Aditya Hridaya: Hymns in praise of the sun recited by Agastya Ṛṣi to Rāma just prior to the killing of Rāvaṇa.
Agastya: A powerful ṛṣi who is a son of the god Varuṇa. said to have once swallowed the entire ocean and to have overpowered the terrible demons Ilvala and Vātāpi. Rāma recited many stories about this ṛṣi to Lakṣman and Sītā when They were in the forest.
Agni: The god of fire, thus also the Sanskrit word for fire.
Apsarā: Celestial nymph. “One who, upon embracing a man, drives him insane.” The beauty of the Apsarās is legendary and has made many great ṛṣis fall down from their ascetic practice.
Arghya: A milk-based drink used as a respectful offering made to a guest.
Ashoka: A tree bearing beautiful red flowers. Sītā was held in a grove of ashoka trees by Rāvaṇa.
Astra: A divine weapon, usually prefixed by the name of the particular god or force which presides over it; e.g. brahmāstra, a weapon presided over by Lord Brahmā.
Asura: Class of celestial demons.
Brahmā: The first of all the gods and the creator of the universe. He was directly manifested from Viṣṇu and is thus sometimes called “the unborn.”
Bṛhaspati: The preceptor of the gods.
Chamara: Whisk made from yak-tail hairs and used for highly respectable persons.
Cāraṇa: A class of demigod noted for their poetic abilities.
Daitya: A class of powerful demonic beings.
Dandaka: The forest where Rāma lived during his exile.
Dānava: A class of powerful celestial demons and enemies of the gods.
Gandharva: A class of demigods noted for their martial and musical abilities.
Indra: King of the gods, also known as Purandara and Śakra.
Kinnara: A class of demigod, often having a half-human and half- animal form such as that of a centaur, and generally seen holding a lute.
Kusha: Darbha grass, considered sacred by the Vedas.
Kuvera: The god of wealth, who guards the northern quarter of the universe.
Lokapālas: Gods presiding over the four quarters of the universe.
Maya Dānava: A celestial demon who possesses great skills at architecture and building.
Nāga: A celestial serpent, often appearing in human form.
Nārada: A celestial sage also known as Devarshi, or the ṛṣi among the gods. He is famous as a devotee of Viṣṇu and frequently assists him in his pastimes on earth. The Vedas contain innumerable references to Nārada’s activities and teachings.
Niṣadha: Tribal people living in the forest.
Paraśurāma: A ṛṣi said to be an empowered incarnation of Viṣṇu. He is famous for having annihilated all the warrior kings of the world after his father, Jamadagni, had been killed by a king named Kartavirya.
Raghava: A name for Rāma, meaning the descendant of Raghu, a great king in Rāma’s line.
Rāhu: A powerful demon appearing as a planet. Said to be responsible for eclipses.
Rākṣasa: Celestial demon, antagonistic to humankind.
Rāma: The seventh of the Dasavatāra incarnations of Viṣṇu, who appeared as a king in the solar dynasty (i.e. descending from the sun-god).
Rāvaṇa: A powerful leader of the Rākṣasa race. His birth is described in Rāmayana as follows:
Long ago on the slopes of Mount Meru there lived a sage named Pulastya, who was a mind-born son of Brahmā. He was constantly engaged in the practice of severe asceticism. Many celestial maidens would come to sport in the beautiful region where he dwelt, and they would often disturb his meditations. Finally becoming impatient with them, he said, “If any maiden should again be seen by me, she will immediately become pregnant.”
The maidens then carefully avoided Pulastya’s ashrama. However, there was one girl, a daughter of another sage named Trinabindu, who had not heard about the curse. She ventured into the region where Pulastya sat and as soon as he saw her she found indications of pregnancy in her body. Astonished and fearful, she ran to her father and said, “Father, I cannot understand why I am suddenly appearing as if pregnant. No contact with any male has ever been had by me.”
Trinabindu sat in meditation and by his mystic power he understood what had happened. He then went with his daughter to Pulastya and said to him, “O venerable sage, kindly accept my daughter as your wife. By your power she now carries a child. Please therefore take her hand in marriage. She will surely render you very pleasing service.”
Pulastya agreed and he said to the girl, “O gentle one, you will give birth to a highly qualified son who shall be known as Visrava.”
Like his father, Visrava became an ascetic and engaged himself in much penance and study of scripture. In due course he married a daughter of Bharadvāja and through her begot a son named Vaishravana, who by the grace of his father became the powerful Kuvera, the god of wealth.
At that time a great battle took place between the gods and the Rākṣasas, who were finally put to flight by Viṣṇu. They sought shelter in the nether worlds, although one of them, Sumali, began to live on earth. As he wandered about he saw one day Kuvera flying overhead in the celestial Pushpaka chariot. The Rākṣasa was astonished to see Kuvera’s opulence. Knowing that the god was Visrava’s son, and desiring to do good to the Rākṣasas, he said to his young daughter Kaikasi, “It is high time you were wed, dear girl. Go quickly to Visrava’s ashrama and ask that he accept you. That powerful sage will give you sons equal to the lord of riches; there is no doubt at all.”
In obedience to her father, Kaikasi went to where Visrava was seated in meditation. She stood bashfully before him with folded palms, looking downward and scratching the earth with her toe. Seeing that girl, whose face resembled the full moon and who shone with a celestial beauty, the sage said, “Who are you and why are you here? Tell me the truth, O beautiful one”
The girl replied, “O sage, you should divine my purpose by your own mystic power, for I am too shy to tell you.”
The sage meditated for some minutes and read her mind. He then said, “I have understood your purpose, O gentle one. You desire sons by me. Surely I am attracted to you and will accept your hand, but you have approached me at an inauspicious time. You will therefore have sons who will be cruel-minded, fierce-looking and given to evil deeds. O lady of shapely limbs, you will bring forth Rākṣasas fond of drinking blood.”
Kaikasi was upset. “O lordly sage, I do not desire such offspring. Kindly be merciful to me.”
Feeling compassion, Visrava replied, “It cannot be any other way, dear girl, but I can bless you as follows. Although you will have such sons, your last son will be different. He will be virtuous and fully in accord with my family.”
In due course Kaikasi gave birth to a hideous child with the form of a Rākṣasa. He had ten heads, twenty hands, and was the color of coal. When he was born many inauspicious omens were seen. Vixens emitted flames from their mouths, blood fell from the sky, meteors dropped down and clouds thundered fiercely. The earth rocked with its load of mountains and the sea roared and sent up huge waves. Visrava named the child Dasagriva and he grew up fearful and cruel.
Next Kaikasi gave birth to Kumbhakarna, then Surpanakha, and finally Vibhishana. When this last son was born, flowers fell from the sky and the gods in heaven were heard to utter, “Good! Excellent!”
Some time after their birth Kuvera came on the Pushpaka to see his father. Seeing him blazing with glory and opulence, Kaikasi said to Dasagriva, “Son, you look here at your brother Vaisravana. Look at your self in comparison, so poor and lacking in power. Exert yourself so that you are the equal of your brother in every way.”
Spurred on by his mother’s words, Dasagriva said, “I swear to you that I shall rise equal to Vaisravana and even excel him in power. Do not grieve.”
In a mood of envy for his brother and greed for power, Dasagriva engaged himself in severe austerities for a very long time. In the end he won his famous boons from Brahmā, being blessed that he could not be slain by any creature other than a man or lesser animal, for whom he had no regard whatsoever.
Along with Dasagriva, both Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana also engaged themselves in asceticism. When Brahmā appeared before them, Vibhishana asked for the boon that his mind would always remain fixed in righteousness, even when he was in the greatest difficulty. Brahmā granted his request and then turned toward Kumbhakarna to accord him a boon.
At that time the gods became greatly fearful and they approached Brahmā, saying, “O lord, no boon at all should be granted by you to this one. He has already wrought havoc in the heavens, devouring seven Apsarās, ten attendants of the mighty Indra, as well as numerous seers and human beings. What will he do if made powerful by a boon from yourself? On the pretext of granting a boon you should instead place him under a spell of delusion, thereby saving all the worlds from him.”
Brahmā smiled and said, “Be it so.” He thought of the goddess of learning, Sarasvatī, and when she appeared before him he said to her, “O goddess, become the speech in Kumbhakarna’s mouth.”
The goddess agreed and Brahmā then asked Kumbhakarna, “What boon do you desire, O Rākṣasa?”
Kumbhakarna, weary from his austerities, replied, “Let me sleep for many years.”
“It shall be so. You will sleep for six months at a time and remain awake for one day.”
Having made his reply, Brahmā vanished along with all the gods.
After receiving his boon, Dasagriva, who became known as Rāvaṇa, considered himself invincible. He went to Lanka, where Kuvera lived, and challenged his brother. On the advice of Visrava, Kuvera left the city and it was taken over by Rāvaṇa and his hordes of Rākṣasa followers.
Ṛṣi: A spiritually advanced Brahmin, usually inhabiting higher regions of the universe.
Rudra: A name for Lord Śiva.
Sagara: A king of the solar race who was Rāma’s ancestor. The ocean is also called “sagara” as it was the sons of this king who first excavated it.
Shabda: Literally “sound”—but generally used to refer to Vedic recitations; thus the “shabda-astra” has the power to destroy illusions.
Śiva: A partial expansion of Lord Viṣṇu who acts as the universal destroyer at the end of a cycle of ages.
Siddha: Literally, a perfected being. These are a class of gods possessed of great mystic powers.
Sītā: The daughter of King Janaka who became Rāma’s wife. How she was born on earth is described in a Vedic literature known as the Devi Bhagavata as follows:
There was once a great ṛṣi called Kushadvaja who had a daughter named Vedavati, who was said to be an incarnation of the goddess Lakṣmī. Kushadvaja was petitioned by various celestials and demons for his daughter’s hand, but she had set her mind on getting Viṣṇu as her husband.
One day a demon named Shambhu asked for Vedavati’s hand in marriage, but he was refused. Becoming furious, he attacked and killed Kushadvaja. When Vedavati saw this she looked in anger at the demon and he was immediately burnt to ashes. She then went to the forest and began to meditate in order to propitiate Viṣṇu and get Him as her husband. It was at that time that Rāvaṇa came there and insulted her, as described in the prologue of this book.
After she immolated her body, it is said that Rāvaṇa took her ashes with him back to Lanka. He kept them in a gold box in his palace. However, soon after this he saw many inauspicious omens in Lanka. The Ṛṣi Nārada, on a visit to Lanka, informed Rāvaṇa that the cause of the ill omens was the presence of Vedavati’s ashes. The demon then had them thrown into the ocean.
The box containing the ashes was carried by the ocean and deposited on the seashore near Mithila. It went into the earth and it was at that place that Janaka performed a sacrifice for getting a child. A part of his sacrifice was the furrowing of the earth and he thus found the box. Lakṣmī had entered the ashes, and when Janaka unearthed the box he found a golden child inside. This child was named Sītā.
Vālmīki: The Rāmayana’s original author. The story of how he first came to compose the work is told in the Rāmayana itself as follows:
One day Vālmīki was visited in his ashrama by the celestial seer Nārada. Vālmīki asked him who was the most virtuous person in the world. Wanting to know if there was a perfect person anywhere, he asked, “Who is possessed of all power and knows what is right? Who is always truthful, firm of resolve and conscious of all services rendered? Who has subdued his self, conquered anger, is above fault-finding and, although being friendly to all beings, is nevertheless feared by even the gods when angry? O eminent sage, I have a great curiosity to know this and you are surely capable of telling me.”
Actually, by his own spiritual practices and meditations Vālmīki had been able to realise that the Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu, had appeared on the earth in a human form. He wanted Nārada, whom he saw as a spiritual master, to tell him about the Lord’s incarnation.
Nārada replied, “There is one descended in the line of Ikṣvāku and known by men as Rāma. He is powerful, radiant, resolute and has brought His senses under control. Intelligent, sagacious, eloquent, glorious and an exterminator of foes, He knows the secret of virtue, is true to His promise and is intent on the good of the people.”
Nārada went on at length describing Rāma’s many qualities. He then narrated in brief the whole story of Rāma’s pastimes. When he had finished he said, “This Rāma is now ruling in Ayodhya. Indeed, you have already met Him when He came to your ashrama. The remaining part of His pastimes are yet to be manifested. O sage, all this will soon be described by yourself. This sacred story of Rāma, known as the Rāmayana, should be heard by all men. It is on a par with the Vedas and capable of destroying all sins. Hearing or reading this narrative a man will, on departing from this world, be honored in heaven along with his sons, grandsons, followers and attendants.”
Nārada rose to leave and was worshipped by Vālmīki. As the celestial seer rose into the sky by his mystic power, Vālmīki stood thinking about Rāma. He had already sensed His divinity when he met Him some years back. Nārada had confirmed his intuition. Feeling thrilled with transcendental ecstasy, Vālmīki made his way toward the nearby river to take his midday bath, followed by his disciples.
As he went toward the riverbank, the ṛṣi surveyed the beautiful forest scenery. He saw playing among the reeds by the river a pair of cranes. Those two birds were engaged in mating and they sported together making a delightful sound.
Suddenly, as Vālmīki looked on, a niṣāda huntsman fired an arrow and struck one of the birds. Mortally wounded and covered in blood, it thrashed about on the ground screaming in pain. Its mate also cried piteously and fell about in sorrow.
Seeing this, the soft-hearted Vālmīki felt compassion. He saw the niṣāda approaching with bow in hand. In grief, he said to that hunter, “As you have slain this poor bird while it was absorbed in pleasure, may you have no peace of mind for the rest of your life.”
The curse came out in perfectly metered poetry. Astonished by this, Vālmīki said, “What have I uttered? Tormented by grief I have composed a stanza filled with that emotion.”
The sage, brooding over the incident, entered the river and took his bath. After coming out he went back to his hermitage still thinking on the rhyming couplet he had spoken to the hunter. When he reached his ashrama he took his seat and was about to commence his lessons to his disciples when Brahmā suddenly appeared there. Seeing the great creator of the universe approaching on his swan carrier, Vālmīki hastily rose and joined his palms in humility. He offered his prostrate obeisances and worshipped the deity with many prayers. Brahmā then sat down on an exalted seat quickly brought for him by Vālmīki’s students.
Even though Brahmā was present before him, Vālmīki could not stop thinking about the incident with the hunter. He again recited the verse he had composed. Feeling sorry that he had lost control of himself, he appeared dejected and sighed.
Brahmā laughed and said, “Let this poetic utterance of yours become the source of your glory. Do not brood any more, O sage. It was by my arrangement that this speech flowed from your lips. In that same meter you should now describe the pastimes on earth of the all-wise Rāma. Tell the story of that hero as you have heard it from Nārada. By my mercy you will be able to see every detail of that story, as clearly as a fruit held in the palm of your hand. Therefore, render this sacred and soul-ravishing tale into verse for the good of the world.”
Brahmā blessed the sage that his narrative would remain extant for as long as the mountains stood on the face of the earth. He also told him that he would be able to continue living anywhere he chose within the universe for the same length of time.
Having finished speaking, Brahmā disappeared. Vālmīki was filled with wonder. He and his disciples gazed in amazement at Brahmā’s seat for some time. Gradually regaining their presence of mind, the sage’s students began reciting the verse he had uttered to the hunter. They were overjoyed at the honor bestowed upon Vālmīki by Brahmā. The sage then began to meditate on Rāma’s pastimes, gradually composing the Rāmayana over the coming days.
Vanara: A type of celestial monkey.
Varuṇa: God of the waters and the nether worlds. He is one of the universal guardians. His famous weapon is the noose.
Vedas: Ancient Sanskrit scriptures.
Vidhyadhara: A class of demigod.
Viṣṇu: The Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Yakṣa: A class of gods who are servants of Kuvera.
Yamarāja: The god who presides over death and destiny. He is empowered by Viṣṇu to award all beings the results of their actions. He guards over the southern quarter of the universe.