Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lessons of the Indian Epics: The Ramayana

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Lessons of the Indian Epics image

Sculpture of Shiva in copper alloy from India (Tamil Nadu).

Credit: Courtesy LACMA and Wikipedia.

Rama replied:
“You do not know dharma, or worldly affairs, or the laws governing enjoyment, nor the people's behavior in different conditions and circumstances: and yet you blame me. The whole earth belongs to the kings descended from Manu and therefore my forefather Iksvaku. The present ruler in the dynasty of Iksvaju is my noble brother Bharata. He is the supreme monarch of the whole earth: and I derive my mandate from him, to ensure that all the subjects of that noble emperor observe the laws of virtue.” (p. 190-1
)

The Ramayana (ram-EYE-ya-na) and the Mahabharata (ma-ha-BA-ra-ta), the great Indian epics, are among the most important works of literature in South Asia. Both contain important lessons on wisdom, behavior and morality, and have been used for centuries not only as entertainment, but also as a way of instructing both children and adults in the exemplary behavior toward which they are urged to strive and the immoral behavior they are urged to shun. Elements of the stories can be found in South Asian literature, theater, sculpture, dance, music, architecture, film, personal and place names, and even in statecraft.

The Ramayana is the story of Rama, the crown prince of ancient Ayodhya, and an earthly incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. He is also the hero of the poem, whose focus is the epic telling of Rama's quest. In this lesson, students will read an abridged version of the Ramayana, and will explore the ways in which the story of Rama contains elements, such as the Epic Hero Cycle, that place it within the epic poetry tradition.

Guiding Questions

  • What makes the Ramayana an epic poem?
  • How does this story fit the Epic Hero Cycle?
  • What lessons are taught through the examples- both good and bad- of the Ramayana's characters?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Retell the basic narrative of the Ramayana, and be able to identify the main characters.
  • Identify elements of the Ramayana that fulfill the required elements of an epic poem.
  • Understand the poem as a tool for teaching proper behavior through the examples of Rama and Sita.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading the Ramayana as an Epic Poem

The Ramayana is an epic poem that tells the story of Rama, the crown prince of Ayodhya and an avatar (or incarnation) of the Hindu god Vishnu. The narrative follows Rama as he is exiled to the forest, and where his wife Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Rama must find and defeat Ravana in order to save Sita, and he is aided along the way by his loyal brother Lakshmana, as well as a monkey army headed by the monkey general Hanuman. Eventually, Ravana is defeated, Sita is saved, and Rama, his exile complete, returns to the throne of Ayodhya.

  • Explain to students what an epic poem is, and what elements are common to epic poems. You may want to use the definition of epic poetry accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. For a more in-depth look at epic poetry, you may want to teach this lesson in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson plan A Story of Epic Proportions: What makes a poem and epic?
  • 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. This will help students with both seeing the narrative structure clearly, and with learning new and unfamiliar people and place names.
  • Divide students into groups. Ask each group to use their notes and character charts to make a list of the main characters, and of the most pivotal moments in the narrative.
  • Distribute the Epic Hero Cycle chart. Ask student groups to discuss how the elements and actions of the Ramayana fulfill the criteria of epic poetry and of the Epic Hero Cycle. Many of the elements are fulfilled by more than one character or action. Have students work together to fill in the far right side of the Epic Hero Elements chart with examples from the Ramayana. Wherever it is possible, students should note where in the text their example can be found. An example of a list of Epic Hero Cycle elements in the Ramayana students should note can be found in the following chart. In many cases several examples may be found in the text, and this is not an exhaustive list of the Epic Hero Cycle elements in the text, however, this example of the Epic Hero Cycle elements in the Ramayana can be used as a guideline.
Activity 2. Learning the Lessons of the Ramayana

As with many epic poems or heroic stories, the Ramayana is designed to not only entertain listeners, but also to impart lessons to its audience. In this activity students will investigate what those lessons might be.

  • Ask students to work together to make a list of stories and poems they know whose purpose is not only to entertain, but also to teach a lesson. This list might include fables, fairy tales, poems and short stories, from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, to Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, to J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Rings. Once students have compiled a list, ask them to divide into groups, taking with them at least two of the works from the list with which they are familiar. Ask each group to brainstorm on the lessons that the creator of the stories or poems wanted to impart to his or her audience.
  • Ask students to read over their list of lessons. Are there any lessons that are repeated from one work to another? Are there lessons that are similar in their message? Ask students to think about the way in which the lessons of each story are imparted. How is the lesson taught? By stating the lesson? By showing examples of good and bad behavior?
  • Have students read through their answers to the guiding questions and the character chart for the Ramayana. Do they think that the Ramayana is teaching a lesson? How does it teach its lessons?
  • Assign each group to one of the Ramayana's main characters, and ask them to work together to find the lesson presented by that character's example. It may be a lesson on how to behave, or how not to behave, or even a combination of the two.

Assessment

Ask students to write a short expository essay on why the Ramayana is considered an epic poem. They should review the definition of epic poetry found at the Glossary of Literary Terms accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, their notes and the chart they filled in on the Ramayana and the Epic Hero Cycle. Students should explain and cite from the text moments in the narrative when the story is fulfilling the criteria of epic poetry. They should answer the criteria contained in the definition of epic poetry including the Epic Hero Cycle and beyond, including questions such as:

  • Is the poem written in high style?
  • Does the story cover a large physical area, such as multiple kingdoms?
  • Does the hero possess supernatural abilities or qualities?
  • Do even human and animal characters possess seemingly supernatural strength and courage?

In addition, students should complete their Epic Hero Cycle charts with examples from the text of the elements listed in the chart.

Once students have worked together to define what the lessons each character presents to listeners through his or her example, students should write a brief description of the character his or her group discussed, and the lesson that character imparts. Students should support their assertion with at least one example from the text where the character's behavior conveys that lesson.

Extending The Lesson

  • The lessons of the Ramayana are deeply rooted within the Hindu concept of dharma, or right behavior. You can extend this lesson by utilizing the EDSITEment lesson plan The Lessons of the Indian Epics: Following the Dharma.
  • 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. 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.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2 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 > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)