I want to clarify, I am in no way a religious scholar or even just a regular average Hindu. This is the story and philosophy at the most basic level as I have gleaned it through reading various simple versions of the text, and seeing how it played out in the lives of people I know and in the films.
When last we were here, Sita had been kidnapped by Raavan, finally inspiring Ram to try to defeat Raavan, the reason he was put on earth by the Gods. But Raavan does not harm her. He takes her from her husband, and then leaves it up to her choice whether she will join him in his palace of indulgences. Sita refuses, instead sitting under a tree in his courtyard and waiting for Ram. The lesson is that Raavan’s sin was not against any one person, but rather against the rules of society.
(All of those movies where the “bad guy” doesn’t seem that bad? It’s a dramatic theme, and a philosophical challenge. What are we willing to forgive? What breaks the greater fabric of society and requires complete removal from the fabric of society versus what is a simple sin that can be punished and forgiven?)
Ram and Lakshman determine to rescue Sita and begin a long wandering journey through South Asia. Just as there are many stories of their exile that vary place to place, there are many stories of their travels that vary place to place. Villages all over South Asia have a tradition of their passing through and a spot held sacred to their memory, a tree or a marking on a stone or some other natural sign.
(Also, the origin of SO MANY traveling-to-find-your-true-love songs)
Along the way, Ram and Lakshman become involved in an inheritance dispute in a “monkey” kingdom. The Monkeys represent another version of a society without adherence to Dharma and laws. Like Ram and Bharat, there are two brothers with an inheritance dispute. But unlike Ram and Bharat, they do not consider the exact Dharmic duties they each carry. Instead, they descend into warfare. Ram and Lakshman are approached by the follower of one brother, Hanuman. Hanuman is the noblest figure of the epic, and also the humblest. He was created by the Gods in order to be a servant to Ram and has spent his life waiting for Ram. He begs Ram’s help in the monkey war, and Ram and Lakshman join and quickly win for the brother Hanuman follows.
But after winning, the Monkey King forgets his promise to help Ram and Lakshman find Sita, instead choosing to enjoy the fruits of kingship. Lakshman is furious at this betrayal and threatens the whole kingdom. At which point he is stopped by the former queen who has now switched allegiances and married the other brother. She convinces the new king to honor his promises.
The Monkey Kingdom is what happens when a king does not keep his promises. A wife switching allegiances to her brother-in-law and her husband’s killer, a throne that is twice usurped, a people thrown into uproar with never-ending war. It is on the way towards order, and it is the Queen who can lead them there. This is one of many moments in the story when the women show a deeper understanding of what is happening and what is important than the men. Or at least a different understanding, a sense of the bigger picture. On the one hand, it is the female servant who encourages Wife 2 back at the beginning to demand the boon from her husband and put her son on the throne. And it is Raavan’s sister who desires Ram and Lakshman and in resentment sets the plan in motion to take Sita. But Sita and the Monkey Queen Tara see the gaps in the laws and turn them to good, Sita finds a way to remain ever faithful to her Dharma even while in Raavan’s grasp. Tara finds a way to use the lawlessness of the Monkey Kingdom in order to keep her power and help ease it towards law.
(in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, remember how Kajol and Jaya obeyed the letter of the law handed down by their husbands but not the spirit? Jaya gives Kajol her bangles, and Kajol later tricks Amitabh in order to get his blessing?)
The Monkeys run from the north to the south and the east to the west of the country, and those to the south find evidence of Sita. Finally, Ram and Lakshman have direction. They set off, with Hanuman, to find and rescue Sita.
Sita is still waiting in Raavan’s keeping. Raavan’s kingdom, Lanka, is a place where all desires are fulfilled. The people are rampantly sexual and earthy. Sita, in her purity, begins playing games under her tree. Slowly the people are captured by what she is doing, rolling dice and creating a game board. As Ram and Lakshman approach Lanka from the outside, Sita weakens it from within. The people leave the indulgences that Raavan has given them, instead preferring to play the simple games Sita has invented. Raavan, day after day, is weakened as he goes to Sita and tries to sway her only to find her ever faithful to Ram.
(You know all the “sexy ladies dancing in the den of bandits and evil” moments? Or “female henchwoman sexily makes out with top bad guy”? That’s this, the demons are all about pleasures of the body)
Hanuman is sent to cross the sea to the island Lanka and find Sita. He grows to an enormous height and leaps across. He defeats the guardians of Lanka and finds Sita. She could easily return with him. But she refuses, declaring that it will only be “right” if Ram himself comes for her. A sign of Sita’s higher knowledge and understanding, she knows that this is all a play of Dharma. Ram must defeat Raavan, Order must defeat Disorder, and then the world will be set right. If Raavan took Sita, than Ram must be the one to take her back. Hanuman returns without Sita, but with word that she is well and safe and Lanka is close.
Raavan also has a faithless brother, which is his weakness. Or rather, his flaw. Raavan’s failure to live up to family duty leads to his brother leaving him (as the perfect brothers of Ram would never do) and standing against him. This brother joins the forces of Ram and Lakshman and helps them to reach Lanka. By the time they arrive, Ram and Lakshman are now leading an army of Monkey allies gained through Hanuman and disaffected demon allies lead by Raavan’s brother. Lawful fairness attracts allies, while unfairness creates enemies.
(Remember all those movies where the hero’s goodness converts allies to his cause?)
In the final battle, the worst moment comes when Lakshman is hit and fatally wounded. A rare plant from the Himalayas might save him. Hanuman rushes off to find it, but is not sure which plant it is. And so he lifts up an entire mountain and brings it back in order to save Lakshman.
Finally, Raavan is defeated and Sita rescued. But is Raavan defeated by Ram’s warfare skill and strength? Or by the betrayal of his brother which weakened his own forces? Or was he defeated long before by Sita’s working away at his spirit and his people, her purity defeating their impurity? There is no one answer and no right answer, it is an open question to be debated, as are many parts of the epic.
Ram and Sita are reunited. But Ram is concerned, by remaining within the gates of Lanka, away from her husband, Sita has become impure. He asks (or Sita offers, depending) a trial by fire. She will step into the fire of the fire God Agni (one of the oldest Gods) and her impurities will burn off. In other versions, it was Agni who kept her pure through out the time with Raavan and she must burn him away from her before she is able to return to Ram. Every interpretation agrees that it is a sign of Sita’s great and powerful purity, her greatness beyond even Ram, that she is able to step into the fire and out again without being touched.
(In the same way, Basanti’s dance in Sholay shows her greater strength and bravery even over Jai and Veeru. And so many other movies where the heroine has a moment of somehow showing an even greater strength than the hero)
Sita now purified, Ram and Sita and Lakshman return to their kingdom. Their banishment is over, and so is the task for which they were set on earth, the defeat of Raavan. Now they must live their lives following their own Dharma as rulers. And, not so coincidentally, Ram and Sita can finally consummate their marriage (as can Lakshman and Urmila). This time of being together-but-not is finally ended.
Sita becomes pregnant and the kingdom rejoices. It is Ram’s greatest joy. But then he overhears a washerman (a washerman being one of the lower castes of society) talking about how he cannot complain about his wife straying if even Ram accepts Sita. Ram realizes that he has run into another Dharmic problem. By forgiving Sita, in the eyes of the public he has broken with a social law and society is therefore falling down around him. As king, where does his responsibility lie?
Ram determines that he has a duty to remain clean and perfect in the eyes of the public. He is a servant of the public, even the lowly washerman has a right to judge him. And so he asks Sita to undergo another public trial by fire in order to wash out all doubts.
Now, we have another Dharmic conundrum. Ram, as king, has a greater duty to the rule of law and the opinions of the public than anything else. It may pain him, but he must require of Sita the proof of her innocence that the public is requesting. But Sita, as a wife, does not have the same duty to the people. She has proved her purity to her husband alone, she does not agree to prove it again to the greater public. Her husband is enough for her. And she herself holds within her the power to refuse his demands. And so she does. And Ram, with no other choice, banishes her.
(Roja for instance, the heroine only cares about getting her husband back, while the hero cares about the greater problems of his country and the complicated moral issues surrounding his kidnapping)
Ram, as king, must banish a wife who damages him and his laws in the eyes of the people, because it is his Dharma to answer to the people above all. But as a man, he has no duty to take a second wife. And so rather than find a replacement for Sita, he prefers to have a statue of her built and take it with him to public functions in the place of the real woman. A reminder to all that he has done the correct thing as king, but he has paid a sad price as a man.
Sita leaves the palaces that restricted her. She came from the fields and the earth, she was protected and tested by fire, she is of an older power than the Gods of law and order that Ram answers to. Sita goes back to the forest and gives birth to twin sons, Luv and Kush. She raises them to honor their father as a symbol of all law (as is right) and teaches them lessons and skills. And years later, Ram comes to the forest and meets these two boys and knows them as his sons.
Ram finds Sita as well and is overcome by his love for her and sorrow at her ordeal. He begs her to return with him and her sons. But Sita refuses, she has gone beyond his world. Instead, she calls upon the Earth (just as in Lanka she called upon Fire) to take her. She disappears forever into the earth, Ram loses her, his price for his righteousness. Ram returns to his kingdom reunited with his sons, lives a long life, and finally is told by the Gods that his job has been completed and he may return to heaven with them.
So, that’s it! That’s the Ramayan! There are many many more stories within it, and each of them has far more philosophical conundrums and considerations that I did not even scratch the surface of. But the most important thing to take away from it is that when you are looking at Indian films, and their plots and characters, it is not about a novelistic concept of complex characters, but rather about a series of situations with seemingly simple solutions that in fact require great thought to consider which is the best possible result.