A Sanskrit epic relating the deeds and life of Rama, a mythical king of Ayodhya, capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala. One of the two great epics of Indian mythology, the other is the Mahabharata. The Ramayana is said to have been written by Valmiki in 24,000 couplets. The work was likely part of an oral tradition with numerous bards adding their own tales to the core story. The Vedic tradition holds the Ramayana to be a purely imaginative work. Like the Mahabharata, it was likely used to educate via example. More than likely, the priestly caste used the examples of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to drill the philosophy of Dharma into their young Kshatriya students (see also the Panchtantra for yet another example of such a thing). Many among the faithful believe it is historically accurate, and much effort has been spent to prove that a mythical battle was fought 3500 years ago on this or that field of grass.
The Ramayana is generally considered to be a more recent tale than the Mahabharata. It is also far more idealized than the Mahabharata. Both epics likely began their life as martial legends, they were then expanded on and used by the priestly caste for didactic purposes. The Ramayana is superior to the Mahabharata in its form and the quality of the verse.
The principal characters:
- Rama: avatar of Vishnu, the one who slays Ravana, a good prince wrongfully denied his throne and forced to live out a 14 year exile in the wild. Predictably enough, his exile is caused by a wicked step-mother who grasps at the throne for her own younger son.
- Laxmana: his ever-faithful brother and sidekick.
- Sita: the faithful wife, torn from the lap of luxury and her throne to survive in the wild. She is kidnapped by Ravana, rescued after the battle, only to have her honour questioned because she has lived (innocently) under the roof of another man's house. Decides to burn herself on a funeral pyre, but Agni the fire god refuses to harm her. In some versions her innocence continues to be questioned till Rama banishes her and she comes to live in Valmiki's ashram and gives birth to Luva and Kusa the twins (this last chapter is considered to be a later addition).
- Ravana: the unrighteous lord of Lanka who kidnaps Sita. In most versions he does this to pacify his sister who has developed an unrequited love for Rama. Rama of course recognizes her for the demon she is and Laxman chops off her ears and nose, prompting a skirmish with some of her cousins, who are all killed by the dynamic duo of Rama and Laxman. In others, Ravana is avenging the killings of his kinsmen. The kidnapping forces Rama to mount a rescue attempt aided by none other than...
- Hanuman: strongest of the monkey-people, all-round althletic overachiever, the one who builds the bridge to Lanka.
As in many oral epics, multiple versions of the Ramayana survive. In particular, the Ramayana related in North India differs in important respects from that preserved in South India and the rest of South-East Asia. There is an extensive tradition of oral storytelling based on the Ramayana in Thailand, Cambodia, Malayasia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. For instance, in many Malay versions, Laxmana is more accorded greater importance than Rama, whose character is considered somewhat weak. Within India alone, there are different regional versions of the Ramayana written by different authors. Some of them differ significantly from each other. A brief list would include Tulsidas (Hindi, 16th century), Premanand (Gujrati, 17th), Krittivas (Bengali, 14th), Balarama das (Oriya, 16th), Sridhara (Marathi, 18th), Ranganatha (Telugu, 12th-15th), Narahari (Kannada, 16th), Kamban (Tamil, 11th), Eluttacan (Malayalam, 17th).
There is a racial element running through the entire Ramayana. It's hard not to notice how every righteous person is light-skinned, and every unrighteous person is dark (note also the home of the villain is Lanka). The story has sometimes been read as a justification for the Aryan invasion of India, when the original Dravidian inhabitants were driven south.
The Ramayana is a political force in India even today. This goes beyond the various politicians who claim their victory will bring Ramrajya (the glorious age of Rama's rule after his return from exile). In 1992, the 16th century Babri masjid (built by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty) in Ayodhya was detroyed by a band of karsevaks organized by the RSS, VHP, BJP and Shiv Sena. The karsevaks were driven by a desire to correct a perceived historic wrong. Though the historical evidence is non-existent they believe Babur destroyed a temple built on the exact spot Ram was born. To most sane people, this will probably sound as fabulous as the search for the true cross. Yet, greater wrongs have been perpetrated on humanity by true believers. Babur never mentions destroying such a temple in his biography the Baburnama, and there is no archeological evidence because the site has not been extensively excavated.
None of the sordid history of how the tale has been used to nefarious ends should prevent you from reading it. It is a beautiful poem and along the way makes some rather stirring ethical conclusions. Familiarity with it is imperative to appreciate the culture and arts of the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia (Angkor for instance). There is another writeup in this node with a better plot outline.
Sources: http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/maxpages/special/ramayana/ and A.L. Bashamn's 'The Wonder that was India'