Coursing through the sky in his celestial chariot, Rāvaṇa appeared like a blazing comet. His dark body shone with a brilliant aura. From his ten heads his reddish eyes darted about, scouring the mountains below. His twenty powerful arms hanging from his huge frame looked like five-hooded serpents. Seated on a throne of gems he directed his golden chariot by thought alone and it moved swiftly over the Himālayan range.

The demon was out on his conquests. All around him flew thousands of Rākṣasas, clutching swords, barbed spears, spiked maces and iron bludgeons, all of those weapons smeared with blood. Some Rākṣasas had the heads of tigers, some of donkeys and some of fierce fiends. Others appeared in their natural forms: large blackish bodies, fearful faces with tall pointed ears and rows of sharp fangs, with a mass of red hair on their heads. They wore iron breastplates studded with gems and were adorned with bright gold earrings and other shining ornaments. Surrounding Rāvaṇa they looked like dark clouds with lightning covering the sun.

Rāvaṇa wished to defeat in battle even the gods themselves. Wanting to establish his supreme power in the universe, he had gone to the higher planets and conquered hosts of Gandharvas and Yakṣas, powerful celestial fighters. Now he was returning from his victorious fight with Kuvera, his own brother and the treasurer of the gods. That lordly deity had been made to retreat by Rāvaṇa, losing to the demon his wonderful chariot, known in all the worlds as the Pushpaka.

The fearless Rāvaṇa, overlord of all the demons, looked down from the Pushpaka at the forests below. It was a picture of tranquility. Amongst the trees were many verdant clearings covered with varieties of wild shrubs and forest flowers. Crystal waterfalls cascaded onto many colored rocks. Lakes filled with lotuses and swans shone from the mountain plateaus as the hordes of Rākṣasas soared overhead.

Sometimes the demons would see groups of ṛṣis, ascetic Brahmins who dwelt in those high mountain ranges, practising austerities and worshipping the gods. They would see the columns of smoke rising up amongst the trees from the sacrificial fires tended by the sages. Using their powers of sorcery the Rākṣasas dropped down volumes of blood, faeces and urine, defiling the sacrifices. They would then hurl huge boulders and blazing coals, crushing and burning the sages where they sat in meditation. Finally the demons would themselves descend, howling and roaring. They tore apart the bodies of the ṛṣis, drinking their blood and devouring their flesh.

Rāvaṇa admired the Pushpaka as it proceeded according to his will. His brother Kuvera would be sorry to lose such a splendid vehicle. It looked more like a city of the gods floating in the air than a chariot. Numerous cat’s-eye and crystal pillars ran along its sides, supporting golden mansions inlaid with coral. Large floors made entirely of gems stood upon gold statues of lions and tigers. Groves of artificial trees, shining with golden leaves and fruits, surrounded large ponds crowded with white lotuses. In those clear ponds stood ivory elephants and silver goddesses. Networks of pearls and wreaths of celestial flowers hung all over that car. It was encrusted with countless precious stones and emblazoned with gold carvings of wolves, sharks, and fierce bears. Sweeping through the skies it emitted the sounds of celestial music and the fragrance of the pārijāta flower, known only to the gods.

As Rāvaṇa sat idly aboard the chariot, gazing around at the magnificent scenery below, he suddenly noticed a lady sitting in meditation. This was most unusual. Women were rarely seen in those mountains. Sometimes the ṛṣis would have their wives with them, but this woman seemed to be entirely alone. Rāvaṇa slowed the chariot and moved down to look more closely. Perhaps there were more ascetics nearby. The Rākṣasas could use a little entertainment. And, if this woman was as beautiful as she seemed at first glance, so could he.

Ordering the Rākṣasas to wait in the sky, Rāvaṇa himself rose up from the chariot and descended to the ground. He saw the young ascetic girl sitting on a flat piece of soft grassland surrounded by wild flowers. She glowed with a golden beauty. Her limbs were exquisitely formed and her full breasts were covered by a black deerskin. Rāvaṇa could see the contours of her tapering thighs through the thin cloth covering her crossed legs. Dark locks of thickly matted hair hung down to her waist, framing her white-complexioned face. Her red lips moved slightly as she intoned the sacred syllable Om. Her smooth golden arms were bared in front of her as she sat with folded palms, her long curling lashes covering half closed eyes.

Rāvaṇa’s mind was overpowered by lust. Who was this youthful lady? What was she doing here in such a lonely place? Did she have a protector? Never mind. He would soon deal with that. The forest was no place for such a maiden. She would make an excellent addition to his other consorts.

By his mystic power Rāvaṇa assumed a human form and approached the girl. He spoke loudly, disturbing her reverie. “O most beautiful maiden, who are you? Why are you practising asceticism in this lonely region? To whom do you belong? What fortunate man has you for his wife?”

The demon was unable to resist the charms of women. As he gazed upon the alluring form of the girl he was possessed by increasing desire. He laughed and waited for her to reply.

The girl fully opened her black eyes and looked at Rāvaṇa. Seeing him as a guest in her hermitage she spoke respectfully, telling him her name. She was Vedavati, the daughter of a powerful sage, who was himself a son of the gods’ preceptor, Bṛhaspati. Looking down in shyness she said, “I was born as an incarnation of the holy Vedas. My father was sought by numerous gods and other celestial beings who wished to have my hand in marriage. However, none but Viṣṇu, the Lord of all the worlds, can be my spouse. Thus I am seated here, absorbed in thought of the Lord and awaiting His favour.”

Vedavati had meditated for thousands of years. Her body, like that of the gods, neither aged nor required any sustenance. She could understand by her own inner vision who Rāvaṇa was and what was his intention. In gentle tones she said that only Viṣṇu could be her husband. That inconceivable Lord was all powerful and all seeing and she had chosen Him alone. She could not belong to anyone else. Rāvaṇa should continue on his way as before.

Rāvaṇa laughed again. He was not going to leave behind this jewel of a woman. Hearing the name of Viṣṇu, his sworn enemy, only made him all the more determined. The demon’s voice boomed like thunder. “Your resolution to practice austerity befits only old women, O lady of shapely limbs. Why do you waste your fleeting youth in this way? I am Rāvaṇa, lord of the Rākṣasas, the very mighty race of demons. Become my wife and live with me in my capital, Lanka, the golden city I forcibly seized from the gods. Who is this Viṣṇu anyway?”

Rāvaṇa spoke derisively of Viṣṇu, whom he knew to be the Lord of all the gods. The arrogant demon cared nothing for any universal authority. He had been granted boons by Brahmā, the creator of the universe, who had so blessed the Rākṣasa that he could not be killed by practically any created being, neither god nor demon. Rāvaṇa could assume forms at will. Vedavati’s mention of Viṣṇu did not bother him in the least. He stood smiling before the maiden, his eyes full of lust.

Hearing Rāvaṇa deride Viṣṇu, Vedavati flared up with anger and rebuked the demon. She told him to leave immediately for his own good, lest he incite the powerful anger of that Supreme Deity.

Rāvaṇa smiled. This high-spirited woman would make a perfect consort for him. He stepped forward and grabbed hold of her long locks. Vedavati at once uttered a powerful Sanskrit mantra which momentarily checked the demon’s advance. She lifted a hand and by her mystic power cut through her hair. The Rākṣasa fell back in surprise as she spoke furiously.

“O evil one, I shall now quit this body defiled by your touch! As I have been insulted by you I shall take birth again only for your destruction. Appearing from the earth, I shall become the pious daughter of a virtuous man. You and your entire race will be destroyed as a result of that birth.”

Vedavati closed her eyes and meditated on Viṣṇu, seeing Him within her heart. Before Rāvaṇa’s eyes she invoked fire from within herself. Her body was immediately consumed by flames and in a few moments Rāvaṇa stood looking at her ashes. Baffled by her words, the disappointed demon rose again to his chariot and continued on his way.

The demon and his Rākṣasa followers spent some time in the Himālayan mountains, wreaking havoc amongst the many ascetics living there. Gradually they approached the far northern region where there lay Mount Kailāsa, the abode of Śiva. As the Pushpaka began crossing that mountain, it was suddenly brought to a halt. Rāvaṇa was surprised and he descended to the ground, surrounded by his ministers who accompanied him on the chariot. As he gazed around at the brilliant scenery on the mountainside, he saw a strange being with a monkey’s head.

The creature appeared dreadful, with a dark yellowish complexion and misshapen features. Although his body was large, he had a dwarfish stature. He was clean shaven and muscular and he stood holding a large glowing pike. As he gazed at Rāvaṇa, the demon called out to him. “Who are you and where is this region? Why have I been impeded?”

“I am Nandi, the servant of Śiva,” replied the unusual being. “You have arrived at Śiva’s abode, which is inaccessible to all created beings. You will not be able to pass this mountain. Therefore turn back and go the way you have come.”

Rāvaṇa looked at the strange body of Nandi and laughed out loud. He spoke in a derisory voice. “Why should I heed you, O monkey-faced one? Who is this Śiva anyway?”

Hearing his master insulted infuriated Nandi. Raising his pike, which shot forth tongues of fire, he exclaimed, “O Rākṣasa, I should kill you at once but I will not do so, as you already stand killed by your own sins. But I say this, as you disregard me in my monkey form, there shall be born on earth many monkeys of terrible strength who will annihilate your race.”

As Nandi spoke the sound of heavenly drums reverberated in the sky and a shower of flowers fell. Rāvaṇa’s eyes flamed in anger. Disregarding the curse, he roared, “I shall remove this hill from my path. What do I care for you and your master?”

The Rākṣasa immediately plunged his twenty massive arms deep into the side of the hill. He began tearing it up and it slowly rose above the earth, shaking violently. As the hill shook, Śiva’s consort, Parvati, slipped from her position and clung to her husband. Śiva reassured her, “Do not be afraid. This is the action of the vain demon Rāvaṇa. I shall deal with him shortly. He cannot harm you.”

Parvati’s eyes turned red as she replied to her powerful husband. “As this wretch has frightened a woman by his violence, his death shall be caused by a woman.”

Śiva stood up and pressed down upon the hill with his toe. Rāvaṇa at once felt an unbearable pressure. His arms, which resembled huge pillars holding the hill, were crushed. He let out a tremendous cry that resounded throughout the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell, terrifying all beings. He was trapped by the weight of the mountain and could not move.

The Rākṣasa’s ministers at once surrounded him and advised him to appease Śiva. “We have heard how that all-powerful one is easily pleased. Offer him prayers and seek his compassion at once. Surely he will be gracious to you.”

Rāvaṇa, who had made a study of all the scriptures, began reciting hymns from the Sāmaveda in glorification of Śiva. But even after a hundred years had passed the Rākṣasa still remained trapped. Although in great pain, he continued offering prayers to Śiva. Finally Śiva relented and relieved Rāvaṇa of the pressure. He appeared before the demon and spoke kindly. “O ten-headed one, your prayers have pleased me. Do not be so rash again. Leave now and go wherever you like.”

Rāvaṇa bowed to the god, who stood holding his famous trident. The crescent moon shone from his head and a large serpent was coiled around his blue neck. He gazed at Rāvaṇa with his three eyes as the demon folded his palms to address him. “My lord, if you are actually pleased with me then please give me your weapon.”

Śiva smiled. Rāvaṇa’s lust for battle would prove to be his destruction before long. Saying, “So be it”, Śiva raised his palm in benediction and immediately vanished from that spot. Rāvaṇa felt the mantras for invoking Śiva’s powerful Pāśupāta weapon appear within his mind. He smiled. Who could resist such power? Even he had been unable to overcome Śiva. The great deity was surely worthy of his worship.

Rāvaṇa mounted the Pushpaka, which had waited in the sky all the time he was trapped. Being unable to proceed further to the north he turned back southwards, still accompanied by his numerous Rākṣasa forces. As he moved across the Earth, seeking further martial engagements, he came upon the city of Ayodhya. This was the capital of the world of humans. The emperor of the earth dwelt there and Rāvaṇa considered him as fit for a fight. If he conquered this king then the whole earth would be subjugated.

Rāvaṇa had little interest in human affairs-the Rākṣasas were a superior race of beings more on a level with the gods-but the demon wanted to establish his supremacy over all beings. His army of Rākṣasas surrounded the city, challenging the emperor to battle.

A fierce fight ensued between the two armies of Rāvaṇa and the Ayodhya king, Anaranya. Tens of thousands of chariots and elephants came onto the battlefield, along with hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers. Showers of arrows, like swarms of black bees, fell upon the demons. Anaranya’s army threw lances, darts, steel bullets and iron maces by the million. They swept towards the enemy, shouting courageously with their weapons raised.

Rāvaṇa’s forces used sorcery to appear and disappear at will, flying in the sky and hurling down rocks and sharp weapons. The king’s army replied with showers of swift and deadly arrows. Using powerful catapults the warriors threw at the Rākṣasas large iron darts which whistled through the air. But Anaranya’s fighters could not easily engage with the elusive demons. Although they rushed forward, slashing at the enemy with their blue steel swords, the soldiers found themselves cleaving the air as the Rākṣasas rose into the sky. The Rākṣasas, who towered over their human foes, would then suddenly descend behind the soldiers, cutting them down with razor-sharp scimitars.

Gradually the demons overpowered the king’s army. The battlefield became strewn with the mangled bodies of Anaranya’s troops. Blood flowed in waves upon the ground. Heads rolled on the earth with their golden earrings flashing and their teeth clenched in fury. Large and well-muscled arms, still clutching broad swords and lances, lay severed amidst the entrails of slain warriors. The demons sent up great shouts as they hacked down the king’s army.

Anaranya himself exhibited great prowess. He knew the secrets of the celestial weapons and by invoking those divine missiles he killed innumerable Rākṣasas. When the demons hid using their sorcery, he released the Shabda weapon of sound, which found them wherever they were. As hordes of Rākṣasas rushed at the emperor, he let go the wind weapon which lifted the demons and hurled them far away. Anaranya was difficult to look upon as he stood in his chariot releasing his weapons. They fell upon the Rākṣasa forces like blazing meteors. But the demons far outnumbered the humans. Although hard pressed by the king, the Rākṣasas responded with more and more sorcery, vanishing into the sky and entering the earth. Eventually Rāvaṇa’s hordes completely annihilated their enemies and Anaranya stood alone against the demons.

Seeing all his forces consumed like so many moths entering a fire, the emperor became infuriated. He went towards Rāvaṇa, who had stood by in a war chariot as his Rākṣasas fought with the soldiers. Anaranya took up his great bow and let loose eight hundred fierce arrows, which sped like flames of fire towards Rāvaṇa. By the incantations of Anaranya those arrows were imbued with the power of thunderbolts. The king fired them so swiftly that they flew in a long line, almost end to end. They struck Rāvaṇa furiously on his heads and chest, sounding like claps of thunder. But the demon did not flinch in the least.

Angered by the king’s sudden attack, Rāvaṇa took up a terrible looking mace. He whirled it above his head with such force that it glowed bright orange and threw off tongues of fire. He flew with the speed of a tempest towards the emperor and struck him a great blow on the forehead. The king fell from his chariot and lay bleeding on the ground. The Rākṣasa began laughing and deriding the fallen monarch.

“What is the use of fighting with Rāvaṇa? There is none who can face me in battle and remain alive. Clearly you are a foolish man, too much addicted to wine and women. Thus you have not heard of my unassailable power.”

Rāvaṇa continued insulting the dying king, mocking his ancestral line in which the earth’s emperors had appeared for thousands of years. Anaranya looked up at the demon with eyes red from anger. Gasping for breath as his life slipped away, he spoke with difficulty. “I have not been killed by you, O vile Rākṣasa. Death is certain and comes to all beings according to their destiny. None can be killed before their fate decrees, nor can any be saved when their time has arrived. I am thus killed by my own fate. Do not indulge in self-praise, Rāvaṇa, for your own death will soon come.”

The emperor possessed mystic power, gained by his long practise of austerity. He was loath to waste that accumulated power on Rāvaṇa, but the demon had to be checked. The dying king could at least do something before he departed. Anaranya fixed his fading gaze on the lord of Rākṣasas and, concentrating his mind, he uttered a curse. “In the very line you now deride, O Rāvaṇa, there will soon appear a king who will kill you and all your race!”

As Anaranya spoke the sound of kettledrums was heard resounding in the sky, and a shower of celestial flowers fell upon him. Heavenly voices were heard to say, “It shall be so.” Having delivered his curse the emperor slumped to the ground, his life spent. Before the eyes of the demon, Anaranya left his body and rose upwards to the heavens, his ethereal form glowing like fire.

Rāvaṇa snorted derisively. Who cared for the curse of some puny being? What human could ever kill him? He only bothered fighting with them by way of idle sport. Anaranya’s curse was simply the insane words of a dying man. It could never come to pass. If any kings dared challenge him they would meet the same end as this one here. As for the celestial voices, well, he would soon deal with those arrogant deities.

The demon again mounted the Pushpaka, which was stationed in the sky. Not being interested in pillaging the paltry wealth of a human city, he left and soared up into the heavens. Perhaps there were some gods around who could put up a better fight.

Rāvaṇa went up to the heavenly planets inhabited by the principal gods. But the gods swiftly ran away, unwilling to encounter him in battle. They knew of the inviolable boons of Brahmā. It was pointless fighting the demon. The gods prayed to Viṣṇu, hiding themselves in fear.

Rāvaṇa decided to rest for a while in heaven. He went to Amarāvatī, the city of Indra, king of the gods. As the Rākṣasa was seated in the celestial Nandana gardens, he saw an Apsarā, a heavenly nymph, named Rambha. The face of that celestial girl shone with incomparable beauty and she was adorned with bright garlands and jewels. Her soul-captivating eyes glanced here and there and her fleshy hips swayed as she moved. Rāvaṇa gazed upon her large round breasts and shapely thighs. Her hands, soft like rose petals, pulled her shining blue dress tight around her body as she saw the demon staring at her.

Rāvaṇa assumed a godly form of great splendor, concealing his terrible ten-headed body. He sprang to his feet and quickly went over to Rambha, immediately taking her by the hand. Completely overcome by lust, he smiled at the celestial girl. “Where do you go and whose are you, lovely lady?” he asked. “Who will today enjoy the nectar of your soft, red lips? Who will be blessed by the touch of your tender breasts? Which fortunate man will lie tightly embraced by you, his mind completely captured by carnal delights?”

Rāvaṇa was not at all concerned whether she was married or not. He had stolen the wives of gods, Gandharvas and demons everywhere, taking them to Lanka to join his harem. The Rākṣasa was accustomed to having his way and spoke only in an attempt to win over Rambha. He praised her divine beauty and told her of his own power and glory. What woman would refuse the opportunity to become the consort of the mighty Rāvaṇa?

But the beautiful girl did not reciprocate his advances. She pulled away from him, her bright bracelets falling to the ground as she wrested herself from Rāvaṇa’s grasp. Folding her palms and looking down, she addressed the Rākṣasa reproachfully. “Please do not speak in this way. I am as good as your daughter and I therefore deserve to be protected by you, O Rāvaṇa. Indeed I am the wedded wife of another.”

Rambha told him she was married to a god, Nalakuvara, who was the son of Kuvera, Rāvaṇa’s own brother. She was thus related to Rāvaṇa and he should not make amorous advances towards her.

Rāvaṇa laughed loudly. He had no regard whatsoever for any moral codes. He moved towards Rambha who ran behind a golden bush. Rāvaṇa pursued her, pulling off his red silk robes and revealing his immense, lustrous body. The maiden tried to evade him, dodging here and there with her garland and necklaces swinging, but it was useless. Taking hold of Rambha the Rākṣasa forcibly laid her across a nearby rock. He snatched off her garments and began ravishing her, his eyes expanded in delight. Rambha cried out for help, but seeing the fierce Rākṣasa no one dared intervene. The demon’s powerful hands pinned the white arms of the maiden against the rock. Her dark hair fell in disarray, its golden clasps and flowers dislodged. Rāvaṇa violently molested her in front of his demon followers. Although she begged him to desist, the Rākṣasa took that struggling heavenly girl against her desire.

After Rāvaṇa had sated his lust he stood up, fastening his waist cloth. Shedding tears, Rambha backed away from the demon and fled. Her clothes torn and her garlands crushed, she went before her husband. When he saw her in that condition Nalakuvara became infuriated. But when he heard it was Rāvaṇa who had raped her, he felt helpless. The demon had already defeated Nalakuvara’s powerful father, who was supported by innumerable Yakṣa warriors. There was no possibility of facing Rāvaṇa in a fight. Nalakuvara considered the situation carefully. Although he could not fight the demon, he could at least curse him as a result of his evil act. The righteous curses of the gods invoked the infallible power of Viṣṇu. Considering this the only means of punishing Rāvaṇa, Nalakuvara touched holy water and then uttered his imprecation.

“This evil Rākṣasa has violated a celestial lady. If he ever again rapes another maiden he will immediately fall dead.”

Rāvaṇa soon heard of that curse. He had seen such curses, made by gods and ṛṣis, come to pass many times. Once uttered they could not be retracted. Although he did not like to accept it, Rāvaṇa could understand that some powerful force maintained the universal order and laws. Thinking it possible that Nalakuvera’s words might just be effective, he decided not to again force himself upon another female. Better not to take any chances. After all, there were enough women who would willingly accept him.

Being disappointed that no gods would fight with him, Rāvaṇa left the heavenly planets. He began heading for the southern quarter of the universe, where lived the Dānavas and Daityas, the most powerful celestial demons. Surely they would afford him battle. Who else was there left for him to conquer?

As Rāvaṇa flew in the Pushpaka he suddenly saw ahead of him the celestial seer, Nārada, shining brightly and holding his tamboura. The seer plucked the strings gently, singing the praises of Viṣṇu. Rāvaṇa had met him many times before and was pleased to see him. The Rākṣasa usually had little time for sages, especially devotees of Viṣṇu. He preferred to kill and eat them rather than speak with them. The ṛṣis and seers generally favored the gods, but Nārada was different. He would often give Rāvaṇa good advice and seemed to be his well wisher. Rāvaṇa raised a hand in salute to the sage.

The seer came before Rāvaṇa and greeted him. Nārada could travel freely anywhere in the universe. It was even said that he could leave the material worlds and journey to Vaikuntha, the spiritual abode of the Lord himself, which knows no decay and is free of all suffering. Nārada smiled at Rāvaṇa. His large eyes were like two shining sapphires. On his head his coiled golden hair was held in place by a jeweled silver band. Clad in the soft skin of a black renku deer, Nārada stood in the air in front of Rāvaṇa, who invited him onto the chariot. Sitting cross-legged on a golden seat next to the demon, the seer began to address him in gentle and pleasing tones.

“Why are you harassing this world of humans, O valiant one? It is already in the grip of death. These people do not deserve to be attacked by you, Rāvaṇa, who cannot be overcome by even the entire heavenly host united together. Who would destroy people who are wracked by numerous anxieties, surrounded by endless calamities, and are subject to old age and hundreds of diseases?”

Nārada told Rāvaṇa that everyone in the material world would in time go to the abode of Yamarāja, the great lord of death. There was no need for Rāvaṇa to kill them. Death conquers all. Even the gods would eventually succumb to death. If Rāvaṇa should conquer Yamarāja the entire universe would be conquered.

The sage knew that Rāvaṇa could not overpower Yamarāja. But he wanted to distract the demon from his evil aim of killing more people and overthrowing the gods. He also wanted the Rākṣasa to greatly increase his sinful actions by assailing the god of Death. Rāvaṇa would thus create for himself a karmic destiny which would soon result in his own destruction.

The demon pondered Nārada’s suggestion. This sounded interesting. He liked the idea of fighting with the immensely powerful Yamarāja. Perhaps this would be a battle worthy of him. And if Death himself were slain then the whole universal order would be cast into utter chaos! That appealed to Rāvaṇa, who wanted to assert himself over any and all powers in the universe. He nodded slowly at Nārada, who sat smiling at him. Rāvaṇa told the sage he would leave immediately for Death’s abode. As Nārada rose up into the sky, playing upon his tamboura, Rāvaṇa began heading towards the domain of Yamarāja, the god of justice.

As Rāvaṇa approached the ethereal region known as Yamaloka, he saw everywhere living beings reaping the fruits of their actions. He also saw the millions of soldiers and servants of Yamarāja, known as the Yamadutas. They appeared fierce and unapproachable. Their bodies were powerful but hideously deformed, covered all over with black hairs that stood erect. In their hands they held nooses and terrible weapons. Their faces were contorted into frightful expressions and they yelled and shrieked in dissonant tones. Moving swiftly, they struck and tortured people who were running in all directions.

Fearful screams and cries resounded everywhere in that dark and desolate place. Rāvaṇa saw in hundreds and thousands people being eaten up by fierce dogs, consumed by fires, or being hurled into vats of boiling oil by the Yamadutas. Other unrighteous men and women were running here and there on burning sands, being pursued by Yamadutas holding lances and tridents. Some were being dragged through trees with leaves like steel razors that shredded their bodies. Howling in terrible pain they would fall to the ground, but their bodies would again become whole. They would then leap up and race off, only to be quickly caught by the Yamadutas and put through the same suffering again.

Rāvaṇa witnessed innumerable kinds of punishment being meted out to sinful souls. Searching for Yamarāja, he coursed on rapidly in the Pushpaka. In other parts of that mystical and indescribable region, Rāvaṇa saw people enjoying celestial delights by virtue of their own good deeds. It seemed as though they were situated in a separate dimension of space and time. Beautiful heavenly landscapes stretched out into the distance. Large shining mansions stood next to clear blue lakes. Young men and women with highly attractive forms were dressed in golden garments and ornaments, embracing one another and laughing. Excellent food and drink was laid out on gold and silver tables. Musicians played and young girls danced. Rāvaṇa saw countless people intoxicated with pleasure and entirely oblivious to the scenes of suffering elsewhere.

Leaving behind that glowing region of happiness, Rāvaṇa continued deeply into Yamaloka. He crossed over the broad Vaitarani river, which flowed with blood and excrement, and came to another dark terrain where countless Yamadutas were relentlessly pursuing wicked persons. The terrible cackles of the Yamadutas echoed there, along with the howls of jackals and wolves. Everywhere stood people who appeared emaciated and pale, seized with unbearable thirst and crying out for water.

Descending from his chariot, Rāvaṇa began to beat back the Yamadutas, freeing the people they were punishing. He felt no compassion for the pain of others, but he calculated that by oppressing the Yamadutas he would cause Yamarāja to appear. As the demon freed many thousands of wretched persons from their tormentors, he was suddenly attacked by a massed force of Yamadutas. They assailed Rāvaṇa with spears, iron bars, steel clubs, pikes, javelins and maces. They rose up and began demolishing the seats, daises, pillars and houses on the Pushpaka. But the indestructible chariot was immediately recreated by the power of Brahmā, by whom it had first been fashioned.

Rāvaṇa’s Rākṣasa forces fought back against the Yamadutas. Millions upon millions of servants of Yamarāja advanced in great waves. They rained down an unlimited number of arrows and other fierce weapons upon Rāvaṇa and his followers. The Rākṣasas engaged with the Yamadutas, sending up their terrible war cries. The clash of weapons and the shouts of the warriors sounded like the roaring ocean tossed by a storm.

Leaving off the other Rākṣasas, the Yamadutas concentrated upon Rāvaṇa. Covered all over with their arrows and bleeding profusely, the demon king appeared like a great mountain giving forth streams of red lava. Using his knowledge of mystical weapons, the Rākṣasa returned volleys of arrows, spears, maces, rocks and huge trees. This fearful and deadly shower fell upon the forces of Yamarāja who stood in front of Rāvaṇa.

By whirling their maces and lances the Yamadutas repelled all Rāvaṇa’s missiles and surrounded him in thousands. They appeared like a mass of carnivorous ants around a large black beetle. Rāvaṇa became completely covered by darts and lances piercing every part of his body. He roared in anger and pain, quickly rising upwards from out of the midst of his assailants.

Descending to the ground he held his bow and placed upon it a blazing arrow. The demon invoked the power of Śiva, imbuing the arrow with the divine force of that immortal god. As the weapon was released a sheet of fire rushed across the ground, consuming Yamarāja’s forces. Enormous orange and white flames leapt in all directions, burning the Yamadutas’ bodies to ashes. The ground itself became molten and the forces of Yamarāja fell back in a confused mass.

In the flames’ wake came innumerable ghostly followers of Śiva, filling the earth and sky with their terrifying forms. They rushed about the battlefield striking fear into the Yamadutas’ hearts. By the power of Śiva’s weapon, waves of fearsome carnivorous beasts sprang up from the ground, howling horribly and tearing at the Yamadutas.

Rāvaṇa sent up a victory cry, making the ground shake. Hearing that shout, Yamarāja, seated in his palace, could understand that Rāvaṇa was overpowering his forces. He ordered his chariot to be fetched and quickly mounted it. Yamarāja stood in his stupendous chariot with a lance and mace in his hands. Angered, the great god burned with a glaring radiance. By his side stood the personified form of Kaladanda, the infallible rod of Death, his body a brilliant black and his eyes blazing like two red fires. On the other side of Yamarāja stood the very Time Spirit himself, the destroyer of the worlds, fearful in appearance. Standing together those three deities could not be countenanced. On all four sides of the chariot, which looked like a dark mountain, hung the frightful nooses of Death.

Drawn by a thousand red and black steeds shining with a bright luster, and having a thousand great wheels, the celestial chariot advanced with a terrible noise. Seeing that god moving off in anger, all the denizens of heaven trembled.

In an instant Yamarāja ‘s chariot arrived at the spot where Rāvaṇa stood roaring. Rāvaṇa’s followers immediately fled in all directions simply upon seeing that awful chariot. Some of them fell unconscious on the spot. But Rāvaṇa himself was not afraid. Seeing his awful adversary he felt overjoyed, anticipating the fight. The demon stood firm as Yamarāja hurled at him many blazing javelins and iron clubs. They struck Rāvaṇa with tremendous force, piercing him and causing streams of blood to flow from his body.

Rāvaṇa raised his bow to counter Yamarāja’s attack. Using sorcery, he fired thousands of straight-flying arrows imbued with the force of a thunderbolt. Those arrows struck Yamarāja all over his body, but the god remained unmoved. Again and again Rāvaṇa fired off his arrows and darts, charging them with celestial power. He struck all three deities with his fiery weapons, but they stood firm. Yamarāja sent back at the demon countless barbed lances which struck him violently on the breast. Stunned by those irresistible weapons, Rāvaṇa fell unconscious to the ground. Yamarāja, observing the rules of fair combat, did not further attack his overpowered enemy.

After some time Rāvaṇa came back to his senses and saw Yamarāja still stationed before him. He contemplated his next move. This was indeed a formidable opponent. Rarely was the demon extended in a fight. Rāvaṇa rallied himself and stretched his bow to full length, releasing celestial arrows which filled the sky. They fell upon Yamarāja like fiery serpents. Being assailed by those arrows, and bleeding profusely, Yamarāja roared in anger. As he opened his mouth, fire covered by billows of smoke issued forth. The whole region was brilliantly illuminated by that fire, as if the sun itself had risen in that ever-dark place.

Witnessing the astonishing battle between Yamarāja and the Rākṣasa, the gods assembled above them. They feared that the dissolution of all the worlds was imminent. Yamarāja’s anger would surely annihilate the entire universe.

Rāvaṇa continuously sent his furious weapons towards the three gods. Death personified, highly enraged by Rāvaṇa, then spoke to Yamarāja. “My lord, do not exert yourself further. Let me remain alone here with this Rākṣasa. I shall make short work of him. None in the past, no matter how powerful, have been able to overcome me. Every god, ṛṣi and demon has succumbed to my power. Indeed, all created beings must surely submit to me. There is no doubt about this, therefore you need not bother yourself with this wretch any longer. Leave him to me.”

Yamarāja had become infuriated by Rāvaṇa’s insolence. He felt insulted and he told Death to stand back, for he personally would destroy the demon. The god lifted up his mace and gazed upon Rāvaṇa. As it was raised, that mace threw off a halo of blazing fire. Yamarāja held it in his hand like the globe of the sun and he fixed his red eyes on the demon. Just as he was about to release the mace to destroy Rāvaṇa, Brahmā appeared before him. He was seen and heard only by Yamarāja as he spoke to the angry god.

“O immeasurably powerful one, this Rākṣasa is not to be killed by you at this time. Indeed I have conferred upon him a boon that he cannot be slain except by a human. This cannot be falsified, lest the order of the universe be cast into chaos. Therefore hold back your mace. Rāvaṇa is not yet destined to die. If you release your infallible mace upon this demon, it will result in the death of all other created beings.”

Long ago Rāvaṇa had pleased Brahmā by performing difficult asceticism and had won from the god a boon. Brahmā had granted Rāvaṇa immunity from being slain by any beings, except for humans or animals, whom Rāvaṇa utterly disregarded.

Hearing that command of Brahmā, the chief of the gods, Yamarāja lowered his mace. Realising that nothing could be accomplished by him in that battle, he then and there disappeared from Rāvaṇa’s sight. When he saw Yamarāja depart, the Rākṣasa considered himself victorious and roared in joy. Now he was surely the most powerful being in the universe. What was there left to prove? Even the great lord of death had run away from him.

Rāvaṇa looked around and saw that the slain Yamadutas had been brought back to life by Yamarāja’s power. Ignoring Rāvaṇa they continued their grisly task of meting out punishment. Rāvaṇa felt he had no further purpose to achieve in Yamaloka. He had established his supremacy and that was all he desired. It was time to return to Lanka, his golden city. Getting aboard the Pushpaka he left that region, followed by his forces, and flew to the north, heading again for the earth planet where Lanka was situated.

Part One - Betrayed

Chapter 1: King Daśaratha’s Longing

King Daśaratha paced his palace balcony. His handsome brow was furrowed. In a pensive mood, he surveyed the scene around him. People thronged the inner courtyard below. Feudal kings and princes came with their retinues to pay tribute. From his seventh-story terrace Daśaratha could see much of his city, which stretched to the horizon in all directions. Crowds of citizens moved along the well-planned roads, which were interspersed with mango groves and orchards. The broad central highway, built entirely of red stone, ran the full hundred-mile length of the city. Large white mansions lined that road, with many-colored pennants waving in the breeze on their roofs. The road was sprinkled with perfumed water and strewn with flowers. Above the city the king could see the golden airplanes of Apsarās, the consorts of the gods.

Looking out over his capital, Ayodhya, Daśaratha was plunged in an ocean of anguish. He entered the palace and walked slowly towards his inner chambers. As he descended the wide marble stairways, he heard his priests chanting sacred Sanskrit texts. The sound of mantras mingled with that of drums and lutes being beautifully played by royal musicians. Even that sound, which normally gave him so much joy, could not placate him.

The king entered his rooms, leaving his personal guards at the door. Declining the food and drinks offered to him by his maidservants, he went over to the large latticed window. He moved aside the silk drapes and continued gazing out at his city. Ayodhya had been constructed by Manu, a son of Sūrya, the all-powerful sun-god. Manu had been the first of the kings in Daśaratha’s line, all of them emperors of the globe. As he thought of his long ancestry, the king only felt more pain. He sighed and turned back into his rooms.

Seeing the anxious king, his three queens tried gently to console him. They sat him on a large golden couch covered with silk pillows and studded with gems. His senior wife, Kaushalya, gently massaged his feet, while Sumitra and Kaikeyi fanned him with snow-white chamara whisks.

The king sat lost in thought. He looked at the exquisite carvings of the gods lining his walls. All his life he had done so much to please those deities. Once he had even gone into battle against the celestial demons on their behalf. Surely they would help him now. Daśaratha silently prayed to them.

While the king sat absorbed in his thoughts and prayers, a messenger came telling him that his chief priest Vasiṣṭha was now present in the assembly hall. Daśaratha had been waiting for this news. He rose up, and with the gait of a powerful lion went along the wide palace passageways, his large sword swinging at his side and his gold ornaments jangling as he walked.

Near to the hall he was joined by his chief ministers. All of them were heroes who had been tried in battle, and all were learned and wise. The state ran smoothly under their expert administration. There were no citizens without employment and no criminals left unchecked. The ministers were devoted to Daśaratha’s service, and as they walked they considered the problem facing the king.

Flanked by his bodyguards and ministers, Daśaratha entered his great hall. It vied in splendor with the assembly hall of Indra, the king of the gods. Massive marble pillars rose up to a roof which seemed to reach the sky. Balconies of alabaster and coral, worked with gold filigree, were gradually tiered all around the hall. Along the balconies were gold seats spread with white cushions. Large silk tapestries depicting the pastimes of the gods hung from the walls, which were lined with lapis lazuli and encrusted with jewels. The air was filled with the scent of incense. In the center of the hall sat numerous priests who continuously chanted prayers from the ancient scriptures, invoking the presence of deities. The great megha drum resounded deeply as Daśaratha strode towards his seat. Everyone stood and there was a cry of “Victory! All glories to Emperor Daśaratha!” The king, appearing like a god, took his seat on a large throne of refined gold bedecked with brilliant celestial gems.

A hush descended on the assembly as Daśaratha prepared to speak. Everyone sat in expectation. The citizens knew of the king’s worry; they loved him like a father and shared his anxiety. They were grouped in the hall according to their class. At the front were the Brahmins, wearing simple cloth and holding their waterpots and prayer beads. On one side sat the warriors, their powerful bodies clad in silks and gold ornaments, with long swords hanging from their belts. Near to them were the tradespeople in their colorful dress, and behind them were the servants and workers, also beautifully adorned. All social classes were represented in that assembly.

Daśaratha looked around the hall, smiling affectionately at everyone. Although the king was preoccupied with his worry, no one could detect in him any negligence or laxity in his duties. Seeing him smiling at them, the people felt reassured that Daśaratha would find a solution to his problem. They sat awaiting his speech.

Placing his hand on his golden scepter, the king turned to his chief priest Vasiṣṭha, who sat on a raised seat near the throne. With a powerful voice that boomed around the hall, Daśaratha addressed the priest. “I have called this assembly to settle a great worry of mine. As you know, this wide earth has for a long time been held under the sway of victorious kings in my line. O jewel among sages, is that glorious history about to end? What can I do to ensure that our proud lineage will continue?”

Daśaratha was perturbed that he had no son. Having ruled as the undisputed emperor of the earth for thousands of years, his retirement was now approaching; but there was no one to succeed him. Somehow, none of his wives had given birth to a son. The king had called for a full assembly to propose an idea he was considering. He needed the approval of the Brahmins and he wanted the consent of his people. Daśaratha looked anxiously at Vasiṣṭha, who was both his priest and preceptor. “O learned one, you know well the perils that attend a kingdom bereft of a monarch. How can I retire to the forest leaving this world without a protector?”

Vasiṣṭha sat surrounded by many other Brahmin sages. His hand rested upon his staff as he listened to Daśaratha. The sun shone through the carved lattice windows of the hall, covering the king with golden light. Vasiṣṭha, shining with his own mystic power, appeared like a second sun as he replied to the king. “O emperor, I have no doubt that you will soon be blessed with a powerful son who can succeed you. Not long ago I heard this told by Sanat Kumar, the immortal sage who roams the universe. A divine arrangement is being worked by the gods for your everlasting benefit.”

Vasiṣṭha lived in a hermitage outside the city. He was frequently visited by wandering sages and mystics. Some days previously the famous seer Sanat Kumar, who always appeared like a young boy, had spoken with Vasiṣṭha. He told him that soon four powerful sons would be born to the emperor. These sons would be divine incarnations, appearing to fulfill the purpose of the gods. Vasiṣṭha continued, “The Brahmins have all been praying to the Lord for your sake, O monarch. We have seen auspicious signs in the heavens. It is clear that some great plan of the Supreme will be achieved through you.”

The king felt joy to hear his priest’s words. Like his forebears before him, Daśaratha had religiously pursued his duties as emperor. Under his benevolent rule, the world enjoyed prosperity and peace. The king desired not only the immediate material enjoyment of his people but their spiritual well-being as well. He kept everyone on the path of piety and truth, leading them towards freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Seeing all the people as his own children, he was concerned that their happiness would continue after his retirement. He spoke again. “I have been considering the performance of a horse sacrifice for the pleasure of the gods and Viṣṇu. O noble sages, will this be successful? Can I satisfy the Lord in this way and thereby attain my desired end?”

Daśaratha knew that nothing could be achieved unless Viṣṇu, the Supreme Lord, was pleased. Although they controlled the universe, the other gods were but Viṣṇu’s agents. Many times in the past the king’s ancestors had performed great sacrifices for satisfying the Lord and achieving their purposes. The king now considered this to be his only means of deliverance. He looked hopefully at Vasiṣṭha, who had been speaking with the other sages at his side. Turning towards the king Vasiṣṭha said, “We are in agreement, O tiger among men. Let the sacrifice proceed! We shall immediately prepare a ground on the banks of the Sarayu. You will certainly get a son by this method.”

The assembly erupted with joyful shouts. Everywhere were cries of “Let it be so! Let the sacrifice proceed!”

The king, his eyes grown wide with delight as he anticipated the fulfillment of his desire, said to Vasiṣṭha, “Let the preparations begin today. Protected by four hundred of my best warriors, the sacrificial horse will roam the globe before returning for the sacrifice.”

After Daśaratha had issued all necessary instructions the assembly was dismissed and the king retired to his inner chambers. Together with his wives, he worshipped Viṣṇu and the gods, praying that his sacrifice would succeed.

The whole city of Ayodhya was filled with excitement as the news of the king’s sacrifice spread. In the large public squares minstrels sang songs recounting the exploits of heroes in Daśaratha’s line, while troupes of female dancers depicted the tales with precise and beautiful gestures. The temples became crowded with joyful people praying for the success of Daśaratha’s sacrifice. From the balconies of

houses lining the wide avenues, wealthy people threw down gems for the Brahmins and the jewels sparkled brightly on the clean, paved roads. The city resonated with the sound of lutes, trumpets and kettledrums. Augmenting the music was the chanting of Brahmins reciting the holy scriptures. With flags and pennants flying, festoons hanging between the houses and flowers strewn everywhere, Ayodhya had the appearance of a festival held by the gods in heaven.

The priests of Ayodhya set about preparing for the sacrifice. Selecting and consecrating a purebred horse which was free from any blemish, they released it to range freely across the country. As it traveled, it was followed and protected by four hundred powerful generals from the king’s army. According to the ritual, wherever the horse went, the residing rulers were called upon to attend the sacrifice and pay homage to Daśaratha. Anyone refusing would be immediately challenged to a fight. If they were not subjugated, then the sacrifice could not proceed. None, however, wished the emperor any ill. The horse came back to Ayodhya without incident at the end of one year.

Seeing the horse returned, Daśaratha called Vasiṣṭha. He touched his guru’s feet and asked him with all humility, “O holy one, if you deem it fit, please now commence the sacrifice. You are my dearest friend as well as my guru. Indeed, you are a highly exalted soul. Fully depending on you, I am confident of the sacrifice’s outcome.”

After assuring the king, Vasiṣṭha spoke with the priests, instructing them to have the sacrificial arena built. Chief among them was Rishwashringa, a powerful Brahmin who had come from the kingdom of Aṅga. It had long ago been prophesied that Rishwashringa would help Daśaratha obtain progeny. Along with Vasiṣṭa, he took charge of the arrangements for the sacrifice.

Vasiṣṭa ordered that many white marble palaces be constructed for the monarchs who would attend. The very best food and drink was made available, and actors and dancers came to entertain the guests. Horse stables, elephant stalls and vast dormitories to accommodate thousands of people were built. Vasiṣṭha instructed the king’s ministers, “Everyone should have whatever they desire. Take care that no one is disrespected at any time, even under the impulse of passion or anger.”

Vasiṣṭha spoke to the king’s charioteer and minister, Sumantra, who was especially close to Daśaratha. “We have invited kings from all over the globe. On behalf of the emperor you should personally ensure that they are all properly received. Take particular care of the celebrated king Janaka, the heroic and truthful ruler of Mithila. With my inner vision I can see that he will in the future become intimately related to our house.”

Soon many kings came to Ayodhya bearing valuable gifts of jewels, pearls, clothing and golden ornaments. Upon their arrival they in turn were offered gifts at Vasiṣṭha’s command, who had instructed his assistants, “Give freely to all. No gift should ever be made with disrespect or irreverence, for such begrudging gifts will doubtlessly bring ruin to the giver.”

The royal astrologers ascertained the most favorable day for the commencement of the sacrifice. Daśaratha, headed by Vasiṣṭha and Rishwashringa, and accompanied by his three wives, then came to the sacrificial compound, which resembled an assembly of the gods. Many fires blazed, each dedicated to a different deity and attended by numerous Brahmins. The great compound was crowded with sages absorbed in prayer and meditation. On all sides stood warriors equipped with every kind of weapon, fully alert to any danger. The king sat surrounded by Brahmins, who consecrated him for the sacrifice. He and his wives made offerings into the fires and joined in the chanting of prayers.

After some days the horse was brought before the sacrificial fire dedicated to Viṣṇu. Learned priests constantly poured into it oblations of clarified butter along with handfuls of grains. Taking the horse by its reins, Vasiṣṭa uttered a powerful mantra and the animal fell unconscious. It was immediately placed upon the fire. As the horse was consumed by the blazing fire, those with divine vision saw the soul of the creature rise from the fire, glowing brilliantly, and ascend towards heaven.

As the sacrifice concluded, Daśaratha was delighted. He said to the priests, “According to the ordinance it is fitting that I now bestow upon you proper charity. Therefore, O holy ones, take this entire earth as a gift. This is the only appropriate offering for great souls like yourselves.”

The priests replied, “You alone are able to protect this earth with its countless people. As ascetics we having nothing to do with the world, nor are we able to maintain it; therefore we leave it with you, O monarch.”

The Brahmins had no interest in wealth but wished only to live simply, unencumbered by material possessions. However, Daśaratha understood that unless charity were given to the priests the sacrifice was not complete. Falling at the Brahmins’ feet, he implored, “If you refuse my gift, then the success of my endeavor is most uncertain.”

The priests quickly raised up the king. They understood the scriptural injunction to which the king alluded. “If it so pleases you, then you may give to us a little wealth. We have no use for the earth.”

The king distributed to the Brahmins hundreds of millions of gold and silver coins, as well as millions of milk-bearing cows. He supplied tens of thousands of Brahmins present at that sacrifice with enough wealth to last their entire lives.

Vasiṣṭha and Rishwashringa then arranged for one final ritual to be performed. They called the gods by name to come and accept the sacrificial offerings made to them. The celestial smoke from the offerings, sanctified by Vedic mantras, rose upwards to the skies and was received by the gods. With the universal creator Brahmā at their head, they personally assembled in sky above Daśaratha’s sacrificial compound. Unseen by everyone, the gods began to address Brahmā:

“Because of a boon granted by you, O lord, the king of the Rākṣasas Rāvaṇa is constantly harassing us and is extremely difficult to overpower. Having begged from you that he be made invincible to us as well as to practically all other created beings, that evil-minded one now seeks to overthrow us. He profanes even great saints and has no regard for anyone at all.”

Brahmā, was concerned that his boon to Rāvaṇa had created such problems, listened as Indra, on behalf of the gods, continued: “Rāvaṇa sought invincibility but did not ask for immunity against humans, whom he considered of no consequence. Thus his death must come at the hands of a human. Please, therefore, beseech the Lord to appear as Daśaratha’s son.”

Although Rāvaṇa could still be killed by a human, the gods knew that no ordinary man could slay him. It could only be done by the all-powerful Viṣṇu himself, if he came to the earth as a man. And here was the ideal opportunity. The emperor of the earth was praying to Viṣṇu for a powerful son. Surely the Lord would consent to appear in Daśaratha’s family, especially if Brahmā, Viṣṇu’s devoted servant, also prayed to him to appear.

Brahmā assented to the gods’ request. He knew that the time for the Lord’s appearance had come. Seated in meditation, Brahmā thought of the Lord within his heart. At that moment Viṣṇu appeared in the sky. Only the gods saw Him as He descended upon the back of His eagle carrier, Garuḍa. His beautiful body was blackish and He shone with a brilliant luster. He was dressed in yellow silk with a garland of blue lotuses. A necklace of bright celestial gems hung around His neck. Adorned with numerous gold ornaments and jewels, He held in His four hands a conch shell, a mace, a discus weapon and a lotus flower. Gracefully descending, He sat amid the gods as they worshipped Him with hymns and prayers.

Brahmā addressed Viṣṇu in a reverential tone. “O Lord, here is the worthy Daśaratha praying for a son. All the worlds are sorely afflicted by the evil Rākṣasa Rāvaṇa, who must be slain by a man. Be pleased, therefore, to take birth as Daśaratha’s son. Appearing in a human form, please dispatch Rāvaṇa in an encounter and save the worlds from their suffering.”

Viṣṇu smiled at the gods. He spoke reassuringly in a voice deep like the rumbling of thunderclouds. “O gods, give up all fear. Along with My own expansions I shall soon be born as four sons of Daśaratha. I Myself shall appear as his eldest son, and My personal weapons will incarnate as My brothers. After annihilating Rāvaṇa and his demon hordes, I will remain on the mortal plane, ruling the globe for eleven thousand years.”

The inconceivable Viṣṇu then disappeared even as he was being worshipped. The gods felt their purpose was accomplished and, after accepting Daśaratha’s offerings, they returned to the heavens.

In the sacrificial compound the rituals were almost over. Daśaratha sat expectantly, hoping for some sign of success. He was apprehensive. If he could not obtain a son by this method, then he would surely be lost. He looked at the blazing fire as the last offerings were being made.

Suddenly there arose from the sacrificial fire a shining and beautiful personality form. Everyone watched in wonder as he descended near the king, remaining slightly above the ground. In his hands he held a golden bowl filled with celestial ambrosia. He spoke to Daśaratha in a voice resounding like a kettledrum. “O king, know me to be a messenger of the Lord of all created beings, Viṣṇu.”

“Please accept my heartfelt welcome, O divine one,” replied the king with his palms joined. “What shall I do for you?”

“By worshipping the gods in sacrifice you have received this reward,” said the messenger. “Take now this ambrosia prepared by the gods which will bestow upon you the offspring you desire. Give it to your wives and through them you will soon secure four celebrated sons.”

Accepting the ambrosia with his head bent low and saying, “So be it,” the king felt a surge of joy as he took the golden vessel, even as a pauper would feel happiness upon suddenly gaining great wealth.

As a mark of respect, the king walked with folded hands around the messenger, who, having discharged his duty, immediately vanished into the fire from which he had appeared. The king stood in amazement holding the bowl. All around him the Brahmins cried out, “Victory! Victory!” After offering his prostrate obeisances to Vasiṣṭha, Daśaratha left the sacrifice along with his wives and returned to his palace.

The king gave half of the ambrosia to Kaushalya. He gave the other half to Kaikeyi, the youngest wife, who was especially dear to him. Both of these wives each gave a part of their share to the king’s third wife, Sumitra.

All those noble wives of the emperor felt honored and immediately ate the ambrosia. In a short time they felt within themselves the presence of powerful offspring. Their minds were enlivened by the divine energy of the children inside their wombs, and they felt elated. Daśaratha, who had at last attained his desired object, felt as delighted as Indra, the king of the gods in heaven.

Having decided to incarnate in Daśaratha’s family, Viṣṇu summoned the gods and commanded them, “Soon my advent upon earth will occur. Assisted by all of you, I will crush the despicable Rāvaṇa. Foolishly, that evil one did not ask immunity from humans or animals, considering both to be entirely powerless in the face of his strength. As promised, I will descend as a human. O gods, without leaving your posts as universal controllers, you are capable of expanding yourselves onto earth. You should therefore appear in the world as powerful monkeys.”

Viṣṇu’s plan for the protection of the worlds was unfolding. The gods took birth as monkeys who had strength equal to their godly power. They could assume various forms at will, they were gallant, as swift as the wind, highly intelligent and practically invulnerable in battle.

The earth became populated with millions of huge monkeys who, in the way of the gods, grew up as soon as they were born. As haughty and strong as lions and tigers, they roared loudly and sprang about fearlessly. They were headed by Vāli, the expansion of Indra, and by Sugrīva, the expansion of Sūrya. Fearful in appearance, they thronged the peaks of mountains and resided in great forests. When they came together they appeared like masses of clouds moving about on the surface of the globe.

Chapter 2: The Birth of Rāma

Daśaratha, his desire fulfilled, dwelt happily in Ayodhya awaiting the birth of his sons. The Brahmins and kings who had assembled for the sacrifice left for their various abodes, sent on their way with kind words and gifts by the emperor. Four seasons passed. Then, at a time when favorable stars were visible in the heavens, Kaushalya gave birth to a son named Rāma.

Though Rāma was the Lord of creation, Kaushalya saw Him simply as her own dear child. She held Him tight to her bosom, overwhelmed with motherly affection and unable to recognize His divinity. Coming out of the delivery room, Kaushalya shone brilliantly with that baby boy, who had eyes like lotus petals.

Next, a son named Bharat was born from Kaikeyi; and from Sumitra, who had received two portions of ambrosia, were born twin sons, Lakṣman and Shatrughna. All three boys resembled celestials and they seemed to blaze with their splendor.

In the heavens Gandharvas, heavenly musicians, began to sing melodiously while bevies of Apsarās danced. Kettledrums resounded in the sky and showers of flowers fell upon the earth. In Ayodhya, the streets quickly became crowded with rejoicing citizens. Minstrels, bards and chanters of sacred hymns gathered in every quarter, glorifying the birth of Rāma and His brothers. The city, decorated all over with colorful flags and garlands, looked beautiful.

King Daśaratha, overwhelmed with happiness, gave a large heap of shining jewels to the Brahmins and arranged for a feast to be distributed to his entire kingdom. Vasiṣṭha joyfully performed the name-giving ceremony and all the other rites of passage for the brothers.

Of all the brothers Rāma was especially glorious. His attractive body had the hue of a celestial emerald. Dressed in the finest silk and adorned with golden ornaments, he captured the mind of all who saw him. Rāma was devoted to his father’s service. He took delight in the science of archery and quickly mastered the arts of horseback and elephant riding, as well as the various methods of driving a chariot.

Lakṣman was deeply attached to His elder brother Rāma from His infancy. He was like a second self to Rāma, and He pleased Him in every way. Unless Lakṣman was present, Rāma would neither sleep nor eat. Whenever Rāma went out to the forest to hunt, Lakṣman would follow at His heels, guarding Him on all sides.

Shatrughna was just as dear to Bharata, and These two brothers were also inseparable.

Daśaratha felt as pleased with his four sons as Brahmā feels with the four gods presiding over the four quarters of the universe. Those princes were tigers among men yet they were modest, wise, far-sighted and glorious in every way. They were attached to Their studies and soon became well versed in all aspects of kingship.

As the princes’ studies neared completion the king began to think about Their marriages. One day, while lost in such thoughts, the powerful mystic Viśvāmitra arrived at his palace. The sage instructed the gatekeepers, “Tell the king that Viśvāmitra, the son of Gadhi, is at his door.”

Upon seeing the lustrous ṛṣi, the gatekeepers were struck with awe. They ran to Daśaratha’s quarters to inform him.

Daśaratha quickly went with his ministers to greet the sage, even as Indra might greet Brahmā. As soon as he saw Viśvāmitra standing at his door, the king respectfully brought him in, sat him down and personally washed his feet. Standing with folded palms before the sage, Daśaratha was thrilled with joy as he spoke. “I consider your arrival here to be as welcome as the obtaining of celestial nectar in one’s own hands, as rainfall arrived in a desert, as the birth of a child to a childless couple or as the recovery of a lost treasure. What can I do for you today?”

Daśaratha was aware of Viśvāmitra’s glory. The sage was famous all over the world for his performance of difficult austerities and his virtuous behavior. He was also well known for his almost limitless powers. Once, by his own ascetic power, he had created an entire constellation of planets which still shone in the southern sky. The king felt honored to see him and wondered what had brought him to Ayodhya. Sitting at Viśvāmitra’s feet, Daśaratha continued to address him.

“You are worthy of my service in every way and it is by great good fortune that you have called at my door. My night has ended in a splendid sunrise as I see here before me the best of the Brahmin sages. Simply by seeing you I have received a blessing equal to the results of visiting every place of pilgrimage. I wish now to perform some pleasing work for you, O noble sage, and you may consider it already completed. As a guest, you are as good as God to me, and I shall not hesitate to do anything you desire.”

Addressed in such a delightful way Viśvāmitra felt joy as he replied to Daśaratha. “Your speech has pleased me in every way, O tiger among kings. You are descended from proud ancestry and have been instructed by the god-like sage Vasiṣṭha. Make a firm resolve to satisfy my desire and prove true to your promise, O virtuous one.”

Viśvāmitra had walked for three days without eating or sleeping, his mind fixed on his purpose. His body was lean and powerful, golden colored and covered by a black deerskin. He held in his hands a staff and a waterpot, his only possessions. He had come to ask something from Daśaratha which he knew would be hard for the king to grant. The sage gazed steadfastly into Daśaratha’s eyes as he spoke.

“I stand here this very day consecrated for a sacrifice. However, two powerful Rākṣasa demons named Maricha and Subahu constantly impede its performance. These demons are avowed enemies of both gods and humans. They are capable of ranging the skies and assuming any form they like. Every time my sacrifice is close to completion, these Rākṣasas appear overhead and drop down volumes of flesh and blood, ruining it entirely. Thwarted in my attempts, I have left that sacrifice feeling dispirited, having accomplished nothing other than exertion.”

Daśaratha listened intently as the sage spoke. He knew that Viśvāmitra would not have come to him, the emperor of the earth, unless there was some difficult task at hand. The Rākṣasas were dangerous beings who hated sages. The king knew they had been increasingly disruptive, and this was now confirmed by Viśvāmitra.

“Although capable of destroying those Rākṣasas with a curse, O king, I will not do so, as a condition of my sacrifice is that I do not give way to anger. My mind must remain steady and controlled. Nor is it the sacred duty of Brahmins to attack an enemy. This is always the duty of kings and warriors. Please, therefore, give to me your eldest and most heroic son, Rāma. Although a youth, Rāma is possessed of true prowess and is more than a match for any Rākṣasa.”

The king’s mouth fell open. He gazed in horror at Viśvāmitra. Was he serious? Send Rāma? The prince was just a boy! He had never seen action on the battlefield. Of course, there was no doubting His bravery and prowess, but how could He face the Rākṣasas? Those vicious beings knew every kind of sorcery. They could contend with even the gods. What chance would a youth like Rāma stand against them?

Seeing the king’s reaction, Viśvāmitra tried to reassure him. “You need entertain no fear on Rāma’s account. Accompanied by me He will proceed safely to the sacrificial arena. Immediately upon encountering those Rākṣasas, who are overly proud of their strength, I am sure He will quickly dispatch them. Therefore, release Rāma and let Him remain with me for a period of but ten days. Do not allow your parental affection to prevail. I shall confer upon Rāma boons by which He will attain fame in all the worlds. I will then return Him unharmed. O king, you should not have any doubt.”

Viśvāmitra fell silent. He was aware of Rāma’s true identity. By his meditations the sage could see in his heart the Supreme Lord, and he knew Rāma to be that same person. Viśvāmitra understood that the annihilation of the demons was a part of Rāma’s plan on earth. The sage was acting only as an instrument of the Lord’s desire.

Daśaratha stood mortified, oblivious to the divinity of his young son, overpowered by grief at the prospect of losing his young son Rāma. Trembling all over, the king felt pained at heart and fell unconscious to the ground. Remaining senseless for some time, Daśaratha finally came round and said to the sage, “My lotus-eyed son is less than sixteen years old. How then can He fight with the Rākṣasas? I myself, marching at the head of hundreds of thousands of highly trained soldiers, shall personally come to wage war on the demons. Do not take Rāma!”

Daśaratha sought desperately to change Viśvāmitra’s mind. For as long as he breathed, he said, he would stand with bow in hand and beat back any Rākṣasas who came to attack Viśvāmitra’s sacrifice. The sage need have no doubt. Daśaratha wailed piteously, “The Rākṣasas are given to treacherous fighting. The inexperienced Rāma is still not fully trained. He is yet unable to estimate the strength or weakness of the enemy, nor is He familiar with the use of the celestial weapons necessary for dispatching such powerful enemies as Rākṣasas.”

Daśaratha knelt before the sage. He looked up at him with tears in his eyes. Seeing Viśvāmitra’s resolute expression he took hold of his feet and implored him to relent. He tried to think of life without Rāma. It was unimaginable. After such a long time and so much prayer he had finally obtained a son worthy to succeed him. And such a son! It seemed that with each passing day Rāma endeared Himself more to his elders with his virtuous behavior. Now He was just attaining maturity and could soon be installed as Prince Regent. How could he lose Rāma now? He continued his plea, “Separated from Rāma I doubt I shall survive for even an hour. Please do not take Him or, if you really must, then please also allow me to go with Him. Taking my entire army I shall station myself on the battlefield and ward off the demons. Tell me all that you know about those Rākṣasas, O sage, and I shall make every preparation.”

Viśvāmitra replied, “There is a Rākṣasa named Rāvaṇa to whom Brahmā has granted a boon of invulnerability. Possessed of extraordinary strength and followed by numerous other Rākṣasas, he has oppressed both heaven and earth to the utmost degree. When this mighty demon cannot himself be bothered to assail the sacrifices of sages, he sends out his two lieutenants, Maricha and Subahu.”

Hearing Rāvaṇa’s name, the king became alarmed. He stood up suddenly. “Even the gods and Gandharvas united with the entire heavenly host cannot defeat that demon. How then shall I, a mere mortal, stand before him? What then of Rāma? Brahmā has made Rāvaṇa unslayable. I with all my troops will prove incapable of overcoming Rāvaṇa, who deprives even the most powerful fighters of their prowess on the battlefield.”

The king had heard numerous accounts of Rāvaṇa’s exploits. Many years ago the demon had slain Anaranya, his ancestor. The demon had defeated the gods and had even once fought and overcome the mighty Yamarāja. To confront him in battle was more or less suicide. The king clasped his hands together. “How can I permit my gentle son to go out? Under no circumstances can I allow Rāma to risk his life against Rāvaṇa. Rather, I shall go out myself with my army to protect your sacrifice, even if it means my death. Rāma shall remain here.”

Hearing Daśaratha’s faltering speech, Viśvāmitra blazed up with anger. Did Daśaratha have no faith in him? How dare he refuse his request! Kings and warriors must always respect and obey Brahmins, for this was the sacred law. And Daśaratha had already promised to satisfy him. The sage’s eyes opened wide with fury as he spoke.

“After giving your solemn pledge to fulfill my desire, you now decline! This refusal shames your royal lineage and will bring ruin to your race. If you care not about this infamy, then I shall return the way I came. With your promise falsified you may remain peacefully among your relatives.”

Seeing Viśvāmitra seized with fury, the gods themselves became fearful and the earth shook. The wise Vasiṣṭha, perceiving the imminent danger from Viśvāmitra’s curse, spoke to the king. “Born in the line of the sun-god, you are like virtue personified. It does not befit you to abandon righteousness. You always remain firm in your vows and are famed as being fixed in truth. Summon strength from within yourself now. If you fail to redeem your promise, you will lose all the merit that has accrued to you from the performance of pious acts. Send Rāma with Viśvāmitra. Whether or not Rāma has mastered archery is of no consequence, as He will be protected by the sage.”

Vasiṣṭha, who also knew Rāma’s divine plan, looked at the agonized king. He told him how Viśvāmitra had inconceivable power and great learning. Formerly, while ruling over a kingdom, he had received from Śiva the knowledge of every celestial weapon. He would undoubtedly give this knowledge to Rāma. Although quite able to punish the Rākṣasas himself, Viśvāmitra had asked for Rāma only to do good to the prince.

Daśaratha still appeared doubtful. His hands shook as he folded them, imploring Viśvāmitra to relent. Tears streamed from his eyes.

Vasiṣṭha then took the king aside and spoke in confidence. He told him of Rāma’s identity. He also said that the arrival of Viśvāmitra had been arranged by Providence for the good of the world. The king should therefore have no fear in sending Rāma with the sage.

Daśaratha was astonished. To him, Rāma was his beloved child in need of protection. How could he possibly be the Supreme Lord? Daśaratha looked at Vasiṣṭha, who stood silently gazing into the king’s eyes. The sage could not possibly tell a lie. Accepting the words of his preceptor and feeling somewhat reassured, Daśaratha agreed to send his son with Viśvāmitra, who permitted the king to send Lakṣman as well, for Daśaratha knew that Lakṣman would never let Rāma go out alone for a fight. Daśaratha personally called for his two sons and embraced them both. As his tearful wives watched, the king committed the boys to Viśvāmitra’s care. “Render service to this sage as you would to myself. My dear sons, I shall pray for your safe return. Go now with my blessings.”

As they parted at the city gates, Vasiṣṭha uttered benedictory hymns and prayers. Flowers rained from the skies. Loud blasts of conches and the beating of kettledrums resounded everywhere. Led by the smiling Viśvāmitra, Rāma and Lakṣman went out from the kingdom, watched by Their parents and the citizens until They disappeared into the distance.

Chapter 3: With the Sage Viśvāmitra

Viśvāmitra walked ahead of the two princes, who each carried a bow in hand and had swords strapped to Their waists. Wearing on Their shoulders two large quivers of arrows, the princes looked like a pair of three-headed serpents following behind the sage. Their brilliant jewels set off Their dark complexions. The two resplendent boys added luster even to the shining sage Viśvāmitra, as the two gods Skanda and Ganapati adorn the immortal Śiva.

After covering about twelve miles along the beautiful southern bank of the Sarayu, they arrived at a stretch of soft grass, sheltered by trees. Viśvāmitra stopped and turned towards Rāma and Lakṣman. “Sit here comfortably and sip a little sanctified water for purification. I will now tell you the mystical mantras known as Bala and Atibala. These hymns will confer upon You freedom from all fatigue and fever. Indeed they will release You from hunger and thirst and will even prevent decrepitude. While You mutter these sacred spells, none on earth will be Your equal in either battle, intellectual judgment or argument. Bala and Atibala are the sources of all wisdom, being the daughters of the self-born creator, Brahmā.”

Viśvāmitra looked upon the brothers’ faces and he felt a deep affection for Them. Although he knew They were not ordinary men, out of love he wanted to serve Them, acting as their teacher and guide. For Their part the princes felt an equal affection for the sage, and They gladly reciprocated his love, accepting him as Their guru. The sage positioned himself near the seated princes and, after sipping holy water for purification, held up his right palm and began chanting the mantras.

With a cheerful expression Rāma and Lakṣman received the two hymns from the sage. When the instruction was complete, They rested for the night on the bank of the river, enjoying the cool breeze that wafted gently across the water.

Shortly before dawn Viśvāmitra, who had remained awake in meditation all night, awoke the two princes, calling out to Them. “O Rāma and Lakṣman, O tigers among men, the sun approaches the eastern horizon! Rise up now and perform Your ablutions. We must proceed.”

The brothers immediately rose and bathed in the river. After Their prayers and meditations They approached Viśvāmitra and bowed at his feet. The sage, having bestowed blessings upon the boys, again led the way as the sun rose upon another cloudless day.

Soon they saw the river Ganges where it met the Sarayu. On the bank of the Ganges were many simple dwellings made from leaves and mud, in which there lived a community of ascetics. The princes asked Viśvāmitra about the hermitage. The sage, remembering the history of the site, laughed heartily and told them the story of how Cupid had once come to assail Śiva here.

A very long time ago the god of love had a human form. On one occasion he had been bold enough to fire his arrows of love at the unconquerable Śiva. The powerful Śiva, who had been absorbed in deep meditation at the hermitage, became infuriated and gazed at Cupid with his third eye. A searing flame shot out, reducing Cupid’s body to ashes. From then on Cupid became known as Ananga, the bodiless one, and the land there became known as Aṅga.

Finishing the tale Viśvāmitra said, “All these sages are disciples of the glorious Śiva. Let us halt for the night here and converse with these mystics, O princes.”

While Viśvāmitra spoke, the ascetics dwelling in the hermitage sensed from a distance the approach of the sage and the princes. Realizing who they were, those worshippers of Śiva, who himself always worships Viṣṇu, felt happy in heart and came out quickly to greet their exalted guests.

Having been graciously received, the three travelers performed their evening rituals and took a simple meal of forest fare. Viśvāmitra entertained the assembly with ancient tales of heroes and sages of the past.

The following morning, after crossing the Ganges in a boat provided by the ascetics, Viśvāmitra and the princes came to a vast, desolate region. On all sides were huge trees stripped of their foliage. The ground was laid waste and a wind gusted, carrying sand and debris which lashed their faces. The cries of wild animals and vultures resounded there and even the sky above was dark and overcast.

Rāma and Lakṣman looked around. What had happened? The land so far had been beautiful and verdant. Rāma asked Viśvāmitra, “This forest ahead appears inaccessible and foreboding. What is this land inhabited with fierce beasts of prey and presenting such a terrible aspect?”

Smiling even in the face of that fearful scene, Viśvāmitra replied, “My dearest Rāma, a long time ago this was the site of two prosperous kingdoms built by the gods. It came to pass one day that Indra became afflicted with the sin of killing a Brahmin. Overcome with impurity, Indra sought the powerful ṛṣis, the most exalted of the Brahmins, as his refuge. They performed rituals of purification and bathed his body with Ganges water which fell here on this tract of land. Pleased with this land for receiving his impurities, Indra blessed it saying, ‘Here will rise two great kingdoms which will flourish for many years and will be known as Malada and Karusa.’”

The party had stopped at the edge of a forest of bare trees as Viśvāmitra spoke. The way ahead was virtually enveloped by darkness. Terrible sounds emanated from the forest. The sage continued telling the brothers about the land. Some time after Indra had founded the cities, there came to that region a Yakṣa woman named Tataka, as powerful as a thousand elephants and able to assume any form she desired. She was the mother of Maricha, who now assailed Viśvāmitra’s hermitage. Fearsome and filled with malice towards all beings, Tataka constantly ravaged that land and thus no one lived there. Although it was once the site of flourishing cities, it was now almost impossible to even approach.

Turning towards the princes, Viśvāmitra said, “The time has now come for the demise of the evil Tataka. You two princes should follow me to the place where she resides. Search her out and end her life immediately.”

Rāma replied with a smile, “Being a woman, O sage, how can Tataka have such power?”

Viśvāmitra knew that the virtuous Rāma was hesitant to attack a woman, but Tataka was no ordinary woman. The sage described her background. She had been born as the beautiful daughter of a great and powerful Yakṣa named Suketu. As a youth she was given a boon by Brahmā that she would possess the strength of a thousand elephants. She married the famous Yakṣa, Sunda, who was eventually killed as a result of a curse made by the sage Agastya. When Tataka learned of her husband’s death, she became infuriated with Agastya and, along with her son Maricha, she rushed towards the sage desiring to kill him. The sage stood his ground. He said to the two advancing Yakṣas, “As you act so wickedly may you both become demons! O Tataka, you shall lose your attractive form and instead become an ugly man-eating Rākṣasī!” Agastya then vanished from the spot.

Viśvāmitra raised his hand and indicated the path ahead of them. Tataka had turned the entire region into a desolate forest by her malevolent presence. She was always angry and would attack anyone who approached the area.

Having told the brothers Tataka’s history, the sage reassured them: “Although the scriptures state that a woman should always be protected and never attacked, in this case You need not fear any sin. The killing of Tataka is necessary for the good of society. One wishing to protect the afflicted must sometimes perform even a seemingly sinful act. This is the eternal duty of kings. O Rāma, You should not hesitate.”

Citing other historical examples of kings and gods who had killed evil women, Viśvāmitra urged Rāma to quickly kill Tataka.

Rāma accepted the sage’s order and grasped His golden bow. Standing ready for combat, He said to Viśvāmitra, “My father instructed Me on leaving Ayodhya that your order should be followed without hesitation. In obedience then to both his and your command I shall now face the fierce Rākṣasī. I wish to do good to the Brahmins and cows in this region, as well as to satisfy your holy self. Please point out to me the whereabouts of that wicked demon.”

Viśvāmitra led Them a little further into the wilderness. Rāma twanged his bowstring, which produced a terrific sound, filling the four quarters. All the forest animals were terrified by the noise.

Tataka herself was stunned and overcome with anger. Who had dared to challenge her? Whoever it was, they would soon regret their foolishness. She came out from her cave and ran towards the source of the sound, screaming horribly.

Seeing her at a distance emerging from the forest in a terrible fury, monstrous in size and awful in appearance, Rāma said to Lakṣman. “Behold, My dear brother, this formidable and fearful Yakṣa woman. The very sight of this sinful wretch would break the hearts of the timid. Watch Me put her to flight with My sharp arrows. In truth, I do not really want to kill her, as she is a woman. I shall put an end to her strength by rendering her immobile and powerless, cutting from her body her hands and feet.”

As Rāma spoke, Tataka rushed towards him roaring, with her arms upraised. Uttering a powerful mantra, Viśvāmitra checked her progress, calling out, “May victory attend the Ayodhya princes!”

Creating a swirling cloud of dust, Tataka confounded the princes and disappeared. With her mystic powers of illusion she employed numerous conjuring tricks. She assumed many forms, one after another. Sometimes she appeared in front of the brothers. Then she would be above Them. Then again she would suddenly appear behind Them. One moment she appeared as a furious horned animal. In the next moment she became a terrible looking fiend. Then she swooped down upon Them as a great clawed bird. Hurling upon the brothers huge rocks and boulders, she screamed fearfully.

Rāma flew into a rage. He parried the rocks with a shower of shafts from His bow. He shot arrows with blinding speed. His bow appeared to be always bent into a circle. Taking razor-headed arrows He severed Tataka’s two arms, even as she came running towards him. Lakṣman also became furious. He released sharp arrows with deadly accuracy and sliced off her nose and ears.

The Yakṣa woman disappeared and rose up to the sky. Even though deprived of her arms, she used her sorcery to throw down more massive trees and boulders. Remaining invisible, she moved hither and thither, screaming all the while. Viśvāmitra saw the boys mystified by the Rākṣasī’s illusory powers. He realized They were holding back because Tataka was a woman. The sage called to the brothers. “Have done with Your tenderness! This woman should not be spared! Sinful and wicked, she thoroughly deserves death at your hands. Act swiftly to end her life before nightfall, as the demons are always more powerful after sunset!”

Rāma then showed His skill at archery. He released arrows capable of striking an invisible target by seeking out sound. Reciting mantras as He let them go, Rāma covered Tataka in a network of arrows. Those arrows reduced the falling stones to powder. They pierced the Rākṣasī and she screamed in pain. She quickly came down to earth again. Tataka then assumed a vast form and rushed with the force of a tempest towards the two brothers. Rāma decided that she should be killed. He quickly fired an arrow imbued with the energy of a thunderbolt. It hit the Rākṣasī full in the chest. Tataka’s heart was ripped apart and with a hideous cry she fell down dead.

Having watched Rāma slay the demoness, the gods, headed by Indra, assembled in the skies and applauded. Celestial flowers rained down on the two princes. Acknowledging the gods’ pleasure, Rāma and Lakṣman modestly bowed Their heads. The thousand-eyed Indra said to Viśvāmitra, “All the gods are gratified with Rāma’s feat. O holy Brahmin, show Rāma your affection by giving to Him your knowledge of the celestial missiles. A great objective of the gods will soon be accomplished by Rāma with the use of these weapons.”

Indra was considering Viṣṇu’s desire that Rāvaṇa and his Rākṣasa hordes be annihilated. As he looked upon the mighty Rāma he knew that the time for the destruction of the Rākṣasas was imminent.

After Indra had spoken, the gods returned to the heavens and twilight fell. Embracing Rāma and Lakṣman, Viśvāmitra said, “Let us remain for the night in this forest. Freed from the curse of Tataka, it is now rendered so very peaceful and attractive. In the morning we shall continue on to my hermitage.”

The three of them rested for the night, praised by heavenly bards and singers who had assembled in the canopy of the sky.

The next morning Viśvāmitra remembered Indra’s words. He sat the two princes down and faced them. “Steady Your minds, O heroes, for I shall now tell You the knowledge of the gods’ mystic weapons, including even those presided over by the invincible Brahmā, Śiva and Viṣṇu. Equipped with this knowledge You will be able to forcibly bring under Your control even the hosts of gods and demons, including the Gandharvas and Nāgas, the powerful celestial serpents.”

Viśvāmitra sat facing the rising sun and, after purifying himself by sipping water and intoning sacred hymns, he began to repeat to Rāma a string of mantras capable of invoking the celestial weapons. Calling each weapon by the name of its presiding deity, Viśvāmitra delivered to Rāma all those divine missiles, thousands in number and difficult for even the gods to remember in their entirety. As they were called they came before Rāma in their shining ethereal forms. Some appeared like glowing coal, others were smoky while others were brilliant like the sun or moon. Filled with joy at being called to Rāma’s service, they stood before Him with folded hands and asked for His command.

Rāma accepted them with affection and asked them to personally appear within His mind whenever He thought of them. The personified missiles replied, “It shall be as You say.” Taking leave of Rāma, the weapons circumambulated Him with respect and returned to their own heavenly abodes.

After teaching the brothers the full knowledge of firing and recalling the weapons, Viśvāmitra finally said, “The instruction is complete. O glorious princes, we should now continue towards our destination.”

They moved on from that spot and soon saw in the distance a great cluster of trees, appearing like a mass of dark clouds on the horizon. As they came closer they saw it was a beautiful copse containing varieties of flowering and fruit-bearing trees. Sweetly singing birds filled the air and graceful deer moved about next to rivulets of clear water. Looking at Viśvāmitra, Rāma inquired, “What is the name of this place so pleasing to the mind? It seems we have arrived at the site of some holy hermitage. Can it be that we have now reached your own abode, O learned Brahmin?”

Although possessed of infinite knowledge, Rāma had fully assumed the role of Viśvāmitra’s student. He listened attentively as the sage smiled and told Him the ancient story of Bali and Indra. Once the immensely powerful King Bali, lord of the demons and enemy of the gods, seized the seat of Indra and began to rule over the universe. Becoming famous throughout all the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell, he remained in that position for a long time.

The gods had become perturbed and with Indra at their head they sought out Viṣṇu. The Lord then appeared as Vāmana, accepting the form of a Brahmin boy. On the plea of charity, He took from Bali the three worlds, restoring them again to the gods. Vāmana then remained for some time at this hermitage, known as the Siddha-ashrama, sanctifying it by His presence. Viśvāmitra concluded, “It is here that I have my dwelling, O Rāma. Let us go there now.”

Taking the two princes by the hand, the sage entered his hermitage. As he walked into the large compound he resembled a full and cloudless moon accompanied by two brilliant stars. There were numerous hermits moving about in that grassy enclosure. Some tended sacred fires, while some of the younger ones chopped wood or worked on constructing the large central altar meant for the main sacrifice. In some places groups of sages sat reciting the Sanskrit hymns of the Vedas, while elsewhere other sages cleaned and prepared sacrificial paraphernalia. Rāma and Lakṣman looked with interest upon the busy scene that greeted Them. Despite the bustle, an atmosphere of tranquility prevailed and the hermits glowed with ascetic power.

Seeing that Viśvāmitra and the princes had arrived, the hermits sprang up and paid their respects. They offered water and forest fruits to the two princes. It was late in the evening and long shadows stretched across the ground. The sacrifice would begin the next day. On Viśvāmitra’s order the hermits showed the two boys to a secluded cottage. One of the sages said, “Rest now for the night, and tomorrow, led by Viśvāmitra, we will go through the ceremony to consecrate our sacrifice. Surely our success is now certain because we see you two princes before us, equipped with every weapon and shining like the sun.”

The sages gazed with gratitude at Rāma and Lakṣman. They had been afflicted by the Rākṣasas for a long time and had prayed for deliverance. In his prayers and meditations, Viśvāmitra had understood the Lord’s plan. The sage had thus gone to Ayodhya, looking for Rāma. Now the divine prince had actually come to personally deliver the ascetics from their suffering. As they watched the two boys lie down to sleep, the sages were struck with wonder. In their hearts they offered worship and praise to Viṣṇu.

Before dawn the next morning the princes rose and went through Their daily rituals. After offering obeisances to Viśvāmitra, They sat down by the side of the sacrificial altar. Facing the sage with folded hands, Rāma asked, “O venerable sir, please tell Us when and where We can expect the evil Rākṣasas to appear?”

Viśvāmitra remained impassive, but the other hermits applauded the boys, seeing their readiness to tackle the demons. One of them replied, “Viśvāmitra is now observing a vow of silence, which he will keep for the next six days and nights, remaining awake throughout. At the end of that period, close to the completion of the sacrifice, the two demons will assail this area with all their force. But be ready, for the treacherous Rākṣasas could appear at any time!”

The princes were eager for a fight. They stood vigilantly by Viśvāmitra’s side as he sat silently meditating upon the sacrificial hymns. Rāma leaned on his great bow, which stood almost as tall as Him. Lakṣman held in His hand a shining blue sword, its golden handle impressed with bright gems.

As the sixth night approached and the final rituals were being performed, the sacrificial fire suddenly blazed forth furiously. A loud clamor came from the sky, which was covered over by clouds. Swooping down upon that sacrifice, the two Rākṣasa demons Maricha and Subahu, appeared from the sky. They were accompanied by their fierce and terrible looking followers. As they spread their sorcery, torrents of blood and pus, as well as large pieces of flesh, fell upon the altar. Blazing fires sprang from the earth and hot coals flew everywhere.

Shrieking horribly, the Rākṣasas danced about, wreaking havoc. The hermits fell back, but this time they were not fearful. Viśvāmitra quickly stood up. It was time for these evil beings to receive their just deserts. They had defiled his sacrifice once too often. They would not do so again. Gathering the other ascetics, Viśvāmitra moved aside and ordered Rāma to attack the Rākṣasas.

Rāma became infuriated upon seeing the scene of devastation. He rushed forward toward the Rākṣasas, calling to His brother, “Watch now as I scatter these wicked demons who feed on raw flesh.”

Even as he spoke, Rāma continuously worked His bow. He sent swift arrows in all directions. The Rākṣasas were stunned; they had not expected any resistance. Some of them closed quickly on Rāma, covering Him on all sides. Rāma released arrows with deadly accuracy and speed. The Rākṣasas were cut to pieces. Rāma looked for Maricha. Seeing his huge form nearby, tearing at the sacrificial altar, Rāma invoked a celestial weapon. He placed it on His bow and, although still feeling furious, he calmly said to Lakṣman. “I shall release the Manava weapon, presided over by the father of the gods, Manu.”

Rāma angrily fired His weapon at the fearsome, roaring Maricha. The demon was struck by the mighty missile and he was lifted and flung a distance of eight hundred miles, landing in the ocean. Although reeling and struck senseless by Rāma’s arrow, Maricha was not killed. Rāma looked at Lakṣman. “See the force of that weapon, My brother. It easily hurled the demon to a vast distance.”

Rāma and Lakṣman continuously discharged flaming arrows at the other Rākṣasas. Imbued with mystic power one arrow expanded into thousands. It appeared as if a continuous line of shafts was leaving Rāma’s bow, so fast was His movement. The Rākṣasas screamed in pain. Some of them vanished and others fell dead on the ground. Some entered the earth while others flew into the sky.

Regrouping, a large number of the demons rushed down from the sky towards the princes. They hurled lances, iron maces, massive rocks and blazing coals. Rāma and Lakṣman stood firm, parrying that shower of weapons with Their arrows. Tightly grasping His golden bow, Rāma said to His brother, “Fear not Lakṣman, for I shall now swiftly deal with these blood-sucking demons. They are wicked and merciless and always given to sinful acts. This indeed shall be the last sacrifice they defile.”

Having said this to His brother, Rāma moved with agility, evading the rocks thrown by the demons. He invoked the weapon presided over by the god of fire, Agni. Fired from Rāma’s fully extended bow, the weapon hit the Rākṣasa Subahu full upon the chest. His heart torn apart, he fell dead on the ground like an uprooted tree. Rāma then invoked the Vāyu-astra, the powerful wind weapon. He fired it and a roaring gale went towards the Rākṣasas. They were blown away like so many pieces of dust and debris. Those who were not killed by that weapon fled for their lives.

As the clamor of the battle died down, Rāma and Lakṣman felt their anger subside. They stood holding Their bows and looking at Viśvāmitra. The sage was delighted. He approached the princes. “I have accomplished my purpose, O mighty-armed heroes. You have perfectly followed your preceptor’s order. We can now continue the sacrifice for the good of the people.”

With tears in his eyes Viśvāmitra gazed for some time at the two handsome brothers. He thought of Viṣṇu’s cosmic arrangement. The Lord always protected his worshippers and, for the well-being of the world, ensured that sacrifices could proceed. Overwhelmed with love the sage finally said to the boys, “Rest peacefully now, for tomorrow we shall leave this place.”

The many ascetics in the hermitage gathered around to congratulate the brothers. They led Them to a spacious cottage near the river. After showing the princes Their accommodation, the hermits offered Them forest fruits and cooked wild vegetables. Rāma and Lakṣman graciously accepted their offerings and then laid down for sleep, exhausted by the day’s events.

The next morning the princes came before Viśvāmitra and respectfully asked, “What other order of yours should we now carry out, O best among the Brahmins?”

The sage told them of a sacrifice about to be performed by Janaka, the king of Mithila. He wanted to take the princes there, where they would see a magnificent bow owned by Janaka. The strength of that bow was inestimable. It was formerly held by Śiva himself and it could not be bent by either gods, Gandharvas or demons-what to speak of humans. Janaka kept it enshrined in a hall where it was worshipped daily by his priests.

“Indeed,” said the sage, “the bow can hardly even be gazed upon except by the mighty. The king has declared that any man who bends this bow will win the hand of his daughter Sītā, a veritable jewel among women who was born from the earth itself. Let us leave for that place immediately.”

Viśvāmitra gave orders to the sages to make ready for the journey. A hundred carts were filled, largely with sacrificial paraphernalia, and yoked to strong asses. At the head of a thousand ṛṣis, who were all reciting auspicious texts from the scriptures, Viśvāmitra and the two princes set off towards Mithila, traveling in a northerly direction along the bank of the Ganges.

As they left, herds of beasts and flocks of birds dwelling around the hermitage began to follow them out of affection. Viśvāmitra and other sages addressed the creatures in their own speech and persuaded them to return.

They walked for some days. Having covered a long distance and arriving at the bank of the Sone river, the sages stopped to rest just before nightfall. The lowing of cattle and the cries of cowherds could be heard all around. As they settled down the travelers looked across the smooth waters of the river, which glowed orange under the setting sun. During the day they had passed many flourishing villages and settlements and seen that the land was farmed and well managed. Rāma, seated comfortably among the ascetics, asked Viśvāmitra where they were.

Viśvāmitra, who had lived thousands of years and knew the history of the entire earth, smilingly began to narrate the story of that land. It was called Kushanabha after an ancient king of the same name who was a son of a ṛṣi named Kusha. Kushanabha was Viśvāmitra’s grandfather. Having descended in the line of Kusha, Viśvāmitra was also known as Kauśika and he had an elder sister named Kaushiki. After unfailingly serving her ṛṣi husband, she had ascended bodily to heaven and later become the holy river Koshi. Viśvāmitra had for a long time led a life of asceticism on the bank of that river, by the side of the Himālayas. Because of his desire to perform a sacrifice, he came down to the plains and it was soon after that he had secured Rāma’s assistance.

The evening passed as Viśvāmitra told this and other tales. Seeing the onset of night the sage at last said, “The beasts and birds are buried in sleep and all the quarters stand enveloped in darkness. The firmament shines brightly with stars as though covered with innumerable eyes. Here rises the moon, dispelling the darkness of the world and spreading his soothing rays all around. Fearful hosts of nocturnal fiends are freely roaming here and there. Let us rest, ready for our renewed journey tomorrow.”

Glorifying Viśvāmitra, the brothers lay down and courted sleep, awed at the sage’s stories.

Chapter 4: The Trial of Strength

A beautiful sunrise over the Sone heralded the dawn. The sounds of birds and forest animals filled the air as the sages and the princes bathed in the river. After performing their morning rituals and prayers, the boys came before Viśvāmitra. The sage pointed to the river and said, “Here we should cross this river and make our way northwards to the Ganges.”

The boys looked around and saw nearby a line of sages, holding their waterpots and staffs, wading through the water at some shallow point. Rāma and Lakṣman fastened Their silk garments up around Their waists and placed Their bows across Their shoulders. Then, with Viśvāmitra going immediately before Them, they followed the sages through the clear, cool waters of the Sone.

After some time they sighted the Ganges shining in the late afternoon sun, appearing in the distance like a line of gold running across the landscape. Upon reaching the riverbank, they broke their journey and prepared to rest for the night. After worshipping the river with libations of water and lighting the sacred fire, the boys sat before Viśvāmitra and inquired, “O holy sage, we wish to hear of the origin of this great river, which arrives at the Himālayas from the heavens, flows across the earth and, it is heard, courses even through hell itself. How has this river become so holy and why does she spread her influence through all the three worlds?”

Moved by this question Viśvāmitra called to mind the glories of the Ganges and began to speak. [See Appendix One, The Story of the River Ganges.] In flowing and beautiful Sanskrit verse, Viśvāmitra narrated at length the history of the sacred river. When he was finished, the princes were wonderstruck. Asking the sage again and again to continue speaking, the brothers listened all night as Viśvāmitra recounted various other stories of the gods and demons.

The following morning they went towards the northeast, heading for Mithila. Gradually the forest paths gave way to roads laid with stone that led to the city. The forest opened to fields of crops. As they came closer to Mithila they saw well-planned gardens and groves with seats and fountains. The sounds of wild animals were replaced with the clamor of people in the city.

Shouts of children and the rumbling of horse-drawn chariots greeted them as they entered the gates of Mithila. Huge elephants swayed along majestically, with smiling people waving from the howdahs on their backs. Gazing about them, the travelers saw the golden domes of innumerable temples along with many mansions of brilliant white stone. Along the roadside were shops displaying countless varieties of fruits, vegetables and all kinds of sweetmeats. Other vendors displayed rows of shining gems looking like numbers of rainbows. Everyone called out respectful greetings as the party moved slowly past. As they went along the wide, smooth road they were met by the king’s ministers, who had already been informed of their arrival.

Headed by Viśvāmitra and the princes, the party was led along the main highway to Janaka’s palace. People thronged the sides of the road to gaze upon the famous sage and his two illustrious charges. As they looked upon the powerful princes, some of them guessed that they might be the sons of Emperor Daśaratha. The people wondered what had brought the princes to Mithila. Were they going to attempt to string the king’s great bow? As Rāma smiled at the people they were filled with a desire to see this handsome, powerful prince win Sītā’s hand.

Janaka personally came out to greet them, accompanied by his priests and counselors. He immediately fell at Viśvāmitra’s feet and had him brought into the palace, where he offered him and the two princes golden seats. The king had water fetched for washing their feet and personally performed the ceremony.

Once the formalities were complete, a meal was offered to the sage and the princes. As they sat on the floor on silk rugs, ivory tables were placed in front of them. Gold and silver dishes were fetched containing choice foods of every description. They ate heartily and when they were finished, Janaka said to Viśvāmitra, “Great indeed is my good fortune today for I see before me your holy self. I am blessed by your presence. Tell me who are these two boys accompanying you? They appear like two powerful tigers and They rival the gods in beauty and grace. What brings you here to my house, along with these boys equipped with weapons?”

The king had waited until the travelers were rested and refreshed before making his inquiries. Viśvāmitra told him all about the boys and how They had disposed of the Rākṣasas in the forest. They had come now to see the famous bow. Janaka was thrilled to hear that They were princes from Ayodhya. Nothing could be better than an alliance with Daśaratha’s line. If only Rāma could pass the test of the bow.

At that point Satananda, Janaka’s head priest, spoke to the princes. After welcoming them he began to narrate the history of Viśvāmitra. Satananda was himself a great ascetic. He knew Viśvāmitra well, having previously spent time with him in his hermitage. Seeing the famous sage again, Satananda felt inspired by affection to speak of his glories. Looking upon the beautiful faces of Rāma and Lakṣman, who sat enraptured by his speech, the priest told the story of Viśvāmitra, who had performed difficult asceticism for thousands of years. [See Appendix Two, The History of Viśvāmitra.]

He told them how the sage had once been a great king and, after practicing tremendous austerities, had been blessed by Brahmā to become a powerful ṛṣi. When Satananda finished his astonishing tale, everyone gazed with awe at Viśvāmitra, who sat flanked by the princes, his mind absorbed in thoughts of the Supreme Lord. Janaka approached the effulgent ṛṣi and spoke to him with joined palms. “I stand blessed by your appearance, O holy sage. This account of your many glories has filled my mind with wonder. Indeed, I could go on hearing it again and again. But dusk has now fallen and I beg your leave. Let us meet again in the morning and it will be my very great delight to satisfy your every desire.”

Janaka, along with his ministers and priest, circumambulated Viśvāmitra in respect and then departed. After performing their evening rituals and prayers, Viśvāmitra and the princes rested for the night in the king’s palace.

The following morning Janaka again came before Viśvāmitra. He bowed low before the sage and touched his feet, asking in a pleasing voice, “Please instruct me what I should do for you today, O sinless one. You are worthy in every way of receiving my service.”

Hearing these words from the virtuous and gentle king, Viśvāmitra asked that they now be shown the bow. Janaka assented, but before taking them to see the bow he described its history.

Long past, in a former age the bow had belonged to Śiva. That deity had become angry with the other gods when they had denied him a share of the sacrificial offerings made by the sages. Śiva had threatened them with the bow saying, “I shall now sever your worshipable heads from your bodies. Stand ready on the battlefield if you have any valor.”

But the gods relented and quickly worshipped the infuriated Śiva. They had managed to appease him, whereupon he gave the bow to them. The famous bow was then given by the gods to Janaka’s ancestor, Devarata, after he had fought for them in a battle against the demons. It had since been kept in the king’s family, being worshipped as if it were Śiva himself.

Janaka continued speaking to the sage and the princes, who listened with great curiosity. “Once I was performing a sacrifice to please the gods in order to get a worthy successor in my line. As the sacrificial ground was being prepared with a golden ploughshare, a wonderful child appeared from out of the earth itself. This female child, who became known by the name of Sītā, grew up in my palace as my daughter. Her beauty is matchless. I have raised Her with love and will give Her in marriage to whoever can show exceptional prowess. Various rulers and princes have approached me and sued for Her hand. Seeing these kings, I set a standard for winning Sītā, saying, ‘Whosoever can hold and string the mighty bow of Śiva will win this princess.’

“Many proud kings thought they would easily bend the bow. However, coming before that bow they were soon shorn of their valor and pride. They were hardly able to move the bow even slightly, far less lift and string it. Angry at their failure, numerous kings together besieged Mithila for one full year. When my resources were exhausted I prayed to the gods for support. I then received from them a vast army equipped with every kind of weapon. That celestial army quickly dispersed those bellicose kings in all directions. Thus this bow remains here, unconquered and awaiting some truly powerful king.”

Janaka looked at the two royal brothers. Rāma’s fame had reached him and he felt sure that the prince would win his daughter’s hand. As the king beheld Rāma’s beautiful features, His powerful physique and noble bearing, he longed for the prince to pass the test and become his son-in-law. He stood before Viśvāmitra with folded palms. “Come now, O sage, and bring these boys with you. If any can string the bow, then the hand of the divinely born Sītā will be won.”

Janaka led them to the part of his great palace where the bow was kept. It was stored in an iron chest which was adorned with gold engravings and covered over with numerous flower garlands. Three hundred powerfully built men somehow managed to move the chest to the center of the hall where it lay. Janaka turned towards Rāma. “Here is the wonderful celestial bow. It has been kept and worshipped by the Janakas for many generations. Not even the gods, demons, Yakṣas, Gandharvas or Kinnaras can string it; how then could any ordinary man? Gaze now upon this bow, O Rāma.”

Janaka ordered that the chest be opened. As the lid was lifted the brilliant bow was revealed. It spread a golden glow all around. Constructed of pure horn, it was skillfully worked with gold and silver images of the pastimes of the gods. Hundreds of golden bells and ornaments hung from the bow, which was studded with diamonds and other gems.

Seeing the bow the two princes gasped in appreciation. Rāma bowed down in respect and then walked slowly around it. He looked towards Viśvāmitra who nodded slightly. Understanding Viśvāmitra’s indication, Rāma stood with joined palms at the bow’s center. He turned to Janaka. “I wish to attempt your test. I shall now try to lift this heavenly bow to gauge its weight and strength.”

While being extolled by Viśvāmitra and other sages, who uttered “Victory! Victory!” Rāma placed his hand upon the bow. There was complete silence in the hall. Janaka held his breath as Rāma stood motionless. Viśvāmitra, knowing the extent of Rāma’s power, smiled slightly.

In the balcony of the hall stood Sītā. She looked at Rāma, feeling a natural attraction for the prince. Until then She had never been interested in any of Her suitors, although the most powerful kings from all around the world had come there. To the gentle Sītā they were all arrogant and overly proud of themselves. Sītā was deeply religious. All Her life She had prayed that Viṣṇu might become Her husband. As She watched Rāma approach the bow She felt Her love for the Lord being awakened. Was this Viṣṇu himself? Becoming absorbed in Her loving sentiment, Sītā felt anxiety. Would Rāma string the bow and become Her husband? She held the matrimonial garland with trembling hands.

Suddenly Rāma seized the bow by its middle part and raised it high above His head. A gasp of astonishment filled the hall. It was inconceivable. Rāma tossed the bow slightly to gauge its weight. Placing one end of the colossal bow on the ground, Rāma then moved to the other end and strung it. He pulled the string and bent the bow round into a semi-circle. It broke suddenly and a sound like the crash of thunder reverberated around the hall. The earth shook as if there were an earthquake. Everyone was stunned and rendered senseless for some moments.

Janaka was amazed. He turned to Viśvāmitra. “I have now witnessed Rāma’s strength. His achievement is incredible. Having secured Rāma as Her husband, Sītā will bring undying fame to my family.”

Janaka’s eyes were filled with tears. Surely Rāma was a divine personality. There could be no doubt. Till then no king had been able to move the bow even slightly; some could hardly even look upon it. But Rāma had handled it as if it were a piece of bamboo. The king looked up to Sītā in the balcony. She was filled with delight upon seeing Rāma’s feat and Her breast heaved with excitement. Awaiting Her father’s indication to come down, She stood surrounded by Her many female attendants. Janaka turned to speak to Rāma, who stood peacefully, having replaced the broken bow in its chest. “I shall now fulfill my pledge to give Sītā’s hand to whoever could string this bow. Sītā is dearer to me than my own life, but I gladly offer Her to You.”

Sītā came down from the balcony with a garland of golden flowers in Her hands and stood by Her father. She was resplendent in a silk sari of deep maroon, a necklace of pearls shining on Her breast. As She walked Her golden anklets tinkled and her diamond earrings swung to and fro. Smiling gently, she shyly lifted her eyes a little and looked at Rāma, who caught Her glance. Both felt Their hearts moved by love. In that moment Their union was forged. Sītā’s father signaled and She went before Rāma. She placed the garland around His neck, indicating Her acceptance of Him as Her husband. She blushed slightly and kept Her eyes down. Walking slowly, She went back to her father, who felt as if his heart might burst with happiness.

The king wanted to perform the marriage ceremony as soon as possible. He asked for Viśvāmitra’s permission, and when the sage agreed, the king arranged for swift messengers to go to Ayodhya to inform Daśaratha.

The ministers of Janaka left immediately and arrived at Ayodhya after three days. They quickly went to the palace and were ushered into the presence of Daśaratha, who appeared to them like a powerful god. Put at ease by the emperor’s benign expression and gentle words of welcome, the ministers politely told him of the events in Mithila. The emperor was delighted to hear the submission of Janaka’s envoys. Rāma and Lakṣman were well! They had conquered over the demons, and more than that, Rāma had now won the beautiful Sītā for His bride.

Daśaratha recalled how he had been contemplating the marriage of his son even as Viśvāmitra had arrived at his palace. The sage must have been sent by Providence, by whose arrangement this union had surely been made. After consulting with his counselors, Daśaratha made up his mind to leave the next day for Mithila.

Taking with him his ministers and preceded by a party of priests, Daśaratha went the next morning towards Mithila, with his army marching close behind. They arrived after five days. Daśaratha approached Janaka, who graciously received the abundant riches brought as gifts. Janaka embraced the emperor, and the two old friends sat together discussing the wedding. Janaka told Daśaratha how Sītā had appeared from the earth. He also told him of a prophesy he had heard.

“Once the celestial seer Nārada informed me that Sītā is Viṣṇu’s eternal consort and that he would one day become Her husband in this world. I thus devised a test which would only be possible for Viṣṇu to pass. Your son has now passed that difficult test and must therefore be Sītā’s eternal husband.” Daśaratha was again astonished to hear of Rāma’s divinity. He still found it hard to believe, having raised Rāma as his child. He looked at the son who stood before him modestly with bowed head and folded palms. Daśaratha was overpowered by love. His loving sentiments overcame any thoughts of Rāma’s divinity. The emperor looked again at Janaka and said, “I approve this marriage in every way. Perform the ceremony under the guidance of learned Brahmins. O king, the success of a gift depends upon the way it is given. Therefore be sure that all the necessary rites are properly observed without loss of time.”

Daśaratha wanted to ensure that the marriage ceremony was performed carefully according to scriptural codes. He did not want any ill fortune created by neglect of sacred rituals. Such errors would blight the marriage and create future difficulties for the couple.

Janaka issued instructions to his ministers and then sat with Daśaratha in his great palace hall. Both of them listened as Vasiṣṭha recited Rāma’s family lineage. After hearing of Rāma’s ancestry, beginning with the sun-god, Janaka recited Sītā’s genealogy, describing his own ancestry, which began with Brahmā.

When Janaka finished, Viśvāmitra spoke. He suggested that Sītā’s sister, Urmila, wed Rāma’s brother Lakṣman. The sage also advised that Janaka’s brother Kushadhvaja allow his two daughters to marry Bharata and Shatrughna. Then there could be one ceremony for all four marriages.

Rising from his seat with joy, Janaka said, “Let it be so!” again and again. He fell prostrate before Viśvāmitra and said, “I am ever your servant. Your words are worthy of my worship and I stand commanded by you. Let the wedding take place tomorrow, a day marked by favorable stars.”

As the two kings sat talking together, the sun gradually set. Janaka took his leave from Daśaratha and departed for his personal quarters, flanked by his ministers and a hundred warriors. Thousands of golden oil lamps lit up the hall as the crowds of Brahmins made their way out, all of them constantly uttering auspicious Vedic hymns.

The following morning Daśaratha rose early and performed the first ritual for invoking good fortune. He had his four sons brought before him and then gave to the Brahmin priests a hundred thousand cows on behalf of each of them. The emperor also distributed gold and gems to the thousands of ṛṣis assembled in Mithila to witness the wedding. The four princes shaved their heads and dressed in silk robes, putting on brilliant jeweled ornaments. Surrounded by the four handsome and effulgent youths, Daśaratha shone like Brahmā surrounded by the celestial guardians of the four quarters.

A great pavilion had been erected for the ceremony. Its walls were constructed of marble and it was supported on numerous pillars studded with sparkling gems. Fragrant and brightly colored flower garlands were draped everywhere and the air was filled with the scent of black aloe incense. Large stands constructed of mahogany inlaid with coral and pearl, holding rows of golden seats, surrounded the sacrificial area. Kings from all around the world along with their ministers filled the stands, eager to see the wedding.

The entire pavilion was crowded with jubilant people who cried out, “All glories to Rāma and Sītā!” Hundreds of elderly Brahmins wearing simple loin cloths, with clean white threads hanging from their left shoulders, were seated around the sacrificial arena. They recited Vedic hymns continuously and the melodic rise and fall of their metrical chanting filled the pavilion. Musical instruments played while expert singers sang the praises of Rāma and Sītā. The whole assembly appeared like an exuberant festival held in the heavens by the gods.

Daśaratha and his four sons approached the sacrificial fire, which was tended by Vasiṣṭha. When they were seated, the princes saw Sītā and the other three princesses enter the arena. The princes’ minds were captivated by the beauty of their wives-to-be. Adorned with shining silk garments, jewels and gold ornaments, the princesses appeared like four goddesses descended from the celestial realm. They sat down opposite their intended spouses, glancing down shyly, and Vasiṣṭha immediately began the wedding ceremony.

Janaka stepped forward, speaking in a voice choked with emotion. “My dear Rāma, I now give to You Sītā, my own beloved daughter, to be Your assistant in all Your religious duties. She will always remain exclusively devoted to You and will follow You like Your own shadow. Take Her hand in Yours and accept Her. I bless You both.”

Janaka took Rāma’s hand and placed it over Sītā’s. Vasiṣṭha sprinkled sanctified water over Their clasped hands, signifying the confirmation of the gift of Sītā. Holding Sītā’s hand, Rāma led Her slowly around the sacred fire.

From the upper reaches of the pavilion the gods were heard to exclaim, “Excellent! Bravo!” Celestial flowers rained down upon Rāma and Sītā. The entire assembly of onlookers erupted with a shout of joy. Both Daśaratha and Janaka looked with tearful eyes at the newlywed couple. Rāma’s complexion, resembling a celestial emerald, contrasted the pure white features of Sītā. They were both covered with golden flower petals and Their many jewels shone brilliantly. As They walked hand in hand around the fire, Sītā looked down in shyness while Rāma smiled at the loudly cheering crowds in the pavilion.

Each of Rāma’s three brothers, one after another in order of their seniority, took the hand of one of the other three princesses. Lakṣman was united with Urmila, Bharata with Mandavi and Shatrughna with Srutakirti. The three effulgent princes, holding Their brides’ hands, went around the sacred fire along with Janaka and the many sages.

Cries of happiness filled the pavilion. While the gods played their celestial drums, bevies of Apsarās danced and Gandharvas sang. The sages recited Vedic texts and the blast of conch shells was heard everywhere. All those present in the assembly were lost in ecstasy.

The ceremony ended at midday and the kings and princes gradually retired to their tents, headed by Daśaratha, Janaka and the four newly married couples.

The following day, Viśvāmitra, after taking permission from both Daśaratha and Janaka, left for the northern Himālayan ranges, his mind intent on the performance of asceticism. Janaka bestowed upon his daughters a dowry consisting of hundreds of thousands of cows and an equal number of elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. The king, whose wealth was virtually unlimited, gave away millions of pieces of silken and cotton textiles, tens of thousands of handwoven carpets, heaps of gold, silver and jewels, and hundreds of richly adorned maids for each of the brides.

After a few days Daśaratha left for Ayodhya, proceeding at the head of a large army. As the king, surrounded by his sons and the host of sages, was traveling along the broad road that led to Ayodhya, he suddenly saw a strange omen. Birds began to cry out fearfully and swoop low over their heads. Witnessing this foreboding sign, Daśaratha’s heart quivered and his mind became fearful. The king asked Vasiṣṭha if he knew the cause of those omens.

“These signs portend some grave danger,” replied the ṛṣi, “but here are groups of deer crossing our path from left to right. This indicates our deliverance from that danger. You should not fear.”

A fierce tempest blew up. The sun was enveloped in darkness and the sky became black. Trees crashed to the ground and the earth shook. A dreadful dust storm swirled around the travelers, confounding their senses. They were rendered virtually unconscious. Suddenly, from out of the darkness, appeared the terrible sage Paraśurāma. He was dressed in tiger skins and had matted locks coiled at the crown of his head.

Daśaratha and his followers immediately recognized him. Although a Brahmin, Paraśurāma was famous for his prowess as a fighter. In former ages he had single-handedly overcome the world’s warriors, annihilating them by the millions. The sage had become enraged when his father was killed by warrior kings, and he wreaked an awful vengeance. He had ranged the globe massacring the entire warrior class. He now stood before Daśaratha holding a battle-ax in one hand and in the other a fierce arrow which resembled a streak of lightning. He was as tall as two men and he had upon his shoulder a great bow. Appearing as irresistible as the fire of universal destruction, he blocked the path like an impassable mountain.

The sages in Daśaratha’s party quickly gathered together. They took water to wash Paraśurāma’s feet and hands and offered him gentle words of welcome.

Accepting the honor offered by the sages, Paraśurāma looked at Rāma and said in a grave voice, “O Rāma, I have heard of Your strength. By breaking Śiva’s bow You have performed an incredible feat. How can I, who has formed a great enmity with all warriors, tolerate hearing of such prowess existing in a king? I have here another sacred bow, that of Viṣṇu. Let us see Your power now. Fit this celestial arrow upon this bow and simply draw it to its full length. If You are able to accomplish this task, then I shall challenge You to single combat. When You stand on the battlefield and are swept away by the force of my weapons, You shall earn undying fame.”

Daśaratha threw up his hands in horror. Knowing well of Paraśurāma’s power, he feared for Rāma’s life. He approached the sage with joined palms and entreated him to spare Rāma. Paying no heed at all to the king, Paraśurāma continued to speak only to Rāma: “Both the bow broken by You and this one here were constructed by the architect of the gods, Viśvakarmā. The one you sundered formerly belonged to Śiva. However, this one here was Viṣṇu’s property. It is thus more powerful than the one you broke, for Viṣṇu is always Śiva’s superior.”

Paraśurāma took the bow from his shoulder. With furrowed brows, he gazed at Rāma with bloodshot eyes, not immediately recognizing the prince’s divine identity. “The bow has been passed down from Viṣṇu to my ancestors and finally to me. I now offer it to You, O Rāma. Considering Your sacred duty as a warrior to always accept a challenge, exhibit now the strength of Your arms!”

Paraśurāma held out the enormous bow. Rāma, smiling slightly, stepped forward. “I have heard of your tremendous feat in fighting and killing all the world’s warriors twenty-one times. You have fully avenged your father with this commendable action.”

Even as a child Rāma had been told the story of Paraśurāma. The many kings killed by that sage had become debauched, and it was by divine arrangement that they had been annihilated. As a sage Paraśurāma had performed much asceticism and had finally been personally empowered by Viṣṇu himself. By dint of Viṣṇu’s own desire and power Paraśurāma had been able to exterminate the warrior class. Now Viṣṇu, appearing as Rāma, again stood before the sage. He continued to speak: “You are a Brahmin sage and are therefore worthy of My worship. However, since you despise Me, seeing Me to belong to the warrior class, I shall now display to you My personal prowess.”

Rāma seized the bow along with the blazing arrow from Paraśurāma’s hand. He strung the bow in an instant and drew the arrow back to His ear. Looking angrily at Paraśurāma, He asked, “Where shall I discharge this deadly shaft, O sage? As you are My superior I dare not aim it at you.”

Hosts of gods had assembled in the sky. Seeing the celestial bow drawn in anger by Rāma, and fearing that He may destroy the heavens, they cried out, “Viṣṇu! Save us, save us!”

Rāma, standing with the bow, blazed as brilliant as the sun and Paraśurāma fell back in astonishment. He felt his own power completely eclipsed by Rāma. Suddenly realizing Rāma’s identity, the sage spoke in faltering tones. “You appear invincible and I can understand that You must surely be the imperishable Viṣṇu himself. I accept defeat but I am not shamed, as You are indeed the Lord of all the worlds.”

Paraśurāma recalled how Viṣṇu had long ago said He would come again to take back the divine energy He had given to the sage. The warrior-sage folded his palms and said, “O Rāma, O all-powerful one, You have already divested me of my power and my pride. Please release this arrow upon my desires for heavenly pleasures and thereby burn them all to ashes. I wish only to serve You. With all my material aspirations destroyed by You, I shall be fit to become Your eternal servant. This is my deepest desire.”

Paraśurāma bowed low before Rāma, who then fired the fearful shaft. The sage immediately vanished along with the arrow. Then Varuṇa, the god of the waters, appeared and Rāma gave him the celestial bow to keep on behalf of the gods.

The exchange between Rāma and the sage was heard and understood only by Vasiṣṭha and a few other spiritually powerful Brahmins. The king and the others present had been wholly confounded by the events that had occurred. They were amazed and relieved to see that Rāma had somehow appeased the sage. Everything again became calm and the party resumed their journey, soon approaching Ayodhya.

Word had already reached Ayodhya of the approach of Daśaratha’s party. Thousands of Brahmins and citizens had come some miles out of the city to greet them. They stood along the wide roads throwing rice grains and fresh green leaves in front of Daśaratha. Seated aboard his chariot, the emperor and his sons waved at the people. They moved slowly through the crowds and entered the city in state. It was decorated with flags and festoons and strewn all over with flowers. Trumpet fanfares sounded and joyous people thronged around the king’s party as it went slowly along the main thoroughfare.

Daśaratha entered his own white marble palace, which resembled Mount Himavat. He was greeted by his wives, who had organized a ceremonious reception for their sons and new daughters-in-law. After the greeting the princes and princesses went to their respective palaces and began to enjoy life in Ayodhya exactly like the gods in heaven.

After a few weeks, Daśaratha asked Bharata and Shatrughna to go to the kingdom of their father-in-law, Kushadhvaja, who himself had no sons. The emperor instructed the princes to assist Kushadhvaja in the affairs of state. Along with Their wives and a large army, Bharata and Shatrughna therefore soon left the capital and went to Rajagriha, where Kushadhvaja lived.

Chapter 5: Crooked Advice for Queen Kaikeyi

The aging Daśaratha, thinking of his retirement, gradually entrusted more and more of the state affairs to Rāma and Lakṣman. Those two princes, along with Their wives, served the king in every way. They always thought of the welfare of the people. Everyone became pleased with Their disposition and conduct. They were gentle and kind, but firm when necessary. They demonstrated complete mastery of the military arts and, having slain the powerful Rākṣasas even while boys, were respected as great heroes.

Rāma was especially dear to the king and the people. He was always tranquil and soft-spoken, not retorting even when someone spoke harshly to Him. He recognized the smallest of services rendered and did not take to heart any wrongs against Him. Rāma had conquered anger and was full of compassion. Making all arrangements to protect the people, he surrounded Himself with intelligent advisors and never made a decision without due consultation. Despite His power and ability, He always remained humble, mild and self-controlled. He was not influenced by envy or hatred, did not engage in frivolous talks and always sought the good in others. Free from sloth, He was ever vigilant to carry out His duty.

Rāma gave delight to even the gods, who would frequently grace Ayodhya with their presence. He was as tolerant as Mother Earth, as wise as Bṛhaspati, and as valorous as Indra. His personal beauty was as resplendent as the brilliant sun-god.

Daśaratha, seeing his son endowed with so many virtues, longed to see Him installed as the Prince Regent. The king discussed his desire with his ministers and priests. They all unanimously agreed that Rāma, as the eldest son, was the rightful heir to the throne and that He would be the most popular choice of the people. However, when the royal astrologers were calculating a favorable time for the coronation, they discovered dreadful signs in the heavens, portents that indicated that some calamity would soon occur.

Daśaratha became concerned. The omens must surely foretell of his own impending death. He decided to perform the ceremony quickly at the earliest opportune moment. Having set a date for Rāma’s installation, he summoned to Ayodhya rulers and important men from around the globe. But the gods so arranged that Daśaratha, in his haste, neglected to invite King Kushadhvaja. Thus neither Bharata nor Shatrughna came for the ceremony. Daśaratha realized too late his omission, for it was a journey of some days to Rajagriha. Nevertheless, he considered that his two absent sons would soon receive the delightful news of Their elder brother’s installation. He felt sure They would be overjoyed and would not take offense.

Soon a large gathering of kings and Brahmins appeared in Ayodhya and Daśaratha had them assembled in the royal court. Sitting in state in the assembly, the emperor blazed forth like Indra in the midst of the gods. He spoke in a pleasing and melodious voice, which was at the same time sonorous and grave.

“All of you know how the earth has long been protected by me and the kings who previously appeared before me in my line. To the best of my ability I have ruled the people, giving protection even at the expense of personal comforts. My body has become worn out in the shade of the royal umbrella. Carrying on my shoulders the burden of governing the globe, I have become old. I wish now to bestow this kingdom upon one well suited to take my place. Here is my beloved and eldest son Rāma, who vies with the king of the gods in all virtues. With the agreement of my closest advisors and in accordance with custom and law, I desire to place Rāma at the head of the state. With your permission, therefore, the ceremony will take place tomorrow morning.”

Daśaratha looked around the vast assembly of kings and sages. All of them gazed at him intently as he spoke. The kings saw Daśaratha as the leader of the entire earth. They all had affection for the old emperor, who always administered the law with justice and compassion. They willingly paid him tributes and sought his guidance in the affairs of state management. Daśaratha oversaw the world situation, ensuring that the different kings and leaders all ruled according to the codes of religion. All the assembled kings felt that Rāma was the perfect choice to succeed Daśaratha. As the emperor looked at his obedient and gentle son, he was moved by love. He continued to speak with tears running from his eyes.

“Rāma, who possesses every desirable quality, will be your worthy protector and even the universe will be better ruled with Him as emperor. If my plan finds favor with you, then be pleased to give your consent. Otherwise, if you consider that some other course should be taken, then speak out. Perhaps you may find me overly attached to Rāma, choosing Him when a better choice could be found. The views of the dispassionate are always to be sought when deciding a difficult issue.”

The whole assembly was filled with delight upon hearing Daśaratha speak. They erupted with loud acclamations of joy, even as a crowd of peacocks would acclaim the appearance of a large rain cloud. The sound echoed all around Ayodhya, seeming to shake the earth. “Let it be so! Let it be so!” was heard everywhere, and every man was in agreement.

Stepping forward, a leader of the Brahmins said, “You have long protected us with love, O king. Now you have a worthy son and can retire peacefully. Pray install Rāma as the Prince Regent, for He alone deserves to be your successor. We long to see Rāma riding upon the great royal elephant, His head shielded by the white umbrella.”

Upon hearing the assembly voice their unanimous agreement to Rāma’s installation, Daśaratha stood up, his eyes flooded with tears of joy. “It is fortunate for me and indeed the world that you all wish to see Rāma succeed me as king. This confirms my decision. I shall begin the arrangements for Rāma’s installation immediately.”

Daśaratha came down from his throne and approached Vasiṣṭha, touching his feet. “With your permission, O holy Brahmin, we shall proceed with the ceremony tomorrow. If you are agreeable, then please make all preparations.”

“So be it,” Vasiṣṭha replied, and he immediately commanded the king’s ministers to set about making ready all of the items required for the installation the following day. The assembly then dispersed with a loud clamor, and shouts of “Victory to Rāma!” were heard everywhere.

That night, however, Daśaratha remembered the astrological predictions. He became fearful and called for Rāma. Speaking with Him in private, Daśaratha said, “I have enjoyed a long life and have always protected the people to the best of my ability. In thousands of religious ceremonies, I have bestowed abundant charity. By sacrifice, worship and charity I have repaid my debt to the gods, the Brahmins and the forefathers. I have also fully satisfied myself through the enjoyment of numerous pleasures. All that remains for me to do is to install You as my successor.”

Daśaratha clasped Rāma close to his bosom. The king’s body trembled and his eyes shed tears. He desperately longed for his son to succeed him. At last it was imminent. Surely no evil destiny could prevent it now. Would not even the gods desire to see this magnificent prince become the king? Daśaratha revealed his concerns to Rāma, telling Him of the malefic stars. He also told his son of the many bad dreams he had recently experienced.

“My dear Rāma, due to seeing all these omens, Your installation has been sought swiftly by me before any problems arise. With Your good wife, Sītā, make offerings into the sacrificial fire tonight. At sunrise tomorrow we shall commence the installation ceremony.”

Rāma nodded in agreement and then bowed and took His leave from the king. He went back to His palace and, along with Sītā, sat before the sacrificial fire making offerings to Viṣṇu.

The news of Rāma’s installation quickly spread around the city, delighting everyone. The temples were thronged with people offering gifts and worshipping the gods. As evening fell the city streets were filled with a flurry of joyous citizens. The large crowds of men moving about Ayodhya resembled the tossing waves of the ocean. Everyone spoke only of the installation. Poets and bards composed songs about the occasion. Flags were hoisted high on the housetops and garlands of forest flowers were draped everywhere. Colorful festoons hung across the streets, which were swept and sprinkled with perfumed water. Shining lamps hung from every tree lining the streets. The city echoed everywhere with the loud chanting of Vedic hymns. Elephants and bulls roared on all sides and the whole atmosphere throbbed with excitement. No one could wait for sunrise, when the ceremony would commence.

In the palace of Kaikeyi, the king’s youngest queen, there was a hunchbacked maidservant called Manthara. Upon seeing the celebrations, Manthara approached Rāma’s former nurse and inquired, “What occasion gives rise to this display of delight on every side? Is the emperor going to perform some great sacrifice?”

The nurse, her face blooming with happiness, told Manthara about the king’s decision to install Rāma as the heir-apparent. “Tomorrow, under favorable stars, our lord Daśaratha will give to the sinless Rāma the office of Prince Regent. What greater occasion for joy could there be?”

Manthara’s mind recoiled at this news. She was immediately seized with anger. Surely this was a disaster! With Rāma installed as king her mistress Kaikeyi would soon fall out of favor, her own son Bharata being left as nothing more than Rāma’s servant. Manthara raged within herself. She had long enjoyed special privileges as Kaikeyi’s senior maidservant. The emperor particularly liked her mistress, who had given Manthara the esteem she desired. As a hunchback she had always been the butt of jokes and abuse among the other servants. But as her mistress became more influential, the other servants, even those of the senior queen Kaushalya, had been obliged to pay her respect.

Sighing with anxiety, Manthara ran to Kaikeyi’s room where she found the queen lying upon a couch. With her face flushed she began addressing her bemused mistress in harsh tones. “Get up, foolish woman! How can you lay there when calamity stares you in the face? You languish here at ease even as a flood of misery sweeps towards you. Thoroughly neglected by your husband, you are threatened now with utter ruin.”

Kaikeyi looked affectionately at her servant. Manthara had been her childhood nurse and Kaikeyi saw her like her own mother. The queen had not heard the news about Rāma and she inquired from Manthara, “Pray tell me what causes you sorrow at this time? You seem sorely afflicted.”

Manthara became even more incensed upon hearing Kaikeyi’s question. She replied in a low voice trembling with anger. “There is no doubt that disaster now threatens us both. With your destruction will come mine, as much as with your good fortune rests mine. I am therefore saying this only for your benefit.”

She grasped Kaikeyi’s hand, trying to impress upon her mistress what appeared to her to be the obvious facts. “Although born in a royal line, you seem ignorant of the ways of kings. A king will speak sweet words to a person while at the same time planning their destruction. The emperor has acted as your beloved spouse while performing deeds which will ruin you to the very roots.”

Kaikeyi sat up and looked at her servant curiously. Manthara’s eyes blazed as she continued. “Having sent your own son Bharata away to a distant kingdom, this wicked king now plans to install Rāma as Prince Regent. What greater misfortune could there be for you?”

Kaikeyi smiled. She loved Rāma as much as her own dear son, while Rāma for His part looked upon Kaikeyi as being equal to His own mother Kaushalya. She felt a surge of joy upon hearing Manthara’s report. She could not understand why Manthara was disturbed. Why was she so vehement? If anyone else had spoken about Daśaratha and Rāma in such a way, she would have had them punished, but Kaikeyi was accustomed to her servant’s sullen temperament. She felt there was no malice in Manthara, despite her often angry expressions.

Taking from her bosom a necklace of brilliant diamonds set in gold, Kaikeyi handed it to her servant and said, “My dear Dhātrī, this is surely the best news you have ever brought me. My heart swells with pleasure at hearing your words, which seem to me like nectar. I wish to reward you. Take this gift and tell me if there is anything else I can do for you.”

Manthara threw down the necklace and began rebuking Kaikeyi. “This is no occasion for joy, foolish lady! What strange frame of mind has seized you? An ocean of grief threatens to overwhelm you and yet you stand here smiling. Your stepson Rāma will become king while your own son Bharata is left aside. Bharata’s claim to the throne is the same as Rāma’s and thus Rāma will see Him as an enemy. Lakṣman serves only Rāma, and Shatrughna serves your son. Therefore it is only Rāma or Bharata who may be crowned as the sovereign of this world. My mind quakes with fear to think of the danger to your son from the powerful Rāma once He is king.”

Manthara’s eyes grew bloodshot with fury and her face whitened as she spoke. Why was Kaikeyi not understanding? Kaushalya had long been snubbed by the king in favor of Kaikeyi. When Rāma became the king that would all change. Kaushalya would be exalted to the highest level, while Kaikeyi would lose her special position as the king’s most favored consort. Kaushalya would certainly exact her revenge for her long suffering. Kaikeyi would become Kaushalya’s maidservant and Bharata would at best be Rāma’s servant-more likely he would be exiled. Where would that leave Kaikeyi’s servants? Praying to the gods to help her, the hunchbacked maid became more ardent in her plea.

“You must do something! This is a great disaster. Once the crown has passed to the other side of your family, you will in time see your own side sink into oblivion, bereft of all royal fortune.”

Hearing this strong submission from her servant, the beautiful Kaikeyi thought of Rāma. She could not imagine him bearing any ill will toward Bharata. Manthara’s fears were quite groundless. Rāma always acted in perfect accord with religious principles. He was devoted to truth, disciplined and always kind. He doubtlessly deserved to be king. After He was crowned He would surely look after His younger brothers like a father. Manthara had no reason to feel such distress. Kaikeyi chided her gently.

“When such an occasion for rejoicing has come, you should by no means give way to grief, my dear maidservant. Nor should you think ill of Rāma. My son Bharata will be in no danger from Rāma, and in the future He may well succeed Him to the throne. There is no need for lamentation.”

Manthara would not be placated. In order to improve her own position she wanted her mistress to be the mother of the king. Blinded by her own greed and envy, Manthara considered the emperor to be acting from similar motivations. She continued to beseech Kaikeyi in increasingly rancorous tones.

“Surely it is due only to stupidity that you fail to see your impending doom, O deluded one. Rāma will be crowned king and after Him will come His son. Where then will Bharata be left? Not all the sons of a king can assume the throne; it falls only to one among them. Having taken hold of the throne, Rāma will ensure that it goes to His own son, if necessary by banishing Bharata, or perhaps even by sending Him to the next world. You and your line will be lost and forsaken. I am here to awaken you to a great peril now arrived at your door. Do not disregard me.”

Manthara’s lofty position in the palace had gone to her head. She was furious at the prospect of losing her status and she continued to present many arguments to her mistress. She played upon the natural rivalry existing between the king’s co-wives. Kaikeyi’s affection for Rāma was deep and the discussion went back and forth for some time, but gradually Manthara began to change her mistress’s mind. By the gods’ arrangement, her arguments swayed Kaikeyi’s mind and the queen’s intelligence became confused. Although she loved Rāma, she began to consider that His installation was an injustice.

Manthara saw in Kaikeyi’s face that her mind was wavering. She grasped the queen’s hands. “There is a way by which we may not be ruined. If Rāma can be sent to the forest and Bharata installed in His place, then the sovereignty may be secured in your line.”

This idea had entered Manthara’s mind by the sudden inspiration of the gods. Kaikeyi, intrigued, looked at her servant. “How can this be accomplished?”

Manthara recalled a story she had heard from her mistress many years earlier. “Some time ago you told me how you once went with your husband when he was assisting Indra in a battle against the demons. Having fought hard one day, your husband lay unconscious on the battlefield, his body severely wounded. A grave danger beset him then from a demon who would come at night to devour the bodies of the warriors still on the field.”

Kaikeyi remembered the incident. Many years back the emperor had gone to the heavens, taking Kaikeyi with him. He was famed as an invincible warrior and the gods had asked his assistance in a fight. At that time he had fought so powerfully that his chariot appeared to be facing ten directions simultaneously and the gods had therefore named him Daśaratha, or “ten chariots.”

Manthara continued, “At that time, seeing the danger to Daśaratha, you rode out in a chariot and rescued your lord. Upon recovering he offered you a couple of boons, but you deferred them to a time when you might need them most. Surely that time has now come. Go to Daśaratha and ask that he banish Rāma and install Bharata in His place as the Prince Regent. In this way we shall both be saved.”

Despite her love for her husband and her attachment for Rāma, Kaikeyi became convinced by Manthara’s arguments. She was upset. How could the king have treated her in such a way? He was always so kind and loving. Was all that just a show to win her favor? She began to feel angry. The king might have spoken so many sweet words to her, but by his behavior it was obvious that he favored Kaushalya. They had probably even conspired together to have Bharata sent away. Why had she not realized it before? It was obvious! Now the whole situation was revealed. Daśaratha had shown his real feelings by completely neglecting her and favoring Kaushalya’s son instead.

Kaikeyi heaved a doleful sigh. “Your suggestion finds favor with me, Manthara. I shall this very moment go before the king and ask of him these boons.”

Manthara’s mind was full of cunning. Her eyes narrowed. “You should ask that Rāma be banished for no less than fourteen years. Within that time your son Bharata will become dear to the people and He will be firmly established on the throne.”

Manthara intelligently knew that Bharata could never become the king in Rāma’s presence. The people would not allow it to happen. Even the humble Bharata Himself would almost surely not accede to such an arrangement. Rāma had to be banished. The maidservant continued, “Do not allow Rāma to remain in the kingdom. By his power and influence He will seize the throne, even if Bharata is crowned. Your son has long been away while Rāma has been here, winning the hearts of the people. It is imperative that Rāma be sent away for a long time.”

Kaikeyi listened with full attention as her maidservant revealed her insidious plan. “Listen as I tell you the means of approaching the king. Putting on soiled garments, you should go to the sulking chamber and lie down on the bare floor. With your ornaments cast about and your hair in disarray, lay there weeping.”

Manthara knew that her mistress was guileless by nature. The queen would not have acted politically, even though angered, but her servant led her along. She spoke of Daśaratha’s special affection for his youngest and most beautiful wife. “The king will never be able to tolerate your sullen mood. He cannot ignore your order. For your sake he would enter fire and even lay down his very life. Using the power of your charms you will easily achieve your ends, O beautiful lady.”

Clenching her fists, Kaikeyi sat on her bed, spread with a pure white silk sheet. Manthara was right. The king obviously liked her for something, if only her beauty and charms. Every evening he spent time with her. Tonight he would be in for a surprise! Kaikeyi came fully under the sway of anger as Manthara continued.

“When the king sees you distraught, he will take you up and offer you anything. He will present priceless gems and pearls in order to pacify you. Do not be distracted from your goal of banishing Rāma. Insist upon the two boons long ago given by your lord. Take those boons now, O queen. Demand the exile of Rāma and the coronation of Bharata.”

Although Manthara showed her mistress an evil course disguised as good, Kaikeyi accepted her advice. Kind, gentle and wise by nature, Kaikeyi nevertheless lost her good sense under the influence of her envious maid. Considering her husband and Rāma as enemies, she spoke with hot, heavy breaths. “You have given me good counsel, O wise woman. I have been cheated by the king. You have acted as my well-wisher by pointing this out. When my son is installed on the throne, I shall confer upon you numerous boons and much wealth.”

Manthara smiled and urged Kaikeyi to make haste. “Let us go quickly to the inner rooms, for the king will shortly come for his evening visit with you. You should by no means stand by as Rāma is made Prince Regent. Act swiftly for the interests of your son and your own self.”

Kaikeyi was pierced again and again by Manthara’s sharp words. The servant repeatedly spoke against the king and Rāma, stoking Kaikeyi’s anger more. Arriving at the sulking chamber, the queen threw herself on the floor and said to Manthara, “Either Rāma is exiled and Bharata made king, or I shall remain here in this state, taking neither food nor water. If my desire is not fulfilled, then you shall see me depart from this spot for the region of the dead.”

With her ornaments scattered and her garland crushed, Kaikeyi lay on the beautiful mosaic floor, appearing like a goddess fallen from the heavens. Her face dark with rage, she tossed about and sobbed.

Chapter 6: The King’s Heartbreak

Daśaratha, having seen that all the arrangements for the installation were underway, made his way toward Kaikeyi’s rooms for his evening rendezvous. The glorious monarch entered Kaikeyi’s excellent apartment as the moon might enter the sky at night, spreading its beautiful rays. Peacocks, parrots and other species of colorful birds crowded the palace, their cries augmenting the sounds of various musical instruments. Hundreds of well-dressed maids moved about in the great halls and rooms, in which were hung flowing silk drapes and numerous fine paintings. Along the outer walls grew trees filled with blossoms and fruits. Tall seats of ivory burnished with gold stood everywhere, along with expansive couches covered with soft cushions. Costly handwoven carpets covered the floors. First-class food and drink of every variety were provided in gold and crystal dishes laid out on golden tables.

Daśaratha swept through the palace, which rivaled paradise itself. The armed guards at the outer doors bowed low as he passed, while at the inner doors the female servants folded their palms in respect. Coming at last to Kaikeyi’s personal quarters, the king did not see her lying on her bed as expected. Daśaratha was surprised to find that his beloved spouse had failed to meet him at the usual time. He called out for her. When there was no reply the king was dismayed. What had happened? He searched about and, finding Kaikeyi’s doorkeeper, inquired of his wife’s whereabouts. With a dejected expression the portress told the king that Kaikeyi had entered the sulking chamber in an angry mood.

Even further dismayed upon hearing this strange report, the king quickly made his way towards his wife. He entered the sulking room and saw her there fallen on the floor in a sorry and unseemly state. Daśaratha looked sadly upon his youngest queen, who was dearer to him than his life, but who now held in her heart a wicked and sinful desire. Lying on the ground she looked like a rose creeper violently torn from its tree, or like an Apsarā dropped from heaven, or a doe caught in a hunter’s snare. Daśaratha looked upon her as the lord of elephants might look upon his mate lying pierced by a poisoned arrow. Fondly stroking her tear-streaked face, the agitated emperor spoke to her softly.

“Your anger is surely not meant for me, who only wishes for your unending happiness. Tell me, O gentle lady, by whom you have been insulted or rebuked so that you now lie here rolling in the dust? Who deserves punishment today at my hands? Or do you wish me to release someone who deserves to be punished? By whom have you been offended or whom would you seek to oblige?”

Kaikeyi said nothing and did not even look at the king. Daśaratha felt tormented as he sought at length to appease her. “If you are ailing, then I shall call here the royal physicians, who will quickly heal your pain. Speak out whatever is amiss and allow me to make amends. I can by no means tolerate your distress and will quickly perform any work which pleases you. This earth with all its wealth belongs to me. What shall I bestow upon you today? What can you gain by torturing yourself in this way, my beloved queen? Please rise up and tell me the source of your sorrow.”

Kaikeyi was comforted and encouraged by her husband’s entreaty. He was ready to do anything to please her. She prepared to put forward her terrible proposal. Seeing Daśaratha deeply moved by love for her, Kaikeyi spoke in strained tones. “I have not been insulted or offended by anyone, O king. There is, however, something I wish you to accomplish. Make me a solemn vow that you will fulfill my desire and then I shall tell you what it is.”

Daśaratha placed her head upon his lap and straightened her disheveled hair. He smiled at her and said, “Save for my son Rāma, there is none in this world more dear to me than you. I swear then by that invincible high-souled Rāma, dearer to me than life, that I shall satisfy your cherished desire. By that very Rāma, from whom separation would surely end my life, I swear to carry out your order. Indeed, by Rāma, whom I would have in exchange even for my own self, my other sons and the entire earth, I promise to do your bidding. Please, therefore, reveal your mind to me, O good lady.”

Kaikeyi saw that her husband had bound himself completely by this thrice-spoken vow. She inwardly rejoiced and felt that her ends were practically achieved. She then said to him what would have been difficult to say even for an enemy, and which was like death arrived at Daśaratha’s door. “Let all the gods headed by Indra witness your promise. Let the sun, the moon, the sky, fire, day and night, the four quarters with their presiding deities, the universe itself and the indwelling Lord in everyone’s heart take heed of your great vow. The highly glorious emperor, who is always true to his word and who knows what is right, has given me his promise.”

Looking intently at her bemused husband, Kaikeyi said, “Remember now, O king, how in former times you fought with the gods against the demons and how I saved your life. Surely you recall your offer to me then of two boons. Having kept those with you all this time, I now wish to take them. Grant me those boons, O lord, or see me give up my life this very day.”

Held under the powerful sway of passion and bound by his infallible promise, the king, like a deer stepping into a snare, made ready to accord the two boons to his queen. Kaikeyi continued, “For my first boon, let my son Bharata be installed as the Prince Regent in Rāma’s place. For the second, let Rāma be exiled to the forest and remain there for fourteen years. Be true to your promise, O king of kings, and cover both yourself and your race with everlasting glory.”

For some time Daśaratha gazed at his wife in utter disbelief. He was seized by an agonizing anxiety when he heard her cruel utterance. Surely this could not be happening. Was he really hearing this or was it a dream? Had something experienced in a former life suddenly returned as a vivid hallucination? Maybe he was simply losing his sanity. How could Kaikeyi have made such a request? She had always shown a deep affection for Rāma.

As he considered her words again and again, Daśaratha became overpowered by grief and fainted away. Upon regaining consciousness he saw before him his wife, sitting with a stern expression, and he remembered again her terrible request. As distressed as a deer at the sight of a lion, the king sat upon the bare floor. He sighed like a poisonous serpent transfixed by the mystic spells of a charmer. Crying out, “Alas, what a calamity!” he swooned once more.

As he again came back to consciousness the king began to feel furious. This was entirely unexpected from Kaikeyi. She was revealing a side of her nature he had never seen before. He thundered at his queen as if about to consume her with his blazing wrath. “O cruel and wicked woman, it seems you are set upon the destruction of my race. What harm have Rāma or I ever done you? Why then are you bent on bringing ruin to me and mine at such a time? By harboring you all this while I have held to my bosom a venomous snake. When practically the whole of humanity extols Rāma’s virtues, how shall I forsake Him? I might give up my wives, my kingdom and indeed my life, but I can never part with Rāma.”

Daśaratha broke off, too shocked to continue. Had he not always shown kindness to Kaikeyi? How could she hurt him in this way? Surely she realized that her request would kill him. Deeply impassioned, he spoke with tears in his eyes. “The world may exist without the sun, crops may grow without water, but in no event can life remain in my body without my seeing Rāma. Therefore give up your sinful desire, O beautiful lady! Placing my head upon your feet, I beseech you to be gracious to me.”

Daśaratha held his wife’s feet and gazed into her face, but Kaikeyi sat looking at him impassively, without saying a word. In plaintive tones the king continued. “If you feel I have slighted your son Bharata, then let Him indeed be installed in place of Rāma. But what need is there to send away the lotus-eyed and gentle Rāma? I cannot believe that you have alone developed a dislike for Rāma. On so many previous occasions you have told me of your love for my beloved son. Surely you are now possessed of an evil spirit.”

Daśaratha could not imagine how else his wife could behave in this way. She had never been harsh towards him before. He remembered the astrological omens. Surely his wife’s strange request was the work of some malevolent influence. He spoke more gently. “I have seen myself how Rāma serves you even more than does your own son Bharata. Have you not always told me so yourself? How then have you come to desire Rāma’s exile to the dreadful forest for a full fourteen years? Let Him remain here and let Bharata be king. What objection could you have to that?”

Kaikeyi did not waver. She had lost her trust in Daśaratha and she seethed with anger. He was simply trying to win her over with empty words. But she was not going to be fooled any more. She remembered Manthara’s warning. The king and his beloved Kaushalya were not going to cheat her this time. She would get her boons no matter what Daśaratha said. She sat in silence.

Daśaratha could not think clearly. He was torn by his love for Rāma and his promise to his wife, who had now seized him violently by the heart. Realizing that he could never order his son to enter the forest, Daśaratha feared he would bring infamy to his royal line. No king in his line had ever been known to break his word at any time.

Daśaratha implored his wife. “What will you gain by banishing Rāma? He will always render you every service and remain entirely devoted to your welfare. I have never received a single complaint against Rāma even from his subordinates, let alone elders like you. Truthfulness, charity, asceticism, self-control, kindness, non-duplicity, learning and service to his elders—all these are ever-present in Rāma. How could you wish harm to that guileless prince?”

Daśaratha could see that Kaikeyi was unmoved. It was obvious her feelings towards Rāma had changed. The king decided to try a different approach and he invoked his own love for her. “O Kaikeyi, you should show mercy to me in this, my great misery. An old and worn man, I am fast approaching the end of my days. I have now been subjected to an unbearable grief in the shape of your harsh words. What do you wish to possess? I can offer you anything that may be had in all of this world. Only ask for your desire and consider it done. Joining my palms I fall at your feet. Do not banish Rāma. Accept my piteous plea and save my life.”

Kaikeyi looked coldly upon her husband. He had fallen weeping to the floor and was tossing about, gripped by an overwhelming agony. He prayed again and again for deliverance, but Kaikeyi felt no pity. With her heart hardened by Manthara and her intelligence confused by the gods, she was fixed in her evil determination. Looking contemptuously at Daśaratha, she spoke fiercely. “After granting boons and failing to fulfill them, how will you again proclaim your piety in the world, O noble king? When in an assembly of sages you are asked about your promise, how will you reply? Will you admit that you proved untruthful to your own dear wife, to whom you owe your very life? Having once granted boons, and having again sworn three times to fulfill those boons, will you now falsify your word?”

Kaikeyi was standing, her face flushed with anger. She felt cheated by her husband. He had promised her anything. Now he was trying to back out. This simply confirmed her doubts about his sincerity. He had no intention of giving her what she wanted. Her voice became cold. “What honor will you bring to your line by this action, O king of kings? Do you not recall the many occasions when your forebears were prepared to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, in order to protect the honor of your race? O foolish king! It seems that at the expense of anything you wish to install Rāma as your successor and enjoy life with Kaushalya eternally!”

Kaikeyi was furious. The king was prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of Kaushalya’s son, but he cared so little for Kaikeyi that he would deny her rights even if it meant bringing infamy upon himself. She went on, her voice rising to a shout. “Whether your promise was righteous or otherwise and whether you made it sincerely or not, it cannot now be withdrawn. If Rāma is installed as Prince Regent I shall swallow poison and give up my life before your eyes! I would prefer death to seeing Kaushalya become the mother of the king. I swear by Bharata and by my own self that I shall not be appeased by anything less than Rāma’s exile.”

The king’s body trembled. Consumed by grief, he gazed with unwinking eyes upon the face of his beautiful wife. He was stunned by her words, which struck him with the force of a thunderbolt. He suddenly dropped to the ground like a felled tree, calling out Rāma’s name. Like one insane, he lost his mental balance and lay motionless on the cold floor for a considerable time. Gradually gathering his senses about him, the king stood up and spoke in a choked and anguished voice. “I cannot believe you are now speaking your own mind. Who has perverted you towards this evil course? As if possessed by some demon you speak shamelessly that which should never be spoken. What has inspired in you this great yet groundless fear? Why are you suddenly seeing Rāma as your enemy, uttering such cruel words? What do you expect to gain by Bharata’s becoming my successor instead of Rāma? I expect that Bharata, whose virtues compare with those of Rāma, will not even reside in Ayodhya without Rāma, far less accept the throne.”

The king had so many times seen Bharata serving Rāma with love. There was no question that Bharata would accept the kingdom, leaving Rāma aside. What had made Kaikeyi imagine this to be possible? Could it be the hand of the gods? But what purpose of theirs would be achieved by denying Rāma the rulership of the world? And even if Bharata should be king, why should Rāma be exiled for fourteen years? It was unthinkable. Daśaratha spoke aloud his thoughts. “Having said to Rāma, ‘Go to the forest,’ how shall I look upon his crestfallen face, which will exactly resemble the eclipsed moon? Surely the kings assembled from every quarter will say, ‘How has this foolish man ruled the world all this while?’ When asked by wise and learned men about Rāma, how shall I say that I sent Him away to the forest, being pressed by Kaikeyi? If I say I was supporting the cause of truth, then what about my declaration that Rāma would be installed as my successor?”

Daśaratha fell back onto a couch. His arms were outstretched towards Kaikeyi, who had again fallen to the floor on hearing her husband’s arguments. The king wailed in agony. “What reply can I make to Kaushalya when she asks why I rendered her such an unkind act? I have always neglected that godly lady in favor of you. Remembering my acts now gives me great pain.”

Daśaratha’s mention of Kaushalya only made Kaikeyi more furious. What a blatant untruth! How did he expect her to believe that she was more favored than Kaushalya? In his desperation the king was ready to say anything. Kaikeyi stared at her husband, her eyes red with anger.

The king continued to speak, his passionate words lost on his implacable queen. “Seeing Rāma departed for the forest and Sītā weeping, I shall soon lose my life. You may then carry on all the affairs of state along with your son as the undisputed ruler. I have always seen you as my devoted and chaste wife. That was my mistake! Inveigled by your empty inducements, I have long held you close. Now you have finally killed me, even as a hunter kills a deer after enticing it with melodious music.”

Daśaratha saw that Kaikeyi was not to be swayed from her purpose. His anxiety intensified. In his anger and confusion he began to blame himself. Surely the whole world would condemn him for sacrificing his sinless son for the sake of a sinful woman. This terrible turn of events could only be the result of his own wicked acts in some previous life. He sat with his head in his hands, crying softly as he spoke.

“I lament only for the sake of those who will suffer for my sake when I perform the evil act of exiling Rāma. For having deprived a son like Rāma of fatherly affection, all honest men will rightly revile me in the following words: ‘Alas, this old and foolish king, being bound by lust for his favorite queen, could even reject his dearest son!’”

Unable to contain his grief, Daśaratha lamented loudly for a long time. Censuring Kaikeyi and calling upon her to have compassion on her fellow queens, on Sītā and on the citizens of Ayodhya, he tried in many ways to change her mind. Kaikeyi remained adamant. The king then began to realize the inevitability of Rāma’s departure. He spoke to his queen in complete dismay.

“The very moment I ask Rāma to depart He will leave, being fully obedient to my order. I shall then be left, cast into the deepest despair with my life’s breath quickly expiring. Upon reaching heaven I shall be censured even by the gods for my vicious behavior. You too will earn unending infamy, O lady of wicked resolve. None shall praise you for causing the virtuous and highly popular Rāma to be sent into the wilderness.”

Daśaratha practically writhed in pain as he thought of Rāma leaving for the forest. That gentle prince was accustomed to ride upon the finest chariots and elephants. How would He roam the forest on foot? Every day Rāma was served by numerous royal cooks, competing to offer Him every fine dish. How could he subsist on wild fruits and roots? How could his son put on the coarse garments of the forest dwellers, having always been clad in the costliest of robes? The emperor, devastated, shook with grief. He felt his life slipping away.

Gazing at Kaikeyi, who he now saw as his mortal enemy, Daśaratha said, “O wicked woman, it is a wonder that on speaking such cruel and vicious words your teeth do not shatter into a thousand pieces and fall from your mouth. When Rāma goes to the forest, Death will surely take me. I will be condemned by all men. Kaushalya and Sumitra will then be cast into abject sorrow and will likely follow me to Death’s abode. Having inflicted such miseries upon us, and being left alone with your son to rule over this world, what other indescribable pains will you give to the remaining people, who are all so loved by me?”

Although Daśaratha had no intentions of asking Rāma to leave, he knew his devoted son would depart immediately upon realizing his father’s predicament. The king tried one last desperate plea to Kaikeyi. “Even if, upon my failing to exile my son, you are ready to swallow poison, throw yourself into fire or hang yourself, I shall by no means banish Rāma. You have disgraced your family and are intent upon destroying mine. I shall never accede to your ruthless request. O malicious queen, abandon now your evil desire! I fall helpless at your feet. Come to your senses and be gracious to me, who has always been your well-wishing protector.”

Exhausted by grief, Daśaratha sank to the floor like a man gripped by an illness, his hands stretched out to the feet of his queen.

The unflinching Kaikeyi, who had given up all affection for her husband, saw that her ends were still not achieved. Convinced by Manthara of the king’s ill intentions towards her, with her intelligence further confused by the gods, Kaikeyi could not accept Daśaratha’s entreaties. In a disdainful and harsh voice, she addressed the fallen monarch. “Where now is your honor, O king? Your claim that you adhere to truth is simply an empty boast! Are you to withdraw the boons previously promised to me and further sworn on this very spot? Fulfill my boons as you vowed and protect your far- reaching fame!”

Daśaratha, unconscious, could not reply. After some time he revived and looked upon his queen’s face. From her cold expression it was obvious that she was not in the least assuaged. The grief-stricken monarch gazed up at the clear night sky. He prayed to Nidra, the night goddess, to stay for-ever. How could he face the dawn, bringing as it would Rāma’s departure? Daśaratha sat weeping, continuously repeating Rāma’s name.

Kaikeyi spoke impassively. “I have only asked you to fulfill your promise to me, O king. Why then do you now lie down dejected? The path of morality has been clearly shown by your ancestors. Proceed upon that path now, O truthful one, and send Rāma away!”

The educated Kaikeyi, knowing her husband to be devoted to religion and piety, invoked the codes of morality. “Those men who understand right from wrong declare truthfulness as the highest virtue. I simply urge you to act upon truthfulness alone, O king, and do your duty. Truth is the support of all the worlds, the eternal Vedas represent truth, virtue itself is rooted in truth and truth sustains all beings. By following truth one attains the supreme. Therefore set your mind on truth, O king, and grant my prayer: banish Rāma to the forest.”

Kaikeyi stood up amid her strewn ornaments. Her eyes flashed as she made her final demand to the king. “Three times you promised and therefore three times I ask you. Fulfill my wish to see my son installed on the throne and send Rāma away to the woods. This alone will satisfy me and save me from giving up my life, after seeing you abandon your honor.”

As the unscrupulous Kaikeyi maintained her pressure on him, Daśaratha could see no means to escape from his avowed word. With great difficulty he controlled himself, drawing upon his reserves of fortitude. His heart burned with unbearable anguish as he looked through tear-dimmed eyes at Kaikeyi. How could he any longer consider her his wife? She was fit to be rejected. Her name should never again be associated with his. No one should call her the queen of Daśaratha.

The king spoke fiercely. “O perverted woman, here and now do I disown your hand, which I formerly clasped in the presence of the sacred fire and with the utterances of holy mantras. Now the night has passed and soon the people will joyfully urge me to install Rāma. However, as at your insistence I shall this day surely breathe my last, Rāma should be made to offer the last rites to my departed soul. O woman of evil conduct, you should make no offerings to me, for I fully reject you today.”

Kaikeyi fumed. What use were these empty words? Her husband had already rejected her when he favored Kaushalya. She addressed the king in piercing words. “Why do you say such scathing and hurtful things, O monarch? I merely ask that you give me what you have already promised. Summon now your son Rāma and give up this needless agonizing. Do your duty and stand fast to virtue!”

Like a first-class horse lashed with a whip, Daśaratha controlled his mind and righteously responded to Kaikeyi’s words. “Bound with the strong cords of morality, I am helpless. My judgment fails me, and in this evil hour I seek the refuge of Rāma. Bring my gentle son before me.”

The king fainted away, exhausted with grief and his futile efforts to change his wife’s mind.

Chapter 7: Rāma Agrees to Depart

Towards the end of night, Vasiṣṭha, accompanied by numerous disciples, hastily entered Ayodhya from his hermitage outside the city. He went along the well-swept and watered streets, all thronging with citizens eagerly awaiting Rāma’s installation. Crossing the outer courtyard of the king’s palace, which was decorated all over with rows of flags, he approached Daśaratha’s inner chambers. The ṛṣi saw the courtyard crowded with large numbers of Brahmins reciting sacred hymns from the Vedas. Upon reaching the palace gate he was met by Sumantra, who prostrated himself before the sage and then immediately left to inform Daśaratha of his arrival.

As he passed through the palace and approached the inner chambers, Sumantra was entirely ignorant of his master’s present plight. He composed in his mind pleasing prayers with which to greet the king, who was dearer to him than his own father. The guards informed Sumantra that the king was in Kaikeyi’s chambers and, as he arrived at her door, he began to loudly recite those prayers. “Even as the sun, which sustains all beings, arouses the world, arise now, O Emperor, like the sun rising from the eastern hills. As Mātali, the minister of Indra, extolled his master who then rose up and conquered the demons, so do I now extol you to rise up and do your duty, O lord. All of us await you with joined palms. The glorious sage Vasiṣṭha has arrived with other sages and stands ready to perform the sacred installation ceremony of Rāma. Order us now to proceed, O mighty monarch.”

Hearing Sumantra speaking at the door, Daśaratha became overwhelmed with sorrow once more. He went to his charioteer and embraced him. The king looked at Sumantra with eyes reddened with grief. “Today, O Sumantra, your well-chosen words only pierce my heart with pain.” Daśaratha’s happiness had ended. He could not say anything more and simply stood with tears flowing down his face.

Sumantra was unable to fathom the cause of the king’s sadness. He stepped back with tightly joined palms. This was strange. Surely this was the happiest day of Daśaratha’s life. For so long he had desired a successor. At last his desire was about to be fulfilled.

Seeing the mystified Sumantra, Kaikeyi said, “The king has remained awake the entire night, considering Rāma’s installation. Sleeplessness has made him unwell. He wishes now to see his son. Therefore bring Rāma here.”

The intelligent minister looked at Daśaratha. Something was surely wrong. On such a momentous occasion why was the king not himself going to fetch Rāma? Daśaratha saw his minister’s confusion. Reassuring him, the king told him to fetch Rāma. Sumantra considered then that his master might just be exhausted from the preparations for the installation. Saying “It shall be done,” he bowed low and left for Rāma’s palace.

Meanwhile the priests were making ready all the items required for the ceremony. Around a beautifully carved and adorned wooden seat were arranged many gold pitchers filled with water from all the sacred rivers, ready to anoint Rāma. Above the seat was a large white umbrella which shone like the full moon on a clear night. Excellent musicians played melodies appropriate to the mood, while Brahmins chanted Vedic texts meant to invoke good fortune. The brilliant sun rose in a clear sky and everyone eagerly awaited the arrival of the king and his son.

Sumantra reached Rāma’s palace, which was as splendid as Mount Kailāsa. Secured with oak doors fifty feet tall, and embellished with hundreds of balconies, its main facade was adorned with gold images studded with innumerable gems. The outer gateway was constructed of coral worked with gold and embedded with large precious stones of every description. As Sumantra passed through that gateway he was greeted by delightful music and the aroma of various incenses. Peacocks and cranes crowded the courtyard, which was graced with blossoming trees and bushes.

Sumantra descended from his chariot and entered the palace, which was in no way inferior to the palace of Kuvera, the god of riches. Enlivened by simply seeing that palace, Sumantra passed through three entrances, each guarded by powerful young warriors wielding spears and bows. Rāma was as dear to him as his own life and his heart pounded with joy as he approached the inner chambers. The corridors through the palace were cool and delightful, decorated with fine wood carvings and lit by the luster of thousands of celestial gems. Arriving at the gate to Rāma’s personal quarters, Sumantra asked the doorkeepers there to inform Rāma of his arrival. Rāma, who was alone with Sītā, immediately instructed that Sumantra be shown into His room.

Sumantra went before Rāma, whom he found seated upon a gold couch, being fanned gently with a whisk by Sītā. Richly adorned with costly garments and smeared with crimson sandal-paste, Rāma seemed to shine like the midday sun. He smiled affectionately at Sumantra, who fell prostrate on the ground, offering prayers. Rising up with folded hands, the minister said, “Most blessed is Kaushalya for having had You as her son. Your father, along with Queen Kaikeyi, now desires to see You. Be pleased to go there without delay.”

Rāma looked at Sītā and said, “Surely My father is speaking with his queen about My installation. I think the blessed Kaikeyi, always favorable to My father, must even now be urging the king to make haste with the ceremony, knowing as she does how much the emperor longs for its completion. As he has sent his most trusted messenger to fetch Me, the king along with his most beloved queen undoubtedly wish to bless Me that My installation will proceed without impediment.”

Rāma rose to leave and the dark-eyed and lovely Sītā invoked divine blessings upon Him. Following Her husband to the gate She said, “After installing You as Prince Regent, the king should, in course of time, consecrate You as the ruler of this world, even as Brahmā installed Indra as the ruler of the gods. I wish to serve You in that state. May the great deities Indra, Yamarāja, Varuṇa and Kuvera, the guardians of the four quarters, guard You from every side.”

Along with Sumantra, Rāma went out from His palace quarters as a mighty mountain lion might emerge from his cave. Rāma saw Lakṣman standing at the first gate, bent low with joined palms. At the middle gate Rāma met His friends and relations and He greeted them all according to their status, offering obeisances or embracing them.

Within the courtyard Rāma mounted upon a golden chariot, which shone like fire and was covered over with white tiger skins, and had thousands of small golden bells hanging from its sides. The charioteer spurred on the tall steeds, which were as powerful as young elephants, and the chariot moved away swiftly with a deep rumbling. As the outer gates swung open, Rāma’s chariot came out from the palace like the moon emerging from behind a cloud.

Rāma went along the main road, preceded by a platoon of mailed warriors wearing swords and carrying bows. The prince sat peacefully while Lakṣman fanned Him. He smiled at the people who thronged the streets in the thousands. His chariot was followed by great elephants resembling moving mountains. Thousands of horsemen brought up the rear. Poets and singers chanted Rāma’s praises to the accompaniment of divine music echoing in the heavens. Mixed with these sounds were the shouts of the warriors, which resembled the roaring of lions.

On the balconies and at the windows of the mansions lining the roads stood women who showered Rāma on all sides with flowers. The ladies also praised Sītā, saying, “Surely that godly lady has performed the highest penances to have been blessed with this great hero Rāma as Her husband.”

The citizens, seeing Rāma pass by, uttered blessings. “May victory attend You!” they cried out. Others were heard to say, “Here goes Rāma, who will today inherit the royal fortune. Fortunate too are we who will soon be ruled by Him.”

Being extolled everywhere, Rāma rode down the highway, which was lined with white houses appearing like clouds and with shops filled with abundant produce of every variety. The streets were strewn with jewels and with grains of rice and blades of sacred kusha grass. Brahmins made offerings of ghee lamps and incense to Rāma as He passed, invoking divine blessings and saying, “We would renounce every worldly happiness simply to see Rāma coming out of the palace as Prince Regent today. Indeed, even liberation itself is not so desirable.”

None could turn away their eyes or mind from Rāma as He went along the road in Ayodhya. Everyone looking upon Rāma also felt that He was glancing at them. Gradually Rāma and His entourage arrived at Daśaratha’s palace. Rāma passed through the three outer gates on His chariot and then got down and passed through the last two gates on foot. He politely sent back all those persons who had followed Him, even though they found it difficult to part from Him. At last Rāma reached the inner chambers alone and approached Kaikeyi’s rooms.

As He entered the rooms, Rāma saw the afflicted king seated with Kaikeyi on a golden couch. He bowed at His father’s feet, then laid himself low before Kaikeyi, His mind fully composed. Daśaratha appeared dejected and distressed, his face streaked with tears. He sat burning with agony and repeatedly sighing, appearing like the eclipsed sun or like a holy Brahmin who has told a lie. Seeing his son standing before him with a modest demeanor and folded palms, the monarch said only, “Rāma,” and could not say another word, being overcome by grief.

Rāma was seized with apprehension to see His father in that unusual state. Like the ocean at the rising of the full moon, Rāma became agitated. He was devoted to the king and was saddened to see him so sorrowful. How was it that on such a day His father did not greet Him? Even when angry he would always rise to bless his son. Why was he now remaining seated, looking downwards and weeping silently? Rāma went before Kaikeyi, who sat at a distance from the king, and addressed her alone.

“O godly lady, pray tell Me the reason for My father’s distress,” Rāma asked gently. “Even though always affectionate to Me, why does he not greet Me today? Have I unwittingly committed some offense? Is the king angry with Me for My having failed in some way to respect him?”

Kaikeyi remained silent and Rāma continued. “I hope no suffering caused by illness or mental anguish has afflicted My father. Truly it is said that everlasting happiness cannot be had in this world. I hope I have not offended anyone dear to the king. If I were unable to please My father or if I failed to do his bidding and thus angered him, I would not survive even for an hour. What wretched man would not devotedly serve his father, a veritable god to him on earth, to whom he owes his own birth in this world?”

Understanding from Kaikeyi’s taut expression that there was tension between her and His father, Rāma said, “Perhaps My father has been hurt by some utterance of yours, O fair-faced queen, made out of vanity or anger. My dear Kaikeyi, please inform Me of the cause of this unprecedented disturbance to the emperor, for I am very curious.”

Upon hearing this question from the high-minded Rāma, Kaikeyi, who had become impudent and was thinking only of her own interests, replied boldly, “The emperor is neither angry nor anguished, O Rāma. However, there is something on his mind which he will not disclose for fear of hurting You, his beloved son. Having made a promise to me, the king now repents and wishes to retract his word, just like any other common man. The ever-truthful monarch wants to build a dam across a stream whose waters have already flowed away. Truth is the root of piety. This is known to the righteous. O Rāma, take care lest the king loses now his piety for Your sake, angry as he is with me.”

Looking into Rāma’s apprehensive eyes, Kaikeyi said, “If You will undertake to do whatever the king may ask, be it good or bad for You, then I shall explain everything. I shall speak out the king’s promise only as long as it shall not fail because of You; but the king himself will not in any event tell You.”

Rāma was distressed to hear Kaikeyi speaking in this way. Within the hearing of the emperor He replied to her, “Alas, how shameful it is that I should hear words expressing doubt about My devotion to My father! You should never think this, O glorious lady. At My father’s command I would this very moment leap into blazing fire, swallow a deadly poison or plunge into the depths of the ocean. Therefore tell Me, My dear mother, what is on your mind? By My avowed word I shall without doubt do whatever is desired by the king. Know that Rāma’s word is always truth!”

Seeing the king mute and the guileless Rāma prepared to carry out her desire, Kaikeyi felt her purposes all but accomplished. In an unkind voice she revealed her wicked intentions to Rāma.

“It is well known how I once saved the king’s life and how, as a result, he granted me a couple of boons. Against those boons I solicited today a promise from the king to fulfill my desire. I wish for Bharata to be installed in Your place and for You to go to the forest, remaining there for fourteen years. O descendant of emperors, prove true to Your word and to that of Your father. Indeed, rescue the king from the ignominy of impiety and leave without delay. Let Bharata be duly consecrated with all the paraphernalia arranged for You. While He remains here to rule this wide and prosperous earth, You shall remain for fourteen years in some distant forest, wearing matted locks and the barks of trees.”

The king cried out in pain as Kaikeyi spoke. Rāma stood by without showing any emotion as the queen continued. “Overcome by compassion for You, this monarch cannot even look at Your face. O Rāma, ornament of Your line, make good his promise and deliver him from his difficult and awkward situation!”

Even though Kaikeyi uttered such cruel words, Rāma did not yield to grief. The king, however, felt increasing agony as he thought about his impending separation from Rāma. He listened in silence as Rāma replied to Kaikeyi, “So be it! To honor My father’s promise I shall put on the dress of an ascetic and depart forthwith for the forest. You need entertain no doubt in this regard, O queen. Why, though, does not My father greet Me as before? I could never transgress his order, even as the ocean, by the order of the Supreme Lord, can never transgress its shores.”

Rāma looked across at His father, who could not return His glance. The king kept his head down and wept softly. Rāma turned back to Kaikeyi. “Ordered only by you, O Kaikeyi, I would joyfully part with, in favor of Bharata, not only the kingdom but also all My personal property, My wedded wife Sītā and even My own beloved Self. How much more gladly would I part with these things when ordered by My father, the emperor himself, in order to please you and honor his pledge? Please reassure My afflicted father, for seeing him sitting there shedding tears pains Me greatly. He may feel assured that I shall immediately enact his desire without feeling any sorrow at all. Let swift horses be sent for Bharata. Without questioning My father’s command I shall now quickly proceed to the forest!”

The ignoble Kaikeyi then rejoiced at heart. Confident that Rāma would soon leave, she urged Him to hurry. “Let it be so!” she exclaimed. “Messengers may leave immediately to fetch Bharata from His uncle’s kingdom. You should not wait a moment, O Rāma, lest some impediment presents itself. Keen as You are to depart, leave right now. Do not be concerned for the king’s silence, for he is too shy to ask You himself. Let this apprehension be banished from Your mind and make haste. As long as You have not left, the king will take neither food nor water.”

Drawing a deep sigh with the words, “Alas, how very painful,” the king collapsed unconscious on the couch. Rāma gently placed His cool hands on His father’s forehead and raised him up. The prince was again urged on by Kaikeyi. Turning towards her, Rāma said, “I have no desire to live in this world as a slave to material gains. Like the ṛṣis I am devoted only to righteousness. I will always do whatever is agreeable to My adorable father, even at the cost of My life. The greatest piety lies in serving one’s father. Indeed, O gentle lady, greater still is service to the mother, according to sacred texts. Surely you do not see any good points in Me, O princess of Kekaya, as you felt it necessary to ask such a minor thing of My father. Your request alone would have sufficed. I shall go to a lonely forest and live there for fourteen years. Please bear with Me only as long as it takes for Me to take leave of My other mothers and to gain the agreement of Sītā. Try to ensure that Bharata protects the kingdom and serves His aged father, for this is the eternal morality.”

Unable to speak due to grief, Daśaratha wept aloud. Rāma bowed low at the feet of His royal father and also before the hard-hearted Kaikeyi. He was moved by acute sorrow but He kept it within Himself, showing no external sign. Joining His palms and circumambulating His father and stepmother, Rāma departed.

He then made His way towards Kaushalya’s rooms. Lakṣman, hearing from Rāma of the turn of events, followed close behind, His eyes brimming with tears. Reaching the room where the installation was to be performed, Rāma respectfully went around the royal seat without casting His eyes upon it. Despite His renouncing the rulership of the world, no change of mood could be perceived in Rāma, any more than in a perfect yogī who has completely transcended all dualities.

Forbidding the use of the royal umbrella which was offered Him as he left, as well as the pair of beautiful royal whisks, Rāma sent away His ministers, His chariot and the citizens. The news of Rāma’s impending exile had spread quickly and the people were shocked and dismayed. By mastery over His mind and senses Rāma controlled His own agony upon seeing the people’s sadness. He exhibited His normal peaceful demeanor and approached Kaushalya’s apartments. He was followed by Lakṣman, who, seeing His brother equipoised, was strenuously controlling His own emotions. Rāma smiled softly. He was as dear to His relatives as their own lives and He did not wish to display any feelings which would cause them pain.

As he entered Kaushalya’s quarters a loud and pathetic cry came from the ladies. “Alas, here is that Rāma who has served all of us exactly as He did His own mother. Today He will leave for the forest. How could the foolish king exile the harmless Rāma and thus bring ruin to the world?”

Hearing from a distance the piteous wail, Daśaratha shrank with shame and hid his head beneath the silken sheets on his couch. Rāma went towards Kaushalya’s room. He carefully maintained His composure, although He felt agonised at seeing the suffering of His relatives. As He approached the outer entrance of Kaushalya’s apartment He saw many doorkeepers seated and standing there. They quickly flocked around Rāma, uttering blessings on the young prince. At the middle entrance Rāma was greeted by elderly Brahmins who were constantly reciting Vedic hymns. Bowing low before them, Rāma entered and came to the inner door where He was led into Kaushalya’s chamber by her personal maidservants.

Chapter 8: Grief and Fury

Kaushalya had spent the night in undisturbed prayer and penance on behalf of her son. She was unaware of His meeting with the king and Kaikeyi. Rāma found her seated before the sacrificial fire, surrounded by Brahmins making offerings to Viṣṇu. She was clad in white silk and, although fatigued by fasting, she still appeared most beautiful. Upon seeing Rāma bowing at her feet, she rose up joyfully to embrace and bless Him. “May You attain the age and fame of the virtuous royal sages who have gone before You in our line. Sit with me a little and take breakfast, then go to Your father, the ever-truthful monarch, for today he will install You as the Prince Regent.”

Kaushalya offered Rāma a bejeweled seat next to her, but He merely touched it in respect and said, “O godly lady, surely you do not know that a great calamity has now arrived. What I am going to tell you will cause you unprecedented pain, even as it will My beloved wife Sītā. I am about to leave for the forest; therefore, what need have I of this fine seat? The time has arrived for Me to occupy a mat made of forest grasses. Indeed, in accord with a promise already made to My father, I shall inhabit a lonely forest region, living on fruits and roots. How then can I partake of this royal fare you offer? The emperor will install Bharata as Prince Regent and has exiled Me to the forest, to live like a hermit for fourteen years.”

Kaushalya at once fell down, like a tree severed at its root. Her mind confused, she lay on the floor like a goddess fallen from heaven. Rāma quickly lifted her, gently stroking her face with His hand. Kaushalya slowly regained her senses. Struck with agony, she looked at Rāma, who was controlling His own grief. She knew beyond doubt that her son could not possibly have spoken falsely, nor was He given to flippancy or jest. His words were certainly true and they pierced her heart.

Clasping Rāma’s hand in hers, she spoke in a choked voice. “For a long time I suffered the terrible pain of being childless, O beloved son. Surely the feeling of being without issue is a grief that consumes a barren woman. Before Your birth every effort your father made to please me was futile, O Raghava, for I longed only for a child. Your birth ended that pain, but now I fear that an even greater suffering has arrived.”

Kaushalya could not bear the thought of separation from Rāma. She held Him tightly as she spoke. “Separation from You will rend my heart in two. That pain will be compounded by the cruel words of a junior wife. What could be more painful for a woman? Unending grief and lamentation has become my lot. Even with You by my side I have been despised; what then will be my fate when You are gone, O dear child? Surely I shall soon die.”

Kaushalya thought how she had always been neglected by her husband in favor of Kaikeyi. With Bharata enthroned she would be entirely abandoned. For twenty-seven years she had watched Rāma grow to manhood, awaiting the day when He would assume the throne and end her woes. How could she any longer suffer Kaikeyi’s scorn? Now Rāma, her only solace, was leaving. It seemed her prayers were all in vain. Her fasts and meditations were useless. What was the value of all her self-discipline and sacred observances? Rather than becoming the king, her son was being cast away. Kaushalya condemned herself.

“Surely my heart is hard like steel, for it does not shatter upon hearing this terrible news. Death will not take one before the proper time or else I should have certainly gone immediately to the court of Yamarāja, the great lord of death. If by one’s own sweet will one could meet with death, then in Your absence I would depart this very day. Without You, O Rāma, life will be useless. Therefore, like a cow following its calf, I shall definitely go with You to the forest.”

Wailing in this way Kaushalya contemplated the calamity about to befall her. Rāma was duty bound to His father and would never oppose his order. He would certainly leave without delay. Unable to bear her suffering, Kaushalya collapsed sobbing onto a couch.

Lakṣman stood nearby, writhing in pain. This situation was intolerable. How could Rāma accept it? Why did He not do something? Unable to repress His tumultuous anger, Lakṣman spoke furiously to Kaushalya. “I also find Rāma’s imminent departure to be unacceptable, O glorious lady. Rāma should never relinquish the royal fortune for any cause. Perverted by the words of a woman, the king has lost his good sense. He is desirous of sensual enjoyments and has been overpowered by lust and senility. What will he not say, urged on by the sinful Kaikeyi? To desire the banishment of the powerful Rāma is nothing short of madness. What vice or offense can be found in Rāma? There is no man in this world, even if he be Rāma’s deadly enemy, who could find in Him any fault, even in His absence. What man who respects virtue would forsake such a son, who is equal to the gods, disciplined and kindly disposed even to His enemies? What son would heed such a command from a father who has abandoned righteousness?”

Lakṣman’s furious voice resounded around the chamber. If the king would not give Rāma the kingdom, then it should be taken by force. He would stand by His brother with bow in hand, exhibiting His valor. Let anyone who dared try to prevent the installation of Rāma! He would hold off the entire city of Ayodhya should they oppose Rāma. Whoever supported Bharata would find himself slain by Lakṣman. This situation called for strong action. Why should They accept it meekly? Lakṣman tightly gripped the bow hanging from His shoulder and turned to His brother.

“If, at Kaikeyi’s instigation, our father acts like an enemy, then he should be made captive or even killed without compunction. The scriptures make clear that even a father or a preceptor can be rejected if they lose their discrimination, failing to distinguish between right and wrong. On what authority has the king sought to confer the kingdom upon Kaikeyi’s son when it rightfully belongs to You?”

Breathing hot, heavy sighs, Lakṣman turned back to Kaushalya and assured her that Rāma would be installed as king. He held up His bow. “O godly lady, I swear by My bow that I am truly devoted to Rāma with the whole of My heart. If Rāma enters into blazing fire or retires to the forest, know that I have already done the same. I shall dispel your sorrow by means of My arms even as the sun dispels the morning mist. Let your royal highness along with Rāma witness today My valor. I shall kill my aged and wretched father who, as a result of senility, has entered his second childhood in Kaikeyi’s association.”

Lakṣman stood blazing like fire, yet Rāma remained calm and composed. Kaushalya, weeping, spoke to her son. “Having heard Your brother Lakṣman, who has raised pertinent and proper arguments, consider now what ought to be done. You should not obey the unjust command of Kaikeyi, leaving me here to grieve.”

Kaushalya knew Rāma would act only according to moral laws. He would never be swayed by sentiment to deviate from scriptural codes. She called upon Rāma as his mother. “Dear son, do I not deserve the same obedience as you offer to the king? Is service to the mother not an even higher virtue than service to the father? I cannot allow you to leave, nor could I live in your absence. If you leave I will take a vow to fast until death. You will then be guilty of killing your own mother.”

The queen cried piteously, trying again and again to convince Rāma not to leave. Rāma burned with anguish to hear His mother her express her feelings, but keeping His mind under control, He spoke to her in a gentle voice. “I do not feel able to flout My father’s command, and therefore I wish to enter the forest. The order of one’s father is no less than the order of the Supreme Lord. It cannot be transgressed if one wishes to acquire virtue in this world. The king is not ordering Me to do anything sinful. By obeying his command I shall be following the path of morality, which has ever been followed by pious men. I only desire to do what is right, never otherwise. For as long as one does the bidding of his father, he is never overcome by evil.”

Rāma turned towards Lakṣman and admonished Him, speaking in soft but firm tones. “I know Your unsurpassed love for Me, as well as Your strength of arms, which cannot be easily withstood, O noble prince. My gentle mother does not deeply understand the imports of morality and is thus experiencing great agony. My father’s command is rooted in righteousness and is therefore worthy of being obeyed. Indeed I have already given My word to honor his order. I cannot break My pledge. Since I have been commanded by Kaikeyi according to My father’s promise, O valiant prince, how can I, knowing well the path of piety, neglect that command? Therefore give up this unworthy thought of overthrowing the king. Stand firm on righteousness alone and do not give way to anger and a display of strength. Accept My resolution to follow the royal order.”

Rāma went before His mother and knelt down with folded hands, bowing His head low. He was as devoted to Kaushalya as He was to Daśaratha and did not want to leave without her consent. He again asked her permission to depart. Rāma swore on His life that after the fourteen years had passed He would return and remain in Ayodhya as her devoted servant. He asked her not to yield to sorrow. In accord with the eternal laws of morality she should serve the king. He also desired to follow the path of piety. For that reason He was anxious to leave for the forest in compliance with His father’s order. She should not try to prevent Him.

Hearing His request, Kaushalya felt impassioned. How could her son abandon her in this way? She had always carefully observed her duty as a mother. She was always affectionate towards Rāma. Surely Rāma realized that she would die if He left her now. In a last attempt to change His mind the queen spoke in spirited tones. “As your mother, I do not grant You leave to depart. Am I not as venerable to You as Your father? O Rāma, I cannot face the thought of Your leaving. In Your absence I care not for either life or death. What will be the value of life to me without You, whether it be in this world or in heaven? Your presence for even an hour is more preferable to me than the possession of heaven and earth combined.”

As his mother wailed piteously, Rāma only became all the more desirous to escape, even as a lordly elephant would want to escape when surrounded by men goading it with firebrands towards a trap. Fixed in His determination to do his duty, He replied, “I feel that both you, My dear mother, and the powerful Lakṣman have not properly understood My mind. Thus both of you harass me most painfully. Happiness in this world is temporary and ultimately illusory. Only the foolish think themselves to be the body composed of material elements and thus seek sensual happiness. This body, along with its relations and all its sensual joys, exists for only a few moments. The real self is the eternal soul dwelling in the heart, whose happiness lies only in the pursuit of a godly life.”

Both Kaushalya and Lakṣman listened silently as Rāma spoke eternal spiritual truths. He described how association of friends and relatives was exactly like the coming together of sticks floating in a river. They are thrown together and very soon parted by the swift current of time. Therefore one’s happiness should never depend upon such ephemeral relationships. One should give up all attachment for the body and fix the mind only upon the eternal Supreme Lord, whose order is represented by superiors such as the king. This would bring everlasting happiness. Rāma concluded, “How then can I abandon the righteous path of following My father’s command simply out of attachment for either the kingdom or My relatives?”

Rāma reassured them that he was not at all disturbed to be leaving for the forest. He responded to the suggestion that Daśaratha was acting against the codes of morality. “The king has adhered to virtue even at the cost of his own desires and happiness. Suffering intense pain, he is prepared to abandon his beloved son for the sake of truthfulness. My dear mother, it is he who is always your shelter and means of happiness in both this and the other world. You should therefore remain by his side and serve him. Pray grant Me leave to go to the forest. I shall never accept the rulership of the earth through unrighteousness.”

Rāma stopped speaking and approached the anguished Lakṣman, who was still incensed with His father and Kaikeyi. Lakṣman stood with His eyes open wide in rage, like an infuriated elephant. Rāma gently restrained His devoted brother. “Control now Your anger and grief, O Lakṣman. Take courage and overlook this seeming offense to Myself. Experience instead the joy of assisting Our father to increase his virtue by implementing his pledge. Gentle brother, please send back all the items gathered for My consecration today. Reassure My mother and help Me prepare for My departure.”

Rāma placed His hand on Lakṣman’s shoulder. He was pained to see His brother’s distress, but He had no intention of challenging His father. He had to vindicate the king’s honor. As long as He remained in Ayodhya the king would suffer the pain of seeing his truthfulness questioned. Only when Rāma had left for the forest, clad in deerskins and wearing matted locks, would Kaikeyi be satisfied and the king’s word redeemed.

Lakṣman looked at the ground. He was burning with the thought of the terrible injustice about to be done to His brother, but He could not possibly defy Rāma’s desire. Rāma put His arm around Lakṣman’s shoulder and spoke reassuringly. “All this should be seen as the will of Providence, which can never be flouted. No blame should be attached to Kaikeyi, for it was Providence alone who moved her to make her request to Our father. How could she have ever decided to send Me away? She has always treated Me exactly as has My own mother, Kaushalya. Surely she was prompted by Providence to say to the king those terrible words, giving him such grief. I know her to be gentle and kind. She would never, like a vulgar woman, utter words intended to torment both Myself and Our father.”

Rāma felt no anger towards Kaikeyi and He did not want her to be blamed for what was, after all, a divine arrangement. He continued, “That which cannot be foreseen or understood must be accepted as the will of Providence alone. What man can ever contend with destiny? Joy and sorrow, gain and loss, birth and death—all of these come one after another by the arrangement of Providence or destiny. None can avoid them nor can anyone alter the strong course of destiny. When even the best laid plans go awry without any apparent cause, it is undoubtedly the work of Providence.”

Rāma smiled at Lakṣman whom He knew had spoken only out of love. He asked Him not to lament for that which was unavoidable, decreed by some unseen destiny. Lakṣman should not censure either Their father or Kaikeyi, as they were moved by superior forces. Rāma then asked that the sacred waters gathered for His installation be instead used to anoint Him at the inauguration of His vow of asceticism. He looked at His younger brother with affection. “Beloved Lakṣman, I will soon depart, for this is surely My destiny.”

Lakṣman stood with His head bent low, pondering His brother’s words. His mood swung between distress at Rāma’s impending exile and delight at His brother’s steadfast adherence to virtue. But He was still not fully convinced that it was right for Rāma to leave. Furrowing his brows, He hissed like an angry cobra in a hole. His frowning face appeared like that of a furious lion and was difficult to gaze upon. Violently shaking His head and arms, He said to Rāma, “Your steady devotion to duty is unequalled, O Rāma, but carefully consider its result in this case. By accepting the words of that wicked couple You are prepared to do something that is condemned by all people. I am surprised that You do not suspect the motives of Our father and Kaikeyi. If there were any truth in this story about the boons granted by the king, then why did Kaikeyi not seek their fulfillment long ago?”

Lakṣman accused the king of conspiring with Kaikeyi. Daśaratha must have surely lost his senses under the influence of lust. Along with the covetous Kaikeyi he had made a sinful plan, quite opposed to any morality. He concluded that the king’s authority was therefore fit to be rejected. “Please forgive my intolerance, O Raghava, but I cannot accept Your present piety, which impels You to take as fate this evil turn of events. Nor can I accept that destiny is supreme.”

Lakṣman was a heroic and powerful warrior. His face turned crimson as he went on. Why should one acquiesce to a painful fate as if he is helpless? Only those who are cowardly and weak would trust in destiny alone, Lakṣman argued. The valiant always remain firm of mind. They never become disheartened when their purposes are thwarted by fate. Rather, they exert themselves with all power. Lakṣman stood before Rāma with His bow held high. “Today You shall see Me rushing at the enemy like an uncontrollable king of elephants! Not even all the gods united together will prevent Your consecration today. Those who support Your exile will find themselves either deprived of life or sent to the forest. I will dash the hopes of Our father and Kaikeyi. Anyone opposing Me will find no shelter in destiny as My fierce strength ruthlessly cuts him down!”

Lakṣman drew His sword and cleaved the air. He gave full vent to his rage. The right time for Rāma to retire to the forest had certainly not arrived. He should rule the globe for thousands of years. Only when His own sons were ready to take His place should He leave for the forest. That was the proper course of virtue. Lakṣman seemed about to consume the earth as He spoke.

“If You fear censure for the seemingly sinful act of rejecting father’s order, You should not worry. I shall personally guard You in every way and forcibly repel all those who object to Your accepting this kingdom, even as the coastline holds back the ocean! O Rāma, allow Yourself to be installed today. I alone am able to prevent any impediments to the ceremony. These arms of Mine are not meant simply to add to My attractiveness, nor is this bow a mere ornament, nor are My sword and quivers of arrows hanging on My body as badges of honor. All these are meant for crushing the enemy. Today You will see arrows released like incessant showers of rain. You will witness My sword flashing like lightning as it cuts down all those who stand before Me. The earth will be thickly covered with the arms, legs and heads of heroes. Hewn down by My sword, enemies will drop like so many meteors falling from the sky! While I stand on the battlefield with uplifted weapons how can any man alive be proud of his strength? Today I shall demonstrate the king’s helplessness and establish Your unopposed sovereignty! Tell Me which of Your enemies should this day be deprived of life, fame and relations? Instruct Me how to proceed so that this wide earth will be brought under Your control. O glorious lord of our race, I am here to do Your bidding alone.”

Rāma wiped away His brother’s angry tears. He knew Lakṣman was only speaking out his devotion to Him. Lakṣman knew that ultimately He had to follow Rāma. He knew Rāma could not possibly act against religion or morality. Nevertheless, in His pain He expressed His powerful feelings. Rāma perfectly understood Lakṣman’s mind and He comforted Him. “O gentle brother, You should know I am firmly obedient to My superiors’ command. This is the path trodden by the righteous. Be firm and control Your grief and anger. That will be the most pleasing to Me.”

Kaushalya realized her son was unshakeable in His determination to obey His father’s order. Tears streamed down her face. Who could believe this was happening? Rāma, the dearest son of the emperor, was being exiled to the dangerous jungle. How could that pious-minded and gentle boy live in such a fearful place? Destiny was surely supreme in a world where one like Rāma must retire to the forest. Kaushalya trembled with grief. She held her son’s head. “It is well known how a cow will follow her roaming calf. In the same way I shall follow You wherever You may go, for separation from You, my dearest son, will kill me.”

Rāma addressed His mother with love. “Betrayed by Kaikeyi and seeing Me leave for the forest, My father will surely not survive if he is also abandoned by you, O godly queen. It is sheer cruelty for a woman to desert her worthy husband. That should never even be contemplated, for it is always condemned. So long as the king lives you should render him service, for this is the eternal moral code. For a married woman the husband is her deity and her lord.”

Rāma knew His mother was fully aware of her religious duty, which she would never abandon. He spoke only to give her strength and reassurance. The queen listened in silence as Rāma, invoking the ancient religious codes, described the fate of a woman who does not serve her worthy husband. Even if she is devoted to fasts and sacred observances, she will become tainted by sin and suffer the reactions. On the other hand, a woman who devotedly serves her husband, even without any other religious practices, will reach the highest heaven.

Rāma folded His palms. “Therefore, O queen, remain devoted to the king and ensure that he does not suffer excessive grief. Leading a holy life, bide the time until I return. When you finally see Me duly installed as king and dedicated to your service, you shall achieve all that you desire.”

Although dismayed at the prospect of losing her son for fourteen years, the pious Kaushalya nevertheless felt delighted to hear His admonition. It was clear she could not change His carefully considered resolution to depart. Blinded by her tears she said, “Go then with my blessings, O heroic son. May good betide You always. My misery will end only when You again return from the forest and offer me words of consolation. If only that time were already arrived! Leave now with a steady mind, dear Rāma. Following in the footsteps of the righteous, repay Your debt to your father.”

Still in the grip of sorrow, Kaushalya began to worship the gods in order to invoke divine blessings for her son. Praying to each of the principal deities and asking that they guard Rāma from all dangers, she offered oblations of ghee into the sacred fire. As she finished her prayers, Rāma bowed before her and held her feet for some time, while she wept softly. Embracing Him tightly, Kaushalya said, “Please leave in peace, my child, and accomplish Your purpose. When at last I see You returned, as one would see the full moon appearing above the horizon, all my sorrow will be gone. Only when I see You ascend Your father’s throne, wearing the crown and clad in royal robes, will my heart’s desire be fulfilled. May all the gods protect you as you sojourn in the dreadful forest. Depart now, O Raghava, I wish you well!”

Rāma took leave of the grieving Kaushalya, who followed after Him with her eyes. He went out of her apartments feeling agony. Lakṣman, who had resigned himself to accept Rāma’s determination to depart, followed close behind.

Chapter 9: Sītā’s Plea

Rāma moved along the royal highway towards Sītā’s quarters, praised by the many Brahmins who lined the road. Sītā still had not heard the news of Rāma’s impending exile and was eagerly awaiting Him, Her mind absorbed in thoughts of his installation. As Her husband entered the room She sprang from Her seat. Rāma had left Lakṣman outside and had gone alone to speak with Sītā. He was perplexed as He considered how to tell His wife the terrible news. Although striving to control His mind and contain His grief, Rāma’s face wore a pained expression and His head hung low.

Sītā was astonished to see Him in that state, His face pale and bathed in perspiration. Apprehensively She inquired, “What troubles You, my lord? Today is the auspicious and joyful day of Your installation, but You seem to be covered by the dark shadow of grief.”

Sītā asked Rāma why He was not accompanied by the royal servants carrying the white umbrella. Why was He not wearing regal dress or anointed with sandalwood paste after having gone through the inaugural ceremony? Where was the king and his ministers? What was happening?

Rāma steadied His mind and looked upon Sītā’s face. “My worshipable father has ordered Me to enter the forest for fourteen years’ exile. O most beautiful princess, according to Kaikeyi’s desire, My brother Bharata will be installed in My place. Indeed, in days gone by two boons were granted to Kaikeyi by My ever-truthful father. She has recalled the king’s debt now and placed him under his word to send Me away, conferring the office of Prince Regent upon the noble Bharata. In obedience to morality I shall therefore depart forthwith to the forest. I have come to see You on My way.”

Sītā shook like a tree caught in a gale. How could this be true? She listened with astonishment as Rāma continued. “O high-minded lady, please remain firm. In My absence You should take to fasts and prayer, remaining disciplined at all times. Worship and serve My father and mother who are both grieving deeply due to My separation from them. Sumitra and Kaikeyi should also be served by You, as should Bharata and Shatrughna, who are both as dear to Me as My own self. Be especially careful not to praise Me before Bharata, for men endowed with power and wealth cannot tolerate hearing others praised. Indeed, Bharata will be the king and should therefore be served by You with all attention, carefully avoiding any offense.”

Sītā was dumbfounded. She turned pale and Her eyes opened wide. She knew without doubt that Rāma meant what He said. The princess listened in horror as He instructed Her. Rāma told Her to remain living peacefully in Ayodhya under the protection of the emperor and Bharata, devoting Herself to righteousness and religion. Rāma Himself would leave immediately for the forest.

After hearing Rāma speak, the noble Sītā became indignant out of Her love for Her husband. Her cheeks flushed red and She replied angrily, “How have You uttered such words today, O lord? They are never worthy of one possessed of strength and weapons, who is capable of affording protection to the weak. Your advice is not worth hearing!”

Considering Rāma as Her only refuge, Sītā spoke strongly. She described how the father, mother, brother, or any other relation were never the shelter of a chaste woman with a husband. The wife should share her husband’s fortune under all circumstances. She stood in front of Rāma, Her eyes flashing as She continued, “I am enjoined by ancient religious codes to enter the forest along with You, dearest Rāma. I cannot possibly remain in Ayodhya! If You leave today for the forest, I shall walk before You, clearing away the sharp grasses and thorns on the path.”

Sītā assured Rāma that He could take Her anywhere with confidence. She would live happily under His protection and would prefer forest life with Him to residence in the richest palace or even heaven itself without Him. She had been trained in all the arts of service and was well prepared to accompany Him. “I need no further advice, O lord. Simply order Me to depart. Remaining with You in fragrant woodlands, I shall be as happy as I am now living in Your palace.”

Sītā felt pained that Rāma had not considered taking Her with Him. Raised in a line of warrior kings, the princess was not easily disturbed by difficulty. Again and again She exhorted Her husband to take Her to the forest. “Certainly You are capable of guarding Me from any danger. Indeed, none other can guard Me as You can, Rāma. Nor is it their sacred duty. I shall therefore go with You today. That is My fixed determination.”

Sītā was fond of the country. She imagined Herself alone with Rāma amid beautiful mountains, woods and lakes. Even if it was austere She would nevertheless prefer thousands of years spent with Her husband in this way than a single day without Him. She spoke Her deepest feelings. “I shall enter the forest at Your feet. I am exclusively devoted to You, My mind is ever attached to You and I am determined to die if disunited from You. Therefore grant My prayer and take Me with You today.”

Rāma considered the difficulty of living in the forest and He did not feel at all inclined to take Sītā with Him. He spoke gently to His dear wife, who had buried Her face in Her hands and was sobbing. “My dearest lady, You are born of a noble line and are always devoted to virtue. Practice that virtue and appease My mind, for I cannot bear to see You suffer. I shall now give You advice meant only for Your good, frail Sītā. Not only is there no joy in the fearful forest, but it is always fraught with misery. Simply by taking You there I would be neglecting My duty to protect You.”

Rāma described the forest where He had gone many times for hunting expeditions. There were numerous lions and other fierce beasts. Marshes and rivers abounded in crocodiles and other fierce aquatics. The forest paths were rugged and often impassable. Innumerable thorny trees and stinging bushes made traveling difficult. Sharp grasses grew everywhere. Hornets, gnats, scorpions, spiders and mosquitoes were always present, along with snakes and serpents of every kind. In the deep forest the darkness was dense. Furious winds often blew, lashing a traveler’s face with debris.

Rāma was determined to dissuade the gentle Sītā from following Him. “Exhausted after searching all day for food, one must lie down at night upon beds of dry leaves. Baths must be taken in lonely lakes which are the abode of serpents. By day and night the terrible pangs of hunger can be appeased only by one’s mind, for food is scarce. O princess, one is subjected to all kinds of illnesses and mental anguish. Anger, greed and fear must be completely controlled. A forest is certainly a place of terrible suffering; therefore, give up this idea of following me there. It is not a secure place for one such as You.”

Sītā’s determination remained unshaken. “All these dangers will be as nothing to Me if I am able to remain by Your side. I will in any event have no fear whatsoever with You as My protector. Even Indra will not be able to harm Me when You are with Me. What then of mere beasts? You have always instructed Me that a wife can never be independent from Her husband, O Rāma; indeed she is half of his very self. How then can I not accompany You?”

Sītā remembered how, when She was a young girl, an astrologer had predicted that She would one day have to live in the forest. Surely that time had arrived. She continued to plead with Rāma. Was this not an opportunity for Her to fulfill Her religious duty by following Him to the forest? Would not any other course be against virtue? The husband was the wife’s supreme deity. Sītā quoted the scriptures. A chaste woman who remained throughout life by her husband’s side surely attained the same destination as him after death. That was Her only desire, to be with Rāma always. Looking into Rāma’s eyes, She spoke in a piteous voice. “For what reason then, O great hero, will You leave Me behind? I who am devoted and faithful, who shares alike Your every pleasure and pain and who desires to follow the religious path? You should certainly bring Me with You; otherwise, being sorely afflicted, I shall resort to poison, fire or water in order to bring about My end.”

Although Sītā’s lamentations hurt Him, Rāma did not relent. He tried to pacify and reassure Her, but She only became all the more determined to accompany Him. Agitated at the thought of separation from Her husband, She taunted Him.

“Has My father Janaka obtained as My protector a woman in the form of a man? How, in Your absence, could I tolerate the people falsely saying, ‘It seems that strength and valor are lacking in Rāma, as He could not protect His own dear wife’? What fear has assailed You that You now desire to desert Me, although I remain entirely devoted to You? I will not cast My eyes on another man even in thought! How then can You even consider delivering Me for protection to another, O My lord?”

Sītā continued to beseech Rāma. She had no intention of remaining behind without Him under any circumstances. Be it heaven or hell, She could only be happy by Her husband’s side. Sītā gazed imploringly at Rāma as She begged Him to take Her with Him.

Rāma was agonized by the thought of leaving behind His beloved wife. He would miss Her. Still, He feared Her suffering in the forest. His heart ached as She cried out to Him.

“Without You heaven would be exactly as hell to Me, while with You hell would be the best of all abodes. How can I remain here under the control of those who are inimical to You and have sent You to the forest? If I must watch You leave without Me, then I shall drink poison this very day. I cannot bear the pain of separation from You for even an hour. How, then, shall I stand it for fourteen years? Take Me with You or let Me give up My life here and now in Your presence.”

Sītā’s beautiful face was streaked with tears, which fell continuously from Her dark eyes like drops of water from blue lotus flowers. Rāma embraced Her and gently wiped away Her tears. He was still apprehensive about taking Her, but He could not see Her endure the pain of His separation. She was already almost senseless from grief and He had not even left. What would happen to Her during fourteen years of His absence? Making up His mind to take Her with Him, He spoke to Her reassuringly.

“I would find no pleasure even in heaven if I obtained it at the cost of Your suffering, O most pious lady! Not knowing Your real feelings and being afraid that forest life would cause You pain, I discouraged You from following Me. I see now that destiny has decreed You should dwell with Me in the forest. Follow Me then, O princess, and I shall protect You in strict accord with the moral laws always followed by the virtuous.”

Rāma made clear His firm intention to go to the deep forest and remain there for the full duration. He wanted Sītā to have no doubt of what lay ahead. He was fixed in His determination to obey His parents’ command. How could one who disregarded elders and teachers ever hope to please God, who is not so easily seen or obtained? Earth, heaven and the kingdom of God can all be achieved by one who serves his mother, father and teacher. Explaining all this to His devoted wife, Rāma said, “Not even truthfulness, charity or sacrifice are comparable to serving one’s father and mother. This is the eternal religion. Pious men, devoted to serving their parents, reach the regions of the gods and beyond. I therefore desire to do exactly what My truthful father has enjoined. I shall go to the forest today. As I see that You are set on following Me, My resolve to leave You behind has weakened. O lady of bewitching eyes, I shall take You with Me and together We shall practice asceticism in the deep forest. I am pleased with You, Sītā. Your determination to serve Me in every circumstance is worthy of Your dynasty and it adds glory to Mine. Prepare to leave immediately! Give away all Your riches to the Brahmins and go with only a simple dress and no belongings. We shall soon depart.”

Sītā was overjoyed to hear Her husband’s agreement. Her face bloomed like a full-blown lotus. Excitedly She began following Rāma’s instructions, giving away all Her costly garments and jewels, as well as all the other riches in Her palace.

In the meantime Lakṣman, who had been waiting patiently outside Sītā’s apartments, saw Rāma coming out. He bowed down before Rāma and held His feet tightly. “If Your mind is set upon leaving for the forest, then take Me with You,” he implored. “I shall walk ahead of You holding My bow and guarding against all dangers. With joy I shall accompany You through beautiful woods resounding with the cries of wild animals. Without You I do not desire even the rulership of all the worlds.”

Lakṣman hoped Rāma would approve, but Rāma tried to dissuade Him. “My dearest Lakṣman, You are dearer to Me than life itself. Always affectionate, devoted to virtue and firm on the right path, You are My constant and most valued companion. Yet if You follow Me to the forest, who will be left to serve Your mother Sumitra and the illustrious Kaushalya?”

Rāma suggested that Kaikeyi would not be kind to her co-wives once her son obtained the kingdom. Bharata would be devoted to His own mother, Kaikeyi, and thus the other queens would be neglected. Therefore Lakṣman should remain in Ayodhya to care for Kaushalya and Sumitra. By serving Rāma’s elders, Lakṣman would demonstrate His devotion to Rāma. Rāma concluded, “Incomparably great religious merit will be earned by You, O noble Lakṣman, and Our mothers will be saved from suffering.”

Lakṣman was not inclined to accept Rāma’s advice. How could He live without Rāma? In soft but firm words He argued that Bharata and Shatrughna were both devoted to Rāma. They would therefore serve all of Rāma’s elders equally. Lakṣman promised His brother, “If somehow They become proud and arrogant upon attaining the kingdom, abandoning virtue and neglecting Their elders, I will return to punish Them. For even while We live in the forest, news of the kingdom will reach Us through the sages and ascetics living there.”

Lakṣman had already anticipated Rāma’s objections and had carefully considered them. There was no doubt in His mind that He should follow His brother. Continuing to reassure Rāma, Lakṣman reminded Him how the king had already arranged more than adequate support for Kaushalya and her dependents. The revenue of thousands of villages was under her control. She was capable of maintaining herself as well as Sumitra and even Lakṣman Himself. He concluded, “Therefore kindly make Me Your personal attendant, for there will be no unrighteousness in this act. Going before You with My sword, I shall clear a safe path for You and Sītā. In wakefulness or sleep, You shall find Me by Your side ever ready to do Your bidding.”

Rāma was pleased and comforted to hear Lakṣman speak. Lakṣman was as dear to Him as life itself and Rāma had been sad at the prospect of leaving Him. Holding Lakṣman by the shoulders and looking into His expectant face, Rāma said, “Take leave of Your near and dear ones, O My brother, for We shall depart shortly.” Lakṣman felt a surge of happiness and His limbs trembled. He bowed to His elder brother and asked for His order.

Rāma asked Lakṣman to go to Vasiṣṭha’s hermitage, where He had left some divine weapons. There were two celestial bows along with a pair of inexhaustible quivers, two impenetrable pieces of body armor and a pair of long, shining swords. Rāma had received these as a dowry from Janaka and had left them with Vasiṣṭha so they could receive daily worship in his hermitage. He said to Lakṣman, “Bring all these weapons, dear brother, for I feel We will have need of them soon.”

Lakṣman joyfully went and fetched the weapons. Then He and Rāma together began to distribute Their wealth to the Brahmins. Many sages came at that time to offer their blessings to Rāma and all of them were given great riches. Gold, silver, jewels, pearls, chariots, horses, silken garments and hundreds of thousands of cows were distributed freely to anyone who came begging charity. Many thousands of Brahmins were given sufficient alms to maintain them for the rest of their lives. Rāma’s relations and dependents, as well as the needy and afflicted were also given much wealth. At that time in Ayodhya there was not a single Brahmin or needy person who was not provided with gifts. Being thus honored and gratified by Rāma, they all returned to their own homes, praising Him in their hearts.

Chapter 10: Sad Farewells

It was time for Rāma and His two companions to say Their farewells. Holding Their weapons and followed by Sītā, the brothers made Their way towards Daśaratha’s palace. As They passed along the road many men crowded around to watch Them. Plunged in sorrow at seeing their beloved prince leaving, they lamented in various ways.

“Here passes the same Rāma who before would move regally in state, followed by a huge retinue,” said the people. “Now He walks with only Sītā and Lakṣman as His companions. Although used to every luxury, He is going to the terrible forest in obedience to His father’s word.”

Some citizens censured the king, whom they felt had been gripped by some evil spirit. How could he send his dearest son into exile? Rāma’s qualities were evident to all; his compassion, learning, gentleness, sense control and mental peace—all were ever visible in that noble prince.

The citizens could not face the prospect of Rāma’s departure. They felt pain, just as a tree with all its fruits and flowers is hurt when its root is damaged, and they spoke out in public places. “We will give up our homes and villages and go with the pious Rāma to the forest. Let us share with Him all His joys and sorrows. Let Kaikeyi rule over a deserted kingdom, bereft of its people.”

Everyone feared the prospect of Kaikeyi becoming powerful as the mother of the king. They angrily cursed her again and again. All of them would go with Rāma. They would abandon the city, leaving its houses to be filled with dust and overrun by mice. The forest would become a city and Ayodhya a forest. They would drive out from the forest all the fierce animals and snakes, sending them to live in Ayodhya with Kaikeyi as their protector.

The two brothers heard the laments of the people, but they kept Their minds under strict control. Smiling gently and glancing with affection at the citizens, They walked together like a pair of powerful lions. They entered Daśaratha’s palace and saw Sumantra, who stood with folded hands and a disconsolate face. Rāma asked him to announce Their arrival to the king. When Sumantra went before Daśaratha he found the king distracted by grief, heaving deep sighs, his eyes red from weeping. The devoted and faithful Sumantra regarded his master to be like the eclipsed sun or a fire covered by ashes. Bowing at the king’s feet, Sumantra said, “The illustrious Rāma has distributed all His wealth to His dependents and the Brahmins, and He now stands at your door awaiting your permission to depart for the forest.”

Ordering his minister to show Rāma in, the king also asked that all his wives be present. Sumantra brought the queens, who arrived accompanied by numerous maidservants. He then brought Rāma and Lakṣman before Their father. As Rāma entered the room, Daśaratha ran impulsively towards Him; but being stricken with sorrow, he fell senseless to the floor. Rāma and Lakṣman rushed to assist Their unconscious father. All the ladies threw up their arms and gave out a wail which mixed with the tinkling of their ornaments. A commotion filled the room, with cries of “Alas! Alas! O Rāma!” Kaikeyi alone remained unmoved.

Rāma and Lakṣman, both crying, lifted Their father and placed him gently on a couch. As the king returned to consciousness, Rāma regained His composure and, with folded hands, said, “I have come to take leave of you, father. Please grant Me your permission to go to the forest. Also allow Lakṣman and Sītā, whom I could not deter even with great effort, to accompany Me. O great king, please give up your grief and look favorably upon Us, for We wish now to depart.”

Rāma calmly awaited His father’s permission. The king spoke with difficulty. “As a result of a promise made to Kaikeyi I have lost my good sense. Therefore, my dear Rāma, take me captive and rule over this kingdom.”

Fixed in righteousness, Rāma replied, “May you rule the earth for another thousand years. I have no desire for sovereignty. After a mere fourteen years have passed I shall return and once more take hold of your feet, having redeemed your pledge, O ruler of men!”

Daśaratha was mortified, but he saw Kaikeyi urging him on with covert gestures. Bound by the fetters of truth he spoke to his son, granting him permission to leave. “Please leave with an undisturbed mind, O Rāma, and may Your journey be a safe and happy one.”

The king was devastated. He could see that Rāma’s decision to depart was firm and not to be reversed. Rāma was devoted to piety and truth. Daśaratha requested Him to remain for just one night, so that he and Kaushalya might see Him a little longer. He wanted to offer Rāma all enjoyable things on that last day. Trembling with grief the king said, “I swear to You that I never wanted this to happen. I have been obliged by Kaikeyi, who has abandoned virtue after long concealing her evil intentions. Your willingness to accept even this terrible order, simply to save me from sin, proves beyond doubt Your greatness. O gentle Rāma, I permit You to leave. Only, go tomorrow with my blessings.”

Hearing of His father’s request, Rāma became concerned. He did not wish to delay His departure any longer and said, “Who will offer Me tomorrow the delights I enjoy today? The time for My departure has come and I must now cast aside all thoughts of enjoyment. Let Me leave right away. Make over this vast kingdom, with all its riches, to Bharata. My resolution to live in the forest cannot be swayed. Your boons to Kaikeyi should now be implemented in full. I shall live with ascetics for fourteen years and the world should be given to Bharata.”

Rāma moved closer to His anguished father, who sat shaking his head. He asked the king to be firm and free from sorrow. Rāma assured His father that He had no desire at all for the kingdom, nor for any pleasures, nor even for life itself devoid of virtue. He only wished to execute the king’s command and prove him true to his word. Comforting the grieving monarch, Rāma said, “Since Kaikeyi said to Me, ‘Go to the forest, O Raghava,’ and I replied by saying, ‘I am going,’ I must now redeem that pledge. Please let Me leave. I cannot wait an instant longer.”

Rāma felt sorrow to see His father suffering such intense agony. Not wanting to increase His father’s pain, however, Rāma kept His own feelings in check and maintained a calm expression. He spoke gently, assuring His father that He would certainly enjoy His stay in the forest. He would sport happily with Sītā in the many delightful woods and groves. Protected by His own weapons and by Lakṣman, there would be no fear for Them from the beasts and Rākṣasas in the forest. When fourteen years had passed the king would find Them returned unharmed and ready to serve him again. Bharata alone could competently and righteously rule the globe in His absence.

Rāma added, “I shall never accept the kingdom by bringing infamy to you, O king. Indeed, I could renounce every pleasure, including My own dear wife, in order to satisfy your command. I shall only be happy the moment I enter the forest. You need not feel any pain for Me. Be peaceful, my lord, and allow Me to leave.”

Daśaratha, tormented by a burning agony, embraced Rāma tightly and then again fell unconscious, showing no signs of life. All the queens, along with their maidservants, cried loudly. Kaikeyi felt her purpose fulfilled and was rejoicing inwardly. Witnessing her silence, the king’s intimate friend Sumantra was furious. Beating his head, wringing his hands and grinding his teeth, he spoke scathingly to her, his eyes blazing with wrath.

“Here lies your husband, the support of the whole world, betrayed and forsaken by you, O queen. Surely there is nothing sacred for you. I consider you to be the murderess of your husband and the destroyer of your entire race. Do not despise your lord in this way, for his order is superior to that of even a million sons. Ignoring the time-honored rule of primogeniture, you seek to usurp Rāma’s rights and bring unbearable pain to the king.”

Tears flowed from the old minister’s eyes as he spoke. He told Kaikeyi to renounce her evil aim. If her son became the king, then no pious man would remain in the kingdom. What joy would she derive from ruling the empty earth, which was earned through sin? It was a great wonder that the earth did not split apart and swallow her, or that the great sages did not utter fiery curses to consume her on that very spot. Having served the king all his life, Sumantra felt every pain the king felt as if it were his own. As he addressed Kaikeyi he could hardly bring himself to look at her.

“The glorious king will never belie his promise to you. Do not force him to perform an act repugnant to himself and the whole world. Follow the desire of the king and become a protectress of the world. Let Rāma be installed on the throne. He will undoubtedly always remain favorable to you in every way. If, however, on your order He is sent to the forest, then your only gain will be unending infamy. Give up your misguided desire, O Kaikeyi, and live happily.”

Kaikeyi looked coolly at Sumantra, who stood before her with joined palms, and she made no reply. Her mind remained unmoved as she awaited the execution of her order. Seeing her resolve, Daśaratha, who had regained consciousness, sighed and said to Sumantra, “You should immediately order my army to make ready to depart. They should accompany Rāma to the forest. So too should wealthy merchants skilled at establishing networks of shops. Search out hunters who know the secrets of forests and send them with Rāma. Assemble thousands of capable servants and have them prepare to leave. Indeed, you should arrange for my entire treasury and my granary to be transported along with Rāma. He should not have to endure any austerity during the fourteen years of exile.”

As Daśaratha spoke Kaikeyi became alarmed. The king was going to divest the kingdom of all its wealth before her son was crowned. Dismayed and fearful, she turned towards Daśaratha and spoke, her mouth parched and her voice choked. “How can you bestow upon Bharata a kingdom stripped of its wealth? How then will He actually be the ruler of this world, as you have promised?”

The king turned angrily towards Kaikeyi. “After handing me a heavy burden to bear, you are now lashing me as I carry it, O hostile and vulgar woman! When asking for your boons you should have stipulated that Rāma could not take anything with Him to the forest. Abandoning all sense of righteousness, you have taken to a path leading only to grief. I cannot stay here with you any longer. Along with all the people of Ayodhya I shall follow Rāma to the forest!”

Rāma approached His father and said politely, “O great king, of what use to Me is an army and all your riches? I have renounced the kingdom; how then can I take its wealth? He who has parted with an elephant yet seeks to retain its tether is simply a fool. I am resolved to enter the forest and dwell there with the ascetics, wearing the barks of trees and living on whatever produce I can glean from day to day.”

Rāma wanted to act only in accord with the scriptural instructions regarding the vow of forest life. He told His father that one living in the forest should not do so in great opulence. Rāma asked that the king not bestow upon His brother a kingdom bereft of its riches. He would leave with only His weapons and a spade for digging roots. Turning to the king’s servants, Rāma said, “Bring Me the tree barks and I shall take off these royal garments and make ready to depart.”

His request so gladdened Kaikeyi that she personally fetched the Spartan forest clothes made from barks and grasses she had already prepared. Shamelessly handing them to Rāma, Lakṣman and Sītā, she said, “Put these on.” Rāma and Lakṣman quickly and adroitly changed into those clothes, but the beautiful Sītā was perplexed, unsure of how to wear them. Trying again and again to place the bark linen over Her other clothes, Sītā felt abashed. With Her eyes flooded with tears She said to Her husband, “How does one wear such dress, My lord?”

Rāma personally fastened the bark over Sītā’s silk dress. Seeing Her clad in forest apparel, Her many female servants began to wail piteously. “This noble princess has not been ordered to enter the forest!” they cried. “Dear Rāma, please let Her remain here with us so we may continue to serve Her and enjoy the blessing of seeing Her divine form. How can this gentle lady live like an ascetic in the forest? She does not deserve to suffer in this way!”

Although hearing their loving remonstrances, Rāma continued to tie on Sītā’s forest clothes as She desired. Suddenly Vasiṣṭha became overwhelmed with distress at seeing the gentle Sītā about to enter the forest. Feeling angered and weeping hot tears, he said to Kaikeyi, “O cruel woman, have you no shame? After deceiving the king and bringing disgrace to your family, are you still not satisfied? Will you stand by and watch as this high-born lady leaves for the forest, wearing the coarse garments you prepared? You did not ask that She be exiled along with Rāma! These tree barks are not meant for Her. Excellent garments and jewels should be brought by you for your daughter-in-law. She should proceed to the forest on first-class conveyances and accompanied by all Her servants.”

Vasiṣṭha loved Rāma and Sītā like his own children. He could not stand and watch as They departed while the hard-hearted Kaikeyi looked on gleefully. The sage spoke words which pierced Kaikeyi deeply. He explained that according to scripture the wife was her husband’s own self. They were one and the same person. As such Sītā should therefore rule over the kingdom, even if Rāma Himself could not. The forest would become the capital of the world. Indeed, the entire state of Kośala, along with all its people and the city of Ayodhya, would leave along with Rāma. The sage blazed with anger as he went on, appearing like a smokeless fire.

“Surely Bharata and His brother Shatrughna will also enter the forest, clad in barks. You may then rule over a desolate kingdom, peopled only by trees, which alone could not rise up and follow Rāma!”

Kaikeyi remained silent and looked at Rāma and Sītā, who were ready to leave. Sītā wished only to follow Her husband. Even upon hearing Vasiṣṭha’s words, She was not swayed in the least from Her purpose. She stood next to Rāma, covered from head to toe in the grass and bark clothes given by Kaikeyi. All the people present then loudly exclaimed, “Shame upon the powerless king who does nothing to stop this flagrant injustice!”

Hearing their cries the emperor became dispirited and lost interest in life. He turned to Kaikeyi and rebuked her for making Sītā wear forest garments, but the queen remained silent. Rāma came before His father, who sat with his head bent low, and asked his permission to leave. He requested the king to take special care of Kaushalya, whom he feared would suffer in his absence. Looking at his son clad in the dress of a hermit, the king fell unconscious. After being brought to his senses by his ministers, who gently sprinkled him with cool water, Daśaratha lamented loudly.

“I think in my past life I must have given terrible pain to other living beings and thus this pain is now being felt by me. Surely life will not leave one until the appointed time arrives. Otherwise, why does death not claim me now, who am tormented by Kaikeyi and beholding my dearest son wearing the robes of an ascetic?”

Crying out, “O Rāma!” the king broke off, choked with tears. With a great effort Daśaratha then managed to control his grief and, turning towards Sumantra, he said, “Fetch here the best of my chariots and take the glorious Rāma beyond this city. Since I see a virtuous and valiant son being exiled to the forest by His own father and mother, I can only conclude that this is the results of piety, as declared by the scriptures. Religion is undoubtedly difficult to divine.”

As Rāma and Sītā approached the chariot brought by Sumantra, Kaushalya came and tightly embraced Sītā, saying, “Wicked are those women who forsake their worthy husbands when fallen upon hard times. Even though such women have in the past been protected and afforded every happiness, they malign and even desert their husbands when misfortune arrives. Such women are heartless, untruthful, lusty and sinful by nature, being quickly estranged in times of trouble. Neither kindness nor education nor gift nor even marriage ties can capture the hearts of these women.”

Kaushalya loved Sītā as a daughter. She knew that Rāma’s gentle wife was entirely devoted to piety and she spoke to Her only out of motherly affection. She continued, “For virtuous women, who are truthful, pious, obedient to their elders and acting within the bounds of morality the husband is the most sacred object and is never abandoned. Although Rāma is being sent to the forest You should never neglect Him, dear Sītā. Whether wealthy or without any means whatsoever, He is always Your worshipable deity.”

Sītā was filled with joy to hear this advice, which was in accord with her life’s aim. Joining Her palms, She replied reverentially, “I shall surely do all that your honorable self instructs. I have always heard from you proper advice about how to serve My husband. Even in thought you should not compare Me to wicked women, for I am unable to deviate from virtue, even as moonlight cannot be parted from the moon. As a lute is useless without its strings or a chariot without its wheels, so a wife is destitute when separated from her worthy husband. Having learned from My elders all the duties incumbent upon a wife, and knowing the husband to be a veritable deity, how can I ever neglect Rāma, O venerable lady?”

Kaushalya’s heart was touched by Sītā’s reply and she shed tears born of both delight and agony, being moved by Sītā’s piety and at the same time anguished at the thought of Her imminent departure.

Rāma looked with affection at His mother. It was time for Him to leave. He feared Kaushalya would pine away after He left. Rāma stood before her with folded palms. “Please do not show My father sad expressions, heightening his grief. Fourteen years will pass quickly, even while you sleep. You will rise one morning to find Me returned with Sītā and Lakṣman, surrounded by friends and relatives.”

Rāma looked around at all the royal ladies standing there and said, “Please forgive any unkind words or acts which I may have said or done out of ignorance because we have lived closely together. Now I take leave of you all.”

A cry rose up from the ladies that resembled the cry of female cranes. Daśaratha’s palace, which had always been marked with the joyous sounds of music and festivities, was now filled with the sound of agonized wails.

Catching hold of Daśaratha’s feet, Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣman took their final leave of him and walked around him in respect. Numbed by grief, Rāma bowed to Kaushalya and climbed up onto the chariot, followed by Sītā. As Lakṣman followed Them, His own mother Sumitra came up to say good-bye. Embracing her son she said, “Serve well Your elder brother Rāma, my dear son. The eternal moral law states that the older brother is the refuge of the younger, whether in good times or bad. Never forget the duties of our race, O Lakṣman, which are to practice charity, perform sacrifices for the good of the people and to lay down one’s life on the field of battle.”

Blinded by tears, Sumitra allowed her son to mount the chariot as she called out, “Farewell, dear son, farewell! Always see Rāma as You do Your father Daśaratha, look upon Sītā as myself, your mother, and see the forest as Ayodhya!”

Sumantra took up the reins of the horses and urged them forward. The great golden chariot moved ahead with a thunderous rumbling. As it passed down the royal highway the people assembled were stunned with sorrow. Both old and young alike rushed towards the chariot as thirsty men would rush toward water in the desert. Clinging to the sides and the back of the chariot they looked up at Sumantra, calling out, “Hold fast the reins, O charioteer, and drive slowly. We wish to see Rāma a little longer.”

Rāma, anxious to be gone as quickly as possible, asked them to desist and told Sumantra to drive more swiftly. Ordered by Rāma, “Move on!” and at the same time told by the people who filled the road, “Stop!” Sumantra could do neither. With great difficulty the chariot pressed slowly forward.

Seeing Rāma leaving and his city plunged into despair, the king fell prostrate. Upon being brought back to consciousness, he got up and, along with Kaushalya, ran after the chariot. Rāma looked behind Him and saw them trying to make their way through the crowd. He was unable to bear the sight of His father and mother in such distress, but being bound by duty, He urged Sumantra ever forward. The charioteer was perplexed, hearing from behind the king calling out, “Come back!” and then being ordered by Rāma to drive quicker. Rāma said to him, “This pain should not be prolonged further. Make haste! If My father reprimands you when you return, you should simply say you could not hear him.”

Finally breaking free from the crowd, the chariot gathered speed and left the city. Daśaratha was still running along the road, his eyes fixed on the dust raised by the chariot’s wheels. Breathless and at last losing sight of the chariot in the distance, Daśaratha fell down on the road.

As he lay there Kaushalya and Kaikeyi came to raise him up. On seeing Kaikeyi, however, the king became inflamed with anger. “Do not touch me, O sinful woman!” he roared. “I never want to see you again. You are neither my wife nor relation and I have nothing more to say to you. I also reject those who serve and depend upon you. If your son is in any way pleased to receive the sovereignty, then I shall shun Him as well!”

Daśaratha gazed at the tracks of the chariot. He covered his face in shame, blaming himself for Rāma’s departure. With Kaushalya’s help, he slowly made his way back to the palace. As he passed along the road he saw the city marked by mourning, its shops closed, its streets deserted. Lamenting all the while, Daśaratha entered his palace as the sun goes behind a cloud. The great palace was silent and without movement, overlade with a heavy atmosphere of sorrow. Daśaratha went into Kaushalya’s apartments and, laying down upon a soft couch, cried out, “O Rāma, have You really deserted me? Alas! Only those who will endure these coming fourteen years will be happy, seeing again the face of my gentle son. I cannot tolerate life without that tiger among men. O wicked Kaikeyi, you may rule this kingdom as a widow!”

Kaushalya looked sadly upon her husband and said, “Having discharged her poison upon Rāma, the crooked Kaikeyi will now wander freely like a female serpent who has shed her skin. With Rāma exiled and her own son installed as king, surely she will cause further fear to me, even like a snake living in one’s own house. How shall I survive without Rāma?”

Thinking of Rāma and Sītā entering the forest, Kaushalya cried out in pain. How would they survive? Exactly at a time when they should have enjoyed the luxuries of life, They were banished and made to live like ascetics. When again would she see Them? Surely in some past life she had committed some grievous sin. For that reason she now suffered such terrible pain. She lamented loudly, “O Rāma! O Lakṣman! O Sītā! Where are You now? The fire of my grief tortures me today as the blazing sun scorches the earth in summer!”

Sumitra gently reassured Kaushalya, reminding her of the greatness of Rāma and Lakṣman. Controlling her own grief and sitting next to Kaushalya, she placed her arms around her co-wife. She spoke about Rāma, describing His qualities and immeasurable strength. Simply to prove His noble father to be perfectly truthful, He had renounced the throne and gone to the forest. This was the path of virtue followed always by cultured men. That path led only to regions of never-ending happiness. Kaushalya should therefore not pity her son.

Sumitra spoke softly. “Being ever attended by the loving Lakṣman and followed by His devoted wife, Rāma will feel no discomfort. Even the sun will withhold its scorching rays from Rāma’s body, seeing His boundless virtues. A gentle and soothing breeze will always blow softly on Rāma. At night when He lies down to sleep, the cooling rays of the moon will caress Him like a loving father.”

Sumitra stroked Kaushalya’s face. She spoke to assuage her own suffering as much as that of Kaushalya. She told Kaushalya not to worry. Rāma would surely be protected by the terrible weapons that Viśvāmitra gave Him. He would dwell fearlessly in the forest just as He would in His own palace. Sumitra concluded, “Knowing the power of that prince, I have no doubt we will see Him returned as soon as His term of exile is concluded. With Rāma as your son you should not grieve in the least, for your good fortune is very great indeed. Shed your sorrow now, O sinless lady, for all the people must be comforted by you at this time, pained as they are by Rāma’s separation.”

Comforted by Sumitra, Kaushalya felt relief and embraced her co-wife tightly. The two queens sat together for a long time, lost in thoughts of Rāma. Nearby the king lay almost unconscious on a couch, repeatedly murmuring Rāma’s name.

Part Two

Chapter 1: Into the Forest

After their father had returned, Rāma and Lakṣman left the city and went along country paths toward the forest. Even though They urged Sumantra to drive quickly, a large number of citizens continued to follow Them. Rāma stopped to rest after some time and allowed the people to reach Him. He said to them with affection, “You have shown your great love for Me beyond any doubt. Now for My pleasure, please bestow this same love upon My brother Bharata. I am sure He will take good care of you in every possible way. Although still a youth, He is old in wisdom and greatly heroic. He will prove a worthy master and dispel all your sorrows and fears. Serve Him well, for He has been selected by our lord the emperor. It is also My desire that all of you please Him with your service. Be kind to the emperor so that he may not suffer excessive agony in My absence.”

Rāma tried hard to make the people turn back, but they would not return. The more Rāma showed His determination to stick to the path of righteousness and truth, the more the people desired to have Him as their ruler. It was as if Rāma and Lakṣman, by the cords of Their virtuous qualities, had bound the people and were dragging them along.

The chariot began to move forward again and a group of elderly Brahmins, their heads shaking with age, ran behind, struggling to keep pace as the chariot picked up speed. They called out, “O swift steeds, stop! Come back and be friendly to Your master Rāma, who is always intent on pleasing the Brahmins. O horses, halt! Although endowed with excellent ears, do you not hear our plaintive cry? You should not bear Rāma away. He is pure-minded, heroic and virtuous. Therefore, you should return Him to the city to be our king, not carry Him away to some distant, lonely place!”

Rāma looked back, feeling compassion for the distressed Brahmins. He did not want to ride Himself while Brahmins walked, so he got down from His chariot and continued on foot. Although His heart was breaking to see the people's anguish, Rāma looked straight ahead and walked with firm strides, followed by Sītā and Lakṣman. Sumantra drove slowly behind Them in the chariot. As the Brahmins continued to beseech Them, They gradually approached the banks of the river Tamasa. Searching out a suitable site, they decided to camp there for the night. The citizens of Ayodhya camped nearby. Rāma released the horses and allowed them to drink the clear river water. After bathing, Rāma spoke to Lakṣman, indicating the forest across the water.

“There lie the desolate woods, My brother, echoing on all sides with the sounds of birds and beasts. The city of Ayodhya will similarly resound with the cries of forlorn men and women, lamenting for Our having left. I fear for My father and mother who must be weeping incessantly and will perhaps even lose their sight.”

Rāma thought of Bharata. By now He would have been informed of the situation. Thinking of Bharata's nobility, Rāma felt reassured as He spoke with Lakṣman. “I am sure the high-minded Bharata will take good care of Our parents, consoling them in every way. As I reflect upon Bharata's soft-heartedness and piety, My mind is pacified. My dear Lakṣman, I am grateful You have chosen to follow Me, for this too gives Me solace. Fasting for this Our first night in the forest in accord with the scriptural codes, I shall now sleep peacefully.”

Lakṣman had Sumantra prepare a bed of leaves on the ground and Rāma lay upon that with Sītā. He soon fell asleep, but Lakṣman stayed awake, guarding His brother. Nearby He could see the many fires lit by the people who were following Rāma toward the forest.

In the middle of the night Rāma rose and again spoke with His brother. “It seems there is no possibility of Us convincing the citizens to return to their homes,” He said, looking across to the place where the people had set up camp. “Just see the pains they are taking to follow Us, sleeping now on the bare ground. Surely they would sooner give up their lives than go back to the city without Us. Let Us leave immediately while the people still sleep. They should not have to endure this austerity further on Our behalf. As rulers of the people it is Our duty to eradicate Our subjects' suffering. Certainly We should not cause them pain. Thus We must leave now and throw them off Our trail.”

Lakṣman agreed and, as Rāma woke Sītā, he roused Sumantra and had him prepare the chariot. The two princes and Sītā climbed aboard, and Sumantra drove it swiftly upstream, away from the sleeping people. The charioteer crossed a shallow part of the river and then, leaving the common road, drove through the woods. Doubling back and going by different paths, sometimes riding through shallow waters for some distance, Sumantra made sure the people would not be able to track them. He drove quickly, and before dawn they had gone a considerable distance from where the citizens were camped.

As dawn approached in the camp, the sound of numerous birds mingled with the lowing of the cows which grazed freely on the riverbank. Roused by these sounds, the citizens arose and soon discovered that Rāma and His party had left. They were shocked and began to loudly lament. They condemned sleep for having stolen Rāma from them. Falling to the ground, they wept and said, “How could Rāma, who is fit to rule the globe, put on the dress of an ascetic and leave for distant lands? How did that jewel among men, who was like a loving father, go to the forest, leaving us forlorn? Let us now meet our end by fasting until death, or by setting out on the final great journey to the north.”

Looking all around they found big logs of dry wood. Some of them suggested they pile up the wood to make a funeral pyre and immediately enter it. What use was their life now? What could they say to their near and dear ones in Ayodhya when asked of Rāma's whereabouts? How could they say they let Him enter the forest even as they slept? When they returned without Rāma, the city would surely become desolate and devoid of all happiness. Having gone out with that high-souled hero, firmly determined to follow Him anywhere, how could they now go back without Him?

Continuously crying out, the citizens sought out the chariot’s tracks and began to follow them. When they found themselves thrown off the trail by Sumantra’s expert driving, they became utterly despondent. Their anguished voices echoed around the woods. “Alas! What shall we do? We are doomed by Providence!” Gradually the bewildered citizens began to reluctantly head back toward Ayodhya, following the tracks the chariot had made when leaving the previous day.

Depressed and despairing, the citizens finally arrived in the city. They were blinded by grief and hardly able to distinguish between their own relatives and others. They searched for their homes with difficulty, some of them even entering the wrong houses. Afflicted with sorrow, they cast their eyes all around and, although the city and their houses were filled with abundant riches, to them it appeared vacant and nothing gave them pleasure.

Ayodhya seemed at that time to be like the firmament bereft of the moon. Everywhere its citizens shed tears and all of them felt like giving up their lives. No one rejoiced on any occasion, even when coming upon unexpected fortune or seeing the birth of a firstborn son. Merchants did not display their merchandise, nor did the goods even seem attractive. Householders did not cook food and the household deities were neglected.

As the men returned home without Rāma, their wives reproached them. “Without seeing Rāma what is the use of our house, children or wealth?” the wives said. “It seems the only virtuous man in this world is Lakṣman, who has followed Rāma to the forest in order to serve Him!”

The men, pained by the loss of Rāma, made no reply. Their wives lamented at length. How could they remain under the protection of the old king, who had lost his good sense and sent Rāma away? Worse still was the prospect of serving Kaikeyi, whose aim was now completely achieved. Having forsaken her husband and disgraced her family for the sake of power, who else would she not abandon?

The ladies could not contain their feelings. Out of despair they remonstrated with their husbands. “Thanks to Kaikeyi, this kingdom will be ruined. With Rāma gone, Daśaratha will soon meet his end along with his distinguished line, which has existed for so long. How can there be any good fortune with Kaikeyi in a position of power? We should therefore end our lives. Or we should follow Rāma to some distant place where Kaikeyi’s name will never be heard. The glorious and ever-truthful Rāma shall be our only shelter.”

As the ladies of Ayodhya lamented, the sun gradually set on the city, leaving it dark and cheerless, its lights unlit and its temples and public meeting places deserted. Fallen upon evil days, the celebrated city became silent, the sounds of singing, rejoicing and instrumental music having ceased. All the people remained in their own homes, thinking only of Rāma.

During that night the chariot carrying the princes covered a long distance. As they traveled, Rāma remembered the pain of His relations and people. Reflecting again and again upon His father’s command, he kept His determination strong and urged Sumantra to drive swiftly. They passed many villages, seeing on their outskirts well-tilled and cultivated fields, as well as beautiful, blossoming woodlands. People from the villages, to where the news of Rāma’s exile had already spread, saw the chariot passing, by and they censured the emperor and especially Kaikeyi, saying, “The cruel Kaikeyi has acted without propriety. She has caused the exile of the highly virtuous Rāma. What will become of us now? How will the delicate princess Sītā survive in the forest? How shameful that the king could abandon all affection for such a son and daughter-in-law!”

Going more slowly as He passed the people, Rāma heard their comments and He smiled at them without saying anything. As the chariot moved on more swiftly, the travelers saw innumerable gardens, fruit orchards and lotus ponds. Temples resonant with the sounds of sacred incantations were everywhere. While sitting in the chariot and enjoying the sights of His flourishing kingdom, Rāma thought of His coming exile. He would long for the day of His return to this prosperous land of Kośala.

As they at last reached Kośala’s southern border, Rāma got down from the chariot and stood facing the direction of Ayodhya. With His face covered in tears He spoke in a choked voice. “I take leave of you, O foremost of cities. Protected by the emperor and your presiding deities, may you fare well. When I have squared My debt to My father and fulfilled his pledge, I shall return.”

Many country dwellers had gathered around Rāma. They were filled with grief to see Him bid His sad farewell to Ayodhya. Rāma glanced at them with affection. He thanked them for the love they showed for Him, and told them to go home.

The people simply stood gazing at Rāma, unable to move. Although He urged them to return home, they stood rooted to the spot. They could not turn away from the heroic and handsome prince. As they stood watching, Rāma remounted His chariot and it disappeared into the distance, even as the sun sets at the end of the day.

Gradually the party reached the Ganges river in the Ushinara province. Along the banks of the river for as far as the eye could see in both directions were clustered the hermitages of ascetics and ṛṣis. Hundreds of hills ran along the length of the river, and the river flowed with cool water flecked with white foam, making a roaring sound as it rushed past. Somewhere the river ran still and deep and somewhere else it dashed violently against rocks. In places it was covered with white lotuses, while in others thousands of swans, cranes and herons hovered on its waters. It was the resort of even gods and Gandharvas who sported along its banks. Surrounded by trees laden with fruits and flowers and full of varieties of singing birds, the river appeared most beautiful.

Seeing this celestial region, Rāma decided to stop for the night. He took shelter under the branches of a large tree and sat down to offer worship to the Ganges. Sumantra unyoked the horses and allowed them to drink and then roll on the grassy riverbank. The charioteer stood with folded hands near Rāma, who sat peacefully with Sītā by His side.

The king of that territory was named Guha, a dear friend of Rāma who ruled over the tribal people known as the Niṣadhas. Hearing from his people of Rāma’s presence, he immediately went to Him. Guha found Rāma by the bank of the Ganges and he stood at a distance, waiting respectfully for his audience. He was overjoyed to find his friend arrived in his kingdom, but his joy was mixed with sorrow at seeing Him dressed as an ascetic. Rāma looked up and saw Guha standing there, surrounded by his relations and elderly ministers. Quickly approaching him with Lakṣman, He tightly embraced him and they exchanged greetings. Guha spoke to Rāma, whom he had met on many occasions in Ayodhya when going there to pay tribute.

“I am honored by your presence in my kingdom. This land here is as much Yours as it is mine. Indeed, I am Your servant. Only order me and I shall immediately do whatever You wish.”

He showed Rāma the many varieties of food and drink he had brought, as well as the excellent beds he had prepared for them. Rāma thanked him and said, “I have been well honored by you today. You should know that I am under a vow to live in the forest as an ascetic. I accept your offerings but allow you to take them back. Please leave only as much as may be taken by My horses. Since these steeds are dear to My father, you will please Me by serving them well.”

Reluctantly, Guha commanded his men to do as Rāma had requested, having the best of food brought for the horses. He watched with sadness and admiration as Rāma accepted only water for Himself and then lay down to sleep on a bed of leaves. Lakṣman washed Rāma’s feet and again kept vigil nearby. Going over to Lakṣman, Guha said, “Here is a bed for You. There is no need to remain awake for I shall stand here, bow in hand, and guard You all from danger. There is nothing in these woods unknown to me. Indeed, along with my men I could withstand the attack of a vast and powerful army coming upon this region.”

Guha took Lakṣman by the arm and showed Him the bed, but Lakṣman politely refused his offer. “Under your protection we feel not even the least fear, O sinless Guha. But how can I rest while Rāma and Sītā lie down on the earth?”

Lakṣman looked at His brother lying beneath the tree. His mind was troubled. How could one such as Rāma, who was capable of withstanding even the gods in battle, be brought to such a state? Lakṣman’s thoughts drifted to Ayodhya. He became restless, thinking of His father and the subjects. Surely Daśaratha would soon breathe his last, having sent his dearest son to a life of severe austerity. Probably Kaushalya and the king would die that very night, uttering words of despair and anguish. Losing their beloved monarch after watching Rāma depart, the people of Ayodhya would be seized with agony after agony.

Engrossed in such thoughts, Lakṣman breathed heavily like an infuriated serpent. Hot tears glided down His face. Guha placed an arm around His shoulder and gently reassured Him. As the two men spoke the night gradually slipped away.

When dawn broke, Guha arranged for a large rowboat to ferry the princes across the fast-flowing Ganges. The time had arrived to leave the chariot and continue on foot. As the princes fastened on Their armor and weapons, Sumantra humbly approached Them with joined palms and asked for instructions. Rāma smiled and said, “You have rendered Me excellent service, O Sumantra. Please return now to the king’s presence and inform him of Our well-being. We shall now proceed on foot.”

Sumantra found it difficult to leave Rāma. Gazing into His face, he spoke in an anguished voice. “What man in this world has ever had to face such a perverse destiny, O Raghava? What is the value of cultivating piety and truth when we see such a result? We are actually lost and ruined by Your departure. Coming under the control of the sinful Kaikeyi, we will simply suffer.”

Sumantra broke down and wept for some time and Rāma comforted him. As he regained his composure Rāma said, “I cannot think of anyone who is as great a friend to our family as you, O noble charioteer. Please act in a way which will not increase My father’s grief. Whatever he instructs should be carried out without hesitation, even if he orders you to serve Kaikeyi.”

Rāma understood all the nuances of statecraft. He was worried that in his absence the king’s ministers and servants might try to undermine Kaikeyi. He wanted the kingdom to run smoothly and his father to be spared any unnecessary anxiety in dealing with intrigues. Wanting also to ensure that His family not be left anxious for His sake, Rāma added, “Please tell My father that neither Lakṣman nor Sītā nor I are grieving in any way. Happily do We commence Our sojourn in the woods. The period of fourteen years will soon pass and We shall return.”

Rāma considered the urgent need to re-establish stability in Ayodhya. He spoke solemnly to Sumantra. “Ask the king to fetch Bharata quickly and duly install Him as Prince Regent. Bharata Himself should be told to accept the post without any hesitation, for this will be most pleasing to Me. He should then serve the king and all the queens with an equally disposed mind.”

Rāma gave His permission for Sumantra to leave, but the charioteer still stood before Him, his mind perplexed. How could he return without Rāma? He revealed his mind to Rāma. “As we left the city the people were practically rendered senseless with grief even upon seeing You in this chariot. What then will be their state when they see the chariot returning empty? Surely Ayodhya will be torn in two, even as the army of a hero is split apart when it sees his chariot carrying only the charioteer, the hero having been slain.”

Sumantra thought of Daśaratha and Kaushalya. They would be devastated by grief when they heard that their son had actually entered the forest. Sumantra felt incapable of returning. He pleaded with Rāma to let him go to the forest too. He was prepared to remain with Rāma for the full fourteen years rather than go back to Ayodhya without him. Falling to the ground and clasping Rāma’s feet, he spoke with pain in his voice.

“My desire is to convey You back to Ayodhya at the end of Your exile. If I must return without You, then seated upon the chariot I shall enter blazing fire. I am Your devoted servant and it does not befit You to abandon me now. Let me follow You and render You every service. Fourteen years will be as many moments in Your presence, while in Your absence it will seem like fourteen ages.”

Rāma was moved by compassion for Sumantra, who was piteously supplicating Him again and again. He lifted the weeping charioteer. “I know your devotion for Me, Sumantra. However, I must ask you to return. Kaikeyi will not be satisfied unless she sees the chariot returned without Me and hears from you of My entry into the forest. For the good of the king I want her to be convinced that I have fulfilled the terms of her boons, and I also desire that her son Bharata be given the kingdom.”

Rāma knew that if any doubt remained about whether or not He had really gone to the forest, then, in the hope of His return, they would not install His brother Bharata. He therefore convinced Sumantra of the need for him to return to Ayodhya, carrying the messages He had given. With a heavy heart Sumantra finally assented and got up on the chariot. Rāma then turned and spoke to Guha. “It would not be proper for Me to stay in a region where I have many men to serve Me. I wish to go to some uninhabited part of the forest and live in a simple hermitage, gathering My daily food from wild roots and fruits.”

Rāma knew Guha and his people were hoping to accommodate Him in a nearby wood, but He was devoted to virtue and wanted to properly follow the scriptural instructions, which prescribed a life of strict asceticism for one taking the vow of living in a forest. Using the sap of a banyan tree, Rāma and Lakṣman matted Their hair into a thick mass. With Their matted locks and Their bark and grass garments, the two princes looked like a couple of ascetic ṛṣis. Rāma helped Sītā onto the boat, and then jumped aboard Himself, along with Lakṣman. Headed by Guha, the oarsmen plied the boat out across the river. Rāma waved to Sumantra, who stood motionless on the sandy river bank, gripped by despondency.

The boat approached the southern shore of the Ganges swiftly and smoothly. Sītā folded Her palms and prayed to the goddess Gaṅgā for protection in the forest. The river was placid and shone like a sheet of glass under the bright sun. Small ripples spread from the side of the boat as the oars gently and rhythmically splashed the water. Rāma and Lakṣman sat silently, thinking of Ayodhya and Their family and friends. They watched as Sītā sat in the prow of the boat, Her eyes closed in prayer. Gradually they approached the shoreline, with its sprawling forest reaching practically to the river’s edge.

After the party disembarked, Rāma said a fond farewell to Guha. He embraced the forest chieftain and then turned and walked toward the thick forest. Lakṣman went ahead of Him, placing Sītā between Them. As They walked They heard the sounds of beasts and birds—the shrill trills of parrots, the grunts of boars, the cries of monkeys and the occasional growls and roars of tigers.

Rāma was apprehensive about Sītā’s safety. The vast and trackless forest lay immediately ahead. What dangers would They now have to face? But as They began to penetrate into the forest, Rāma’s fear for Sītā gave way to delight. At last the moment had arrived! His father’s word would now be redeemed. Despite any danger He would surely stay here for fourteen years, thinking only of the glory of His aged and pious father. Keeping His mind fully alert, Rāma gripped the great bow which hung from His shoulder and placed His other hand on the hilt of the blue steel sword strapped to His belt.

The three travelers had become hungry and They searched for roots and bulbs, fit for offering in the sacred fire. After They had cooked and made the offering, They ate, and when the meal was over, They performed Their evening worship. Rāma and Lakṣman then sat together and Rāma spoke a little to His brother. “Surely the king will sleep only fitfully tonight, O Lakṣman! On the other hand, Kaikeyi will rest peacefully with her desired object fulfilled.”

Rāma was pensive. Until now he had not dwelt upon His own anxiety for fear of increasing the pain of those He loved. Now that He was finally in the solitude of the forest, He felt a deep disquiet. What other terrible suffering would Kaikeyi cause for His father? With Bharata installed as Prince Regent perhaps she would even try to bring about Daśaratha’s death, so that her own son might more quickly become the king. How could the king protect himself, being weakened by grief? What would become of His mother Kaushalya, as well as Sumitra? Rāma appeared anxious as He continued.

“I think that in the morning You should return to Ayodhya, O noble prince! Protect Our mothers and Our aged father. I do not see anyone else who can guard against Kaikeyi’s evil intrigues. Even now she may be plotting to poison Our parents.”

Although He felt helpless, Rāma nevertheless censured Himself for failing to secure His parents’ happiness. Having undergone great pains to nurture Him with love, they were deprived of His company just when they should have found their labors repaid. “Alas,” exclaimed Rāma, “I am an ungrateful and useless son!”

Rāma wept. He could by no means breach the order of Kaikeyi and His father, but He feared He might be acting wrongly if the result was His parents’ death. Torn apart by His feelings, He wanted Lakṣman to go back to Ayodhya to protect them. Rāma lamented loudly for some time. When He fell silent, Lakṣman replied, “Please do not grieve in this way, dear brother, as You simply cause grief for Myself and Sītā. It is not possible for Me to leave You as I would not survive even for a short while in Your absence. Placing Your faith in the pious Bharata, You should not send Me away. I only wish to remain with You here and do not desire even the highest heaven without You.”

Rāma remained silent. He knew well that Lakṣman would never leave Him. It had grown dark and the brothers sought the shelter of a large tree where Rāma and Sītā lay down to rest. Lakṣman remained awake a short distance away, vigilantly guarding Them from any danger. Gradually the full moon rose and shone through the branches of the high trees, illuminating the beautiful faces of Rāma and Sītā as They slept, which appeared to Lakṣman like two more moons fallen to the earth.

The following morning after sunrise They went in an easterly direction toward the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamunā. They were keen to find the hermitages of the ṛṣis whom They knew lived in that region. The famous sage Bharadvāja, the leader of all the Brahmins inhabiting that forest, dwelt nearby.

As They walked They were enraptured by the colorful beauty of the forest. Huge trees rose up on all sides. In some places the trees opened up into expansive clearings carpeted by innumerable varieties of flowers and shrubs. Lakes of crystal clear water covered with white, blue and reddish lotuses were seen here and there. The trees were laden with blossoms, filling the air with their fragrance. The sounds of cuckoos, parrots and peacocks echoed all around.

Keeping close together, the three travelers walked throughout the day, sometimes moving easily and at other times with difficulty through densely wooded regions. Toward the end of the afternoon They heard in the distance the sound of the two rivers rushing to meet each other. Around Them They began seeing signs of life: chopped wood and man-made paths. Catching sight of smoke rising above the trees, They realized they had found the dwellings of the ṛṣis and They quickly went toward them.

At the precincts of the hermitage they were greeted by a young ascetic who was a disciple of Bharadvāja. He led Them through the many thatched cottages of the Brahmin community, showing Them to a great sacrificial arena where Bharadvāja was seated. Surrounded by his disciples, the sage sat before the sacred fire, absorbed in meditation. As soon as the three travelers caught sight of the effulgent ṛṣi They prostrated themselves on the earth in obeisance. They waited respectfully at a distance for the sage to beckon to Them.

Bharadvāja had attained virtual omniscience by his long practice of asceticism and meditation. He immediately sensed the presence of his exalted guests and he rose up to greet Them. Going before the sage, Rāma said with joined palms, “We are Rāma and Lakṣman, the sons of Emperor Daśaratha, O highly venerable sage. Here is My blessed and irreproachable wife, a princess of Videha and the daughter of King Janaka. Ordered by My ever-pious father, I have come to this forest to live the life of an ascetic for fourteen years, and My brother and wife have chosen to follow Me. Please bless Us.”

Bharadvāja gazed upon the faces of his guests, understanding Their divine identities. He offered Them various delicious foods prepared from wild roots and fruits. Tears flowed from his eyes as he spoke to Rāma. “I already knew of Your exile and have been expecting You to pass this way. Your auspicious arrival here at My hermitage signals the success of all My austerities and sacrifices. It is highly difficult to have a sight of You and today I am supremely blessed. My dear Rāma, if You so desire You may remain here in this delightful stretch of land, which is quite suitable for the life of asceticism.”

Smiling and graciously accepting the sage’s offerings of love, Rāma replied, “This hermitage is well known and not so far from the state of Ayodhya. The people will soon seek Me out if I remain here. Please tell Me of some other, more lonely place, for I will not be able to tolerate the pain of the people again beseeching Me to return.”

Bharadvāja understood Rāma’s concern. He directed the prince to a mountain named Chitrakuta, lying some fifty miles away. After spending the night at the sage’s hermitage, the three travelers set out the next morning toward the mountain. It lay across the Yamunā, which They crossed by means of a raft constructed from timber and bamboo.

As They walked toward Chitrakuta They saw countless varieties of trees and plants spreading everywhere in tableaus of rich colors. The constant singing of thousands of birds resounded on all sides, mingling with the sounds of trickling rivulets and cascading waterfalls. From time to time the trumpeting of an elephant could be heard in the distance. Branches of great trees were bent low under their burden of sweet fruits. From many of them hung large honeycombs, heavy with the thick honey produced by the black bees droning around the fragrant forest flowers.

Sītā was captivated by the beauty of the forest, touching and smelling the many blossoms that hung all around. Completely forgetting His grief and anxiety, Rāma laughingly held Her hand and told Her all the names of the trees and plants. The three travelers were elated simply to see such a celestial region. In great happiness They moved toward Chitrakuta.

The part of the forest leading to Chitrakuta had been rendered quite passable due to the regular traffic of ascetics, and the travelers made good progress. Toward the end of the third day of Their departure from Bharadvāja’s hermitage They approached the foot of the mountain. They saw there a huge banyan tree which spread its branches of dark green leaves away in all directions. Bowing down to the presiding deity of the tree, Sītā offered Her respects. She prayed that They would successfully complete Their exile and return that way again on Their way back to Ayodhya. Lakṣman prepared beds of leaves near the foot of the tree. After saying Their evening prayers and preparing a meal, the travelers rested for the night.

At sunrise the following day Rāma and His party moved on again, with the great Chitrakuta mountain rising ahead of Them. Bluish in color, it was covered with copses of green, yellow and red trees. Numerous waterfalls sparkled in the morning sun. The mountain was sheer in places, smoothly sloping elsewhere. Its snow covered peaks disappeared into the clouds. The travelers stopped and stared for some time at its majestic beauty. They began to ascend the mountain and, some way up its side, arrived at the hermitage of the sage Vālmīki, situated on a broad plateau.

The sage was joyful to see Rāma and His companions. He greeted Them with hospitality and respect and they conversed for some time. Vālmīki told Them of his own history. Although he was now a powerful ascetic, blazing with bodily luster, he had previously been a robber who had maintained his large family by plundering travelers.

The ṛṣi told the whole story. Once, long ago, he encountered the sage Nārada in the forest and sought to steal from him. The sage told Vālmīki he would happily give him anything he wanted, but he told him to first go to his family and ask them the following question, “Are you prepared to accept a share of the sins which will ensue from my crimes?” Vālmīki assented to this request and went to his family. However, they declined to accept his sins, saying that they only wished to receive from him the fruits of his action in the form of money and goods.

Leaving them in disgust, Vālmīki returned to the sage, who then told him to renounce his life of crime and become an ascetic. In order to bring about in Vālmīki a full sense of the temporality of life, Nārada told him to meditate on the word mara, meaning “death.” Vālmīki thus constantly repeated the word mara, without realizing that he was, in effect, also repeating the holy name of Rāma. By his meditation he became a powerful ṛṣi.

Rāma decided to stay close to Vālmīki’s hermitage and He asked Lakṣman to construct a cottage. Lakṣman quickly erected a timber-walled hut with a thatched roof. Rāma lit a fire and, with roots gathered from nearby and cooked in the fire, He made offerings to the gods. He prayed to the Lokapālas, the principal deities who guard the universal quarters, asking them to sanctify and protect the dwelling. Then He entered it along with Sītā. Within that spacious two-roomed hut, Rāma constructed an altar for the worship of Viṣṇu in accord with the instructions of scripture. Rejoicing at having found such a delightful place for Their residence, the three travelers settled down in peace.

Chapter 2: Devastation in Ayodhya

After Rāma and His party had gone into the jungle on the other side of the Ganges, Sumantra and Guha spent some time speaking together about Rāma. Both were shocked and saddened to realize His firm intention to spend fourteen years in the deep forest. They had both been hoping that He would relent and perhaps return to Ayodhya to punish the evil Kaikeyi, who did not deserve any kindness. Or He could at least remain with Guha and his people, where He could be reached easily. Now He was gone. Guha heard from his spies about Rāma’s meeting with Bharadvāja, and His going on from there to the Chitrakuta mountain. Sadly, the Niṣadha king returned to his own home in the city of Sringavera, from where he ruled over the forest tribes.

As the reality of Rāma’s departure sank in, Sumantra drove the chariot back toward Ayodhya. After two days traveling he arrived to find the city subdued and silent, overpowered by grief. Sumantra entered by the southern gate. As the empty chariot moved along the road, hundreds and thousands of people approached it crying, “O Rāma! Have You really gone? Where is that faultless hero? Alas, we are forsaken and lost!”

Sumantra, afflicted at hearing their laments, covered his head with his garment. He felt ashamed to have been the one who took Rāma away. He made his way along the royal highway to Daśaratha’s palace, hearing the wails of the women who stood on the balconies of their houses, gazing upon the chariot now bereft of its passengers.

Sumantra reached the palace and went quickly through the first seven gates, arriving at the eighth which led to the king’s inner chambers. He entered the large room and found the king seated on a couch, pale and withered from grief. The charioteer described his journey from Ayodhya with Rāma. Daśaratha listened in complete silence and then, having heard of Rāma’s definite entrance into the forest, fell senseless to the floor.

Seeing their husband fallen, the ladies burst into tears. Kaushalya, assisted by Sumitra, lifted him up and said, “Why do you not reply to the charioteer, my lord? He has carried out a most difficult task on your behalf. Are you feeling ashamed for perpetrating such an unseemly act? Be fixed in your determination, O king, for you have firmly adhered to truth! Do not submit to this grief, as we who depend upon you will not be able to survive seeing you filled with such despair.”

Kaushalya spoke with a faltering voice. Her dear son, whom she had not been able to go without seeing for even a day, was now gone for fourteen years. She dropped in a faint next to her husband. All the ladies flocked around, sprinkling cool scented water on the faces of the monarch and his queen, who lay like a god and his consort fallen from heaven.

When Daśaratha awoke from his swoon he summoned Sumantra, who stood silently nearby. The charioteer was covered in dust and his face was streaked with tears. With folded hands, he stood respectfully before the king.

Daśaratha sighed dolefully and said to Sumantra, “Where will Rāma live now, taking shelter under a tree and sleeping on the bare ground? What will He eat? The prince has known only luxury and deserves the best of everything. Formerly He would always be followed by my great army; how can He now live alone in the desolate forest?”

Although Rāma and Lakṣman had grown up to become fierce fighters, to the emperor They were still his tender young sons. Daśaratha could hardly tolerate the thought of Their living a life of austerity and abnegation, along with the gentle Sītā. Anxiously he imagined the scene facing his two boys. How could They survive in the wild among carnivorous animals and venomous snakes?

The king continued, “Did you follow Them as they walked alone into some bleak and lonely land? What were Their last words? O Sumantra, pray tell me what They uttered as They were leaving, for this shall be my only sustenance for the coming fourteen years.”

Daśaratha stood up and looked into his charioteer’s face, whose head hung down and who was shaking with sorrow. With a choked voice Sumantra replied to the king, “The ever-truthful Rāma asked me to touch yours and Kaushalya’s feet on His behalf, O great king. He requested me to convey His fond farewell to all the ladies in the royal court, who are to Rāma just like His own mother.”

After bowing at the feet of the king and queen, Sumantra continued to speak with difficulty, describing his parting from Rāma and the others. Faithfully he recounted the exact messages the two princes had given him.

“Rāma, who was constantly shedding tears as He spoke, asked that Bharata be quickly installed as the Prince Regent. He left instructions that Bharata should accord all respect to His aged father and to all of His mothers, especially the grief-stricken Kaushalya.”

The charioteer then recalled the final angry words of Lakṣman. “When Rāma stopped speaking, Lakṣman, hissing like an enraged cobra, said, ‘For what offense has this virtuous prince been exiled? The king has carried out Kaikeyi’s order without considering its merit. Regardless of his reasoning, I find no justification whatsoever for the emperor’s decision to send away the sinless Rāma. Rāma’s exile will end in remorse. It contradicts all good sense and is against tradition and even scripture. Having performed an act which has caused nothing but pain to all the people, how can father remain as the king any longer? Indeed, I cannot even see in him the qualities of a father. For Me, Rāma alone is My brother, master and father!’”

Sumantra, having summoned up the vehemence with which Lakṣman had spoken, calmed himself down and described his last sight of Sītā. “The blessed princess Sītā stood silent as I prepared to leave. As though Her mind were possessed by an evil spirit, She remained motionless and distracted, heaving deep sighs. Gazing upon Her husband’s face, She suddenly burst into tears, covering Her own face with Her two bejeweled hands, which looked like two white lotuses. Then the three of Them stood watching as I drove the chariot away.”

Daśaratha asked Sumantra to describe his return journey and the charioteer replied, “I remained with Guha for three days, hoping and praying that Rāma would return. Finally I concluded that I would not see Him again until the full fourteen years had expired. I yoked up the chariot and urged the horses to move, but they remained stationary, shedding tears of grief. After much cajoling they finally moved and I proceeded on the path back to Ayodhya.”

Sumantra stopped speaking for some time as he struggled to control his feelings. After sipping a little water he continued describing the scene he had witnessed on his return. On all sides in the kingdom he saw signs of grief and separation from Rāma. Even the trees with their flowers and leaves looked withered. The lakes and rivers were dried up and everywhere there were beasts and birds entirely immobile, not even searching for food. The woods were silent and gave off none of their former fragrance. The parks and gardens in the city appeared desolate and deserted. No one greeted him as he entered Ayodhya. Everywhere were sighing men and women, lost in thoughts of Rāma. As they saw the empty chariot they let out tremendous cries of grief. Even the animals wore wretched expressions. On the tops of high buildings he saw noble ladies gazing mutely at each other, their eyes overflooded with tears. The city appeared devoid of all happiness, looking exactly like the empress Kaushalya, bereft of her beloved son.

After Sumantra stopped speaking, Daśaratha became pensive, feeling extreme regret. How had he stood by as Rāma had left? Why did he not reprimand the wicked Kaikeyi? He cursed his foolish attachment to virtue that brought about such an unvirtuous end. Where was the truth in banishing the truthful prince Rāma?

In a piteous voice the king exclaimed, “It was out of infatuation for my wife alone that I exiled Rāma. I did not seek any counsel with my ministers and wise advisors, being dictated to by the sinful Kaikeyi.”

Daśaratha wondered how he could have acted so contrary to his own good sense and wisdom. Surely this great calamity had suddenly happened by the will of Providence simply to destroy his race. The king sighed, feeling helpless in the hands of fate.

Turning to Sumantra, Daśaratha said, “O charioteer, if I have ever done you any good turn, then please quickly take me to Rāma! My mind is drawn irresistibly to the prince. If I am still the king today then let anyone fetch Rāma back to Ayodhya! I shall not survive for even an hour longer without Rāma! Where is that Rāma, whose shining face is adorned with pearl-like teeth? Maybe that mighty-armed prince has gone far into the woods by now. Bring me a chariot and I shall immediately make haste to see Him. If I do not soon catch a sight of Rāma, I shall reach Death’s abode this very day!”

Daśaratha had been hoping beyond hope that Sumantra might somehow have returned with his sons. Realizing the finality of Rāma’s departure, the king gave full vent to his terrible grief.

“O Rāma! O Lakṣman! O Sītā! What could be more painful for me than not seeing You here? You do not know that I am dying from agony, like a lost and forlorn creature.”

The emperor fell senseless onto a couch. Close to him Kaushalya tossed about on the floor as though possessed by a spirit. Seeing Sumantra she exclaimed, “Charioteer! Yoke up the chariot and take me to Rāma, for I shall not live another moment without Him! Where now is my son reposing, His head placed upon His mighty arm? When again will I see His charming features surrounded by curling black locks? I think my heart is as hard as a diamond; otherwise, why does it not shatter to pieces even though I do not see Rāma?”

Sumantra felt all the more agonized himself as he saw the grief of the king and queen. He tried to comfort Kaushalya. “I think your son will settle happily in the forest along with Lakṣman and Sītā. Indeed, I did not detect in Them any dejection at the prospect of living as ascetics. Shaking off Their grief, They appeared pleased upon approaching the forest. Sītā seemed especially happy; much delighted at the sights and sounds of the woods.”

Kaushalya, not appeased by Sumantra’s kind words, turned toward Daśaratha, admonishing him out of grief and love. “My lord, you are famous in all the three worlds for your compassion and kindness, yet you thoughtlessly banished your faultless son! How will your two gentle boys, ever accustomed to every luxury, live like hermits? How will the frail Sītā, a child of a mere sixteen years, survive the ravages of forest life? She has always been offered the very best of cooked foods and will surely not survive on wild roots. How will She bear the terrible roars of lions and tigers?”

Kaushalya became increasingly angry as she spoke. Her eyes reddened, and black streaks of collyrium ran down her cheeks. She censured Daśaratha for his cruelty.

“You have utterly divested Rāma of his right to be king,” she cried. “Even after returning to Ayodhya, Rāma will surely not accept the kingdom. High-class men can never enjoy items left by others. Rāma will therefore not accept the kingdom left by His younger brother, even as a tiger would not eat the food brought to him by another animal.”

Kaushalya’s mind was absorbed in thoughts of her son and she raved inconsolably. How could Daśaratha have perpetrated such an evil act? Kaushalya railed at the king, holding her head in her hands.

“Rāma has been ruined by His own father, even as a brood of fish are swallowed by their father. I believe, my lord, that you can no longer tell right from wrong. The main support for a woman is her husband; the son is the second. Therefore, like Rāma, I am also ruined, my husband having lost his good sense and my son gone away! This whole kingdom has been ruined by you. All your people have been destroyed. Only Kaikeyi and her son are happy!”

Kaushalya stopped speaking and began to sob uncontrollably. Daśaratha, already deeply remorseful, felt even more anguish upon hearing his wife’s words. Crying out, “O Rāma” again and again, he sat disconsolate. With great difficulty he gathered his senses and went before Kaushalya with folded hands, speaking in a trembling voice, his head hanging down.

“Be kind to me, O godly lady. You are merciful even to your enemies. What then to speak of me. The husband is always the lord for the wife in good or evil times. Seeing me to be sorely pained, you should not increase my grief by such harsh words.”

Kaushalya immediately felt sorry. She took Daśaratha’s hands and folded them around her head. Kneeling before him and weeping, she spoke hurriedly through her confusion.

“Now I am surely ruined for having spoken words disagreeable to my husband. I deserve to be punished by you, who I know to be always truthful. She is a wicked and low-born woman who must be beseeched by her worthy and virtuous husband.”

Kaushalya was afflicted by many strong feelings and her mind became completely distracted. Her grief, despair and anger at losing Rāma were now compounded by remorse and guilt at having upset Daśaratha. She had spoken in an almost hysterical manner.

“Pray forgive me, O great king. Overcome by grief I uttered unseemly words. Grief destroys patience, eradicates knowledge and confounds the senses. Indeed, there is no enemy like grief. Even a great blow from an enemy can be endured, but the smallest amount of grief is intolerable. The five nights that Rāma has been gone seem to me like five years. Even as I remember Rāma again my grief grows like the ocean receiving the rapid flow of many large rivers.”

As Kaushalya was speaking the sun set. Daśaratha, being comforted by his wife, fell into a fitful slumber for an hour. Upon waking he sat sighing and recalled something he had done when he was a young prince. Realizing that long past deed to be the cause of his present suffering, Daśaratha related it to Kaushalya.

“Without doubt a person receives the results of his own actions, good or bad, O gracious queen,” the king said. “He who acts without consideration of the results, both immediate and long-term, is surely a fool. If a man cuts down a mango grove because the trees have unattractive blossoms, planting instead the brightly flowering palasha trees, he will later lament when the bitter fruits of the palasha appear. By sending Rāma away I have indeed cut down a mango grove just as it was about to bear fruit. Now I am tasting the bitter palasha.”

Daśaratha felt as if his heart might burst. He maintained his composure with a great effort and continued. “A long time ago, as a youth and before we were married, I went to the forest to hunt. I had acquired great skills at bowmanship and could easily hit even an invisible target by its sound alone. Little did I know that this skill of mine, of which I was so proud, would yield such a disastrous result.

“It was the rainy season and the rivers were swollen. Going out at night on my chariot, I made my way to the Sarayu. I waited there in the darkness by the river bank for a buffalo or an elephant to come by. Soon I heard the sound of gurgling at a point nearby, although I could not see what caused the sound. Thinking the sound to be that of an animal drinking, I took out an arrow and released it. From the quarter where I shot my snake-like arrow there came a loud wail of some forest dweller. In distinct and pain-filled tones I heard the following cry:

“How has this weapon fallen upon a harmless ascetic like myself? To whom have I given any offense? I am a simple seer who has forsworn violence and lives only on fruits and roots. Oh, I am killed! What foolish person has hurled this arrow? This act will result only in evil. I do not grieve so much for myself but for my aged and helpless parents. Without me, their sole support, how will they survive? With a single arrow some ignorant fool of uncontrolled mind has killed me and both my parents!’”

Weeping all the while, Daśaratha continued, “When I heard that plaintive shout I was mortified. My bow and arrows fell from my hands. I was all but overwhelmed with grief and dropped to the ground, almost losing my senses. I scrambled toward the source of the voice with my mind utterly perplexed. There, lying on the bank of the river, was an ascetic wearing tree-bark garments. My arrow was protruding from his chest. Smeared with dust and blood, with his thick mass of matted hair in disarray, he lay groaning. He had come for water and the sound I had heard was the gurgling of his pitcher, which lay nearby with its water run out.

“Seeing me to be royalty, the ascetic looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and spoke angrily. ‘What wrong have I done, O king, that I should receive this terrible punishment? I came here to fetch water for my blind parents. Even now, as I lie here dying, my poor father must be wondering where I am. But what can he do? He is old and feeble and cannot even move. He can no more help me than could any tree help another which is about to be hewn down. Seek his forgiveness, O king. You should quickly make your way along this path to where he waits.’”

Daśaratha’s grief for Rāma was compounded by the grief caused by remembering this long past unfortunate incident. With difficulty he continued to speak.

“The young hermit, writhing in agony, asked me to extract the arrow. I hesitated, knowing that the instant the arrow was removed he would die. The boy reassured me, telling me that he was prepared for death. I thus pulled out the arrow. Looking at me in dismay, due to anxiety about his parents, the boy died, uttering the name of Viṣṇu.

“Seeing the ascetic lying dead, killed by me out of ignorance and folly, I wondered how I could make amends. I quickly filled his pitcher and followed the path he had shown me toward his parents. As I reached the hermitage I saw his aged and blind parents, sitting forlorn like a pair of birds whose wings have been clipped. When he heard me approach, the boy’s father said, ‘Do not delay, my son. Bring the water immediately. Your poor mother is in anxiety because you have been sporting in the river for a long time. Our lives depend upon you, dear child. You are our only support and indeed our very eyes. Where are you? Why do you not speak?’

“I was gripped by fear to behold the sage and I replied to him in a faltering voice, ‘O holy sage, I am not your son but a prince named Daśaratha. I have committed a most terrible and evil act out of sheer folly. Hearing your son collecting water, I mistook him for a beast drinking. I released a deadly arrow and killed the boy. As a result of my rash act your son has ascended to heaven, leaving you here. Please tell me what I should do now.’

“When he heard my story, the sage, though rich in ascetic power and thereby capable of burning me with a curse, restrained himself. Sighing in sorrow with his face bathed in tears, that old ṛṣi, who appeared exceptionally glorious, said to me, ‘Had you not come here and confessed, then as soon as the news of my boy’s death reached me, your head would have been split into a hundred pieces by my anger. Indeed, if one consciously kills a hermit engaged in austerity, then death is the immediate result. You are only surviving now as you performed this deed in ignorance.’

“The sage asked me to take him to the place where his son lay. I immediately lifted both of the elderly ascetics on my two arms and carried them to the river bank. Being placed near the dead boy they cried out in agony and gently stroked his face. The sage said, ‘Why do you not greet us today, dearest child? Why are you lying here upon the ground? Have you become displeased with us? Here is your beloved mother. Why do you not embrace her, my tender son? Please speak to us. Whose heart-moving voice will we now hear beautifully reciting the holy Vedic texts? Who now will tend the sacred fire? Who will comfort us with consoling words, deprived as we are now of our only support? My son, how will I be able to support your old mother?’

“The sage sat weeping for some time, lost in grief. Holding his son’s head he said, ‘Pray wait a while, dear boy, and do not yet proceed to Yamarāja’s abode. I shall go with you and speak to the god on your behalf, saying, “Although my son has been killed as a result of some former sin, he has in fact become sinless. Therefore grant to him those regions which are attainable only by Brahmins perfect in asceticism and study of scripture, or by heroes who drop their body while fighting fearlessly for the good of the people.”’

“Wailing piteously, the ascetic and his wife offered sanctified water to their dead son with mantras and prayers. I then saw the boy appear in an ethereal form along with Indra, the king of heaven. He gently consoled his parents, saying that he had achieved his exalted status as a result of his service to them. He said they would soon join him in heaven. The boy then left, seated next to Indra in a shining celestial car.

“At that time the sage said to me, ‘In order to release you from the terrible sin of killing an ascetic, which can drag even the gods down to hell, I shall pronounce upon you a painful curse. Just as I am dying now in the agony of separation from my son, so in the future shall you die in the grief of separation from your son.’

“After saying this, the sage had me light a fire and place upon it his son’s body. Along with his wife he then entered the fire. The two ascetics gave up their bodies and went to heaven, leaving me stunned and pondering the sage’s words.”

Daśaratha was suddenly afraid as he realized that, in accord with the sage’s infallible curse, his death was now near. Controlling his mind he called out for Kaushalya. His eyes were blinded with tears and his body was trembling. He said to his wife, “That curse uttered so long ago by the sage is now coming to pass. I shall soon die of grief. Come here, Kaushalya, for I cannot see you clearly. Men on the threshold of death have all their senses confounded.”

Kaushalya sat close to her husband and comforted him with soft words. Daśaratha became deeply absorbed in remembrance of Rāma. He longed for one last sight of Him. He felt anguished and remorseful, wishing he had somehow been able to stop Rāma from leaving. The king lay back upon the couch and spoke in a trembling voice.

“This grief is drying up my vitality even as the blazing summer sun sucks out the earth’s moisture. Blessed are they who will see the pious and handsome Rāma returned fourteen years from now. I can no longer see or hear anything. All my senses are failing along with my mind, just as the bright rays of a lamp disappear when its oil has run out. This grief born of my own self is rendering me helpless and unconscious, just as the current of a swift river wears away its own bank. O Rāma, reliever of my suffering, are you really gone? O Kaushalya, my dear wife! O Sumitra, pious lady! O Kaikeyi, my sworn enemy and disgrace of my family!”

Daśaratha lamented and tossed about in agony for some time. Gradually he became silent, his mind fixed only upon Rāma. Stricken with the intolerable pain of separation, the great emperor gave up his life during the night and ascended to the highest abode of the Supreme Lord.

Chapter 3: Bharata’s Return

The following morning large numbers of singers and bards assembled at the palace with the intention of waking the king. They stood near his quarters and began their recitations, praising the emperor and telling of his ancestors’ glorious deeds. Holy Brahmins chanted sacred texts while expert musicians played on various instruments. Those chants and songs mixed with the singing of the birds on the palace trees and created an exquisitely beautiful sound.

The palace attendants, unaware of the king’s demise, gathered together the items required for his morning ablutions. Gold pots filled with scented water, along with many soaps and unguents were fetched. In accord with the Vedic tradition, young virgin girls, along with milk cows and other pure items like gold and silver, were brought before the king so that he would see these immediately upon waking, thereby creating an auspicious start to the day.

When everything was made ready just before sunrise, the royal ladies went into the king’s chamber to wake him. As they approached his bed they saw him lying motionless and showing no symptoms of life. Nearby Kaushalya and Sumitra were lying asleep, exhausted from grief. Their faces were tear-streaked and withered like lotuses scorched by the sun. The palace ladies fell back in alarm and began to shake like reeds in a stream. They touched the king’s body and, finding him cold and lifeless, realized he had died from grief. All those beautiful women began to wail loudly, like a herd of female elephants who have lost their lord in the forest.

Kaushalya and Sumitra were roused by the sound. Looking at the emperor and touching him, they cried out, “My lord!” and dropped to the ground. Kaikeyi ran into the room and she too became afflicted by pain and sorrow, falling down unconscious. The three queens tossed about on the ground lamenting loudly. They appeared like three goddesses fallen from heaven, deprived of their splendor. The whole chamber became crowded with men and women, all alarmed, bustling about excitedly. With the sudden death of the king everyone became perplexed and confused. Loud cries filled the air. The king’s three hundred maidservants surrounded him on all sides, weeping piteously.

Kaushalya looked at her husband’s face, which seemed like the sun shorn of its luster. Kneeling by his side she held his head and began to loudly reprimand Kaikeyi.

“O cruel Kaikeyi, are you now satisfied? Having killed the king you may now enjoy the throne without fear. Rāma has forsaken me and gone to the forest and now my husband has ascended to heaven. I cannot live any longer. Only Kaikeyi, casting all propriety to the winds, could live happily after seeing her husband die in agony. O cruel lady, you have destroyed our noble race!”

Kaushalya embraced her dead husband. She thought of Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣman. How would They learn of Their father’s death? What will They do when They hear of it? Even now poor Sītā must be clinging fearfully to Rāma, terrified by the sights and sounds of the forest. If this painful news should reach Her, surely She will die.

Kaushalya could not tolerate any more grief. Tearfully she cried out to Kaikeyi, “You have killed me as surely as you have killed the king. I shall enter the fire clinging to my lord’s body.”

With difficulty the king’s ministers separated Kaushalya from Daśaratha. They gently removed her from his chamber and began to perform the necessary rituals for the death of a king. As none of Daśaratha’s sons were present, They could not perform his funeral. Therefore, in order to preserve the body until Bharata arrived, they immersed it in a vat of fragrant oil.

The city of Ayodhya, already plunged in sorrow, became even more desolate. The people cried out their distress and everything remained still, no one going out for any business. The great city looked like a dark night bereft of the moon and stars. Loudly reproaching Kaikeyi in choked voices, the citizens grieved throughout the day and night, finding no rest.

The following day the king’s Brahmin counselors assembled together. Looking toward Vasiṣṭha, who was temporarily carrying out the king’s duties, the wise sages made different speeches pointing to the need for a prince to be quickly coronated. The sages described how, without a ruler, the kingdom would soon meet with ruin. In a land without a king even the rain would not fall in proper time and the crops would fail. Sons would disobey their fathers and wives their husbands. There could be no personal property without a protector and men could not sleep in peace. Everything would become chaotic and anarchy would soon prevail. Like fishes, men would devour one another. Atheism would become prominent and godless and misbehaved men would become leaders.

One of the chief Brahmins concluded, “Even as the eyes protect the body, so the king is ever vigilant to protect the people. The king is truthfulness and virtue incarnate. He is the mother and the father and the best benefactor of all men. All the principal gods reside in the body of the king; indeed he is the powerful representative of the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu. Therefore, O Vasiṣṭha, have Bharata and Shatrughna brought home. Quickly crown a qualified man as king, before this ancient and prosperous kingdom is thrown into utter confusion and darkness!”

When the Brahmin sages had finished speaking they sat awaiting Vasiṣṭha’s opinion. Vasiṣṭha looked around the assembly and replied, “We should immediately send swift messengers to the Kekaya capital, Girivraja. Since the emperor has bestowed this kingdom upon Bharata, He must be brought here as quickly as possible and installed as king. No other course of action can be considered.”

Vasiṣṭha wanted Bharata to be brought home before the news of His father’s death and Rāma’s exile reached Him. Bharata should be informed of the heartbreaking news while surrounded by His intimate family. Vasiṣṭha said to the messengers, “Tell the prince that all is well, but that He is required for some urgent business. Take with you excellent gifts for the Kekaya king and leave at once.”

The messengers mounted upon the best of the king’s horses, which were capable of covering hundreds of miles a day, and sped westwards toward Girivraja. They took the shortest possible route, at times leaving the road and traversing open countryside and woods. They crossed the Mālinī River, which flowed between the Aparatala and Pralamba Mountains, and also the Ganges where it flowed through Hastināpura. Moving quickly through the Pañchāla and Kurujangala provinces, the messengers reached the Saradanda River at the end of the second day. After crossing that river they entered the city of Kulinga, hardly pausing for a moment. Galloping together they passed through the city and soon crossed the Ikshumati River, then the Beas and Salmali Rivers, finally arriving at the Kekaya district at the end of the third day. With their horses all but exhausted, they entered the city of Girivraja and went straight toward the king’s palace just as dawn approached.

In His palace Bharata had just risen and was feeling disturbed. He had awoken from a dream filled with inauspicious omens. He sat alone, sunk in thought. Some of His friends approached Him and inquired why He looked so sad. Bharata replied, “In a dream I saw My father looking dejected, falling from the peak of a mountain into a filthy pool. He seemed to be laughing and he swam around in that pool. I then saw the ocean dry, the moon fallen upon the earth and the entire world assailed by demons. My father, dressed in black, wearing a crimson garland and smeared with red sandal-paste, got upon a chariot drawn by donkeys and rode southwards.”

Bharata knew the science of omens and dreams. He understood that these visions clearly indicated His father’s death, or perhaps the death of one of His brothers. Sighing heavily, the prince continued. “My throat feels parched and I am gripped by anxiety. Suddenly I hate Myself for no reason. Surely some great calamity is imminent.”

As Bharata spoke, a messenger entered His room to announce the arrival of envoys from Ayodhya. They came before Bharata and bowed low, touching His feet and saying, “We have been sent by the sage Vasiṣṭha. He sends word that all is well, but he requires Your immediate presence in Ayodhya for some urgent business.”

On behalf of Daśaratha, the envoys presented their gifts to the Kekaya king and his son. The messengers were feeling fatigued from their journey, so Bharata had them seated and served with the best of food and drink. He tried to find out from them the exact nature of the business for which Vasiṣṭha was summoning Him. Thinking of His dream, he asked about His father and other dear relatives. The messengers answered His questions politely, carefully avoiding telling Him about His father’s death or Rāma’s exile. Bharata could nevertheless sense that something was terribly wrong. He wanted to depart immediately and He went to King Aswapati, requesting his permission to leave. The king embraced Him and said, “In you my daughter Kaikeyi is blessed with a noble son. Leave now with my blessings, but return again when Your business is complete.”

The king of Kekaya presented Bharata with many gifts to take to Ayodhya. Huge elephants, horses, costly cloth and much gold were given by King Aswapati. He also quickly arranged for a detachment of his best soldiers to accompany Bharata.

Bharata received the gifts with gratitude to the best of His ability, but His mind was distracted. He was anxious and could not wait to depart. Taking leave of His friends and relations, Bharata mounted His chariot along with Shatrughna and They hurriedly left. Followed by hundreds of other chariots, as well as by the thousands of elephants and horses gifted by the king, the prince of Ayodhya went out of the city looking like a god leaving the heavenly city of Indra.

For seven days Bharata and His party traveled to Ayodhya. The prince longed to race ahead, taking the shorter route through the woods as did the messengers from Ayodhya, but He was hampered by His large retinue. They went along the established roads and passed through many villages and towns, but they did not stop anywhere.

Bharata’s mind was filled with apprehension. What could possibly be wrong, especially in the presence of Rāma and Lakṣman? Had Their father died? Was some powerful enemy besieging the city? Perhaps it was simply that His father wished to install Rāma as the king. But why had the messengers not told Him?

As the party reached the territory of Kośala, Bharata urged on His charioteer. His chariot went quickly ahead, leaving the army, headed by Shatrughna, to follow slowly behind. He soon arrived at Ayodhya. Looking at the city from a distance, Bharata said to His charioteer, “Something is surely amiss in this great and glorious city. I do not hear the usual clamor of men, nor the sound of sacred recitations made by throngs of Brahmins as they perform sacrifices. Even the animals are silent. No one is moving about on the roads and no one has come out to greet Me.”

As they passed along the main road into the city Bharata became even more concerned. Where were the young couples who would always sport romantically in the gardens lining the road? The trees in those deserted gardens, with their leaves falling all around, seemed to Bharata to be weeping. As He rode quickly into the city He saw various ill omens. Crows and vultures cried on all sides. The sun was enveloped by dark clouds and a chill wind blew, raising up clouds of dust and leaves.

Bharata reached the city’s western gate. The guards, gladdened to see Him, welcomed Him with loud shouts. The prince moved on after politely greeting the sentries. He was tired and His mind was dejected and disturbed. He spoke again to His charioteer. “Why have I been suddenly brought here, O noble one? I wonder what terrible calamity has occurred. Even without any apparent cause My heart is sinking and My mind is consumed by fear.”

The prince looked around as the chariot sped toward Daśaratha’s palace. He saw signs which seemed to Him to indicate the king’s death. Houses were unswept, dirty-looking and bereft of splendor, their doors standing wide open. There was no smoke from sacrificial fires rising up, nor the usual sweet aroma of aloe and sandalwood drifting from the mansions along the road. Men and women were standing here and there, wearing soiled clothes and looking pale and emaciated, as if they had not eaten for days.

Bharata looked at the closed shop fronts and abandoned market places, the temples with their dusty courtyards and the deities without fresh dresses or garlands—everything seemed desolate. Filled with sorrow to see the unprecedented state of His beloved city, the prince arrived at Daśaratha’s palace.

Bharata went quickly into His father’s rooms and was alarmed to find the king not present. Everyone looked down to avert His gaze. The palace ladies were weeping and a sorrowful silence had replaced the normal sound of drums, lutes and Vedic recitations. Bharata felt His stomach sink and His limbs seemed to dissolve. Too afraid to ask about His father from the people present, He ran to His mother’s apartments. As He entered, Kaikeyi sprang up from her golden seat. Bharata bowed and touched His mother’s feet and she embraced Him. It had been a long time since she had seen Him.

Holding her son and seating Him on her lap, Kaikeyi inquired, “How was your journey, my son? You must be tired. Are Your grandfather and uncle both well? Have You fared well Yourself while living in their kingdom? I have missed You here.”

After hearing her endearing questions, Bharata told her everything about Himself. Still filled with apprehension, He asked, “How is it that I do not see the king seated here with you? Where indeed is My pious father? Why do I find everyone looking disconsolate and not speaking? I long to clasp My father’s feet. Tell Me, gentle mother, is he just now in Kaushalya’s apartments?”

Possessed by greed for the kingdom, Kaikeyi began to tell her son the terrible news as if it were agreeable and pleasant. “Your high-souled and glorious father, who was always the shelter of all living beings, has attained the state of the gods. This kingdom is now Yours.”

Bharata looked at His mother in disbelief. He fell to His knees. Crying out “Alas, I am ruined!” He struck His arms on the floor. His worst fear was confirmed. With His mind confused and agitated, Bharata lamented. “This golden couch would always appear beautiful being adorned with the king’s presence. Now it appears dark and lusterless like the night sky bereft of the moon. Oh, where is My noble father?”

Bharata covered His handsome face with a cloth and cried in anguish. Seeing her son, whose body shone like that of a god, laying on the floor in a wretched state, Kaikeyi raised Him and said, “Get up, O king! Why are you lying here like one unfortunate? Virtuous souls like You are never overwhelmed by grief. Steady Your mind, which is always fixed in piety and knows the truth. This wide earth now awaits Your rule, O sinless one.”

Bharata wept for some time, unable to speak. He remembered His father’s love and affection, how the king had personally trained Him in statecraft, how they had played and sported together, the times He had sat with His father as he related tales of their great ancestors. Now he was gone! How could it have happened? Bharata could not understand why no one had called Him earlier. Calming His mind He said, “Having speculated that the king was to install Rāma as the Prince Regent, I came here swiftly. It seems My calculation was wrong, as I do not see either My father or Rāma.”

The prince was confused. His mother sat calmly as He spoke out His grief. “Of what disease did My father die, O mother? How fortunate are Rāma and Lakṣman that they were able to perform the last rites of the great monarch. Or is My father still present? Surely he does not know I have arrived or else he would have come quickly to see Me, embracing Me and offering his blessings. Where is that gentle hand which would often brush Me off when I would fall in the dust as a child?”

Bharata looked up into His mother’s face, His eyes streaming. “Please announce My arrival to Rāma. For a man who knows what is right, the elder brother is as good as the father. I shall fall at Rāma’s feet and ask Him what final words were spoken by the righteous and ever-truthful king. I wish to hear My father’s last kind message to Me.”

Kaikeyi slowly replied to her son, telling Him the course of events exactly as they occurred. “The glorious king, the best among the wise, departed from this world calling out, ‘O Rāma! O Sītā! O Lakṣman!’ Bound by the laws of time, even as a powerful elephant is bound by ropes, the king submitted to death saying, ‘Only those men who will see Rāma returned with Sītā and Lakṣman will have their desires fulfilled and be happy.’”

Hearing this news Bharata became even more confused. What did the king mean? Where were His brothers and Sītā? He asked His mother.

Kaikeyi began to relate how They had left for the forest, speaking as if it were something Bharata would be pleased to hear. “Prince Rāma, with Sītā and Lakṣman, left the city clad in tree barks. They have gone to a distant forest and will remain there for fourteen years.”

Bharata was shocked. How could it be true? Surely Rāma could not have been exiled. What crime could He possibly have committed?

The prince spoke in amazement. “Did Rāma wrongly seize property from some elevated Brahmin? Did My brother somehow kill a sinless man? Surely He did not look longingly upon another’s wife. I cannot imagine Rāma ever doing anything even remotely sinful. Why then has He gone into exile accompanied by the delicate Sītā and His loyal brother?”

Kaikeyi completely misunderstood Bharata’s mood. Out of ignorance she imagined He would be pleased to hear that, thanks to her machinations, He had become the undisputed ruler. She smiled as she spoke to her son.

“Rāma has committed no sin. However, entirely neglecting Your noble self, the king was intent upon installing Him as the Prince Regent. As soon as this news reached me I asked Your father to send Rāma away and install You instead.”

Bharata’s face froze as His mother continued.

“Bound by truthfulness, the emperor did my bidding and granted me two boons which were owed from a former occasion. After exiling Rāma, who was followed by Sītā and Lakṣman, the king was sorely afflicted with an unbearable grief. Overwhelmed with pain and constantly calling Rāma’s name, the lord of Ayodhya left this world and ascended to heaven.”

Kaikeyi saw Bharata’s pained expression. “Do not yield to grief, dear son. This city and indeed this earth now depend upon You. Be firm and perform Your father’s funeral ceremony, O Bharata. Then assume the throne as the undisputed ruler of the globe.”

Bharata could not believe what He was hearing. Had His mother gone mad? Did she really think He envied Rāma and coveted the throne? Covering His face with His hands and slowly shaking His head, He replied to the shameless Kaikeyi, “What came into your mind, O cruel woman, that you could have perpetrated such an act? What possible gain is there for Me in having the sovereignty of the earth while I stand deprived of My dearest relations? By sending My father to the next world and Rāma to the forest you have heaped calamity upon calamity!”

The prince was infuriated. His mother’s actions were unforgiveable. Kaikeyi shrunk back as He roared, piercing her with volleys of words. “You have appeared in My family like the goddess Kalaratri, the night of universal dissolution! Having clasped you to his bosom My father has brought about his own death and the extermination of his race. O woman who sees evil where there is none, you have ended My family’s joy through greed alone. Tell Me the reason that impelled you to kill the king and exile the sinless Rāma.”

Aghast at her son’s vehement reaction, Kaikeyi tried to defend herself. She spoke candidly, telling Him about her conversation with Manthara. “O prince, I would surely have said nothing to Your father, but Manthara pointed out how You were being wronged. My dear son, I simply acted with Your interests in mind.”

This only angered Bharata all the more. In grief and anger He stood blazing like fire. With copper-red eyes He gazed at His mother who sat on a couch with her head cast downwards. “Alas,” He continued, His voice incredulous, “I am shamed by My own mother! Having got you for their co-wife, the godly Kaushalya and Sumitra have been tormented with agony. How did you not grieve, O hard-hearted one, when you saw those gentle ladies weeping as their heroic sons left for the forest? Are you happy to see your husband lying dead, Rāma with Sītā and Lakṣman banished, and your remaining family seized with unbearable pain?”

Bharata wept aloud while Kaikeyi sat silently. He was astonished at His mother’s deeds. What on earth had possessed her? She had never acted like this before. She had always loved Rāma as much as her own son. How could she possibly think it would please Him to gain the sovereignty in this terrible way?

Bharata went on fiercely. “Blinded by lust you have clearly not understood My devotion to Rāma. I will never take this kingdom in His absence! My strength and intelligence depend only upon My powerful brother. Rāma should certainly become the king while I become His humble servant. I can no more take the weight of the kingdom than a young calf can take the load borne easily by a bull. Even if I were able to rule without Rāma, I will never allow you to achieve your cherished end. I would sooner die!”

Bharata’s mind raged. Kaikeyi’s insane action had to be somehow reversed. He resolved to go immediately to the forest and find Rāma. He first had to establish to Rāma that Kaikeyi’s abhorrent acts had nothing to do with Him. What must Rāma be thinking? Surely He would not believe that His own devoted brother was in any way guilty! Did anyone think that? Bharata was horrified. He rounded on Kaikeyi again.

“I cannot stand by and watch the path of morality abandoned as a result of your sinful desires. The eternal moral code prescribes that the king’s eldest son should inherit the throne—especially when that son is the most highly qualified and beloved of all the people. I shall doubtlessly bring back Rāma from the forest. O evil-minded one, you will never see Me installed as the king!”

Bharata continued to reproach His mother with sharp words. Kaikeyi remained silent, her mind bewildered. Bharata’s reaction was quite unexpected and she did not know how to reply.

Bharata shook His head. “Since you have committed a hideous sin, you shall surely reside in hell. There you shall wail endlessly with none of your desired objects attained. Do not say anything to Me, evil lady. I hereby desert you! You are neither My mother nor the emperor’s wife. Without doubt you are a wicked Rākṣasī who entered My family in the guise of a relation.”

Bharata hissed like an enraged serpent. Immediate remedial action was required. He would bring Rāma back and then take His place in the forest to fulfill His vow! How could He possibly remain in Ayodhya among the grieving citizens while Rāma sat in some lonely wilderness?

The prince pointed angrily at His mother as He went on. “For your part, cruel woman, you had best either enter fire, swallow poison or go yourself to the forest. There is no other course left for you to free yourself from the stain of your sinful deed. I myself shall be freed of this sin only when Rāma has been brought back and installed upon the throne.”

Bharata fell to the floor almost senseless with grief. With His garments in dissaray and his jewels tossed about, the prince looked like a banner raised in honor of Indra and suddenly dropped down again.

While Bharata lay absorbed in sorrow, Daśaratha’s ministers, having heard the commotion in Kaikeyi’s rooms, gathered around. After some time Bharata regained His senses and saw the ministers surrounding Him. Rising up quickly, the prince again rebuked His mother, who sat, miserable, her eyes full of tears.

Bharata turned toward the king’s advisors and said in a loud voice, “At no time did this sinful woman consult with Me concerning Rāma’s exile. I have never coveted the kingdom. Indeed, I knew nothing of the intended installation of Rāma. I was far away from Ayodhya. Only today have I learned all the facts from My mother, whom I utterly reject.”

Kaushalya, whose rooms were nearby, heard Bharata’s voice. She got up, desiring to speak to the prince. Bharata was also thinking of Kaushalya. He ran out of Kaikeyi’s apartments accompanied by Shatrughna. As they went toward Kaushalya, they saw her in the passageway. She was dressed in white silks and appeared pale and emaciated. Her body was trembling and she seemed distracted. As she saw the two princes approaching she cried out and collapsed to the floor. Bharata and Shatrughna quickly lifted her up and she embraced the brothers, who were both weeping.

The distraught queen said to Bharata, “You may now enjoy this kingdom stripped of all its enemies. Surely You hankered for the sovereignty and now Your mother has fully secured it for You. The cruel Kaikeyi has sent away my son as an ascetic. She should now send me away as well. Otherwise I shall place at my head the sacrificial fire and, followed by Sumitra, proceed happily along the road taken by Rāma. In any event I cannot remain here any longer.”

Kaushalya sobbed as she spoke. “Your mother has served you well, O Bharata! Your plan has succeeded. Rule now this wide earth abounding in riches, but first, please take me to wherever my high-souled son is staying. I shall spend my days with Him in the forest.”

The queen bitterly reproached Bharata with many painful words. Hearing this the prince was stunned and He practically lost consciousness, His mind utterly confused. He fell at Kaushalya’s feet and cried out. Kneeling before her with joined palms, Bharata said, “Surely you know My love for Rāma, O noble lady. How could you even imagine that I am in any way guilty of conspiring with Kaikeyi? I found out only today of this terrible turn of events.”

Bharata clasped Kaushalya’s feet. Did she really believe He was a party to Rāma’s exile? The prince spoke from His heart. “Let the man who agrees to Rāma’s exile reap the sins that follow every kind of wicked act condemned in the scriptures! Let him roam about this world like a madman, clad in rags and begging for his food. Let him never take delight in piety and truth. Let all his wealth be looted by robbers. Let him fall victim to every kind of disease. Let him never attain the higher regions inhabited by the gods. Indeed, let that merciless and evil man fall down to the darkest hell and remain there forever!”

The prince expressed His anger to Kaushalya, pleading His innocence by making numerous difficult oaths. He was mortified to think that anyone could imagine Him in any way inimical to Rāma.

The queen was reassured by Bharata’s words. She had spoken only out of her own anguish. In her heart she knew the prince was innocent. Gently stroking His head she said, “My agony is aggravated by Your pain, dear son. Surely You are free of all sins. Your mind has not deviated from righteousness and You are true to Your word. You will doubtlessly reach the realms of the virtuous, my child.”

As Kaushalya and Bharata spoke together, remembering Rāma and the king, they both fell to the floor, overpowered by grief. The palace attendants then helped them to their rooms, where they lay in a fitful sleep.

Chapter 4: ‘We Shall Bring Rāma Back’

The next day as twilight approached Vasiṣṭha came to Bharata and said, “Rise up now, O prince, and shake off this grief! The time has come to perform Your father’s funeral. Come quickly, O Bharata, for the ceremony is long overdue!”

Seeing the sage, Bharata fell prostrate at his feet, saying “So be it.” After quickly bathing and changing His clothes, He went with Vasiṣṭha to the place where His father’s body was lying in its tank of oil. Vasiṣṭha had Daśaratha’s body brought out and laid upon a golden bier studded with numerous bright jewels.

As he gazed at His father, Bharata lamented. “O great king, you always knew right from wrong! After sending Rāma and Lakṣman into exile, what did you intend to do? How shall I act now, my lord? Alas I am lost! Where have you gone, dear father, leaving this servant of yours distressed and forlorn? Where now is that glorious Rāma who performs great deeds with little exertion?”

Bharata stood at His father’s feet. Daśaratha lay covered with white silks and adorned with royal ornaments. Bharata cried to him piteously. “Now that you have left for the heavens, O king, who will protect the people? Deprived of you this earth no longer appears attractive. Indeed, this city of Ayodhya looks like a dark night bereft of the moon.”

Vasiṣṭha came up to Bharata and said, “Gather Yourself together, O prince. You should now carry out the last rites for the king with a cool mind.”

Bharata asked the priests to proceed with the ceremony. The Brahmins brought out from the king’s apartments his sacred fire, which he had maintained throughout his life. Placing the fire at their head they carried the king to the cremation ground, their throats choked with sorrow. As the procession made its way along the road, the citizens came out of their houses and walked ahead, scattering flowers and pieces of new cloth on the road.

At the cremation ground on the bank of the Sarayu, the priests prepared a pyre with various types of fragrant woods. They placed Daśaratha upon the pyre and began to chant the sacred hymns of the Sāma Veda to invoke good fortune. Bharata took a flame from the king’s sacrificial fire and lit the pyre. The king’s wives, along with the princes and priests, then circumambulated the fire, their hearts burning with grief.

The women wailed piteously. Kaushalya and Sumitra fell to the ground, crying like a pair of female cranes. Although they both longed to ascend the pyre and follow their husband, they longed even more to see Rāma and Lakṣman return. As the fire died down, all of the king’s relatives went to the riverbank and offered palmfuls of that holy water to his departed soul. They then returned to the city and spent the following ten days grieving, taking little food and lying upon the bare ground, their eyes filled with tears.

On the eleventh day the final obsequial rites were performed and on the twelfth day Bharata gave to the Brahmins much charity on His father’s behalf. On the following day Bharata and Shatrughna returned to the cremation ground to collect Their father’s ashes. Upon arriving at the funeral pyre, the two princes saw Their father’s remains and They cried out in pain. Remembering again the king’s various affectionate gestures toward Them, They fell to the ground and rolled about.

Shatrughna lamented angrily. “A fierce and formidable sea of grief has been unleashed by Manthara! Kaikeyi’s boons are its great waves and her words its fearful alligators. Alas, this violent ocean has swept over us all! Where have you gone, dear father, leaving behind poor Bharata, who is yet a tender boy?”

Shatrughna stood up with His arms outstretched. “How strange that this earth does not split in two, seeing you gone and Rāma retired to the forest! We two brothers shall also go to the woods for We cannot return to Ayodhya, rendered desolate without Our father and brother.”

All the attendants of Bharata and Shatrughna were distressed to see the princes’ agony. Comforting the royal brothers, the omniscient Vasiṣṭha said, “Your father has surely ascended to the highest regions of bliss. He was ever pious and never committed a sin, even in his mind. You grieve needlessly, for the soul of Your father is eternal and has gone to the Lord’s eternal abode.”

The two princes stood with folded hands, looking at the royal priest. Putting aside Their grief, They listened attentively as the sage continued.

“The body is always dead, being composed of nothing more than lifeless matter. It is born and remains for only a short while, with destruction being its inevitable end. Only a fool grieves for the unavoidable. The wise understand that this entire world will be destroyed along with all its living creatures. It is the soul alone that will survive.”

Vasiṣṭha pointed to the king’s remains as he spoke. The king had achieved the perfection of life and would not take another birth. Those devoted to God’s service leave this temporary world forever. For them there is no more suffering. The princes should shed their grief and perform Their duties. Their father now sat in the highest heaven, while the kingdom stood in need of Their protection.

After hearing the sage’s spiritual instructions the brothers gained strength. They took Their father’s ashes and placed them in the sacred Sarayu. Along with all Their attendants, They made Their way back to Ayodhya. As They walked, Shatrughna spoke to Bharata. “How strange it is that the mighty Rāma stands exiled by the words of a woman. I cannot understand why Lakṣman did not forcibly restrain the king, seeing him to be straying from the path of righteousness.”

Shatrughna was mystified that such an injustice could have taken place. How did Rāma allow Himself to be sent away, causing His father’s death? What sin had that powerful and virtuous prince ever committed? Had He been present, Shatrughna would surely have intervened. Kaikeyi and her evil maid would have been checked and severely rebuked for their unforgiveable behavior!

As Shatrughna thought in this way they arrived at the king’s palace and saw Manthara at the gate. She was wearing costly garments and adorned with jeweled ornaments. Seeing the two princes she gasped and shrank back. Immediately the doorkeeper seized her and dragged her to the princes, saying, “Here is the cruel wretch responsible for the exile of our beloved lord! Do with her what you will!”

Shatrughna became inflamed and took hold of Manthara. Pulling her into the palace, He spoke in front of the many other maidservants who were standing there. “This wicked one shall now reap the fruits of her evil deeds! She has brought acute and unbearable pain to all in this house, as well as to all the citizens of Ayodhya. Watch now as I punish her!”

Manthara shrieked loudly, being held tightly by Shatrughna. All her female companions ran away in different directions, fearful that the enraged Shatrughna would also turn on them. The prince dragged Manthara violently across the floor and her ornaments broke and scattered on the blue marble floor like so many stars in the sky.

Kaikeyi heard her servant screaming and came quickly to help her. Seeing her, Shatrughna began rebuking her with harsh words. Kaikeyi was pained by Shatrughna’s sharp words and ran to Bharata for protection. Bharata moved away from His mother and spoke to the furious Shatrughna.

“Even when sinful, women should never be slain. You should therefore forgive this maidservant. Indeed, I would have slain My own mother if the eternal moral law did not forbid it—and certainly such an act would never be pleasing to Rāma. Our pious brother would never speak with Us again if He heard that We killed this woman.”

Hearing Bharata’s admonition, Shatrughna released Manthara and she fell almost unconscious to the floor. Kaikeyi raised her up and she wailed piteously, her clothes and hair in disarray. Kaikeyi looked fearfully at Shatrughna and gently calmed her servant. Although Manthara had brought about a terrible calamity in Kaikeyi’s life, the queen felt no anger toward her. Her son’s severe reaction had made Kaikeyi thoughtful. She remembered her husband’s words when she asked for the boons. He had been right. She had always loved Rāma like her own son. What had possessed her so that she had desired His exile? She considered it the work of all-powerful Providence. Manthara could not be blamed. She was only an instrument in the hands of destiny. Thinking of Rāma and feeling she had done Him a great injustice, Kaikeyi watched in silence as Bharata and Shatrughna left.

On the fourteenth day after the funeral the king’s counselors conferred and then spoke with Bharata. Wanting to install Him as king, they said, “As Your elder brother has gone to the forest along with Lakṣman, there will be no sin in Your superseding Him and accepting the throne. Therefore, O jewel among men, be consecrated as our ruler and protect us with justice and compassion.”

The counselors showed Bharata the seat and coronation paraphernalia which had been prepared for Rāma’s installation. Exactly as Rāma had done, however, Bharata walked around the seat in respect and said, “I shall never accept the kingdom, passing over the pious Rāma. All of you know well the rule in our race. The kingship is always conferred upon the eldest brother. Therefore, Rāma will be the ruler of this earth. Let a large and powerful army be made ready, for we shall go to the forest to bring back Rāma.”

Bharata pointed to the paraphernalia. “Taking all these items, we shall perform Rāma’s coronation even in the forest. You may then bring Him back in honor as the king. I Myself shall remain there in His place for fourteen years. I shall never allow My mother to realize her wicked ambition!”

Bharata became enlivened as He contemplated the possibility of bringing Rāma home. He felt sure that Rāma could be convinced to return when He saw Bharata coming to get Him with all the people of Ayodhya. He ordered that expert architects and engineers construct a road to the forest. The work should begin immediately and they would leave as soon as possible.

All the Brahmin counselors applauded Bharata, saying, “Very good! It shall be done!” They blessed Bharata and He felt delighted in mind. His face lit up with joy and tears flowed from His eyes. Thinking of Rāma and His imminent return, everyone found their grief dispelled.

Thousands of skilled men were employed in the task of building the road. Absorbed in thoughts of Rāma they worked swiftly, leveling the land to lay out a broad road paved with great slabs of red stone. The work was carried out as quickly as possible. Wells were dug and large ponds excavated. Trees were planted along the edge of the road to provide shade, and fragrant gardens were laid out at intervals. The great highway was decorated with festoons and sprinkled with scented water mixed with sandalwood paste. Along the way tent encampments, enclosed by wide moats, were erected for the army. Temples were constructed and images of Viṣṇu and the gods were installed and worshipped. In some places wealthy men had mansions built and villages grew up around these houses. The road extended from Ayodhya all the way to the Ganges. Strewn with various forest flowers, it appeared like a pathway made by the gods and leading to the heavens.

Within less than a month the road was complete. Bharata summoned Sumantra and ordered him to have the army prepare to leave. In great eagerness the army chiefs prepared everything for the journey to the forest. Mounting upon His own golden car drawn by six pairs of horses, Bharata set out from the city. He was followed by nine thousand elephants, sixty thousand chariots and a hundred thousand infantry. All the royal counselors and priests accompanied Him, as well as Daśaratha’s three wives.

The procession from Ayodhya consisted of thousands of citizens of all classes. It made its way slowly toward the forest. Merchants set out shops and artisans and craftsmen of all kinds plied their trade along the road. Thousands of Brahmins, their minds absorbed in meditation, followed the procession on bullock carts, uttering benedictions and prayers.

After some days Bharata arrived near Sringavera, where Rāma’s friend Guha lived. Halting on the bank of the Ganges, the prince set up camp. Bharata descended from His chariot along with Shatrughna and went down to the riverbank, where He lay down in prostrated obeisance. Along with His brother and Daśaratha’s wives, He offered Ganges water to the king’s departed soul.

Guha had seen Bharata’s approach and said to his counselors, “This huge army appears like a sea without any shore. I see in the distance a towering banner bearing the emblem of Bharata. Surely He has come here wishing harm to Rāma.”

Guha thought Bharata intended to kill Rāma in order to establish His unchallenged right to the kingdom. Seeing the tremendous number of people accompanying Bharata, he felt fearful.

“I think this prince will either bind us with chains or kill us, finding us entirely devoted to Rāma,” Guha continued. “Have our men stand ready with weapons and clothed in mail. The boats should each be filled with one hundred warriors and should wait on the other side of the river. Rāma is our lord and master and we should do whatever is in our power to assist Him.”

Guha decided to go personally to Bharata and discover His purpose. Taking various sweetmeats and fruits as an offering, he went with his chief ministers toward the prince’s tent. As he approached nearby, Sumantra saw him and informed Bharata, “Here comes the Niṣadha king, Guha, accompanied by a thousand of his men. He is Rāma’s friend and he knows well everything about the forest. O noble prince, You should allow him to see You, for he will surely know Rāma’s whereabouts.”

Bharata immediately gave orders that Guha be shown into His tent. He came before Bharata and humbly bowed down saying, “This kingdom is Yours, O prince. As Rāma’s friend You are my friend and indeed my lord. Be pleased to accept these foodstuffs and please also stay in my house. Allow my men to entertain Your army tonight, and tomorrow You may leave refreshed to accomplish Your purpose.”

Bharata could understand Guha’s mind. He was pleased by his reception and by his devotion to Rāma. He spoke gently to the Niṣadha ruler. “It is a pleasure to meet you, dear friend of My brother. We are satisfied by your kind hospitality.”

Bharata pointed across the Ganges. “I heard Rāma went that way, O king, toward Bharadvāja’s hermitage. By which route should we proceed in order to find Him, O king? Should we cross this river or go along its bank?”

Guha was apprehensive. He looked down as he replied to Bharata. “Seeing Your vast army, my mind was filled with fear. I trust that You wish no harm to Rāma. If that is the case, then my ferrymen can take You across the river and show You the way.”

Bharata reassured Guha. “May the time never come when any wickedness toward Rāma enters My heart. Do not have any doubts about Me, O Guha. I am here to bring back Rāma to Ayodhya. My glorious brother is as good as My father, and I long to see Him again. Pray point out His whereabouts to Me and I shall go and press His feet to My head.”

Tears sprang to Guha’s eyes as he replied. “There can be none equal to You on this globe, O jewel among men! Who else could renounce the rulership of the world? Surely Your fame will be everlasting. Rest now for the night and tomorrow I shall make all arrangements.”

Guha took his leave from Bharata and the prince laid down to sleep. Thinking of Rāma, He was seized with sorrow. Perhaps He would not be able to find Him. Many months had passed since Rāma had left. Who knows where He might be now? Bharata was unable to sleep. He was oppressed with an agony which weighed upon Him like a heap of rocks. Heaving sighs Bharata tossed around, immersed in thoughts of Rāma. Gradually the dawn approached, and as the sun rose Guha returned.

The forest king spoke again to Bharata. He described how Rāma had spent a night there and then, after matting His hair, had left for the deep forest with Lakṣman and Sītā. Guha indicated the way They had gone.

Hearing how Rāma had matted His hair, Bharata became apprehensive. Surely Rāma would not now return. His resolve to remain as an ascetic for fourteen years must be firm. Seized with such thoughts Bharata all of a sudden fell to the ground, saddened at heart. Shatrughna raised His brother, who sat shedding tears. Kaushalya and Sumitra quickly approached Him and spoke comforting words. Bharata recovered His composure and said to Guha, “Tell me everything about Rāma. What foods did He eat? Where did He sleep? What did He say?”

Guha told Bharata how he had offered Rāma many excellent cooked foods, but Rāma had refused them, saying “It is never the duty of rulers to accept charity. Indeed, we should always give charity to others.”

Guha explained how Rāma had drunk only water and then had slept upon a bed of grass laid out by Lakṣman. Bharata asked to be shown the place where Rāma slept and Guha took Him to the foot of the tree where the bed still lay. Seeing it Bharata loudly exclaimed, “Alas, how could it be that one such as Rāma should lay down on a bed of grass? He was ever accustomed to sleep at the top of high palaces, in rooms with golden floors spread with the finest rugs. Having always been awoken by the sweet strains of music and song, how is He now roused by the roar of wild beasts?”

Bharata lamented at length as the reality of Rāma’s exile and ascetic life struck Him. The injustice was insufferable to Bharata and it was made even more excruciating by the thought that He was the cause. His voice was filled with pain. “This is truly incredible! It cannot be real. Surely I am dreaming. See here the strands of gold left by Sītā where She lay on these grasses, Her delicate limbs pressed to the hard ground. I am ruined indeed, for it is on My account that all this has happened!”

Images of Rāma and Sītā dressed in forest attire, emaciated due to eating only fruits and roots, filled Bharata’s mind. Beating His head He cried out. “From this day I shall wear matted locks and tree bark! I shall lay upon the bare earth to sleep and shall eat only simple forest fare.”

Bharata became even more determined to find Rāma and bring Him back to Ayodhya, staying Himself in the forest in Rāma’s place. After spending another night sleeping on the spot where Rāma had lain, Bharata had the army prepare to leave. Guha brought five hundred large boats equipped with oarsmen and sails. He offered his own personal boat to Bharata and His relatives. Some boats were filled with women, some with horses and others with chariots. As the boats plied across the river the elephants swam with the flags on their backs waving in the breeze. Many of the soldiers also swam while their equipment was carried in the boats.

Late in the afternoon the whole party assembled again on the other side of the river. Ordering them to camp at that spot, Bharata went with Vasiṣṭha and other Brahmins to look for Bharadvāja’s hermitage.

Out of deference to the great sage Bharadvāja, whose only wealth was asceticism, Bharata approached him wearing only simple cloth, leaving His armor and weapons behind. With Vasiṣṭha at their head, the prince and His counselors went on foot and soon arrived at the sage’s hermitage.

As soon as he saw them at his door, the sage hurriedly rose and had his disciples fetch water to wash their feet. He embraced Vasiṣṭha and offered blessings to Bharata, who had fallen prostrate at his feet.

Bharadvāja gazed at Bharata, whom he recognized as Rāma’s brother. The sage knew by his own mystic vision that Daśaratha was dead. After inquiring about the situation in Ayodhya the sage asked Bharata, “What brings You all this way, leaving aside the onerous business of managing the state? Because of Your mother’s words, You are ruling the world as its undisputed monarch. I trust that You have not come here with some dark intention toward the sinless and perfect Rāma?”

The sage’s words cut into Bharata. Tears flowed from His eyes as He replied in a hurt voice, “If even you impute such motives to Me, then I am truly ruined. I never approved My mother’s aims! I cannot even imagine doing harm to Rāma, nor will I ever accept the kingdom!”

Feeling that no one would believe His innocence, Bharata felt despair. He folded His hands and spoke imploringly. “The powerful Rāma is the true ruler of this earth. I have come here to bring Him back to Ayodhya. Falling at His feet I shall make Him return and then remain here in His place. O all-knowing sage, please be gracious to Me and show Me where Rāma is staying.”

Bharata’s sincerity was obvious. The all-knowing Bharadvāja smiled. He placed his hand upon Bharata’s head, who sat before him weeping, and said, “I surely knew of Your intention and spoke only to heighten Your resolve and indeed Your fame. You are a worthy member of Your royal line, O prince, and are always dedicated to the service of Your elders. Your devotion to Rāma is beyond doubt.”

The sage assured Bharata that he would point out Rāma’s whereabouts. He asked the prince to stay the night at his hermitage and leave the following morning. Bharata agreed and the sage then offered to feed the entire army. Astonished, Bharata said, “We have already received sufficient hospitality from you, kind sir. As a forest dweller you need only offer simple fruits and this you have done. My army is vast and occupies a huge area of land. If I brought them here, they would all but wreck this holy site.”

Bharadvāja laughed and replied, “Have Your army brought here forthwith. You should not doubt my ability to receive them, nor will they be any trouble at all.”

Commanded by the sage, Bharata assented. Sending back one of His men, He had the army approach the hermitage. As they moved slowly through the forest Bharadvāja sat in meditation. By uttering Vedic mantras he invoked the presence of the principal gods. He then requested them to provide hospitality for the divine prince and His army.

Seated in trance, the sage said within himself, “Let the sacred rivers bear to this region all kinds of celestial beverages. Let the moon-god bring every sort of excellent cooked food. May the heavenly architect Viśvakarmā create a suitable site for receiving the army. May Indra send all his Apsarās along with the Gandharva clans to entertain these troops.”

As Bharadvāja invoked various divine beings with perfectly pronounced Sanskrit hymns, they all appeared before him. A cool and delightfully fragrant breeze began to blow. Thick showers of flowers fell from the heavens and the sound of celestial music was heard. As the Gandharvas sang and played upon vīṇās, hosts of Apsarās danced. All of Bharata’s entourage, who had assembled at the hermitage, felt their hearts moved by the exquisite sights and sounds seen and heard everywhere.

Before everyone’s eyes the entire area around the hermitage changed wonderfully. For a radius of forty miles the ground became even, carpeted with soft blue grass. Numerous types of fruit trees sprang up, full of ripe fruits. Mangos, guavas, peaches, melons and innumerable other soft and hard fruits were seen. Alongside streams of crystal clear water stood large white mansions furnished with seats and couches. A great palace appeared that looked like a white cloud and had a large arched doorway. Delicious food and drink were laid out in these spacious buildings.

With Bharadvāja’s permission, Bharata entered the palace, which was adorned with countless flower garlands and sprinkled with scents. Seeing a golden throne, Bharata simply walked around it and sat on the seat next to it, surrounded by His chief ministers.

Streams of sweetened milk and cream flowed past the palace. By Bharadvāja’s mystic power, many trees in the hermitage came to life and began playing upon different musical instruments. Some of them assumed the form of dwarfs and began to move about in haste, serving Bharata and His army. All around there appeared thousands of golden vessels containing food of every description. Heaps of steaming white rice were seen, along with tanks filled with milk drinks and yogurt. Pots of honey and large jars filled with intoxicating drinks stood next to platters containing delicious sweetmeats.

Beautiful young maidens attended upon the soldiers, washing them and massaging their feet and bodies with fragrant oils. These celestial damsels, all adorned in pure silk garments, served the men food on golden plates. Being maddened with pleasure, the troops laughed loudly and ran about in all directions. They praised Bharata and Rāma again and again as they partook of every kind of enjoyable thing. Although they ate and drank huge amounts they found that they were still not sated. Their senses and minds became more and more enlivened and they felt renewed and refreshed. Even the army’s animals were carefully tended and given all kinds of food and drink by the celestial beings invoked by Bharadvāja.

As the night ended, the troops saw before them numerous items of toiletry. Pots of hot water along with soaps and unguents in silver and wooden cases appeared. Combs, brushes, talcs and shining mirrors were in abundance, as well as fresh clothes, shoes and all kinds of ornaments. As the men bathed and put on their clothes and armor, the gods and Apsarās left the hermitage and returned to the heavens. The army was astonished by the night’s events, which seemed like a dream. They looked around at the hermitage, which had returned to its normal appearance. Everything had disappeared except for the celestial garlands strewn about, which, although crushed, were as fresh then as they had been at the beginning of the night.

As the sun rose Bharata went to Bharadvāja after the sage’s morning prayers. The prince bowed before him and asked his permission to leave. Bharadvāja blessed Him and said, “I trust You and Your followers spent an enjoyable night. Please tell me if there is anything else I can do for You.”

Bharata thanked him for his hospitality and asked to be shown the way toward Rāma’s hut in the woods. The sage smiled and said, “There is a mountain some twenty miles from here named Chitrakuta, full of lovely caves and groves. On the northern side of that mountain, shaded by blossoming trees, flows the Mandakini River. There, by that river, You will find Your two brothers.”

As the sage spoke Kaushalya and Sumitra got down from their chariot and clasped his feet. They thanked him profusely as they anticipated seeing Rāma. Kaikeyi also came to the sage and shamefully bowed before him, feeling guilty at heart. Looking at her with compassion the sage asked Bharata, “Please tell me, who are these noble ladies?”

Bharata indicated Kaushalya saying, “This godly lady is the mother of the lion-like Rāma. Afflicted with grief, she is emaciated with fasting. Clinging to her arm is the celebrated Sumitra, the mother of Lakṣman and Shatrughna, those two great heroes.”

Becoming angry, hissing like a cobra as He spoke, Bharata indicated Kaikeyi. “This one here is My own mother, the wicked and vulgar Kaikeyi. It was by her intrigues that the great emperor Daśaratha died from anguish and the mighty Rāma now resides in a lonely mountain reach.”

Bharadvāja, who knew the plans of the gods and the divine arrangements of the Supreme Lord, said to Bharata, “You should not censure Your mother, O great prince. Do not think her guilty, for Rāma’s banishment will result in good to the entire universe. Indeed, it will bring happiness to the gods, demons and ṛṣis, along with the whole of the creation.”

Bharata blushed deeply. He had been piercing His mother with angry looks and He felt rebuked by the sage. Unable to immediately subdue His anger, He averted His gaze and tried to assimilate Bharadvāja’s instructions. He stood up and walked respectfully around the sage. Receiving his permission to leave, Bharata ordered the army to depart and mounted upon His chariot. Guha accompanied the two princes. As the huge mass of men moved off through the woods they made a great noise, terrifying the deer and birds dwelling there. Slowly approaching the Chitrakuta mountain they all thought only of Rāma, longing to see Him again.

Chapter 5: Rāma Remains Firm

Three months had passed since Rāma had settled on the Chitrakuta mountain. Living peacefully in Their thatched cottage, Rāma, along with Lakṣman and Sītā, was happy. From their hut They could see the top of the mountain, some of which was yellow, some red as madder, some glittering silver and some blue-green like a shining emerald. Thousands of other subtle hues shone on the side of the great mountain, and it teemed with deer of every description and hosts of harmless tigers, leopards and bears. Trees laden with flowers and fruits were crowded with varieties of colorful and sweetly singing birds. Clear rivulets flowed from countless springs, and waterfalls sparkled in the sunshine.

Rāma felt gladdened at heart to see all this and, sitting at ease on the porch of His hut, He spoke with Sītā: “Look at the Kinnaras as they sport on these delightful slopes, having descended from their own planets. See also the Vidhyadharas and Gandharvas courting their womenfolk after hanging their swords and other weapons from the boughs of trees. This place is finer even than heaven. Surely We will easily spend fourteen summers here as if they were a month.”

Sītā smiled. She felt joyful to be living there with Rāma. Despite its simplicity She liked forest life, preferring it even to Her life of luxury in the city. She looked down at the Mandakini River where lines of ascetics, clad only in loin cloths, stood in the water with their arms upraised as they worshipped the sun. A cool breeze carried the aroma of tree blossoms, which cascaded on all sides of the mountain. On the sandy bank of the river heavenly Siddhas were appearing and disappearing, moving about in delight. Further down the river She saw a group of elephants standing amid the red and white lotuses as they drank the clear water.

Rāma continued, “Let Us take Our midday bath in the river, O princess. With You by My side I do not miss any of My relatives or even Ayodhya itself. Your beauty puts to shame the so-called beauty of these heavenly damsels, and it gives Me newer and newer pleasure.”

Rāma looked at His brother, who stood at a distance holding His bow. “The godly Lakṣman stands over there equipped with weapons and ready to carry out My every command. Living on the delicious forest fare He gathers, We reside here most happily, dear Sītā. What more could I desire even if I lived in Ayodhya?”

Rāma and Sītā descended to the river and found a secluded spot to take Their bath. After bathing and sporting for some time in the cool waters, They came out and sat in the sun on a large flat rock. As Rāma conversed with Sītā He noticed in the distance a cloud of dust rising to the sky. Looking around He saw frightened animals running in all directions and heard a terrific noise, which became progressively louder.

Rāma called out to His brother. “Lakṣman! What do You think is causing this disturbance? A sound like a terrible crash of thunder is coming from the north! Is some king or prince out hunting in the forest, followed by his army? Or is it some vast herd of beasts on the move? Please go and see.”

Lakṣman immediately climbed a tall tree and looked all around. Fixing his gaze on the north, He saw in the distance a large army crowded with elephants, horses and chariots, and joined with a mass of marching foot soldiers. He shouted to Rāma and informed Him.

“Let Sītā quickly find a cave,” Lakṣman advised Rāma. “Extinguish the fire so that the smoke will not be seen. We two shall stand here clothed in mail and holding upraised weapons, for a powerful army approaches!”

Rāma, who was not at all fearful, replied to Lakṣman, “Look carefully at the ensigns. Try to determine whose army You think it might be.”

Lakṣman stared at the head of the army and saw a tall ensign waving in the breeze, bearing the emblem of a kovidara tree. The prince became infuriated and looked at the army as if He might consume it with His gaze alone.

“Clearly this is Bharata’s army!” He exclaimed. “I see there the mark of the kovidara. Evidently He has secured the throne of Ayodhya and now desires to attain undisputed sovereignty by killing Us both. Even now I see swift horses going ahead to seek Us out.”

Lakṣman seethed with anger. “It is fortunate indeed that I shall now see Bharata’s face, for whose sake You are enduring this forest life deprived of Your sovereign rights. Surely He has come here as an enemy and as such deserves to be killed outright! I see no sin in this action, O Rāma, for Bharata has sorely wronged You.”

Lakṣman descended from the tree and picked up His weapons. He held His sword aloft. “Today Kaikeyi, who is so desirous of the kingdom, will be seized with sorrow when she sees her son slain by Me! I shall then kill her also! Let the earth drink the blood of all these warriors. Beasts of prey will drag about the corpses of elephants and horses, as well as of thousands of men pierced by My arrows. Killing Bharata along with His army, I will repay My debt to My weapons!”

Rāma replied gravely to the enraged Lakṣman. “These sentiments do not befit You, dear brother. The mighty Bharata has come here longing to see Us and You wish to greet Him with weapons. I have given My word of honor to remain in the forest. How then can I forcefully take the kingdom from Bharata, thereby gaining a sovereignty stained with infamy?”

Feeling admonished by His brother, Lakṣman looked down and sheathed His sword. Rāma continued, “I will never accept a royal fortune won at the cost of the death of My kinsmen. Indeed, I would only accept the kingdom for the pleasure and protection of My relatives, for I have no personal desire for sovereignty. If any joy should come to Me that is not enjoyed by Yourself, Bharata or Shatrughna, then let it be reduced to ashes.”

Rāma knew Bharata’s heart. Bharata was no less devoted to Him than Lakṣman. He could understand why His brother had come to see Him. He also longed to see Bharata. Comforting Lakṣman, Rāma said, “When Bharata heard of My exile I am sure He would have felt His heart overwhelmed with affection and His mind distracted by grief. After censuring Kaikeyi with harsh words, He no doubt left Ayodhya intent on bringing Me back. Of this I feel certain.”

Lakṣman felt ashamed to have spoken angrily about Bharata. He remembered the close and loving relationships the four brothers had enjoyed in childhood. Rāma was right. Bharata could not possibly have come in a martial spirit. Lakṣman blushed as Rāma continued.

“I cannot imagine Bharata harming us even in His mind,” Rāma said gently. “Has He somehow previously offended You, dear brother, so that You wax so wrathful toward Him now? If You are set upon the slaughter of Bharata, then I shall order Him to hand over the kingdom to You this very day. Certainly He will remain here in Your place, clad in tree barks, while You rule over this broad earth.”

Lakṣman shrank with shame. It had been wrong of Him to think so badly of Bharata. There was never a time when any malice or envy had been seen in that prince. Lakṣman tried to make amends for His previous outburst.

“It must be as You say, dear Rāma. I think the mighty-armed emperor himself has personally come here accompanied by Bharata. Our father will doubtlessly try to persuade Us to return, handing You the sovereignty refused by Bharata. Indeed, I saw father’s gigantic elephant, Shatrunjaya, rocking about at the head of the army as it marched.”

From Their vantage point on the mountainside Rāma could see the army coming into view. Spotting the king’s elephant He felt a sudden apprehension. Why was there no white umbrella held over its back? Shatrunjaya would not have come out without the king. Unless, that is, there was no king. Rāma was fearful. Along with Lakṣman and Sītā, He waited near His hut for Bharata’s arrival.

When they reached the mountain, Bharata detailed a number of expert trackers to go in search of Rāma’s hermitage. He himself went ahead on horseback and began searching on foot when He reached the dense forest on the mountainside. Accompanied by Vasiṣṭha and other Brahmins, Bharata pressed ahead into the forest, anxious to see His brothers. He said to Vasiṣṭha, “Blessed is this mountain reach, O sage, where Rāma and Sītā now roam. How fortunate is Lakṣman who always beholds the moon-like face of Rāma. I long to hold Rāma’s feet on My head. There will be no peace for Me until I see Him duly consecrated and seated upon Ayodhya’s throne.”

Bharata climbed a tall tree and gazed all around. Upon seeing a column of smoke He surmised it to be coming from Rāma’s hermitage. Rejoicing, He descended quickly and went in that direction. Confident that they were now close to Rāma, He sent Vasiṣṭha back to bring the queens. Then, along with Shatrughna and Guha, He went as quickly as possible up the mountain slope.

As they arrived at a plateau they suddenly burst into a clearing and saw there, on a leveled piece of ground, Rāma’s hut. Rāma and Lakṣman were sitting in front of the leafy cottage. Bharata saw the sacrificial fire placed on an altar surrounded by blades of kusha grass. Hanging on the sides of the hut were two long bows, plated with gold and shining like rainbows. Large quivers filled with fearful looking arrows stood by the bows, along with two great shields adorned with gold engravings. A couple of swords hung by the bows, sheathed in silver and gold.

When Bharata saw Rāma dressed as an ascetic, His hair matted, He let out a cry and fell prostrate. Rising up again He gazed with tear-filled eyes at His beloved brother, who appeared like Brahmā seated in his celestial assembly hall. Rāma turned and smiled at Bharata, who along with Shatrughna was rushing toward Him. Stumbling even as He ran over level ground, Bharata swiftly approached Rāma and fell before Him. In a choked voice He began to lament.

“Alas, here is My elder brother, who deserves to sit in a royal assembly, seated now in the company of deer,” Bharata cried. “What a cruel destiny! Here is that exalted soul who should wear garments worth many thousands wearing the barks of trees. All this is on My account! Woe to Me, condemned by all the world.”

Sobs stifled Bharata’s voice as He lay near Rāma, His hands stretched toward His brother’s feet. His face was covered with perspiration and He called out, “Oh, My brother, My noble brother! Shatrughna also shed tears and bowed before Rāma. Rāma and Lakṣman quickly got up and closely embraced both of Their brothers. The four princes coming together appeared as if the sun and moon had conjoined with Venus and Jupiter in the heavens.

Rāma asked Bharata what had brought Him away from Ayodhya. Surprised to see Him with matted locks and wearing a deerskin, Rāma said, “Why have You come here without Our father, dearest brother? I hope all is well in Ayodhya. As long as father lives You should surely wait upon him with great attention. Still, I am glad to see You here, although You appear pale and emaciated. Why the ascetic dress, noble Bharata? I think your love for Me must be very deep.”

Rāma gently stroked Bharata’s head. Looking up He saw Guha standing at a distance with folded palms and He smiled at him. Rāma was fully absorbed in loving exchanges with His friends and relatives. Feeling pain and concern to see Bharata’s condition, He continued to speak. “I hope You have not lost the kingdom due to immaturity and inexperience. Surely You know all the facets of diplomacy and kingly science, O powerful prince.”

By way of loving instruction, Rāma asked after many aspects of the kingdom. He inquired if the people were properly protected, the animals cared for, the army well maintained and the Brahmins given sufficient charity. Bharata listened respectfully as His elder brother spoke.

“I see here all My mothers,” said Rāma. “Indeed it seems that the entire kingdom of Kośala has accompanied You, dear Bharata. This gives rise to grave doubts in My mind. Please tell Me why you have all arrived here today, for you have aroused My curiosity.”

Bharata knelt before Rāma, clasping His feet. “Dear Rāma, the act perpetrated by My mother was wicked and never approved by Me. Casting You into the forest and afflicting the whole of Ayodhya with unbearable pain, she hoped to see Me installed as the king. This will never happen! Please return now with us, O Raghava, and take Your rightful position as ruler of this world. Be kind to Me and to all these people, O tiger among men.”

Rāma felt compassion for Bharata. He questioned Him again. “What need is there for Your adopting this mode of ascetic life, dear Bharata? The order of Our father is that You become the king. I too stand enjoined by Our father to remain here in the forest. Our pious father’s order is supreme. Therefore, without censuring Your mother Kaikeyi, You should enjoy the kingdom. For myself, I am happier staying here in obedience to Our father than I would be in attaining to the imperishable abode of Brahmā.”

Bharata’s head sank. He knew His elder brother’s mind. It would be impossible to convince Rāma to transgress an order given by His elders. Still He felt impelled to try. He could not possibly take the throne in place of Rāma. With a heavy heart Bharata informed Rāma of what had happened in Ayodhya.

“While I was away in the Kekaya kingdom and You had already gone to the forest, our glorious father ascended to heaven. Thinking only of You and lost in grief at Your separation, the king left his mortal body. Now, by the time-honored rule, You, as the elder son, should inherit the kingdom. There cannot be any doubt on this point.”

As he heard for the first time the news of his father’s death, Rāma felt as if His heart had been pierced. Raising His arms and crying out, He sank to the ground like a tree filled with blossoms cut at its root. He lay motionless with the color drained from His face. Bharata quickly sprinkled Him with cool water. Rāma sat up and held His head, wailing piteously.

“With My father dead and gone what shall I do in Ayodhya? Alas, I am surely a wretched and useless son. My father died because of Me. Nor was I even able to cremate him. Even when the fourteen years expires I shall not have the courage to return to the city, seeing it desolate and bereft of its protector. Who will now speak those kind and loving words My father spoke when he saw Me well-behaved?”

Rāma went over to Sītā and Lakṣman who were seated nearby. “Dear Sītā, Your father-in-law is no more. O Lakṣman, You are now fatherless. Our brother brings the sorrowful news of the king’s ascent to heaven. This world now stands without a ruler.”

Sītā’s eyes filled with tears and She was unable to look at Her husband. Rāma and Lakṣman wept along with Sītā as Bharata and Shatrughna comforted Them.

Rāma controlled His feelings and said, “I must now perform the last sacred rites for the king. Let us go to the river.”

The four princes and Sītā, stumbling due to their grief, descended with difficulty to the riverbank. They were assisted by Sumantra and other ministers of the king, who stood watching as Rāma entered the water along with His brothers and Sītā.

Rāma faced the southern quarter, over which Yamarāja presides, and held water in His cupped palms. He let the water trickle through His fingers and said in a choked voice, “May this sacred water reach you, O great tiger among kings! Let this offering serve you, dear father, who have gone for-ever to the world of our forefathers.”

Rāma offered prayers for His father and then returned to His hermitage to prepare an offering of food for the departed king. After the offering was made, Rāma and His brothers clasped each others’ hands and began to wail loudly. The sound was like the roaring of lions and it reverberated all around the mountain passes.

Hearing that confused noise the soldiers in Bharata’s army were alarmed and they said to one another, “Surely Bharata and Shatrughna have met Rāma and Lakṣman. This sound must be the loud cry of those four brothers mourning for Their deceased father.”

The soldiers got up quickly and began running toward the sound. Crashing through the undergrowth on foot, horseback and in chariots, everyone in Bharata’s entourage rushed toward Rāma’s hermitage, eager to see Him again. The noise of all those thousands of people moving through the forest was tumultuous. Deer, buffaloes, boars, lions and elephants ran in all directions, terrified by the great commotion. Birds of every kind cried loudly and flew up into the air.

Daśaratha’s widowed queens got down from their chariot and went on foot into the woods, accompanied by Vasiṣṭha. Walking with difficulty along the narrow forest paths, they finally arrived at the spot where Rāma was standing with His brothers. Rāma saw them as they entered the clearing and He ran quickly toward them. He bowed down to Vasiṣṭha and each of the three queens, touching their feet. After Lakṣman and Sītā had also offered their respects, Rāma sat down with Vasiṣṭha on the wooden seats in front of His hut. The queens wept aloud upon seeing the ascetic dress of Rāma and Sītā.

Kaushalya went to Rāma and tenderly wiped the dust from His face. Turning to Sītā, she said, “How are You surviving in this lonely forest, dear Sītā? Your face appears pale and withered. Alas, my grief upon seeing You here blazes up like a fire fed with abundant fuel.”

Rāma consoled Kaushalya, while Lakṣman spoke with Sumitra, who was also deeply pained. Bharata then came and sat at Rāma’s feet. With His palms folded he said, “Kaikeyi is now satisfied and the kingdom has been offered to Me. If this kingdom is Mine, then I hereby give it to You, O Rāma. Please take it without any hesitation.”

As Bharata sat before Rāma and Lakṣman, the three brothers shone like three sacrificial fires. Bharata held Rāma’s feet as He spoke. “The power to rule this world rests only with You, O Rāma. I can no more emulate that power of Yours than a donkey can emulate the gait of a horse or a sparrow the flight of Garuḍa. Indeed I am dependent upon You. Let the world behold You shining with splendor on Ayodhya’s throne. We shall take You there in state this very day!”

All the people gathered there called out, “Well said!” upon hearing Bharata speak. With tears streaming from His eyes Bharata sat looking up at Rāma. He hoped desperately that Rāma might somehow be persuaded. He could not imagine going back to Ayodhya without Him.

Seeing His brother and other relatives weeping, Rāma felt compassion. Keeping His own grief in check, He replied, “No man is free to act as he pleases. In this world the embodied soul is dragged here and there by the all-powerful force of Providence. No one can control that force. All gains will end in loss, every meeting ends in separation and all life has its end in death. As there is no fear for a ripe fruit other than a fall, so there is no fear for any man other than death.”

Everyone listened attentively as Rāma spoke, their feelings of sorrow relieved by his instructions. “The passing of days and nights quickly exhaust the life span of all beings, even as the summer sun sucks up the water in a lake,” Rāma went on. “You should grieve only for yourself; why do you grieve for another? Death is our constant companion. He walks with us, sits with us and having gone a long distance with us when we travel, he duly returns with us.”

Rāma still had no desire to return to Ayodhya. He wanted to encourage Bharata and give Him strength. Stroking His brother’s head, He continued to instruct Him.

“Beloved brother, the power to prevent one’s own death does not exist in a person grieving for another. Our father departed after a long life of piety and We should by no means grieve. We ourselves have embarked on the very same path trodden by the emperor and will join him in due course. Let Us therefore throw off grief and dedicate Ourselves to the pursuit of piety by which We too shall attain the blessed regions reached by the king.”

Rāma looked around His hermitage. Thousands of people were crowding on the mountainside, all looking towards Him. There was complete silence as Rāma spoke. Even the animals seemed silent. Only the sound of the river and the rustling of leaves in the breeze could be heard. Dappled shadows moved over the ground in the late afternoon sun. With a mild smile Rāma continued to address Bharata, within the hearing of everyone there.

“Father has shed his old, worn-out body and, with an ethereal and undecaying form, he now sports in great happiness. Rather than grieve for him we should now carefully do his bidding. For Your part You should rule over the earth, dear Bharata, while I for mine should remain in the forest until fourteen years have expired. This will ensure Our welfare in both this world and the next. Under no circumstances should We disobey Our virtuous father.”

Rāma spoke for more than an hour and Bharata felt joy to hear His brother’s words of instruction. But He was also dispirited to see Rāma’s determination to stay in the forest.

When Rāma stopped speaking, Bharata grasped His feet and replied, “Your position is glorious, O mighty brother. You are never dejected at adversity nor exhilarated at finding joy. You are always able to distinguish truth from untruth. Therefore You know what is real and what is only temporary and thus ultimately unreal. It is certainly the soul and not the body that one should nurture in this world.”

Bharata realized that Rāma was only acting with philosophical understanding; He knew that Rāma could not possibly act outside the codes of religion or morality. Nonetheless, Bharata was Himself still doubtful about the justice of Rāma’s exile. He spoke to Rāma in order to clear His doubts. “Were it not for moral codes, I would have surely slain My sinful mother. How did the king allow himself to fall under her sway? Due to infatuation or foolishness Our father acted wrongly. As his sons is it not Our duty to correct his mistakes? Surely this is the proper religious path for an honest and worthy son.”

Bharata turned and indicated the people gathered around. “All these people need Your protection. This is the duty of rulers according to scripture. Nowhere is the duty of a ruler stated as being life in the forest. March back to Ayodhya at the head of this vast army. Let Your friends feel joy today and Your enemies run frightened in all directions. O Rāma, if You resolve to stay here, then You shall find Me by Your side. I can by no means find in Myself the strength to rule in Your absence.”

Bharata sat with His head bowed. Everyone was enthralled by the conversation between the two royal brothers, and they became simultaneously joyful to witness His firm resolve and disconsolate to realize He would not be returning to Ayodhya.

Rāma replied to Bharata in a solemn voice. “All his life our father followed the path of piety. This is widely known. Impiety would not have been possible for that truthful man. When Our father accepted Kaikeyi’s hand he promised her father, as the bride price, that her son would inherit the kingdom. Furthermore, sworn under solemn oath by Kaikeyi, the king promised You the kingdom and ordered Me to go to the forest. Whatever the reasons, this was the king’s promise. If that promise is broken Our father will be liable to sinful reactions. Our duty as his sons is to fulfill his promise and thereby save him. No other course is possible for Us.”

Rāma paused for a moment. He got down from His seat and lifted up Bharata and Shatrughna. “You two should return to Ayodhya and protect the people. O Bharata, get Yourself consecrated as king and rule the earth. I shall become the emperor of wild beasts. The white umbrella should be held over Your head as You ride on the royal elephant, while for My part I shall go on foot, shielded by a canopy of trees. Leave with joy for the city, My brothers, and I with Lakṣman will joyfully enter the woods. In this way We shall preserve Our father’s piety.”

Bharata said nothing. He felt reassured by Rāma’s reply, but was profoundly sorrowful at the prospect of leaving Him.

At that moment a Brahmin named Jabali spoke, trying to convince Rāma to return on the basis of atheistic doctrines. “Why are you attached to Your father, Rāma? He was nothing more than flesh and bones and has now merged again with the earth. People who consider that others are in some way related to them are simply mad. Alone we came to this world and alone we shall leave. As such we should only work toward our own interests. You need not suffer now for the interests of Your deceased father. Take the throne and enjoy it, O Rāma, for this will be in Your own best interests.”

Jabali did not himself believe the philosophy he was espousing. He was only trying somehow to change Rāma’s mind. Perhaps Rāma would accept the arguments as a pretext for going back to Ayodhya. Most likely, though, He would defeat Jabali’s position and thereby establish the path of religion. Either way Jabali would be satisfied and he continued to speak his atheistic philosophy.

“I lament for those who forsake sense pleasures for the austerities of a religious life,” said Jabali, rising to his feet. “Hoping for future happiness they meet only with extermination at death, having led a life of suffering. The scriptures have been written by intelligent Brahmins who wished to exalt sacrifice and charity. In this way these Brahmins have assured their own livelihood.”

Jabali smiled as he spoke his false philosophy. No one in the assembly accepted his words, but they too hoped that Rāma would yet be convinced to leave the forest. Everyone listened in silence as Jabali concluded his speech.

“Knowing this truth, O Rāma, You should renounce Your foolish asceticism. There is nothing beyond this visible universe. Do not depend for Your happiness on anything outside of that which You can see and immediately experience. Therefore, O great prince, accept the kingdom and enjoy it as the undisputed ruler.”

Rāma sat down again as Jabali stopped speaking. Looking at the Brahmin He said, “A man is known by his conduct alone. Although posing as a learned and cultured person, one who acts as you direct is to be accepted as sinful and debased. Those who are wise never praise a person who acts only to please his senses. Such a person is mean, selfish and greedy, driven only by lust for pleasure. His immediate happiness soon turns to distress and he sinks into a hellish condition.”

Rāma appeared angry as He refuted Jabali. His eyes were red and He spoke gravely. “If I were to follow the path espoused by you, O atheistic one, then this entire earth would be cast into ruin. All men follow the king’s example. Abandoning the religious path, the people would become licentious and uncontrolled. Chaos would prevail and everyone would suffer.”

Jabali sat down before Rāma with his palms joined and his head bowed. He said nothing as Rāma explained how the attempt to find happiness through sense enjoyment was futile. Both the senses and their enjoyments are soon destroyed. Only the soul and God are eternal, along with the spiritual realms where the Lord resides. Those who are actually learned therefore follow the path of truth which leads to those ever-existing realms of bliss.

Rāma paused and gradually His anger subsided. After some minutes He spoke again. “My father was wedded to truth. Following his instruction will lead only to happiness. I shall therefore remain in these woods and Bharata should rule the earth. This will be Our only assurance of happiness, both in this world and the next. O Jabali, you should not speak in this way again, for to mislead the people is a very great sin.”

Rāma, having spoken to instruct all people, fell silent. He knew Jabali’s heart and did not feel anger toward him, only toward his words. The people’s pain was Rāma’s pain and He knew that Jabali’s presentation of hedonism led only to pain.

Saying “It is exactly as you say,” Jabali prostrated himself before Rāma and returned to his place among the other Brahmins.

Vasiṣṭha stood up and spoke in the midst of the assembly. “This Jabali knows well of the soul and its actual happiness. He spoke only out of his desire to see You installed as the king. This is also my desire, O Raghava. As the emperor’s eldest son it behooves You to now accept the throne. You need entertain no doubt in this regard.”

Vasiṣṭha recounted the history of Rāma’s line. One by one he named the previous kings and explained how each had handed the kingdom to their eldest son. Finally he said, “O Rāma, this is my instruction to You. I am Your preceptor and as such I am even more worthy of your obedience than Your father. Indeed, I was also his preceptor. Therefore I command You to accept the throne of Ayodhya.”

The sage had spoken only out of love. He was aware that Rāma was enacting a divine plan by remaining in the forest, but still he longed for Him to return.

Rāma looked with affection at Vasiṣṭa and replied, “The debt owed to one’s parents cannot be easily repaid, O learned sage. They give everything they have for their children. Feeding them, nurturing them, putting them to bed and rubbing them with oil, the father and mother give their love at every moment. My worthy father’s word should not prove false due to My negligence, for I wish to render him some service in return for his love.”

It was obvious that Rāma was not going to be convinced by anyone to leave the forest. Bharata suddenly stood up and exclaimed, “Seated upon blades of kusha grass spread on the ground, I shall remain here in front of Rāma’s door. Without taking food or water I will not move until Rāma agrees to accept the throne.”

Quickly grabbing a bunch of grass from near Rāma’s hut, Bharata spread it out and sat down. Rāma said in surprise, “O Bharata, why do You take such a vow? Your duty is to rule the kingdom, not sit upon the ground like a destitute Brahmin.”

Bharata turned toward the people and implored, “Why do you not plead with My brother to return?”

A leader of the Brahmin community stepped forward. “It is clear that Rāma will not be swayed from His determination to follow His father’s command. What can we do? Our hearts are breaking with the thought of Rāma’s separation.”

Rāma glanced lovingly at the Brahmin and then said to Bharata, “Get up, O tiger among men. Return to Ayodhya. Become the king and rule with justice. In fourteen years You will see me returned.”

Bharata stood up and replied to Rāma, “If Our father’s order must be followed, then allow Me to stay here in Your place.”

Rāma gently admonished Bharata, telling Him that it was not possible for one’s promise to be fulfilled by another person. Rāma had given His word and it was He who had to keep that word. He promised that when He returned to Ayodhya He would accept the throne, but He would not under any condition return before the fourteen years had expired.

The many eminent sages who were present had listened intently to the conversation between the two divine brothers. They were thrilled and astonished, thinking of the deep import of Their discussion. Hosts of heavenly ṛṣis along with the gods, stood invisible in the sky. The divine beings then spoke so that only Rāma and His brothers could hear.

“Hearing this wondrous dialogue between Rāma and Bharata, we long to hear it again and again,” said one of the gods. “O Bharata, please allow Rāma to fulfill His promise to His father. By virtue of Rāma’s vow Daśaratha has ascended to the highest heaven, freed of his debt to Kaikeyi.”

The gods were anxious for Rāvaṇa’s death which they saw as imminent. They showered celestial flowers on Rāma and His brothers and then returned to their heavenly abodes. Encouraged by hearing the demigods, Bharata was prepared to accept the responsibility of ruling Ayodhya. Falling at Rāma’s feet He voiced His final doubts. “My lord, how does the power to rule our vast kingdom exist in Me? I am young and inexperienced. Nor am I possessed of any great ability. Surely the kingdom will meet with ruin under My incapable guidance.”

Rāma raised His younger brother and placed Him on His lap. Stroking His head He said, “Your humility is Your real qualification. By virtue of this wisdom You can protect the entire earth. Always seek the counsel of learned Brahmins and rule with confidence, O jewel among men.”

Bharata then brought before Rāma a pair of ornate wooden sandals embellished with gold. He put them on the ground and said, “Please place Your feet in these sandals, dear Rāma. Let these shoes be the rulers of the kingdom and I shall remain as their servant.”

Rāma immediately put on the sandals and then took them off again, handing them back to Bharata. Bharata placed the sandals on His head. “For the coming fourteen years I shall live in a hut outside Ayodhya,” He said, sighing. “I shall survive on only fruits and roots and My hair shall be matted. If at the end of this time I do not see You return, O Rāma, then I shall enter blazing fire.”

“So be it,” replied Rāma and He embraced each of His brothers. He again told Bharata that Kaikeyi should not be condemned and that she should be treated with kindness. Rāma paid His respects to all the people there according to their positions, speaking fond farewells to everyone. Kaushalya and the other queens stood in front of Rāma unable to say anything, their throats choked and their eyes flooded with tears. Rāma bowed to each of them in turn.

As the queens departed Kaikeyi turned and spoke privately to Rāma. She censured herself again and again, begging His forgiveness. The queen fell at Rāma’s feet. “I am entirely ignorant and have acted like a fool,” she said tearfully, “but now I understand that You are the eternal Supreme Person. Who would not be bewildered upon seeing Your human pastimes? O Lord, please forgive me and destroy my attachments to family and wealth.”

Rāma smiled at her with affection. “It was I who, for the sake of the gods, prompted you to act as you did,” he said. “You are not to blame, nor am I angry with you. Hardly anyone knows My real nature. I am never affected by desire in the same way as ordinary men. I act simply to reciprocate the service and love I am given. Gentle lady, return to Ayodhya and live peacefully. Think of Me day and night and you will soon be freed from all your attachments to this temporary world.”

Kaikeyi felt deeply relieved and gladdened. With folded hands she circumambulated Rāma and again joined the other queens.

Bharata had the golden sandals placed upon the royal elephant and shielded by the white umbrella. With the elephant at their head, the citizens of Ayodhya returned the way they had come.

As they entered Ayodhya some days later, they saw that it had become dark and desolate. The streets were unswept and rubbish was strewn all around. The doors and windows of the empty houses swung open. The city had become overrun by cats and owls, and mice ran everywhere. No offerings were being made in the temples and all the shops and pleasure houses were closed. The streets were deserted and the city, which had always been full of the life and joy of countless people, was now silent and still. The city resembled a vast army which has been defeated in battle, its armor shattered, its ensigns torn down, and its heroes killed.

Bharata made His way to Daśaratha’s palace, dejected to see the state of His beloved Ayodhya. After entering the palace, which was like a mountain cave abandoned by its lion, Bharata went into the assembly hall with Vasiṣṭha and His other counselors. He placed Rāma’s sandals on the throne, then sat next to them and said, “I shall not accept the throne of Ayodhya. These sandals should be consecrated as the king and I shall be their servant only. Indeed, I shall live in a hermitage outside the city. When Rāma returns I shall again place these sandals on His feet, as He alone is the king.”

The Brahmins applauded Bharata. “So be it!” they exclaimed. They then duly installed the sandals with the coronation ceremony.

Bharata then moved with Shatraghna into a small wooden hut, eating only forest fare and wearing ascetic dress. Each day He would submit the affairs of state before Rāma’s sandals. Only then would He carry out any necessary action. Any gifts He received He would also offer to Rāma’s sandals. In this way He ruled the kingdom.

Chapter 6: The Forest Sages

After Bharata left, Rāma continued to live on Chitrakuta Mountain. As the months passed, Rāma began to notice that the ṛṣis living nearby were always fearful and anxious. He approached the leading ascetics and, bowing down humbly, asked, “O venerable ones, has something in My behavior given you cause for concern? Have either My brother or I been acting in a way not worthy of Our esteemed forefathers? Is Sītā behaving in a way unbecoming a young woman?”

Rāma had noticed on several occasions that the Brahmins spoke together while glancing at Him. He knew they were worried about something. Seated before them with folded palms, Rāma listened carefully as the leaders replied.

“How could there ever be any fault in the behavior of You or Your brother, O Rāma?” one ṛṣi said. “What unseemly conduct will ever be seen in the gentle and high-born Sītā? We know well Your true identity.”

The ṛṣis glowed with ascetic power. They constantly chanted various names of God, fingering their wooden beads as they intoned the mantras. With a desire to render service to Rāma, they addressed Him as if He were an ordinary man.

“There is a powerful Rākṣasa called Khara living near here,” the ṛṣi continued. “This demon is Rāvaṇa’s younger brother and he is brutal, haughty and sinful. Angered by Your presence, he has been afflicting us with more vehemence than usual.”

Rāma frowned as he heard about the Rākṣasa. He could not tolerate any aggression toward Brahmins.

The ṛṣi went on, “Khara and his hordes of Rākasas, constantly impede our sacrifices. The demons show themselves in hideous, savage and frightening forms. They throw flesh, bones, excrement and urine down from the sky, defiling our sacrificial arenas. They make strange and terrible noises and it is only a matter of time before they become violent toward us. We therefore desire to leave this place.”

Seeing sacrifice as their sacred duty, the ascetics wished to go to another forest where they would not be disturbed. As Brahmins, they would not themselves fight the Rākṣasas, although they were capable of checking them by their mystic power. They also understood that Rāma wanted to destroy the demons, especially their leader Rāvaṇa.

Rāma tried to reassure the ṛṣis, but they were determined to leave. Having stayed on Chitrakuta for some years, the renounced ascetics were also concerned that they may have become attached to their material situation. Normally they moved continuously from forest to forest, staying only one or two years in each place. After speaking a little more with Rāma, informing Him of where Khara lived, the Brahmins rose up in a body. With only their water pots and staffs they left the region. Rāma followed them for some distance in order to see them off with respect. He then returned to His hermitage, considering in His mind how to deal with the Rākṣasas.

When He reached His hut, Rāma said to Lakṣman, “I think the time has come for Us to leave Chitrakuta. The Brahmins have left, and I am afraid that We will again be visited by the people who now know of Our whereabouts. We should leave for some other more remote forest.”

Rāma decided to make His way to the Dandaka forest, which was inhabited by the Rākṣasas. He wanted to confront the demons. The two brothers donned Their weapons and, with Sītā walking between Them, immediately left.

After journeying for some days They entered the Dandaka forest and came upon a cluster of hermitages. The ṛṣis there greeted Them with respect. Those ascetics were endowed with divine vision, and they were astonished to see Rāma and His companions. The Lord of all the worlds was standing before them. Seeing Rāma and Sītā’s simple forest dress, the sages felt wonder and awe. They worshipped Rāma with various prayers and offered Him a hut for the night.

“Welcome indeed is Your arrival in these woods,” the ṛṣis said. “The king is the protector of righteousness and the only refuge of the people. He stands with his scepter and metes out justice as God’s powerful representative. O Rāma, we are Your subjects and Your servants. We are simple Brahmins who have renounced anger and controlled our senses. As such we deserve Your protection, even as a fetus is protected by its mother.”

Entertaining Rāma with forest produce, the ascetics described how the Rākṣasas had become increasingly violent. Under Rāvaṇa’s leadership the demons had become fearless and they attacked the Brahmins constantly. Fourteen thousand powerful Rākṣasas had taken up their residence in the Dandaka forest, headed by Rāvaṇa’s two brothers, Khara and Dushana. The situation was becoming unbearable for the sages.

Rāma and Lakṣman listened gravely. They resolved to deal with the Rākṣasas as soon as possible. While They were conversing with the ṛṣis, Sītā met Anasuya, the sage Atri’s wife. Anasuya gave Sītā a celestial garment, garland and ornaments, along with celestial cosmetics and unguents. Sītā accepted the gifts graciously and with Her husband’s permission adorned Herself with them. After decorating Herself with the heavenly apparel, She shone brilliantly, exactly like Lakṣmī, the eternal consort of Viṣṇu.

After spending the night with the ṛṣis, the princes left with Sītā and they penetrated deep into the Dandaka region. Lakṣman moved ahead and cleared a path with His sword, cutting through the thick creepers and bushes. Sītā, Her head covered with Her cloth to protect Herself from the swarms of insects that flew about, walked in the middle. Rāma brought up the rear, vigilantly watching on all sides and holding His bow at the ready. The cries of jackals and the shrieks of vultures and birds of prey could be heard all around. Here and there They saw uprooted, broken trees and the carcasses of slain beasts.

As They broke through into a clearing They suddenly saw a dreadful-looking Rākṣasa. Powerfully built and as tall as several men, he stood entirely blocking Their way. With high pointed ears, fierce teeth protruding from his cavernous mouth, and blood-red eyes staring out from an ugly misshapen face, the demon was terrible to behold. He held a long lance on which he had speared four lions, three tigers, a couple of wolves and about ten spotted deer. Around his blackish and hairy body were draped tiger skins, still dripping with blood and fat. He resembled the god of death standing with his staff of justice. When he saw Rāma and the others he let out a terrific roar that could be heard for many miles. He rushed furiously toward Them and quickly seized Sītā.

Taking the princess a little distance away, the Rākṣasa spoke to Rāma and Lakṣman in a voice resounding like claps of thunder. “Who are You two, looking like ascetics but carrying weapons? You shame the Brahmin class with this strange behavior. Why have You brought a woman into this dense forest? Sinful as You are, You shall meet death at my hands. This lady shall become my wife. Today I shall drink Your blood on the battlefield.”

Sītā trembled in the monster’s clutches, like a sapling trembling in a storm. Seeing Her carried away by the Rākṣasa, Rāma said to Lakṣman, “It seems that Kaikeyi’s cherished desire will today be fulfilled. This hideous demon has taken hold of My sinless wife. There is nothing more painful for Me than to see the princess of Videha touched by another. This is more painful even than the death of My father or the loss of the kingdom.”

Rāma cried tears of sorrow as He spoke. Lakṣman became infuriated with the demon and He hissed like an angry cobra. “Why are You, the Lord of all beings with Me as Your servant, grieving like an orphan?” He asked. “The earth will soon drink this beast’s blood. The anger which I wrongly directed toward Bharata will today be released upon that foul demon. Watch now as My arrow pierces his breast and he whirls around, falling lifeless to the ground.”

The Rākṣasa, still awaiting a reply to his question, again boomed out, “Who are You and where are You going?”

Rāma moved closer to the demon and replied, “We are two warriors of the royal order of Raghu who have come here in exile. Tell us who you are and why you roam this forest, O wicked one.”

“So, you are kings from Ayodhya!” the Rākṣasa replied. “Know me to be Viradha, a Rākṣasa who wanders this forest eating the flesh of sages. You should run away the way You came. I’ll not kill You. I have been granted boons by Brahmā and cannot be slain by any weapon, O Raghava. Leave quickly and abandon this princess to me. Assuming a human form I shall sport with Her as my wife.”

Rāma grew furious. With bloodshot eyes He spoke in a voice like Indra’s. “You pathetic fool! You are certainly seeking death. You will get it today on the battlefield. I shall not leave you with your life.”

Without uttering another word Rāma shot seven golden-feathered arrows at the demon. The arrows flew with the speed of Garuḍa and pierced right through Viradha, falling upon the earth drenched with his blood. The Rākṣasa roared in pain and released Sītā. With his lance upraised he rushed at Rāma and Lakṣman. The brothers immediately sent a shower of arrows at the demon.

Even though pierced all over, Viradha remained standing. Laughing aloud he yawned contemptuously. He then hurled his lance at Rāma with the force of a tempest. Rāma at once fired two arrows which cut the lance into three pieces as it coursed toward Him. As it fell to the ground the shattered lance resembled a rocky mountain ledge that had been struck by Indra’s thunderbolt. Rāma and Lakṣman took out Their swords, which resembled two black serpents preparing to attack. They rushed at the Rākṣasa and began striking him with great force. Viradha reached down and lifted both brothers, one on each arm. Placing Them on his shoulders he ran toward the woods.

As Viradha approached the dense forest Sītā cried out, “Alas, where goes My lord? O best of the Rākṣasas, please take Me also. How can I remain here alone?”

Hearing Sītā’s plaintive wail, Rāma raised His sword high and hacked off the demon’s right arm. Lakṣman lopped off his left arm, and Viradha fell upon the ground in a swoon. Although striking him with Their swords and with kicks and punches, the brothers saw that the Rākṣasa still did not die. Rāma said to Lakṣman, “It is clear that due to his boons this demon cannot be killed by force. We should bury him in a pit, for this is the traditional way of disposing of the Rākṣasas. Quickly dig a large pit, O tiger among men!”

Rāma stood with His foot pressing down upon the Rākṣasa’s neck. Viradha regained consciousness and said, “O Raghava, I am defeated by You. Your strength is not less than Indra’s. I now know You to be the all-powerful Rāma and Your wife the highly fortunate Sītā. I am the Gandharva named Tumburu. Due to not properly serving Kuvera, the lord of wealth, I was cursed by him.”

The fallen Rākṣasa explained how as Tumburu he had previously been Kuvera’s servant. One day Tumburu had been sporting with the Apsarās and had failed to properly attend upon his master. In anger Kuvera had cursed him to enter a demon’s fierce form. Tumburu had pleaded for mercy and Kuvera had replied, “When Rāma, the son of Daśaratha, defeats you in battle, then you will attain your own form and return to heaven.”

Viradha spoke with difficulty. “By your grace, O Rāma, I am freed from a terrible curse. I shall now go to my own abode. O Lord, ten miles from here lives the sage Sarabhanga, who longs to see You. Go to his hermitage, for he will give You good advice.”

Viradha begged Rāma to inter him in the pit so that he could die. Rāma and Lakṣman rolled the huge body of the Rākṣasa into the hole Lakṣman had dug. After covering him with earth and rocks, They comforted Sītā and then continued on Their way, looking for Sarabhanga’s hermitage.

In the sky the gods had witnessed the whole scene. Seeing Rāma, whom they knew to be the powerful Viṣṇu acting like a human, they were astonished. Nothing was beyond Rāma’s knowledge or power, yet He accepted the feelings and actions of an ordinary man. Pondering upon the import of Rāma’s deeds, the gods received Tumburu back to them.

Rāma searched for Sarabhanga, absorbed in a mood of affection for the sage. As the brothers came near the ascetic’s hermitage They saw in the sky a golden chariot. It shone like the midday sun and was drawn by a thousand greenish horses. A brilliant white canopy resembling a large cloud and decorated with magnificent garlands covered the chariot. Seated in the chariot was Indra, who was being fanned with white whisks by two beautiful young girls. In the sky many other gods surrounded Indra. Rāma and Lakṣman saw numerous Gandharvas and Siddhas, all dressed in resplendent silk garments and gold ornaments. All these high-souled beings were worshipping Indra with Vedic hymns.

Upon seeing this wondrous sight Rāma said to Lakṣman, “O Lakṣman, see here Indra’s wonderful chariot, full of grandeur. Those young men with broad chests and arms like iron clubs, wearing red garments and gold earrings and surrounding him in the hundreds, appear as unassailable as tigers.”

Lakṣman gazed up at the host of gods assembled in the sky. All of them appeared youthful and all had garlands as bright as fire on their chests. As the two princes looked on, the gods rose up into the sky and vanished. Amazed at this sight Rāma and Lakṣman walked on and entered Sarabhanga’s hermitage.

Sarabhanga was seated before the sacrificial fire. Having practiced asceticism for many years, he was able to fix his mind upon the Supreme Person within his heart. He had realized that Rāma was that same person. In meditation the sage prayed that he might be able to see God in His human form. Accordingly, Rāma approached the old ascetic and bowed low before him, touching his feet and saying, “I am Rāma, and this is My brother Lakṣman and My wife Sītā. At Viradha’s behest, We have sought your presence. Viradha has now risen to heaven with the gods. Pray tell Us what We should do, O jewel among sages.”

Sarabhanga rose immediately, his eyes flooded with tears. He showed the three travelers a seat. Offering Them water and fruits, he said, “O Rāma, there is no one more kind or merciful. After meditating for a very long time and reaching the end of my attachments to this world, I saw You in my heart. Now I see You here as the son of Daśaratha.”

After offering many prayers the sage fell silent. He sat for some time gazing with love upon Rāma’s face. Smiling, Rāma asked, “Why did I see here the lord of the gods, O sage?”

The sage said that Indra had come to take him to the higher planets, which he had earned as a result of his asceticism. Sarabhanga explained that, desiring to remain on earth to see Rāma, he had sent Indra away.

“Now that I have seen Your transcendental form I have no desire to go to the heavenly worlds, O Raghava,” Sarabhanga said. “Please take from me my ascetic merits.”

“You will doubtlessly rise beyond even the highest heaven and attain Viṣṇu’s immortal abode, O learned one,” Rāma replied. “But before leaving, pray tell Me where I should go now.”

Sarabhanga directed Rāma to the hermitage of another sage named Sutikshna. He then gazed at Rāma and entered a deep meditation. From within himself Sarabhanga invoked the fire element and immolated his mortal frame, which quickly burned to ashes. The sage appeared in a shining spiritual body and, after offering his respects to Rāma, rose up into the sky.

Rāma remained seated in Sarabhanga’s hermitage and many other ṛṣis came there and begged Him to dispose of the Rākṣasas. They told Him how the demons were killing thousands of Brahmins. Rāma assured the ṛṣis that He would annihilate the Rākṣasas in due course. He then left and went toward Sutikshna’s hermitage, following Sarabhanga’s directions.

Upon seeing Rāma, Sutikshna offered many prayers and then took Him to see the powerful Ṛṣi Agastya. On the way to Agastya They saw that the forest resembled the famous Nandana grove in the heavens. The ground was suddenly smooth, carpeted with soft grasses. Trees bent down on both sides under their heavy loads of ripe fruits. The clear lakes were filled with lotuses and crowded with swans, cranes and many other varieties of water birds. Flowers grew and trees blossomed everywhere. The animals were docile and approached the travelers without fear.

Rāma looked around at the wonderful scenery. “It seems We are near Agastya’s hermitage,” he said. “By his austerities the sage has transformed this forest into heaven. We will soon behold that shining ṛṣi.”

Requested by Lakṣman, Rāma told various stories about Agastya. He kept His brother and Sītā entertained as They walked throughout the day. Finally by evening They arrived at the hermitage. As They approached it Rāma said, “Let Us go see Agastya, for he will surely bless Us with all good fortune. I think that with his permission We should remain in this region for the rest of Our stay in the forest.”

Sutikshna went ahead and informed Agastya of their arrival. The sage quickly had them brought into his hermitage. As they entered the large compound they saw numerous sacrificial fires, each dedicated to a particular god and tended by Agastya’s disciples. All the principal deities, including the Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu, as well as Śiva, Brahmā and dozens of other gods were being worshipped. Sacrificial smoke and the sound of mantras filled the air.

Agastya, feeling ecstasy, rose up from his seat and came swiftly toward Rāma. Rāma saw the sage coming and along with Lakṣman He immediately prostrated Himself on the ground. Sītā stood close behind with Her hands folded and head bowed.

Agastya raised Rāma up and said, “I have been thinking of You for a long time, O Raghava. I am blessed by Your appearance here. You are always beyond the influence of the unsurpassable material energy. Simply by remembering You one can be carried beyond the great ocean of birth, death and suffering. What then can be said of one who sees You?”

Agastya sat the travelers down and after offering oblations into the sacred fire, he presented them with water and food. Seated in meditation the sage then caused a great golden bow to appear. There were also two quivers filled with sharp arrows which blazed like fire, and a long sword sheathed in a golden scabbard. Agastya presented the weapons to Rāma, telling Him how in a previous age Viṣṇu had used them to assist the gods in a war against the demons.

Rāma accepted the celestial weapons respectfully and then asked the sage to tell Him of a place where He could live. After again meditating for a while the sage replied, “By virtue of my austerities and meditation I have come to know You and understand Your purpose, O Rāma. I therefore suggest You go to a nearby forest called Panchavati. It is beautiful and sanctified. At that place all Your desires will be fulfilled.”

Agastya gave the brothers directions. After taking leave, Rāma, Lakṣman and Sītā began the twenty-mile walk to Panchavati, making Their way along the narrow forest paths.

After a few miles they came across a huge vulture lying in a clearing. Rāma and Lakṣman, assuming it to be a Rākṣasa, quickly prepared to fight. Rāma carefully approached the vulture, which resembled a hill.

“I am Rāma and this is My brother Lakṣman, two descendants of Raghu,” He declared. “Who are you and what is your race?”

In gentle speech the bird replied that he was an old friend of Daśaratha. His name was Jatayu and he was the king of the vultures. He recounted to Rāma his entire lineage, which began with the ancient sage Kardama. In the course of his narration Jatayu described how all the various species of birds and animals had descended. Jatayu was the nephew of Garuḍa, the invincible eagle carrier of Viṣṇu.

“This forest is infested with Rākṣasas and vicious beasts,” Jatayu said. “Allow me to accompany You in the forest. I shall protect Sītā when You two brothers go out to gather food.”

Rāma knew of Jatayu’s friendship with His father. He joyfully embraced the great bird and gave His permission for Jatayu to follow Him. Rāma then continued toward Panchavati, eager to encounter the demons.

After arriving at Panchavati, Rāma selected a spot near the sacred river Godavari. Lakṣman sanctified the spot with prayers and water from river. He constructed a large hut with mud walls, supported on strong wooden pillars, its roof thatched with kusha grass and reeds. Rāma was delighted to see the beautiful cottage and He embraced Lakṣman. “With You as His son, virtuous and always attentive to My needs and desires, surely the king still lives,” Rāma said affectionately. “O Lakṣman, You are to Me as good as My beloved father.”

Rāma and Sītā settled in the dwelling and lived peacefully, bathing in the Godavari and enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest.

Chapter 7: The Rākṣasī Shurpanakha

The time passed quickly for Rāma and His companions. They lived in almost complete solitude, seeing only an occasional ascetic. Although Rāma wanted to face the Rākṣasas, no opportunity presented itself.

One day, just as Their tenth winter in exile was ending, a powerful Rākṣasī named Shurpanakha, a sister of Rāvaṇa, came to the Panchavati region. While she was roaming about looking for food, she saw Rāma’s footprints and followed them. Soon she arrived at Rāma’s cottage. As she came near the hermitage she saw Rāma seated outside His hut. She was immediately attracted to the handsome Rāma, with His powerful frame and majestic bearing. Her mind filled with lust, she assumed the form of a beautiful woman and walked slowly before Him.

“Who are You, dressed in ascetic garb yet wielding weapons?” the Rākṣasī asked. “Why have You come to this forest which is frequented by Rākṣasas? Be pleased to tell me.”

Rāma looked guilelessly at the Rākṣasī. “There was a powerful king named Daśaratha,” He replied. “I am his son Rāma and this is My brother Lakṣman. There is the princess of Videha, My wife Sītā. On My father’s command I am sojourning here in the forest. Now tell Me, who are you, O beautiful maiden? Who is your husband? You seem to Me to be a Rākṣasī capable of assuming various guises. Tell Me truly why you have approached Me.”

Shurpanakha moved her hips and glanced down coyly. “Know me to be Shurpanakha, sister of the unconquerable Rāvaṇa. Living here with my other brothers, Khara and Dushana, I range these woods devouring ascetics and causing fear to all. However, upon seeing You I long to embrace You as my husband.”

Shurpanakha hoped that, even if Rāma was not attracted to her, out of fear of her He might accede to her request. Hearing that she was a Rakshashi, Rāma and Lakṣman looked at her in surprise. In her fine silks and ornaments she appeared exactly like a celestial maiden. She moved closer to Rāma and smiled. “O Rāma, of what use to You is this skinny and deformed woman?” she asked, throwing a disdainful glance at Sītā. “Accept me as Your wife. I am possessed of great power. After devouring this wife and brother of Yours, I will carry You to high mountain reaches where we can sport together in joy.”

Rāma laughed heartily. He decided to joke with the infatuated Rākṣasī. “O beautiful woman, I am already married. For ladies like you it is always painful to have a co-wife. Here though is My younger brother. He is handsome and highly qualified and is as yet unmarried. Why not take Him as your worthy husband?”

Shurpanakha turned quickly toward Lakṣman, who stood smiling with His hand resting on His bow. The Rākṣasī moved toward Him. “See my alluring form,” she said. “I am certainly worthy of becoming Your wife, O handsome one. Let us range together happily through these woods.”

Lakṣman caught Rāma’s joking mood. “Why do you seek to become a maidservant, foolish woman?” He asked with a laugh. “I am dependent on My older brother. As My wife you will be Sītā’s servant. You should seek only Rāma as your husband. Who could actually refuse you in favor of a human lady? Surely Rāma will soon abandon the weak and worn-out Sītā once you are his wife.”

Shurpanakha was too simple to catch the joke. She took Lakṣman’s words to be true and turned again toward Rāma, who sat next to Sītā. “Why do you cling to this hideous wife of Yours?” she asked, growing impatient. “If it is her who stands between You and me, I shall now devour Her, even as You watch. We shall then roam together at ease.”

Shurpanakha rushed furiously toward Sītā, even as a large meteor would fall toward the earth. She assumed her natural form as a Rākṣasī, appearing like a black cloud. Rāma immediately roared and checked her by the sound alone. As she fell back Rāma said angrily to Lakṣman, “It is clear that jests should not be had with cruel, low-class people. See how We have placed Sītā in danger. O mighty brother! Take Your sword and quickly disable this ugly, vile and wanton being. Do not slay her, as she is a woman.”

Lakṣman drew His sword. He moved swiftly and sliced off the demon’s long nose and pointed ears. Shurpanakha screamed in pain. She realized the brothers were formidable and quickly ran off into the woods. Her dissonant and horrible cries could be heard disappearing into the distance as she retreated. She bled profusely and raised her arms as she ran, roaring like a monsoon cloud.

The Rākṣasī sought her brother Khara, who was the leader of the Rākṣasas in the forest. Going before him drenched in blood and crying

loudly, she dropped upon the ground like a bolt from the blue. Khara sat surrounded by numerous powerful Rākṣasas. He was holding a massive club. When he saw his sister’s state, he frowned.

“What fool has done this to you?” the Rākṣasa snarled. “Who has ignorantly goaded a poisonous serpent with his finger? Whoever has assailed you has fastened around his neck the noose of death. Tell me explicitly, O sister, who will today meet with his end at my hands?”

Khara stood up. He was proud and arrogant. He took the offense to his sister as a personal insult. “Who could possibly have been so bold as to provoke me?” he thundered. “Whose foaming blood will soak the earth today? Whose flesh will the vultures delightedly tear from his body when he lies slain by me on the battlefield? Quickly tell me the name and whereabouts of the wretch. I do not see a being in the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell who would dare challenge me, including Indra himself!”

Shurpanakha gathered her senses and answered her furious brother. She told him how she had seen Rāma and Lakṣman in the forest, appearing young and tender yet obviously possessed of terrific strength. “These two brothers look like Gandharva kings,” she said. “They are dressed like ascetics and seem to be in perfect control of Their senses. I could not ascertain if They were humans, gods or some other divine beings. In their midst I saw a young lady of faultless form and beauty who shone like the moon. On account of that lady I was reduced to this state by those two brothers.”

Shurpanakha asked Khara to kill them immediately. Holding a cloth to her wounded face she said, “I long to drink the blood of that slender woman as well as of those two brothers. Quickly accomplish my desire, dear brother. Go now to where they are staying and slay them in an encounter.”

Khara at once ordered fourteen powerful Rākṣasas to go and attack the two princes. He told his sister to accompany them. “Once these Rākṣasas have made short work of those three, you may drink Their gushing blood. Dragging Their corpses on the field of battle, pierce Their soft flesh with your long teeth.”

Like clouds driven in a storm, the fourteen Rākṣasas along with Shurpanakha sped toward Rāma’s hermitage. As they arrived they saw Rāma seated at ease with Sītā in front of Their hut. Lakṣman was nearby chopping firewood. Rāma saw the Rākṣasas entering the area of His hermitage and He said to Lakṣman, “Wait here by Sītā’s side, O son of Sumitra. I shall quickly dispatch these evil marauders of the forest. Indeed, I have long awaited just such an opportunity.”

Rāma stood up and strung His bow in an instant. He called out to the Rākṣasas, “Halt! Why do you seek to injure Us? We live here peacefully, harming no one. Armed with My bow I aim to make this forest free from the likes of you. If you have any love of life, then flee now and never return. Otherwise stand on the battlefield and witness My show of strength.”

The Rākṣasas looked at Rāma and laughed. Each of them was twice as tall as Rāma. Their bodies were hugely powerful and they were equipped with fierce weapons. They considered Rāma’s threat comical. It was a rare human who could face even one Rākṣasa in battle, and they were fourteen. Their leader replied harshly to Rāma.

“Foolish human! What power do You have to face us in battle?” he said, his voice resounding around Rāma’s hermitage like a great drum. “You have angered our master Khara and thereby brought death upon Your head. Hit by our iron clubs and swords, You will soon succumb to our might. Boast while You can, for in a moment You will give up Your valor and indeed Your life.”

All fourteen Rākṣasas rushed at Rāma. They roared loudly and hurled large iron darts. Rāma stood His ground. Releasing fourteen arrows He cut down the darts as they flew at Him. The Rākṣasas raised their swords and closed on Rāma, their mouths open and their eyes bloodshot. Rāma, moving more quickly than the eye could see, at once fired fourteen arrows one after another at each of the demons. His long, straight shafts were made wholly of iron with points sharpened on stone. They screamed through the air and hit each demon in the chest. Their hearts ripped apart, the Rākṣasas fell to the earth, soaked in blood, like fourteen great trees felled by a storm.

Shurpanakha was astonished to see Rāma’s prowess. Surely He was not an ordinary man, nor His weapons those of an ordinary warrior. She ran away in fear and disappointment and fell again before Khara.

Khara looked at her in surprise. “Why are you still crying?” he asked. “I have already sent fourteen brave fighters to oblige you. Those Rākṣasas are unassailable and devoted to pleasing me. Without doubt they will satisfy your desire. With me and my army as your protector why do you wail?”

Shurpanakha told her brother what had happened. She sat before him trembling, with blood encrusted on her face and clothes. Khara listened in amazement as she spoke.

“Although your fourteen fighters were angry and impetuous, they were quickly slain by Rāma. He exhibited fearsome energy and power. His arrows were like rods of death. All fourteen Rākṣasas are now prostrate upon the ground, killed easily by Rāma. O Khara, my mind is possessed by terror when I think of Rāma. Be my protector!”

Shurpanakha rolled about on the ground, beating her chest and shedding tears. She mocked her astonished brother, trying to goad him into battle with Rāma. “What is the use of your idle boasts? Go out and face Rāma in a fight. You will soon see your energy and pride humbled. Or if you actually do have any power, then let it be proved. Slay the two brothers today and avenge me and your fourteen servants.”

Khara rose up like a serpent that had just been kicked. He screamed in anger. In the midst of the other demons he roared, “My fury is immeasurable! It cannot be held in check any more than a mighty ocean wave. By virtue of my strength I hold this human Rāma of no account whatsoever. His life is already ended. Dry your tears, sister. Today you will see Rāma sent to Yamarāja’s abode. After I sever His head with my axe, you will drink His hot blood.”

Shurpanakha was delighted. She praised her brother as a giant among the Rākṣasas. Despite his boasts, however, Khara considered Rāma a formidable opponent. He gave instructions to his brother and general, Dushana. “O valiant one, prepare my chariot. Fill it with every kind of weapon. Order all of the fourteen thousand Rākṣasas under my command to prepare themselves for battle. I myself will march at the head of the high-souled Rākṣasas to destroy the arrogant Rāma.”

Dushana fetched Khara’s huge golden chariot, which shone like the sun and was drawn by a hundred spotted horses. It resembled a peak of the golden Mount Meru. In its center it had a large ensign pole made of cat’s-eye jewels. The chariot was bedecked with small gold bells and its sides were studded with red and blue gems and embellished with carvings of alligators, flowers, trees, mountains, lions, tigers and flocks of birds. Many flags flew from tall poles and it had eight golden wheels. Khara indignantly ascended the chariot and, raising his sword, ordered the army to advance. With a great clamor the vast army sallied forth from the Janasthana forest. Holding clubs, darts, razor-sharp axes, javelins, maces, swords, scimitars, bows and sharpened discuses, they moved off, all shouting their battle cries.

Khara urged his charioteer to spur on the horses. The sound of the swift moving chariot filled the four quarters. The army followed behind Khara, some running on foot, some coursing through the air, others riding horses and still others on the backs of elephants. They were all seized with a desire to kill the enemy.

As they drove forward, however, they saw various evil omens. The sky above them was covered with a huge grey cloud which poured down blood-red water. Khara’s horses stumbled and fell even on level ground. The sun appeared to be surrounded by a dark, red-edged halo. A gigantic, frightful vulture settled on Khara’s ensign pole. Carnivorous beasts and birds cried in discordant notes and jackals yelled. The wind blew violently and thick darkness covered the four quarters. Stars flashed in the sky and meteors descended with roaring sounds.

Khara felt his left arm throbbing violently. His voice grew faint and his eyes were filled with tears. A sharp pain filled his head and he heard a loud ringing in his ears. Even though he saw these omens, however, out of folly Khara did not return. He laughed loudly and said to his followers, “Disregard these evil portents, O Rākṣasas. They do not bother me in the least, although they are terrible and inauspicious. I am able to stand before Death himself. With my sharp arrows I can shoot the stars from the sky.”

Khara railed foolishly, considering the omens to be sent by the gods, for whom he cared little. He raised his battle-ax and bellowed, making the earth shake. “How can I return without slaying Rāma and Lakṣman, who are so proud of Their strength? Today my sister will be gratified with the blood of those humans. I have never been defeated in battle and am unafraid even of Indra when he stands with the whole heavenly host.”

The demons felt joy upon hearing Khara’s valiant speech. As if bound and dragged by the noose of death they raced toward Rāma’s hermitage.

In the sky many ṛṣis assembled to witness the encounter. Gods, Gandharvas, Siddhas and Cāraṇas came in their aerial cars. The celestial beings, who were friendly to all, spoke together. “May all be well with the Brahmins,” they said. “Even as Viṣṇu conquered the foremost demons with his discus weapon, may Rāma annihilate the Rākṣasas.”

While the gods looked on, Khara, surrounded by his powerful generals, rushed forward, eagerly seeking combat. The Rākṣasas suddenly approached the two princes, even as a group of planets might rush toward the sun and the moon.

From his hermitage Rāma had also seen the evil omens. “Behold these portents, O brother, foreboding the imminent destruction of the Rākṣasas. These grey clouds are raining blood, while My arrows are shaking in Their quivers. This undoubtedly means death will soon overtake the entire Rākṣasa horde.”

Rāma felt His right arm throb and His mind becoming enlivened. Such favorable omens indicated His victory, although all around Him He saw evil portents. He concluded that there would shortly be an encounter between Himself and the Rākṣasas, from which He would emerge victorious.

As Rāma contemplated in this way He heard the distant crash of Khara’s advancing army. The sound of beating drums and roaring Rākṣasas filled the air. Quickly taking Sītā by the hand, Rāma said to Lakṣman, “Take this delicate princess to some safe cave on the mountain. Please don’t hesitate.”

Rāma knew His brother was longing to confront the Rākṣasas, but Sītā had to be protected. Lakṣman obeyed Rāma’s order immediately and took Sītā to a concealed cave which was difficult to reach. After placing Her inside He stood at the entrance holding His bow.

Rāma put on the golden coat of mail Agastya had given Him. He strapped on the two inexhaustible quivers of arrows and tied His sword to His belt. Standing rooted to the spot Rāma looked like a brilliant flame suddenly appearing in darkness. He twanged His bow, which filled the quarters with its terrifying sound.

The gods looked on, eager for the Rākṣasas to be destroyed. They gazed at Rāma, who stood fearlessly before the charging Rākṣasas. He resembled the invincible Śiva seized with fury, but He was single-handedly facing fourteen thousand terrible demons. Curious to see the outcome, the gods watched in anticipation.

As the Rākṣasa army rushed toward Rāma they seemed like a mass of dark blue clouds. The forest animals fled, terrified by the sound of the approaching army. Rāma suddenly saw the Rākṣasas coming at Him from all sides. They screamed in fury and hurled their spears, darts and clubs. From his chariot Khara released a thousand flaming arrows and roared loudly.

Rāma stood firm. He was pierced with numerous arrows and His limbs were smeared with blood. With His own arrows He cut down the rain of weapons. Axes, swords, lances and spiked maces were thrown at Him with the force of a tempest. Rāma whirled around and parried the weapons with His straight-flying arrows. As the foremost Rākṣasas closed in on Him, mounted on elephants, Rāma seemed like Mount Sumeru assailed by thunderclouds. He did not feel afflicted even though struck again and again. Fully hemmed in on all sides, Rāma looked like the sun screened by evening clouds.

The gods felt dejected and fearful, beholding Rāma standing alone amid thousands of Rākṣasas. They cried out, “Victory to Rāma!” Understanding their fear, Rāma resolved to kill the Rākṣasas. He began shooting His gold-tipped arrows, three or four at a time, in all directions. With His bow drawn constantly into a circle, Rāma moved with the speed of a hawk. An unbroken line of deadly shafts left his bow. Those arrows passed right through the bodies of a dozen Rākṣasas before falling to the earth. Rāma’s arrows smashed the Rākṣasas’ weapons and chariots and tore apart their golden armors.

With their arms, legs and heads severed, countless Rākṣasas fell lifeless to the ground. Rāma was enraged. He shot innumerable shafts that could not be intercepted or endured and which killed the demons by the thousands. Horses, elephants and Rākṣasas lay mangled on the ground. Crushed by Rāma, the Rākṣasas sent up a piteous wail.

Some fierce and brave Rākṣasas, who were leaders of the army and possessed of terrible might, rushed at Rāma, hurling their barbed missiles and iron pikes. But Rāma smashed their weapons to pieces even as they flew at Him. With razor-headed arrows He cut off the Rākṣasas’ heads. They toppled over like trees knocked down by a blast from Garuḍa’s wings. The surviving Rākṣasas, wounded and dispirited, ran to Khara for protection. Khara consoled them and ordered Dushana to attack Rāma.

The mighty Dushana was capable of contending with ten thousand warriors at once. With a great roar he urged his chariot forward. The Rākṣasas were encouraged to see their leader advance. Uprooting trees and lifting massive stone slabs, they charged once more at Rāma.

The dreadful encounter between Rāma and the Rākṣasas was fearful to witness. Rāma alone appeared like hundreds of warriors. The demons could not tell when He took out His arrows or placed them on His bow. They only saw Him pulling His bowstring and an endless stream of arrows being fired. The demons rallied themselves and rushed at Rāma all at once from every side. They hurled trees and rocks with great force. A diverse shower of weapons fell upon Rāma, along with volleys of barbed arrows.

Smothered by weapons, Rāma invoked the celestial missile presided over by the Gandharvas. As He released the weapon, all directions became covered by blazing shafts. Under a canopy of arrows, darkness enveloped the battlefield and the demons fell back in fear. Hundreds dropped dead at once. The ground was strewn with heads wrapped in turbans adorned with bright jewels. Severed arms still clutching weapons lay everywhere. Headless trunks spouting forth blood ran about wildly before falling to the ground. Everywhere were bodies of Rākṣasas, horses and elephants, along with broken chariots, shattered weapons, rocks smashed into powder and trees torn to pieces.

The surviving Rākṣasas were unable to face Rāma. They stood frozen with fear. Dushana, seeing his army routed, sent up a great battle cry. He ordered his five thousand personal guards to attack. These Rākṣasas had never known defeat. They were energetic and never turned their backs on the battlefield. With terrible impetuosity they incessantly assailed Rāma on all sides. Fearful showers of scimitars, spiked maces, huge rocks and long swords fell upon Rāma. Rāma, becoming increasingly enraged, intercepted the volley of weapons with His arrows. Some weapons He struck down with His whirling sword as He slayed the Rākṣasas, who fell like so many great oak trees cut at their roots.

Dushana then rushed toward Rāma in his chariot, discharging innumerable arrows like thunderbolts. Rāma released a razor-like arrow which split apart Dushana’s bow. With four more shafts He killed the four horses drawing Dushana’s chariot. He then released a crescent-headed arrow which severed the head of Dushana’s charioteer. With three more arrows Rāma pierced Dushana’s chest.

The demon jumped down from his chariot holding a mace which resembled a mountain peak. The glowing club was studded with sharp iron pikes and belted with gold. It was capable of crushing the celestial army and smashing down the gates of their citadels. Dushana tightly grasped that weapon, which resembled a large serpent and was stained with his enemies’ blood. Raising it above his head, he rushed at Rāma with a huge roar.

As Dushana bore down on Him, Rāma lopped off his arms with a pair of arrows. Along with his bejeweled arms, Dushana’s club fell to the ground. With a third crescent-headed shaft Rāma cut off Dushana’s head. Seeing Dushana slain, the gods exclaimed, “Excellent! Well done!”

Rāma then swiftly dispatched all of Dushana’s five thousand warriors to Death’s abode.

Khara was practically stupefied with anger. Seeing his army all but annihilated he charged Rāma. He sent ahead of him his own guards, a dozen of the mightiest Rākṣasas. As one might greet guests, Rāma greeted each of those demons with His sharp arrows. Those mystical shafts, given by Agastya, were encrusted with gold and diamonds and they blazed like fire. They emitted smoke and sparks as they sped through the air. Tearing into the demons’ bodies, they split their hearts in two.

Khara looked on in astonishment. Who was this human? Besides his personal guard, the three-headed Trishira was the only other demon alive. Khara advanced toward Rāma but Trishira checked him. “Simply command me, O lord, and I shall vanquish this man,” Trishira said, raising his mace. “See him thrown down today by my might. This wicked one deserves death at the hands of all Rākṣasas. I shall kill Him now, or I will lay down my life on the battlefield. Then you may march against Rāma yourself. Therefore, order me to fight.”

Trishira, who was wishing only for death, received Khara’s permission. He mounted his glittering chariot and rushed against Rāma. The demon appeared like a moving three-peaked mountain. His volleys of arrows resembled a black cloud. As he charged at Rāma, he roared like the crash of a gigantic drum. Rāma met him with a profuse number of swift arrows. Although the arrows dug into Trishira’s body he simply laughed. He hurled a golden lance, tipped with steel and fastened all over with many small bells. The lance glowed like fire as it sped toward Rāma. Firing three arrows at once, Rāma cut the lance into four pieces. It fell at His feet like four shining stars dropped from the heavens.

Trishira immediately shot three barbed arrows which struck Rāma on the forehead. With blood gushing from His head, Rāma appeared beautiful, like a mountain tipped with red oxide. Provoked by Trishira’s attack, He laughingly shouted, “Just see this demon’s strength and valor. But what will it avail him? His arrows, although fired with all his power, strike Me like so many flowers. O demon, now see My prowess!”

Rāma became excited. He shot fourteen serpent-like arrows into Trishira’s chest. With four more shafts He killed the Rākṣasa’s four horses. Rāma severed the head of his charioteer with a broad-headed arrow. He then struck down the demon’s ensign and shattered his chariot. As Trishira leapt from his broken chariot, Rāma struck him on the chest with an arrow imbued with the force of a thunderbolt. The Rākṣasa stood stunned by that arrow. Rāma quickly fired three razor-headed arrows which lopped off the demon’s three heads, and the heads rolled on the ground with their golden earrings glittering. Trishira’s body fell like an uprooted tree and the ground shook.

Khara felt fear enter his heart. His entire army was slain. Fierce Rākṣasas who could face even the gods now lay dead on the battlefield. He looked at Rāma, who stood as immovable as the Himālayan mountains. Still Khara urged his charioteer forward. He drew his great bow to a full circle and fired innumerable arrows at Rāma. His blood-sucking shafts sped through the air like angry serpents. Khara then displayed his mystic power and filled the four quarters with arrows.

Rāma at once countered Khara’s shafts with His own. The sky was soon covered with arrows and not even the sun was visible. The two warriors fought furiously, the battle resembling a fight between a lion and an elephant. Like a driver striking a lordly elephant with a goad, Khara struck Rāma with a number of fierce arrows. The demon stood firmly rooted in his chariot like Death himself with noose in hand.

Thinking Rāma tired, the Rākṣasa felt the moment opportune for his victory. He stood tall in his chariot and raised his frightful-looking bow. Rāma, however, was no more concerned than a lion would be on seeing a small deer. Khara approached Rāma as a moth approaches a fire. Displaying his dexterity, he split Rāma’s bow in two with a razor-faced arrow. With seven more shafts each resembling Indra’s thunderbolt he pierced Rāma at His vital points. He then covered Rāma with another thousand arrows fired with blinding speed.

Hit hard by Khara’s shafts, Rāma’s bright armor fell in pieces to the ground. With arrows piercing Him all over his body, Rāma became enraged. He shone on the battlefield like a smokeless fire. Rāma raised Viṣṇu’s terrible bow and darted toward Khara. He cut down the demon’s ensign with a dozen gold-winged arrows. That gold ensign descended to earth like the setting sun. Khara continued to rain arrows on Rāma, aiming for the vulnerable parts of His body.

Rāma became more and more furious. Grasping His bow tightly, He fired six carefully aimed arrows. One struck the demon in the head, two in his arms and three in his chest. Rāma then shot thirteen more shafts as if they were one. With one He cut the chariot yoke; with four He killed the horses; with the sixth He cut off the head of Khara’s charioteer; the next four arrows shattered the chariot; the twelfth cut Khara’s bow; and the thirteenth pierced him deeply in the chest. All this happened in a matter of seconds. Screaming in fury Khara leapt clear of his smashed chariot, and he stood on the ground, mace in hand.

Collected together in the sky, the gods and ṛṣis applauded Rāma, encouraging Him to quickly slay Khara.

Rāma then said to the Rākṣasa, “You have pursued a ruthless and wicked course, O Rākṣasa. With your vast army you have inflicted pain on all created beings. Only those who are sinful and hard-hearted perpetrate such acts. Therefore, you deserve to die at the hands of all beings, even as a venomous serpent should be killed.”

Even though challenging the Rākṣasa, Rāma felt no malice toward the demon. As a ruler, He saw it as His duty to punish the wicked to correct them. Like a father correcting an errant son, He apprised Khara of his sins even as He meted out his punishment. He continued to castigate the Rākṣasa in a booming voice that echoed throughout the forest. “One who continuously commits sinful acts soon sees the terrible results, O night-ranger. Just as a man who eats poisoned food soon dies, so one who performs sinful acts is quickly dragged down by his sins. I am here to punish sinners like you, O Khara. Pierced through by My arrows, you will today follow the path of those ascetics whom you have killed. Fight to the best of your ability; I will strike down your head like a ripe fruit!”

Khara laughed. He was impervious to any good instructions. Beside himself with anger, the demon roared back, “Having killed only ordinary Rākṣasas, O human, why are You vainly ranting? Those who are truly brave speak nothing of their valor. Only the vulgar brag as You are doing, O disgrace to the royal class! Just as brass taken for gold reveals its baseness when placed in fire, so You have shown Your baseness now that the hour of Your death has arrived.”

Khara raised his heavy mace. “Obviously You do not see me standing here wielding my mace and holding the earth, with her heavy load of mountains, in balance,” he bellowed. “I am capable of killing You along with all the creatures in the three worlds. But enough talk! You have killed fourteen thousand Rākṣasas. Now I shall wipe away their relatives’ tears by slaying You.”

Khara whirled the mace and released it for Rāma’s destruction. As it coursed swiftly through the air it shot out searing flames which burned the surrounding trees to ashes.

With twenty steel-tipped arrows Rāma shattered Khara’s mace to pieces. It fell to the ground like an angry serpent checked by mantras. Rāma laughed at Khara. “Is that your best effort, O vile demon? It seems you are bold only in speech. Even as Garuḍa snatched nectar from the gods, so I shall snatch away your life. The earth will drink deeply your foaming blood. With your head severed you will lie closely embracing the earth, like a man embracing his lover.”

Rāma continued to taunt Khara, reminding him of the many sages he had killed. Closely watching the demon all the time, Rāma said, “When you are laid low by Me in protracted slumber, this forest will again become a happy abode for ascetics. Your wives and kinsmen will grieve today, as do the kinsmen of those you have slain. Try again, if you will, for your death is near.”

Khara’s anger was again incited by Rāma’s words. He foamed at the mouth. Looking around for another weapon he screamed, “Your mad talk is born of vanity alone. It is said that at the moment of death one cannot discern right from wrong. I see this to be true. Evidently your mind is thrown into confusion as your death approaches.”

Khara saw a large tree nearby. He tore it from the earth and hurled it at Rāma, exclaiming, “You are killed!”

Rāma was unmoved. He met the fast-flying tree with a volley of arrows. It fell in splinters and a shower of leaves. Determining to kill the Rākṣasa at once, Rāma became violently angry. He was covered in perspiration, and His face shone brightly. He pierced Khara with a thousand arrows. Torrents of foaming blood ran from the demon’s wounds like rivulets running down a mountainside. Khara was maddened and ran furiously at Rāma. Taking a few steps backwards, Rāma took out a shaft resembling Yamarāja’s mace. He placed it on His bow and imbued it with the celestial force of Indra’s thunderbolt. When the Rākṣasa was almost upon Him, Rāma released the arrow. It struck Khara full on the breast with a sound like thunder. The demon fell to the ground, a huge burning hole in his chest.

As Khara fell dead, the Cāraṇas sounded their celestial drums as a shower of flowers fell upon Rāma, while the gods applauded, saying, “These violent Rākṣasas, unslayable by any other, have been slain by Rāma in less than two hours. His resolve and power exactly resembles that of Viṣṇu!”

The sage Agastya, standing in the sky at the head of a large group of ṛṣis, also spoke to Rāma, “At Indra’s prompting and for this very purpose of killing the Rākṣasas, Sarabhanga had You sent here. The ṛṣis will now again inhabit this region to practice their austerities.”

Lakṣman then came out of the cave where He had hidden Sītā. Along with the gods and great sages, He praised Rāma’s achievements. Sītā ran to Her husband and embraced Him tightly. She ran Her cool hands over His many wounds, crying tears of joy to see Him victorious over the Rākṣasas. As night fell, thousands of carnivorous animals and birds descended on the battlefield. Rāma and Sītā retired into Their hut and Lakṣman sat nearby, keeping a lonely vigil.

Chapter 8: Rāvaṇa’s Lust is Incited

There was one Rākṣasa named Akampana who escaped from Rāma. After seeing all his companions killed, Akampana fled to Lanka to inform Rāvaṇa of the news. Going before the lord of the Rākṣasas, who was the scourge of all created beings and who took pleasure in giving pain to others, Akampana fell at his feet and said, “O great king, your entire army which was stationed in the Janasthana forest is now no more. Even the mighty Khara and Dushana are dead. Only I have somehow survived.”

Rāvaṇa shook with anger when he heard this news. He gazed with his ten heads at the disheveled and fearful Rākṣasa lying at his feet. The demon king rose up quickly from his golden throne. He was pitiless and rough, and he felt no compassion for the trembling Akampana. As he spoke he appeared about to consume Akampana in his rage. “Who, with his life all but ended, is responsible for this rash act?” he demanded. “O weak Rākṣasa, what fool would dare antagonize Rāvaṇa? Even Indra, Kuvera or the great Yamarāja would not be safe if they offended me. I can burn fire and kill even Death himself!”

Under the protection of Brahmā’s boon Rāvaṇa had become utterly conceited and arrogant. He considered himself unconquerable. Even the principal gods had been forced to retreat in battle against him. None of them could contradict Brahmā’s order. They would therefore not kill Rāvaṇa, even if capable. He had thus ranged the universe creating havoc and fearing nothing. He grabbed hold of Akampana. “Tell me the name of the wicked wretch who has slain my followers. You need not fear, for whoever it is will certainly die at my hands today.”

Akampana was reassured by Rāvaṇa’s words. At least the demon king was not going to vent his anger on him. He replied, “It was a man who carried out this astonishing feat of killing the Rākṣasa army. He is a son of Daśaratha named Rāma. Tall and powerfully built, the prince possesses matchless strength. He alone annihilated the entire host of Rākṣasas.”

Rāvaṇa listened in disbelief. How was it possible? One Rākṣasa against a large number of men was easy to believe, but a single man killing fourteen thousand Rākṣasas was incredible. Rāvaṇa hissed like an angry snake. “Was this Rāma accompanied by Indra and all the gods?”

Seeing Rāvaṇa’s incredulity, Akampana went on describing Rāma’s power. “It is difficult to even look upon Rāma as He stands on the battlefield. His golden-winged arrows fall in thousands with the force of a tempest. He has mastered the celestial weapons and looks like Death incarnate while fighting. Whichever way the Rākṣasas ran, stricken with fear, they saw Rāma standing in their front. No gods assisted Him, O great one; He alone devastated your army.”

Rāvaṇa snorted derisively. He would not be humiliated by any mere man. He thought of his own power. Thousands of years ago he had gone to the Himālayas, intent on performing austerities in order to gain unmatched material opulence. It was then that he approached Brahmā. Surviving on air alone, he took only one breath a day. When he failed after a long time to propitiate Brahmā, he began a sacrifice. He cut off his twenty arms one by one and offered them into the fire to please Brahmā. When Brahmā still did not appear, the demon began to cut off each of his ten heads and place them in the fire. At last Brahmā appeared before him. Rāvaṇa then secured his boon, which he now recalled. He had not asked for immunity to humans, but how could any human even look at him, never mind fight with him? Even the gods fled in fear when he mounted his chariot for battle. This Rāma sounded most unusual but, nevertheless, Rāvaṇa was proud of his hard-won strength and felt sure he could kill Rāma without difficulty. Standing with his back to Akampana, he said, “I shall go immediately and finish this Rāma.”

Akampana was intelligent. He had already realized Rāma’s irresistible strength when he saw Him fighting. The Rākṣasa had thus stood back from the fight and made his escape. He considered that Rāvaṇa’s chances of defeating Rāma were slight. Therefore he advised his king. “When Rāma is enraged, He cannot be tamed by any warrior. In my opinion he could, by the force of His arrows, tear down the very heavens with the sun, moon and constellations. He could stem the current of a flooded river or break down the shores of the ocean and deluge the entire world. With His arrows Rāma could lift the earth itself. Indeed, that illustrious man could dissolve all the worlds and then create them again.”

Rāvaṇa turned and looked pensively at Akampana. Clearly Rāma was no ordinary man. Akampana was himself a powerful commander of the Rākṣasa forces. He knew how to estimate the strength of the enemy. The Rākṣasa king listened carefully as Akampana continued. “I do not think you will be able to defeat Rāma in battle, any more than a sinful man can attain the regions of heaven. However, there is a way by which you can probably overcome Him. Listen as I tell you.” Rāvaṇa sat on his throne and leaned forward attentively as Akampana went on.

“Rāma has come to the forest with His wife, Sītā. I have heard She is more beautiful than any goddess, female Gandharva or Apsarā. From all accounts She is a stunning jewel among women who cannot be compared to any other. Surely She is dearer to Rāma than His own life, as He has brought Her with Him even to the lonely forest. O king, by means of some trick kidnap Sītā. Rāma will be overcome by grief and either die or be weakened enough for you to defeat Him.”

Rāvaṇa pondered Akampana’s suggestion. He liked the idea. Thanking Akampana, he decided to go the next day to find Sītā. He first needed to seek the help of Maricha, the son of Tataka, who was well known for his magical powers. Rāvaṇa mounted his chariot, which shone like the sun and was drawn by great mules with the heads of fiends. As he sat in his golden chariot, which had a white canopy spread over it, he was fanned by attractive maidens. His strongly built body was the color of glossy black gems. With his ten heads and twenty arms he resembled a ten-peaked mountain. As his chariot rose up to the sky, he cast his splendor like a thundercloud with flashes of lightning.

The mighty Rākṣasa moved swiftly ahead, surveying the scene below. Heading north toward the Himālayas, he saw beneath him the beautiful coastline. It was crowded with hermitages and graced with numerous woods and lakes filled with lotuses. Many Siddhas, Cāraṇas, Gandharvas and other divine beings sported in great joy in and around those lakes. Thousands of Apsarās danced and played with the gods. Rāvaṇa saw in the sky wonderful aerial cars, like white mansions, adorned with celestial garlands and carrying the residents of heaven. From the cars came the sounds of delightful music, which enlivened the heart and mind.

Passing over great forests, Rāvaṇa came at last to the northern mountains. There he found Maricha’s hermitage. Defeated and punished by Rāma, Maricha had retired to the forest and dedicated himself to the practice of penance. He looked up in surprise as Rāvaṇa’s chariot descended from the sky. Maricha rose up quickly and greeted the overlord of all the Rākṣasas. “Welcome, great king,” he said reverentially. “I hope everything is well in Lanka. What has brought you to this lonely forest, inhabited only by ascetics?”

Maricha offered Rāvaṇa celestial foods unknown to humans. He sat him on a mat of kusha grass and served him personally. Rāvaṇa only looked at the food and said to Maricha, “My entire army of Rākṣasas led by the powerful Khara has been destroyed by Rāma, a son of king Daśaratha, contending single-handedly and on foot. I am here to seek your assistance in abducting Rāma’s wife Sītā. By this means only will I be able to overpower Rāma.”

Maricha stood up with a start. “By what enemy in the guise of a friend have you been tendered this advice?” he asked in horror. “Who have you offended so that they should suggest that you kidnap Rāma’s wife? That person clearly seeks to rid the world of the Rākṣasas’ lord. Using you as his tool, he desires to extract a fang from the jaws of a serpent. Who is it, O king, who has dealt you a powerful blow on the head, even as you slept peacefully?”

Maricha paced up and down, shaking his head. He had already been convinced of Rāma’s incomparable power. Hearing that He alone had killed Khara and his army only confirmed it all the more. He trembled as he continued to speak. “O Rāvaṇa, you should not even think of staring at Rāma. That lion among men, whose sharp teeth are His numberless arrows, easily kills small animals in the form of Rākṣasas skilled in battle. Do not hurl yourself into the vast and dreadful ocean of the angry Rāma, whose arms are its alligators and whose weapons are its tossing waves. Remain peacefully in Lanka, enjoying with your wives, and allow Rāma to sport in the woods with His wife Sītā.”

Maricha spoke passionately. He continued to argue against the wisdom of Rāvaṇa’s antagonizing Rāma. Rāvaṇa listened thoughtfully. He again recalled his omission to ask Brahmā for invincibility against humans. The Rākṣasa king asked Maricha why he considered Rāma so powerful. Telling him about the incident of Viśvāmitra’s sacrifice, Maricha replied, “I was ranging the earth, my body appearing like a mountain, with a huge iron club in my hand. My might exceeded that of a thousand elephants. I would roam about in the forest eating the flesh of ṛṣis. Considering me more powerful than even the gods, the sage Viśvāmitra sought only Rāma as his protector. Rāma was a mere boy at that time. When I saw Him in Viśvāmitra’s hermitage, I disregarded Him, thinking Him to be simply a child. However, with a single arrow Rāma hit and threw me eight hundred miles into the ocean, and He slaughtered all of my powerful companions.”

Maricha told Rāvaṇa how he returned to the forest again. He assumed the form of a sharabha, a fierce eight-legged carnivorous beast capable of killing even lions. In that form, accompanied by two other Rākṣasas in similar forms, he continued to terrorize the ṛṣis. One day he again came across Rāma seated in His hermitage. Rākṣasas in the form of sharabhas rushed at Rāma, remembering their previous enmity. In an instant Rāma had lifted and strung His bow, releasing three gold-tipped arrows which sped like thunderbolts. Maricha’s two companions were killed outright. Maricha himself had dodged the arrows and retreated in fear. He then decided to abandon his life of antagonizing ṛṣis and retire to the mountains.

Concluding his speech, Maricha said, “My fear of Rāma has made me adopt this life of asceticism. Indeed, I live in continuous dread of that prince. In every tree I see Rāma, clad in barks and wielding His bow, looking like Death personified standing with noose in hand. I actually see thousands of Rāmas all around me. Indeed this whole forest appears to have turned into Rāma. I see Him everywhere, even in dreams and meditations. If someone speaks out a word beginning with ‘R’, I shake with terror. O king, under no circumstances shall I be convinced to again stand before Rāma.”

Rāvaṇa sat silently after Maricha stopped speaking. Out of pride, the Rākṣasa king still felt capable of dealing with Rāma. He was not going to be afraid of a mere human. However, seeing Maricha’s reluctance to assist him, he decided to return to Lanka and await another opportunity. He felt sure that his path would soon cross with Rāma’s.

Soon after he arrived back at Lanka, Shurpanakha visited him. As he sat atop his seven-storied palace, surrounded by his ministers, his sister came and fell at his feet. Wailing piteously, she rolled about on the ground. She looked up at Rāvaṇa, who sat on his golden throne glowing like a fire fed with abundant fuel. His huge blackish body was covered by celestial robes, adorned with jeweled ornaments taken from the gods. His twenty arms, which could arrest the movement of the planets, looked like great tree trunks. They were marked by scars made by Indra’s thunderbolt and the other weapons of the gods. He stared down at Shurpanakha with his twenty reddish eyes.

Rāvaṇa told his sister to get up and asked her why she was lamenting. Shurpanakha, displaying her mutilated face, answered him harshly. “Do you not see my disfigured face? What kind of protector are you, O king? I am a helpless woman and your sister, but I have been humiliated at the hands of a man. Do you not care for this, O powerful Rākṣasa?”

The Rākṣasī shook with fear and anger as she continued to address the demon king. “Everyone reviles a monarch who is licentious and overly attached to sensual enjoyment. Such a king, who fails to properly attend to his state affairs, is soon ruined. O Rāvaṇa, are you not aware that you are losing control of your territories? Having formed enmity with the gods and the Brahmins, how can you expect to rest here in peace, enjoying the pleasures of life? You are childish and without any intelligence. You do not know what should be done and will therefore lose your kingdom before long.”

Hearing such a searing rebuke in the midst of his ministers enraged Rāvaṇa. Short-tempered and intolerant, he replied angrily, “Tell me who has attacked you, wretched woman? Why are you afraid?”

Shurpanakha told Rāvaṇa what had happened. She also described to him Rāma’s annihilation of the Rākṣasas exactly as Rāvaṇa had already heard it from Akampana. Rāvaṇa’s curiosity about Rāma was aroused. He said, “Tell me more about Rāma. Why is he living in the forest? What is his strength and his weakness? How has he overpowered the unassailable Khara, Dushana and Trishira?”

After telling Rāvaṇa that Rāma had been sent to the forest by His father, Shurpanakha described how she had personally witnessed Rāma’s power. “I could not see when Rāma took up His arrows or bent His bow, which shone brightly like a rainbow. I only saw the Rākṣasa army falling like hewn trees. The demons resembled a wheat field destroyed by a downpour of hailstones. I also saw by Rāma’s side His brother Lakṣman. He too seems exceptionally glorious and is clearly devoted to Rāma. Indeed, He appears like Rāma’s second self. I hold these two brothers to be practically unconquerable in battle.”

Shurpanakha, as a Rākṣasī, possessed celestial intelligence. Like Akampana, she was able to recognize Rāma’s power, although she did not understand His identity. She spoke cunningly, wanting to incite her brother to confront Rāma. “I saw by Rāma’s side His beloved wife Sītā, whose beauty is hard to describe. Her dark eyes and hair contrast vividly with the hue and luster of Her body, which resembles molten gold. Her breasts, hips and thighs are exquisitely shaped and She shines like another Goddess Lakṣmī.”

Shurpanakha knew that her brother was lusty. He had absolutely no regard for moral laws and took pleasure in enjoying other’s wives. The Rākṣasī went on describing Sītā. “Her countenance is like the full moon. With Her thin waist and delicate limbs, Sītā is beyond compare. I have seen no woman like Her on the face of the earth, be she a goddess, Gandharva or Yakṣa. Any man embraced with delight by Sītā will enjoy a happiness greater than that of Indra. Without doubt that peerless female, who is of a gentle disposition, would be a worthy consort for you, O king of demons.”

Rāvaṇa’s mind was captivated by Her description. He considered how he might win Her. Arrogantly he assumed that She would be attracted to him, the great and powerful king of the Rākṣasas. But how could She be taken from Rāma? Rāvaṇa was beginning to think that he needed to exercise caution in his approach to Rāma. He listened as his sister continued.

“I wanted to snatch away Sītā and bring Her to you, O brother. But I was viciously attacked by the wicked and cruel-minded Lakṣman. No one but you, O mighty king, will be capable of taking Sītā from Rāma. Surely She should be your wife. Why not go the forest and see Her wondrous beauty for yourself?”

Shurpanakha longed for revenge. Sītā was the cause of her being mutilated. The Rākṣasa woman wanted the princess to be taken from Rāma so that both Rāma and Sītā would feel intolerable pain. Perhaps then Rāvaṇa would be able to overpower the grief-stricken Rāma. Shurpanakha gazed imploringly at her brother. “Snatch away the incomparable Sītā from Rāma. Then, standing in the forefront of battle, defeat and kill that human along with His evil brother.”

Rāvaṇa was convinced. He was already angered by Rāma’s killing of the Rākṣasa army in Janasthana. Now here was his own sister, disfigured and humiliated by the human brothers. Rāvaṇa took that personally. He especially could not tolerate the sharp and taunting words Shurpanakha delivered in front of his ministers. He had to prove his power. And above all he wanted to have Sītā. Thinking again of Maricha, he called for his chariot. This time he would not be deterred from his purpose. Maricha’s refusal to help him was unacceptable. Rāvaṇa mounted his great chariot and rose up swiftly into the sky.

Chapter 9: The Kidnapping of Sītā

Again arriving at Maricha’s hermitage, Rāvaṇa quickly sought him out. Maricha, clad in black deerskins and seated in meditation, spoke in surprise when he saw Rāvaṇa. “Why have you returned so soon, O king? I trust all is well in Lanka.”

Maricha sat the Rākṣasa king on a grass mat. He offered him food and drink, but Rāvaṇa waved it aside and said, “No doubt you recall my earlier request, O Maricha. I am here now to insist that you comply. Not only has Rāma annihilated my army in the forest, but He has attacked and mutilated my sister Shurpanakha. He must by all means be punished. Prepare to leave. You will assist me in Sītā’s abduction.”

Rāvaṇa had made up his mind. He told Maricha to come with him to Rāma’s hermitage. Once there he should use magic to assume the form of an enchanting deer. Rāvaṇa calculated that Sītā, due to Her womanly nature, would become captivated by the deer. She would then send Rāma to capture it. As soon as Maricha had taken Rāma to a distance, he should further use his magical powers to allure Lakṣman. Imitating Rāma’s voice, the Rākṣasa should cry out in distress. When Lakṣman heard the cry He would come after Rāma, leaving Rāvaṇa to abduct the unprotected Sītā. Rāvaṇa spoke derisively of Rāma, knowing that Maricha considered the prince formidable.

“This worthless human has been exiled by His father. Abandoning virtue, He caused my sister to be violently assaulted. He is a disgrace to the royal class and a threat to all beings. His time is now all but run out. Once he has lost His wife, His strength will be gone. I shall then make short work of Him.”

Maricha’s face whitened. This was his worst fear. Rāvaṇa was bent on a purpose which would surely end in both their deaths. He stared at Rāvaṇa with unblinking eyes. His mouth felt dry and his limbs weak. He folded his palms and addressed the Rākṣasa king in a trembling voice. “People speaking agreeable words are easy to find, O lord. On the other hand, rare are those who will speak words for one’s good which are nevertheless unpalatable. O Rāvaṇa, you have clearly not heeded my earlier advice. You have not sought to establish for yourself Rāma’s actual power. This dereliction of your duty will lead to the extinction of the race of Rākṣasas, there is no doubt.”

Rāvaṇa’s expression hardened. He was not interested in Maricha’s advice. He listened impatiently as Maricha went on. “Rāma has not been abandoned by His father nor is He devoid of virtue. Indeed, He is devoted to piety and truth. Listen as I tell you His history.”

He told Rāvaṇa how the prince had gone to the forest to prove His father truthful. Both Maricha and Rāvaṇa understood that warriors derived power from virtuous behavior. Maricha made it clear that Rāma was virtue incarnate. He again described Rāma’s power and the consequences of facing Him in battle.

“Do not cast yourself headlong into the fierce fire of Rāma blazing on the battlefield,” Maricha beseeched the Rākṣasa king. “Upon encountering, Rāma you will relinquish for good your throne, your happiness and your very life. Rāma’s glory is immeasurable. You will no more prove able to remove Sītā from Rāma than you could take from the sun its brilliance. O Rāvaṇa, remain peacefully in Lanka. Do not bring about your own destruction, along with that of your relatives, friends and entire kingdom.”

Rāvaṇa blazed up with anger. He cared nothing for Maricha’s well-intended advice. Rising, he spoke harshly to the fearful demon. “Your words, like seeds sown in barren soil, are entirely fruitless. I cannot be deterred from my aim of kidnapping Sītā. O ignoble Rākṣasa, I did not ask you about the merits or demerits of my intentions. Indeed, a king should never be advised except when he requests such advice. I have told you what I require. All that remains for you to do is to carry out my order.”

Rāvaṇa reiterated his idea. He knew that Maricha could, by his unique magical abilities, transform himself into the most wonderful-looking creature. He felt sure his plan would work. Speaking slowly and deliberately he told Maricha the consequences of non-cooperation. “Perhaps upon approaching Rāma you will face some danger, but if you reject my request then death at my hands will be certain and immediate. Carefully weigh things in the balance of reason, O Maricha, and do what you feel is best.”

Maricha tried one last time to sway Rāvaṇa from his plan. “Whoever advised you to confront Rāma should be executed, O king, not me. That sinful person obviously desires only your imminent ruin. The minister who counsels violent measures against a powerful enemy is himself the enemy. Such advice will lead to the destruction of the counseled along with the counselor, and indeed the state itself.”

Maricha saw that Rāvaṇa was silent, fixed in his purpose. Obviously his counsel was useless. Maricha then realized that his death was near. Understanding the inevitability of his fate, he spoke fearlessly to Rāvaṇa. “Being a slave to your senses, cruel and evil-minded, you have adopted this course of action. People with leaders who are not self-controlled cannot prosper any more than sheep protected by a jackal. A terrible and unforeseen calamity has arrived at Lanka’s door, O king, which will bring an end to the city as well as to you. Therefore I simply pity you. I shall fulfill your order. It is better to be killed by the enemy than executed by the king. Take me as already slain at the very sight of Rāma, and consider yourself dead with all your followers the moment you bear away Sītā. Those on the verge of death cannot understand right from wrong. No advice can help them.”

Maricha rose slowly and prepared to go with Rāvaṇa, saying, “Let us now depart.” Rāvaṇa became joyous. He had heard little of what Maricha had said. The Rākṣasa king was thinking only of Rāma and, more particularly, of Sītā. When he saw Maricha ready to follow his command, Rāvaṇa embraced him and said, “Here is my real Maricha. Before now, some other demon must have possessed you, robbing you of your valor. We shall proceed fearlessly on my chariot. Once you have bewitched Sītā with your magic, you may go wherever you please. I shall do the rest.”

The two Rākṣasas got aboard the great chariot; the goblin-headed asses bore it away into the skies. Moving swiftly they soon arrived at the Dandaka forest. As they circled overhead, they saw below Rāma’s hermitage. They landed nearby and Rāvaṇa instructed Maricha, “Now work your wonderful magic, my friend. I shall wait here.”

Rāvaṇa had no intention of immediately encountering the two brothers. He wanted first to steal and enjoy Sītā, anticipating that this would weaken Rāma. Rāvaṇa knew that Rāma would soon come after him, but that would give him the opportunity to gauge the strength and weakness of Rāma and His forces. The Rākṣasa felt confident that he could confront Rāma from the security of Lanka, surrounded by his powerful troops. After transforming himself into a human ascetic wearing matted locks and simple dress, he waited in the woods near Rāma’s hermitage.

Meanwhile, Maricha turned himself into a magical deer. His head was partly white and partly dark with horns like bright sapphires. The upper part of his snout had the hue of a red lotus, while the lower part had that of a blue lotus. His perfectly formed body had slender white legs, with hoofs like glossy black gems. The deer’s belly was dark blue and its flanks golden. All over its shining skin were a number of jewel-like spots. Its tail resembled a rainbow and it glanced about with eyes that shone like diamonds.

In that deer form Maricha wandered slowly about. Other deer approached him but quickly ran in all directions, sensing that this was not actually a deer. Maricha strenuously controlled his Rākṣasa nature, which was impelling him to kill and eat the deer which came near to him. Nibbling at leaves here and there, he went into the region of Rāma’s hermitage. Sītā was outside the hut plucking flowers. She immediately saw the wonderful-looking deer.

Seeing that he had caught Her attention, Maricha playfully came near to Sītā and then moved away again. As the deer gamboled about, Sītā’s mind became enchanted. Her eyes opened wide in wonder as She surveyed the stunning form of that magical animal. It seemed to illumine the forest on all sides as it moved around with grace and elegance, making delightful sounds. Sītā called out to Rāma, “Come quickly, My lord, and bring Lakṣman! Here is a sight to behold.”

Hearing Sītā calling out again and again, the two princes came to Her and saw the deer for themselves. Lakṣman was immediately suspicious. “This animal cannot actually be a deer. Never has such a deer, looking like a bright jewel, been seen anywhere upon the earth. This must surely be a Rākṣasa come in disguise. I suspect it is probably Maricha.”

Lakṣman recalled how Rāma had spared Maricha’s life previously. He knew the demon was capable of great mysticism and strongly suspected that some evil plan was afoot. But Sītā was captivated. She interrupted Lakṣman. “O Rāma, this wonderful animal has stolen My mind. Please fetch it to Me. I would love to show it to My mothers-in-law and Your brothers. When We return to Ayodhya We can keep it in the palace as a pet. I do not think that such a beautiful creature can be a Rākṣasa. My lord, I must possess this gentle animal.”

Sītā repeatedly beseeched Rāma to capture the deer, which remained close by. Rāma felt obliged to satisfy His wife. He turned to Lakṣman. “Dear brother, see how this deer has created such a burning desire in Sītā. I must try to catch it for Her. I have never seen a deer like this anywhere before. It defies description. If, as you say, it is a Rākṣasa in disguise, then it must be put to death. Therefore I shall chase it through these woods. Either I will bring it alive or, having determined it to be a Rākṣasa, slay it with My sharp arrows. Perhaps then I may take its superb skin for Sītā.”

Rāma asked His brother to stand close to Sītā and guard Her while He was gone. Like Lakṣman, He also feared an attack from the Rākṣasas. He told Lakṣman that Jatayu was nearby and could assist Him if necessary. Rāma then fastened His sword to His belt and, after tying on His two quivers, He grasped His bow. He then went toward the deer, which bounded away into the woods.

In fear Maricha ran swiftly into the deep forest. Rāma pursued him, moving through the trees with agility and speed. But Maricha kept ahead, sometimes appearing for a moment and then disappearing again. Acting exactly like a deer, he bounded high in the air and glanced about fearfully. In this way Maricha took Rāma a long distance from His hermitage. Rāma felt helpless, seeing the deer maintaining a constant lead over Him. He stopped and leaned on a tree, exhausted and perspiring. He decided that Lakṣman’s assessment was correct. This could not be an ordinary deer. He would have captured it by now if it were. Rāma concluded that the deer was certainly a Rākṣasa.

Spotting it emerging from a distant cluster of trees like the moon appearing from behind clouds, Rāma took out an arrow. He imbued that shaft with celestial power and shot it at the deer. It streaked through the air glowing like fire, seeking out its target. In a moment it struck Maricha and pierced him in the heart. The Rākṣasa bounded as high as a palm tree and screamed in pain. As he crashed to the ground he again assumed his actual form.

Rāma ran toward the dying Rākṣasa. Maricha saw Him approaching and remembered Rāvaṇa’s instruction. With his dying breath he let out a cry that could be heard for miles. Perfectly imitating Rāma’s voice, which he vividly remembered from their previous encounters, Maricha cried, “Lakṣman! Help me! Alas, Sītā!”

With that final cry the Rākṣasa died, his gigantic form covered in blood lying prostrate on the ground. Rāma stood before the dead Rākṣasa, filled with apprehension. This was obviously a plot by the demons. When Lakṣman and Sītā heard that cry, They would become confused. Rāma looked at Maricha’s massive body. The voice of a Rākṣasa was hundreds of times more powerful than that of a man. Rāma had been chasing the deer for an hour at least and was miles from the hermitage. The only thing to do was to run back. Rāma immediately began to retrace His steps. Thinking of Sītā, He feared the worst.

At the hermitage Lakṣman and Sītā had heard the Rākṣasa’s cry. Sītā was struck with anxiety. Turning to Lakṣman, who stood calmly, She said, “Did You not hear Your brother’s cry? Surely He has fallen into the hands of the demons, even as a bull might be seized by a group of lions. O Lakṣman, go quickly to help Rāma! My heart is all but stopping and My breath hardly comes. Please act swiftly!”

Lakṣman did not move. He remembered Rāma’s instruction to guard Sītā. He did not at all fear for Rāma and considered the cry to have been uttered by a demon. Sītā became even more anxious when She saw Lakṣman unperturbed. Bewildered by fear, She spoke angrily. “O son of Sumitra, You are an enemy in the guise of a friend. It seems You are glad to see the plight of Your brother. Surely You desire to possess Me for Yourself. Therefore You do not rush to Rāma’s aid. What is the value of protecting Me when Our leader is in such danger?”

Sītā shook with fear and sobbed loudly. Lakṣman felt pained by Her words and He tried to reassure Her. “Your husband cannot be overcome by the gods or demons assembled in any number, O gentle princess. Rāma cannot be killed in a fight by any created being, of that there is no doubt whatsoever. Be at ease. Rāma will soon return, having slain the Rākṣasa who assumed the form of the deer and who no doubt uttered that cry.”

Lakṣman was certain that Rāma was not in any danger. He could guess that the demon had been killed by Rāma and had imitated Rāma’s voice as he died. After Rāma had annihilated the Rākṣasa army at Janasthana the Rākṣasas must have formulated a plot for revenge. Lakṣman tried to explain this to Sītā, but She became even more angry. She stood blazing like fire, Her eyes red with fury. Because of Her fear for Rāma, She was confused. Despite Her respect for the virtuous and gentle Lakṣman, who had never once looked Her in the face, Her anxiety for Rāma made Her rebuke Him harshly.

“O ignoble and merciless Lakṣman! It is obvious that You care nothing for Your brother. Indeed You are happy to see Him in peril. I can understand that You have been concealing Your true nature. Posing as Rāma’s friend You have all the while been coveting Me. Your sinful desire shall never be fulfilled. I shall give up My life even in Your presence. Having become Rāma’s wife, how could I accept an ordinary and wicked man like You?”

Lakṣman was deeply hurt. Sītā was as worshipable to Him as Rāma. He could not even imagine what She was suggesting. His mind raced, confounded by agony. He could not remain with Sītā while She was in this mood. Her words were unbearable. How could She make such accusations? He had to look for Rāma. But what would happen to Sītā? Fearful and angered by Sītā’s castigation, Lakṣman controlled His mind and replied, “Your words pierce Me like a heated steel arrow. I cannot argue with You since You are a deity to Me, O princess. Alas, it seems that the nature of women is to be fickle and given to sentimentality. Although I feel sure I am right, I must nevertheless follow a dangerous course, driven by Your sharp words. I shall depart and search for Rāma, but I fear I may not find You here when I return.”

Sītā continued to cry out, saying to Lakṣman, “I shall never remain with another man in Rāma’s absence! I would sooner drown Myself in the river, fall from a high precipice or enter blazing fire.”

Lakṣman was enraged by Sītā’s insinuations. He tried consoling Her, but She would not say anything. He prayed to the forest deities to protect Her. Then, bowing to Her with folded hands, He left to look for Rāma, Sītā’s words still ringing in His ears.

As soon as Lakṣman had gone Rāvaṇa came out of hiding. In a human form he approached Sītā, who was without Rāma and Lakṣman, even as thick darkness overtakes dusk when devoid of the sun and moon. He saw the youthful princess sitting and weeping in front of Her hut. As he came near, all the animals fled in all directions. Even the breeze did not blow and the river slowed her swift current till she almost stopped flowing. Appearing like a holy man, Rāvaṇa was like a deep well covered by grass. He looked intently at Sītā, marveling at Her beauty. As he gazed at Her the demon was pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Continuously chanting Vedic mantras he moved close to Rāma’s beautiful consort. In his guise as a Brahmin ascetic he stood before Sītā and praised Her in various ways.

“O most beautiful lady, You possess the splendor of gold and silver adorned with celestial gems.” Rāvaṇa spoke poetically, his deep voice resonating around the forest grove. “Your form is radiant and Your face, eyes and delicate limbs are like so many blooming lotuses. Are you a goddess or an Apsarā descended from heaven? Your body is perfectly formed and Your face resembles the full moon. With Your dark eyes and full lips playing over teeth resembling rows of pearls You have captured my heart. My mind is stolen away by Your beauty, which is surely unmatched anywhere in the three worlds.”

Rāvaṇa thought that by praising Sītā he would attract Her to him. His mind was full of lust. With wide opened eyes he continued, “Why are You residing in a dark forest, frequented by wild beasts and haunted by Rākṣasas? You deserve to live at the top of a magnificent palace of gold. Sweet-smelling gardens should be Your playground, not fearful forests. Tell me, O charming lady, who are You and who is Your protector? Are You the consort of some powerful deity? Why are You alone in this dangerous region?”

Sītā looked up and saw Rāvaṇa dressed as an ascetic. She had encountered numerous Brahmins during Her stay in the forest and She was not surprised to see this one. The pious and open-hearted princess offered Rāvaṇa a seat and water to wash his feet. Acting perfectly in accord with religious codes, She fetched food from the hut and placed it before him, saying, “You are welcome.”

Rāvaṇa watched Her closely. He was stunned by Her grace and elegance. He made up his mind to carry Her away by force if necessary. As She tended to Her unexpected guest, Sītā looked around for signs of Rāma returning, but She saw only the vast green forest. She began to reply to Rāvaṇa’s questions. “I am the daughter of Janaka, the king of Mithila, and My name is Sītā. I am the consort of the high-souled Rāma, a prince of Ayodhya. With Him and His powerful brother Lakṣman I reside here peacefully.”

With a guileless mind Sītā told him how She and Rāma came to be living in the forest. She explained everything in brief and then said, “Soon My husband and His brother will return, bringing with Them varieties of forest produce. Rest here awhile and They will no doubt sumptuously entertain you. But tell Me, O sage, who are you and how do you come to be wandering this lonely forest?”

Rāvaṇa decided to reveal his true identity. He stood up and replied proudly to Sītā, “I am Rāvaṇa, the celebrated ruler of all the Rākṣasas. The gods, demons and human beings are struck with terror upon hearing my name, O Sītā. Now that I have seen You, O most beautiful woman, I can no longer find delight in my own consorts. Become my foremost queen! Roam with me at ease in my golden city, Lanka. You will live in a splendid palace adorned with jewels, and five thousand handmaidens will wait upon You.”

Sītā was shocked. She became enraged and said to the Rākṣasa, “I have taken a vow to follow Rāma, who is as unshakeable as a great mountain, as powerful as Indra and as wise as Bṛhaspati. I cannot be swerved from Rāma’s service. He is virtuous and always true to His word. I am dedicated to Rāma, who will never abandon His devoted servant. I belong to that Rāma who is like a mighty lion and destroys His enemies with ease and speed. How have you, O Rāvaṇa, a jackal, been so brazen as to covet Me?”

Sītā looked disdainfully at Rāvaṇa, who stared at Her lustfully. She felt sickened. What a disgusting creature! How could he even imagine that She would go with him? How disgraceful that he should pretend to be a Brahmin ascetic, the holiest of men. She spoke with fury. “You could no more touch Me than you could the sun’s fiery orb. Your desire is sure to bring about your death, O vile Rākṣasa. You seek to extract a tooth from the jaws of a powerful and hungry lion. You wish to carry in one hand the massive Mount Mandara. You desire to swim across the ocean, having tied around your neck a stone slab. You who would steal the beloved consort of Rāma are trying to snatch away the sun and moon with your bare hands.”

Sītā reproached Rāvaṇa again and again. She scorned and derided him with sharp words, warning him against his evil intentions. “After stealing Me away, where will you go? How will you retain Me while Rāma stands on the battlefield, bow in hand? Your pathetic might is nothing against that of Rāma’s. Next to Rāma you are like a crow compared to Garuḍa.”

Sītā shook like a sapling caught in a storm. She turned away from Rāvaṇa and prayed for Rāma to return quickly. The Rākṣasa was provoked by Her harsh words and he began to boast about his own strength. “I have won from Kuvera the celestial city of Lanka, chasing him away by my own power. Why, I have even taken from him the Pushpaka, his celebrated and beautiful airplane which can range anywhere according to one’s will. Wherever I stand, the sun withholds its fierce rays, the wind blows gently and the rivers become still and calm.”

Rāvaṇa tried to intimidate Sītā. He was annoyed that She was not interested in him. How could She remain attached to Rāma, an insignificant human, when Rāvaṇa, the immensely powerful king of the Rākṣasas, sought Her favor? Surely She did not know of his strength and exploits. Even the gods feared his angry gaze. And as well as power, what about his unlimited opulence? Rāvaṇa described the city of Lanka, with its innumerable gold palaces.

“Come with me to Lanka, O princess. There You will enjoy human and celestial delights You have never even imagined. You will soon forget the mortal Rāma, whose life is well-nigh ended. Rāma has lost everything and, having no power, lives in fear in the forest. I can dispose of Him with a single finger. By Your good fortune Rāvaṇa is here in person to beseech Your love. Accept me, O Sītā, and abandon the worthless Rāma.”

Sītā could not even look at Rāvaṇa. She clenched Her fists and flushed a deep crimson, sharply rebuking the demon. She told him that once he had laid hands on Her, he would soon die at Rāma’s hands. Crying and calling for Rāma, She moved away from the Rākṣasa. Rāvaṇa became furious. He struck one hand against another and roared. The Rākṣasa then assumed his original form with its ten heads and twenty arms. He moved closer to Sītā. “Look at me, O proud lady! I can lift up the earth, drink the ocean and kill even Death himself.”

Rāvaṇa’s red eyes burned like fire. Wearing a red robe and bedecked with fine gold ornaments, he looked like a dark cloud lit up by lightning. He had lost all patience and he spoke angrily to the trembling Sītā. “Here is a husband fit for You, O charming one. I shall take good care of You and never do anything You dislike. Leave aside the useless Rāma and serve me. You do not deserve a life in the forest. Give up Your affection for the soon-to-die human and become the queen of Lanka.”

Rāvaṇa had no intention of leaving Her behind, but Sītā was clearly not going to go with him willingly. He would have to force Her. The demon grasped hold of the delicate Sītā, taking Her hair in one hand and Her legs in another. Seeing him looking like Death, with mighty arms and sharp teeth, the forest deities all ran away. At that moment Rāvaṇa’s chariot appeared close by, drawn by its ugly mules. Rāvaṇa took Sītā in his arms, scolding Her sharply, and he placed Her in the chariot. Sītā writhed in Rāvaṇa’s grasp. As the chariot rose up She called for Rāma at the top of Her voice. Distracted with grief and anguish, Sītā wailed like a mad woman.

“O Lakṣman, where are You? I am being seized by a vile Rākṣasa. O Rāma, Your life has been sacrificed for virtue. How then do You not see Me being unrighteously carried away? You always chastise the wicked. Why then do You not punish the evil Rāvaṇa?”

Sītā began calling to the trees. She cried to the river and forest deities, to the animals and the birds, asking them all to tell Rāma what had happened. Turning to Rāvaṇa she said, “The fruits of sinful deeds are not immediately received, O Rākṣasa, but in time they destroy the perpetrator to his very roots. O Rāvaṇa, your time is all but over. Rāma will certainly recover Me and end your life.”

As the chariot rose higher, Sītā looked down and saw Jatayu perched on a large tree. She called out to him. “O bird, help Me! I am being seized by an evil Rākṣasa! Don’t try to stop him. He is too powerful. Quickly find Rāma.”

Jatayu heard Sītā and looked up. He saw the chariot with Rāvaṇa and Sītā on board. From the tree he called out to the Rākṣasa, whom he immediately recognized. “O Rāvaṇa, I am the king of the vultures, Jatayu. I possess might and am devoted to virtue. I shall not allow you to carry away Sītā in my presence. You who are also a king should not bear away another’s wife against the eternal codes of morality.”

Jatayu flew up from his perch, continuously reproaching Rāvaṇa and reminding him of what had happened to Khara and Dushana. Soaring upwards, he kept pace with Rāvaṇa’s chariot. He spoke in a loud voice, disturbing the demon’s mind. “Release Sītā now, O evil-minded one! You have placed the noose of Death around your neck. You have tied a poisonous snake in your cloth. O fool, your act will bring you nothing but suffering. If Rāma were here, you would no more be able to carry away Sītā by force than one could alter a Vedic text by the force of logic.”

Jatayu was infuriated. He challenged Rāvaṇa. “I am here to stop you, O night-ranger! Stand and fight. Although I am old and weak I cannot watch you take away this princess. Struck by my bill you will fall from your chariot like a ripe fruit from a tree.”

When Rāvaṇa heard Jatayu’s challenge he veered his chariot toward him and rushed angrily at the king of birds, raining him with blows from his twenty arms. But Jatayu swooped and avoided Rāvaṇa’s attack. Then he assailed Rāvaṇa with his sharp talons. As the great bird screamed, Rāvaṇa roared. The clash between the two combatants was tumultuous and frightening to witness. It resembled an encounter between two winged mountains. Rāvaṇa fired terrible-looking arrows that sped through the air like streaks of fire. Jatayu was suddenly struck all over with hundreds of sharp arrows. Ignoring his wounds, he rushed at Rāvaṇa, inflicting many wounds on him with his beak and claws. Jatayu then broke Rāvaṇa’s large jewel-encrusted bow, which fell glittering from the sky. Rāvaṇa swiftly strung another bow and shot thousands of arrows at Jatayu, entirely covering his body. The king of birds looked as if he had found shelter in a nest. He shook off the network of arrows with his wings and again flew at Rāvaṇa’s chariot. The great bird tore off the heads of Rāvaṇa’s mules. With a blow from his bill he killed the charioteer. Swooping again and again, Jatayu then smashed Rāvaṇa’s chariot. As his chariot fell in pieces, the Rākṣasa grabbed hold of Sītā and dropped to the ground.

The gods, witnessing the battle from above, applauded Jatayu. Then Rāvaṇa again rose into the air. In two of his arms he held Sītā, while in another hand he clutched his fierce-looking sword. He faced Jatayu, who again rebuked the demon.

“Your act is condemned by all virtuous men,” thundered Jatayu. “It is not even heroic. You are simply a thief, and like a thief you will be caught and punished by Rāma. O cowardly one, how do you hope to survive? Surely it is only for the annihilation of the Rākṣasas that you have stolen Sītā. Wait a short while and Rāma will return. Or fight me now, Rāvaṇa, for I shall never allow you to leave with Sītā.”

Jatayu flew at Rāvaṇa. He tore the demon’s back with his talons and struck his heads with his beak. The fearless bird pulled the Rākṣasa’s hair and dragged him about. Rāvaṇa shook with anger. His eyes blazed and his lips twitched with indignation. Tormented by Jatayu he decided to kill him. He rushed at the bird and struck him violently with his fists. Jatayu then tore off Rāvaṇa’s ten left arms. Even as the arms fell to the ground, ten more grew immediately in their place, like serpents coming out of an ant hill. The Rākṣasa then placed Sītā on the ground. He darted toward Jatayu and began striking him with his fists and feet. Taking his razor-sharp sword, he lopped off Jatayu’s wings. The great vulture fell on the ground, dying. With his white breast reddened with blood, he resembled a large cloud tinged by the setting sun. Sītā cried out and ran toward him. Gently stroking his head, She called out to Rāma.

“My lord! Where are You? Do You not see this terrible calamity? The sky is filled with evil omens. Come quickly. Here lies the brave Jatayu, mortally wounded on My account. O Rāma! O Lakṣman! Save Me!”

Sītā cried bitterly. From the sky, Rāvaṇa saw that his adversary was overcome. He descended swiftly and went toward Sītā. She ran away and embraced a tree, crying out, “Hold Me, trees, hold Me!”

Rāvaṇa grabbed Her forcefully by the hair. In the grip of his own destiny he dragged Sītā away as She cried out, “Rāma! Rāma!” again and again. Pulling Her onto his lap, Rāvaṇa rose up into the sky.

At that time the wind stopped blowing and the sun appeared lusterless and dull. The whole creation seemed out of order and a dense darkness enveloped the four quarters. Brahmā saw by his divine vision that Sītā had been seized violently by Rāvaṇa and he said to the gods, “Our purpose is accomplished!” The great sages in the forest also saw Sītā being taken. Knowing Rāvaṇa’s destruction to be imminent, they felt simultaneously agonized and joyful.

Rāvaṇa held Sītā tightly and flew toward Lanka. With Her body shining like molten gold and adorned with jeweled ornaments, Sītā looked like lightning against a black cloud. Rāvaṇa appeared like a dark mountain illumined by fire as he traveled with haste toward his city. Sītā’s face pressed against Rāvaṇa, resembled the full moon splitting a cloud. She burst into tears again and again and called out for Rāma. Lotus petals fell in showers from Her crushed garland. A bejeweled golden anklet dropped from Her foot like a circular flash of lightning. Her necklace of pearls fell from Her breast, appearing like the Ganges descending from the heavens.

As Rāvaṇa soared over the treetops the leaves shook violently, seeming to say to Sītā, “Don’t be afraid.” Forest ponds, with their faded lotuses and frightened fishes, appeared sorry for the princess. Lions and tigers, along with birds and other beasts, angrily rushed behind, following Rāvaṇa’s shadow. The mountains, their faces bathed in tears in the form of rivulets and with arms upraised in the form of peaks, seemed to scream as the wind from Rāvaṇa’s passage rushed over them. Seeing Sītā held in the grasp of the ten-headed monster, the forest deities wept and their limbs trembled with fear.

Sītā, Her face pale and Her eyes reddened, chastised Rāvaṇa. “Have you no shame at all? Resorting only to stealth and trickery, you have stolen away the chaste wife of another. O coward! You have killed the old and helpless Jatayu and now you flee in fear from Rāma. You are proud of your valor, but people throughout the world will scorn and deride you, O vile demon!”

Sītā struggled in Rāvaṇa’s grip. She preferred to fall to earth and die than be carried away by him. She censured Rāvaṇa continuously, goading him to turn and fight with Rāma and Lakṣman. The tearful princess told him that even if he carried Her to Lanka She would soon die, being unable to see Rāma. Rāvaṇa, ignoring Her sharp words, continued to bear Her away through the skies.

As they flew, Sītā looked down and caught sight of a group of large monkeys sitting on a mountain peak. She pulled off Her silken head covering and quickly bound up Her golden bracelets and other shining jewels, dropping the bundle as Rāvaṇa flew over the monkeys. Sītā hoped they would meet Rāma and show Him the jewels. He would then know which direction Rāvaṇa had taken Her. The Rākṣasa king did not notice Sītā’s cloth falling to earth.

The monkeys caught sight of it as it fell. They looked up and saw Rāvaṇa speeding past with the beautiful princess held in his arms. The Rākṣasa coursed through the air like an arrow shot from a bow. Delighted in mind, he raced toward his own destruction. Crossing over the fearsome ocean, which teemed with sharks and other fierce aquatics, he went in the direction of his celestial city. Even as he flew overhead the wind died and the ocean waves were stilled out of fear of him.

The many Siddhas and Cāraṇas in the sky who witnessed Rāvaṇa’s flight with Sītā said, “This marks Rāvaṇa’s end.”

Soon Rāvaṇa arrived in Lanka and entered his palace, going straight to the inner section where he kept his many wives. There he spoke with the Rākṣasas who were entrusted with guarding his women. “Take good care that no man looks upon Sītā. Give Her every item of enjoyment the moment She asks. Gold, gems, pearls, silks—whatever She may desire should be provided. Those who slight or upset her, knowingly or unknowingly, must not hold life dear.”

Rāvaṇa then left and went to his own rooms. He called for eight of his most powerful generals. After praising them for their strength and valor, he said, “Armed with various weapons, go at once to the Dandaka. Seek out Rāma and observe Him closely. Be wary, for Rāma has single-handedly destroyed the entire army I had stationed in that forest. Because of that I feel a rage that burns my insides. That rage will only be calmed when Rāma lies dead, slain by me. Therefore you should learn of Rāma’s strengths and weaknesses. Report these to me and I shall then do what is required.”

Rāvaṇa gave them detailed instructions, repeatedly extolling them with pleasant words. The powerful Rākṣasas then made their bodies invisible and set out toward the Dandaka forest. Rāvaṇa, having set up a bitter enmity with Rāma, felt secure and rejoiced within himself. He decided to visit his inner quarters where Sītā was lodged. Stricken with love for the dark-eyed princess, he hurried to see Her.

Rāvaṇa found Sītā bathed in tears and fallen to the floor amid the Rākṣasīs. She resembled a female deer beset by a number of hounds. Even though She was unwilling, Rāvaṇa had Her forcibly brought as he showed Her his palace. It comprised a large number of shining buildings supported by pillars of ivory, gold and crystal. The palace was astonishing to behold and highly pleasing to the mind. Rāvaṇa took Sītā up the magnificent central stairway of gold, showing Her the vast extent of his home. The walls were set thickly with celestial gems, which threw off a brilliant luster, lighting the whole palace. On each level of Rāvaṇa’s palace were differently furnished rooms, meant to evoke different moods. The palace resounded with the delightful music of kettledrums and other instruments. Various scents filled the air. There were fountains and ponds surrounded by flowers of every description.

Hoping to seduce Her, Rāvaṇa spoke to Sītā. “I have under my control millions of Rākṣasas. Ten thousand of them are my personal servants. My city extends for eight hundred miles and is constructed everywhere with gold and gems. Everything I have I now give over to You, O lovely princess. You are more dear to me than life. Become my wife and the queen of all the women who are mine. What is the use of remaining attached to Rāma, who is deprived of His kingdom, given to austerities and travels the earth on foot?”

Rāvaṇa tried at length to impress Sītā. He bragged of his power, telling Her how he could conquer even the gods in heaven. Rāvaṇa also derided Rāma in various ways, saying that He would not be able to reach Lanka even in thought. Indeed, Rāvaṇa boasted, there was not a being anywhere in the three worlds who would now be able to rescue Sītā from Lanka. “Therefore, O delightful lady, share with me all these celestial pleasures. Range freely with me in the Pushpaka. Cast aside any thought of Rāma, whose life is soon to end, for I alone am a husband worthy of You.”

Sītā sat sobbing for some time, not looking at Rāvaṇa. She had no desire to speak to him, but seeing the Rākṣasa’s insistence, She composed Herself and addressed him reproachfully. “O sinful demon, had you dared lay hands upon e in Rāma’s presence, you would now be lying prostrate on the battlefield. Give up your vain boasting! Your life has all but ended. Your royal fortune is gone. Gone too is your strength and intelligence. Soon a shower of arrows will rain down upon Lanka, annihilating the Rākṣasa forces. Thanks to you, O vile Rākṣasa, this city will soon be filled with weeping widows.”

Sītā spoke furiously to Rāvaṇa. How could he even dare to suggest that She abandon Rāma for him? He was like a crow trying to steal a sacrificial offering from amid an assembly of Brahmins. Her mind would not for a single moment contemplate a sinful act. It was only with deep regret that She looked at Rāvaṇa at all. Obviously, virtue was entirely unknown to him. He could imprison Her or kill Her as he liked, for She had no use of life without Rāma.

Hearing Sītā’s stinging words, Rāvaṇa’s bodily hair stood on end. He spoke threateningly. “O most beautiful lady, hear my warning. If You do not yield to me within one year, You shall be killed by my cooks and served to me as my meal.”

Rāvaṇa then stormed away. He instructed the Rākṣasīs to break Her pride. “By fearful threats alternated with soft words, tame this lady as one would tame a wild animal!”

He told them to keep Her in his beautiful gardens, which were filled with trees laden with fruits and flowers. They should guard Her carefully and continue to inform Her of Rāvaṇa’s power and glory. Gradually Her mind would change. Otherwise She would be put to death. Rāvaṇa left in anger, his footsteps causing the earth to vibrate.

Placed in the midst of a grove of trees, Sītā fell weeping to the ground. She felt Her limbs overpowered with grief and could find no peace of mind. Threatened by the Rākṣasa women, who had misshapen faces and deformed figures, She was like a young deer fallen into the clutches of tigresses. With Her mind rapt in thought of Rāma, She fell unconscious, oppressed by fear and sorrow.

Chapter 10: Rāma’s Terrible Discovery

Rāma raced toward His hermitage. He was filled with foreboding. As He crashed through the bushes He heard a jackal’s fierce yell behind Him. Recognizing the evil omen He became even more anxious. Had Sītā been devoured by Rākṣasas? Lakṣman must have left Her when He heard Maricha’s cry; Sītā would have insisted upon it. The Rākṣasas had plotted successfully. Surely they had now taken Sītā.

Rāma saw other frightening omens and His mind became even more distressed. As He rushed through the forest He suddenly saw Lakṣman coming toward Him. Rāma ran to Him and took hold of His hand. He spoke sternly. “My dear brother, what have You done? Why have You abandoned the helpless Sītā? Without doubt She is now dead or stolen by the Rākṣasas.”

Rāma pointed out to Lakṣman the various omens. He told Him about Maricha’s trickery. It was now obvious. The Rākṣasas had arranged everything so they could abduct Sītā. Tears flowed from Rāma’s eyes as He thought of His wife. If She were killed, He would give up His own life. Desperately He asked Lakṣman, “Did you fail to protect Her? Where is that gentle lady who willingly gave up every happiness to follow Me here? Where is Sītā now? You should know that I cannot live without Her for even a moment.”

Feeling dispirited, Lakṣman replied, “I did not leave Sītā willingly. Urged by Her strong and painful words I came looking for You. She would by no means allow Me to stay with Her. Forgive Me, My lord.”

Lakṣman explained everything to Rāma—how He had tried hard to convince Sītā of Rāma’s invincibility, how She had accused Him of having ulterior motives—but Rāma only became angry and reprimanded Him. Why had He taken Sītā’s words seriously when She was overwhelmed by sentiment? Why had He allowed Himself to fall prey to anger? He had failed to carry out Rāma’s order. Now They would surely meet calamity. Rāma turned and continued to run toward His hermitage, His mind fixed on Sītā.

As Rāma ran He felt a tremor run through His limbs. His left eye throbbed violently. Greatly perturbed by these baleful omens, Rāma crashed through the forest. He seemed almost to fly, oblivious of the creepers and bushes which lashed Him. Breaking into the clearing where He had His hermitage, He ran about wildly, looking for Sītā. He called Her name again and again, but on finding no sign of Her, His heart sank.

Rāma examined His hut and the surrounding grounds closely. It resembled a lotus flower blighted by winter and deprived of its charm. The trees seemed to cry as they creaked in the wind. The flowers appeared faded and dull. Deer and birds were restless and ill at ease. Rāma saw blades of kusha grass scattered around, along with flower petals fallen from Sītā’s garland. He wailed loudly. “Surely Sītā has been snatched away. Or perhaps She lies dead somewhere. Or has She gone out playfully, hiding now in sport?”

Rāma searched frantically, but Sītā was nowhere to be found. He feared the worst. This was surely the work of the Rākṣasas. Even now Sītā must be in their clutches. Rāma imagined Sītā as She was carried away. She must have cried out for Him in plaintive tones. As She was borne upwards, Her beautiful face streaked with tears, fear would have gripped that timid princess. Perhaps at that very moment She was being devoured by demons who were cutting open Her soft neck and drinking Her blood.

As Rāma ran from tree to tree, His eyes red from sorrow, He appeared almost crazy. He questioned the trees, “O Kadamba, O Bilva, O Arjuna tree, where is Janaka’s frail daughter? Is She alive or not?”

In the madness of grief He spoke to animals, the river, the sky and the earth itself, but they all remained silent, heightening Rāma’s anguish. The forest and river deities, remembering Rāvaṇa’s frightful form, were petrified with fear and could make no reply. As Rāma gazed around, it seemed to Him that He saw Sītā in the sights of the forest. The yellow flowers looked like Her silk garment. The creepers flowing in the wind became Her limbs. Rāma thought He saw His beloved wife everywhere. He ran toward Her crying, but found only the desolate and echoing forest.

Rāma rebuked Himself for leaving Sītā. What would He say to Kaushalya? How could He even look at Janaka, that ever-truthful monarch? Rāma felt as if He would die. But then what would His father say upon seeing Him arrived in heaven, killed by grief? Surely the emperor would reproach Him for becoming a liar by not completing the term of His exile.

Rāma lamented piteously. “I shall never return to Ayodhya. Kaikeyi may rejoice, her purpose fulfilled. O Lakṣman, You should embrace Bharata and tell Him to long rule over this wide earth, for Rāma is no more. Without Sītā I shall not accept even heaven, what then of this world? With Sītā’s death has come Mine. For failing to protect that gentle princess I shall reach unending regions of hell.”

Rāma fell weeping to the ground. He censured Himself in many ways. Surely this awful misfortune was the result of sinful acts performed in a past life. It was undoubtedly His destiny. Such suffering—the loss of the kingdom, separation from His loved ones, the king’s death, and now Sītā’s loss—could only have been caused by His own past evil deeds. Rāma tossed about in pain.

Seeing Rāma’s agony, Lakṣman, Himself gripped by despondency, approached His brother and said, “Do not give way to despair, O mighty prince. Men of Your caliber are never bewildered by even the greatest disaster. We shall yet find Sītā. She cannot be far away. It is less than an hour since I left Her. Let Us continue Our search.

Rāma composed Himself and got up. He sighed and gazed about, wondering which way to go. As He looked at the seat outside His hut, He remembered how He had sat there with Sītā by His side—how They had talked and laughed together; how She had teased Him, pretending to be hurt by His words, or cajoling Him to fetch a particular flower from deep in the woods. As He thought of His lotus-eyed wife, Rāma’s grief rose in repeated waves.

A couple of large deer came close to the brothers. Rāma asked if they had seen Sītā. The deer then stood with their heads pointed toward the south. Rāma and Lakṣman took that as a clue and sped off in that direction. They soon came upon a trail of flowers fallen on the ground. Rāma dropped to His knees and picked up the petals. They were from the braid on Sītā’s hair. He cried out in a resounding voice, “Sītā! Sītā!”

The two brothers kept running. Suddenly they saw enormous footprints, probably of a Rākṣasa. Near to it were Sītā’s footprints going here and there as She evidently ran in fear. As they looked about they found a huge bow lying in pieces, along with many fearsome arrows tipped with blue steel barbs. A chariot lay smashed there, still yoked to great mules with goblin heads, some of which had been torn off in what was obviously a terrible fight. The headless body of the charioteer still sat holding the reins and whip. There were strands of gold fallen from Sītā’s ornaments, along with Her crushed garland.

Rāma pointed to the ground. “See here the many drops of blood! Look at these shattered weapons. And this mighty bow, encrusted with pearls and gems. Whose chariot is this, with its hundred-ribbed canopy torn apart? Look over there! Glowing golden armor studded with emeralds and rubies. All these items could only belong to gods or demons.”

Rāma fell to the ground wailing piteously. “O Lakṣman, it is clear that Sītā is dead. Here at this place two Rākṣasas fought for Her sake. The victor would surely have consumed My darling wife. Alas, I am lost.”

Lakṣman carefully examined the scene. There had obviously been an encounter between two very powerful beings. Perhaps Rāma was right. But from the footprints there did not appear to be more than one Rākṣasa. Lakṣman felt that somehow Sītā was still living. He reassured Rāma, telling Him to take heart, for Sītā would surely soon be recovered.

As He checked His grief Rāma felt consumed by anger. The corners of His eyes turned coppery as He stood holding His bow. “The Rākṣasa race will soon be extinct. They have borne away Sītā even as She practiced virtue. How did the gods stand by and allow this to happen? Do they not fear My wrath? Do they think I am powerless? For too long I have been mild and compassionate. Today the world will see a different Rāma!”

Rāma roared, giving vent to His anger. He would fill the heavens with His missiles. With His weapons He would annihilate the entire creation. All living beings would find themselves oppressed as He discharged endless flaming arrows. The planets would be brought to a standstill, the sun obscured and the moon brought down from the sky. The mountains would lie crushed to a powder and the oceans would be dried up. If the gods did not bring back Sītā, they would find no shelter anywhere in the universe. All the worlds would be torn to pieces by Rāma’s arrows and nothing would remain. A blazing fire would rage through all the quarters, leaving total devastation in its wake.

Rāma tightened His clothes. His lips trembled and He pressed them against His teeth. He looked like Śiva intent upon the destruction of the universe at the end of an age. Taking from His quiver a dreadful-looking arrow, He placed it upon His bow. “Today I shall not be checked by conciliation or force. See now, dear Lakṣman, as I bring down the gods from heaven.”

Lakṣman grabbed hold of Rāma’s arm and stopped Him from releasing His arrow. With palms joined He spoke gently to the infuriated Rāma. “You have always been dedicated to the good of all beings. Do not abandon Your nature today, O Rāma. Do not be swayed by anger. You should not destroy the worlds for one person’s offense. Lords of this world are always just in their punishment. Therefore display Your forbearance, for it is as deep as that of the earth itself. Be calm and consider the situation with care.”

Lakṣman pointed out that They could see only the footprints of a single Rākṣasa. It appeared that someone had fought against the demon, probably to protect Sītā. Whoever had abducted Sītā was obviously possessed of great power. Perhaps no one was able to prevent the kidnapping. After all, who would approve of the destruction or kidnapping of Rāma’s spouse? The gods and Gandharvas, the rivers, seas, mountains and indeed all living beings were not capable of giving offense to Rāma, any more than the priests at a sacrifice could offend the person for whom they were performing the ritual.

Rāma felt slightly pacified as Lakṣman continued, “Let Us seek out the assistance of the great sages. With Me by Your side we shall search the whole earth with all its mountains and forests. If We still do not find Sītā We shall go to the depths of the ocean and up to the realms of the gods. O Rāma, We shall not rest until We find Your beloved wife.”

Lakṣman suggested that if still They did not find Sītā, then Rāma could let loose His venomous missiles upon the worlds. But first He should control His anger and seek His wife through peaceful means. Otherwise, what example would He set for the world? If the earth’s ruler immediately resorted to violence when under duress, then what would ordinary men do? Could they be expected to exercise any control when in distress? In this world calamities visited everyone in due course of time, but they also disappeared again. Happiness and distress follow one another in swift succession. One should not give way to either. Even the gods were subject to suffering. One should neither rejoice nor grieve for material things, but with a peaceful mind carry out one’s duties. This was the path to everlasting happiness. Lakṣman looked into Rāma’s eyes.

“O Rāma, You have often instructed Me in this way. Indeed, who can teach You, even if he be Bṛhaspati himself? I am only trying now to awaken Your intelligence, which has been dulled by grief. Dear brother, people like You do not give way to grief even when faced with the gravest perils. Therefore spare the worlds. Seek out only the sinful adversary who has stolen Sītā.”

Rāma put down His bow and replaced His arrow in its quiver. He was moved by His brother’s beautifully worded advice. Controlling His anger, He thanked Lakṣman and asked Him what They should do next. Where should They begin to look? The two princes continued to walk south, discussing what to do. Soon They came upon Jatayu lying upon the ground. Seeing from a distance the mountainous bird drenched in blood, Rāma exclaimed, “Lakṣman! Here is a Rākṣasa in the guise of a bird. Surely this beast has devoured Sītā. I shall make short work of it with My fiery arrows.”

Rāma fitted a razor-headed arrow to His bow and bounded toward Jatayu, but as soon as He recognized the great bird He lowered His weapon. Jatayu, close to death, saw Rāma coming and raised his head. Vomiting blood he spoke in a strained voice. “O Rāma, the godly Sītā and indeed my life have both been snatched away by Rāvaṇa. I flew to Her assistance and fought with the demon. Although I smashed his chariot and killed his horses, I was finally cut down by him.”

Jatayu then described what had taken place. Upon hearing his story Rāma fell weeping to the ground. He embraced Jatayu and stroked his head. In great pain Rāma cried out, “Alas, who is more unfortunate than I? My sovereignty is lost, I am exiled, My wife is stolen and now My father’s friend lies mortally wounded, having tried his best to help Me.”

Rāma questioned Jatayu. Where did Rāvaṇa take Sītā? What did She say as She was being dragged away? How powerful was the Rākṣasa and where was his abode? Rāma spoke wildly in a tearful voice.

Jatayu looked at Him fondly. Speaking in barely a whisper he replied, “The demon conjured up a storm as he flew in the sky. As I contended with him I soon became exhausted, being old and worn out. He then lopped off my wings. He sped away with his face pointing south.”

The bird lay gasping. He reassured Rāma that Sītā would soon be found. The Rākṣasa had kidnapped Her at an hour which was favorable for Her return. “Although he knew it not,” Jatayu said, “it was the ‘vinda’ hour. According to scripture, a treasure lost during that time is again recovered.”

Jatayu told Rāma that Rāvaṇa was the son of the sage Vishrava and the half-brother of Kuvera. Although he was immensely powerful Rāma would soon slay him; Jatayu was sure of it. As the old bird spoke he felt his life departing. Blood flowing continuously from his mouth, he looked at Rāma with tears in his eyes. Repeating Rāma’s name over and over, Jatayu gradually became silent. His head fell to the ground and his body slumped back.

Rāma stood with folded hands looking at His father’s dear friend. He cried out in anguish. “Speak more, O noble bird. Speak more!”

But Jatayu was dead. Rāma gazed at him sorrowfully. Turning to Lakṣman He said, “Alas, this bird has laid down his life for My sake, dear brother. It is clear that valiant souls who practice piety and virtue are found even in the lower species of life and not just among humans. The pain of seeing this vulture’s death afflicts Me as much as that caused by Sītā’s loss.”

Rāma considered Jatayu to be as worthy of His worship as Daśaratha. He asked Lakṣman to fetch logs so that They could build a funeral pyre. Rāma looked at the bird and said, “You will attain unsurpassed realms of happiness, O king of birds. Never again will you take birth in this mortal world of pain and suffering.”

The brothers placed Jatayu on the wood pile and set it alight. Rāma personally recited the sacred mantras and performed the ritual, cremating Jatayu as He would His own relative. Both brothers then went to the Godavari and, after bathing in the river, offered its sacred water to Jatayu’s departed soul. When the ritual was complete Rāma and Lakṣman felt pleased, knowing that Jatayu had gone to divine regions of unending happiness. They fixed their minds on recovering Sītā. Going in a southerly direction They entered the deep forest, appearing like Viṣṇu and Indra going out to encounter the Asuras.

Lakṣman went ahead wielding His long sword and hewing down the shrubs and creepers that blocked Their progress. The forest was trackless and difficult to traverse, but the brothers moved swiftly. Distressed and eager to find Sītā, They looked on all sides, but saw only the dense forest. Lions roared and birds of prey screamed above them. Thick darkness enveloped Them as they penetrated deeply into the jungle. As They moved ahead vigorously and without fear, They began to perceive evil omens. Rāma’s left arm throbbed and His mind became disturbed. Jackals howled and crows emitted shrill cries. Rāma said, “Be wary, O Lakṣman. These signs definitely indicate some imminent danger.”

Even as He spoke a loud noise suddenly resounded from ahead of Them. It was deafening and it filled the four quarters. Rāma and Lakṣman, with swords in hand, ran toward the sound. Here must be the demon responsible for taking Sītā. They would soon dispatch him. Perhaps Sītā was still there. The brothers raced ahead.

They suddenly broke into a clearing and saw a colossal Rākṣasa seated there. Taller than the surrounding trees, the demon looked like a mountain peak. He had no neck or head and his huge mouth was in his belly. The demon was dark blue in color and covered all over with sharp bristling hair. At the top of his body was a single fearful eye which blazed like fire. His long pointed tongue darted in and out, licking his lips. He had arms eight miles long and they drew toward him all kinds of animals. As Rāma and Lakṣman looked on, the Rākṣasa devoured bears, tigers and deer, which he crammed into his gaping mouth.

The brothers saw the Rākṣasa from a distance of a mile. They looked in amazement. As they stood there, the demon saw Them and reached out with his two arms, which snaked about like two enormous creepers. Tightly grasping both brothers he lifted Them high above the ground. Lakṣman cried out to Rāma, “Free Yourself, O Rāma! Leave Me as an offering to this devil. Make good Your escape. I cannot release Myself from this demon’s clutches. After recovering Sītā and the throne of Ayodhya, always remember Me there.”

Already torn by anguish due to having allowed Sītā to be captured, Lakṣman was overcome by the demon. Rāma replied to His distraught brother, “Do not yield to fear, O Lakṣman. A man like You should never feel dejected.”

The massive Rākṣasa pulled the brothers toward him. “Who are you two with shoulders like those of bulls, dressed like ascetics yet wielding swords and large bows?” he boomed. “By the will of Providence You have fallen within the range of my sight at a time when I stand oppressed by hunger. Your life is now of short duration.”

Rāma felt despair. What would happen next? Was there no end to His suffering? He called out to Lakṣman. “Powerful indeed is destiny. Calamity upon calamity is heaped upon Us. We are now threatened with death even before We could find the beautiful Sītā. What should be done now?”

The demon spoke again. “Today You two shall serve as my food. Exert Yourself if You have any strength.”

Lakṣman, who had gathered Himself together, became infuriated. He shouted to Rāma, “The strength of this repulsive demon lies in his arms alone. Let Us quickly cut off his vast arms with Our swords.”

As Lakṣman spoke the Rākṣasa roared and opened his mouth wide. He began drawing the brothers toward him. Without delay They both brought Their swords down upon his arms with great force. The razor-sharp weapons sliced through the demon’s flesh and his arms fell upon the ground, releasing Rāma and Lakṣman. Emitting a terrible bellowing scream, which echoed for miles, the demon slumped back, bathed in a stream of blood which gushed from the stumps of his arms. He called out to the princes, “Who are You?”

Lakṣman replied, “We are two sons of Daśaratha, in the line of Ikṣvāku. This is Rāma and I am Lakṣman. We are here at the behest of Our noble father. While My mighty brother wandered in the forest, His consort was stolen away by a Rākṣasa, whom We now seek. But who are you? Why do you reside in this forest in such a form with a flaming mouth in your belly?”

The demon became joyful upon hearing Lakṣman speak. “Welcome, O tigers among men. It is my good luck that I see You here today. By good fortune only have my arms been severed by You.”

The Rākṣasa, whose name was Kabandha, told the brothers his story. He had previously been a Gandharva. Once, out of pride in his divine beauty, he had laughed at a ṛṣi named Ashtavakra, whose body is bent in eight places. In order to free Kabandha from his pride the ṛṣi had pronounced a curse, turning the Gandharva into a Rākṣasa. Kabandha had begged for mercy and the ṛṣi had said, “When Rāma and Lakṣman cremate you in a lonely forest, only then shall you be released from my curse.”

Kabandha continued, “In the form of a Rākṣasa I ranged the forest. After once performing severe asceticism, I received from Brahmā the boon of a long life. Becoming fearless I then challenged Indra to battle. That invincible god hurled his thunderbolt at me. It hit me and forced my head, arms and legs into my trunk. Although I begged him, Indra would not kill me, saying, ‘Let the words of Brahmā prove true.’

“I asked Indra how I could survive in such a form, a mere trunk with no head or limbs. Out of compassion he gave me these two arms and this huge mouth. He then said, ‘When Rāma and Lakṣman sever your arms, you will ascend to heaven.’

“Thus have I sat here, stretching out my arms and pulling into my mouth lions, leopards, bears, tigers and deer. I always thought to myself, ‘One day Rāma and Lakṣman will fall within my grip.’”

Kabandha implored the princes to throw him in a pit and cremate him. Rāma asked that he first tell Them if he knew anything about Sītā’s whereabouts. He said to the Rākṣasa, “We only know the name of Sītā’s abductor. We do not know where he lives, nor even his appearance.”

Kabandha said he would be able to give Them good advice as soon as he could assume his original celestial form because only then would he be possessed of his former divine intelligence. The brothers dug a great pit next to the demon and placed in it many logs. They pushed Kabandha into the pit and set fire to the logs. As the Rākṣasa’s body burned he looked like a large lump of ghee, with fat running down on all sides. Suddenly from the pit there arose a shining personality dressed in blazing yellow garments and wearing a bright garland. A splendid aerial chariot drawn by swans also appeared and Kabandha took his seat on it. He then spoke to Rāma. “O Raghava, I shall now tell You how You shall recover Sītā. One who has fallen upon misfortune is served by another in the same circumstances. You must befriend someone who has suffered a similar fate as You.”

Kabandha told Rāma that He should seek out the monkey Sugrīva. This monkey lived on a nearby mountain with four friends. He was powerful, intelligent, cultured and true to his promise. His enraged brother Vāli had exiled him for the sake of sovereignty and he was in need of help. By forming a pact with Sugrīva, Rāma would render him good and in return the monkey would assist Rāma in finding Sītā.

Kabandha went on, “Having restored the kingdom to Sugrīva, the monkey will send out thousands of his followers to search every part of the world. O Rāma, even if Your wife has been taken to the highest or lowest planet, She will be found and returned to You with Sugrīva’s help.”

Kabandha then told Rāma how He could find Sugrīva. With his divine vision the Gandharva could see exactly what Rāma would encounter and he told Him in detail. Rāma would meet with the monkeys near the hermitage of the Ṛṣi Matanga on the side of Lake Pampa, where there now lived only an old ascetic lady named Sabari. After explaining everything, Kabandha remained in the sky, shining like the sun. Rāma thanked him and said, “Please depart now for your own abode. You have rendered Me excellent service.”

Kabandha bowed his head and offered prayers to the brothers, recognizing who They were. His golden chariot then rose upwards. As he disappeared into the skies the Gandharva called out, “Enter an alliance with Sugrīva.”

Rāma and Lakṣman immediately headed west as suggested by Kabandha. After some time They reached Lake Pampa and stayed one night by its side. In the morning the princes looked about and located the site of Matanga’s hermitage. It was hemmed in by trees laden with fruits and flowers. Varieties of colorful birds played in the trees and their singing was beautiful. Deer, rabbits and other timid creatures moved about peacefully.

The princes walked over the soft grass and soon found the hut where Sabari lived. She was seated outside the hut and rose respectfully as They approached. Joining her palms, the ascetic lady fell down before the brothers and clasped Their feet. Sabari offered Them grass mats and brought water to wash Their feet, saying, “You are welcome.”

Rāma and Lakṣman sat at ease and Rāma spoke. “O noble lady, is your asceticism proceeding without impediment? Have you mastered your senses? Are you fully freed from anger and is your diet controlled? O gentle one, has your service to your guru borne fruit?”

Sabari looked at Rāma with tear-filled eyes. She had been practicing austerities and yoga for many years. Being fully self-realized, she could understand the identities of the two princes. She spoke in a pleasing voice. “Today the full fruition of my asceticism and meditation has been attained. Today my life is perfected. My teachers have now been served and satisfied and I have achieved heaven. Indeed, O Rāma, after seeing Your divine form I shall reach those realms that know no decay.”

Sabari told Rāma that her preceptor Matanga had not long before ascended to heaven. Before leaving he had informed Sabari that Rāma, accompanied by Lakṣman, would soon come there. She should serve the two princes and then, when they left, she would rise up to the eternal regions. With shaking hands Sabari began offering the brothers fruits and vegetables of every description.

After graciously accepting Sabari’s offerings, Rāma asked to be shown the hermitage. “I wish to see for Myself the glory of your guru,” He said. “Please show Me where he lived and worshipped.”

Sabari took the brothers to where Matanga had his altar. It shone with a brilliant luster which illuminated the surrounding area. In a pond nearby were the waters of the seven oceans, brought there by Matanga’s ascetic powers. Flower garlands made by the sage lay on the ground, still fresh and unfaded.

After she had shown the brothers around, Sabari said, “I long now to join those great ṛṣis in heaven. I am ever their servant. Please permit me to leave, O Rāma.”

Rāma and Lakṣman looked around, saying, “Wonderful.” Rāma turned to the old ascetic woman. “You have properly honored us, O blessed lady. Please depart at will.”

Sabari bowed low to Rāma and, approaching the sacrificial fire, cast herself into it. As her body was consumed she arose in a brilliant ethereal form. Adorned with celestial jewels and garlands, she appeared resplendent. Like a streak of lightning she rose into the sky, illuminating the whole region. She went upwards toward the holy realm now inhabited by the sages whom she had always served.

Having watched Sabari depart, Rāma spoke to Lakṣman. “This hermitage shines with splendor. By simply coming here We have been freed of the stain of sinful karma. Dear brother, surely now Our fortunes will change. I feel that We shall soon meet with Sugrīva.”

Rāma felt joy as He anticipated meeting the monkey. He remembered Kabandha’s words. Soon Sītā would be found, He felt sure. The two brothers left the hermitage and walked around the edge of the lake, carefully surveying the area. The sounds of peacocks and parrots perched on the trees nearby echoed all around. It was noon and the princes took their midday bath in the lake. The water was crystal clear and covered with innumerable lotuses, making it appear like a many-colored carpet. The lake had gently sloping banks of golden sand covered with tall trees. Long creepers reached down to the water and shining fishes nibbled at their ends.

As the brothers continued around the bank of the Pampa, which stretched for miles, They came to the foot of the Rishyamukha mountain. Rāma gazed up at it. “Surely this is the mountain where Sugrīva dwells. O Lakṣman, My heart is torn with grief for Sītā. I feel I cannot live much longer unless the princess is found. Please quickly search for the monkey.”

Thinking of Sītā, Rāma burst into a loud wail. Where was Janaka’s daughter now? Perhaps She had pined away in His absence, dying of grief. As Rāma looked around at the beautiful scenery His pain only heightened. Everything reminded Him of Sītā. The peahen’s mating dance brought to mind the way Sītā would approach Him in love. The fragrant breeze was like the scented breath of His beloved wife. Yellow champaka flowers resembled Her shining silk garment. Bright red tree blossoms looked like the princess’s full lips. Deer moved about with their mates, piercing Rāma’s heart as He remembered how He would wander with Sītā. The white swans reminded Rāma of His wife’s complexion. Indeed, He saw Her everywhere He looked.

Rāma cried out in anguish, His heart burning with the pain of separation. Lakṣman comforted His brother, again reassuring Him that Sītā would be found. As he spoke to Rāma his voice rose in anger. “The sinful Rāvaṇa will find no shelter, even if he enters the darkest region of the universe. I shall seek him out. Either the Rākṣasa will yield Sītā or meet with his end at My hands. Throw off Your grief, dear brother, and together We shall strenuously exert Ourselves to find Sugrīva. High-class men never give way to despondency, even when faced with the most terrible calamities. Rather, they become more and more determined to overcome their difficulties.”

Rāma was heartened by Lakṣman’s assurances. The two brothers continued Their search for Sugrīva.

Chapter 11: Rāma Meets the Monkeys

High on a peak of the Rishyamukha hill, Sugrīva had heard Rāma’s cries. He looked around and saw the two princes on the edge of the lake. He was immediately seized with fear. The two humans appeared like a couple of powerful gods. Sugrīva wondered if They had been sent by his brother Vāli, who bore him constant enmity. The princes’ large bows and swords struck fear into Sugrīva’s heart. He ran back to his cave and said to his four companions. “Two mighty warriors, disguised as ascetics, have come here. Surely this is Vāli’s doing. Dispatched by him with the purpose of seeking me out and killing me, those two heroes will soon arrive here. What should I do?”

The five great apes, who were all incarnations of the gods and who belonged to the celestial race of Vanaras, sat together and discussed. They decided to ascend a high peak and observe the warriors. Coming out from their cave they leapt from crag to crag. As they bounded impetuously upward, they broke down large trees with their powerful arms. Tigers and leopards dashed away in fear, seeing the apes jumping about the side of the mountain. After reaching a high place, they came together and gazed down upon Lake Pampa. Sugrīva’s main advisor, Hanumān, who was a son of the wind-god Vāyu, then said, “What cause is there for concern, O Sugrīva? Here are only two men. I do not see Vāli, the actual source of your fear, nor can Vāli ever come here because of Matanga’s curse.”

Hanumān advised Sugrīva to closely observe the warriors. From their movements and gestures he would be able to ascertain their actual purpose. He should not give way to unnecessary fear. Perhaps the two men had come as friends.

Sugrīva was still not sure. He had experienced Vāli’s malicious anger on numerous occasions. He replied to Hanumān, “No trust can placed in kings, O wise one. They will never rest until all their enemies are destroyed. I feel that these two warriors are Vāli’s emissaries. Even if They exhibit friendship, we should be wary. Otherwise, having gained our trust, They will then fulfill my brother’s wicked purpose.”

Sugrīva told Hanumān to assume the form of a Brahmin and meet with the warriors. He should study Them carefully and then report back. Hanumān, who accepted Sugrīva as his king, bowed respectfully and left, leaping down to the base of the mountain. As a son of Vāyu, he possessed great mystic power. He thus assumed a human form and, appearing as a wandering mendicant, approached Rāma and Lakṣman.

Hanumān prostrated himself before the princes and inquired in respectful tones, “What brings you two shining ascetics to this region? You appear like a pair of royal sages fit to rule the entire world. Your massive bows glow like rainbows, Your swords appear dreadful, and Your arms are like the trunks of mighty elephants. Yet You are dressed as Brahmins. And why do You wail so despondently? Why do You search about this lake? Your presence here is a mystery, although You are indeed welcome. You seem like the sun-god and moon-god descended to earth, illuminating this large mountain by Your own luster. Perhaps You are even powerful expansions of the Supreme Lord.”

The astute Hanumān closely examined the two brothers. He could understand They were not ordinary men. The monkey had a deep devotion for Viṣṇu and as he looked at Rāma, he felt his love being awakened. It seemed he had known this human all his life, although he had never met Him before. Hanumān thought carefully. Surely this was the Lord incarnate. What profound purpose had brought Him here?

Hanumān decided to reveal his identity. Folding his palms he told Them he was Sugrīva’s minister. Sugrīva was the king of the Vanaras, but he had been banished by his brother. He now sought the princes’ friendship and was waiting high upon the mountainside.

The brothers were relaxed and smiling. They had listened attentively to Hanumān. Rāma had become cheerful upon hearing his words and He said to Lakṣman, “This meeting is fortunate indeed, dear brother. Here stands Sugrīva’s minister, who is the monkey We seek. My heart and mind are moved by this noble Vanara’s speech. Surely he has studied every facet of Sanskrit grammar, for his words were faultless and delivered in a gentle and highly poetic style. Even an enemy with upraised sword would be made friendly by such a speech.”

Rāma asked His brother to reply to Hanumān. Lakṣman then informed the monkey that They had heard about Sugrīva and wished to meet with him in friendship. Hanumān smiled. Realizing that the two godlike brothers were seeking his master’s assistance, he felt that Sugrīva’s kingdom was already recovered. The monkey joyfully spoke again. “Pray tell me Your purpose in having come to this lonely forest region in the first place.”

By gestures Rāma urged Lakṣman to explain everything to Hanumān. Lakṣman told him in brief all that had happened to Rāma from the point of His being exiled. The narration of Rāma’s many misfortunes distressed Lakṣman and He spoke with tears streaming from His eyes. Describing how Kabandha had directed Them to find Sugrīva, the prince concluded, “This Rāma, whose father Daśaratha was daily honored by all the kings of earth and who himself possesses limitless virtues, now seeks the refuge of Sugrīva, the lord of monkeys.”

When the prince stopped speaking, Hanumān stood with folded palms. He looked at Rāma and said, “Fortunate indeed is Sugrīva that You have sought him as an ally. He too is fully afflicted by grief, having lost his home and family at the hands of his powerful brother. He now lives in fear on this high mountain. Come, I shall take You to him.”

Rāma and Lakṣman looked at each other joyfully. Hanumān then assumed his form as a monkey and, kneeling, told the princes to mount his shoulders. Then the powerful ape leapt up the mountainside, carrying both Rāma and Lakṣman with ease.

Within a few minutes Hanumān reached Sugrīva. Setting the brothers down, he introduced Them to the monkey chief. He told Sugrīva all that Lakṣman had said about Their exile and search for Sītā. Hanumān praised the princes highly and recommended to Sugrīva that he accept Their proffered friendship.

Sugrīva looked at the two brothers, his mind awed by Their brilliance and obvious power. Like Hanumān, he felt a strong love and devotion awakening in his heart. He stood up and spoke to Rāma. “I am highly honored that You have sought my alliance, O Rāma. Your righteousness, Your virtues and Your kindness to all beings is well known. It is my gain only that You have arrived here today. O noble one, if my friendship is acceptable to You, then please take my hand. Let us enter into an abiding pact.”

Sugrīva extended his hand to Rāma, who clasped it firmly in His own. Rāma vigorously embraced the monkey and they both felt great happiness. Hanumān then lit a fire and sanctified it with Vedic mantras. Rāma and Sugrīva sat by the fire and swore their alliance together. They went clockwise around the fire, hand in hand. As they gazed happily at each other, Sugrīva said, “May our friendship last forever. Our woes and joys are now one.”

Hanumān broke off a large bough from a flowering sal tree and set it on the ground as a seat for Rāma and Sugrīva. He broke off another from a blossoming sandalwood tree and offered it to Lakṣman. When they were all seated Sugrīva began telling Rāma about himself. “I have been banished and antagonized by my elder brother Vāli, O Rāma, and I move about these woods in great fear. He has stolen my wife and wrested the kingdom from me. Even now he seeks to destroy me. Please grant me security from my hostile brother.”

Rāma laughed heartily and replied, “Certainly service is the fruit of friendship, O mighty monkey. You need have no fear from Vāli. That immoral monkey will soon lie dead, killed by My infallible arrows. You will see Vāli struck down and lying on the earth like a shattered mountain.”

Sugrīva was reassured. He was certain he would soon recover his wife and kingdom. He again clasped Rāma’s hand and thanked Him. Sugrīva assured Rāma that he would search out and find Sītā, whether She was in the bowels of the earth or the vaults of heaven. “You should know for sure,” he said, “that neither god nor demon can hold Sītā any more than a man can digest poisoned food.”

Even as that friendship between Rāma and Vāli was forged, the left eyes of Sītā, Vāli and Rāvaṇa all throbbed violently and simultaneously, foreboding good to the princess and evil to the other two.

After the brothers and the monkeys had eaten a meal of cooked roots and forest vegetables prepared by Hanumān, they again spoke together. Sugrīva told Rāma that he had seen, not long ago, a great Rākṣasa flying overhead clutching a crying lady. He had heard Her plaintive calls of, “Rāma! Lakṣman!” This must surely have been Sītā being stolen by Rāvaṇa. Sugrīva continued, “I saw the princess wriggling like a snake in the demon’s grasp. She spotted me sitting with my four companions on the mountaintop. She then threw down Her jewels wrapped in a cloth.”

Rāma grasped the monkey’s arm. “You saw My beloved Sītā? Where are those jewels? Bring them quickly!”

Sugrīva got up and entered deeply into his cave. After a few minutes he returned, holding the cloth bundle Sītā had thrown. He laid it out before Rāma and the brilliant jewels shone in the bright sunshine. Rāma dropped to His knees and began sobbing. “Sītā! My darling!” He pressed the jewels to His bosom. Thinking of His kidnapped wife He began to hiss like a serpent provoked in its hole. He turned to Lakṣman, who had knelt by His side. “See here, O Lakṣman, Sītā’s bright jewels. The Rākṣasa must have carried Her this way.”

Lakṣman gazed at the jewels and replied to Rāma. “I do not recognize the armlets or earrings, for I have never looked at the face or body of the princess. But I recognize the anklets, which I saw each day as I bowed at Her feet.”

Rāma stood quickly and spoke to Sugrīva. “Tell Me where the demon has taken Sītā? Where does he dwell, O Sugrīva? On account of that demon I shall exterminate the entire Rākṣasa horde. By carrying off Sītā he has opened wide the portals of death. Let me know his whereabouts and I shall dispatch him to Death’s presence this very day, accompanied by all his followers.”

Sugrīva’s head fell. He told Rāma he had no knowledge of Rāvaṇa’s whereabouts. The city of the Rākṣasas was unknown to the monkeys, as it was to humans. Perhaps it even lay on some other planet, for the Rākṣasas could move freely anywhere. But Sugrīva solemnly swore that he would find Sītā. Rāma should not lament. Whatever it took to locate the princess, Sugrīva and his monkeys would undertake.

Sugrīva reassured Rāma. “Do not allow grief to overpower You, O great hero. Wise men face every calamity with fortitude and do not yield to sorrow. Only the foolish are overcome by lamentation, losing their intelligence and strength and sinking like an overloaded boat. O Rāma, I am here to help You. Cast away Your grief.”

Rāma wiped His face with His cloth and smiled at Sugrīva. He felt comforted by the monkey’s words and thanked him for his counsel. He urged Sugrīva to begin the search for Sītā immediately and He again promised to kill Vāli. Sugrīva and his ministers felt immense pleasure to hear Rāma’s promise and they considered their purpose accomplished. Sugrīva vowed his unending and unswerving friendship and service to Rāma, who then asked, “Tell me how you came to be exiled, dear friend. Why do you tarry here on this lonely mountain, suffering grief and fear?”

Sugrīva then told Rāma his story. “Although I had ascended the throne of the monkeys under the instruction of Vāli’s ministers, I was deposed and chased away violently by Vāli. Even my dear wife was stolen by my powerful brother. Still he antagonizes me. Many times I have killed monkeys sent by him for my destruction. Thus it was that I feared even You when I first saw You arrive here.”

Rāma wanted to hear all the details about Vāli. He asked Sugrīva to relate the whole history. What were Vāli’s strengths and weaknesses? Why had he insulted Sugrīva? Rāma was already feeling anger toward Vāli. He wanted to know everything about the arrogant monkey. Then He would take the necessary steps. He again reassured Sugrīva. “Speak with confidence. Soon you will see My arrow streak toward Vāli’s chest and him falling like a cleft mountain.”

Sugrīva, feeling delight, said, “Vāli and I are the two sons of Riksaraja, the king of the monkeys. My father and I always held Vāli in the highest esteem. When the king died it was Vāli, as the elder prince, who was duly installed as the ruler. I always remained subservient to my brother, standing by his side.”

Sugrīva described how, one day, a demon named Mayavi had come to Kishkindha, the monkeys’ city. He had a dispute with Vāli over a woman and he stood outside the city gates, bellowing fearfully and challenging Vāli to a duel. Vāli was sleeping and Mayavi’s roars woke him. He got up furiously and immediately rushed out of the city with Sugrīva by his side. When Mayavi saw the two huge monkeys emerging from the city he became fearful and ran away. Vāli and Sugrīva gave chase and were gaining on the demon when he suddenly entered a large hole in the earth.

Upon reaching the hole, Vāli decided to go after Mayavi and he told Sugrīva to wait for him. Although Sugrīva implored his brother to take him, Vāli went alone into the hole. He bound Sugrīva on oath to remain at the entrance of the hole until he returned.

A year passed and Sugrīva waited. There was no sign of Vāli. Sugrīva began to fear his brother had been killed. He stayed at the hole, feeling misgivings. Then, as he sat watching the hole, a large amount of foaming blood began to seep out. Sugrīva also heard the roaring sound of the demon, but he could not hear his brother’s voice. Thinking carefully, Sugrīva concluded with great sorrow that Vāli must have been killed. Not wanting the demon to escape, Sugrīva placed an enormous boulder over the hole. He then returned grieving to Kishkindha.

Vāli’s ministers then installed Sugrīva on the throne, although he was reluctant to accept it. However, after only a short time elapsed, Vāli returned, having killed the demon. When he saw Sugrīva on the throne he became enraged. He bound the ministers in chains and spoke harshly to Sugrīva, explaining that he had found Mayavi after a full year of searching and had slain him and all his kinsmen. He then turned back, only to find the entrance to the hole blocked and Sugrīva gone.

Sugrīva was full of reverence toward his brother and bowed before him, touching his feet with the crown. He told Vāli how pleased and relieved he was to see him returned. Sugrīva would again happily become his brother’s servant, but Vāli would not be placated. He accused Sugrīva of deliberately shutting him up in the hole out of a desire to gain the kingdom. He threw Sugrīva out of the city with only a single cloth wrapped around him. Vāli also stole his brother’s wife.

Sugrīva concluded his story. “Thus it was that I came to be wandering about, accompanied by only a few close friends and advisors. Ranging the earth in fear of Vāli, I finally sought shelter upon this mountain, knowing that he cannot come here due to a curse.”

Rāma smiled at Sugrīva. Once more He gave him every assurance that the cruel and immoral Vāli would soon be punished. “I will soon dispel your grief at losing your wife, O king of monkeys, even as the sun dispels a morning mist.”

Sugrīva looked at Rāma. With His powerful frame and huge bow he was truly an impressive sight. Surely He could easily overpower even the mightiest of warriors. But Vāli was no ordinary opponent. Although raised by Riksharaj, Vāli had been born the son of Indra. He possessed strength beyond compare. No one could face him in battle. Therefore Sugrīva felt uncertain. He began to describe Vāli’s prowess. “Each day upon rising, Vāli, for exercise, strides from the western to the eastern ocean. Then he moves to the southern shore and again bounds from there to the northernmost coast. He knows no fatigue and climbs to the tops of mountains, hurling down their huge peaks with his bare hands. I have seen Vāli snap numerous massive trees as if they were small sticks.”

Sugrīva then told Rāma about Vāli’s encounter with another celestial demon named Dundubhi. This demon was accustomed to roam about in the form of a terrible-looking buffalo. He possessed the strength of ten thousand elephants and was wandering around looking for a suitable opponent. Coming to the god of the seas, the demon challenged him to battle, but the god declined, saying, “I am not competent to fight with you.” The deity sent Dundubhi to the Himavan mountain, telling him that he would get battle there, but the mountain also declined to fight with Dundubhi. The demon roared angrily and demanded to know who could possibly face him. Himavan then said that Vāli would prove a worthy combatant for him, and he directed Dundubhi to Kishkindha.

The furious demon, still in the form of a tremendous buffalo, rushed toward Vāli’s city. He appeared like a black cloud racing through the skies in the rainy season. Dundubhi arrived at the gates of Kishkindha and thundered like a large drum being violently beaten. That sound reverberated for miles and it broke down the surrounding trees. Vāli was enjoying with his wives in his palace. Drunk with wine and passion, he stood up and gazed about with reddened eyes. He was intolerant by nature and the sound of the demon maddened him. He ran out of his palace, followed by his wives. Going before Dundubhi he said, “Why do you bellow like this, O demon? If you are challenging me, then you had best flee immediately before I take your life.”

The demon laughed loudly. He said to Vāli, “You should not challenge me in the presence of ladies. O gallant monkey, fight with all your power and I shall kill you today. Or, if you prefer, you may remain for this night with your wives and we shall fight tomorrow. It is improper to fight one who is drunk or blinded by passion. Return to your city and gaze upon it for one last time. Say fond farewells to your near and dear ones. Install your son upon the throne and then come out for battle. Soon you will lie dead upon the earth.”

Vāli laughed to hear this arrogant boasting. He sent his wives back into the city and said to Dundubhi, “Do not make excuses to hide your fear. Take my inebriety to be the drunkenness of a warrior just prior to a battle. We shall fight now!”

Vāli tightened his cloth and stood like a mountain in front of Dundubhi. The demon roared and, lowering his pointed horns, charged furiously at Vāli. The monkey at once seized Dundubhi by his horns and swung him around, throwing him down on the ground. Blood flowed from the demon’s ears and he got up and charged again. Rising up on his hind legs, he began pounding Vāli with his hooves, making a sound like thunderclaps. He thrust his horns into Vāli’s body, but the monkey stood firm.

The battle raged for some time as the two opponents beat each other furiously. Vāli struck the demon with fists, knees, feet, rocks and trees. Gradually he overpowered Dundubhi, who became exhausted. Vāli then took hold of his horns and dashed him to the ground with great force. He whirled the lifeless demon around and tossed him to a distance of eight miles. As he flew through the air large amounts of blood flowed from his smashed body. Some drops fell upon the hermitage of the sage Matanga. The ṛṣi stood up in a rage and looked around. He saw Dundubhi’s carcass and by his mystic vision could understand that Vāli had thrown the dead demon there. He immediately uttered a curse: “If the monkey who threw this corpse ever steps within a four-mile radius of this hermitage, he will immediately turn to stone.”

Thus Sugrīva explained why Vāli did not dare come near Rishyamukha. He pointed to what appeared to be a massive heap of shining white rocks. “Here are Dundubhi’s bones, tossed away by Vāli. Even these bare bones can hardly be moved by any other person.”

Lakṣman laughed contemptuously. “What feat have you seen that Rāma cannot easily equal? O Sugrīva, I have not heard anything yet to indicate that this brother of yours is formidable.”

Sugrīva assured Lakṣman that he was convinced of Rāma’s prowess, but he had not yet seen any demonstration of Rāma’s power, while on many occasions he had witnessed the power of Vāli. He asked Rāma to show him His strength by kicking away Dundubhi’s skeleton.

Rāma laughed again and with His foot He playfully lifted the huge bones, flicking them high into the sky. That skeleton flew out of sight, landing some eighty miles away. Seeing the bones vanishing into the distance Sugrīva was impressed, but he still remained doubtful. He said to Rāma, “You have thrown the dried-up bones of Dundubhi, but he was hurled by Vāli when still a carcass full of flesh and blood. O Rāma, forgive me, but there is one other test I should like to witness.”

Sugrīva showed Rāma and Lakṣman seven sal trees, each more than thirty arms’ length in diameter. In the past Vāli had easily broken down many such trees. Sugrīva asked Rāma to show His strength by piercing one of those trees right through with an arrow.

Rāma smilingly took up His bow and strung it, placing on the string a dreadful-looking arrow. He took aim and released the arrow which passed cleanly through all seven trees. The arrow, gilded with gold, entered the earth and descended to the subterranean regions. Forcing its way back up and out of the earth, it again entered Rāma’s quiver.

Sugrīva was astonished and fell flat on the ground at Rāma’s feet. He considered Vāli as good as slain. Kneeling before Rāma he said, “You could kill with Your arrows the gods and demons combined. Who can stand before You in battle? With You as my ally, my grief has totally dried up. O Rāma, let us go quickly and make short work of Vāli.”

Rāma agreed and they all left immediately for Kishkindha. Rāma told Sugrīva to go ahead and challenge Vāli to a fight and He would wait nearby. When Vāli came out of the city, Rāma would kill him.

Sugrīva stood outside Kishkindha and began to roar. Vāli heard his brother and rushed out to fight. The two monkeys began a tumultuous and terrible combat that resembled a clash between Mars and Mercury in the heavens. Blinded by anger they threw blows like thunderbolts at each other. Striking with their fists, palms and feet, they pummeled each other, screaming with fury.

Rāma watched closely, bow in hand. He could not distinguish who was who. The two monkey brothers resembled each other closely, like the twin Aśvinī gods. Rāma did not therefore release His arrow for fear of hitting Sugrīva.

Vāli soon got the upper hand and the battered Sugrīva ran for his life. He dashed back to the Rishyamukha, closely followed by Vāli, who stopped at the edge of the forest near to Matanga’s hermitage, saying, “Today you are spared.”

Sugrīva lay gasping on the ground as Rāma ran up to him. The monkey looked at the prince in surprise. “Why did You not say truthfully that You had no intention of slaying Vāli? Look at me now. I have been half-killed by that fearful ape. O Rāma, had I known You were reluctant I would not have moved from this place.”

Rāma consoled Sugrīva, explaining that He was unable to distinguish the monkey from his brother. Their features, dress and ornaments were too similar. He suggested that Sugrīva again challenge Vāli, but this time wearing some distinctive mark so that Rāma could tell one from the other. Lakṣman tied round Sugrīva’s neck a flowering creeper. Reassured, Sugrīva got up and left again for Kishkindha.

Lakṣman and Sugrīva strode in front, followed by Rāma, Hanumān and the other three monkeys. They soon reached the city and again Sugrīva went to the gates. He looked at Rāma, still feeling fearful. The beating from Vāli had shaken him.

Rāma saw Sugrīva’s anxious expression. He took the monkey by his shoulders and said, “Do not hesitate. Vāli will presently roll in the dust, struck down by My arrow. I have never uttered a falsehood, even though I have been in adversity for a long time. Let go your mighty shout, O Sugrīva, and Vāli will quickly proceed to this spot. How can he brook a challenge in the presence of women? This shall be his last battle and indeed his last day on earth.”

Sugrīva accepted Rāma’s firm assurance. While the two princes remained concealed in a clump of bushes, he again began to shout out his challenge. His roar rent the air pitilessly. Animals fled confused in all directions like women assailed by wicked men due to the failure of leaders to protect them. Birds dropped from the sky like gods whose pious merits have been exhausted. As Sugrīva emitted his fierce cry he sounded like the ocean lashed by a gale.

Vāli was in his inner chambers with his wives. Hearing Sugrīva’s challenge, he sat up in surprise. How had his brother returned so soon? Was he not satisfied with one thrashing? This time there would be no escape for that arrogant monkey. Vāli was seized with fury. His limbs trembled and his eyes turned crimson. Grinding his teeth he leapt from his bed and ran toward the door.

His wife Tara, seeing him about to go out, ran to him and held his arm. Her womanly intuition told her something was wrong. She spoke fearfully. “My lord, shake off this anger. Do not enter another combat with Sugrīva. Although you are more powerful than your brother, I nevertheless feel misgivings. How has Sugrīva become so fearless even though he was only just beaten by you? Why does he now stand there roaring like a monsoon cloud? Surely he has found a powerful ally.”

Vāli stopped and looked at his beautiful wife. She told him that she had heard how Sugrīva had formed a friendship with two princes from Ayodhya. Tara described the power and glory of Rāma, which she had heard described by Aṅgada, Vāli’s son. Rāma was unassailable in battle and capable of crushing vast armies. He was the supreme resort for the afflicted and had given an assurance of safety to Sugrīva. The Vanara queen begged her husband not to go out and fight. Instead he should welcome Sugrīva and install him as the Prince Regent.

Tara implored her husband. “I consider Sugrīva to be your foremost friend. You need not maintain this animosity. Bring him close with gifts and kind words. Along with Rāma he will prove your greatest ally. O valiant monarch, please do not enter another combat with Sugrīva, for I fear it will be your last.”

Gripped by death, Vāli could not accept his wife’s wise advice. He reproached her as she stood before him weeping. “How can I tolerate this insolence? For a warrior who has never known defeat, brooking an insult is worse than death. I am not able to stand the arrogance of the weak Sugrīva, much less his roar. O timid one, I shall not tarry here longer. Sugrīva shall meet his end today.”

Vāli told Tara she need not fear on Rāma’s account. He knew about the human prince. Rāma was devoted to virtue and piety; He would never commit the sin of killing an innocent person. Nor could He intervene in the fair fights of others. Vāli ordered Tara to stay in the palace. He was going out to face Sugrīva and would soon return, having either killed his brother or sent him flying in fear. The queen bowed her head and, praying for her husband, returned sorrowfully to her rooms.

Filled with rage and breathing heavily, Vāli rushed out of the city gates. He saw Sugrīva standing firm like a mountain, his reddish brown body glowing like fire. Vāli tightened his loin cloth. Raising his fist he charged furiously at his brother, shouting, “This iron-like fist, hurled at you like a mace, will return after taking your life!”

Remembering his brother’s treatment of him, Sugrīva was also worked up with anger. He threw a great punch at the onrushing Vāli. The two monkeys clashed together roaring like maddened bulls. Struck a swinging blow on the chest by Vāli’s two clenched hands, Sugrīva vomited blood and looked like a mountain covered with a cascade of red oxides. He tore up a sal tree and dashed his brother over the head. Vāli shook like a ship tossed in the ocean. He fell upon Sugrīva and began pounding him with his knees and fists. The two monkeys fought fiercely and gradually Vāli once more gained the upper hand.

Sugrīva, with his vanity shattered, began fearfully looking about for Rāma. He was becoming weaker and weaker. From behind the bush Rāma saw His chance. Vāli stood over his collapsed brother, his arms upraised. Rāma swiftly placed an arrow on His bow, releasing it with a sound resembling a crash of thunder. The arrow sped like a streak of lightning and hit Vāli on the breast, sounding like another thunderclap.

Vāli fell to the ground like a hewn tree, uttering a great cry. He lay unconscious with his body bathed in blood. Although struck by Rāma’s powerful arrow, the monkey did not die, as he was wearing a gold chain Indra had given him. By Indra’s blessings that chain was capable of preserving the life of whoever wore it. Lying there with his scattered garments and shining ornaments, and the glowing arrow of Rāma protruding from his chest, Vāli looked like a colorful banner suddenly dropped to the ground.

Rāma and Lakṣman slowly approached the mortally wounded monkey. Vāli opened his eyes and looked up at Rāma, who was smiling at him. The fallen monkey spoke with difficulty. “You are famous for Your truth and virtue, O Rāma. How then have You committed such an abominable act? What was my crime that I should be punished in this way? I did not attack You. Indeed I was engaged in fair combat with another. Why then have You killed me, remaining concealed at a distance?”

Vāli accused Rāma of irreligion, saying that He only posed as a virtuous person. This heinous deed surely proved Him to be otherwise. He had lost control of His mind and senses, overcome by desire and swayed by sentiment. Out of friendship for Sugrīva, He had abandoned righteousness.

Gasping for breath, Vāli went on, “I cannot understand why You have acted in this way, O Rāma. What did You have to gain by killing me, a mere monkey living in the forest on wild fruits? The scriptures condemn the eating of monkey flesh or the using of their skins. There was no reason to slay me. I have done You no harm at all. Surely this act will be condemned by all holy men and You will go to hell.”

Vāli censured Rāma at length, speaking passionately. After some time he closed his eyes and fell back exhausted. He felt regret. Why had he not listened to Tara? She had tendered him wise advice. By ignoring her he had reaped the results of his impetuosity. The arrow in his chest burned like fire. Vāli was shocked. How could the virtuous Rāma have perpetrated such a vile deed?

Rāma waited for Vāli to regain a little strength. When the monkey again opened his eyes, Rāma said, “O Vāli, you clearly do not understand righteousness and religion. This entire earth belongs to the descendants of Manu, having been bequeathed to them by that great deity and speaker of religious codes. Bharata now rules this world and We, his brothers, are His servants. It is thus Our duty to roam the earth, promoting virtue and punishing the wicked. You, O proud monkey, are indeed wicked.”

Rāma then explained to Vāli rules of morality. The younger brother should be regarded as one’s own son, and his wife as one’s daughter-in-law. Vāli had therefore been guilty of a great sin in punishing the sinless Sugrīva and co-habiting with Ruma, Sugrīva’s wife. The scriptures prescribed death as the punishment for one who has illicit sexual relations with his own daughter or a wife of his younger brother. There was no doubt that Rāma’s punishing him was just.

Rāma continued to address the pain-stricken Vāli. “You are now freed from the sinful reaction which would have sent you to hell. A person punished by the king is released from all sins and ascends to heaven, but if the king fails to punish a sinner, then he himself incurs the sin. O Vāli, you should not grieve, for you have been fortunate to receive the proper punishment, making you eligible for the higher planets after death. Nor did I act wrongly by remaining concealed. Since you are a monkey, this was the appropriate way to kill you. Just as when hunting the king shoots arrows at animals while hidden from view, so I shot you.”

Vāli could not argue. He had always felt remorseful for the way he had treated Sugrīva, but had denied those feelings, remaining fiercely antagonistic toward his brother. Now he had finally received the result. All creatures had to accept the fruits of their own acts alone. No suffering or happiness came other than as a result of one’s former acts. Understanding this, Vāli accepted Rāma’s words as true and gave up his anger and grief. With difficulty he replied, “How can a dwarf argue with a giant? O Rāma, You are the best knower of all religious principles. I am justly punished. Please forgive my harsh words spoken earlier out of sorrow and confusion. I have certainly strayed from the path of virtue.”

Vāli feared that after his death his brother Sugrīva would be antagonistic to his son Aṅgada. He begged Rāma to establish a friendship between the two monkeys. Rāma assured Vāli that Sugrīva would rule the Vanaras with righteousness, treating Aṅgada like a younger brother.

Vāli lost consciousness, his life all but ended. At that moment Tara ran out of the city crying for her husband. She saw the monkeys who were Vāli’s followers running about in all directions, seized with fear of Rāma. Tara stopped some of them and asked them why they were fleeing.

“See there your mighty husband struck down by Rāma’s arrow,” they replied. “Death in the form of Rāma is bearing him away. Leave quickly with us, for soon Sugrīva will take over the city and drive us out, assisted by Rāma’s deadly arrows.”

Tara looked around and saw Vāli lying on the ground. Nearby Rāma leant on his great bow. With a wail she ran toward her fallen husband, beating her breast and head. She fell at Vāli’s feet. The lordly ape resembled a mountain struck down by Indra’s thunderbolt. Crying out, “My lord!” she rolled about in agony. Aṅgada also came there and dropped to the ground at his father’s feet, overwhelmed with grief.

Tara lamented loudly. “Get up, O tiger among monkeys! Why do you not greet me? Come with me now and lay upon your excellent couch. The bare ground is no place for a king to lay. Alas, it is obvious that the earth is more dear to you than myself, for you lie there embracing her with your outstretched arms. What shall I do? Where shall I go? I am lost!”

Crying like a female osprey, the intelligent Tara thought how her husband had banished Sugrīva and stolen his wife. Surely this was the fruit of those sinful deeds. How could she live now as a widow under the care of Sugrīva, Vāli’s enemy? What would happen now to her dear son Aṅgada? Tara held Vāli’s feet, who still lay unconscious and was barely breathing.

Hanumān gently comforted Tara. “This is the sure end of everybody, O gentle lady. All of us shall reap the results of our own deeds only, good or bad. As such, we gain nothing and do nothing for others by lamenting. Vāli has reached the end of his allotted life span and will now rise to the higher regions. Do not grieve.”

Tara cried out in pain. She had no desire to live without Vāli. Laying next to her husband she determined to fast until death, following the path taken by Vāli.

As Tara sobbed, Vāli opened his eyes and looked slowly about. Seeing Sugrīva he spoke to him affectionately. “O brother, please forgive my evil acts against you. Destiny did not decree that we should share happiness together. Accept now the rulership of the monkeys. I shall soon depart for Yamarāja’s abode.”

Vāli asked his brother to be kind to Aṅgada. He also asked that Sugrīva carefully protect Tara, always seeking her advice on important matters. Rāma’s order should be closely followed and Sugrīva should always seek to please him.

Sugrīva, feeling despondent, nodded in assent to Vāli’s instructions. Vāli then took off his celestial gold chain and gave it to Sugrīva. Turning to Aṅgada he said in a whisper, “Dear son, I shall now depart from this world. Remain ever devoted to Sugrīva’s service, seeing him as you do myself.”

With his eyes rolling in pain and his teeth exposed, Vāli gave up his life. His head fell to the side as his last breath gasped out. A great howl of sorrow went up from the many monkeys who stood surrounding Vāli. “Alas, our lord is gone! Who will protect us now? Who can equal Vāli in strength and splendor?”

Tara and Aṅgada embraced Vāli’s body, wailing loudly. Sugrīva was filled with remorse. He went before Rāma and said, “I am a wretch who has caused the death of my own brother. Although he was always capable, my brother never killed me. But at the first opportunity I have had him slain. How can I take the kingdom now, stained as it is with Vāli’s blood? How can I tolerate seeing Tara and Aṅgada weeping bitterly on my account?”

Sugrīva became overwhelmed by his feelings. He felt sure he would reap the terrible results of the sin of fratricide and indeed the killing of a king. Vāli was noble and had ruled the monkeys with justice and compassion. Having killed him, Sugrīva was not fit to himself become a monarch. Everyone would simply condemn him. His only recourse was to enter fire along with the body of his brother. Sugrīva begged Rāma’s permission to give up his life. The other monkeys could assist Rāma in finding Sītā.

Rāma was moved to tears upon hearing Sugrīva’s piteous lamentations. As He considered the monkey’s sorrowful words, Tara approached him and said, “O all-powerful one, I too shall enter the fire along with Vāli. I have no desire for life without my husband. Surely he will miss me, even among the Apsarās in heaven, for I have always been his most devoted servant.”

Tara begged Rāma to kill her with the arrow which had slain Vāli. “O Rāma, the wife is always considered one with her husband. Therefore you need not fear the sin of killing a woman. You will only be completing the task of killing Vāli by taking my life. I cannot tolerate the pain of separation from my spouse. Surely You know only too well what that terrible pain is like.”

Rāma looked compassionately at Tara, who had fallen to the ground. He consoled her most gently. “O wife of a hero, do not think in this way. This entire creation yields happiness and distress one after another for all created beings in accord with their destiny. Where will you go to avoid your fate? Be peaceful here; having duly mourned for your husband, you will soon enjoy as much delight under Sugrīva’s protection as you did with Vāli. Your son will become Prince Regent and you will be honored. All this is ordained by Providence. O Tara, the wives of heroes never lament as you are doing now.”

Rāma instructed Tara according to the moral codes which applied to her race. On the death of her husband, she should accept his brother as her spouse and serve him as she had Vāli. Tara became silent, gazing at Rāma, who now turned to Sugrīva to comfort him.

Rāma told Sugrīva to take heart and attend to Vāli’s funeral. The soul of the monkey king would not be helped by simply grieving for him. “The time for grieving must soon end and duties must be performed,” Rāma said gravely. “Time controls everything. Vāli has succumbed to all-powerful Time, going to the regions he has earned by his own acts. Now Time is urging you to perform your religious duties toward your brother.”

Sugrīva stood looking at Rāma. His mind was bewildered with grief and remorse. Lakṣman took hold of the monkey’s arm and told him to proceed with Vāli’s cremation. Lakṣman gave detailed instructions to the confused Sugrīva. Hearing the prince speak, Sugrīva’s attendants ran to carry out his orders.

Rāma again spoke to the grieving Tara. “O Vanara queen, carefully consider whether or not this dead body of Vāli was ever related to you. It is nothing but a collection of inert chemicals. The real person is the soul, not the body. In ignorance only do we form relationships based upon bodily considerations, calling others ‘husband,’ ‘son,’ or ‘friend.’”

Rāma explained that the soul is without designations. It is eternal and dwells for only a short time in the body. During our brief sojourn in our bodies we form so many illusory relationships, but all of these will undoubtedly be broken by the force of time. The soul’s real happiness lies in its relationship with God. Vāli had now moved closer to that eternal relationship and no one need lament for him.

As Rāma spoke, Vāli’s grieving relatives felt relief. Gathering themselves together they prepared for Vāli’s funeral. A beautiful wooden palanquin was fetched. Vāli’s body was carefully laid on it and it was lifted up by eight powerful monkeys. Vāli looked like a fallen god. The palanquin was adorned by numerous carvings of birds, trees and fighting soldiers. Over its top was lattice work covered with a net and many garlands and jeweled ornaments. The sides of the palanquin were daubed with red sandal-paste, and lotus flowers were laid out all along its edges.

Sugrīva and Aṅgada bore the palanquin along with the other monkeys. Sugrīva had regained his composure and he issued orders to the monkeys. “Walk ahead of us, scattering the ground with jewels of every description. Let learned monkeys recite the scriptures and we shall proceed slowly to the cremation ground.”

The procession moved off, heading toward the river bank. A great wail was sent up by the many females who walked in front. Gradually they came to the river and a funeral pyre was built on its bank. The palanquin was set down next to the pyre and Tara again fell to the ground, crying mournfully. “O hero! Why do you not cast your glance upon me today? See here your wives, all weeping, who have trodden the long path behind you. Here are your ministers, sunk in a sea of dejection. O Vāli, dismiss your counselors now as you did in the past. Then we shall sport together, intoxicated with love.”

The other women gently raised Tara, who was overwhelmed with sorrow. With the help of Sugrīva and the weeping Aṅgada, they lifted Vāli’s body onto the pyre. Aṅgada then lit the pyre and walked around his father, who had set out on his journey to the next world. All the others joined him in slowly circumambulating the blazing pyre.

Everyone then entered the river and offered sacred water to Vāli’s soul. After the obsequies were performed, Sugrīva and his counselors surrounded Rāma and Lakṣman.

Hanumān, who resembled a golden peak of Mount Meru, folded his hands and said to Rāma, “By Your grace, O Raghava, has Sugrīva acquired the ancestral kingdom of the Vanaras. Please enter this city of Kishkindha in state and, with Your permission, we will perform the coronation ceremony.”

Rāma looked stern as He replied. “Commanded by My father I shall not enter even a village for fourteen years, much less a city. You may proceed into the city and duly install Sugrīva as your king. I shall remain outside, finding some suitable cave for My residence.”

Rāma instructed Sugrīva to remain in Kishkindha for the coming few months. It was the beginning of the monsoon season, so it would be impossible to search for Sītā. When the rains ended Sugrīva should dispatch the monkeys in all directions to look for Rāvaṇa and the princess.

Sugrīva took leave of Rāma and went into his city, which was situated within a vast mountain cave. In accordance with scriptural injunctions, a grand coronation ceremony was performed. Everyone repeatedly extolled Rāma and Lakṣman, feeling honored by the friendship of the two princes from Ayodhya. Sugrīva was reunited with his wife, Ruma, and he entered Vāli’s magnificent palace. Awaiting the end of the rainy season he lived happily, surrounded by his wives and ministers.

Chapter 12: The Search Begins

Rāma and Lakṣman moved to the nearby Mount Prashravana and sought out a large cave close to its summit. They settled in, spending Their time talking together and performing sacrifice. But Rāma’s mind rarely left Sītā. His only consolation was to describe Her qualities to Lakṣman. He longed for the rainy season to end so that he could search for His beloved wife. Gradually the rains subsided. The sky cleared and the resonant cries of cranes filled the air. Although the monsoons were over, however, Sugrīva still did not prepare his army to search for Sītā. Realizing this, Rāma discussed the situation with Lakṣman.

“It seems the Vanara king has forgotten his debt to Us, noble brother. Why have his messengers not arrived here with news of their search? O Lakṣman, I fear that the gentle Sītā is lost forever. What is She doing now? Surely Her mind dwells on Me, even as Mine never leaves Her. Surely She weeps in agony, even as I weep here.”

Rāma’s grief was as strong as it had been when Sītā was abducted four months ago. Rāma felt powerless. He was still no closer to finding Sītā than the day She was kidnapped, and now Sugrīva, upon whom his hopes were resting, was letting Him down. Rāma sat distracted by sorrow. Lakṣman reassured Him. “This is not the time to grieve, dear brother. We must strenuously exert Ourselves to find Sītā. With You as Her protector, no one can hold the princess for long. Compose Yourself, Rāma! Let Us do what must be done.”

Rāma sighed and looked around. On a plateau beneath His cave, a large pond had been formed by the rains. Swans and cranes sported joyfully in the water among clusters of white and red lotuses. Rāma could hear the croaks of frogs and the cries of peacocks. In the distance He heard the trumpeting sound of elephants in rut. Large black bees droned around the bright forest flowers, intoxicated with nectar. The sky was a deep blue and the wind, which had blown fiercely during the monsoons, had become a gentle breeze. The sights and sounds of autumn were visible everywhere. Rāma was reflective. Where was Sugrīva? Had he forgotten his promise now that his own problem had been solved? How could he so ungrateful? Rāma’s brow furrowed with anger and He turned to Lakṣman.

“These past four months have seemed like a hundred years for Me. I have longed for the end of the rains, O Lakṣman, so that We might find Sītā as We agreed with Sugrīva. Although I have rendered him a great favor, the evil-minded monkey king obviously holds Me in contempt. Seeing Me forlorn and deprived of My kingdom, living helplessly like an ascetic in the forest, the wicked fellow entirely disregards Me.”

Rāma told Lakṣman to go to Kishkindha. He should tell Sugrīva that there is no viler being than one who is ungrateful. Had he forgotten the favor Rāma had done for him, and the promise he had made in return? Did he wish to again see Rāma’s golden bow drawn to its full length? Did he desire to see Rāma angry on the battlefield? Did he long to hear again the crash of Rāma’s bowstring sounding like so many claps of thunder? It was strange that Sugrīva seemed to have forgotten how Vāli was slain by a single arrow from Rāma, although Sugrīva himself could never overcome his brother. Rāma’s eyes were crimson with anger as He spoke.

“It is clear that Sugrīva is lost in sensual pleasures, having regained his kingdom after a long time. Drunk and surrounded by women, he has all but forgotten his pledged word to Me. Tell him, O brother, that the path taken by Vāli still lies open. Along with all his kinsmen, Sugrīva may proceed along that path if he does not care for his promise. He should take heed of this warning. Otherwise he will meet again soon with Vāli.”

Lakṣman Himself became furious as He listened to Rāma. He told Rāma that He would go immediately to Kishkindha. With upraised weapons He would dispatch Sugrīva to Death’s abode. Clearly the licentious and unvirtuous Sugrīva was not fit to rule a kingdom. Aṅgada should be installed as king and he could organize the search for Sītā. Sugrīva should be punished without delay.

Lakṣman stood up and reached for His weapons. Rāma, whose anger had already begun to subside, then checked His brother. “I think it not fitting that You kill Sugrīva. Try at first to pursue a gentler path. Remind him of our friendship and his promise. O Lakṣman, do not use harsh words immediately. After all, Sugrīva is but a monkey. Perhaps You can awaken him to a sense of his duty by conciliatory speech.”

Lakṣman bowed in assent to Rāma’s words, although He could not subdue His anger. He left the cave and began running toward Kishkindha, thinking of what He would say to Sugrīva. He could not disobey Rāma’s order, but He would not tolerate any resistance from Sugrīva. If that lazy monkey did not immediately set about his duty, he would be sorry. How dare he be so negligent of his promise to Rāma! Who did he think he was? Lakṣman bit His lips in fury as He bounded down the mountainside.

In the city of Kishkindha, Hanumān had also noticed the season change and Sugrīva not stirring. The intelligent minister thought carefully about the situation. Rāma would certainly take stern action if Sugrīva failed to fulfill his pledge. Hanumān approached the Vanara king, who was absorbed in sensuality, and spoke to him in a friendly and pleasing manner.

“You have regained sovereignty, fame and prosperity, O Sugrīva. It now remains for you to win the goodwill of your allies. The dominion, fame and glory of a king who acts well toward his allies will always grow. That king who regards equally his exchequer, his army, his allies and his own self, will gain a great kingdom. However, he who fails to take care of any one of these meets with disaster.”

Hanumān then reminded Sugrīva of his promise to Rāma. The time had arrived to begin the search for Sītā. The king should immediately send out monkeys in all directions. Rāma should not need to ask. It would be shameful if Sugrīva did not act quickly to repay a debt to his friend and ally.

Sugrīva thanked Hanumān for his wise and timely advice. The monkey king realized his laxity and he immediately summoned his ministers and counselors. He issued orders. “Let all the Vanara generals be quickly assembled. Swift-footed and energetic monkeys are needed. Ten thousand of my army should immediately depart for every country where the Vanaras dwell. Have them fetch the very best of the monkey warriors here to Kishkindha. Anyone sent out and failing to return within fifteen days should be executed.” Ordering Hanumān and Aṅgada to organize the army, Sugrīva again retired to his rooms.

Within a few days the monkey hordes began to assemble outside the city. Monkeys resembling elephants, mountains and clouds gathered together. Those powerful Vanaras were like mighty tigers and were all heroic. They were dark and terrible and they made one’s hair stand erect just to see them. Some were as strong as a hundred elephants, some ten times stronger than that, and others ten times stronger again. They stood awaiting Sugrīva’s orders.

As the monkeys milled about in their tens of thousands outside Kishkindha, they noticed Lakṣman approaching in the distance. When they saw the prince running toward the city, His face glowing with anger and His bow grasped tightly, they became fearful. Some of them, not recognizing Him, lifted up trees and boulders, ready to defend Kishkindha. Others ran in all directions as Lakṣman arrived near the city gates, holding aloft His bow and calling for Sugrīva. Seeing the monkeys prepared to attack Him, Lakṣman became even more angry. He heaved deep and burning sighs and licked the corners of His mouth.

Aṅgada quickly came out of the city and, checking the monkeys from fleeing, went before Lakṣman. Rāma’s brother appeared to the monkey prince like the blazing fire of universal destruction. In great fear he bowed low at Lakṣman’s feet and greeted Him respectfully. Although furious, Lakṣman contained His anger and spoke kindly to Aṅgada. “Pray tell Sugrīva of My arrival, dear child. I stand here tormented by grief due to Rāma’s plight. Please ask the king to hear from Me Rāma’s advice.”

Aṅgada bowed again and left swiftly, running to Sugrīva. He burst into his chambers and told him to come quickly. But Sugrīva was asleep, groggy from the night’s pleasures. He lay upon his bed with only garlands as his dress. As he slowly stirred, many more monkeys came near his room, raising a great clamor. They were terrified of the wrathful Lakṣman. Sugrīva heard the tumult and came to his senses. He stood up, troubled in mind, and Aṅgada explained the situation.

Sugrīva told Aṅgada to bring Lakṣman immediately. “Why have you left Him standing at the gates?” he demanded. “He should be offered every respect, even as much as myself.” Aṅgada, joined by Hanumān, quickly left to fetch Lakṣman.

Within a few minutes Lakṣman was led into Kishkindha by Aṅgada and Hanumān. Still fuming, the prince surveyed the city. Great mansions and temples lined the wide avenues, each building set with celestial jewels of every description. The city was illuminated by the jewels’ glow. Rivulets flowed by the avenues and groves of trees grew here and there, yielding all kinds of delightful fruits. As he went along the main highway, Lakṣman saw the large white palaces of the chief monkeys. They shone like clouds lit by the sun. Long wreaths of flowers hung from those palaces and the scent of aloe and sandalwood issued from the latticed windows.

Lakṣman was led into Sugrīva’s palace, the most magnificent of all. After passing through seven heavily guarded gates, he entered Sugrīva’s inner chambers. Here and there were numerous gold and silver couches, spread with costly silk covers. Many beautiful Vanara ladies, wearing garlands and gold ornaments, moved about, their anklets tinkling. As they reached Sugrīva’s private chambers Lakṣman heard the strains of celestial music from within. He became even more annoyed with Sugrīva. The insolent monkey was reveling while Rāma suffered agony! Lakṣman twanged His bowstring, and the sound reverberated through the entire palace.

Sugrīva was startled. Realizing at once that Lakṣman had arrived, he spoke urgently to Tara, who sat by his side. “Go quickly and greet Lakṣman. He will never display anger in the presence of a woman. Pacify Him with gentle words. Only then will I be able to face Him.”

Tara rose up and went out of the room. The gold string of her girdle hung loose and she tottered slightly from intoxication. Bending her slender body low, she covered her head with her cloth and respectfully greeted Lakṣman. As soon as He saw Tara, Lakṣman looked down modestly. His anger abated as Tara spoke gently. “My lord, what gives rise to Your angry mood? Who has disobeyed Your order? Who has recklessly gone before a forest fire while it rushed toward a thicket of dried trees?”

Still annoyed, Lakṣman replied, “This husband of yours appears to have forgotten his duty. He seems intent only on pursuing pleasures. Four months have already passed since Rāma left and We still see no signs of Sugrīva keeping his word. He remains drunk here, enjoying with you and unaware of the passage of time. O Tara, drinking is always condemned by the wise as the root of irreligion. Please remind Sugrīva of his religious obligation.”

Tara begged Lakṣman to forgive Sugrīva. After all, he was but a monkey. It was no surprise he had fallen a victim to lust. Even great sages in the forest were sometimes overcome by desire. What then of a monkey living among beautiful women? One under the sway of carnal desire loses all sense of time and place. Forgetting his duty, he casts decorum to the winds and absorbs himself in pleasure. Tara told Lakṣman that Sugrīva was regretful. He was always Rāma’s devoted servant and he longed to fulfill Rāma’s order. Even now he was waiting eagerly to speak with Lakṣman.

Tara led Lakṣman into Sugrīva’s chamber. As the prince entered the apartment He saw Sugrīva seated on a golden couch next to his wife Ruma. He was surrounded by youthful Vanara ladies adorned with shining jewels and heavenly garlands. His eyes were bloodshot and his limbs were smeared with sandal-paste. Sugrīva’s costly silk garment hung loose on his powerful body, and Vāli’s brilliant gold chain shone from his chest.

Seeing Sugrīva absorbed in sensual delights, Lakṣman’s anger was rekindled. His eyes opened wide and His lips set in a firm line. The furious prince breathed heavily and wrung His hands, looking with blood-red eyes at Sugrīva. The monkey king jumped from his couch, like a tall flag suddenly raised in honor of Indra. He went before Lakṣman with folded palms and bowed at his feet.

Lakṣman addressed him in angry tones. “Who is more hard-hearted than he who makes a false promise to a friend, especially when that friend has done him a great favor? O lord of the monkeys, one who ungratefully fails to repay the service of friends deserves to be killed!”

Lakṣman quite forgot Rāma’s request to first speak kindly to Sugrīva. He glared at him. This selfish monkey deserved no pity. He lay here at ease while Rāma was pining away. Lakṣman vented His fury, His voice thundering about Sugrīva’s spacious chamber.

“Ingratitude is the worst of all sins, O thoughtless one! You are lustful and a liar. You have achieved your own ends, made some empty promise, and then simply abandoned yourself to pleasure. Surely you will regret your omission when Rāma’s blazing arrow speeds toward you. Before long you will meet with Vāli again!”

Tara again beseeched Lakṣman to be patient. Sugrīva was an ordinary being subject to the sway of his senses. No one could easily avert the strong urges of the body. Even the great Viśvāmitra had once lost himself in sexual pleasure for a hundred years, thinking it to be a day. Sugrīva had now been awakened to his duty. He had taken action and sent out many monkeys to raise an army to find Sītā.

Tara spoke passionately to the angry Lakṣman. “Vāli told me there are a hundred million powerful Rākṣasas in Lanka. These must be overcome if Rāvaṇa is to be defeated. Therefore Sugrīva is now amassing a force sufficient to encounter all the Rākṣasas. The army will be ready within some days. Do not be angry. The search for Sītā will soon begin.”

Lakṣman was pacified when He heard that Sugrīva had already made arrangements. He nodded His head and relaxed.

Seeing Lakṣman relaxing, Sugrīva said, “Everything I have depends upon Rāma. How can I ever repay Him? Rāma alone is powerful enough to recover Sītā and is merely using me as His instrument. This again is His kindness on me. I only wish to serve Him in whatever way I can. Please forgive any transgression on my part, for there is no servant who is without fault.”

Lakṣman began to feel ashamed of His angry outburst. He spoke kindly to Sugrīva. “With you as His supporter My brother is blessed in every way, O gallant monkey. I feel sure He will soon destroy His enemy with your assistance. Please forgive My harsh words, for I am sorely afflicted by My brother’s plight.”

Lakṣman asked Sugrīva to come with Him to see Rāma. Sugrīva immediately had a large palanquin fetched and he mounted it along with Lakṣman. Accompanied by Sugrīva’s ministers, they departed toward Prashravana.

The golden palanquin, covered by a white canopy, was carried swiftly toward the mountain where Rāma waited. Conches and kettledrums were sounded as the procession of monkeys moved in state. Sugrīva was surrounded by many warlike monkeys bearing weapons in their hands. He was fanned on both sides by his servants and eulogized by bards as they traveled.

They soon arrived at Rāma’s cave. Sugrīva jumped from the palanquin and prostrated himself at Rāma’s feet, who lifted the monkey and embraced him with love. Rāma seated Sugrīva on the ground and, sitting next to him, spoke in a gentle voice. “A wise king is he who pursues in their proper order religion, wealth and pleasure, allotting proper time to each. He who pursues only pleasure, neglecting the other two, wakes up after falling, like one asleep on a treetop. The king who wins pious allies and destroys sinful foes gains great religious merit, O Sugrīva. The time has come for you to make an effort for merit. What then has been done, O King?”

Sugrīva replied that he was ever indebted to Rāma for His kindness and favor. The Vanara king explained how he had dispatched thousands of monkeys to gather an army. Soon there would be millions of fierce monkeys, bears and baboons gathering at Kishkindha. All of them were sprung from the loins of gods and Gandharvas and all were terrible warriors capable of changing their forms at will. Sugrīva would have at his command a vast army, countless in number. They would quickly find Rāvaṇa, completely uproot him, and recover Sītā.

Rāma was delighted and He looked like a blue lotus in full bloom. He embraced Sugrīva tightly. “It is no surprise that one of your caliber renders such good to his friends. With you by My side I shall easily conquer My enemies. O Sugrīva, you are My greatest well-wisher and are fit to help Me in every way.”

Rāma and Sugrīva discussed for some time, planning how to make their search. Sugrīva then left to meet with his emissaries who were returning with the troops they had gathered.

As millions of fierce monkey warriors came to Kishkindha the earth vibrated. A massive dust cloud rose up and veiled the sun. The trees shook, sending down showers of leaves and blossoms. The entire region for miles around became thickly populated by monkeys who looked like mountains. Some were golden-hued like the rising sun, some were as red as copper and some blue as the sky. Others were as white as the moon and still others as blackish as thunderclouds. All of them, like great mountain lions, had frightening teeth and claws.

The troop leaders approached Sugrīva and asked for his command. Sugrīva took all of them and went again into Rāma’s presence. One by one he introduced the Vanara chiefs, and they all bowed low at Rāma’s feet. Sugrīva concluded, “These warriors are righteous, brave and powerful. They can move on land, water and through the air. They have conquered fatigue and are famous for their exploits. All of them have arrived bringing thousands and millions of followers. O Rāma, these Vanaras are ready to do Your bidding. Please give Your command.”

Rāma stood up and embraced Sugrīva. “It must be ascertained whether or not Sītā still lives. O noble one, find out where Rāvaṇa’s land is located. Once we have this information we shall then do what is necessary.”

Sugrīva then assigned four parties to search the four directions. He gave detailed descriptions of the countries where they should look and then added, “This search should be conducted only over the next month. Then you should return. Anyone returning after a month will be subject to death. Rāma and His great purpose should be constantly remembered by all of you. May success be yours!”

Sugrīva had asked Hanumān to assist Aṅgada in leading the search party to the south. This was the direction where Rāvaṇa would most likely be found, as he had been seen flying that way with Sītā. Sugrīva spoke with Hanumān just before he left. “There is nothing on earth or in the heavens that can obstruct your movement, O valiant son of the wind-god. You are no less than your great father in prowess. There is no created being on earth equal to you in strength and vigor. On you rests my main hope of finding Sītā.”

Rāma heard Sugrīva speaking with Hanumān and He saw his eager expression. It was clear he was confident of success, as much as Sugrīva was sure that his minister would find Sītā. Rāma was overjoyed. He went to Hanumān and gave the monkey a ring inscribed with His name. “Take this token, O jewel among monkeys, and show it to Sītā. This will reassure Her that I sent you. I feel sure you will soon see the princess.”

Hanumān took the ring and touched it to his head. He prostrated himself at Rāma’s feet and prayed for His blessings. Then, looking like the full moon surrounded by a galaxy of stars, he left with his party.

The Vanaras and bears all left with great haste. Shouting and howling, thundering and roaring, growling and shrieking, they ran in the four directions. The monkey chiefs cried out in different ways. “I shall destroy Rāvaṇa and bring back Sītā!”

“Single-handed I shall kill that demon and rescue Janaka’s daughter, even from the fires of hell.”

“I shall smash down trees, cleave great mountains and churn up the oceans. I will certainly find the princess!”

“I can leap across the sea a distance of eight hundred miles.”

“I will bound up Mount Meru and enter the bowels of the earth until Sītā is found!”

While boasting of their power in this and other ways, the monkeys gradually disappeared.

After the monkeys had left, Rāma spoke to Sugrīva. “I was surprised to hear your extensive descriptions of this earth. How do you know it so well?”

Sugrīva replied that he had seen every part of the world while running away from Vāli. “My angry brother chased me in all directions,” he said. “As I dashed away in fear I saw every part of the wide earth as if it were the impression of a calf’s hoof. With Vāli always behind me I ran with tremendous speed. Finally I remembered Matanga’s curse and came to the Rishyamukha, whereupon Vāli left me alone.”

Rāma laughed to hear Sugrīva. The two friends sat speaking together for some time, then Sugrīva left for Kishkindha to await the return of the search parties.

The monkeys dispatched by Sugrīva began their search. They scanned cities, towns and villages. Scouring woods and forests, they climbed mountains and dived into lakes and rivers. They explored deep caverns and entered holes in the earth. Going as far as possible in the directions they were assigned, they scrupulously searched everywhere for Rāvaṇa and Sītā. Even after searching for a month, however, they were not successful. One by one the parties returned, fearful, to Sugrīva.

From the north came Satabali, disappointedly reporting his failure. Vinata returned from the east, also without success. From the west came Sushena, again without having discovered Sītā’s whereabouts.

In the south Hanumān and Aṅgada and their party had traveled a great distance. The month had almost passed and still there were no signs of Sītā. They reached the plains surrounding the Vindhya mountains. It was a desolate region, full of caves and thick forests, waterless and uninhabited. The whole area had been rendered a wilderness by the curse of a sage many years previous who had been angered by his young son’s death.

Thousands of monkeys combed the entire terrain. Penetrating more and more into the frightful area, they suddenly came upon a huge Rākṣasa. Seeing the demon, who looked like a hill, the monkeys stood with their loins tightly girded, ready to fight. The demon saw the monkeys and bellowed out, “You are gone!”

Aṅgada thought the demon to be Rāvaṇa. He became enraged and rushed straight toward the roaring Rākṣasa, who raised his massive hand to strike the monkey. Aṅgada leapt high and dodged the blow. Swinging his powerful arm as he flew, the Vanara hit the Rākṣasa on the head with his outstretched palm. The blow was tremendous and the demon vomited blood and fell to the ground. After examining the dead Rākṣasa and realizing that it he was not Rāvaṇa, the monkeys continued their search.

The vast Vindhyan range was filled with innumerable caves. The monkeys systematically entered each and every one. They climbed every mountain and scoured all woods and groves. Gradually they moved further and further south. Not finding Rāvaṇa or Sītā anywhere, they became more and more fatigued and disappointed. The month allotted by Sugrīva passed and still they had no clue as to where Sītā had been taken.

One day when they were exhausted and wracked by thirst, they came upon the entrance to a huge cavern. They saw birds emerging from it with their wings dripping with water. The monkeys decided to enter the dark cave. They formed a long, eight mile chain to avoid getting lost. Bats shrieked and birds flew past them. Occasionally the growl of a lion or tiger was heard.

As they went deeper into the cave they saw ahead of them a bright light. They moved quickly toward the light and came upon a huge open area, brilliantly lit by thousands of shining golden trees. The trees were adorned with brightly colored flowers and leaves, and they bore fruits which shone like rubies and emeralds. The trees hemmed in large lotus ponds of clear water, filled with golden fish. The monkeys saw palaces of gold and silver, set with cat’s-eye gems and covered with lattices of pearls.

On all sides were spacious couches and seats studded with various kinds of gems. Mounds of gold and silver vessels lay here and there, as well as piles of colored jewels. There were collections of sandalwood and aloe-wood carvings, as well as many first class palanquins lying about. Piles of costly ethereal textiles of indescribable beauty lay on the floor. Celestial food and drink of every kind was spread on gold tables, and there were dazzling heaps of gold everywhere.

The monkeys were stunned by the sight and they stood looking all around, their mouths hanging open. Then they saw an ascetic lady clad in black deerskins sitting some distance from them. She shone with yogic power as she sat in meditation. Hanumān approached her and respectfully inquired who she was and in whose cave they now found themselves.

The woman’s name was Swayamprabha, and she explained that the cave and all its wonders had been created by Maya, the architect of the celestial demons. He had dwelt there for some time, being finally slain by Indra for the sake of an Apsarā whom Indra himself had coveted. The Apsarā had lived in the cave with Swayamprabha as her servant. She had now returned to heaven, leaving Swayamprabha to her meditations.

The ascetic lady gazed at the monkeys. She could understand that they were Rāma’s servants. She had seen Rāma in her meditations and understood His divine identity. She was pleased to have the opportunity to serve Rāma by entertaining His servants. The yogini gave the monkeys delicious food and drinks, which invigorated them. As they ate they told her of their mission.

When they had finished eating the hermitess asked them to close their eyes and she would take them out of the cave. The monkeys complied and in a moment they mysteriously found themselves again standing at the entrance to the cavern. Swayamprabha told them to continue their search and then took her leave, disappearing back inside.

The monkeys stood outside the cave, amazed but refreshed from their celestial repast. They carried on vigorously searching and soon reached the southern ocean. Realizing that they had looked everywhere in the whole southern region without success, they fell prey to anxiety. It was now more than six weeks since they had left. The monkeys were fearful of Sugrīva’s anger when they returned and they sat together discussing what to do.

Aṅgada spoke, “The king will certainly have us all put to death upon our late return, unsuccessful in our mission. Therefore I suggest that rather than return in shame we sit here and fast until life leaves our bodies. How can we go back and face execution in front of our near and dear ones?”

Some of the monkeys agreed and others recommended they continue searching for some time before giving up. One of them suggested they re-enter Swayamprabha’s cave and live out the rest of their days happily. This met with approval from other monkeys, but Hanumān disagreed. “I don’t approve of this course of action, O Vanaras,” he chided. “Forgetting our master’s cause, and actually forming an enmity by abandoning him, is not at all a wise move. Nor will Rāma and Lakṣman tolerate it. Those princes will tear Maya’s cave asunder in no time. Their arrows fall with the force of Indra’s thunderbolt. All of us will be annihilated.”

Hanumān continued to speak, praising Sugrīva’s qualities. “We need not fear the monkey king. He regards all his subjects with love and would certainly not kill Aṅgada, the son of his dear wife Tara. Nor will Sugrīva be harsh toward you others. We have all tried our best to find Sītā and should now return to Kishkindha, reporting to the king for further orders.”

Aṅgada did not appreciate Hanumān’s speech. He especially disliked hearing Sugrīva praised. The monkey prince became angry. “No good qualities are to be found in Sugrīva. Indeed, that worthless monkey has taken to wife his mother in the shape of Tara. He locked up my father in a cave and usurped his kingdom. Although Rāma rendered him a great favor, that ungrateful wretch soon forgot his debt to the prince of Ayodhya. What piety does he possess? He only instigated this search for Sītā out of a fear of Lakṣman.”

Aṅgada still burned within from the killing of his father brought about by Sugrīva. How could Sugrīva ever be kind toward the son of his mortal enemy? Now there would be more than sufficient excuse for him to punish Aṅgada, who had failed in his mission and had committed treason by sowing dissension among the other monkeys. He was sure that Sugrīva would either kill him outright or cast him into chains for the rest of his life.

Aṅgada determined to sit there on the beach and fast until death. He sank to the ground weeping, his mind confounded by grief and despair. With the exception of Hanumān, the other monkeys sat next to him, denouncing Sugrīva and praising Vāli. They all sat on kusha grass with their faces turned to the east. Thinking of Sugrīva’s fury and Rāma’s prowess, they prepared for death.

As they sat there roaring in dismay, they suddenly saw an enormous bird come out of a mountain cave. The bird looked upon the line of monkeys appearing like a row of mountain peaks on the plateau beneath him. Realizing they were observing the praya vow of fasting until death, he said to himself, “Surely this food has been ordained for me by Providence. After a long time I shall eat sumptuously, feasting upon this line of monkeys one by one as they fall dead from starvation.”

The bird dropped down and perched near the monkeys. Seeing him there Aṅgada turned to Hanumān and said, “Surely this is Yamarāja come in person to punish us for failing to serve Rāma’s purpose. This bird reminds me of Jatayu, about whom we have heard from Sugrīva. That glorious bird laid down his life for Rāma in a fierce battle with Rāvaṇa. We shall also now give up our lives in Rāma’s service. Alas, like that heroic vulture we too have failed to save Sītā.”

The great bird heard him speak. He called out to Aṅgada. “Who is this who mentions Jatayu? Where is that younger brother of mine? I have not seen him for so long. My heart trembles as I hear you speak of his death. How did he encounter the king of the Rākṣasas? If it pleases you, O monkey, pray tell me everything you know.”

The bird told them that his name was Sampati. He lived high in the mountains, unable to fly because his wings had been burnt by the sun. He had lost touch with his brother Jatayu for many years.

Aṅgada told the bird everything about himself and his companions. He narrated the story of how Jatayu had died protecting Sītā. Now they were searching for the princess and had given up hope. Thus they sat there, fearful of Sugrīva and Rāma, and awaiting only death.

Sampati cried out in anguish. His eyes filled with tears and he said to Aṅgada, “Jatayu was dearer to me than life. Now he is killed by the Rākṣasa and I can do nothing to avenge him. O monkeys, I am old and worn out. What then can I do upon hearing this terrible news?”

Sampati explained how a long time ago he had flown with Jatayu to heaven. “As we soared upwards we perceived the earth with her numerous mountains as if she were covered with pebbles. Her rivers looked like so many threads. Great cities seemed like chariot wheels and forests like grassy plots.”

Tears fell from the bird’s eyes as he recounted how he had lost his brother. “We had wanted to follow the sun as it coursed through the heavens. When we reached the track of that fiery globe, however, we became overpowered by its rays. Jatayu had grown weak from heat and exhaustion. I therefore covered him with my wings to protect him. We then fell back to earth, where we became separated. I fell onto the Vindhya mountain, with my wings completely destroyed by the scorching rays of the sun.”

Aṅgada looked at the wingless bird. He must know all the regions of the universe. Surely he knew where Rāvaṇa lived. Perhaps there was still hope. The Vanara asked Sampati, “Can you tell us where lies the abode of that vilest of all beings, Rāvaṇa?”

Sampati had slumped down in sorrow. But upon hearing Aṅgada’s question he lifted his head and opened wide his eyes. “Although I am an old and useless bird I can still render some service to Rāma, if only with my speech. I do indeed know where Rāvaṇa lives. In fact as I lay upon this mountain some while back I saw him flying by, holding Sītā. The princess was constantly crying out, “Rāma! O Rāma! Lakṣman! Help!”

The bird told Aṅgada that Rāvaṇa dwelt in Lanka, which was situated in the midst of the southern ocean eight hundred miles away. The princess was being held captive in Rāvaṇa’s garden, guarded by fierce Rākṣasīs. Sampati possessed the ability to see Lanka even as he spoke to the monkeys. He said, “Although my wings are broken, my vision is not impaired. We vultures are capable of sighting objects at a great distance. Furthermore, by my intuition I can understand that one of you will soon see Sītā, and then you will return again to Rāma’s presence.”

Requested by Sampati, the monkeys took the bird to the seashore where he offered water to the departed soul of his brother. He then told them more about himself. When he had first fallen to the Vindhya mountain he had spoken with a ṛṣi named Chandrama, who was living there. The bird had fallen at the sage’s feet and related his sad tale. Weeping, Sampati had said that he wished to throw himself from the mountain peak and end his life. The ṛṣi restrained him, telling him that in the future some monkeys would arrive at that spot, searching for Rāma’s divine consort. “Although I am able to give you your wings back, I will not do so, as you are destined to render a service to Rāma through those monkeys. You must remain here and tell them where to find Sītā. At that time your wings will again be restored.”

Sampati said the ṛṣi had then enlightened the bird with spiritual knowledge. He had told him that bodily sufferings must be borne by everyone as a reaction to their own past deeds. One should nevertheless realize that the real self is different from the body. Without being overly attached to the body one should try to fix the mind on the Supreme Lord, with whom all beings have an eternal relationship. Thus Sampati should not lament for his broken body. He should live there patiently, thinking of Rāma and waiting for his chance to render him some service.

Sampati concluded, “That was eight thousand years ago and I have survived here all this time, being brought food by my son. Now at last I have performed my service to Rāma.”

Even as Sampati spoke a beautiful pair of wings sprouted from his body. He rose at once into the air and called down to the monkeys. “O Vanaras, Chandrama Ṛṣi told me you would succeed in your mission. Indeed he said that the servants of Rāma could easily cross the terrible ocean of birth and death; what then of this small sea? Take heart and go to the south. Cross the ocean and you will find Lanka, where Sītā is held. Farewell.”

The bird disappeared into the sky, leaving the monkeys to continue their search. They were overjoyed. Abandoning all thoughts of fasting until death, they leapt into the air, raced down to the beach and roared with glee. Then they saw the billowing waves. How could they possibly cross the ocean? They did not possess the power of flight. The vast sea stretched into the distance looking as insurmountable as the sky.

Aṅgada asked, “Which one among us can leap across this sea? Who shall become the deliverer of the monkeys today? If any among you can jump over the ocean and reach Lanka, speak out and remove our fears.”

The monkeys all remained silent, gazing with unblinking eyes at the roaring sea. Aṅgada spoke again, trying to inspire them with confidence. “I have no doubt any one of you is capable of this feat. As far as I am concerned, I can certainly leap eight hundred miles, but I do not know if I shall be able to return safely.”

Aṅgada looked around at the party. Among them was Jambavan, a great leader of the bears, who replied, “It is not right that you, our Prince Regent, should go on this expedition, although you could leap a thousand or even ten thousand miles if you wished. One of us should go instead.”

Jambavan said that he himself could only cover seven hundred miles, having grown old. Each of the monkeys then stated how far he could leap. Some said one hundred, some two hundred and some five hundred miles. But none said they could leap the full distance and return again.

Jambavan then spoke to Hanumān who was sitting silently. “O valiant monkey, you have not told us of your strength. I know you to be possessed of tremendous ability.”

Jambavan described Hanumān’s birth and power. The monkey was begotten by Vāyu and soon after his birth he had leapt into the sky for thousands of miles, wanting to catch the sun. At that time he had been struck down by Indra. Hanumān’s father, the wind-god, became aggrieved at seeing his son killed and had ceased to blow. All created beings then began to suffocate due to the stoppage of air in the universe. The gods sought to appease Vāyu by bringing Hanumān back to life. They had also blessed the monkey with many wonderful powers.

On the strength of the gods’ blessings Hanumān had become fearless even as a young child. He had played in the hermitages of the ṛṣis, mischievously throwing about their paraphernalia and stopping their sacrifices. To check him the ṛṣis had uttered an imprecation. “You will forget your great power. Only when you hear your powers described by another will you again remember them.”

Jambavan concluded his narration about Hanumān. There was no doubt that he could leap to Lanka. Why then was he sitting there indifferently? Could he not see the monkeys plunged in despair?

Hanumān stood up. Jambavan’s speech had ended the ṛṣis’ curse. He remembered his great prowess and felt encouraged by Jambavan. With a great roar he said, “I shall jump across this mighty ocean!”

He then expanded his body to fifty times his normal height. Stretching his arms and yawning, he spoke in a voice that resounded like thunder. “I claim my descent from the mighty Vāyu, who circulates through all of space and easily smashes down mountain peaks. I could leap to the outer limits of the universe. I am quite able to overtake the blazing sun as it moves from the east across to the western mountain. Today I shall leap from Mount Mahendra, scattering the clouds, shaking the mountains and drying up the sea. I will swiftly and easily reach Lanka in one great bound. Have no fear.”

Hanumān roared again and again, filling the monkeys with joy. Jambavan replied, “Our grief is now dispelled. We are depending on you, O gallant monkey. We shall stand on one foot in yogic meditation here upon the seashore, praying for your success, until you return.”

Hanumān reassured the monkeys further. He asked them what he should do. Should he annihilate the entire Rākṣasa horde and rescue Sītā? Or should he single-handedly kill Rāvaṇa, uproot Lanka and carry it, along with Sītā, back to Rāma?

Aṅgada asked him to first locate Sītā and then report back, for that was Sugrīva’s order. In consultation with Rāma and Sugrīva they could then decide on their next course of action.

Hanumān bowed to that instruction and bounded to Mount Mahendra a few miles away, its peak piercing the clouds. He ranged up the side of the mountain and stood on its summit. As he stood there roaring, gods and Siddhas assembled in the sky above him uttering benedictory hymns. They dropped celestial flowers and beat their drums.

The huge monkey folded his hands to the east and offered respects to Vāyu, his father. He concentrated his mind and gazed south toward Lanka. Hanumān felt honored to have such an opportunity to render Rāma a service. From his first meeting with the prince he knew Rāma to be his eternal master. He felt Rāma’s ring bound in his cloth. Sītā would be overjoyed to receive that token and know that Rāma would soon arrive to rescue Her. With a sense of elation Hanumān contemplated approaching Rāma with news of Sītā. He squatted down and prepared to jump.

With a great cry of “Victory to Rāma!” Hanumān sprang upwards with tremendous force, pressing the mountain deep into the earth. Animals rushed down the mountainside in all directions. The ṛṣis engaged in meditation in the mountain forests were startled and rose into the air. Great serpents moving about on the side of the mountain became furious and bit the rocks, which then glowed red from the serpents’ virulent poison. All the trees shook and shed their blossoms, and the whole mountain appeared covered with flowers. Large fissures appeared in the mountain and different colored streams issued out. As Hanumān leapt upwards, Mount Mahendra presented a beautiful sight and the monkeys gazed up in wonder and awe. Then they went down onto the beach to begin their wait for Hanumān’s return.

Chapter 13: Hanumān Leaps to Lanka

Hanumān flew forcefully into the morning sky. Trees, shrubs and flowers flew behind him in the wind raised by his movement, like relatives following a dear one setting out on a long journey.

Hanumān thought of Rāma. Sampati was right. Simply by remembering Rāma’s name at the end of life, anyone could cross the entire ocean of material suffering. These eight hundred miles were nothing. Hanumān felt confident of success as he soared toward Lanka. Soon he would reach Sītā and reassure Her. If any Rākṣasas tried to stop him, that would be their last act on earth. He would dispense swift justice to the Rākṣasas. Then, returning to Rāma’s presence, he would await further commands.

As the flowers following Hanumān fell into the dark blue ocean, they made the sea appear like the star-spangled firmament. The trees dropped with great splashes like meteors fallen from heaven. Hanumān’s outstretched arms looked like a pair of five-hooded serpents risen from the mountaintop. The great monkey seemed as if he were drinking up the vast ocean and swallowing the sky. His eyes blazed like two sacrificial fires and his coiled tail flew behind him like a flag. His reddish brown face shone like the sun, and the wind rushing past his armpits thundered like a cloud. He seemed like a comet moving through the heavens with its fiery tail.

Hanumān’s reflection in the blue sea appeared like a ship rocking with speed over the large waves that were raised by the wind of his flight. As the sea rose up it revealed whales, sharks and serpents, thrown about in confusion. Hanumān rushed through the sky like a winged mountain, drawing behind him white and red-hued clouds. As he entered and came out again from the clouds, he appeared like the shrouded and visible moon. Gandharvas with their wives rained flowers on him. Even the sun, honoring his service to Rāma, did not scorch him. The wind-god raced with him, fanning him with a gentle breeze. Gods and ṛṣis extolled him, along with Nāgas, Yakṣas and other celestial beings. The god of the ocean observed Hanumān flying above him. He considered how to render him a service, thereby pleasing Rāma Himself. In his depths there was a large mountain named Maināka. The ocean-god approached Maināka and asked him to rise above the waters, offering his peaks to Hanumān as a resting place. The mountain assented and began to grow upwards. It emerged from the sea with a great roar, foaming billows falling with a crash on all sides. The golden-peaked mountain rose swiftly and shone beautifully, with Nāgas and Kinnaras sporting on its slopes.

Hanumān saw the mountain ahead of him filling the whole sky, and he thought it to be an obstruction. He prepared to strike it with his chest. The mountain deity assumed a human form and stood on its peak: “O Hanumān, requested by the god of the seas who wishes to serve Rāma, I am here to offer you shelter. The sea-god was formerly rendered a service by Rāma’s ancestor, Sagara, who filled the ocean when it had been dried up by the angry Agastya Ṛṣi. I too am indebted to your father Vāyu, who once saved me from Indra.”

Maināka told Hanumān that, in a long past age, many mountains flew in the sky. Afraid of the mountains, the ṛṣis asked Indra to cut their wings with his thunderbolt. Vāyu had saved Maināka from Indra. The mountain therefore wished to repay his debt to Vāyu by serving Hanumān. He asked the monkey to alight on his peaks and rest for a while.

But Hanumān was not inclined to stop. He replied to Maināka, “I am grateful and I thank you for your offer, but the time for resting has not yet arrived. My duty is not yet done. Please forgive me. You have already rendered me service by your kind words. Now please allow me to continue.”

Hanumān respectfully touched the peak of the mountain and then rose still higher into the sky. The mountain and the sea-god both looked up at him and offered prayers and benedictions for his success.

Indra and the other gods also watched Hanumān. They were astonished to see his power. Desiring to test him and see more of his prowess they approached Surasa, the mother of the Nāgas. They asked the snake goddess to assume the form of a Rākṣasī and stand before Hanumān. Indra said, “We want to see his power, as well as further expand the fame of this great servant of Rāma. Let us see how he overcomes you, O Nāga lady, for he will be greatly tested when he reaches Lanka.”

Surasa went into the sea and suddenly rose up in front of Hanumān in the form of a vast and terrible Rākṣasī. She boomed out to Hanumān, “The gods have ordained you to be my food. O jewel among monkeys, quickly enter my mouth. Brahmā has granted me a boon that none who come before me can escape being eaten!”

Surasa opened her cavernous mouth, which was set with rows of fierce teeth. Hanumān smiled and said to the Nāga goddess, “I am on a mission to serve Rāma, the lord of creation. You should not impede me. If I must be eaten by you, then pray wait here. Once I have completed my duty I shall doubtlessly return and you may devour me then as you please.”

The Nāga replied that he would not be able to pass her by, for such was the boon given by Brahmā. She expanded her mouth even more as Hanumān came closer. Her jaws stretched for eight miles, but Hanumān quickly grew to sixteen miles. She then expanded her mouth to twenty miles and Hanumān again exceeded that size with his body. As the Nāga grew even further Hanumān suddenly contracted himself down to the size of a thumb. Entering her mouth he went inside her throat and quickly came out again. He returned to his normal size and said, “I have honored Brahmā’s boon. Now let me pass and fulfill my mission. I wish you well.”

The Nāga goddess resumed her original form and praised Hanumān, blessing him to be successful in his quest. Hanumān moved on with the speed of Garuḍa. He saw many celestial chariots drawn by lions, tigers, elephants, birds and serpents as he coursed along the heavenly airways. Gandharvas, Yakṣas, Vidhyadharas and other celestial beings were thronging the skys. Great heroes, who had lain down their lives in battle, rose upwards through the lofty region, their ethereal bodies shining like fire.

As Hanumān shot through the sky he was seen from below by a Rākṣasa woman called Simhika. She gazed hungrily upon the monkey’s enormous body. Desiring to devour him, she used her mystic power to suddenly seize his shadow as it sped over the water. Hanumān felt his progress arrested. He looked all around and saw beneath him Simhika’s hideous form rising up from the sea, her terrific mouth open wide to swallow him. She thundered like a mass of clouds. Hanumān fearlessly entered her mouth. As he entered her body the Siddhas and gods cried out, “Alas!”

But Hanumān, whose body was as hard as a diamond, began to tear the demon’s vital parts. He cleft her heart in two and burst out from the side of her body. The Rākṣasī screamed and fell dead into the sea. Seeing Hanumān unscathed and flying onwards, the gods praised him saying, “Your success is certain. He who possesses firmness, vision, understanding and skill never fails in his undertakings.”

Hanumān continued on, adored by the divine beings. Soon he saw in the distance a large island which appeared like a mass of clouds on the horizon. As he came closer he saw the shore of Lanka, skirted by forests and high mountains. Hanumān returned to his normal size in order to avoid being seen. Flying over the island he came upon the city of Lanka, which was perched on the summit of Trikuta mountain. As he climbed down the mountainside he considered how to best enter the city.

Hanumān surveyed the region. It was covered with beautiful woods filled with flowering and fruit-bearing trees of all kinds. There were meadows and lotus ponds and pleasure groves of every description. The aroma of flowers wafted on cool breezes and the sounds of various birds filled the air. Hanumān made his way to the edge of the city, which was encircled by a wide, deep moat. A golden wall ran around the city. Large pennants with small golden bells tied to them blew in the wind atop that wall. Ferocious Rākṣasas ranged on the ramparts that ran along the wall. In their hands they held formidable-looking bows and other fierce weapons.

Behind the wall Hanumān could see lofty mansions and palaces, some golden and others as white as the moon. He climbed a high tree and gazed upon the city. Hundreds of tall and impressive buildings ran along elevated white-tiled roads. In front of them were many wonderful golden archways adorned with flowering creepers. The city gave off a roaring sound and appeared like the capital of the gods. To Hanumān it seemed to be sailing in the air. Lanka, which had been constructed by the celestial architect Viśvakarmā, was inconceivably splendid and it awed Hanumān’s mind.

Reaching the northern gate Hanumān sat in thought. He looked upon Lanka, which was guarded by innumerable gallant and terrible Rākṣasas, as one might view a cave full of venomous serpents. As he gazed up at the high wall Hanumān reflected. How would the monkeys ever overpower this city? For a start, only he, Sugrīva, Aṅgada and Nīla, the monkey general, could even cross the ocean and reach there. Then they would only be four against an uncountable horde of Rākṣasas, headed by the invincible Rāvaṇa himself. What would they do?

Hanumān decided to first find Sītā and ensure that She was safe. After all, those were his instructions. Then he could consider further action. He pondered deeply how to go about searching for the princess and yet not be discovered. Having taken such a great leap over the ocean, he did not want to fail now. It would be best to enter Lanka under the cover of darkness in an inconspicuous form. Hanumān decided to wait until sunset and enter the city as a small monkey. Going from house to house, he would locate Sītā and then decide how to approach Her.

That night the full moon rose in a clear sky, appearing like a swan swimming in a lake. Hanumān stood up, ready to enter the city. As he approached the wall, however, the presiding deity of Lanka came before him. She was fierce and ugly and she gave out a horrible yell. In a discordant voice she asked Hanumān, “Who are you, trying to covertly enter this city? You shall never be allowed to pass by me, O monkey!”

Hanumān cared little for the Rākṣasa goddess. He did not reveal his name but rather asked her to first identify herself. She replied in harsh tones that she was Rāvaṇa’s servant. She guarded Lanka and would now kill Hanumān for his insolence in trying to assail the city.

Hanumān stood as firm as a mountain. He replied that he would enter the city no matter who tried to prevent him. The Rākṣasī immediately struck him with her hand. Unmoved by that blow and becoming furious, Hanumān clenched his fist and hit her but without his full force, as she was a woman. Nevertheless, struck by Hanumān, the demon goddess fell prostrate to the ground. After some moments she recovered and begged Hanumān to spare her. She revealed to Hanumān that Brahmā had told her the end of the Rākṣasas would come soon after she was overpowered by a monkey. That time had clearly arrived. The words of Brahmā could never prove false. The time for the destruction of Rāvaṇa and the Rākṣasas was nigh.

The Rākṣasī told Hanumān to proceed into the city and then she disappeared. Hanumān assumed a form no bigger than a cat. Springing up, he climbed over the outer wall and began to penetrate the city. He moved along the main road, which was lit by celestial gems studding the golden archways along its sides. The road was covered with brightly colored flowers. From the houses he heard sounds of laughter and music, as well as the tinkling of ornaments and jewels. Those houses had crystal entrances and verandas of coral and lapis lazuli. They were adorned with golden images of thunderbolts and planets, and lattice windows of gold embedded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Hanumān went quickly from house to house, searching for signs of Sītā. He saw many demons engaged in amorous activities in their houses with damsels resembling Apsarās. In some places there were groups of Rākṣasas praising Rāvaṇa. In other places some Rākṣasas known as Yatudhanas were studying the scriptures and chanting sacred hymns. In public squares Hanumān beheld wrestling matches between Rākṣasas of huge proportions, roaring at each other in anger. Hanumān also saw thousands of Rākṣasa warriors, holding bows, swords and other terrible-looking weapons. As he moved unnoticed along the city streets, Hanumān, himself a military expert, could recognize Rāvaṇa’s many variously disguised spies.

Gradually he approached Rāvaṇa’s palace. In front of it was a garrison of soldiers, one hundred thousand in number. The palace itself stood on the summit of the Trikuta mountain, looking like a great white cloud. It was circled by a number of moats adorned with lotuses and lilies. Hanumān swam across the moats and, in his diminutive form, easily entered through the latticed gates in the gold brick walls. Thousands of exceptionally powerful Rākṣasas stood on guard, but they paid him no heed.

As Hanumān moved through the first courtyard he saw numerous wonderful conveyances such as golden chariots, palanquins and large aerial cars. There were thousands of horses, some as black as night, some red-hued and others as white as snow. Massive elephants bedecked with jewels stood looking like clouds with flashes of lightning.

Within the courtyard were mansions occupied by arrogant and intoxicated demons. Hanumān could hear them laughing and shouting at one another in diverse tones. He silently entered each of the mansions, looking everywhere for Sītā. Within every house he saw many women, some embracing their partners, some adorning themselves with excellent dresses, some sleeping and others, angered out of love, hissing like serpents. All of the women were highly attractive, with countenances like the full moon, and their dark eyes covered by curling lashes. Although Hanumān saw innumerable women, he did not see Sītā anywhere.

Hanumān wandered through dozens of seven-storied mansions and finally entered the inner palace building where Rāvaṇa kept his women. It was embellished everywhere with pearls and gems of great value. The scent of aloe and sandalwood incense wafted and the sound of celestial music could be heard. Hanumān padded over the highly polished marble floor, which was spread with celestial textiles. The walls were made of gold decorated with silver carvings studded with gems. Thousands of exquisitely beautiful maidens moved about, their tinkling gold ornaments sounding together like the gentle waves of the sea. Adding to that delightful sound was the deep vibration of meghas and kettledrums.

Hanumān considered Rāvaṇa’s palace to be the ornament of Lanka. In some rooms he found galleries of heavenly paintings and carvings of every kind. Sometimes the palace opened out to large grassy enclosures with ponds full of swans, surrounded by blossoming trees full of peacocks and other colorful birds. Hanumān saw sacrificial fires attended by ascetic Rākṣasas who chanted Vedic mantras. Here and there were heaps of precious stones and other collected treasures. Couches, seats and beds were all of the most wonderful design and made of gold, coral and celestial woods. With his mind awed, Hanumān moved on without stopping, intent on discovering Sītā.

He found the Pushpaka chariot lying in the center of Rāvaṇa’s palace. It resembled a large mansion and shone like the midday sun. The chariot was embellished with every kind of celestial jewel and adorned with carvings of gold and silver. Birds made of cat’s-eye, as well as others fashioned of coral and silver, decorated the chariot, along with lovely serpents made of jewels. Horses and elephants made entirely of refined gold stood on the sides of the Pushpaka. There were also large gold and crystal pleasure houses containing many excellent seats. Golden stairways led up to platforms radiant with sapphires and emeralds. Garlands and wreaths of heavenly flowers hung everywhere. Seen on the spacious central floor of the chariot was a lotus pond, in which a number of carved elephants stood, holding golden lotuses in their trunks and offering worship to a breathtakingly beautiful form of Goddess Lakṣmī.

Hanumān was astonished to see the mountain-like chariot, which hung suspended in the air. The monkey moved on quickly, searching Rāvaṇa’s apartments, which covered four miles in width and eight in length. Everywhere were powerful looking Rākṣasas who held terrible weapons and looked alertly in all directions. By his powers of illusion Hanumān kept himself invisible to all the guards. He then entered Rāvaṇa’s personal bedchambers. Its floor was covered with slabs of crystal, inlaid with figures made of ivory, pearls, diamonds, coral, silver and gold. Large pillars of gems rose up to the roof, which was studded with innumerable jewels and looked like the star-spangled sky at night. On the walls were carvings of eagles with huge outspread wings. Murals depicting the heavenly planets hung there on the walls and the floors were covered by large silk carpets embroidered with designs of mountains, forests and rivers.

The odor of celestial foods reached Hanumān’s nostrils, calling him like a loved one beckoning a dear relative. He felt all five senses being simultaneously attracted by the delights in Rāvaṇa’s palace. The monkey considered that he had entered the highest abode of Paradise. He compared it only to Indra’s palace or the abode of Brahmā himself. Fixing his mind upon his purpose, like a consummate yogī meditating on the Supreme, Hanumān continued to search for Sītā.

As he went into each separate chamber Hanumān saw many maidens looking like heavenly nymphs. They were half-dressed and lying asleep, overpowered by intoxication and lovemaking. Adorned with jeweled girdles and anklets, they emitted a fragrance like lotus flowers. Their large lips, red like copper, parted slightly showing rows of teeth that resembled pearls. Crushed garlands lay here and there, along with discarded silk raiments. The delicate-limbed ladies lay with their clothes and necklaces thrown about, and other ornaments fallen to the floor by their beds. With their large, dark-lashed eyes closed, they looked like lotuses with their petals closed at night. To Hanumān they appeared like a number of brilliant meteors fallen from heaven and united there in Rāvaṇa’s chambers.

Although Rāvaṇa’s wives, who were daughters of Gandharvas, ṛṣis and powerful demons, were beautiful beyond compare, Hanumān considered them nothing in comparison to Sītā. His mind did not waver even slightly from his mission upon seeing them. As he went by the sleeping maidens, he came to a prominent dais made of crystal and bedecked with precious stones. It appeared like a celestial structure with a large gold and ivory couch placed on it. Over the top of the brilliant couch a hung a white canopy wreathed with garlands of lotuses and red ashoka flowers.

Lying there fast asleep was Rāvaṇa himself. Hanumān saw he was extremely handsome, with a complexion like a dark cloud. He was adorned with bright flashing earrings and clad in robes of gold and crimson. His limbs were smeared with red sandal-paste and he resembled a cloud reddened by the sunset and lit by flashes of lightning. Decorated with garlands and jewels he seemed like Mount Mandara covered with clusters of trees and flowers.

Hanumān looked with disgust upon the great demon, who lay snoring like an elephant. He shrank back and gazed upon the demon from a distance. Rāvaṇa was only displaying one of his ten heads and two of his arms. To Hanumān those arms appeared to be a couple of large five-hooded serpents lying asleep in a cave on Mount Mandara. They were well-muscled and as thick as tree trunks, scarred from the many battles Rāvaṇa had fought with the gods. On his head Rāvaṇa wore a brilliant diadem, and around his neck hung a string of pearls and gold chains. As the demon breathed out, the odor of liquor mixed with mango and nutmeg filled the room.

At his feet were many youthful women. They had all fallen asleep in various positions, one of them hugging her vīṇā, another seated with a small drum under her arm, and another clutching a pair of tambourines. Next to Rāvaṇa on the couch was a lady of astounding beauty, golden-complexioned with exquisitely formed limbs decorated with the best of jewels. Seeing her lying there, endowed with celestial splendor and the exuberance of youth, Hanumān thought for a moment that she might be Sītā. Filled with delight, he leapt about, waving his arms and kissing his tail. Displaying his monkey nature, he frolicked around, climbing the pillars and dropping to the floor, pacing back and forth and flipping over again and again.

Suddenly he paused and thought, “This surely could not be Sītā. Separated from Rāma, the princess would never be able to sleep or eat or even adorn Herself. Nor would She consort with another man even in Her mind, even if he be the lord of the celestials himself. None could equal Rāma, that divine lady’s beloved husband.”

Hanumān examined the sleeping maiden by Rāvaṇa’s side closely. Her face showed no signs of grieving or sorrow. There was no doubt; this could not be Sītā. He moved on quickly, keener than ever to locate the princess.

He continued searching Rāvaṇa’s vast bedchamber. There were thousands of women lying everywhere. All of them were beautiful and adorned with blazing golden ornaments. Hanumān saw tables spread with every kind of food and drink placed in gold and crystal vessels. The floor was strewn with celestial flowers and looked most charming, shedding a bright luster into that great hall. But although he scrupulously examined every part of the room, he did not see Sītā anywhere.

As Hanumān looked upon the many semi-clad women, he felt a grave misgiving. Was this not sinful? To look upon the wives of others, especially in such a condition, was always condemned by scripture. Even looking upon the sinful Rāvaṇa, who had stolen other’s wives, was itself sinful. Hanumān felt disturbed, but he considered his mission. Where else could he find Sītā? He had to look for her among Rāvaṇa’s women. And he had not looked at them with even a slight tinge of lust. His mind was steady, firmly fixed on Rāma’s service. It was not possible that sin could overcome him in such circumstances.

Feeling reassured but simultaneously despondent at not finding Sītā, Hanumān came out of the bed chamber. Where should he look now? How could he return without finding Sītā? What would he say to Sugrīva and Rāma when they asked him, “What did you accomplish upon reaching Lanka?” Maybe that sorrowful lady had died of grief. Or perhaps the Rākṣasas had devoured Her. Hanumān could not bear such thoughts. He had to keep looking. If he could not find Sītā, then he would fast until death.

Thinking in this way he went along the paths outside the palace. As he walked he saw ahead of him the palace gardens. They had not yet been searched. Hanumān prayed to the gods that he might at last succeed in finding Sītā. He paused as he reached the gardens and thought of Rāma. Thrilled at the prospect of finding the princess, he leapt up onto the top of the surrounding wall.

From his vantage point Hanumān surveyed the lovely grove, which was lit by the moon. A sweet fragrance reached his nostrils as he looked over the large enclosure. He saw blossoming trees of every kind, as well as silvery creepers and golden shrubs. Flowers grew everywhere along the sides of immaculate lawns. Peacocks and parrots perched on the trees, along with many other varieties of colorful birds. Hanumān ran quickly along the wall, carefully examining the garden. He jumped from tree to tree and they shed their flowers, making the earth appear like a richly adorned woman. As he leapt he awoke flocks of birds who flew upwards, shaking the branches of the trees and showering Hanumān with blossoms.

Hanumān moved impetuously, anxious to find Sītā. He saw ponds of different shapes full of lotuses and sleeping swans. There were bathing pools with golden steps leading down to them and banks of fine sand made entirely of crushed pearls. Rivulets ran between silver trees covered over by flowers of gold. Fruits such as Hanumān had never seen hung from the boughs of the trees. Everywhere the monkey looked he was wonderstruck at the opulence. In the center of the garden he came upon a large simshapa tree. He climbed to its top and gazed around in all directions, eager to catch sight of Sītā. At a distance away he saw a temple situated in a large grove of ashoka trees. Those trees, with their thousands of bright red blossoms appearing in every season, seemed as though made entirely of flowers. Simply by looking upon those splendid trees, a man would feel his grief dispelled. The lofty temple amid the trees was standing on a thousand marble pillars. It looked like Mount Kailāsa, Śiva’s glorious abode. Steps of coral rose up to a large terrace of refined gold.

Hanumān spotted a woman lying near the temple. She was surrounded by Rākṣasīs and tossing about on the ground. Hanumān leapt through the trees to take a closer look. The woman was clad in soiled garments, but She was beautiful, like a diamond covered in dust. Her slender body was smeared with dirt. She lay repeatedly sighing and seemed distraught, Her face streaked with tears.

This was surely Sītā. Hanumān felt his heart leap with joy, but it was agony to see Her in such a wretched condition, appearing in every way like the eclipsed moon. Although fallen to the ground and weeping, She spread about Her a golden luster. Enmeshed in a mighty web of grief, She seemed like a flame intertwined by smoke. Her dark eyes, with their long black lashes, darted about helplessly, like those of a fawn snared by a hunter.

Hanumān gazed upon Her. He recognized the celestial yellow garment he had seen waving in the breeze when Rāvaṇa had passed over the Rishyamukha. This was undoubtedly the lady seized by that demon. The monkey gazed with sorrow at the princess. How powerful and inscrutable was destiny! Sītā was the daughter of a king and the wife of an invincible hero, yet She was now suffering torment. She was gentle, kind and always virtuous, undeserving of any pain. How then had She been placed in such terrible circumstances? It was inconceivable.

Hanumān thought of Rāma. How could he now best fulfill his Lord’s purpose? Sītā was difficult to approach because She was surrounded by hundreds of fierce Rākṣasīs. Hanumān examined them carefully. All of the Rākṣasīs were ugly and grossly misshapen. Some had one eye in their foreheads, others had huge ears that covered their bodies, some had heads like boars, tigers, buffalos, goats, deer or foxes. Some had their head sunk into their chests. They were all sizes, some very tall, others dwarf humpbacks. Some had the legs and feet of elephants, camels or horses. Some had abnormally long and twisted noses, some had large pointed ears or fierce lion-like teeth. Others had hair down to their feet and hands with claws.

The sight of the Rākṣasīs made one’s hair stand on end. They clutched various types of weapons and stood or sat about Sītā, watching in all directions. In their midst the noble princess seemed like the moon besieged by malevolent planets. Hanumān thought carefully. He remained hiding among the boughs of the tree. Dawn was approaching and the sky to the east was beginning to lighten.

Just at that time Rāvaṇa was being awakened. Musical instruments were played and poets sang his glories. The demon rose up with his hair and garments in disarray, still intoxicated by the strong liquors he had drunk the night before. Immediately he thought of Sītā. Quickly arranging his dress and adorning himself with every kind of ornament, Rāvaṇa went out of his rooms toward the gardens and made his way hastily to the ashoka grove. Behind him came one hundred beautiful maidens, their large hips and breasts swaying as they struggled to keep up with him. They carried whisks with golden handles, oil torches, pitchers of wine and pure white umbrellas. Their gold ornaments jangled together and flowers fell from their hair and garlands as they ran. Moving behind the demon they appeared like flashes of lightning following a cloud.

Although he possessed great power, the evil-minded Rāvaṇa was a slave to his lusty desires. With his mind fixed upon Sītā, he passed through the golden, gem-encrusted arches at the entrance to the ashoka grove. In a god-like human form he headed straight for the place where Sītā lay, longing to get another sight of the divine princess. As he walked he composed poetic phrases in his mind to win Sītā over.

Hanumān, concealed in his tree, heard the tinkling of ankle bells approaching. He looked around and saw Rāvaṇa making his way along the path, illumined on all sides by bright torches. The demon moved quickly with his slanted coppery eyes staring straight ahead. He was adjusting his upper garment of pure white silk embellished with flowers and pearls. Preoccupied with his thoughts of Sītā, he got his golden armlet entangled with his necklace of shining jewels, and he struggled to release it as he strode along the path.

Hanumān remained completely still as Rāvaṇa passed by the tree where he was hidden. Once the group of women had passed him, however, Hanumān leapt down and silently followed them toward Sītā. The monkey hid behind the trunk of a large tree close to Sītā and cautiously peered around it to see Rāma’s glorious consort seated on the ground, trembling at the sight of Rāvaṇa approaching Her. Her knees were drawn up to Her chest and She held them tight with Her arms.

Rāvaṇa, who appeared youthful and majestic, and who shone with a brilliant aura, stood before the princess. She looked miserable and stricken, like a rose creeper torn from a tree and thrown to the ground. She appeared like a shattered faith, or a frustrated hope, or an abandoned treasure. She was covered with dirt yet charming as a pure white lotus stained with mud. Weeping incessantly, She tossed about on the bare earth, Her mind absorbed in thoughts of Rāma.

The Rākṣasa king sought to seduce Her, as a fool would walk heedlessly toward a steep precipice. He gazed down at the forlorn Sītā, who did not even glance up at him. With Her palms folded She prayed to Viṣṇu that He might soon bring Rāma to Her presence.

Rāvaṇa said, “O most splendid jewel among women, do not be afraid of me. I am here only to render You service. Why do You lie here in a wretched condition? Rise up and enjoy with me. I shall provide You with pleasures only the gods know.”

Sītā turned Her face away in contempt, Her body wracked by sobs. Rāvaṇa had tried to win Her over each day since taking Her captive, but his attempts sickened Her. She longed for the day when Rāma would come and destroy the demon. Surely that time would soon come. She did not feel that She could take much more of Rāvaṇa’s torment.

Sītā’s resistance only made Rāvaṇa’s desire for Her the more insistent. He stared at Her incomparably beautiful form. Even though She had been fasting and had not washed since he had kidnapped Her, She was still far more lovely than any of his consorts. Indeed, if it were not for Nalakuvara’s curse. . .

The demon folded his hands in supplication. “What will you gain by lying here grieving? Your youth is passing swiftly and will soon be gone. Enjoy with me now while you can. There are none in the universe who can compare with me in virility and power. You are the finest of all women. I believe that after creating you the celebrated Brahmā must have retired, seeing his work to have reached perfection.”

Rāvaṇa offered Her the position of his principal queen. He would subjugate the entire world and offer it to her father Janaka. He had already conquered the gods in heaven and now stood unchallenged as the most powerful person in the universe. What could Rāma do against him? Sītā should stop thinking of Her puny prince, who was clad in rags and lived in a lonely forest. Perhaps, Rāvaṇa suggested, Rāma had already died. There was no chance that She would ever see Him again. And even if He should somehow find His way to Lanka, He would be immediately destroyed by Rāvaṇa, standing at the head of an unlimited number of invincible Rākṣasas.

The demon went on, his voice rising and falling melodiously as he implored Sītā. “Become my wife, O most beloved one, and enjoy life. Put on the best of garments and gold ornaments. Shake off Your grief and range freely with me in delightful groves along the seashore.”

Sītā shuddered at Rāvaṇa’s sinful suggestion. Without looking at him, and placing a symbolic blade of grass between Herself and the demon, She replied, “Give up your futile hope. You no more deserve Me than a sinful man deserves perfection. How do you expect Me to perform an act condemned by all pious women? How do you imagine that I will rest upon the arm of any other man after I have once rested upon Rāma’s arm? Do you not realize that molesting the wives of others leads only to destruction? Evidently there is no one in Lanka who knows morality. Or perhaps you have become so degraded that you are simply unable to heed good advice.”

Rāvaṇa snorted in anger. He clenched and unclenched his fists. There seemed to be no way of winning this woman. His eyes remained fixed upon Her as She continued without looking at him. “You should know Me to be as inseparable from Rāma as sunlight is inseparable from the sun. Unite Me with Rāma at once if you wish to do good for yourself and your Rākṣasa race. Make friends with Rāma. Otherwise, see your city, yourself and all the demons destroyed for good. If I am kept here, you will soon see well-aimed arrows joined end to end filling the sky. They will rain down upon Lanka like so many fire-mouthed serpents. You were able to steal Me only when Rāma and His brother were not present. Indeed, O weak one, it is not possible for you to stand in the sight of Rāma and Lakṣman any more than a dog can remain under the gaze of a pair of lions.”

Sītā rebuked Rāvaṇa further. Even if he sought shelter on the peak of Mount Meru or descended to Varuṇa’s abode, he would not escape from Rāma. By his wicked act of stealing Sītā he was already killed by his own destiny. Rāma would be the instrument to fulfill that fate. With the evil Rāvaṇa remaining their leader, the Rākṣasa race would be destroyed to their roots.

Sītā spoke harshly. “I would burn you to ashes Myself by the power of My asceticism and chastity, but I do not have My lord’s order. Nor do I wish to waste My ascetic merits on such a wretch as yourself.”

Rāvaṇa was furious. Breathing heavily he spoke slowly, his deep voice barely constraining his rage. “Because of Your insolent words You deserve to be put to death. Only my love for you prevents me from having You immediately killed. You have a few more months left of Your one-year reprieve. If by then You have not submitted to me, then my cooks will mince You up for my morning meal.”

The demon then turned away from Sītā. His eyes flamed and his tongue darted out of his mouth. His shining diadem and his broad, powerful shoulders shook with his anger. His red robes swirled about him as he walked away and his large reddish-gold earrings swung back and forth. With his dark blue waist cloth he appeared like a mountain topped with crimson oxides and lit by lightning bolts. As he left the grove he turned to the Rākṣasīs. “Use whatever means you can to change this princess’s mind. By soft words, coercion and threats, force Her to submit. Dissuade Her from thoughts of Rāma and convince Her to accept me. This will be in your own interests, O Rākṣasīs.”

With a roar of frustration Rāvaṇa left the garden, his heavy footfalls receding into the distance. As Hanumān continued to watch, the fierce Rākṣasīs began to harass Sītā, asking in rasping and grating voices why She was reluctant to accept Rāvaṇa as Her lord. The Rākṣasa king was the son of a great ṛṣi. He had vanquished the thirty-three principal gods in battle. Even Indra could not stand before him. Now that very Rāvaṇa was bowing at Her feet, begging for Her favor. He was prepared to renounce his principal consort, the chaste and beautiful Mandodari for Sītā’s sake.

Numerous Rākṣasīs cajoled Sītā in various ways. They told Her to stop pining foolishly for Rāma, a mere human. Of what consequence was Rāma when compared to Rāvaṇa? She obviously had no idea what was best for Her.

Sītā turned away from the Rākṣasīs. Their advice was useless. She could no more abandon Rāma than heat could abandon fire. She spoke with tear-filled eyes. “Devour Me if you will, I shall never become Rāvaṇa’s wife. As Śacī waits upon Indra, as Arundhati upon Vasiṣṭha and Rohini upon the moon-god, so do I always wait upon My lord.”

The Rākṣasīs were filled with rage when Sītā rejected their counsel. They resorted to harsh and threatening language. Licking their protruding lips with their dart-like tongues, they raised their axes and other weapons at Sītā. Sītā stood up and walked toward the tree were Hanumān was hiding, with a group of Rākṣasīs surrounding and intimidating Her. Seeing Her approach, the monkey quickly climbed up into the branches of the tree. As he looked down from the tree he saw Sītā severely afflicted by Her Rākṣasī guards. They spoke fiercely. “Submit to Rāvaṇa, O princess, or this very day I shall tear out Your heart and eat it!”

Brandishing a huge dart one Rākṣasī said, “For a long time I have wanted to feast on Your liver and spleen, as well as Your swollen breasts and indeed all Your limbs.”

Hanumān burned with anger. He felt the impulse to leap down amid the Rākṣasīs and immediately thrash them, but he restrained himself, intelligently waiting for an opportunity to first speak with Sītā. If he revealed himself now, there would be chaos and the chance to reassure Sītā would be lost.

Continuously tormented, Sītā fell to the ground weeping. She cried out to the Rākṣasīs, “A human woman is not fit to be the wife of the Rākṣasa king. Therefore finish Me now, Rākṣasīs. End My misery!”

Sītā embraced the tree, calling out Rāma’s name. Her face was pale and She shook with sobs. As She tossed Her head about Her long braid of hair writhed like a black snake. She wondered what kind of sin She must have committed in Her past life that She must now endure this suffering. If it were not for Her longing to again see Rāma, She would have ended Her own life. How could She endure another visit from Rāvaṇa?

Sītā turned to the Rākṣasīs, who were still threatening Her as She lay clutching the tree. “O wicked ones, I would not touch Rāvaṇa even with My left foot. That evil one should understand it now. I would not go to him even under threat of being transfixed, hacked to pieces, roasted in fire or hurled down from mountain peaks.”

The princess thought continuously of Rāma. Why had He not come to rescue Her? Surely He had not abandoned Her. Perhaps He did not know where She was. But Jatayu must have told Him. Or maybe the bird died before getting the chance. If Rāma knew Her to be in Lanka, then without doubt He would have reduced the city to ashes by now. The ocean would present no problem. Rāma’s fiery arrows would dry it up in an instant. But what if Rāma had perished from grief, being unable to find Her? Lakṣman would also die, seeing His brother gone. Maybe, after losing Her, Rāma had practiced yoga and become detached from worldy things such as love for His wife. But that could not be possible in one like Rāma; He would never become detached from His duty. Protecting one’s wife was always the duty of pious men.

Sītā lamented, thinking only of Her husband. She envied the perfect mystics who had transcended the dualities of happiness and distress. For them the loss of relatives did not cause any sorrow, nor did they long for any pleasing thing. If only She could experience their peace. As She lay absorbed in such thoughts, a Rākṣasī named Trijata stepped forward and restrained her companions. She had just risen from sleep and told them of a dream she had experienced.

“I saw a shining personality, who was surely Rāma, mounted upon a celestial chariot drawn by a thousand horses and coursing through the air. He was united with Sītā. The couple wore white robes and white garlands and were ablaze with splendor. I also saw Rāvaṇa, robed in black with a red garland and sitting on a chariot drawn by asses.”

Trijata described her dream in detail: Rāvaṇa had entered a fearful darkness, his body smeared with excrement. She saw all of Rāvaṇa’s sons and ministers with their heads shaved and bodies bathed with oil. She saw Lanka being set alight by an agile monkey and all of the Rākṣasas disappearing into a pool of cow dung.

The Rākṣasīs knew the science of interpreting dreams. It seemed from Trijata’s dream that a great calamity was about to befall Rāvaṇa. Sītā was heartened by Trijata. She sat up and as She did so She felt Her left eye throbbing and Her left arm palpitating. This was an auspicious omen. That omen, along with Trijata’s dream, gave Sītā hope. She felt that Rāma must surely be near. The Rākṣasīs fell away from Her, some of them running to report to Rāvaṇa.

Chapter 14: Sītā is Found

In the tree Hanumān considered what to do next. He wanted to comfort Sītā and give Her Rāma’s ring, but he was not sure how to approach Her. She would likely think him to be Rāvaṇa in disguise using sorcery to trick her. She might cry out and alert the Rākṣasas. What then? He could be killed or captured. How would Rāma’s purpose be served if that happened? What other monkey could leap across the ocean and return?

Hanumān thought carefully. He decided to remain in the tree and sing praises of Rāma so that Sītā could hear. The Rākṣasīs had moved away to a distance and would not notice. Hanumān started to speak out loud. “In the city of Ayodhya there lived a great ruler named Daśaratha. That lordly king begot a valiant son named Rāma, who possesses every good quality. Going to the forest in obedience to His aged and pious father, Prince Rāma slayed in battle many violent demons.”

Hanumān related in brief Rāma’s history up until the time of Sītā’s abduction. He described what had happened to Rāma in Her absence since then, leading up to his own leap across the ocean and arrival in the ashoka grove.

Sītā was struck with wonder to hear the voice from the tree. She looked up and all around Her, feeling joy upon hearing Rāma’s activities described. As She gazed into the boughs of the tree She saw among the leaves Hanumān’s tawny figure. The small monkey sat humbly with his palms folded. Immediately She became afraid. Who was this creature? What was he doing in the tree? Was this Rāvaṇa’s trick? But remembering the auspicious omens, Sītā became thoughtful. She prayed to the gods that Hanumān’s words might prove true.

Hanumān slipped down from the tree and bowed low before Sītā with his joined palms raised above his head. “I assume You are Sītā, consort of the highly blessed Rāma. I am an envoy dispatched by Rāma to seek You, O noble lady. Along with His brother Lakṣman, Rāma waits in grief for some news of Your whereabouts.”

Sītā felt overjoyed to hear of Rāma, but She was still suspicious. What if this was Rāvaṇa? Nevertheless, upon seeing the monkey She was feeling a strange calm and peace of mind. She looked carefully at Hanumān and asked, “How can I know that you are not Rāvaṇa?”

Hanumān reassured Her. He described the features of both Rāma and Lakṣman in great detail, telling Her everything he knew about the two princes. Hanumān then told Her about himself and how he had come to meet with Rāma. He spoke confidently. “Now that I have found You I will soon return to Rāma. You will see Your lord arrive here before long, marching at the head of an unlimited number of powerful monkeys and bears.”

Hanumān showed Her the ring Rāma had given him. He handed it to Sītā and She immediately recognized it. She was now convinced by Hanumān. Standing up in excitement She felt unlimited joy. Her eyes shed tears of happiness and Her face shone brightly. She praised Hanumān. “You have achieved a great feat in crossing the wide ocean and entering this fortified city. O noble monkey, surely you are the foremost of Rāma’s servants.”

Sītā wondered why Rāma Himself had not come there. Why had He not smashed the city of Lanka and taken Her back? Was He still strong in mind and body? Was Lakṣman well? Sītā questioned Hanumān eagerly and the monkey replied, “Rāma does not know Your exact whereabouts, O godly lady, but He is well and awaiting news of You. As soon as He hears my report He will come here with His army and rid the world of Rākṣasas. There can be no doubt whatsoever.”

Hanumān assured Sītā that Rāma was always thinking of Her. Indeed, His mind was distracted by grief due to Her separation. He could not eat properly and hardly slept. Rāma sat for long periods gazing into the distance, sighing heavily. He would not even brush from His body gnats and mosquitoes, oblivious to everything as He thought of Sītā. From time to time He would call out Her name and shed tears.

Sītā felt simultaneous joy and grief as She heard of Her husband and His own grief for Her. She sat lost in thought of Rāma for some time, looking like the bright moon seen through a veil of clouds. The monkey’s