On a very basic level, the Ramayana is a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. However, such a simplistic reduction doesn't do justice to the story's interrogation of what actually makes someone good or evil. Most importantly, the story suggests that good and evil exist on a spectrum, and one's choices in life can move one's life closer to one pole or the other. Similarly, the story also offers regular reminders that just because someone made a poor choice, there are almost always opportunities to remedy the results of that choice, suggesting that good and evil aren't simply black and white ideas and providing nuance to a very simple story.
The Ramayana presents, overall, a cast of very rounded characters. It's able to do so because it presents the idea that good and evil exist on a spectrum, rather than as complete opposites. All characters, good or bad, fight a personal battle between their desires to do good and their desires to follow a path that's comparatively evil. By framing good and evil as fluid concepts that can be somewhat remedied through choice, the story suggests that people have some degree of power to control their fate. However, it's important to note that though it makes this suggestion, no characters actually choose to go against fate; they all choose the paths that are in line with what the gods have set out. This shows that while the choice itself may be an illusion of sorts, the process of deciding to act a certain way helps a person gain a deeper understanding of good and evil.
The story does offer the possibility that good comes more easily to some than to others. Rama, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu, has a relatively easy time of behaving in acceptable ways, while Vali considers himself less capable of good because he's a monkey and doesn't have access to human reasoning. The idea that good is more accessible to some while others are more prone to evil does break down along gender lines—many of the demons that Rama encounters early in the text are female, and the underlying reason for Rama's exile is female jealousy. Further, the text equates true romantic love with good, while it equates lust and desire with evil. When Rama, Lakshmana, and the sage Viswamithra encounter the demoness Thataka, Rama initially shows his goodness by stating that it would be improper to kill Thataka because it's improper to kill women. In reply, Viswamithra tells Rama, "a woman of demoniac tendencies loses all consideration to be treated as a woman," suggesting that Thataka is less than a woman because of her choices to do evil deeds, as well as that Rama will be carrying out a good deed by killing her.
Though this is an extreme example of the gender divisions between good and evil, it sets up the idea that the responsibility for controlling female evil and protecting female goodness falls to men. Rama later takes Viswamithra's advice to the extreme when he's unwilling to accept Sita after rescuing her from Ravana. He fears that she gave in to Ravana's desires and had sex with him, and Rama forces her to prove her sexual purity with a test designed to kill her if she hadn't remained faithful during her captivity. Sita passes this trial by fire exactly because of her purity—the purity of her heart and the strength of her love are enough to overpower the fire god's duty to burn her, and he carries her out of the fire unharmed. Here, Viswamithra's advice about dealing with female evil (or good) comes full circle: Sita can't be killed because she's so overwhelmingly good, and is therefore returned to her status as a good woman.
By showing situations that offer characters the opportunity to remedy bad decisions, the story offers a hopeful outlook on the play between good and evil. Sugreeva, Vali's brother and the next king of the monkeys, chooses to remedy his downhill situation. He ultimately comes to Rama's aid as promised, and when he sees the error of his ways, he vows to give up alcohol. Kaikeyi similarly realizes that she behaved poorly in insisting that Dasaratha banish Rama, and accepts Rama as her rightful king when he returns to Ayodhya. Ravana, on the other hand, meets his end when he insists on remaining on his destructive and evil path rather than choosing a more righteous path. This suggests that, in the universe presented in the epic, it's never too late to make decisions that will bring one closer to goodness.
Good vs. Evil ThemeTracker
Good vs. Evil Quotes in The Ramayana
You will learn the answer if you listen to this story—of a woman fierce, ruthless, eating and digesting all living creatures, possessing the strength of a thousand mad elephants.
Just as the presence of a little loba (meanness) dries up and disfigures a whole human personality, so does the presence of this monster turn into desert a region which was once fertile.
"Oh, impossible thought—did he commit a wrong? But if Rama committed a seemingly wrong act, it would still be something to benefit humanity, like a mother forcibly administering a medicine to her child."
The kings of this earth whom he had reduced to vassal-dom stood about with their hands upraised in an attitude of perpetual salutation, lest at any moment Ravana should turn in their direction and think that they were not sufficiently servile.
"You are the overlord of seven worlds, mightier than the mightiest. Why do you feel sad and unhappy? Go and get her; that is all. Take her. She is yours. Is there anything beyond your reach? Stir yourself. Leave this desolate mood. Go forth, snatch her, because she is yours, created for you and waiting for you."
The perfect man takes a false step, apparently commits a moral slip, and we ordinary mortals stand puzzled before the incident. It may be less an actual error of commission on his part than a lack of understanding on ours; measured in Eternity, such an event might stand out differently.
"We should not become too analytical about a friend, nor look too deeply into original causes; but accept only what appears good to us in the first instance, and act on it."
"Creatures in human shape may be called animals if they display no knowledge of right and wrong and conversely so-called animals which display profundity cease to be animals and will have to be judged by the highest standards."
"In spite of my obstinacy you have helped me attain a profound understanding and opened my mind with your magic. While other gods confer boons after being asked, you confer them on the mere utterance of your name. Great sages have attempted, after eons of austerities, to obtain a vision of God, but you have bestowed it upon me unasked."
"You have done incompatible things. You have desired to appropriate another man's wife, which is against all codes of conduct, and now you are thinking of your prestige, reputation, fame, might, and eminence."
Rama at once invoked a weapon called "Gnana"—which means "wisdom" or "perception."
While he had prayed for indestructibility of his several heads and arms, he had forgotten to strengthen his heart, where the Brahmasthra entered and ended his career.
The gods, who had watched this in suspense, were now profoundly relieved but also had an uneasy feeling that Rama had, perhaps, lost sight of his own identity. Again and again this seemed to happen. Rama displayed the tribulations and the limitations of the human frame and it was necessary from time to time to remind him of his divinity.