Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lessons of the Indian Epics: Following the Dharma

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Bathing in the Ganges, India. A 19th-century photograph.

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.

Guiding Questions

  • What is dharma?
  • How does the Ramayana teach dharma, one of Hinduism's most important tenants?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Define the term dharma, and will understand it as an important concept within Hinduism.
  • Recount the important plot points of the Ramayana, and will understand it as a vehicle for teaching the importance of dharma in one's behavior.
  • Describe what characteristics the characters Rama and Sita possess that make them exemplary role models, and how this is exhibited through their actions.
  • Describe and discuss moments of moral dilemma when a character is explicitly following or not following dharma in his behavior.

Preparation Instructions

  1. Review the lesson plan, then find and bookmark the relevant websites and useful materials. Provide links to the online Ramayana, which is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Society, or download and print out the text and other documents you will be using in class.
  2. A predictable component of the Ramayana can be found in the repeated and reinforced lessons of dharma. The presence of the lessons of dharma in each episode of the story give a focus and direction to the telling of the story that helps bards to remember each of the components of the story's cycle. The moral focus of the Ramayana is on dharma, one of the major tenets of Hinduism. Dharma includes within it the English language concepts of duty, law, correct or appropriate behavior. It also includes behaving appropriately and fulfilling one's duties within the structure of one's family, one's neighborhood, and one's relationship with god. The Ramayana acts as a primer for teaching the lessons of living correctly by always fulfilling one's duties, living by society's laws, and always behaving appropriately according to one's station in life.

    Familiarize yourself with the context of the Ramayana by reading additional background information on Hinduism. Gain insight into the character of Rama, and the Hindu god Vishnu, of whom Rama is an incarnation, as well as an explanation of the Hindu concept of dharma, which can all be accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. Finally, investigate the links to the Ramayana, utilizing background material available via the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Society.
  3. Begin by reading over the reading related to the Ramayana listed on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Asia Society. The abridged version of the epic is also available through Asia Society, should be downloaded and read by students and instructors.
  4. The lessons of dharma are most clearly delineated in the Ramayana's moments of moral dilemma. Often following one's duty requires acting against one's wishes or desires, and doing what is right rather than what is easy. Through their choices and actions Rama and his wife Sita offer examples of what men, women, boys and girls are meant to aspire to in their own behavior. Characters such as King Dasaratha and Rama's brother Lakshmana also offer similar lessons, while the demon king Ravana shows what will befall those who refuse to follow dharma in their actions. The monkey general Hanuman most often behaves correctly, however, his animal nature sometimes gets the best of him. When it does, he pays the price for his impatience and lack of restraint. Focus on these moments in your review of the narrative.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading the Ramayana
  • Have students read the abridged version of the Ramayana, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Society. You may want to have them do so outside of class so that they are prepared to discuss the elements of the story. Ask them to fill in information on the chart of the major characters and locations as they read the story. As they do so, they should also answer the following questions:
    • Who is the hero of the story?
    • Who is the villain of the story?
    • What qualities do these characters have that make them significant?

      For example, a student might write a few sentences about Rama, noting that he is not only the hero of the story, but that he is a divine being (Vishnu) reborn in human form specifically to defeat Ravana. In addition, students should answer the questions provided for each section of the story listed on the PDF found here. This will help students with both seeing the narrative structure clearly, and with learning new and unfamiliar people and place names.
  • Discuss the answers to the guiding questions and the character descriptions that students bring to class after their initial reading of the story. Ask students to think about the structure of the story by asking them to answer and explain the following questions:
    • Are the characters evenly divided between good and evil?
    • Are there characters who straddle these categories?
    • What are the pivotal moments in the story?
    • Do you agree with all the choices that the hero and heroine make?
    • Do you disagree with all the choices that the villain makes?
  • Ask students what purpose they believe the story serves. Is it merely entertainment, or was there an underlying message in telling the story of Rama? What did students believe that message to be? Ask them to explain and elaborate on their answers. They should find examples in the text that support their assertions.
Activity 2. Finding and Following the Dharma
  • Explain some of the key components of dharma to the class, and then ask for class participation in creating a working definition for the term. The definition should include on its most fundamental level the idea of "right" or "proper behavior." However, it should also clearly contain the idea that there is not one right way to act, but that proper behavior is determined by one's place in society, and the obligations that come with that place. Thus, a ruler has greater responsibility to behave prudently than a taxi driver, as more lives depend on his or her wise choices. Finally, it should also be clear that what is right is not always what is easy, and that seeing the dharma sometimes takes more than a cursory glance.
  • Once you have agreed upon a working definition of dharma, ask students how the concept is exemplified in the Ramayana. This discussion should center upon moments of moral dilemma, particularly those when the character that is being tested is asked to make a choice that goes against their own desires or interests.

    Divide students into pairs and distribute the chart entitled Following the dharma. The chart provides several examples of moments of moral dilemma, and then provides space for up to four additional examples to be given and explained by the students. As students fill in the chart with examples from the text, they should focus on the following questions:
    • Does the character behave according to dharma in these situations?
    • How does their behavior exemplify dharmic or non-dharmic behavior?
    • If they behaved against the principles of dharma, what should they have done?
    • If they behaved against the principles of dharma, what consequences did they have to bear?

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:

  1. King Dasaratha grants two boons (promises) to Queen Kaikeyi. King Dasaratha acts according to dharma when he grants the two boons, making good on his word, despite the heartbreaking result that he will be separated from his most beloved son.
  2. Bharata visits Rama in the forest. Bharata acts according to dharma when he refuses to take the throne to which Rama is the rightful heir, and persuades his elder brother to 'take' the throne without violating his promise to King Dasaratha to go into exile by sending his shoes back to Ayodhya with Bharata.
  3. Lakshmana deserts Sita at her request. Hearing the false voice of Rama crying for help, Sita begs Lakshmana to save Rama from danger, despite his having been bidden by Rama to keep watch over Sita. As Rama's younger brother, and as his devotee (in his role as an avatar of Vishnu), Lakshmana should have stayed to watch over Sita. When he does not, disaster strikes in the form of Sita's abduction by Ravana.
  4. Ravana's refusal to allow Sita to leave. Vibheeshana's pleas to release Sita from captivity fall on deaf ears, and the demon continues to hold her unjustly. In the end Ravana will pay for his moral trespasses with his life, while his brother will gain the throne and rule with dharma.

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.

  • Why does Lakshmana desert Sita?
  • Is Lakshmana's behaviour according to dharma?
  • Why or why not?

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 each pair of students to brainstorm on at least two "social rules" that are in place in their own home which resemble situations in the Ramayana in which the rules of dharma are taught. Examples might include "respecting one's elders," which is clearly exemplified by Rama's decision to follow his father's banishment order without argument.

Assessment

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.

Extending The Lesson

  • Traditionally, epic poems are the stories not just of heroes, but have been the stories of national heroes. Audiences understand the narrative not as a simple narrative, but as a story that has a factual antecedent. The Ramayana is replete with real Indian place names, and the movements of Rama and Hanuman's monkey army can be mapped as they are in the Ramayana map accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Society. This map can be compared to a modern political map of India, also available at Asia Society. Discuss with students how the meaning and weight of the Ramayana might be different for a student in India, where many people see Rama in themselves, and the Ramayana as a story about their ancestors and country.
  • The Ramayana has been the topic of numerous forms of expression, from song to dance to sculpture and beyond. You can extend your discussion of the epic and its lessons in the EDSITEment lesson plan The Lessons of the Indian Epics: Showing your Dharma, which investigates the story of Rama in Indian paintings.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Philosophy
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)