No one surpassed the prince Rama in strength, handsomeness, wisdom, or piety. He won the princess Sita by bending a tremendous bow that others could not even lift. On the day before he was to assume rulership of his father's kingdom, Rama's stepmother, out of jealousy and fear, succeeded in having Rama sent into exile so that her own son might assume the throne. Rama was to enter the most savage jungles and remain there for fourteen years. When Rama tried to persuade the beautiful and gentle Sita to stay at home, Sita insisted that her husband's tribulations were her own, and she would share his exile. Further, one of Rama's brothers, Lakshman, accompanied Rama into the forests to serve his brother.
On their journey the three exiles came across the poet Valmiki, who promised to write a glorious epic about them called the Ramayana. They also came upon a holy hermit, who gave Rama a splendid bow and arrow created by the gods. At length Rama, Sita, and Lakshman came to the barbaric southern jungles of India, a place inhabited by the savage magicians called Rakshas. Rama built a home in an open meadow with Lakshman's help.
One day a coarse Raksha maiden fell in love with Rama and wished to murder Sita, but Rama jestingly rejected her advances. In a fury the Raksha girl sprang at Sita to kill her, and only Rama's and Lakshman's quickness prevented her. Lakshman cut off her nose and sent her home howling to her brother Ravan, who was king of the Rakshas. Then Rama and Lakshman had to battle and defeat the two demon-warriors who attended the Raksha princess.
The disfigured girl told Ravan of Sita's beauty and urged him to take revenge. Ravan had a Raksha transformed into a lovely, jeweled deer. When Sita saw this deer she became determined to have it against the warnings of Lakshman and Rama. Finally Rama went hunting for the deer and shot it. As it died it cried out for help in a perfect imitation of Rama's voice. Lakshman knew a trick was involved, but the distraught Sita sent him after Rama. And while she was alone the wicked Ravan came disguised as a hermit and abducted Sita in his flying chariot.
Rama and his brother had no idea of what had happened to the vanished Sita until a vulture told them that Ravan had kidnapped her. The two brothers then came across the monkey-king and his adviser, both of whom had been banished by the monkey-king's monstrous brother. In return for Rama's help in defeating this brother the monkey-king promised Rama aid in finding and recovering Sita. So Rama reestablished the monkey-king on his throne, and monkeys were sent to all parts of India to locate Sita. The bravest monkey of all found her on the island of Ceylon, a lonely prisoner in the palace of Ravan.
Rama vowed to destroy Ravan, and he went to the Ocean determined to obtain passage to Ceylon. After the Ocean was stirred into terrible storms by Rama's arrows, it told Rama to seek the help of the god Nala, an architect who directed the monkeys to build a golden bridge of boulders and trees over to Ceylon. In five days the bridge was built; and Rama, Lakshman, and the army of monkeys crossed it to meet Ravan and his magicians in battle.
The fighting raged for days while Rama's side suffered many losses, but gradually Rama, Lakshman, and the monkeys managed to kill off some fearsome enemies. The terrible battle ended when Rama slew Ravan with his holy arrow. At this the gods sang Rama's praises, for Rama was the incarnation of Vishnu sent to deliver the world from the kingdom of Rakshas.
When Sita approached Rama before throngs of people Rama ignored his freed wife. In utter despair at Rama's rejection, Sita ordered that her funeral pyre be built, and with a heavy heart she entered the flames. However, the flames did not even singe her, a miraculous proof of Sita's purity during her imprisonment under Ravan. Having satisfied everyone about his wife's loyalty in this manner, Rama embraced Sita, and husband and wife were reunited. Then Rama asked Indra, the thunder-god, to restore the slain monkeys to life, which Indra did. And in the end Rama took Sita back to his father's kingdom and ruled it wisely.
Queen Maya had a dream at the conception of the future Buddha in which a god entered her womb as a small white elephant and the heavens sang for joy. Wise men interpreted the dream as meaning her son would either be a universal king or a supreme saint. When the Buddha was born he emerged painlessly from his mother's side and performed a ritual by which he mastered the world. Seven days later Queen Maya died of joy and was transported into heaven. The infant was named Siddhartha; his family name was Gautama.
When Siddhartha was twelve his father, the rajah, called a council in which it was decided that the boy must never see human suffering or death if he was to become a universal king. Later, his father urged him to acquire a wife in order to bind him to a life of sensual indulgence. Siddhartha sought out the beautiful Yasodhara, daughter of one of his father's ministers; and he won her through his amazing prowess in riding, fencing, and wrestling. For a while Siddhartha lived a pleasurable life with Yasodhara, insulated from the cares of the world. Then one day he came upon an old man who explained that aging happens to everyone. He pondered the misery of this, and soon came to learn of disease and death. Finally he met a begging ascetic, a humble holy man with peace of mind, and he determined to become a monk as well. Leaving his wife, his newborn son, his palace, and his servants, Siddhartha set out to find the truth about human existence.
In his monastic life he was called Sakyamuni and for a time became a disciple of the Yogis, drifting from hermitage to hermitage. Dissatisifed with Yoga, he underwent a severe self-discipline in which he almost starved himself to death and wrecked his intellect. After six years of this he decided that asceticism was pointless, since it ruined the body and enfeebled the mind. His five disciples were greatly disturbed at his renunciation of harsh self-discipline, but Sakyamuni was persistent in seeking the truth. He went off through the jungle, his body giving off a wondrous light that attracted birds and animals. He was looking for the sacred tree of wisdom, and when he found this Bodhi tree he sat down under it, determined not to rise until he had solved the problem of human suffering. The demon Mara, the Tempter, sent three voluptuous daughters to seduce Sakyamuni. When they failed, Mara sent an army of devils to assault him, but they too proved ineffective. At last Mara hurled his terrible disk at Sakyamuni to slay him, but the disk was transformed into a wreath of flowers suspended over his head.
As night fell vision upon vision came to Sakyamuni. He saw all his past lives, saw the chain of causation that bound every living being, saw the cause of the endless cycle of birth, suffering, and death, and saw the way to liberation, or Nirvana. By dawn he had reached perfect enlightenment, but he remained a week in meditation and another five weeks in solitude. He found he had a choice between entering Nirvana immediately or of teaching what he had learned for several more years on earth. Against his own reluctance he decided to teach, even though his knowledge was hardly communicable in words, and though very few could truly grasp his knowledge.
Briefly, his discovery was this: Birth, pain, decay, and death through innumerable lives are the result of attachment to the material world. Most souls want to incarnate themselves in matter and enjoy the pleasures to be had. This selfish desire creates a succession of lives and sufferings. In order to free oneself of pain a man must practice non-attachment by surrendering his longings to achieve an encompassing love for all creatures. Only in this manner can the soul attain its true estate of everlasting joy.
Now a Buddha, or Enlightened One, he returned to his five disillusioned disciples and overcame their loathing for him through love. After forty-four years of wandering Buddha gave his first sermon in the Deer Park at Benares. He taught the value of moderation, mental clarity, and universal compassion, as opposed to a life of sensual pleasures or one of self-laceration. By his gentleness, lucidity, and strength of character he converted thousands to his new teachings. His wisdom enabled him to perform miracles.
At the age of eighty, on the point of death, he told his weeping followers they would have his doctrines to comfort them, but they must watch and pray always. His final words were, "Work out your own salvation with diligence." Then he went into meditation, was transfigured with ecstasy, and at last passed into Nirvana.
In the legend of Rama and Sita, which was written by Valmiki in the sixth century B.C., the hero is a mixture of types. Rama seems saintly in going into exile, full of consideration for everyone. When Sita is abducted, however, he becomes a great violent warrior determined to annihilate the enemy. Originally a loving husband, he treats Sita badly to prove her virtue. Finally, he returns home to rule as king. In this combination of holy man, warrior, scornful husband, king, and a god's incarnation one sees the diverse aspirations of Indian society transformed into a plausible hero.
The story of Buddha is only partially legendary, but it reveals a man whose steadfast pursuit of the truth led him to one of the most influential revelations in human history. We include it here to show a relatively slight mythical overlay on an actual personality; in contrast to Gilgamesh, an actual Sumerian king whose life is largely legendary; and in contrast to Osiris, where a remote figure has become entirely mythical.