The most popular book in northern India is a Hindi retelling of the ancient tale of Prince Rām and his wife, Sītāa, composed in about A.D. 1574 by the poet-saint Tulsīdās of Banaras. Throughout a vast region with a population of more than three hundred million people, this epic of some fourteen-thousand lines has come to be regarded not only as a great masterpiece of literature but also as a religious work of the highest inspiration—a status recognized by nineteenth-century British scholars who labeled it "the Bible of North India." To its audience it is known by several names: simply the Rāmāyaṇ(borrowing the title of the Sanskrit archetype that, for Hindi speakers, it has largely supplanted); the Tulsī Rāmāyaṇ(invoking its author); and also the Mānas(The lake), which is a condensation of its true title, Rāmcaritmānas(The lake of the acts of Rām). Encountering the last name for the first time, a reader from another culture might be puzzled by its central metaphor: why should the image of a lake be so closely associated with this celebrated saga of virtue, heroism, and devotion?

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