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The Ramayana: A Story of Abduction Essay

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp proposes thirty-one functions that make up all Russian fairytales. Propp’s Formalist approach to analyzing folktales can be extended beyond stories of the Russian tradition and even beyond fairytales. Proppian analysis of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, reveals that the story is driven forth by function eight whereby “the villain causes harm or injury to a member of family” (31). Because Rāvana’s abduction of Sita was not one of the eight legal forms of marriage allowed by Ancient Indian Dharmasūtra specifically a Ksatriya marriage, Rama must follow after Rāvana in order to avenge the dishonor done to him by his wife’s captor contributing to the advancement of the plot (Hara 298).

According to Propp, these functions are the “fundamental components of a tale,” “the number of functions known to the fairytale is limited,” and “the sequence of functions is always identical” (Propp 22-23). A story does not need to contain all thirty-one functions, but they must follow a specific order. Propp says, “A tale usually begins with some sort of initial situation. The members of a family are enumerated, or the future hero is simply introduced” (25). The Ramayana as told in The Mahabharata begins with an anecdote of Rāvana’s rise to power and introduces the hero, Rama. The Rāksasa king, Rāvana, is given a boon by the god Brahmā that makes him invincible over all creatures except men. Rāvana stirs up so much trouble on earth that Brahmā is asked to put an end to this. Visnu reincarnates himself among the sons of Daśaratha: Rama, Laksmana, Bharata, and Satrughna (Buitenen 727-731). This introduction is not one of Propp’s functions, but it is still an essential part of the story.

At this point, the story begins to follow the morphological units outlined by Propp. His first function is “one of the members of a family absents himself from home” (Propp 26). Of his four sons, Daśaratha names Rama as heir to his throne; however, his jealous wife Kaikeyī persuades him to name her son Bharata as heir and exile Rama. The king complies with the wishes of his wife. Rama, his wife Sita, and Laksmana leave Ayodhya and go to the forest (Buitenen 731-733). The tale skips the next three functions and picks up again with Propp’s fifth function: “the villain receives information about his victim” (28). While in the Dandaka forest, Rama and Laksmana “slew fourteen thousand Rāksasas in order to protect the ascetics” (Buitenen 733). Among these Rāksasas was Sūrpanakhā, the sister of Rāvana, whose lips and nose where cut by Rama. Sūrpanakhā goes to Lanka where Rāvana learns of Rama (733). Rāvana becomes furious and begins to plot his revenge.

The sixth function in the sequence is “the villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or his belongings” (29). Rāvana sees Mārica, his past minister, and tells him to disguise himself as a jeweled deer. Rāvana hoped that Sita would see the deer and lust for it, sending Rama to capture it for her. Mārica does as Rāvana instructed him and the plan works just as he had hoped; transitioning into the seventh function: “the victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy” (Buitenen 734-735; Propp 30). Laksmana follows after Rama, leaving Sita alone in the forest. Next, “the villain causes harm or injury to a member of family” (Propp 30). Rāvana disguises himself as a hermit and is easily able to capture Sita while Rama chases after the “deer” (Buitenen 735). With Rāvana’s trick, the plot begins to rise.

Rama returns to his hermitage but finds that Sita is gone, corresponding to Propp’s ninth function: “misfortune or lack is made known” (Buitenen 736; Propp 36). Propp’s tenth function involves a seeker hero; however, Rama is a victim hero (the victim of Rāvana’s villainy), so the story goes on to function eleven “the hero leaves home” (Propp 39). Rama leaves the Dandaka forest in pursuit of his wife’s captor (Buitenen 737). Along the way, Propp says that “XII. the hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper,” “XIII. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor,” and “XIV. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent” (Propp 39-43). Along his search for Sita, Rama meets the monkey king, Sugriva, and secures friendship with him. Rama promises to kill Sugriva’s brother, Valin, in exchange for Sugriva’s help in finding Sita. Rama shot an arrow through Valin’s heart, thus securing Sugriva’s kingship over the rest of the apes. In exchange, Rama received the help of Hanūmān, Sugriva’s councilor (Buitenen 738-739).

With the help of his monkey army, Rama learns that Sita has been taken to Lanka, the kingdom of Rāvana. In order for Rama to reach Lanka he must cross the ocean (Buitenen 743-746). This leads to Propp’s fifteenth function “the hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search” (Propp 50). When Rama and his monkey army reach the sea, the Ocean tells him that Rama can throw “wood, straw, and rock into [him, and he will] endure it all” (Buitenen 747). In this way, the created a bridge that allowed them to cross over to Lanka. War ensues, leading to function sixteen “the hero and the villain join in direct combat” (Propp 51). Rama’s army joins in direct combat with Rāvana’s army; however, Rāvana does not join the battle right away. Rāvana’s brother Kumbhakarna is the first to enter battle; Laksmana joins in combat with him and kills him with the Brahmā spell. Next, Rāvana sends his son Indrajit into battle.

Indrajit uses a spell to turn himself invisible, thus allowing him to have the upper hand on Rama and Laksmana; whereby, he is able to bring Rama and Laksmana down with his arrows, corresponding to Propp’s seventeenth function “the hero is branded” (Buitenen 747-753; Propp 52). Vibhisana, the brother of Rāvana who fights for Rama, brings Rama and Laksmana back to life and gives them water, which allows them to see the invisible Indrajit. Laksmana, now able to see his enemy, slays him with three arrows (Buitenen 753). With the death of his son, Rāvana enters battle and joins in direct combat with Rama (753-755). Next in Propp’s sequence, “XVIII. the villain is defeated” (53).

Rama uses the Brahmā spell on Rāvana, and he is slain (Buitenen 756). With the death of the villain, function IX., “the initial misfortune or lack is liquidated,” is fulfilled (Propp 53). Rama is reunited with his wife who has proven her faithfulness to her husband, by refusing the advances of Rāvana (Buitenen 757). With the liquidation of the lack, Propp says that the hero is now able to return home (function twenty) (55). Rama, Laksmana, and Sita return to Ayodhya, where Bharata returns the kingdom to his brother (Buitenen 759). The story of Rama ends at this point with function twenty.

From this Proppian analysis of The Ramayana, it is evident that a driving force of the tale is the abduction of Sita or function eight of the sequence whereby injury is caused to a member of the hero’s family. Up until this point, Rama and Laksmana had been restoring law and order to the Dandaka forest. There had been no need for the two of them to leave the forest. Rāvana used a trick to deceive Rama, leaving Sita by herself. Rāvana took Sita while Rama was away chasing the deer, rather than confronting Rama and winning Sita through battle. Rather than trying to avenge the harm done to Sūrpanakhā by directly confronting Rama, he did it indirectly by taking Sita from him. Because Rāvana took Sita in a deceitful manner, Rama had to leave the hermitage in search of her wife’s abductor. This abduction through trickery contributed to the rising action of the story, climaxing with Rama’s battle with Rāvana.

By abducting Sita, Rāvana made Sita his wife; however, Indian culture had requirements concerning the legality of abduction marriages. According to Minoru Hara, there were eight types of marriages that were lawful in ancient India, the legality of which differed between castes. This is to say that certain types of marriages were allowed for one caste but not the others (296). According to these ancient laws, the forcible marriage by abduction (rāksasa marriage) was lawful only for Ksatriyas (296). In ancient India, the Kshatriyas were the ruling and warring caste.

The greatest virtue for the Ksatriyas was their great strength: The possession of strength for Ksatriyas is so important that they may dispense with all other virtues but strength. The duty of a Ksatriya was to fight in battles, and part of fighting in battles was to take the possessions of a fallen opponent. It follows that if a Ksatriya wanted another man’s property, he would have to do so through battle (304). If the property desired was a woman, she would have to be obtained through the defeat of her husband. If the woman is taken without the defeat of her husband, then it is not a legal rāksasa marriage.

Rāvana abducted Sita without following the proper steps for a legal rāksasa marriage. Some scholars have identified Rāvana as a Brahmin; whereas, others have identified him as a Kshatriya (Rinehart 246; Hara 304). Sita says to Rāvana, “Your father is a brahmin, the equal of a Prajāpati, and born from Brahmā”; yet, Rāvana is the king of Lanka, and the ruling caste of ancient India were the Ksatriyas (Buitenen 742). If Rāvana was in fact a Brahmin, then this rāksasa marriage would be entirely illegal; if he was a Ksatriya, then it would have been legal if he had followed the proper steps. Stephanie Jamision outlines certain key components that a Rāksasa marriage must contain in order for it to be considered a legal marriage: “it must be announced, witnessed, and fought for” (5). Rāvana did not announce his plan to abduct Sita; instead, he tried to trick Rama. By playing an act of deceit, he tricked Rama into leaving Sita by herself in the hermitage. He approached Sita and told her to become his queen; when she refused, he grabbed her by her hair and flew away. Rāvana did not follow any of the steps required in order to ensure the legality of the abduction.

Because Rāvana’s abduction of Sita was not legal, he must face the consequences of an illegal marriage. Rama is entitled to rescue or as Jamison puts it, “reabduct,” Sita (12). Jamison says that in order for a reabduction to be legal it must also have an “appropriate ceremony—wooing and act of valor” (12). Sita must identify her husband; she does so when she tells Rāvana, “I am another man’s wife and unattainable” (Buitenen 742). Rama must perform an act of valor, where he will fight and defeat the man who stole his wife. Essentially, Rama must follow the steps that Rāvana did not, which he does when he kills Rāvana. This entitles Rama to take Sita back with him, consecrating the legality of his “reabduction marriage.”

The duty of a Ksatriya was to fight; when Rama entered the forest, he fought all of the Rāksasas in the forest in order to restore order. Although he dishonored Rāvana’s family, he did not break any Ksatriya laws; therefore, it was not necessary for Rāvana to get revenge. Rāvana did, however, want revenge, which he achieved through the illegal abduction of Sita. For that reason, it was Rama’s right and duty to recapture Sita. The plot of The Ramayana advances as a direct result of Rāvana’s abduction of Sita. He did not follow the procedure required by a Ksatriya for a legal Rāksasa marriage.

Works Cited
Buitenen, Johannes. The Mahābhārata. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1975. Print. Hara, Minoru. “A Note on the Rākṣasa Form of Marriage.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 94.3 (1974): 296-306. Print. Jamison, Stephanie W. “Draupadí on the Walls of Troy: “Iliad” 3 from an Indic
Perspective.” Classical Antiquity 13.1 (1994): 5-16. Print. Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Trans. Laurence Scott. Ed. Louis Wagner. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas, 1971. Print. Rinehart, Robin. Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Print.


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