Moral Dilemmas: Lesson 1

Stone carving of RamDefining the Dilemma

By design of the Gods, four sons are born to the noble king Dasaratha of Ayodhya. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana , is the son of the king's first wife Kausalya, the twins Lakshmana and Satrughua are the sons of his second wife Sumitra, and Bharata is the son of his third wife Kaikeyi. After coming of age, Rama and Lakshmana are taken away from the palace by the sage Visvamitra. Rama is taught the arts of war, slays demons that have been threatening the forests and wins the hand of Sita, princess of Mithila, by lifting, stringing, and breaking the sacred bow.

Rama, Sita, and Rama's brothers live contentedly in the kingdom of Ayodhya for 12 years until Dasaratha decides that it is time for him to give up the crown. Dasaratha tells Rama that he will become the heir, and he makes arrangements for the rituals and festivities that will celebrate the passing of the crown. The evening before the coronation of Rama is to take place, Dasaratha's third wife, Kaikeyi, reminds the king that he had promised her two boons when she had earlier saved his life in battle. She claimed these boons now. One boon was that her son, Bharata, would be crowned king instead of Rama; the other was that Rama would be exiled from the kingdom for fourteen years.

Within the terms of his culture, Dasaratha faces a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, it is customary for the eldest son to inherit rule from his father and Dasaratha had publicly proclaimed to all Ayodhya that Rama was to be the his heir. On the other hand, Dasaratha is bound by the boons he promised Kaikeyi when she saved his life on the battlefield.

Outcomes / Consequences

Dasaratha must consider the consequences of his decision in terms of satisfying dharma and in terms of the good of Ayodhya. If he chooses to continue with his plan to have Rama king, he is breaking his oath to Kaikeyi. This violates the rule of dharma that demands absolute loyalty to oaths and may bring cosmic punishment. He will also loose the love of his favorite wife, Kaikeyi, and his family life, which is supposed to be the model for his citizens.

If, on the other hand, he makes Kaikeyi's son, Bharata, king, he breaks his promise to Rama and violates the accepted custom of primogeniture.


1. Which decision do you think would be most in line with dharma?
2. Which decision do you think would be most in line with what you know of Dasaratha?

Continuing with the story, we know that Dasaratha chose to grant Kaikeyi her boons, thus proclaiming Bharata the king and sending Rama into exile.

1. Do you think that his decision was the most moral one?
2. Why or why not? (What is the principle or bit of overwhelming evidence that persuaded you to answer in the way you did?)
3. What decision would you have made under the same circumstances?
4. What would have been the reason (s) for your decision?
5. What choices that you have made, or have seen others make have been similar?


1. Ask students what current or historical issue illustrates the same type of dilemma.
2. Ask students what comparable piece of literature illustrates similar dilemmas.
3. If this were to be viewed as a contemporary dilemma, what factors or variables would contribute to the outcome?