Story-day is for cultural exploration, puraanas and parables and finding out about leading lights in spiritual philosophy.
India is blessed with an amazingly rich literature. The majority of it is also sacred. In the West, certainly in modern times, we are inclined to live our lives according to examples set by popular 'literature' - which is now mainly available in film. By putting our characters into a visual format, there is a tendency to blur the lines; one only has to think of the influence of Tolkein or Rowling to understand this example. The need for a hero, to see good win over evil and to have a set of 'rules' by which to live.
In India, this has been going on for centuries and continues even today. However, the heros, the storylines and the outcomes and rules given, are all contained in the puraanas - the ultimate soap operas! महाभारत/Mahaabharata and रामायन/Ramaayana are beyond par for giving the common person a 'guide to life'. There are countless visual re-tellings available, both in anime and live actor format; as recently as 2008, almost the whole of India stopped when the epic was given a modern makeover for television. Indians have their imaginations sparked by scripture. It is a wonderful thing.
The Ramaayana itself falls into the स्मृति/smriti category of Sanskrit works; it means 'remembered'. Given the oral history within Sanskrit, this means that the story has existed as long as memory and was learned in this way also. The commitment to written form is attributed to sage Valmiki. Many other variants arose, but the Valmiki version is considered authoritative, though the "Tulsi-Ramaayan" is much favoured when staging. (Sage Goswami Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas - the 'lake of the deeds of Rama' - and it gives all the essentials). As with all such things, there is debate about whether the tale is pure fiction, myth, or fact. Mostly these stories are confined to the 'myth' basket. It is worth noting, though, that myth - like smoke - cannot exist without the 'fire' which lit it. What is important here is that both the Mahaabharata and Ramaayana provide a structure for life, demonstrating the pitfalls, showing the benefits of a constrained and devout life and giving examples of the best of daily living. In this respect Sri Rama, considered to be the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, arrived in human form and lived a full life with his people, setting them an example of living divinely on Earth. (Other incarnations all came for specific periods to address particular situations - notable other exception being Sri Krishna.) Rama was the ideal son, the ideal husband, the ideal brother, the ideal leader, ...and the original 'Sun King'!
The accepted history in Sanskritam, then, is that Sri Rama was born to Kausalya, one of king Dasharatha's three wives, in Treta Yuga (we will talk about yugas at later time); he had half siblings in the form of Bharata (mother Kaikeyi) and Lakshmana and Shatrughna (mother Sumitra). All the brothers shared in their education equally. As happens in families, there can be some bonds a little stronger than others. Shatrughna showed particular care for Bharata and Lakshmana revered Rama.
When Rama was but 16 years, sage Vishwamitra came to आयोध्य/Aayodhya and requested of Dasharatha that Rama and Lakshmana be sent with the sage to slay the राक्षसाः/raakshasa-s (demons) who were disturbing the forest ashram. The king was reluctant but allowed it and Rama proved his worth even at this age, as an archer and hunter.
Vishvamitra then brought the two brothers to Mithila where king Janaka was holding स्वयंवर /swayamvara… a process of finding a suitor for his daughter Sita. The test was to lift and string the mighty bow which belonged to Lord Rudra (Shiva). All the princes failed - but now came Rama! He not only lifted and stringed the bow, but his strength was such he snapped the bow in half. Sita became Rama's wife, and the three other princes also found wives.
When Dashartha grew old, he wanted to install Rama as the crown prince. However, due to a promise he had given to Kaikeyi long before and which she now reminded him (as pushed by her crooked maid Manthara). She was to be granted two boons. For one, she asked that Rama should be banished for fourteen years. For the second, she asked that her own son, Bharata, be made crown prince.
The king was distraught, but also wished to honour his word. Rama, hearing of it, showed fine example by saying he would gladly accept the exile. He, Sita-ji and Lakshmana left the palace and headed into the forest. The loss of his fine son caused such pain to Dasharatha, he died. Bharata, who had great reverence and love for Rama, tried in vain to bring Rama back. Failing, he ultimately installed Rama's padukas (sandals) on the throne, refusing to sit there himself, and ruled from the floor beneath them in the name of Rama.
Rama and companions came to Panchavati. Here, they passed happy and devout times. However, things started to go awry when the rakshasa Maricha deluded the brothers by taking form of a golden deer. Sita so wanted that deer (desire!!!) that Rama went in search. When Marichi then mimicked Rama's voice callling for help, Lakshmana too was lured away. Then the king of Lanka, Raavana, was able to trick Sita into thinking he was a sadhu looking for alms. Having heart, she crossed the line of fire which Lakshmana had left to protect her and thus Raavana kidnapped her. [This king is often depicted with ten heads and as some sort of devil; however this is symbolism for the fact that he was actually a very talented man in his own right, being a polymath - ie with many 'heads' - but plagued with a materialistic and highly egotistical personality...which does 'bedevil' the unwary!] He carried Sita to Lanka in his airship - and you thought science fiction was new! - killing the king of the birds, Jatayu, who tried valiantly to save the queen. In Lanka, Sita was pleaded by Raavana to become his queen, but she was fully absorbed in the thought of Rama. Jealous Raavana therefore imprisoned her in a garden grove.
Rama's search for Sita is long and arduous. He and Lakshmana find the dying Jatayu, who is able to give them the news till the point of his stabbing; they also meet the king of the वानराः/vaanara-s (monkeys), Sugriiva, helping him in his own battle against his brother Vali (who had usurped the vanara throne), thus making allies. Among them, of course, was Hanuman-ji, who became the most devoted servant of Sri Rama.
When all the allies arrived at the foot of India, it was found that there was an ocean between them and Lanka - therefore Sita. Hanuman plays his greatest part now, as he is able to summon the powers of his birth and fly across the ocean, defeat the rakshasa defences and get to Sita, bringing her a ring token and news of her impending rescue. All the animal armies, from the smallest squirrel (who earned the three stripes which adorn his back for his efforts), to the mightiest bears and elephants and all the monkeys and of course the human allies Rama and Lakshmana had been able to rally, were able to build a bridge by which they could cross to Lanka and there ensued a mighty battle. Raavana was finally defeated and Sita restored to Rama.
They returned to Aayodhya in Northern India by pushpaka - the airships. There they found Bharata, still serving as regent and rejoicing at the return of the rightful heir to the throne. Thus began the long and prosperous reign of Rama which is considered to be the 'Golden Age'. It is written that, "untimely death visited not the subjects of Rama. They enjoyed freedom from disease. Women had not to bewail the loss of their husbands or children, for there was not war. No robbers, cheats or false dealers were there; for each man loved his neighbour as himself. Trees yielded fruits per their rightful season; harvest never failed and people were satisfied with the fruits of their labour. Everywhere there was joy, health and happiness."
All images are of Sydney branch of Chinmaya Mission Yuvakendra production, presented in 2011 before Guruji and Swami Swaroopananda-ji, head of Australasia and UK.