Lesson Plan

Lessons of the Indian Epics: Following the Dharma

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

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

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

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.