Dasaratha, king of Kosala, is childless and desperately wants a son to succeed him as king. He asks his mentor for help. His mentor remembers a vision in which the gods appealed to Vishnu to help them defeat Ravana, a demon who uses his powers for evil. Vishnu agreed to incarnate as a human to defeat Ravana. The messenger tells Dasaratha to call a specific sage to conduct a sacrifice. When the sacrifice is complete, Dasaratha's three wives bear sons. Kausalya has Rama, Kaikeyi has Bharatha, and Sumithra has the twins Lakshmana and Sathrugna.
One day, the sage Viswamithra comes to Dasaratha and asks that Rama accompany him to protect him during a sacrifice. Dasaratha is heartbroken, but agrees, and sends Lakshmana with Rama. As Viswamithra travels with the boys, he tells them the story of a demoness named Thataka. Thataka appears and threatens to eat the travelers, but Viswamithra instructs Rama to kill her. Rama does, and the gods ask Viswamithra to teach Rama about weapons. Viswamithra tells the boys several more stories before they reach the site of the sacrifice. Rama assures the sages and saints of their safety as they begin the sacrifice, and he shoots the gathered demons with his bow. Viswamithra then takes the boys to Mithila City.
When they enter the city, Rama sees a beautiful young woman on a balcony. The woman, Sita, sees Rama as well and is immediately overcome with love for him. She spends the night moving from bed to bed, trying to get comfortable. Rama does the same. The next day, Rama meets King Janaka. When he sees Rama, Janaka laments that Rama can't marry his daughter, Sita: he set the condition that a suitor must be able to lift and string Shiva's bow, a massive bow once owned by the god. Viswamithra asks if Rama can attempt to string the bow. Rama not only strings the bow, he breaks it. A handmaid tells Sita, and she's overjoyed to learn that Rama won her hand. Janaka invites Dasaratha to the wedding in Mithila. After the ceremony, Rama's brothers marry other women from Mithila, and they return to Ayodhya, the capital city of Kosala.
Dasaratha realizes he's getting old and names Rama his successor. Rama accepts this, and they begin to prepare for Rama's coronation the following day. Everyone is happy that Rama will be king except for Kooni, Kaikeyi's companion. She convinces Kaikeyi that Rama will treat her poorly if he's crowned king. When Dasaratha comes to Kaikeyi that night, she asks him to grant her two boons that he promised her years ago, and asks that Dasaratha banish Rama to the forest for 14 years and crown Bharatha king instead. Dasaratha doesn't want to agree, but feels he must. The next morning, advisers find Dasaratha and Kaikeyi, Dasaratha in a faint. Kaikeyi explains what happened and asks for Rama. When Rama arrives, he agrees to go into exile. Ministers, Lakshmana, and Kausalya attempt to convince Rama to stay, but he insists on leaving. Rama dresses in clothes made of bark. Though he tries to convince them to stay, Lakshmana and Sita insist on joining Rama in exile. As Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita leave the city, a sad crowd follows them. Sathrugna helps the three escape unnoticed that night. When he tells Dasaratha the next day that Rama left, Dasaratha dies. When Bharatha returns to the city and finds out what happened, he dresses in bark and goes to Rama to try and convince him to return. Rama insists on remaining in exile, however, and Bharatha decides to rule as a regent from outside the city.
Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita travel far away from Ayodhya so that people won't come to convince them to return. They meet Jatayu, a great eagle who was a friend of Dasaratha's. He promises to protect Rama until he can return from exile. One day, Rama sees a beautiful woman approaching their dwelling. Though she uses a fake name, she's Soorpanaka, a demon and Ravana's sister. She tries to woo Rama and convince him to marry her, but he refuses. Soorpanaka spends the night in agony and decides the next morning that if she can kill Sita, Rama will love her. When Rama leaves the dwelling the next day, Soorpanaka stalks Sita and jumps on her. Lakshmana rescues Sita and chops off Soorpanaka's nose, ears, and breasts. When Rama returns, he tries to explain to Soorpanaka who he is, but it has no effect on her. Rama tells Lakshmana that he can kill Soorpanaka if she won't leave.
Soorpanaka crashes into Ravana's court and tells him what happened. She tells him that Sita is exceptionally beautiful and Ravana should take her for himself. Ravana falls in love with the image of Sita that Soorpanaka creates and goes to his uncle Mareecha for help. Though Mareecha is a demon, he's trying to live a virtuous life. Ravana threatens Mareecha, and Mareecha agrees to help abduct Sita.
Mareecha turns himself into a golden deer and walks near Rama's home. Sita sees the deer and asks Rama to capture it for her as a pet. Rama agrees and goes to chase the deer, leaving Lakshmana to guard Sita. Rama chases the deer for miles before he realizes it's a trap. He shoots the deer, but with his dying breath Mareecha impersonates Rama and cries for help from Sita and Lakshana. Sita hears the cry and convinces Lakshmana to go help Rama. When Lakshmana is gone, Ravana disguises himself as a Brahmin and approaches Sita. Eventually, Ravana is unable to maintain his disguise, and he assumes his demonic form. Sita cries for help, but Ravana digs into the earth and carries Sita away, along with the ground she stands on. Jatayu attempts to save Sita, but Ravana chops off his wing. Rama and Lakshmana find Jatayu and he relates to them what happened, but dies before he can tell them where Ravana was going with Sita.
In their search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana enter the land of Kiskinda, which is populated by monkeys. There they meet Hanuman and Sugreeva. Hanuman is Sugreeva's helper and recognizes that Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu. Sugreeva is the king of Kiskinda, but his brother, Vali, banished him after a misunderstanding. Rama is moved by Sugreeva's story and offers to help kill Vali. Sugreeva calls for Vali to come fight, and the brothers clash violently. As Lakshmana and Rama watch the fight, they debate if it's right to get involved. Rama then shoots Vali from a hidden spot. Vali is surprised that someone can kill him, and asks Rama to explain his actions. Rama explains that he killed Vali to right past wrongs, and Vali accepts this and names Sugreeva his successor. After Sugreeva's coronation, Rama instructs him to gather an army and report back to him after the rainy season ends.
The rain lasts for months and Rama spends the entire time depressed. When the rains end, Sugreeva doesn't arrive. Rama sends Lakshmana to find out why, and it comes to light that Sugreeva has spent the rainy season drinking and enjoying women. Sugreeva vows to give up alcohol, however, and promptly summons his armies for Rama. Vali's son Angada and Hanuman are sent south to look for Sita. Rama gives Hanuman his ring and tells him how he can recognize Sita.
When Angada and Hanuman reach the seashore, they nearly lose hope. An advisor, however, explains to Hanuman that Hanuman has the power to grow very large. Hanuman makes himself huge and steps over the sea to Lanka, where Ravana lives. In Lanka, he makes himself small again and begins to search for Sita. He finds her in a garden where rakshasa women are tormenting her. Ravana torments her too, and when they finally leave her alone, Sita prepares to commit suicide. Hanuman shows himself to Sita and tells her that Rama is coming. As he leaves Lanka, Hanuman allows Ravana's army to capture him. He then escapes and lights the city on fire before returning to Rama.
Ravana has his city rebuilt and calls a council of his brothers and commanders. They all tell Ravana that taking Sita in the manner he did was wrong, but at this point they must fight and either win or die. Ravana's youngest brother, Vibishana, insists that Ravana give Sita back to Rama. Ravana banishes him, and Vibishana goes to Rama's camp. Hanuman declares that Vibishana has a good heart and Rama accepts him as the king of Lanka. Vibishana helps Rama form a plan of attack. When they're ready, Rama stands on the seashore and asks the sea god to help him cross the sea. The sea god finally agrees to help make a bridge with whatever Rama's army can bring. The animals help build the bridge, and Rama's army crosses into Lanka.
Ravana sends his soldiers out to fight Rama, but nobody returns. Ravana tries to convince Sita that Rama is dead, but she remains resolute and faithful to Rama. Rama sends Angada to ask Ravana to concede, but Ravana refuses and Rama officially declares war. The battle rages for days. Ravana finally decides to join the battle himself. Hanuman lifts Rama onto his shoulders and they fight Ravana. They break his crown and send him back to his palace. Ravana then wakes his brother, Kumbakarna, and sends him to the battle. When Kumbakarna dies, Ravana cries, and Lakshmana kills Ravana's son, Indrajit, not long after.
Ravana decides that he has to finish the battle himself. He dresses for battle and climbs into his chariot. The gods send Rama Indra's chariot, which is driven by Matali. Rama gets into the chariot and the battle begins. Ravana ignores the ominous signs and chases Rama. He shoots arrows with his many arms, but none of them reach Rama. The battle moves to the sky and Rama and Ravana circle the world several times before Ravana begins using supernatural weapons. Rama destroys every attempt with either meditations or his own weapons. Finally, Rama sends a weapon at Ravana's heart and kills him. When they land, Rama notices a scar on Ravana's back and fears that he killed him dishonorably. Vibishana explains that the scar is old.
Rama sends for Sita. She dresses beautifully and presents herself in front of Rama, but he tells her that it's improper to accept her back. Distraught, Sita asks Lakshmana to build a fire, and she steps into it. The god of fire carries her back out and presents her to Rama, insisting that she's pure. Rama accepts her, but his test worries the gods. They address him and remind him that he's divine. They then send Dasaratha to earth to meet Rama, which makes Rama very happy. Finally, the gods tell Rama to return to Ayodhya, as Bharatha will kill himself if Rama doesn't return on time. Vibishana summons a magical vehicle that carries Rama and all his army to Ayodhya. They arrive just in time, and Rama and Sita are crowned king and queen and rule for many years in peace. The narrator then explains some storytelling customs, and admits that he's not telling the story of the sequel, in which Rama and Sita part again for morally questionable reasons.