by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER TEN

THE SEARCH FOR SITA

 

Rama ran back to the hermitage, his heart filled with dread. Before he reached it, he saw Lákshmana coming toward him with a pale and troubled face, and his own fear increased.

"Ah, Lákshmana," he said, taking his brother's hand, "you have done wrong to leave Sita alone, when demons are ranging the forest. My heart is heavy. I fear that we shall not find her and that she has been carried away or is dead or lost in the woods. Why did you leave her?"

"It was not I who wanted to come hither," said Lákshmana as they hurried on, "It was Sita who drove me to it. When she heard your voice cry out, she bade me go, for she was terrified. I told her that no one in the three worlds could make you cry out for help, that the voice must be a demon's, and then she taunted me, saying that I desired your death in order to marry her. That I could not bear, my brother; I was angry and came away to prove her wrong."

"You knew that I could defend myself and yet you abandoned Sita because of a hasty word. Alas, you should not have done so," said Rama. "I tremble to think of what awaits us." And he quickened his pace still further.

When they reached the hermitage they found it empty, the flowers withered, the mats and deerskins scattered here and there; and Sita, who was the heart of it, beautiful and gay and tender, was gone.

"O Lákshmana, where has she gone?" cried Rama, lifting up his arms in a gesture of despair. "Has she been carried away or killed or devoured? Perhaps she has gone to gather fruit or flowers or water from the river. Perhaps she is hiding from us in play."

They searched everywhere, calling her name, through the familiar groves, the caves, along the banks of the river, up the mountain, even though they knew that she never went far from their hermitage alone. Rama came back to the hut exhausted and distracted by grief and Lákshmana, too, returned from a fruitless search, his mind reeling from grief and terror.

"We have found no trace of her," said Rama. "She must have been borne away by demons, crying out for help from us and we could not hear her. I cannot live without her, Lákshmana; she is dearer to me than my life's breath. How could I return to Ayodhya without her? What could I say to her father, Jánaka, when he asks for his daughter? Alas, was anyone ever more unhappy than I? Misfortune after misfortune falls upon me; what evil I must have done in a former life! The separation from my parents, the loss of the kingdom, and my exile were all forgotten because we were so happy living here. But this worst calamity rouses their memory as fuel revives a dying fire.

"O sun," he cried, leaping to his feet, "you who witness all that takes place on earth, tell me where my beloved has gone, lest I die of grief! O wind, who travels everywhere, is Sita dead or is she carried off? O trees whom she loved so well, where can she be found, she who was as lovely as a young sapling, as radiant as your blossoms? O beasts of the forests, have you seen her who tamed the fawns and whose eyes were like a doe's? Where is she?"

The deer, who loved Sita, came near when he spoke and turned their heads toward the south, looking upward. Then they moved off, now moving ahead, now looking back at the two brothers as if to attract their attention.

"Look at the deer, Rama!" said Lákshmana. "They are trying to tell us where Sita has gone. Let us go after them!"

They followed the deer, looking everywhere still for some trace of the lost one. Rama saw some flowers lying on the ground. "O Lákshmana," he cried, "I remember these flowers for I gave them to her this morning and she put them in her hair. We are on the path that she took."

They went farther and came upon the place where Jatáyu had fought Rávana, where the earth was trampled and the trees broken. They saw the prints of Sita's feet as she ran hither and thither, and those of Rávana pursuing her, and then a broken bow and the wheel of a chariot. Looking farther they found the broken chariot itself and the dreadful mules lying dead.

"A terrible fight took place here," said Rama. "But to whom did this chariot belong? Whose was this great bow and whose these mighty footprints following those of my delicate love? See, here is a broken necklace--it is hers! O what has happened to her, Lákshmana; where has she been taken?"

Anger blazed up within him; he bound his deerskin garment tight about him and drew his bow, placing a terrible arrow on its string. "If the gods do not bring Sita back to me unharmed, O Lákshmana, I shall blot out the three worlds," he cried, his eyes flashing with wrath. "You will see my arrows fill the sky, stopping the planets in their courses, holding back the wind, darkening the sun and the moon. I shall shatter the crests of the mountains, dry up the lakes and drain the ocean! No being shall escape, neither demon, spirit, nor man. If they do not bring back my beloved, I will lay waste the universe and all that is in it!"

Lákshmana had never seen or heard his elder brother in such a mood. "You have always been gentle, controlled and devoted to the welfare of the whole world," he said. "Why must you destroy the universe because of one creature's sin? The fight that took place here was between two warriors; there is no trace of more. The mountains and rivers, the seas and the lakes, the gods themselves are no enemies of yours, O best of men! Now we must find out who has taken Sita away. Let us search everywhere and ask every living creature who he might be. It is he and he alone whom you must destroy. Take courage, O lion among men! Do not yield to despair but remember the wisdom that sorrow has quenched in your heart. If you cannot bear the calamity that has befallen you, how will other men bear theirs?

Rama came to himself and controlled his anger; he leaned on his great bow and said gently to Lákshmana, "What shall we do? Where shall we go to find her, O my friend?"

There was nothing to do but search farther, so they started again southward. Suddenly they came upon the great body of Jatáyu, the vulture, who was lying mortally wounded.

"O Rama, Sita has been borne away by Rávana, who has taken my life also," said the great bird faintly. "I flew to defend her and threw his chariot to earth and killed the mules, But I am old and my strength failed; he cut off my wings, and leaping into the air, carried Sita away to the south. Do not despair; you will slay him and recover Sita."

Rama knelt beside him, stroking the smooth feathers of his mighty back. "Where has he taken her, O Jatáyu? How does he look and where is his dwelling? O speak further, if you can!" But Jatáyu had given up his life.

Lákshmana gathered wood and built a funeral pyre; they lifted the body of Jatáyu and laid it there and performed the rites as if he had been their father. They went to the river and offered its water in their cupped hands to the spirit of the great bird who had died in battle for their sake and had now gone to the realm of the blessed. Because of him they knew at last who had taken Sita away.

Then they went on southward. They were now in the region that had once been the stronghold of Rávana's brother, Khara, and his host, whom Rama had destroyed. They met but one demon, a huge and hideous creature who tried to bar their way. This was a fortunate encounter. They slew the demon with their arrows, but as he lay dying he asked them who they were and why they were there. They told him their names and about their exile and the loss of Sita.

"Welcome, O tigers among men!" the demon answered. "I have waited a long time for you. Listen to my story: in former times I was famed for my beauty, my skill, and courage, but I took on hideous shapes and amused myself by tormenting the holy ones who live in the woods. One of them was angered by me and cursed me, saying that I must always stay in the ugly form that I had taken. I begged him to take back his curse, and he had pity on me and said, 'When Rama burns this body in the lonely forest you will regain your own shape.' Burn my body now, O noble princes, and I will tell you who can help you find the princess Sita."

They built the pyre and laid the demon upon it. In its flames the ugly body was destroyed and from them a beautiful one arose, clad in spotless raiment and adorned with jewels.

"Listen, O Rama," the demon said. "There is a great monkey named Sugriva who was banished and persecuted by his brother Bali, who is the king of all the apes. These are no common beasts, O lord of men; Bali is the son of Indra and Sugriva is the Sun-God's child. They are powerful and wise and can change their forms at will, even as demons can. Sugriva lives on a lofty mountain near Lake Pampa with a few faithful followers. Since his exile, he wanders restlessly over this whole land; he knows every place and every demon who dwells between here and the southern ocean. Make an alliance with him, O Rama, and he and his companions will find Sita wherever she may be." He told them how to reach Lake Pampa and then leaped joyfully into the sky.

Rama and Lákshmana followed the demon's directions and soon came to Lake Pampa. It was late spring and the water was calm and beautiful, bordered with trees as lofty as hills. Waterfowl swam upon it and deer and elephants came down to drink. But the spring brought no joy to the two brothers, who remembered how Sita had loved that season. They looked for the mountain where Sugriva dwelt.

At the same time that great monkey, Sugriva, was watching them from the mountainside, with four faithful friends who had followed him into exile. He saw that they were warriors, in spite of their hermit's dress, that they carried great bows and were girded with swords. His heart pounded with fear.

"My brother Bali has sent these warriors to kill me," he said to his companions, and they all ran to a higher crest of the mountain, leaping from rock to rock.

When they had reached a safe place, Sugriva's most trusted friend and former minister said to him, "I see no cause for fear, O tiger among the forest folk. Your monkey nature has overcome the god in you. A leader must not give way to fear." The speaker was Hánuman, a son of the Wind-God.

Sugriva was calmed by these words but still doubtful. "Who would not be afraid of two such warriors?" he said. "Go down and speak to them, O child of the wind; find out why they have come here and study them carefully."

Hánuman took the shape of a wandering monk and appeared before the two brothers. "O brave strangers," he said courteously, "you have the air of lions or mighty bulls and seem worthy to rule kingdoms, though you are clad in deerskins. Truly, the sun and the moon have descended on this mountain. Who are you and what brings you to this far and lonely forest?

"How charmingly he speaks!" said Rama to his brother. "He must know the Vedas and has surely studied grammar, for his speech is correct and he expresses himself very gracefully. Answer his questions freely, O Lákshmana; we can trust him." Lákshmana told him their story and that they were looking for Sugriva, to ask his help in finding Sita.

"It is he who has sent me to you, O mighty warriors," answered Hánuman. "He, too, is exiled from his home by his brother Bali who has kept his wife and driven him cruelly away. He will be your friend, and I, too, will help you in your search. I am Hánuman, the son of Vayu, the bearer of fragrance. I am a monkey, though you see me in a human shape. Come, let us go to Sugriva." Hánuman was pleased, for he thought to himself, "These heroes will restore Sugriva to his rightful place."

He laid aside his disguise and became a might ape. He took Rama and Lákshmana, one on each shoulder, and leaped with tremendous bounds up the mountain side to where Sugriva stood. He presented the two princes and told their story. "These great warriors desire your friendship; receive them with honor!" he said.

"It is great good fortune for me, O lion among men, that you desire my friendship, since I am but a monkey," said Sugriva to Rama. "Here is my hand; take it and let us bind ourselves fast with a vow."

Rama took his hand and embraced him warmly, for he believed that these forest folk could help him. Hánuman lit a fire; they worshiped it and walked around it three times, thus making fast their alliance. Then Sugriva broke off a branch of a tree, thick with leaves and blossoms, and offered it to Rama as a seat, while Hánuman did the same for Lákshmana; and they talked together, their hearts filled with hope.

Sugriva told Rama the story of his quarrel with his elder brother Bali. They had gone together to fight a powerful enemy; they had been separated in the fight and Sugriva believed that his brother was dead. He made his way back alone to Kishkindha, the monkeys' capital city, and told the ministers of the kingdom that Bali must have been killed; whereupon they put him upon the throne. But, after more than a year, Bali reappeared and was furious when he found that his kingdom had been taken by his brother, who, he believed, had betrayed him. Sugriva offered him the throne at once and asked his forgiveness, but Bali never relented and drove him out with these few friends and pursued him until at last Sugriva found his refuge where Bali could not reach him.

"I live in terror, O Rama, for Bali is my enemy, stronger than I," said Sugriva. "I can never return to Kishkindha or see my wife again while he lives. I cannot rest until he dies. O fearless one, free me from this fear!"

"Of what value is friendship if friends do not help one another?" asked Rama. "I shall slay Bali with these arrows that never miss their aim, and you shall regain the kingdom and your wife. I have always kept my word and what I say now shall come to pass, O lion among monkeys!"

Sugriva was overjoyed, and then spoke of Rama's need. "Hánuman has told me why you have come here, O conqueror of foes," he said. "You, too, shall be freed of your sorrow. Whether she is to be found in heaven or hell, I shall bring your beloved princess back to you. I, too, speak the truth and this shall come to pass. Now let me tell you what I have seen with my own eyes. These four companions and I were standing one day on the summit of this mountain when we saw a dark figure like a thunderbolt, coursing through the sky and holding in his arms a damsel as beautiful as the dawn. She was struggling in his grasp and cried out, 'O Rama, O Lákshmana!' I did not know then who she could be, but now I know that it was Sita. She saw us and wound her jewels in her veil and threw them down to us. I will bring them to you and you will recognize them."

"O go quickly, my friend, and bring them!" cried Rama.

Sugriva went to a deep cave and brought them forth and laid them in the hands of Rama, who wept as he beheld them, for he knew each jewel and the golden veil. "O Lákshmana," he said, "look upon these bracelets and these earrings, this anklet that Sita threw down in her flight!"

"The anklet is indeed hers, for I have often seen it when I greeted her," answered his brother. "The others I could not recognize, for I never looked above her feet."

"Where does Rávana live, O king of the forest folk?" asked Rama. "Where can I find him that I may slay him?"

"I do not know where he lives," answered Sugriva, weeping for his friend's sorrow. "But do not despair; we shall find him and slay him and all his followers. Banish your sorrow and rouse your courage, O Indra among men! We shall both be victorious!"

The next morning Rama said to Sugriva, "Today you shall see Bali fall like a cleft mountain, struck by these arrows winged with heron's feathers. Let us go at once to Kishkindha."

But Sugriva was still terrified by his brother's power. "I am sure that you can burn up the world with your arrows, yet I still do not know who is stronger, you or Bali," he said. "He can break off the tops of mountain peaks, toss them into the air and catch them again; he can snap in two the tallest forest trees. Before the sunrise he can stride from the eastern to the western ocean. If you can pierce one of these great trees with your arrow, O lion among men, I shall believe that you can overcome him, for his breast is like a rock."

Rama smiled and took up his bow, fitting a powerful arrow to its string. Drawing the bowstring to his ear, he loosed the arrow, which pierced seven great trees and returned to his hand. Sugriva was delighted.

Then they started for Kishkindha, and after a long journey over mountains and rivers, they reached the handsome city, built in the hollow of a mountainside. Rama and Lákshmana stayed nearby in the woods while Sugriva went forward to the gate and challenged his brother with a defiant roar. Bali rushed forth in a fury, and a terrible fight took place as the brothers struck each other with their fists as hard as rocks, and bit and tore one another. They were so closely intertwined and their tawny bodies were so much alike that Rama did not dare to shoot his arrow. Sugriva was beaten and ran back to the forest, exhausted and covered with blood.

"Why did you not help me, O Rama, as you promised to do?" he asked reproachfully.

"You were so much alike that I feared to kill you both, dear friend, or to kill you instead of your brother," answered Rama. "O Lákshmana, pluck a strand of that blossoming creeper and wind it round Sugriva's neck so that I can tell him from Bali. Now have no fear, O hero, for Bali shall die today.

Sugriva, with renewed courage and the bright garland around his neck, went again to the gate and roared out his challenge. Again Bali came forth, panting with rage, and hurled himself at his brother. Though Sugriva fought fiercely, he was the weaker of the two, and soon he made a sign to Rama, who stood behind the trees, an arrow on his bowstring. He loosed it and that terrible arrow, shining like flame, pierced the breast of the king of monkeys who fell like a mighty tree cut by the axe or like a banner overthrown on the battlefield.

Rama and Lákshmana came to him slowly and looked with respect at that great king, his long arms lying powerless, his broad chest adorned with a golden chain, wrought with a hundred lotuses, given to him by Indra. "How could you strike me from behind, while I was fighting with another, O prince?" asked Bali proudly. "I have always heard that Rama is noble, generous and brave, dutiful, and devoted to the welfare of all creatures. I have not harmed you in any way; I am a monkey living in the woods on fruits and roots. But you are the son of a king and you wear a hermit's dress; how can one who belongs to the Kshatria caste and wears the garb of holiness do such a wicked thing? How will you answer for this deed to those who follow the path of virtue?"

"Why do you reproach me, O Bali?" asked Rama. "You yourself have broken the laws of virtue and have met with just punishment. A younger brother should be cherished as a son, but you have mercilessly driven out Sugriva and made his wife your own. A brother's wife should be looked upon as a sister, and marriage with a sister is punished by death. The virtuous Bhárata rules the whole earth, and we, his brothers, obey him and punish those who overstep the limits of the law. Sugriva is my friend and I have promised to end his exile and restore his wife to him. Judge for yourself if your punishment is right, O brave lion among monkeys."

Bali was silent and his breath was nearly gone. His eyes fell on Sugriva and he said faintly, "It seems that we were not destined to live at peace with one another, O Sugriva, though it is natural for brothers to do so. Though I have wronged you, I beg you to be a father and a guardian to my young son, Angada, who is brave and worthy of happiness. Now take my golden necklace; you will today be king of the forest, while I am going to the realm of death." Speaking thus, suffering greatly from his wound, his eyes wild and his big teeth chattering, Bali gave up his life.

There was a great uproar and lamentation from the monkeys, for Bali had been a good and powerful king and they felt very safe under his rule. They performed his funeral rites with great splendor, and even Sugriva wept over him, saying to Rama, "The first time I fought against my brother, he could easily have killed me, but he only said, "Begone, and never come here again!" whereas I have brought about his death. I have done a vile and ignoble thing."

However, as soon as Bali's great body had been burned by the bank of the river and all the rites were over, the coronation of Sugriva was to take place, and the grief of the monkeys was quickly changed to joy and festivity. Hánuman asked Rama to take the place of honor at the ceremony. "Sugriva will pay homage to you and give you garlands and jewels and precious perfumes, O lord of men," he said. "Come and behold our city, which is carved out of the mountain, and live in splendor there!"

"I have taken a vow, O Hánuman, and may not enter a city or even a village for fourteen years, thirteen of which have now gone by," said Rama. "Lákshmana and I will live here on the mountain in this spacious cave, until the rainy season is past. The rains will soon begin, and no army can move, no traveler set forth, till they are over and the earth is dry again. When autumn comes we shall start upon our search. Meanwhile return to Kishkindha, dear friend, and see Sugriva crowned."

The monkeys poured back into their city, leaping and frolicking, and Sugriva was duly installed as their king, with Bali's son, Angada, as crown prince. There was great festivity in the city, whose streets were filled with a merry crowd carrying flags and banners and beating drums and cymbals.

These were the monkeys who had been born of the gods and the nymphs at the behest of Brahma the creator, to help Rama carry out the plan that had been made in heaven. Their tawny bodies were clothed as men's are; they adorned themselves with gold and jewels; they lived in fine houses and made music and held high festivals. They could change their size, becoming as small as cats or as large as clouds, if the need arose, and could take other shapes, as Hánuman had done when he met Rama, and as the demons could. Clubs and stones and their own fists and teeth were their only weapons, but they were powerful fighters, well able to defend their own people or to help a friend.

Yet they were monkeys still, fickle, and quick to change from joy to grief, from boastfulness to terror, and they easily forgot where they were going if they saw a tree full of ripe fruit. They and Rama had met at last and were soon to begin the task that destiny had set for them.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 124-139.


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