The poem begins from the perspective of Valmiki, the author of them poem. Valmiki is a hermit sitting in meditation when he receives an unexpected visit from Narada, a divine figure. Amazed at the appearance of this holy personage, Valmiki asks him a question he has long wrestled with: is there any man in the world who possesses all virtues? Narada tells him that there is such a man in these very times, and his name is Rama. The holy Narada teaches the story of Rama to Valmiki, who commits it to memory and teaches it to two youths from his asrama, Lava and Kusha. The two youths go forth and recite the Ramayana to kings, rishis, and common people.
The story begins in the city of Ayodhya, located in the land of Kosala. The just and great King Dasaratha rules over this land, but he has one great sorrow in his life: despite his three wives and his advanced age, he has no children. His guru Vasishta tells him to perform a horse sacrifice under the guidance of the rishi Rishyashringa, which the king does.
At the same time, the king of the Devas, Indra, begs the great god Brahma to rid the world of the demon Ravana. Ravana's demons commit terrible violence and pollute holy places, causing great evil on the earth. However, there is a problem. In return for great tapasya (meditation, ritual, penance) that Ravana performed in his youth, he received two blessings from the gods: great strength from the god Siva, and Brahma himself granted Ravana protection from death at the hands of any god or supernatural being. However, Brahma points out that Rama foolishly forgot to ask for protection from human beings, and he will die at the hands of a mortal man. The gods beg Vishnu, the sustainer of the world, to accept birth as a mortal man in order to slay Ravana. Vishnu accepts this task, and tells the deities that he will be born as King Dasaratha's son.
Back on earth, Rishyaringa is chanting the final verses of the horse sacrifice. Suddenly, out of the fire a holy messenger appears, and tells Dasaratha and Rishyaringa to have the queens drink from the vessel he holds. Dasaratha brings the cup to his queens Kausalya, Sumitra, and Kaikeyi, who drink from it. The messenger vanishes.
A few months after, the queens announce their pregnancies. Miraculous signs appear on the earth and in the skies when Kausalya gives birth to Rama, who is the avatar of Vishnu. Shortly after, Kaikeyi gives birth to her son Bharata. The third wife Sumitra gives birth to a set of twin boys, Lakshmana and Shatrughna, because she drank two sips from the cup of the sacred messenger.
The whole kingdom of Ayodhya is filled with delight at the births of the four boys. They learn the arts of war and ruling; they excel at everything they attempt, but the greatest among them is Rama. He is very close with his brother Lakshmana, and the two are rarely parted. But it is his father Dasaratha with whom Rama has the deepest bond. Dasaratha is deeply devoted to Rama, and Rama adores him as well.
One day, the commanding Viswamitra appears at the gates of Ayodhya. He was a king who later became a rishi (wandering ascetic, holy man). Viswamitra is deeply respected for his supernatural powers; he has the ability to see things in other worlds, places, and times. Dasaratha receives this honored figure with great joy, which is dampened somewhat when Viswamitra explains why he has come: he wants Rama to kill the rakshasas who are defiling the sacred place where he lives. Dasaratha is terrified that his young and inexperienced son will come to home when fighting these dangerous demons, but Viswamitra assures him that Rama is the only one who can succeed in this task, and no harm will come to him. Dasaratha grudgingly allows Rama to leave with Viswamitra, and Lakshmana insists on accompanying his brother on this quest.
The rishi and the two young princes set off on a long journey through forests and hills. Viswamitra takes them to the cursed forest, a place where no wind blows and no birds sing. He explains to them that this is the domain of the rakshasi Tataka, who was transformed into a demon after she tried to seduce a holy man. She drinks the blood of living creatures, and now no being can enter this forest. It is the duty of Rama and Lakshmana to kill her and purify the forest, and the boys go forth to seek her without fear.
Tataka, caked with blood and grime, appears and attacks the party. Rama Lakshmana shoot her with arrows while she throws rocks and trees at them. Finally, she is felled by Rama's arrow through her heart. A celestial voice (which comes from Indra) blesses the boys for this task, and the birds, animals, and forest spirits return to the purified place. To express his gratitude, Viswamitra offers the two princes supernatural weapons that are proof against both natural and supernatural enemies; these weapons can be summoned anywhere at anytime with a set of words.
The three continue their journey. Viswamitra tells the story of Vamana, an avatara of Vishnu who took on the form of a dwarf in order to stop the machinations of King Mahabali, who sought to rule earth, heaven, and the underworld. Viswamitra's asrama is in the holy place where Vamana vanquished Mahabali, but this place has been infested by demons, and the young princes need to defeat them.
As Viswamitra is performing a ritual, the rakshasas Maricha and Subahu appear, flinging filth to defile the sacrifice. Rama and Lakshmana jump into action. Rama calls forth one of the supernatural weapons that Viswamitra gave him, shooting an arrow into Maricha's chest. The arrow carries Maricha hundreds of miles and douses him in the sea, purifying him with water and fire but not killing him. Rama brings forth the second supernatural weapon that Viswamitra gave him, and reduces Subahu to a pile of cinders. Viswamitra celebrates this victory with great joy.
As they continue wandering, Viswamitra tells the two princes the story of the great river Ganga, daughter of the mountain spirit Himavan. She was so beautiful that she was given to the Devas as a wife, and she flowed through the heavens as the river of the Milky Way. Around the same time, the King Sagara was born, a distant ancestor of Rama. He had sixty thousand sons from one of his wives and only one from his second wife. The grandson of the second wife, who was named Anshuman, sent forth a horse for a great sacrifice, but Indra spirited it away before the ritual could be completed. Sagara's sixty thousand sons went in search of the horse, but Indra killed them for being rude. Anshuman found the horse and his uncles' ashes, but was unable to perform the funeral ritual needed to bring their souls to peace. A curse was laid on his lineage, until many generations later when one of the kings petitioned Siva to bring down the heavenly Ganga onto the earth. Siva did so, purifying the remains and creating the earthly Ganga, which is one of the holiest natural sites in the Hindu religion.
Viswamitra brings Rama and Lakshmana to the outskirts of the city of Mithila, which is ruled by King Janaka. Viswamitra tells the two princes about the legend of the great sage Maharishi Gautama and his wife Ahalya. Indra the king of the Devas seduced Ahalya and made love to her on the floor of their hut. Gautama walked in and saw them, and was so aggrieved at his wife's betrayal that he turned her to dust. However, Gautama took pity on her and tempered the curse: he told her that when Vishnu is born as a prince of the earth and his feet touch the ground where her dust lies, she will be free. When Rama enters the ancient hut, the spectral image of Ahalya appears, kissing Rama's feet and then disappearing into the air.
The three enter the kingdom of Mithila, which is ruled over by the great King Janaka. Janaka possesses an incredible object: the bow of Siva, which no man can lift. The king has decided that only the man who can lift the bow is worthy of marrying his wonderful daughter Sita, whom he and his wife found in a furrow on sacred ground; the people of the kingdom believe that Sita is the avatara of the goddess Lakshmi.
Rama walks to the bow and, unlike any other man or supernatural being, is able to lift it and string it. In fact, his power is so great that he snaps it in two. Dasaratha and Janaka are filled with joy, and negotiate the marriage between their two children, Sita and Rama. The two youths have already fallen in love with each other from afar. To strengthen the bond between the families, Janaka gives his daughter Urmila to Lakshmana in marriage, and Janaka's brother Kusadhvaja gives his two daughters Mandavi and Srutakirti to Dasaratha's other two sons Bharata and Shatrughna.
After the ceremony, the wedding party is confronted by Bhargava, the ax-bearer, another incarnation of Vishnu. Rama is able to vanquish Bhargava, again proving his divine nature. Varuna, the god of the ocean, suddenly appears and offers Rama the bow of Vishnu, another powerful supernatural weapon.
Rama and Sita, the perfect couple, celebrate their marriage.
Viswamitra's journey with the two princes contains echoes of other great mentorships in other epic tales. He teaches the boys about mystical truths, the land they are to rule, and their own cosmic powers. Later in the tale, Rama and Lakshmana will rely on the lessons learned during this journey with Viswamitra (not to mention the incredible weapons he has given them) in their great battle against evil.
The battle of good versus evil is a major theme in the Ramayana, and it it important to interrogate the meaning of these two supreme values. The Ramayana presents good and evil as diametrically opposed, but it also allows for the possibility of great evil emerging from great virtue. Not a story in which good and evil are necessarily intrinsic: they are the result of choices. For example, Ravana was such a holy person in his youth that the gods themselves granted him gifts of strength and near-invincibility. Ravana is elsewhere described as charismatic, powerful, intelligent, and handsome; in other words, he possesses virtues similar to those that Rama has. However, Ravana decided to use his virtues in a very different way from Rama. Ravana uses his abilities to unjustly seize power, to commit sexual violations, and to pollute sacred places. Evil is usually characterized as misbehavior, abandonment of the right way of action (dharma), and the defiling of sacred places.
A number of shorter myths and legends are woven into the Ramayana. For example, Viswamitra tells the boys a number of stories as they are traveling, such as the tale of Vamana, an earlier incarnation of Vishnu. In some cases, this is a method of foreshadowing; the reader is able to discern Rama's great destiny from these allusions to other incarnations of Vishnu. The incorporation of these other legends into the Ramayana is also a reflection of the historical accumulation. As this epic poem was recited in different places and times, people may have added local legends and stories into it so that they would not be lost. This feature of this text may be confusing to some readers, who are continually introduced to divergent plots and stories within the main text.
The Ramayana assumes that there is a close relationship between the human and the divine. People are not shocked when divine messengers walk out of a fire and give a magical elixir to royal women; human kings might talk to immortal gods or even join them in battle against an enemy. As an avatara, a god may even take on human form, even while maintaining some of his or her divine attributes. In the case of Rama, a human being might be even more powerful than a god in certain ways; Rama is said to possess virtues that even the gods lack, and Rama has the ability to slay Ravana because the evil king has overlooked the power of humanity.
This first book of the Ramayana demonstrates Rama's miraculous powers. Rama's miracles are not only martial (the defeat of the rakshasas), they are also demonstrations of strength and merit (the lifting of Siva's bow), and healing (the liberation of Ahalya). He is not only a great warrior and a strong person, who is also a presence that can purifying wrongdoing and free those who are being punished for terrible acts. In addition to this, he is good, kind, just, and in every way possesses every virtue. For many centuries, Rama has been an exemplar to the people of South Asia.