Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 12:56 AM
Sita waited for her husband to return from seeing his father, full of expectation for the coronation ceremony ahead. When Rama at last appeared it was obvious that he was not his usual self. Whereas Rama had stayed calm with his father and mother, when he came to see Sita he could no longer restrain his feelings. He had intended to leave her behind, but found it hard to keep his resolve.
What is wrong, my Lord? You have come without your royal attendants who should be with you on this special day, and you are pale and trembling.'
My beloved Sita, father has seen fit to send me into exile and to give the throne to Bharata.' Rama told her all that had happened as she sat in stunned silence.
'While I am gone you will be under the care of Bharata. Be sure not to praise me in my absence, as this may provoke him. Honour my father and mother as well as Kaikeyi and Sumitra, who have always been my well-wishers. Look upon Bharata and Satrughna as your own brothers.'
Stop this!' interrupted Sita. 'l am not staying here without you, so there is no use in your telling me what to do here. A wife's place is by her husband, and you are my only protector. Do not insult me by suggesting that I will accept the protection of Bharata or anyone else. If you must go to the forest then I will come with you. I will walk ahead, crushing the thorns on the path. Even though the forest is full of dangerous animals I will be happy there with you. I will live on roots and fruits and cause you no trouble. I look forward to seeing the mountains and waterfalls and lakes full of swans and lotus flowers. I long to live in the forest with you.
Rama tried to dissuade Sita. She had no idea how perilous the forest was.
I will tell you what the forest is really like. Sharp stones, thorny heaths; the roar of lions and attack of' wild beasts; rushing streams, alligators guarding the rivers and ponds; hunger gnaws and mosquitoes bite. In wind and rain you search for food. In darkness scorpions sting and serpents creep among the stones. That is forest life.
Sita began to cry, but she was still determined, saying: 'When I was a little girl a holy woman once came to our house and I overheard her tell my mother that one day I would live in the forest. It is my destiny. I will not feel the pain when I lie on the forest floor beside you. Leaves or roots will taste like nectar when they come from your hand.' Tears fell like crystals from her lotus eyes. 'We are bound together forever. In the scriptures it is said that a woman stays bound to her husband even in the next life. Either I live with you in the forest or I will die here without you.
Unable to deny her any longer, Rama took her in his arms, Alright. Since this is your destiny, come with me. Together we will vow to give up all comforts and live in the forest on the order of my father. To serve one's father, mother or guru brings the highest reward, even entrance to Goloka, the eternal forest of Krishna. Now be quick and get everything ready. Give gifts to the brahmanas and distribute whatever of ours that is left to our household servants.
Lakshmana stood by anxiously. Since childhood he and Rama had never been separated. Fighting back his tears he now spoke up.
If you go to the forest with Sita, then you must take me too. I can go ahead with my bow so that you can wander safely, enjoying the natural beauty. If I stay here without you my life will be empty and useless.
So it was decided that the three of' them would go together into exile.
The three companions went back to the royal palace to take their leave of' Dasaratha. News of Rama's banishment had spread among the ordinary people of Ayodhya. It was hard for them to understand what was happening. Why had Dasaratha done this'? As the three passed along the street, without Rama's usual company of royal guards and chariots, onlookers felt dismayed. They looked upon Rama as the root of their existence and could not conceive of life without him.
We will follow Rama,' they said to one another, 'we will turn the forest into Ayodhya and let Ayodhya revert to forest. Kaikeyi will inherit a deserted city, inhabited by wild animals and mice.
Rama came once more before his father. Dasaratha had called all his wives to be present. Headed by Kausalya they filled the room, many weeping uncontrollably. In their midst the emperor sat on a couch, propped up by pillows, red-eyed and exhausted, showing all he symptoms of a complete breakdown. When he saw Rama he struggled bravely to his feet, but even as Rama approached he began to totter, so that Rama had to catch him and lay him tenderly on the couch. Gently, Rama explained that he, Sita and Lakshmana were ready to leave and that they had come to say goodbye. In desperation, with a low voice trembling with emotion, Dasaratha spoke.
My senses are quite gone, my son, taken from me by Kaikeyi, and I am powerless. You take charge. Hold me captive and take the throne by force.'
Be calm, father, you know that I could never do such a thing. I am quite resigned to going away. Please accept all these events as inevitable destiny, and allow Bharata to peacefully rule the kingdom while I am gone.
If you are determined to honour my vow, Rama, as I knew you would be, please let your mother and I cherish one last night with you.' But Rama would not stay. He did not want to prolong the pain of parting any longer.
Dasaratha tried to struggle to his feet to give his son a last embrace, but as he did so his fragile frame could take no more. The old man collapsed unconscious on the couch. A great wail went up from all his wives. Even the men present openly wept. Kaikeyi alone seemed unmoved.
Queen Kaikeyi, you are an evil woman,' cried Sumantra, whose usual cool exterior was shattered by uncontrollable waves of anger. 'You are the murderer of Dasaratha and our whole race. You violate all codes of honour of the Lksvaku house.' He spoke for them all. 'If Rama leaves, we will all leave with him, and you will be left with nothing. All you will achieve in sending him away is to send yourself to hell!'
Kaikeyi's face betrayed no emotion, as if carved from stone. Dasaratha stirred. A new thought occurred to him. In a weak voice he ordered Sumantra to deploy his entire army to accompany Rama to the forest, with provisions of food and gold. With them should go priests, merchants, hunters and the whole entourage of civilization?
Kaikeyi protested bitterly that Ayodhya would be stripped of its wealth and armies, leaving nothing for Bharata. These shameless words provoked even Dasaratha to retaliate that he too would go the forest with Rama, and leave her forever. Rama intervened. 'I have no use for an army or great wealth in the forest. I relinquish all claims to the throne of Ayodhya or any of its possessions. Mother Kaikeyi, please bring us forest clothes, woven from grass and tree-bark, and a spade and basket for gathering roots and herbs. We shall take nothing more, and we shall go alone.
Without delay Kaikeyi brought what he requested and Lakshmana and Rama changed into the simple robes. Sita, however, was dismayed at such plain garments and had no idea what to do with them. Rama helped her to drape them over her finery. It was a pitiful sight.
Kausalya embraced Sita with bitter tears. Rama consoled his mother. Don't despair, dear mother, our exile will soon be over. Fourteen years will slip by even while you are asleep.' Then turning to all his family members and friends gathered around, he went on, Please forgive any offences I may have committed. Now I must take leave of you all. Farewell!
Rama led his two companions as they went first to the emperor, then to Queen Kausalya, bowing and walking around them in respect. Lakshmana tearfully embraced his mother Sumitra, who urged him to serve Sita and Rama as if they were his own mother and father.
Outside a chariot stood waiting for them carrying Sita's ornaments and silk robes, mighty bows and other weapons, a basket and a spade. They boarded it and Sumantra took the reins.
Picking up speed, the chariot headed for the city gates. On the way the people of Ayodhya lined the streets. Moans and cries went up on all sides, and young and old pushed forward to catch hold of the chariot as it passed. Many ran after it, tears streaming down their faces, imploring the driver to slow down so that they could get a good look at the faces of their beloved Rama and Sita.
Dasaratha did his best to follow them. 'Slow down,' he ordered Sumantra. 'Speed up,' commanded Rama. The dust of the chariot's wheels mixed with the people's tears.
Turning, Rama saw Dasaratha slip and fall, unable to get up. Kausalya and liis aides bent to help him as he called pitifully for Rama. Rama turned away and did not look back. 'Drive on!' he ordered Sumantra, as they passed through the city gates.
Helped by Kausalya, the emperor got to his feet and reached the edge of the city. He watched the chariot diminish into the distance, followed by a cloud of' dust, until all that could be seen was a blur on the horizon. He stayed rooted to the spot, unable to turn away. In front of him on the road he saw the wheel-marks of Rama's chariot, but even as he looked the breeze blew them away, leaving no trace of his passing. Kaikeyi came to take his arm, but he pushed her away.
No longer are you any relation of mine. I disown you and all your household.
After a long time he turned to go back. The emperor made his way to the palace with Kausalya. He had eyes for no one and thought only of' Rama and hid himself in Kausalya's apartments. A dark cloud settled over Ayodhya. No fires burned and people did not eat. Men's faces were wet with tears and mothers ignored their children. The wind gusted along empty streets while the sun hid behind unseasonal clouds.
In the moonless night, Kausalya sat beside her husband's bed. His breath came fitfully in intermittent gasps. Inside her she felt the fire burn ever hotter, consuming her will to live. Dasaratha reached out in the darkness.
Kausalya, I can't see you. I have gone blind. Touch me with your hand.' She took his hand in hers and let out a long piteous wail.
The chariot kept up speed for a while, with the citizens from Ayodhya desperately straggling behind. White-haired men, bent with age, who thought they could convince Rama to change his mind, were among them. Feeling pity for them, Rama stopped the chariot and continued on foot as far as the river Tamasa, where he halted for the night.
As birds sang evening lullabies the travellers settled on a bed of leaves for their first night out in the open. Rama made sure the horses were well fed, but for himself drank only a little water. He had no appetite for more. Lakshmana could not sleep and sat up all night talking about Rama with Sumantra. Several hours before dawn Rama awoke and was distressed to see the good people of Ayodhya strewn on the bare ground fast asleep. Without disturbing them, Rama and his companions quietly rode their chariot across the swiftly-flowing river, being careful not to leave any tell-tale tracks on the other side. When the poor citizens awoke they searched everywhere for Rama. Unable to find any trace of him they returned to their homes in despair.
Rama pushed on southwards through the cool pre-dawn air, his mind fixed on his father's order. By the time the sun rose he and his companions had left the river far behind. All that day they passed through the fertile lands of Koshala, full of gardens and temples, crossing the rivers Gomati and Sandakan. News went before them and along the way village folk left their fields to implore Rama not to leave. He was unable to check his tears, but sent them back to their work. At last they reached the holy Ganges, whose deep waters, decorated with white lotus flowers and swans, marked.
The border of Lksvaku territory. Rama looked back the way they had come to salute the far-off city of Ayodhya, saying: 'When I have honoured my father's vow I will return.
The chief of those parts was Guha, loyal to the lksvaku kings. He welcomed Rama and his companions with well-cooked food and soft beds. Yet Rama was still not hungry.
I have vowed to sleep on the ground and eat only forest fruits and roots,' he told Guha. But he asked him to care for his horses. Lakshmana stayed awake a second night and shared his sorrows with Guha: 'I fear that without Rama the emperor and queen may not have the strength to survive this night.
Comforted by Guha, he shed hot tears while Rama and Sita slept.
In the morning the two princes treated their hair with sap from the banyan tree and twisted it into top-knots, in the style of forest sages. They put on quivers and loaded their gear into a boat. For Sumantra, the moment of parting had arrived, and he grew visibly distressed when Rama told him he must now go back to Ayodhya.
The emperor and my mother need you now more than ever. Tell them we are safe and at peace. Embrace Bharata for me and make sure he is properly installed on the throne. Console the people of Ayodhya, for when they see my empty chariot they will know for certain that I have gone to the forest. God speed!
Lakshmana steadied the boat in the swift-flowing current as Sita nervously stepped in, and then they were off, drifting quickly downstream. At the centre of the river Sita spoke softly to the goddess in the waters imploring her to protect Rama during their coming ordeal. Soon they were walking in single file, following the southern bank of the Ganges, with Lakshmana in the lead and Sita protected in the middle.
Now begins forest life,' said Rama to Sita. 'Today you will walk where no humans live.' That night, as they prepared to sleep beneath the shelter of a great banyan tree, Rama's heart was heavy with thoughts of his mother, and the persecution she would have to endure from Kaikeyi. He cried quietly. Lakshmana came and comforted him and prepared a bed for him and Sita.
It is best not to grieve. Rama,' he said.
Rama felt strengthened by his brother's words, and neither he nor Lakshmana ever grieved again in the midst of that unending forest.
All the next day they walked steadily within sight of the river. Towards evening they saw ahead of them smoke wafting up through the trees, and heard in the distance rushing waters. They had reached the hermitage of the sage Bharadvaja at the confluence of' the Ganges and the Yamuna.
Youthful ascetics greeted them and brought them before their teacher, who sat surrounded by birds and forest animals. He was expecting them, and had made arrangements for them to live there, but Rama declined. Here people would find them out.
Tell me where we can find a hidden place where Sita will be happy,' he asked.
There is a sacred mountain called Chitrakoot sixty miles from here whose woods abound with black-tailed monkeys, deer and elephants,' the sage replied. 'Rich supplies of honey, roots and fruits are there, with sheltered caves and waterfalls.' In the morning Bharadvaja directed them to Chitrakoot, across the Yamuna and two days' walk to the south-west. Rama and Lakshmana built a raft of logs, and on it a seat of cane and rose-apple wood for Sita.
When they reached mid-stream Sita again spoke to the river goddess Yamuna, asking for Rama's safety. Bharadvaja had told them they would reach a great banyan tree, and there they should turn south. When they found it, they stopped for the night.
The next day they continued southwards, along a well-trodden path. Around them were trees laden with scented blossoms, resounding with the buzzing of bees and warbling of birds. As they neared their destination, Lakshmana grew excited.
Look at the size of the honeycombs and the luscious fruits! Ahead I can see the peaks of Chitrakoot and hear the trumpeting of elephants.
A sage (Valmiki, for it was he) was waiting for them in his ashram at Chitrakoot with great delight. He gave Sita and Rama a place to sit while Lakshmana busied himself constructing a thatched cottage. When it was complete, Rama built inside it a shrine to the forest guardians and to Vishnu. He consecrated it with Vedic hymns and a sacred fire ceremony. At last, Rama felt released from the pain of the past days and they rested with peaceful hearts.
Sumantra watched with a heavy heart as Rama's boat swiftly floated out across the River Ganges. He camped beside the river for two more nights, hoping for Rama's return. But when word came to him that the three travellers had been seen on the path to Chitrakoot, he gave up hope and set off back to Ayodhya. Two days later, with empty chariot and weeping horses, he entered the desolate city.
The emperor and queen pressed him for news of Rama. They wanted every last detail, hoping against hope for Rama's return. Sumantra, 4 delivered Rama's messages but he only succeeded in confirming what everyone already feared:
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana would not be seen again in Ayodhya for fourteen years. Faced with the awful finality of what he had done, the emperor was lost in an ocean of despair in which his breathing was a whirlpool, his crying was crashing waves, Kaikeyi's words were alligators and the opposite shore was Sita and Rama.
Take me to Rama and Sita,' begged Kausalya, 'take me there quickly on your chariot, or I shall instead go to the house of Death. Your foolishness has destroyed us all,' she accused her husband bitterly. Then, in remorse, she took his trembling hands: 'My love, I should not speak to you so. Grief has destroyed my patience. These last five nights have seemed like five years.' But her harsh words penetrated the emperor's dull consciousness like a sharp sword. He fell into an uneasy sleep in which distant memories flooded his mind.
Once more he was a young prince, proud and handsome, and he loved to hunt. One night he ventured alone into the jungle to practice the skill of shooting at an unseen target, aiming by sound only, and waited in the darkness beside a pond. He heard a gurgling sound which he thought was the sound of an elephant drinking, and released a serpent-like arrow. From the darkness he heard a human cry. In horror, he ran forward and discovered a young boy pierced through the heart by his arrow. The sound he had heard was the sound of the boy filling a water-pot, which now lay beside him. Blood trickled from the boy's mouth.
O shame!' cried the boy, 'who has done this terrible deed? I have no enemy and I am the only support of my parents who are blind and invalid. I came here to draw water for them, but now I am mortally wounded and can no longer protect them.
The boy begged Prince Dasaratha to remove the arrow which bit into him like fire. The prince pulled out the arrow, but as soon as he did so the boy stared at him with silent agony, and died.
Alone in the darkness and sick with remorse, Dasaratha filled the pot and took it to the boy's parents whom he found nearby. He knew he must tell them the awful truth.
By accident I have killed your son. Now you must punish me.' The blind old man spoke.
Without our son we cannot survive. Tomorrow we will die on his funeral pyre.
Because you did this in ignorance you will not be punished in hell, but because you have given us such pain I curse you also to lose your son in old age, and the pain of' your loss will kill you.'
Dasaratha woke with a start. It was night and he was alone and cold. In a broken voice he called for Kausalya.
Touch me! I cannot see you. I am about to die.
But Kausalya heard nothing.
My memory is fading. I cannot see my beloved Rama! Fortunate are those who will see his sweet face as he returns from the forest like the autumn moon after the rains. I hear nothing, my hands are numb. I feel myself slipping away. My darling Rama, where are you! O cruel Kaikeyi!' With these words on his lips, the emperor left this world in the dead of night.
Ayodhya had no emperor. A land without an emperor is like a dried-up river. Rains cease to fall; sons disobey fathers; wives disrespect husbands; young girls walk in Fear of violation; doors are locked at night; merchants do not flourish, and holy men are neglected. Without its emperor, Ayodhya was a night without stars. Kausalya found the dead emperor and cried out,
Kaikeyi, you have your wish: the kingdom is yours. I shall follow my dead husband into the flames.
Ministers took away the body of Dasaratha and preserved it in oil until a son could be brought to perform the funeral rites. They decided that Bharata should be made king, and they sent messengers to Kekaya to fetch him and his younger brother Satrughna. The messengers rode with lavish gifts for the Kekaya king, through four days and three nights.
In Kekaya, Bharata was uneasy. His mind was filled with disturbing images from his dreams. He saw his father lying in a muddy pool. He saw the earth shake, volcanoes erupt and the moon fall from the sky. Then he saw his father, garlanded with red flowers, dragged southwards in a chariot pulled by donkeys.
When the messengers arrived from Ayodhya he was not surprised. They revealed nothing, only that he was needed urgently. But he knew. When such things are dreamed, one prepares for death.
Burdened with gifts from the Kekaya monarch and accompanied by a small army,
He set off in convoy for Ayodhya, reaching their seven days later, ten days after the demise of his father, and fifteen days after Rama's departure. Arriving at the gates, he saw the city streets empty and upswept and his apprehension grew.
Immediately Bharata rushed to his father's apartments, but they were empty. He went to find Kaikeyi.
Where is father? Is he not with you?'
O son! Your father is no more.
Hearing the dreaded words, Bharata fell down and began beating the floor with his powerful arms.
Get up! You must be strong. You are now the king.
Kaikeyi told Bharata her good news: Rama exiled, the throne given to Bharata, and Dasaratha dead.
I have done all this for you, my dear son. Now the kingdom is yours, just as you always wanted.
Bharata slowly took all this in. You have done this to please me?' he asked incredulously. 'What possible wish could I have to take the throne from Rama and see my father dead? Rama is the source of my strength. What can I do without him?' He paced back and forth and then spoke with resolve. I will bring Rama back from the forest and go into exile in his place.' Then his anger rose and he roared like a mountain lion.
O cruel woman, you have shamed our royal house, you have driven away my
VEDIC WISDOM teaches that each living being in this world is an eternal soul inhabiting a temporary body. The individual soul, called atma, is a particle of Vishnu's own spiritual nature. Each soul has its own desires to enjoy the world, and to fulfil these desires it enters the cycle of rebirth, called samsara. When the soul leaves one body that body dies, then the soul is born into another body, like an actor changing clothes. Moving from body to body in search of happiness, the soul passes through all forms of life, from insect to god.
As the sell passed in this body from childhood to youth to old age, so when this body dies the self passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this change.
The law of action and reaction, called karma, governs the movements of all beings, rewarding and punishing their good or bad behavior. For example, taking life brings bad karma, and feeding the hungry brings good karma.
Beloved brother, and you have killed your own husband. You are my enemy disguised as my mother and I no longer wish to speak with you. You should either leave this place or kill yourself.'
A crowd gathered to hear Bharata vent his anger. Kausalya accused him bitterly. 'Now you can take the throne which your mother worked so hard to get for you. I am sure you will be very happy. If you like, you can send me away too. I will go to join Rama.
Cut to the core to hear these words, Bharata swore his innocence. He spoke not just to her but to all of Ayodhya with words that seared into the hearts of all present.
I knew nothing of my mother's plans, nor did I ever desire the throne. Whoever wished Rama to be banished is cursed a hundred times,' he repeated over and over again. 'Let them be perpetually barred from heaven; let them forget all the sacred scriptures; let them suffer constant illness; let them go mad and wander as beggars...' Becoming more and more distraught, at last he fell headlong on the floor.
Kausalya, in tears, hurried forward to comfort the stricken youth. Taking his head on her lap, she soothed him with gentle words.
My child, stop now. You are innocent of any fault. Be comforted.'
The next day Vasistha urged Bharata to perform his duty as the eldest available son of Dasaratha. The funeral must be performed. A pyre was built at the royal cremation ground beside the river Sarayu and Bharata walked in procession with Dasaratha's body, which was decked with jewels and flowers. He lit the fire and watched as his father's remains were reduced to ashes. Then, as was the custom, he stayed with his family in seclusion for twelve days of mourning. On the thirteenth day he returned to the cremation ground to collect his father's whitened bones. Crying inconsolably, he and Satrughna tossed the bones and ashes into the river.
Life and death, joy and sorrow, gain and loss,' intoned Vasistha. 'These dualities cannot be avoided. Learn to accept what you cannot change and give up sorrow.'
Vasistha wanted normal life restored to the troubled kingdom, so he urged Bharata to accept the throne.
You are now the heir, as ordained by your father. Take what is rightfully yours.' But Bharata was not to be tempted. 'The throne, and I myself, belong to Rama. I will bring him back to Ayodhya and put him on the throne, while I take his place in the forest.'
Accordingly, Bharata ordered a great expedition to go in search of Rama. It was to be made up of a vast army of elephants, chariots and cavalry. To prepare the way, teams of engineers worked day and night to transform the path to the Ganges into broad highway lined with trees, with magnificent pavilions along the way. All this activity inspired the people of Ayodhya. With Bharata as their commander, they felt renewed hope, and the leading citizens joined the expedition in festive mood.
Early one morning when all was ready, Bharata, the hero of the Lksvaku race, set off followed by the vast host of lksvaku: archers borne in chariots; richly decorated elephants; mounted cavalry; and in their midst the three queens of Ayodhya riding in chariots of royal splendor. All minds were fixed on the joyful prospect of finding Rama. Soon they reached the Ganges, where the huge company halted for the night.
Guha, the tribal chief loyal t-o Rama, saw the army entering his territory and was uneasy, wondering at Bharata's motive in pursuing Rama with an army. Bearing gifts of honey and mango-pulp, he went down to meet him.
How could I have any evil intentions towards my elder brother, who is just like a father to me?' Bharata assured him. 'We want Rama to come back and be king.' Bharata appeared confident of achieving this, but secretly he wondered whether he could succeed. Reassured of Bharata's good intentions, Cuba offered to help them across the Ganges and guide them to their next stop, the hermitage of Bharadvaja.
That night Guha showed Bharata and his mothers the place where Rama and Sita had spent the night, guarded by Lakshmana.
See here the blades of grass crushed as Rama slept,' said Bharata, 'and here the strands of gold thread from Sita's cloth which have stuck to the hard ground where she lay. A devoted wife will undergo any hardship in the company of her lord. For myself, I vow to sleep on the bare ground and live on fruits and roots in the forest for the remainder of Rama's exile, so that his vow will be fulfilled.
Bharata could not hide his emotions and fell to the ground in tears. He was con-soled by Kausalya, who hugged him close to her breast. 'Be strong, Bharata. You are now my only support.'
The Lksvaku host crossed the River Ganges on five hundred boats supplied by Gala. As far as the eye could see the river teemed with boats and rafts of all sizes, loaded with men, women and horses, while elephants swam like glistening mountains through the throng.
Following the path taken by Rama, they soon reached the hermitage of Bharadvaja. Bharata halted the army and went forward alone to meet the holy sage. Again his motives were questioned.
I know you to be Rama's brother,' spoke Bharadvaja, 'who must now be ruling in his place. I trust you come in peace.
I beg you not to think of me as a threat,' protested Bharata. 'My only motive is to bring Rama back to Ayodhya.
The sage was pleased to hear this and happily extended his hospitality to Bharata and all his company.
You are a simple hermit,' said Bharata, 'and I have a huge army waiting at some distance so as not to overrun your ashram. You could not possibly cater for all of us.
I will entertain all of you, no matter how many you are,' replied Bharadvaja. 'Bring your army here, and you will see the power of a simple hermit.
So ordered by the sage, Bharata called for the army while Bharadvaja invoked divine spirits to help him look after them. He put forth his mystic power until powerful beings from all over the universe were invisibly assembled at that spot. Then he began to work his enchantment.
A cool breeze wafted through the trees and showers of flowers rained down from the heavens. Maidens appeared dancing to the sound of celestial music. As astonished soldiers crowded into the grove all their cares fell away. Smooth green lawns interspersed with perfumed fruit trees appeared everywhere with gardens and fountains and lovely pavilions decked with flowers and soft cushions. All imaginable kinds of delicious foods and drinks were served in unlimited quantities by beautiful women. As the men began to least they found that no matter how much they ate they never felt full. Lovely maidens tended to their needs, taking them down to the riverside where they massaged them with scented oils and bathed them with fragrant balms. Animal carers tended the horses and elephants, grooming and feeding them until they glowed with health and satisfaction so that their keepers could no longer recognize them. The trees took on their human forms to dance and serve the guests.
Through the night feasting and revelry continued until all fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. They awoke refreshed, the fatigue and discomforts of their journey gone, to find themselves back in the forest outside Bharadvaja's ashram as if nothing had happened.
Bharata and his family took grateful leave of Bharadvaja. But before they left, the sage wanted to greet Bharata's mothers. Bharata respectfully introduced Kausalya and Sumitra, but when he came to Kaikeyi his demeanour changed.
This is proud and cruel Kaikeyi. She is the cause of all our suffering.' His voice choked with tears of anger as he spoke.
Do not hate Kaikeyi,' admonished the sage, 'for Rama's banishment serves a deep purpose, and will yet bring happiness to all.
With Bharadvaja's advice ringing in his ears, Bharata set off with his army on the final march to Chitrakoot. Soldiers, chariots, horses and elephants moved through the dense forest like a monsoon cloud, scattering the deer and bears and driving squawking birds into the tree-tops. They found Chitrakoot Hill abundant with spotted deer and forest flowers. A scout called out.
Ahead I see smoke rising among the trees. This surely is Rama's camp!
Word reached Bharata who ordered the troops to halt while he went forward with Sumantra, the king's trusted adviser, his eyes fixed nervously on the thin blue column of smoke ahead.
Arm in arm with Sita, Rama walked in the groves of Chitrakoot. He was happy to be here with only Sita and Lakshmana for company, and didn't in the least miss his friends and family or the burdens of state back home.
See how lovely this mountain is. It is home to tigers and bears who will not harm Ifs, to deer and flocks of birds. Brightly coloured flowers grow among the rocks of many hues. Mangoes, papayas, pomegranates and other fruits hang in abundance among the flowering trees. Nearby flows the Mandakini, her banks overhung with shady boughs, her waters full of swans, cranes and lotus flowers. I will happily spend my fourteen years of exile here with you, my sweetheart.'
Just then Rama became aware that something was disturbing the animals. He heard the distant trumpeting of elephants and saw a dust-cloud drifting up from the valley below.
Lakshmana,' he called, 'what is this disturbance?'
Lakshmana scaled a tall tree and gazed to the north.
I see an army with elephants, horses and chariots,' he shouted down. 'Put out the fire and have your bow at the ready.
Can you see whose army it is?' enquired Rama. Scanning the massed ranks of men and equipment, Lakshmana made out a banner unfurled in the breeze.
I see the white trunk and silver leaves of the emblem of Ayodhya. It must be Bharata,' he concluded, 'come to kill us both and assert his sovereignty. We will light him,' he declared. 'He lies at the root of all your suffering and he deserves to be killed, and I shall also kill Kaikeyi. Then you can rule the world undisturbed.' As he spoke, Lakshmana's voice filled with fury.
Rama did not at all approve of Lakshmana's aggressive words and replied with equal vehemence.
Consider what you are saying, Lakshmana. I have given my word of honour to renounce the kingdom in favour of Bharata, and now you want me to kill him and sit on a throne stained with his blood? I feel sure that Bharata has come with love in his heart, anxious to see me. But if you wish I will command him to hand over the kingdom to you. I am sure he will do it immediately.
Corrected by his elder brother, Lakshmana felt ashamed. 'Perhaps it may be father who has come to see you,' he conceded. 'You are right, Lakshmana. He understands our trials in the forest and has come to take us home. But can you see the royal insignia of his white umbrella?' Lakshmana could not, and despondently climbed down to the ground.
Meanwhile, Bharata climbed steadily with his companions up through the trees, his eyes fixed above him on t he column of smoke. Some distance behind, at a slower pace, followed Vasistha and the three queens. Bharata came to a halt. Before him the hill-side leveled off and he saw in a clearing three small huts built from leafy' branches. Beside them leaned shining bows and quivers, with swords and shields emblazoned with flowers of gold. In front of the huts was an altar upon which burned a sacred fire. In the midst of this scene Bharata saw his brother Rama, sitting with his hair tied in a great tangled knot and wearing a beard, his body smeared with dirt and dressed in deerskin and strips of bark. Rama, with the shoulders of a lion, looked to Bharata like Vishnu, protector of the earth. On either side of him sat Lakshmana and Sita. Choking with emotion, Bharata ran forward crying out.
O Rama, my brother, my noble brother! What has become of you! Rama took his younger brother in his strong arms and comforted him.
My poor boy, you have come here without your father. I hope the emperor is in good health and has not left this world. I hope you are listening to your counsellors and governing the kingdom wisely. But tell me, clear brother, why have you left Ayodhya and come here dressed like an ascetic?'
O Rama, do you not know? Our father has indeed left this world with a broken heart and gone to heaven. I have come to beg you to return and brighten the empire as the moon brightens the autumn sky. All of us ministers, gurus, and the entire people of Kosala beg you to come back.
When Rama heard of his father's death he sank to the ground.
'With father gone, what remains for me in Ayodhya? My duty is now to obey his order and live in the forest, and yours is to obey his order and rule the kingdom. Now let me pay homage to my departed father.
Rama led Lakshmana and Sita down to the riverbank to offer water and fruits in honour his father's spirit. Returning to the huts he clasped Bharata, Lakshmana and Satrughna and together they poured out their grief. Far below the waiting troops heard their cries, like the roaring of lions, and knew the brothers were united once more.
Forest animals fled and birds flew confused into the sky. The soldiers converged from all sides, unable to bear the separation from Rama. Their faces bathed in tears, they burst into the clearing and crowded around Rama. Some fell at his feet, some embraced him, while others simply gazed on his face.
Soon Vasistha arrived with the queens. Rama touched his feet with respect. Many tears and hugs were exchanged and the company sat and talked as darkness fell.
In the morning, all settled down in a circle, full of curiosity to hear what would be said, with Rama and Bharata in the centre. Bharata began.
Kaikeyi has now got what she wanted, though it will send her to hell. The kingdom has been given to me. 1, however, cannot rule it and hereby hand it back to you.' Rama spoke in reply, his voice clear and calm.
As the sun rises and sets it steals away the lives of all who live. Yet we greet each new day without thinking that with it comes our death. Indeed, death is our constant companion in this world. Therefore, I say, don't waste your tears on others; grieve for yourself, for you will die soon. We are all like pieces of driftwood floating on the ocean. Sometimes we come together, sometimes we are far apart. Our families, wealth and fortune are thus made and broken by the force of time. None of us can escape from the path already taken by our parents and grandparents, so why do we stand at the roadside to mourn their passing'? Therefore my brother, do not grieve for our Father, who lived a long and righteous life and has now entered the celestial world. Give up your weeping. Go home to the glorious city of Ayodhya, and I shall stay here, and together we shall do our father's bidding.' Rama silent.
But your duty is not here, it is in Ayodhya,' countered Bharata. 'Let me go to the forest for fourteen years in your place.
You cannot stand in my place. You will be a ruler of people; I will be a ruler of wildlife.' Rama was not to be swayed from his vow. But after fourteen years I promise I shall return and rule the world.
As the momentous debate went on hosts of rishis, unseen by ordinary people, gathered in the air to witness it. They wanted Rama to put an end to Ravana, so they spoke to Bharata with one voice.
Noble prince,' they advised, 'accepts Rama's advice. He must fulfil his father's obligation.' With these words they disappeared, and Bharata, realizing that he was powerless to bring Rama back, relented.
Very well, Rama, I will return to Ayodhya without you. But still you will be our king.' He offered Rama a pair of wooden sandals. 'Place your feet on these sandals and I will install them on the throne in your absence.' Rama placed his feet on the sandals. Bharata triumphantly lifted them onto his head, announcing,' 'These sandals will represent you, our king, whom I will always serve. However, you do not return after fourteen years, I will die by entering fire.
'So be it!' concluded Rama. He embraced Bharata with tearful eyes.
Forgive your mother and take care of' her.
He turned to his mothers, who were choked with tears, and said goodbye. With a long look at their beloved Rama, unshaken in his duty like the Himalaya Mountains, the crowd backed away in awe. He turned and entered his cottage as the crowd melted into the trees. Inside the cottage with Sita and Lakshmana, he sat down and wept.
Bharata had done his best. Now he took Rama's words to heart. Accepting what could not be changed; he returned to Ayodhya with Rama's sandals and shed no more tears.
On reaching Ayodhya he found it darkened like a cloudy sky, its streets empty and silent. His father's chambers, where so many tragic events had occurred in the last three months, seemed like an empty cave holding the memory of a great lion that had once lived there. After bringing his mothers safely back to their quarters he made an announcement.
I shall not live here without Rama. I will stay at the lonely retreat of Nandigram, fourteen miles from here.
Leaving his mothers in the care of Vasistha and taking with him Satrughna and the royal army, he left for Nandigram. There he installed Rama's sandals on the throne and placed over them the royal umbrella. When affairs of state were brought to him he first submitted them before Rama in the guise of his shoes. In this way, dressed as a forest ascetic with his hair unkempt and eating only fruits and roots, Bharata governed the kingdom and waited for Rama's return.
After Bharata's visit Rama was no longer happy in Chitrakoot. It held painful memories, and the disruption caused by Bharata's army had lured man-eating demons to the area, which started disturbing the ascetics who lived there. It was rumored that they were led by Khara, the cruel brother of Ravana. The leader of the forest sages came to warn Rama of the danger, then he and his followers left in search of safer parts. Although they left Rama, the sages never forgot his beauty and gravity, and felt his presence always with them in their hearts.
So Rama led his companions deeper into the wild regions of Dandaka Forest. Their first stop was the ashram of Atri. The sage asked Rama to protect the forest community from the rakshasas, who lived on human blood. He explained to the fearless Rama and Lakshmana where they were to be found.
Atri's wife was named Anasuya, 'one without envy', for in her heart there was no anger. Frail and white-haired after a long life of simplicity and self-denial, she gathered Sita in her arms.
Fortunate are you,' she said, 'because your eyes are always fixed upon your husband. A woman has no greater friend than her husband. Be virtuous and devote yourself to him and you will be rewarded in heaven.
She blessed Sita with enchanted ornaments and smeared on her skin celestial balm, so that her radiance would never fade amid the hardships of the jungle. Then she wished to hear from Sita the story of her marriage, and listened with rapt attention as Sita recounted how Rama had won her hand. While they sat together, the sun sank over the horizon.
Listen to the cooing of the birds as they settle in their nests,' she said, 'and see the trees fading into twilight. Now the moon rises among the stars and demons of the night creep from their lairs. I wish to hear more of your sweet words but it is time for you to join your glorious husband.
Then Sita adorned herself with Anasuya's gifts and bowed before her. Sita came before Rama shining like the moon. They spent the night in peace and departed at dawn, following the path pointed out to them by their host Atri. Rama, the scourge of his enemies, with Sita and Lakshmana, disappeared into the deep forest as the sun vanishes into a bank of clouds.
Writer – Ranchor Prime