The narrator prefaces this chapter by saying upfront that it's a puzzling episode: Rama, the perfect man, commits a morally questionable act by shooting a creature that didn't harm him. The narrator says that this is one of the most controversial episodes in the story. He introduces the land, Kiskinda, which is ruled over and peopled by monkeys that possess the intellect and nobility of humans.
The narrator makes it very clear that Rama doesn't always behave like the perfect hero he's supposed to be. This lapse is possibly a later addition to Valmiki's text, which continues to develop the idea that the Ramayana has gone through a number of changes over the course of various centuries and cultures.
Rama and Lakshmana enter Kiskinda while searching desperately for Sita. Hanuman, the helper of Kiskinda's king, Sugreeva, watches them enter. He assumes the form of a scholar and observes that Lakshmana and Rama look human, yet godlike. He steps out and introduces himself, welcoming the men to Sugreeva's kingdom. Rama realizes that Hanuman is powerful, despite looking like a scholar. Lakshmana introduces himself and Rama to Hanuman, and tells him their story.
Our introduction to Hanuman (one of the most popular characters of the epic, and Hindu mythology in general) sets him up as being an extremely observant character: he recognizes outright that Rama is divine, and Rama similarly recognizes Hanuman's power. Lakshmana also acts ideally in this meeting by taking charge of the introductions and generally behaving as Rama's right hand man.
Hanuman bows at Rama's feet, though Rama insists that a scholar shouldn't do that. Hanuman explains that he only assumed this form to greet Rama. He retakes his monkey form and returns with Sugreeva. Sugreeva mentions offhandedly that like Rama, he suffers in exile. Hanuman tells Sugreeva's story.
Hanuman already shows devotion to Rama. Taking a human form to greet Rama and Lakshmana is one way that Hanuman shows his goodness: he cares for his companions' comfort and doesn't want to scare them.
Hanuman says that Sugreeva's brother, Vali, long ago won immeasurable strength. He also has the power that states that anyone who fights him gives half their strength to him. Everyone and everything, including Ravana, feared him. He was the king of Kiskinda, with Sugreeva second in command, and everyone was happy. One day, a demon challenged Vali to a fight and Vali chased the demon into an underground passage, telling Sugreeva to rule until he returned. After 28 months, Sugreeva's advisors thought Vali had surely died and sealed the tunnel, crowning Sugreeva as king.
Vali emerges as one of the most physically powerful characters of the Ramayana, though it's still unknown whether he has emotional intelligence, goodness, or loyalty to match his physical strength. Sugreeva is already demonstrating that he is exceptionally loyal: he did exactly what his brother asked him to do, and consulted his advisors before taking action to fill Vali's role as king.
Eventually, Vali tried to exit the tunnel and was enraged when he found the tunnel blocked. He broke out of the tunnel, reached Kiskinda, and when Sugreeva tried to welcome his brother, Vali accused Sugreeva of trying to bury him alive. As Vali pummeled Sugreeva, Sugreeva tried to explain what happened but couldn't. Sugreeva escaped to this particular mountain, where Vali can't set foot because of a curse. Vali returned to Kiskinda, assumed the role of king, and took Sugreeva's wife.
Vali allowed his emotions to overpower his thinking. At least in Hanuman's presentation, there's no indication that Sugreeva was indeed trying to bury Vali alive or usurp the crown. This encourages a reader or listener to identify with Sugreeva, as he possesses loyalty and goodness, but not the physical strength of his brother.
This story moves Rama, and he offers Sugreeva his help. Hanuman and Sugreeva speak privately, and Hanuman says that he believes that Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu and should therefore be able to defeat Vali. Further, Hanuman was told by his father years ago to dedicate his life to serving Vishnu. He says to test Rama's identity, they must ask him to shoot an arrow through the trunks of powerful trees. They return to Rama and ask him to do so. Rama shoots an arrow through seven trees, seven worlds, and seven seas, and the arrow returns to his quiver.
Rama proves his heroic nature by using his bow and arrow. This mirrors his stringing of Shiva's bow; both events are indicative of the fact that Rama is the ideal hero in part because of his skill with the bow. Rama decides to give his loyalty to Sugreeva outright rather than attempt to talk to Vali first. While Rama's newfound loyalty is entirely within the bounds of his character, not even attempting to discover the other side of the story is not.
Rama then notices a pile of bones and asks Sugreeva about them. Sugreeva tells Dundubi's story. Dundubi was a monstrous buffalo-shaped demon. Dundubi had sought out Vishnu and asked for the privilege of fighting forever. Dundubi was eventually directed to Vali, and the two fought for a year. Vali finally bested the demon and flung his body into the sky. It came down on the mountain where a sage was performing a sacrifice. The sage then cursed Vali.
The stories of Vali's exceptional strength create some tension as to how exactly Rama plans to kill this magnificent being. The story of Dundubi also continues to develop the idea that the gods play a very direct role in life on earth, though their interference doesn't always yield positive results: the sage was likely praying to one of the gods that caused this to happen.
Rama tells Lakshmana to get rid of the bones. Lakshmana kicks the bones away, returning the spot to its sacred state. Sugreeva tells Rama that he saw Ravana carry Sita away a while ago, and gives Rama some of Sita's jewelry. Rama cries and faints. Sugreeva promises to find Sita. Rama laments that he let Sita down, but Hanuman and Sugreeva begin to engage Rama in plans to find Sita.
Rama spreads good in the world by ridding the mountain of the cursed bones. He also shows how dedicated he is to Sita with his breakdown; this is the first mention of Rama fully losing composure over the loss of his wife. His rational nature wins out, however, as Hanuman and Sugreeva turn his attention to planning.
Hanuman says that they must first do away with Vali so that Sugreeva can be crowned king. The group travels to a mountain in Kiskinda, where Sugreeva shouts and challenges Vali to a fight. Vali is asleep, but when he hears the challenge he angrily wakes up. Vali's wife, Tara, tries to reason with Vali, but Vali is intent on fighting Sugreeva. Tara quietly mentions that Rama has joined with Sugreeva, and Rama has an invincible bow. Vali calls Tara foolish and insists that Rama is too righteous to try to kill him. Vali leaves and runs to the mountainside for the fight.
Though Vali shows that he's driven by anger and a desire to fight, he also functions under the assumption that all parties involved in a fight are going to behave honorably. What he knows of Rama is that Rama is honorable to a fault. Though under normal circumstances Vali isn't wrong, it's suggested that Vali will be punished for this extreme self-assuredness.
Hidden away from the battle, Rama is in awe of Vali's strength. He and Lakshmana debate whether involving themselves in this fight is proper. Lakshmana questions whether or not Sugreeva is trustworthy, but Rama insists that they shouldn't be overly analytical. The monkeys fight brutally during this discussion. In a pause, Sugreeva begs Rama for help. Rama asks Sugreeva to wear a vine around his neck so he's identifiable, and the monkey brothers return to their fight. When Vali lifts Sugreeva over his head, Rama shoots Vali straight through the heart with an arrow.
Lakshmana again demonstrates that he's just as capable of thinking rationally and logically as Rama is. In this case, he certainly has a point. However, Rama believes that he's behaving loyally to Sugreeva and upholding the promise he made to help him, which allows him to shoot Vali with a clear conscience. This lapse, however, does help create the sense that Rama is very much human and prone to human mistakes despite his divine origins. Alternately, it could show a discrepancy in the source material for the poem, as Rama’s apparent break in character could be the result of another poet’s influence.
Vali pauses, slowly lets go of Sugreeva, and wraps his hands, feet, and tail around the arrow. The god of death steps back in admiration. Vali wonders who could have possibly shot him, and feels admiration for whoever shot the arrow. He draws the arrow out of his chest and blood spurts out, sending Sugreeva into tears. Vali studies the arrow and sees Rama's name, thinking that Tara had better judgment than he did.
Vali's strength doesn't diminish as he's close to death, as evidenced by the god of death himself allowing Vali to live a little longer. The narration presents Vali's impending death as punishment for not listening to his wife or advisors: teaching the lesson that good listening skills are absolutely necessary to rule well.
Vali asks Rama why he did this, saying that this destroys Rama's virtues. He questions if this is a heroic act on Rama's part, and asks if Rama seeks to engineer in Kiskinda the same thing that happened in Ayodhya. He says if Rama had asked, he would've killed Ravana instantly. Vali asks again how Rama's actions were honorable.
Because the narrator already suggested that Rama's actions are very out of character, the reader is supposed to see that Vali makes very good points in his address to Rama. However, Vali's address also allows Rama something to refute and use logic to escape from, rather than damning him.
Rama approaches Vali and explains to the dying monkey what happened after he pursued the demon into the tunnel. He explains to Vali that he didn't offer Sugreeva any mercy and instead, tried to kill him. Rama continues, saying that taking Sugreeva's wife was dishonorable, and since Sugreeva asked Rama to help, he was duty bound to kill Vali.
Even if Rama is at fault here, he doesn't acknowledge it at all. Instead, he uses the qualities that make him an ideal hero, namely the willingness to teach, to show Vali why he needed to be killed.
Vali tells Rama he's misjudging everything: it's a legitimate action in the monkey society to take his brother's wife. He insists that human codes of ethics aren't applicable to monkey society. Rama refuses to be swayed; he says that the monkeys are intelligent enough to know right from wrong and because of their intelligence, should be judged by high standards.
Rama essentially insists that if one is capable of thinking and behaving like a human, one must be held to human standards. This shows that he believes that humans are more capable of good than animals, and that being considered human should be a compliment to a monkey like Vali.
Vali accepts this and asks Rama why he shot him from hiding. Lakshmana explains that if Rama had spoken to Vali, he might have been forced to break his promise to Sugreeva. Again, Vali sees the logic in this and says that "simple-minded ones like me" constantly struggle with eternal truth, and that Rama's reasoning is elevating and honoring. Vali says that he hopes Sugreeva will be worthy of Rama's trust, and asks Rama to treat Sugreeva kindly if Sugreeva betrays him.
Though the narrator's preface to this chapter suggests that Rama certainly should've spoken to Vali before killing him, Lakshmana insists that Rama was in actuality following through with his promises and acting honorably. Regardless, Vali becomes more human, in a sense, as he understands Rama's explanation (however problematic modern readers might find it). This shows that Rama can use his ability to teach to help others elevate themselves.
Finally, Vali asks Rama to explain to others that Sugreeva brought about Vali's salvation, not just his death. He then offers Hanuman to serve Rama, and tells Sugreeva to serve Rama. Vali names Sugreeva his successor. The narrator says that this is the saddest part of the story. Tara and Vali's son, Angada, retrieve Vali's body, but Vali's spirit finds a place in the high heavens.
Because of Rama's teachings on Vali's deathbed, Vali does attain salvation in death. This is indicative of Rama's power and leadership qualities. By tasking Hanuman and Sugreeva with serving Rama, Vali creates a promise that Hanuman and Sugreeva can't break, which insures that Rama will have support going forward.