This is a quick primer for anyone who wants to understand the Hindu god Rama.
The Ramayana is the story of Rama, a prince of the mythological kingdom of Ayodhya in North India (after which a town is still named today). It is said to have been written by the poet Valmiki.
Rama is the eldest of the four main royal sons of the King of Ayodhya, Dasaratha, through his three chief queens, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Rama, along with his three brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna gets trained in arms and statecraft, as royal princes do. At a young age, he gets advanced arms training under the king-turned-sage Vishwamitra, and during this apprenticeship kills the dreaded demon, Tataka.
Rama marries Sita, the daughter of the king Janaka of Mithila, by winning her in a contest set up by her father, whereby only those strong enough to lift and string a heavy, divine bow would be qualified to marry his daughter. Rama is the only one among the assembled princes who succeeds in stringing and even breaking the bow by his strength, and brings Sita home to Ayodhya.
Rama is anointed the crown prince by his father Dasaratha. But his step-mother Kaikeyi wants her own son Bharata to be king. So she calls an old debt in, whereby the king had promised her that he would grant any two wishes she ever wanted any time in the future. So Kaikeyi asks that Bharata become king, and that Rama be exiled to 14 years in the forest. The king is heartbroken but has to honour his word. He orders Rama to be exiled. Rama has to obey the order or rebel, and he chooses to obey. The king dies in grief soon after.
Rama’s loyal brother Lakshmana, and his wife Sita join him in wandering from forest to forest. Towards the end of their stay in the Dandaka forest, they meet the asura (demon) princess, Shoorpanakha, who falls in lust with Rama. Rama refuses her attentions as he is married. Shoorpanakha realizes that Sita is the reason Rama refuses her, and tries to attack her, upon which Lakshmana cuts off her nose as humiliation.
Shoorpanakha complains to her brothers, the asuras Khara and Dooshana, who attack Rama and Lakshmana in revenge and are killed. A humiliated Shoorpanakha goes to her brother Ravana, the mighty king of Lanka, asking him to avenge her humiliation. She tells him about Sita’s beauty to motivate him. Ravana’s initial reaction is to confront Rama directly, but Shoorpanakha convinces him that a better way would be to abduct Sita and let Rama die in grief.
Ravana agrees and recruits the services of his uncle Mareecha, who changes his form to that of a golden deer and prances about near Rama’s forest residence. The beautiful deer catches the eye of Sita, who asks Rama to kill the deer for her so that she can sit on the dead deer's beautiful skin.
The deer leads Rama on a long chase. Mareecha, being a demon, can run much faster than normal deer, and leads Rama far away from his hermitage. During this time, Ravana is waiting for a chance to abduct Sita, but Lakshmana has been left to guard Sita. When Rama catches up with Mareecha and finally kills him, the deer changes its form back to that of the asura. In his dying breath, Mareecha screams in Rama’s voice, “O Lakshmana, O Sita” - in a voice loud enough to be heard by Sita and Lakshmana.
Sita is worried and asks Lakshmana to go to Rama’s aid. Lakshmana tells Sita that he does not believe this was Rama’s cry, as there is no one in the world capable of injuring Rama. Upon this, Sita accuses Lakshmana of lusting for her, and tells him she will never become his wife even if Rama dies. Unable to bear Sita’s accusations, Lakshmana goes to help Rama.
Ravana takes advantage of Rama and Lakshmana’s absence, and abducts Sita and takes her to Lanka. On the way, he is confronted by the vulture king Jataayu, whom he mortally wounds in battle.
Rama and Lakshmana return to the hermitage and find Sita missing. After much searching, they find the dying Jataayu and learn that Ravana had kidnapped Sita. But they do not know where Ravana is. After an encounter with the demon Kabandha, they learn that the person who could help them reach Ravana is the tribal prince Sugreeva (the tribals are also referred to in the story as “vaanaras,” or monkeys – which doesn’t make sense, because monkeys cannot talk; and so I have interpreted “vaanar” as tribal) who lives in the Rishyamukha forest with his faithful friend Hanuman.
When they meet Sugreeva, he tells them of his story. He and his elder brother Vaali were very close, until a misunderstanding caused Vaali to suspect that Sugreeva was trying to steal his kingdom of Kishkindha from him. So he exiled Sugreeva and even made Sugreeva’s wife his own. Sugreeva makes a deal with Rama: if Rama will kill Vaali and make Sugreeva king of Kishkindha, he will help Rama find Sita with all his tribal warriors. Rama accepts.
Rama realizes that Vaali is a formidable enemy whom he simply cannot defeat in face-to-face combat. So he asks Sugreeva to challenge Vaali to a face-to-face fight, and when they are fighting, Rama, hidden among the trees, shoots an arrow that kills Vaali. Sugreeva, true to his word, mobilizes his tribal army and they march towards Lanka. They reach the southern shore (i.e., modern Rameshwaram) and then build a bridge over the sea to Lanka.
Before they march towards Lanka, Hanuman jumps over the sea to Lanka and asks Ravana to hand over Sita to Rama. Ravana refuses, and orders Hanuman’s tail (recall that Hanuman was a vaanar/monkey) to be set on fire. With his fiery tail, Hanuman sets all of Lanka ablaze before returning to Rameswaram.
Rama’s objective of defeating Ravana becomes a lot easier when Ravana’s younger brother Vibheeshana sees an opportunity for himself in dethroning his powerful brother. He switches allegiances to Rama’s side and helps Rama win against Ravana by revealing all of Ravana’s secrets and those of his strong son, Meghnad (also known as Indrajit because he once defeated the king of the Gods, Indra, in combat). Without knowing these secrets, Rama would have been unable to kill Ravana. In return, Rama crowns him as king of Lanka after killing Ravana.
After killing Ravana and all of his warriors, Rama liberates Sita from her imprisonment. He tells Sita coldly that he did not engage in this great war out of love for her but because her abduction was a personal dishonour to him which he needed to avenge. He also tells her that he cannot accept her as a wife because she had spent all this time in Ravana’s kingdom, so her fidelity is suspect; and that now that he has liberated her, she is free to go anywhere she chooses.
Unable to bear these words, Sita prepares a fire and jumps into it. But the god of the fire, Agni, brings her out of the fire unscathed and hands her to Rama, vouching for her fidelity, and Rama accepts her as his wife again.
Rama comes back to Ayodhya with a hero’s welcome after 14 years and becomes the king. Sometime later, his spies overhear a washerman berating his wife for having spent the night at another man’s home, saying, “Rama may accept a woman who has spent the night at another man’s home, but I am not Rama.”
Rama is shocked that the people of his kingdom have a low opinion of him, and to set matters right, he immediately orders his brother Lakshmana to take his pregnant wife Sita the next morning to the forest, without even having a discussion with her on the matter. Sita learns of her banishment from Ayodhya only after Lakshmana leaves her in the forest with nowhere to go. Weak and pregnant, Sita faints in the forest after her abandonment by Lakshmana and Rama.
By a stroke of luck, Sita is found by attendants of the sage Valmiki who take her to his hermitage, where she recovers and later gives birth to her twin sons Lava and Kusha.
The two sons grow up to become fine warriors, educated by Valmiki. During their teenage years, Rama decides to conduct a sacrifice called the Ashwamedha sacrifice (a horse sacrifice) which signifies overlordship of the known world. Wherever the royal horse wanders is considered part of Rama’s kingdom. Anyone obstructing the path of the horse or capturing it would have to face the might of Rama’s army. When the horse comes through the jungle, the two boys capture it. The army of Ayodhya comes after them but is no match for them. Finally Rama himself comes to fight the twins, and is then told that the twins are his children.
Rama is delighted to know this, and accepts the twins as his children, but is unwilling to accept Sita as his wife. A mentally-exhausted Sita commits suicide.
Sometime later, Rama receives complaints that a Shudra (the lowest among the four castes of Hinduism) is performing prayer and penance in the forest. This being disallowed in Hindu scripture, he is told many bad things are happening in the kingdom. Rama sets out in search of the Shudra, Shambuka, who is performing penance and worship to the Gods as an ascetic. Once Rama confirms his identity, he immediately executes him without even as much as a warning. The Gods and the brahmin sages shower flowers and and sing songs in praise of Rama for upholding the social order.
Finally, after a long reign upholding the social order of the day, for which he is known as “maryada-purushottam,” or “one who follows social rules to the letter, better than anyone else” Rama and his brothers die, and the kingdom passes on to Lava and Kusha.
This is the end of the Ramayana.
For his various deeds, Rama is revered in Hinduism as the “ideal man.” He is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and many temples have been constructed in honour of him.