the rakshasas to communicate between India and Lanka. Ravana abducted Seeta and reached Lanka through this bridge. Hanuman came to Lanka through this bridge and after meeting Seeta, returning back destroyed some parts of the city. This event may have disturbed Ravana who thought that Rama may come to Lanka and had the bridge destroyed. (This is similar to what defeated armies do- destroying bridges, livestock and food when retreating so that the enemy’s progress is hindered). Rama with the help of Nala and the Vanaras rebuilt the bridge and as he was the victor in the war, the bridge was named after him as Ramsethu.

Ravana with ten heads and Hanuman flying with a mountain peak

No sane person is willing to believe that a person can possess ten heads (Ravana) or a person however strong, can fly carrying a mountain (Hanuman). As mentioned earlier, Valmiki was a poet and used similes to describe certain awesome events. Even inscriptions which historians rely upon to construct the history of kings and dynasties, contains similes. For instance Harihara II, the Vijayanagara ruler is called in one of his records as ‘a lion to the scent elephant of the Andhra king.’ We cannot take the literary meaning of this record and believe that Harihara had turned into a lion. Historians glorify Tipu Sultan as ‘Tiger of Mysore’, but we know that Tipu was a human.

Was it possible for Rama to undertake such a hazardous expedition?

In the battle of ten kings, Sudasa who was anterior to Rama by eighteen generations, defeated the Anu’s and conquered their territory. This led the Anu’s to migrate to Afghanistan and beyond as far as West Asia. If the Anu’s could have migrated towards Afghanistan several centuries prior to Rama, the latter travelling towards south India and finally to Lanka would not have been that difficult. Moreover the area which Rama traversed was dotted with the ashramas of sages who obliged him with food and lodging. Also, he was guided by the Vanaras whose king Sugriva was indebted to Rama for helping him get the throne from his brother Vali. Even during the time of the Mauryas and Guptas, communication as we now understand it, had not developed. But that did not prevent Chandragupta Maurya to come to Sravanabelagola in Karnataka or Samudra Gupta to launch an expedition against several kingdoms of south India.

Today, there is an urgent need for Indian historians to critically examine the Ramayana text and identify the interpolations containing fanciful and loathsome accounts (for example, Rama killing Shambuka, a Sudra for performing penance,19 abandoning pregnant Seeta 20 and Valmiki depicted as a brigand 21). It is by citing these interpolated accounts, the Macaulay, Marxist and Mullah combination are causing fissure in the Hindu society and creating bad blood amongst its communities. Though the orthodox amongst the Hindus may object to some of the hypothesis we may arrive at. Years of foreign domination has made the Hindus develop an inferiority complex and hence clinging to myths may offer solace to their hurt pride. But as historian R.G.Collingwood has said,

“A historian must examine the past with a careful eye, even if it means exploding cherished myths.“22


References / Footnotes

1. C.Sircar, Problems of the Ramayana, Government of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad,1979, p.19

2. Ibid, p.4

3. Srinivas- Need to Set Right Historical Fallacies, QJMS, VOL. 105, No. 1, pp:1-12.

4. C.Sircar, Op.cit, pp:2,4,5

5. E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1922, p.175 (Pargiter has hypothesized an acceptable Yuga theory according to which the Sathya or Krita yuga ended with the destruction of the Haihayas by Rama Jamadagni (Parashurama). The Treta yuga began approximately with Sagara and ended with Rama Dasharata’s destruction of the Rakshasas (Ravana). The Dvapara yuga began with the coronation of Rama at Ayodhya and ended with the Mahabharatha war, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition. p.177)

6. 40 years X 29 generations = 1160 + 2449, the date of Mahabharatha War = 3609, being the date of Rama. According to D.R.Mankad the Puranas computed the number of kings of a dynasty on the basis of units of 40 years or caturyugas Puranic Chronology, pp:38,39

7. C.Sircar, Op.cit, p.3

8. Vettam Mani, Puranic Encyclopaedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, p.641

9. K.Ramachandra Iyer, A Short History of Sanskrit Literature, R.S.Vadhyar & Sons, Palghat, 2002, pp:49,50

10. Vettam Mani, cit, p.822

11. Krishnamachariar, History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, TTD Press, Madras, 1937, pp:3-5

12. Gopala Iyengar, A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, Thanjavur, 1965, p.10

13. Krishnamachariar, Op.cit, p.13

14. E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.290

15. Ibid, p.185

16. V.Kamesvara Aiyar- Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Western Critics, QJMS, Vol XVI, April 1926, No.4, p.248

17. C.Sircar, Op.cit, pp: 20,21

18. Krishnamachariar, Op.cit, p.9

19. Vettam Mani, cit, p.639

20. Ibid,

21. Ibid, p.822

22. Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games- The Uses and abuses of History, The Modern Library, New York, p.43

About Author: Srinivas S

S. Srinivas is a historian and researcher who has worked for over a decade as a lecturer; assistant editor for Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society as well as a journalist. He was awarded a Ph.D. by Bangalore University for his thesis on the History of Civic Administration in Bangalore(1862-1950). Currently, he is fully engaged in writing on topics pertaining to ancient India.

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