Bathing in the Ganges, India. A 19th-century photograph.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
The epic poem the Ramayana is thought to have been composed more than 2500 years ago, and like the Iliad and the Odyssey, was originally transmitted orally by bards. The full poem contains more than 24,000 verses, and was and continues to be a somewhat mutable work. Tellers of the epic add and delete pieces of the story, or localize the action by entering recognizably regional place names. The poem also changes as it is translated and reconstituted in each of India's many different languages, taking on the new sounds and poetic structures of each language. While details main change, particularly through these processes of localization and translation, the main tenets of the story remain intact, and it continues to be used as an example of correct behavior by living one's dharma.
The foundation the Ramayana is its use as a tool for instructing past, present and future generations in the code of right and moral behavior. This foundation is one of the main reasons why a story that was composed several millennia ago has survived, and still plays an important role in Indian society today. These lessons are put forth through the long string of moral conundrums that all of the story's main characters encounter. The path that each character follows when confronted with these dilemmas is directly connected to the Hindu concept of dharma. Dharma includes both good and righteous behavior according to one's role in society, and the correct performance of one's role in society in any given situation. Following one's dharma will result in the consistent and correct performance of one's duties, according their responsibilities and station in life. The answers -- both positive and negative -- to the dilemmas presented in the Ramayana are clearly delineated in the behavior of the nearly binary cast of characters: Rama, as a good character, always follows dharma and makes the right choices, while Ravana, as an evil character, fails to follow dharma and always makes the wrong choices.
This lesson plan is designed to allow instructors to explore Hindu culture by examining the characters of the Ramayana, and the choices they make. Students will be able to explore the Hindu concept of right behavior (dharma) through an investigation of the epic poem, the Ramayana.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Additional moments of moral dilemma that may be used either in the chart above or in class discussion include the following examples. This list is by no means exhaustive, but students should be able to identify some of these moments in their charts:
Some of these situations include moral decisions which might not be so obvious to students, but they do exemplify dharmic or non-dharmic choices. One of these less obvious instances can be found above in number three: Lakshmana deserts Sita at her request. This section can be found in the text under the section headed "The Forest Life," with the passage beginning "The next day, a beautiful deer appeared at the stream in Panchavati." It may appear to students that by choosing to desert Sita and go to his older brother's aid he is, in fact, behaving according to dharma. Ask students to contemplate this dilemma in depth.
Students should note that while it may not immediately appear so, this choice does not exemplify dharma. In this case Lakshmana is not behaving according to his station. As the younger brother he must always obey the orders of his older brother. Read or point out the passage where Rama instructed him to stay with Sita, never allowing her from his sight. Students may note that by deserting Sita, even at her request, he violated his obligation to his elder brother to follow his instructions. They should note that furthermore, his departure from his duty station as protector of Sita also represents a break in his faith in Vishnu. Rama, as an incarnation of Vishnu, is all powerful and cannot be harmed. By rushing to Rama's aid, has Lakshmana has failed as a devotee or not and why? Does it mean that his belief in Rama/Vishnu's inviolability has flagged?
As this example shows, the answer to the question of whether or not an action is dharmic may not always be obvious. Discuss with students how these moral choices represent a view of the world framed by the Hindu concept of right behavior and responsibility according to the principles of dharma.
Ask students to choose one moral dilemma from the Ramayana. The moral dilemma they choose can then be the focus of a short take-home essay explaining how the situation exemplifies dharma, either by providing a positive or a negative example. They should review the definition of dharma accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, as well as the working definition created in class. Students should be sure to elaborate on how this situation provides a lesson on morality and correct social behavior according to the tenets of dharma. More advanced students who have a broader background in Hinduism and Indian culture and history may way to expand this essay to include an explanation of the Ramayana's lessons on dharma into the larger context of a Hindu world view.
3 class periods