by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER ELEVEN

THE MONKEY'S SEARCH

 

The months of the rainy season seemed like a year to Rama and Lákshmana, who were unable to move while the clouds poured out their load of life-giving water. They did not know whether Sita was alive or dead or what terrible things might be happening to her while they could do nothing to save her. Rama might have despaired if it had not been for the quiet courage and devotion of his brother. They both trusted Sugriva to start the search for Sita as soon as the rains were over and it was possible to do so.

Autumn came at last; the sky cleared and the sun and the moon shone brightly. The rivers, which had overflowed the banks, ran quietly again, and the waterbeds gathered on their sandy beaches. The grass, the flowers, and the blossoming trees were fresh and beautiful after the rain and the earth slowly dried.

But there was no move from Sugriva. That great ranger of the woods, restored to the delights of his kingdom after a long exile, was enjoying himself thoroughly. He had regained his wife, whom he loved dearly, and had also made Bali's widow, who was very beautiful, one of his queens. Charming monkey maidens waited upon him, and he spent his time roistering and drinking too much of the wine that the forest folk made from honey. Hánuman, who was wiser than Sugriva, spoke to him of his duty to Rama, but still nothing happened.

After many days had passed, Rama said to Lákshmana, "The time when kings declare war on one another has come, but I do not see that Sugriva is preparing to go forth. He promised that at this time we should set out, but he has forgotten his pledge. Go to Kishkindha, O my friend, and say to Sugriva in my name. 'Honor the promise you made to me, O King of apes, or you may follow the path taken by your brother! The gate of death, through which he passed, is not closed, O Sugriva!"

Lákshmana, filled with anger, went for the first time to that splendid city of Kishkindha, hollowed out of the mountain. The monkeys who guarded the gates saw his wrath and dared not question him but stood with joined palms as he passed. He strode through the streets, past houses and gardens, meeting handsome monkeys wearing garlands and two of them ran to the palace and told Sugriva that Lákshmana was coming, but their king was in a drunken slumber and did not hear them. Lákshmana entered the palace without hindrance, and as he went through the courtyard he heard music and the tinkling of anklets. This infuriated him anew as he thought of his brother waiting in the cave, and he stretched the cord of his bow and twanged it. The sound echoed through the palace like a clap of thunder, and Sugriva, hearing it, came to himself and trembled. He rose as Lákshmana entered and stood before him with joined palms, his wives following like a cluster of stars around the moon.

"You are an ignoble, false, and ungrateful wretch, O monkey," said Lákshmana. "Rama has given you all that you asked and you do nothing in return. This is his message to you: "The gate of death is not closed, O Sugriva; honor your promise, lest you follow Bali!"

Sugriva answered him humbly, and then said to Hánuman, who stood near, "Send forth messengers at once and call together all those who dwell on the farthest mountains and the farthest shores of the sea; those who live in the caves and in the vast, fair and fragrant forests! Summon them from every quarter of the earth with all speed and command them to be here in ten days' time!"

Hánuman obeyed him gladly, and the messengers went forth at once in all directions. Then Sugriva and a great crowd of his followers went with Lákshmana to the cave where Rama dwelt, and when he saw him, fell at that hero's feet, touching them with his forehead. And when Rama heard what had been done he was pleased; his face cleared and was as bright as a lotus blossom.

Before the ten days were over, a cloud of dust rose over the forest and the trees trembled as if a tempest were coming. Monkeys poured down all the mountainsides, leaping and gamboling and shouting. Some were as black as panthers; those who frolicked on the western hills shone like gold; those from the northern mountains were as tawny as a lion's mane, and other were as white as the moon. They came from all over the earth at Sugriva's command, from mountain, river, forest, and seashore, till the woods and hillsides around Kishkindha could hardly hold them.

When they had assembled, their leaders came to their king, where he stood beside Rama and Lákshmana. They bowed before him and offered him gifts of fruits and flowers and healing herbs.

"Here are all the monkeys in my kingdom, O Rama," said Sugriva. "They are wise and brave, untiring, and famous for their noble deeds. They have come to serve you; it is for you to order them as you see fit."

"It is not for me or for Lákshmana to command this expedition, O lord of the forest," answered Rama. "You must lead it. You know my purpose: first we must find out where Rávana dwells and whether Sita still lives; then we must rescue her and slay the wretch who stole her away."

Sugriva divided his forces into four groups, giving each one a mighty leader. He sent one group in each direction, east, west, north, and south and said to their leaders. "Search carefully in every place that can be searched by climbing, running, or swimming, for the daughter of Jánaka, the beloved wife of Rama, and for the king of all the demons, Rávana, who carried her away. Explore the forests, rivers, caverns, the mountaintops, the shores of the seas and the islands. Go to the very ends of the earth but not beyond its awful limits, or you will never return. He who shall come back within a month, having found Sita, will spend his days in happiness, sharing all I possess. Return within the month whether you are successful or not; he who is late will be put to death."

Sugriva gave Angada, the son of Bali, the command of the expedition to the south, where Sita was most likely to be found, since she had last been seen carried by Rávana in that direction. Since Angada was young and inexperienced, he sent Hánuman with him, for he trusted Hánuman above all his other counselors. "I do not know of anything in the earth, in the sea or the sky that can hinder your course, O mighty one," he said. "You have speed, skill and energy, strength, wit and courage. Use them all to find Sita, O best of monkeys!"

Rama heard these words and thought to himself, "This lord of the forest has great faith in Hánuman, whose deeds must have deserved his master's trust. He will probably be the one to succeed in his quest." A wave of hope flooded his heart, and he gave Hánuman the only ornament that he had kept, a ring inscribed with his name.

"Show this to Sita, O foremost of monkeys, and she will know you to be my messenger," he said. "I depend on your valor and believe that you will succeed. O Hánuman, O son of the wind, do all that is within your power to find the daughter of Jánaka!"

All the monkeys set out, as they had come, with a great uproar, in clouds of dust, like four swarms of locusts. "I shall defeat Rávana in single combat, and I shall say to Sita, 'Rest now, O princess, you are weary!'" said one. "I shall find her, if I have to cleave the mountains or penetrate the earth or the ocean." "I can jump four miles in one leap," said another. "I can clear a hundred," said a third. "Nothing can stop me," another boasted. "We shall surely slay Rávana and bring Sita back."

The expedition led by Angada traveled southward speedily, for the monkeys were excited and full of hope. During the days they went forth in every direction, searching the mountaintops, the caverns, the forests, the ravines; at night they met at an appointed place and reported what they had seen. Nowhere did they find a trace of Rávana or of Sita. Each night they lay down to sleep, tired out and disappointed; each morning they rose with new hope and courage.

They came at last, far to the south, to a solitary region where nothing seemed to grow, where the streams had dried up and there were no pleasant pools covered with lilies. Animals and birds had left it, and they found neither fruit nor roots, on which they lived. Hungry, thirsty, thin and woebegone, they sat down under the trees. While they rested, they noticed what looked like the mouth of a cave, though it was overgrown with bushes and creepers. Out of it flew swans and geese and other fowl, and drops of water fell from their breasts and wings, which were dusted, too, with the pollen of lotuses. The monkeys were amazed and went nearer to the opening, a little frightened but so hungry and thirsty that they went in, holding each other's hands as they explored the dark entrance. Soon they saw a light ahead of them, and they came out into a lovely place filled with fruit trees, running streams and pools of water. Honeycombs hung from the trees and there were flowers everywhere. Though it was underground, it shone with its own light; golden trees encircled it, that gleamed like the first light of dawn, with blossoms as bright as jewels; in the pools golden fishes and turtles swam, and blue lotuses bloomed on the quiet waters. Then the monkeys saw that palaces were built among the trees, adorned with gold, silver, and many-colored gems and little latticed windows hung with pearls; yet no one seemed to live there.

As they wandered in amazement about this wonderful place, they came upon a woman seated under a tree, clad in hermit's garments and thin with fasting. Hánuman bowed down to her, with joined palms, and told her who they were and how they had come there. "To whom does this retreat belong?" he asked her. "Who had produced these golden trees, these pools and palaces? We are so amazed at all these marvels that we have nearly taken leave of our senses."

"This golden grove was built by Maya, the chief architect of the demons, O foremost of monkeys" she answered. "He practiced severe discipline in the forest for many years and was granted by the gods the mastery of his art. He built this for a nymph whom he loved dearly; she is skilled in dancing and singing and entertains the gods in their celestial halls. She is my dear friend and I guard this place for her. Take what you will; rest and refresh yourselves."

In that magic garden the monkeys lost all sense of time and lingered there until the month Sugriva gave them for their search had run its course. Then Hánuman went to her who guarded it and told her that they must go and asked her how they could depart, for they had all forgotten where the entrance was. "It is hard for any living being to leave this cave," she said, "But through my spiritual power I will deliver you. Now close your eyes, for none may leave here who can see." All the monkeys covered their eyes with their slender fingers, and in a moment they were outside the cave, standing on a mountainside and looking down upon the vast ocean, which had no limit as far as their eyes could see.

They sat down and looked at it with awe, and their hearts sank. "What are we to do now?" Angada asked. "We are far from home and our time has run out. We have no news of Sita. If we arrive late, having failed in our quest, Sugriva will never forgive us. Let us stay here and die of hunger, rather than return and be put to death." Most of the other monkeys, in despair, agreed with him, but one great warrior said, "Why should we give up and die? Let us return to the beautiful place we have just left and live there forever. There we need fear no one, for we found the entrance only by chance."

All the monkeys except Hánuman and one or two of the wiser ones agreed with him happily. "You know very well, O conqueror of your enemies, that we monkeys are fickle by nature," said Hánuman. "If we return to those pleasant groves, we shall very soon miss our wives and sons and wish to go home. The entrance to that land, which you think so safe, cannot escape the eyes of Rama and Lákshmana. I believe that if we return, humbly asking for forgiveness, Sugriva will grant it."

"Who could trust that treacherous and wicked one, who caused the death of his elder brother and forgot his debt to Rama?" answered Angada. "All he cares about is to keep his power and his kingdom, and he would gladly be rid of me, who am the son of Bali and his rightful heir. I shall never return to Kishkindha. It is better to die here than to meet a cruel death at home." He spread some grass on the hillside and sat down, facing the sea, and all those high-souled monkeys gathered grass and sat down, weeping, and resolved to starve to death. The whole mountainside resounded with lamentations.

Now it happened that a great vulture was sitting on the top of the mountain above them. He was the brother of Jatáyu, who had tried to save Sita; he was an old and noble bird and he could not fly because his wings had been burned. So he ate what he could reach from where he sat, and his son brought him food now and then. He heard the monkey's decisions and said happily, "Every man reaps the fruit of his former deeds. The good that I have done has brought me these monkeys; I shall eat them one by one as they die."

Angada saw him and was reminded of Jatáyu, whose story he had heard from Rama. "Behold, death has come to us in the form of this vulture," he said to Hánuman. "Jatáyu willingly gave his life for Rama, and we, too, are about to die because we came here to serve him. Happy is Jatáyu, for he is now free of all fear and dwells in the realm of the blessed."

The vulture heard this and cried out, "Who speaks of the death of my brother, dear to me as my life? It is a long time since I have heard his name; how did he come to die? I cannot fly, O people of the forest, because my wings were burned long ago when I was young. Pray help me to come down to you and tell me more."

A few of the monkeys leaped up the mountain and helped the great bird down; then they told him the whole story of Rama and the carrying away of Sita and the brave death of his brother Jatáyu.

"It is because of my brother that my wings were burned, O rangers of the woods," said the vulture. "When we were young we were proud of our power and tried to reach the sun. We flung ourselves on the currents of air and rose higher and higher, till the mountains looked like rocks and the rivers like threads binding the earth together. As noon came near, Jatáyu weakened and I covered him with my wings to shield him from the fierce rays of the sun. He flew off in safety, but my wings were scorched, and I fell here upon this mountain and have never heard about him since that time. Nonetheless, though I cannot fly I can still serve Rama. Last spring I saw Rávana flying through the air and in his arms was a young and beautiful woman who cried out, 'O Rama! O Lákshmana!' Without doubt she was Sita.

"Now listen, O most excellent monkeys, and do not despair. Rávana lives in Lanka, a city built by the gods, which lies a full hundred miles from here on an island in the ocean. Show your valor, O conquerors of foes; find some way to cross those miles of water and find Sita. Then return with your purpose fulfilled. Rávana cannot stand against the arrows of Rama and Lákshmana. He will be slain, and I shall be avenged for my brother's death. Surely I fell upon this mountain in order to help you in this search, for behold, my wings are growing again and I feel as strong as I did in my youth."

He then told them the nearest point on the shore to Lanka, and then flew joyfully up to the mountaintop. The monkeys were filled with delight; they felt as strong as lions and jumped about, shouting with joy. They leaped and ran down to the place the vulture had told them about, but were sobered again when they beheld the limitless ocean with no island anywhere in sight. "What shall we do now?" they cried. Their leaders met together and the rest of the monkeys sat around them, awaiting their decision.

"Which of us is able to leap a hundred miles across the ocean?" asked Angada. "Who can carry out the command of the king and free us of our fears? What brave monkey can enable us to return to our wives and children, crowned with success, and to face Rama and Sugriva with light hearts?" No one spoke a word, and the whole company seemed to be stunned by this question. "Tell us," repeated Angada, "how far each of you is able to leap over the sea?"

"I can leap a hundred miles," said one. "I can leap two hundred," cried another. "I can easily leap a hundred," said a third, "but could I return? That is the question."

The eldest of the monkeys, old and wise, said, "Alas, I no longer have the strength for such a deed, but I know one who can leap over and back without difficulty." He called upon Hánuman who was sitting quietly by himself. "Why are you sitting there silent, O son of the wind? We are lost unless you put forth your power, intelligence, and courage to save us, for you alone can do it.

"When you were still a child, you saw the sun rise red one morning over the forest and you though it was a fruit and tried to seize it. You bounded high into the air, and with the power you got from your father, you rushed upward toward the sun with outstretched hands. Then Indra, the lord of heaven, saw you intruding into his realm and hurled his thunderbolt against you; you fell upon a mountain and broke your jaw against a rock. Therefore you are called Hánuman, the one with the broken jaw. Your father picked you up and carried you to a cave, where he held you on his lap till you recovered consciousness. He was so angry that he stayed there with you, depriving all the rest of the universe of his presence, and there was great suffering in the world, for he gives breath to every living thing. All life and movement ceased, and the gods were alarmed. They gathered about the cave, and bestowed many boons upon you in order to make peace with your father--Vayu, the life-giver, the bearer of fragrance. Each one promised that his power and his weapons would never be used against you; that you would never be wounded in battle; and that god of a thousand eyes who had loosed his thunderbolt against you promised that you should never die until you desired to do so. These boons will bring you safely back to us.

"Now bestir yourself, O lion among monkeys, and cross the vast ocean even as Vishnu crossed that whole universe with his three strides!"

Hánuman rose in the midst of them, and all the monkeys began to shout and to praise him. He waved his tail, and his hair rose on end as he felt his power flow into him; he was like a lion stretching himself at the mouth of his cave. "I am the son of him who shatters mountains and is the friend of fire, whose kingdom is space. I can leap beyond the stars and planets and cause the ocean to overflow, or I can dry it up" he cried. "In a moment I shall fly through the air as lightning leaps from a cloud and reach Lanka in the wink of an eye. My heart tells me that I shall find Sita; therefore rejoice! When I have turned Lanka upside down I shall come back to you."

"O hero, O elephant among monkeys! cried the others. "We shall stand on one foot, awaiting your return."

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 140-152.


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