While the Bhagavad-Gita narrates how Vishnu incarnated himself as Krishna, the Ramayana (the story of Rama) describes how Vishnu incarnated himself as Rama. The Ramayana exists in many versions throughout India and beyond, and is arguably the most popular of the Hindu epics. In the Ramayana, Vishnu incarnates himself as a noble warrior named Rama. His wife, Sita is an incarnation of the goddess.
The following summary excerpted from pages 44-45 of Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. (New York Oxford University Press, 1998) by Kim Knott. (This excellent resource is available online from Greenville Tech's Net Library).
Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, by means of sacrifice, is blessed with several sons born to his three wives. Rama, the eldest and much beloved by Ayodhya's citizens, is to succeed him as king. However, Rama's step-mother, Kaikeyi, fearing for herself and her own son Bharata, exacts a promise from Dasharatha that Rama be banished to the forest and Bharata installed as ruler. Rama, obedient to his father's reluctant request, agrees to go. Sita, his devoted wife, won by Rama in a conquest of strength, and Lakshmana, his loyal younger brother, demand to be allowed to accompany him. They leave the city, followed soon after by Bharata who pleads with Rama to return. Rama will not break his vow, and Bharata returns to Ayodhya, placing Rama's sandals on the throne and ruling as regent in his absence.
Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana settle in a hermitage after wandering in the beautiful forest and meeting its ascetic inhabitants. They are discovered there by the sister of the demon Ravana, who tries to entice Rama and destroy Sita. Wounded by Lakshmana, she hurries to her powerful brother, ruler of Lanka, and tells him what has occurred. Ravana, stirred by the account of Sita's beauty, determines to capture her. With the help of another demon, who as a deer lures away the two brothers, Ravana kidnaps Sita by disguising himself as a holy man. He takes her to his city in Lanka.
Rama and Lakshmana enlist the help of the monkeys to find and free Sita. Rama first helps the monkey prince, Sugriva, whose situation mirrors his own. Sugriva then sends his monkeys in search of Sita. It is the divine monkey Hanuman who finds her on Lanka and assures her of her forthcoming release. He is captured but escapes, returning to Rama with his intelligence of Sita's whereabouts. Rama and his army of helpers cross to Lanka on a bridge of monkeys, destroy Ravana, and return valiant with Sita. Rama is reluctant to accept Sita because of the time she has spent in Ravana's household. She undergoes an ordeal by fire to persuade him of her virtue.
Rama becomes king on their return to Ayodhya, but rumours continue about Sita's chastity. Unwillingly, Rama banishes her and she takes refuge with Valmiki (by whom this account is told). She gives birth to Rama's twin sons and later leaves the world, disappearing into the earth from which she first arose. The grieving Rama then ascends to heaven with his followers.
The Teachings of the Ramayana
Several observations can be made based on this brief summary.
First, the Ramayana's focus is on Rama as the ideal man: the one who does his duty even when it seems to be unreasonable or detrimental. Sita plays a similar role and stoically accepts the responsibilities and demands placed on her by society. The implication is that order can be maintained in society only when individuals faithfully perform the duties imposed on him or her by caste and society.
A second observation echoes ideas in the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu incarnates himself in order to maintain the cosmic order. While his actions demonstrate the maintenance of the social order, his defeat of the demon Ravana suggests that social order and cosmic order are intimately connected. To disrupt one is to disrupt the other; to maintain one is to maintain the other.
Another theme found in the Ramayana is the notion of cooperation with the gods. Rama (Vishnu) is able to defeat evil with the help of Hanuman. Some have seen in this fact the suggestion that human-divine cooperation is necessary for deliverance. Others have suggested that Vishnu can deliver his followers with or without human cooperation. In either case, Vishnu's devotees worship him as a god who can and does effect deliverance.