Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lessons of the Indian Epics: The Ramayana: Showing your Dharma

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

The Citadel of Lanka, a detail from "Hanuman Visists Sita in Lanka,"

The Citadel of Lanka, a detail from "Hanuman Visists Sita in Lanka," Folio from a Ramayana (Adventures of Rama), c. 1775-1800; India, Gujarat.

Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The story of the Ramayana has been passed from generation to generation by numerous methods and media. Initially it was passed on orally as an epic poem that was sung to audiences by a bard, as it continues to be today. Over the centuries it has also been written down in numerous languages, creating thousands of different (but related) texts. With the important role that the Ramayana plays in Indian society, and particularly as a teaching tool for dharma and other Hindu concepts, it should not be surprising to discover that the story has also found its way into numerous other media as well. For example, components of the story are regularly performed in song, theater productions, and dance performances. The story can also be found depicted in the plastic arts, and in painting in particular, and continues to be visually recreated to the present day. The faces of Rama, Sita, and Hanuman appear in the every day life of many Indians, and the story has crossed over into media that was not even imagined at the time when the story was composed, such as modern movies, comic books and mass-produced calendars. The Ramayana's popularity has not waned over the centuries. For example, Indian national television filmed a 78 part production of the Ramayana that was shown on Sunday mornings in 1987 and 1988. The television series was so popular that the country came to a virtual stop as nearly everyone who could gain access to a television stopped what they were doing to watch the televised adventures of Rama.

In this lesson students will expand their visual literacy skills while gaining insight on the characters and key events of the Ramayana.

Guiding Questions

  • How do visual images of the Ramayana depict the actions, events and lessons of the epic?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify the characters and events from the Ramayana contained in visual depictions of the epic.
  • Discuss the ways in which the images convey non-verbal information and messages, expanding their visual literacy.
  • Discuss the similarities and differences in the visual and verbal tellings of the Ramayana, and why a storyteller might choose one or the other as their medium.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan, then find and bookmark the relevant websites and useful materials, such as the paintings you will have students use. Images can be found by conducting a search of the Los Angeles County Museum using the keyword "Rama." This website is accessible through the EDSITEment reviewed resource, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images from the museum's collection are also provided in the web-based interactive exercise which accompanies this lesson.
  • Download and print out the documents you will be using in class, such as the abridged telling of the Ramayana.
  • Familiarize yourself with the story of the Ramayana. Begin by reading over the materials related to the Ramayana listed on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Asia Society. An abridged version of the epic can be accessed through the EDSITEment resource Asia Society. In addition, you can access comic book version of the Ramayana is also available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Society.
  • Review the readings on Indian Painting and background materials on Indian art techniques found on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Society.
  • For an example of the process of visual analysis begin by viewing the image showing one of the Ramayana's final fight scenes which can be accessed through the EDSITEment resource Asia Society, the characters can be identified as Lakshmana (bottom left), Rama (bottom middle), Hanuman (upper left) and Ravana (right). The moment of action in the story can be identified as the final battle scene between the forces of good (Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman), and those of evil, or of un-dharmic behavior, in the form of Ravana. But how does this image go about telling the viewer that one side is good and the other side is not?

Rama and Lakshmana are paired in their similar appearance and stance. Both offer attractive countenances with evenly proportioned bodies and no physical deformities. Rama is visually linked to his divine nature in the blue color of his skin, an attribute that links him with the sky and the heavens. Ravana, their enemy confronts them in his undisguised form, with his multiple heads and arms flailing. Both Ravana's supernatural strength and power, as well as his demonic nature, are exhibited in these physical traits. Rama, Lakshmana, and Ravana are all shown wearing crowns, reminding the viewer that they are all royalty. By highlighting the high social station of these characters, viewers are also reminded of the high responsibilities and heavy burdens that these characters carry if they are to behave according to dharma: when a leader behaves in a non-dharmic way, the consequence of his actions has a greater affect upon society. In short, with great power comes great responsibility. Thus, the crown reminds the viewer of the gravity of Ravana's non-dharmic actions. Finally, Hanuman is shown at the top of the image carrying the mountain top with the magical remedy that will, or perhaps already has, brought Lakshmana back to life. By showing Hanuman with this mountain top, the viewer is reminded of not only his supernatural abilities, but also his supernatural efforts to follow the instructions of his spiritual and earthly leader and to save Lakshmana's life. In this way the viewer is reminded of Hanuman's fulfillment of his duty, and his adherence to dharma.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Analyze This!
  • Ask students to read the abridged version of the Ramayana found through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Society. They should read this before class so that they are familiar with the narrative and ready to discuss the story. If this lesson is being completed as part of the curriculum unit on the Ramayana this step has already been completed in earlier lessons.
  • Divide students into groups and ask each group of students to look at one of the images of the Ramayana available in the web-based interactive exercise. Ask each group to work together to identify each of the main characters in the image, as well as the action that is being depicted.
  • Once each group has been able to identify what is happening and who the players are, they should then begin to analyze how the artist has depicted the characteristics of each figure. How has the artist made it possible to identify each character? If it is possible to identify the event taking place in the image, how are students able to identify the event?
  • Students will be taking the first steps toward making a formal analysis of the artwork. The first step is to determine what the image means (who the characters are and what action is being depicted). The next step is to determine how the artwork goes about depicting what it means. Students are not expected to have deep cultural knowledge, but should utilize the knowledge they have gained in the previous two lessons on the Ramayana, as well as any cultural information gathered from textbooks or in class discussions.
  • This is an exercise both in deeper looking and in visual reading. Have students work together to answer the questions about the picture's content on this worksheet as a first step in analyzing the image they have before them. Once students have completed this chart, use it as a foundation for a discussion on the ways in which the images go about conveying messages about the characters through the ways in which they are depicted. How are the qualities of the characters conveyed visually? How are the important events and lessons delivered to audiences?
  • Ask students to find within the text the event or narrative moment that is depicted in the image they have before them. Discuss the ways in which the image confirms, supplements, or even supplants the text. Many of the images that students will be analyzing were originally part of a book or text, and some may have images that contain text, or that share the page with text. Discuss the use of images with the text, and how that differs from images viewed entirely outside of the text.
  • Have students complete individually the web based interactive exercise for the image they have been analyzing together.

Assessment

Students will have a completed visual analysis chart for the image they have been assigned. In addition, students will be able to hand in the more expansive and detailed visual analysis of their completed interactive exercise. If all students do not have access to computers you may wish to assign them the task of completing a more detailed analysis in narrative form by having them answer the questions contained in the interactive, available here in PDF format.

Extending The Lesson

  • Tens of thousands of images of various moments from the epic poem have been created in the plastic arts over the centuries, and these images can be found in museums throughout the world and across America. With so many images having been created, at least one example of nearly every moment of the Ramayana's action can be found, including depictions of tangential stories, and the lives of Rama, Sita and Hanuman before and after the Ramayana. Even with so many images to choose from, it should not be surprising to find that many of the images focus on a limited number of important moments in the action. Among the most popular (though this list is by no means exhaustive) are moments such as:
    • Rama chasing the golden deer
    • Sita's abduction
    • Jatayu's attempted rescue and death
    • The combat between the monkey brothers, Sugriva and Vali
    • Hanuman setting Lanka alight with his burning tail
    • Building the 'bridge' to Lanka
    • Ravana's defeat
    • Sita's trial by fire
    • Rama and Sita's triumphant return to Ayodhya and the throne

      Discuss with students why certain images are repeated in visual depictions of the Ramayana. What are the ideas or lessons being conveyed by these events in the narrative? You can refer to the EDSITEment Lesson Plan (Ramayana Lesson Two) for more information on the lessons of the Ramayana.
  • Extend this discussion to the issue of the importance of conveying information visually, and the importance of 'visual literacy,' within societies where the incidence of illiteracy may be high. Do these images convey the same information to an audience who cannot access the text? If so, how? Do they carry the same lessons? How? Visit images such as Hieronymous Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins accessible through the EDSITEment-approved website Labyrinth: Resources for Medieval Studies. Additional images can be found in the collections of the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media