Because only a true hero can slay a dragon.
|Shadow over Mystara, Capcom|
Heroes, like all the rest of us, have to work up to glory. Very few charge off the homestead and slay a dragon on their first try. Despite its position as the best way to become a hero, dragonslaying more often actually comes later in a hero's career, cementing his heroism rather than being the first proof of it.
|Perseus and Andromeda, Drakenza Kimpel|
There's also Rama, an unquestioned hero long before he runs into his dragon. Like Perseus, he doesn't even need one. He's endured baseless exile and a life of hardship with incredible grace and goodwill. He's also clearly a great person, because both his wife and his younger brother accompany him into exile of their own will, despite Rama's pleading with them to protect themselves and stay in their cushy palace. Not enough yet? Well, there's also the matter of his entire kingdom mourning his loss because they know he'd be a fantastic king, or his other younger brother Bharata (whose jealous mother orchestrated the whole wrongful-exile thing) refusing to claim the rights due to a crown prince. Bharata actually tracks Rama down in exile just to apologize in person for his mother, and to assure Rama that he himself is just keeping Rama's place open for when he returns. The Ramayana is chock-full of awesome people being awesome. And even in this land of paragons, they all respect Rama most. Dude is a hero. No question.
So although the capture and rescue of his wife Sita forms one of the great set-pieces of the whole epic, it's never necessary for proving Rama's heroism. It's certainly moving that he follows Sita's trail all the way to a demon kingdom, and it's very impressive that he fights a demon king (whose ten heads push the same dragon-alert buttons as, say, the Hydra, or the Yamata no Orochi) to reclaim the woman who's been faithful to him all this time. But it's not by any means the first hint we get that Rama is a hero. At this point - near the end of the Ramayana, just before Rama gets called back home to become king - it's icing on the cake. It's actually made even better by the fact that we know very well that Rama rocks. We're not wondering in the slightest who will win this fight; we're munching popcorn and cheering Rama on.
|Susano-o Fighting the Yamata no Orochi, superspacemonkey|
|The Fall of Beowulf, Devin Maupin|
|Saint George and the Dragon, Trina Schart Hyman|
Killing a dragon isn't usually the first time the hero proves his heroism. But it is usually the first moment he gets the trappings and rewards of a hero. And that speaks very eloquently to a culture searching for a deed that defines heroism.