This was a request from Angie, to break down the essential elements of these stories and save you the effort of trying to research them yourself. Obviously, if you are a desi person, you already know them more than well enough. But if you are a non-desi, I can give you a sort of primer on them.
Disclaimer: I am not Hindu, I am not a religious scholar, this is based on conversations with Hindus I know over several years, plus Amar Chitra Katha and Devdutt Pataniak books.
Hindu religious texts come in two flavors, the Rigveda and the Ramayan/Mahabharat. The Vedas are restricted knowledge known to Brahmins. One of the signs of a Brahmin is that they know all the Vedas and can quote them. The Vedas give advice for life, and tell the stories of the great Gods. They are a combination of ancient texts, possibly the most ancient texts still in existence in the world, and later additions (“later” still meaning hundreds or thousands of years old) that add on discussions, additional stories of the Gods, and so on. Brahmin’s originally knew the Vedas because it was a way of passing on knowledge, painstaking memorization of the ancient texts so they would not be lost. Obviously it worked, seeing as these texts are still in existence. That was one of the main duties and responsibilities of a Brahmin, to memorize the texts and pass them on to other Brahmin young men.
(I think the wedding verse is part of the Rigveda, for instance. You may not really know what they are saying, but you hire a priest to say it)
And then there’s the Ramayan/Mahabharat. Which are apart from the Vedic knowledge. They are stories that relate (most likely) to real historical events that occurred in ancient India. They are known through out the South Asian region with variations and additions place to place, but the basic structure of the story remaining the same. The Gods of the Vedas appear in them, and the moral philosophy of the Vedas is reflected in them, but they are stories of the people, not just the Brahmin class (although the Brahmins can expound and expand on the meaning).
The Ramayan and the Mahabharat are the basic story structures which provide the basis for all of Indian society. They weave in and out of almost every film in one way or another, in a way that is unique among world film, just as their importance to Indian (and Sri Lankan and Nepali and Indonesia and so on) culture is unique in world cultures. A combination of spiritual philosophy, moral philosophy, and communal myths and stories that forms every aspect of identity.
So, what are these stories?
The Ramayan and the Mahabharat both deal with the concept of “Dharma”. Dharma isn’t quite fate and isn’t quite duty, but it is something that includes both of those ideas and also more so. It isn’t having your best possible life, in fact the tragedy of Dharma is often that you are setting aside your best possible life because your Dharma commands you elsewhere. Dharma is a matter of constantly considering where your greater Dharma lies, at which point do you change paths.
The difference between the Ramayan and the Mahabharat is that the Ramayan is telling the story of a people and an age when Dharma was clear. Not easy, but clear. While the Mahabharat is telling the story of a darker era, when Dharma conflicted, there were many possible paths, and you had to constantly struggle to see your way to the right answer. We look at these stories and repeat them and analyze them in order to find guidance in our own life whether our Dharma is clear or unclear.
(This is part of the reason the Bahubali movies were so exciting, because they gave us that kind of Dharmic puzzle)
So, let’s start with the Ramayan. Which is supposed to have happened “first”, since it is referenced in some versions of the Mahabharat. Although both stories also exist in some versions in a place outside of time, story cycles that repeat and repeat with minor variations through out time (especially true of the Ramayan, some versions refer consciously to other “incarnations” of Ram and Sita where slightly different things happened).
The Ramayan begins with a king (I am not going to give all the names, because I think it might end up being more confusing). The king has 3 wives. Wife 1 is his first wife, the formal official Queen. Wife 2 is his favorite wife, a strong Princess who met him when she saved his life in battle. Wife 3 is a nice woman, not much about her. The king is having a hard time getting any of his wives pregnant. He goes on an epic pilgrimage to ask the Gods for children. The Gods are concerned because a king to the south, Raavan, is becoming so wise and gaining so much power through penance that he has become too strong and upset the balance of the world. They decide to use this king and his quest as a vessel for their long range plans. They send him a holy dish to give to his wives to make them pregnant. He feeds Wife 1 first so she gets the most and freshest of it. Then he feeds Wife 2. And finally Wife 3. 9 months later, Wife 1 has Ram, the most perfect Godly prince ever. Wife 2 has Bharat, who is only slightly not as good as Ram. And Wife 3 has Lakshman and Shatrughan, twins who split the holy power between them.
The 4 brothers grow up happy and united, this is a story of a peaceful perfect epic in the world. They are jointly loved by their 3 mothers as well, everything is perfect. Lakshman tends to follow Ram while Shatrughan tends to follow Bharat, but there is no true division in the brothers. The kingdom is happy and prosperous and looks forward to the day when their perfect prince Ram will take over ruling and usher in an ideal era.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, a farmer plowing his fields finds a baby girl sitting in the earth as though she grew out of it, along with a bow next to her. This is Sita. He brings her to the palace where she is adopted. Sita and three sisters are raised with all the education and skills they can acquire. Sita becomes renowned for her beauty and general awesomeness. Her father announces a challenge, since she was found with this magnificent bow on the ground next to her, her perfect match will be the man who can string the bow.
(Ram with the broken bow)
Ram and Lakshman are traveling with their teacher when this challenge is announced. Ram lifts the bow and strings it, pulling it so forcefully that he breaks it. Sita and Ram are engaged, and Ram’s other brothers are engaged to her sisters.
All of the kingdom is joyous when the engagement and marriage are announced. According to some traditions, after the engagement the princesses are brought back to their kingdom to complete growing up. The princesses are fully embraced by the people of the kingdom, a perfectly family is formed and promised once the marriages are completed and Ram and his brothers are considered adults and ready to take over the kingdom.
12 years later, Ram and Sita and their brothers and sisters have achieved adulthood. The King wishes to crown Ram as his heir. The kingdom is behind him. But Wife 2, incited by her jealous servant, is unhappy. Her son Bharat should be the heir instead. And the great problem of Dharma is set into motion.
Years earlier, when she saved the king’s life, the king granted Wife 2 a boon, anything she asked for from him. As was right and Dharmic, to pay back this great obligation in a significant way. Wife 2 follows her Dharma as a mother in order to support her son, and demands this boon, that her son be crowned heir. The king is trapped, on the one hand he has given his word, on the other hand is what he knows to be right and best for the kingdom. He has no choice, his Dharma tells him to honor his word above all. Ram, his Dharma is clear (although difficult), he must obey his father’s orders no matter what and uphold the power of his word. Bharat, he has a difficult Dharma. He must obey his father and serve the kingdom. But he should not break the rules of brotherhood and usurp his brother’s place. Shatrughan and Lakshya, they must decide where their Dharma lies in this situation, to stay back and serve the kingdom, or move on with Ram and serve him. Sita and the other wives, they must decide where their place lies and follow it.
(Mughal-E-Azam gave a similar challenge to the ruler which he solved with a careful consideration of all his duties)
The one person who is unDharmic in this is Wife 2. Yes, she has a Dharma as a mother, but she has a greater Dharma as a wife and as a leader of the kingdom. She should respect the rules of inheritance and the king’s wishes and the overall rightness of Ram becoming king. She does not just a wrong path, but she does not choose the most correct path either. And once she chooses it, speaks the words to redeem the boon, she cannot go back even as she regrets her own decision.
The lesson of this story is that the rule of law must be applied universally and must be respected. A society needs order to function. Were the king to ignore his boon, or Ram to disobey him, then order would cease. There would be a short-term gain of Ram becoming king, but the overall order would fail.
The other lesson is that, within the set laws of society, there is space to interpret how to follow them. Looking at the wives as an example, Sita argues that it is her Dharma and her right to accompany Ram in his exile. Urmila, Lakshman’s wife, makes a different choice. Instead, she serves her husband by sleeping through his exile. She does not live a real life without him (which would be unDharmic) and she serves him by taking his sleep in addition to her own, which allows him to remain a constant and alert guard to Ram and Sita.
Lakshman and Shatrughan each make their own choice. Their Dharma is to serve the family structure, Lakshman chooses to do so by following Ram into exile, Shatrughan by staying and supporting Bharat.
(Thus Hum Saath Saath Hain, with Saif going with Mohnish while Salman remains at home)
Bharat has the most difficult choice. He begins by following Ram into his exile and begging him to return. Ram explains that he cannot, as to do so would be to make their father forsworn, even if it is an order that the king did not wish to make, once he had made it it must be obeyed. A small sign of the slight excellence of Ram over Bharat, that Ram has a heightened understanding of Dharma. Bharat, unable to bring back Ram himself, instead asks for Ram’s sandals. He takes them back to the kingdom and puts them on the throne. Bharat will serve the people as ruler, but only as a regent, the throne is held for Ram. Thus his Dharma towards his father and the kingdom, and his Dharma towards his brother Ram, is all neatly served.
There are many many small stories from the time of exile. Ram and Sita and Lakshman lived in the forest, with the Rishis (holy men who had given up the world) and the Rakshas (demons who attacked the Rishis). These stories come from all over South Asia, each with their own unique tales. For instance, there is one tale of an untouchable woman who offers berries to Ram and Lakshman. Before she gives them a berry, she bites into it and then hands it over. Lakshman is disgusted, but Ram calmly eats the berries, and then explains to Lakshman that she was testing them, making sure they were the sweetest and best before offering them. It’s a little story, but it teaches us not to make assumptions, and to respect everyone.
There is another story that is used sometimes to explain the religious power held by the Hijras of India. When Ram left for his exile, the people of the kingdom followed him. Once they reached the borders, Ram ordered them to turn back, to fulfill their own Dharma by being good citizens for their country, not following him. But he ordered back “all the men and all the women”. The Hijras, being neither, stayed and waited for him at the border for the whole 13 years of his exile. This faithfulness is why they are still respected today.
In the exile, Sita was happy. Sita is a figure of older and different power than Ram. Ram is the power of civilization, the perfect figure of law and order. Sita is the earth, the ancient powers. She embraced forest life. Or, according to other versions of the story, she was happy in the forest because she had Ram and a good wife only needs her husband.
What is clearly agreed by all sources is that Ram and Sita’s marriage was not consummated. For long years they were too young, his crowning would have served as the final symbol of adult maturity. But just as that was to happen, they were banished and ordered to live as ascetics. Meaning, no sex. And also no good food, no rich clothes, and so on and so forth. It was a harsh life to live. Ram and Sita are honored as the perfect pair because their pairing was beyond the usual earthly meaning of marriage.
They had a marriage of the mind and soul that fulfilled them so much it almost made up for the lack of a marriage of the body. The key being “almost”, it was still a sacrifice to give up physical love.
(Like in Veer-Zaara, or many many other movies, the couple that are meant for each other and close and yet separated)
During their exile, a woman sees and falls in love with Lakshman and Ram’s beauty. She tries to seduce them and fails (because they have vowed to remain ascetics, it’s not clear if it is a pure matter of being faithful to their marriage vows). She will not leave them alone, so Lakshman warns her off and then cuts off her nose in anger. She plots to punish the brothers, and comes up with a plan. She sees Sita’s beauty and returns to her own kingdom, Lanka, to tell her powerful brother of the beauty of Sita and incite his desire.
Raaven is maddened with desire, decides he must capture Sita for himself. He sends one of his demons in the guise of a beautiful golden deer past their forest home. Sita sees him and is enraptured with his beauty and asks Ram to get her this deer. Ram is delighted, Sita never asks for anything from him, he is determined to get this for her. But he orders Lakshman to stay behind and watch over her. Lakshman obeys.
Later, Ram calls out in pain from the forest, begging Lakshman to come help him. Sita is beside herself, begs Lakshman to go to him. But Lakshman is torn because Ram ordered him to watch over Sita above all else. However, ultimately, Sita’s authority as his elder sister-in-law is such that he must obey her orders. He agrees to go to Ram, but before he leaves he draws a line around the house, the “Lakshman-rekha”, which can be exited but not entered and orders her to stay within it.
Once Lakshman has left, Raavan appears as a wandering ascetic asking for hospitality, food and water, from Sita. And she is in a Dharmic quandary. She cannot refuse food to an ascetic, or really any guest, but she also cannot cross the line Lakshman drew. Ultimately, Lakshman as her brother-in-law does not carry the authority to overwhelm all other duties (remember, Ram gave her no such order before he left) and so she crosses the line. Raavan immediately takes her and flies off with her. A vulture tries to stop their flight, but is mortally wounded in the attempt. He lives long enough to tell Ram and Lakshman what he has seen.
(In Khalnayak, Subhash Ghai cast himself as the vulture)
Finally, the Gods are happy. Their plan has succeeded. Ram was put on the earth to defeat Raavan, and now that Raavan has taken Sita, his Dharma will demand that he do so. Equally important, Sita was put on the earth to be the one who causes this battle, the one perfect match for Ram that he will seek for, and the one beautiful woman that will cause Raavan to disobey Dharma in order to capture her.
One of the most important things to understand about the Ramayana is that Raavan is not, and is not supposed to be, a cruel person. His sin is that he does not believe the rules apply to him. He desires Sita, and so he takes her, despite her protests and (more importantly) that she is married to and according to all the rules of society belongs with her husband. Once he has her, he does not harm her. He offers her wealth and joy, points to all the other very satisfied and happy women of his harem. Sita turns him down, instead preferring to sit simply beneath a tree in his courtyard and wait for Ram to come for her. Continuing to live as an ascetic, in simple clothes and unbound hair. Raavan tries every day to convince her, but he does not force himself on her. He does not harm an individual person in anyway, including Sita. But he harms the forces of order in the world, of Dharma, and therefore he must be punished. And Ram, as the earthly representative of Dharma, must be the one to punish him.
(That’s why in movies like this there is the whole “the hero could always rescue the heroine but he is waiting for the exact appropriate moment to do it”)