by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

HÁNUMAN SETS LANKA ON FIRE

 

Hánuman was triumphant because he had succeeded in his mission.

"A truly able messenger not only fulfills his chief purpose but does even more," he thought. "If I can return to Sugriva and tell him how strong and numerous these demons are, the information will be helpful to him. I will lay waste this garden and surely Rávana will send out his whole army against me and then I can see it."

He took his most powerful shape and raged like a tempest through that lovely grove, uprooting trees, shattering the pavilions where the ladies of the court were wont to rest, terrifying the birds and the gentle animals, who fled, crying out, in all directions. He spared the part where Sita was, but the rest he laid in ruins. Then he stood at the gate, blazing with wrath. The women who guarded Sita ran into the palace and told Rávana that a gigantic ape was ruining the ashoka grove, He sent forth his guards, armed with every sort of weapon, and they rushed upon Hánuman as moths fly to a flame. Filled with power and courage, he lashed his tail and roared, "Victory to Rama and Lákshmana and to Sugriva, king of the monkeys I am Hánuman, son of the Storm-God, destroyer of my foes!" He picked up an iron bar that lay by the gate and laid about him right and left, slaying the guards, who were already terrified by his roaring and his size, for he stood above them like a thundercloud.

A few escaped him and went back to tell their king what had befallen them. Rávana, his eyes rolling with fury, sent forth his son who had never been defeated; indeed he had overcome Indra himself, god of gods, and taken him captive; he was therefore known as Indrajita, or conqueror of Indra. This mighty warrior came forth in his chariot, armed with his great bow, whose string he twanged with a sound like thunder. Hánuman leapt hither and thither, avoiding the fierce arrows of Indrajita, and neither one was able to take the other unawares or to break through his defenses.

Finally, Indrajita used a divine weapon, given him by Brahma. He loosed it and it wrapped itself about the monkey's body, making him powerless. Hánuman fell to the ground without a struggle, for he knew that he was bound by a divine force and was helpless. "Let them take me to Rávana," he thought, "I wish to meet him face to face before I leave." Indrajita's soldiers came forward and bound him with hempen rope, for they could not see the divine bonds. As soon as they had done this, Hánuman was freed from the Brahma weapon, for it lost its power as soon as other means were used. Nonetheless he allowed himself to be dragged into the court by the soldiers, who struck him with their fists. They brought him before Rávana, who sat on his throne like a blazing sun in his might and glory.

"Who is this and whence has he come?" asked some of the courtiers. "Kill him! Burn him! Devour him!" cried others.

"Ask this perverse wretch why he laid waste my grove and killed my guards," said Rávana, his eyes red with fury. "Whence comes he and why has he entered this city?"

"I have come from Sugriva, lord of all the monkeys, O mighty King," answered Hánuman fearlessly. "He salutes you as a brother and, as a brother, sends you this counsel. It is not fitting for you, who knows what is right and lawful, to bear away another's wife. This act will lead to your ruin. It is not Sita whom you hold captive in your garden; it is a five-headed serpent, a cup of poison, the very noose of death. No one can stand against the wrath of Rama and Lákshmana, O King. You believe that no god or demon can slay you; Sugriva is neither god nor demon, and Rama is a man. Ponder these words, O mighty one, and restore Sita to her lord, that lion among men!"

Rávana, his anger increased by this bold and unwelcome speech, ordered his soldiers to put Hánuman to death.

Now Rávana had a younger brother, Vibíshana, who was wiser than he and knew the path of virtue. He, too, had fasted and disciplined himself as Rávana had done a long time ago; but when Brahma offered him a boon, he had asked that his mind be ever fixed on righteousness no matter what might befall him. He now spoke quietly to his brother, "Control your anger, O conqueror of foes, and remember that a messenger must never be put to death! He speaks for those who sent him and it is they who must be slain. Let him return to the two proud princes whose envoy he is, so that they may come here and meet their death."

"You speak truly," answered Rávana. "I will not slay him, but I will punish him. Monkeys value their tails above all else; therefore set his tail on fire and lead him through the city? Then let him return to his friends disgraced and disfigured."

The soldiers wrapped the end of Hánuman's tail with cotton rags soaked in oil and then set them on fire, while all the assemblage laughed and made fun of him. He lashed at them with his burning tail but did not free himself, for he thought, "Now I shall see the whole city and its fortifications by daylight, having seen it before by night." The demons paraded him through the city, announcing his misdeeds with conch shells and trumpets. Hánuman looked at every street and house so keenly that his guards believed him to be a spy, as indeed he was.

The women who guarded Sita ran back to her and told her that the great monkey had his tail set ablaze, and Sita silently prayed to Agni, God of Fire, that he would not burn Hánuman or hurt him. And Hánuman, led by the soldiers along the streets of Lanka, wondered why his burning tail gave him no pain. "Surely the God of Fire favors me for Sita's and Rama's sakes," he thought. "Now why should I let myself be led about by these vile fiends? It is time for me to avenge myself!"

He broke his fetters and with a shout leaped upon the gate of the city. He took a small form and shook off the remaining ropes and looked about him. "What more can I do to make the demons unhappy?" he said to himself. "I will set their city ablaze with the flame that they themselves have lighted."

He leaped along the roofs from palace to palace, everywhere lashing out with his fiery tail and leaving flames behind him. As he went he shouted, "Victory to Rama and to King Sugriva! I am their messenger; I am Hánuman, son of the wind!" Shrieks arose from those mansions as the wind fanned the flames and they spread from one building to another. Hánuman was delighted at the mischief he had created and frolicked about the great city, setting fires everywhere and examining carefully its walls and fortifications. Then he sat down on a high tower and looked about him, seeing the flames rising on all sides and hearing the demons' cries of distress. The rays of his burning tail made a sort of halo about him as he sat there, well satisfied with his work. Then he leaped down to the seashore and swung his tail into the cool water to quench the fire.

His anger cooled at the same time; he thought of Sita and suddenly was horrified by a fear that she might have been hurt by the flames that he had started. "Alas, what evil have I done?" he thought. "Happy are those great souls who conquer their anger, as fire is quenched by water. What if Sita has been injured, or even killed? All would be lost: Rama would die if she died, and so would Lákshmana, and then Bhárata and Shátrughna could bear to live no longer. Maybe her virtue has kept her safe. I must make sure."

He took the shape of an ordinary monkey and bounded through the smoking city to the ashoka grove, where Sita still sat, holding Rama's ring and thinking of all that Hánuman and the demon women had said. He bowed to her, saying "By the grace of heaven you are not harmed, O goddess."

She was delighted to see him again. "O Hánuman, my child, can you not stay in some hidden spot, only for today?" she pleaded. "Take some rest and then set out tomorrow! It is a great comfort to me to see you, and I do not know whether I shall live till you return. When you go, I shall be drowned again in fear and sorrow. Tell me, how can that host of brave monkeys, and my lord and his brother, cross the impassable ocean, as you alone were able to do."

"Do not fear, gentle lady," answered Hánuman. "The chief of all the forest folk, Sugriva, has sworn to deliver you and has summoned all the monkeys in the world to carry out his vow. There are many as powerful as I am; the best are never chosen to go on a dangerous mission. You shall soon see Rama strike Rávana to the earth with his arrows. and he will bear you away to Ayodhya and end all your sorrow. Take heart, dear Mother!" He made obeisance to her and left her. He was eager now to return with his good tidings and to see his companions and Sugriva and Rama again.

Hánuman scrambled up the nearest mountain and gathered up his strength, this time with joy and assurance, whereas before he had leapt across the ocean not knowing what he might find or if he would ever return. Pressing down the mountain with his feet and hands, he shot into the air like an arrow loosed from the bow. He clove the clouds and drank the sky, coursing on and on until he saw the northern shore and that mountain from which he had leapt on his southern journey. When he beheld it, eager to see his friends again, he waved his tail to and fro and filled the sky with his roars.

The monkeys on the shore had waited anxiously for him. Now they knew from his shouts that he had succeeded in his quest, and, mad with joy, they bounded up the mountainside to meet him. Climbing to the tops of the trees, they stripped off their upper garments and waved them in the air, and when he alighted, they crowded round him, their faces shining with joy. They brought a leafy branch for him to sit upon and fruits to refresh him.

Hánuman bowed to his elders and to Angada and then said, "I have seen Sita!" The monkeys shouted and leaped about him, waving their tails.

"You are the bravest and strongest of us all, O Hánuman, since you have crossed the immeasurable ocean and come back victorious," said Angada. "You have given us back our lives, for now we can return to Rama and Sugriva."

Then the others quieted down and sat around Hánuman, their eyes fixed on him, to hear his story. He told them everything that had happened from the time that he had left them and said at last, "Now it is for you to carry out what is still to be done so that Sita may be restored to her lord. She is nearly worn out with grief and terror and has but two months to live. I alone have entered Lanka; I have killed many demons and set fire to the city. How much more could be done by all of us together!"

"Why must such brave warriors as we are wait for those who are still in Kishkindha?" said Angada. "I alone can destroy the city of Lanka and Rávana himself. Hánuman has already begun their destruction; let us finish it and bring Sita back ourselves!" The oldest and wisest of the monkeys, whom Sugriva had sent to advise Angada, answered him sensibly, "We were told by Sugriva and Rama to explore the southern region and to find Sita, but we were not told to bring her back, O son of Bali, nor would Rama be pleased if we did so, for he has vowed to rescue her himself and to kill Rávana. Therefore let us return and tell them the result of our quest and lay the matter before them."

All the others, including Angada, approved of this speech and ran down the mountain, eager to return to Kishkindha. They were proud of themselves because of their success, eager to tell their good news, and sure of victory. Jumping and frisking, chattering and swinging through the trees, they covered the distance quickly, no longer having to stop and search in every direction as they had done on their southward journey.

Just before they arrived at Kishkindha they came to a beautiful pleasure garden belonging to Sugriva. None might enter it without his consent and guards were posted around it. It was a honey garden, and within it were beautiful flowers and trees beloved by the bees; at this season the branches were heavy with fruit and honeycombs, and there were quiet pools covered with lilies and lotuses.

The monkeys longed to enter the grove and asked Angada's permission. He agreed, and they dashed in like a torrent, throwing themselves into the trees, breaking down the branches as they stripped them of their fruits and honeycombs. They drank the honey and threw away the combs. Some pressed the wax into balls and threw them at each other; some broke leafy boughs and lay down on them to sleep; others chased each other round the trees, laughing and shouting. Some of them fought playfully, rolling on the ground, biting and scratching; some sang at the top of their voices, and others imitated the voices of different animals, roaring like lions or whistling like birds. They chattered ceaselessly, none listening to any other, for they were drunk with honey and full of joy and pride.

The guards, hearing and seeing all this uproar and destruction, set upon the roisterers and tried to drive them out; but the intruders, led by Hánuman and Angada, threw them back and knocked them down. For Hánuman was as excited as any of them. "Take all the honey you want!" he shouted. "I will drive away anyone who tries to stop you." Angada laughed and said, "Do whatever Hánuman tells you to do, even if it is wrong. It is he who has saved us."

The guards fled, but their leader ran to Sugriva, who was sitting with Rama and Lákshmana beside the cave where those heroes lived. He bowed, touching Sugriva's feet, and told him how his monkeys, led by Hánuman, were destroying the grove.

"They would never have done such a thing if they had not succeeded in their mission," said Sugriva to Rama. "Hánuman must have found Sita, for he alone could do so. Besides, the month is more than past; they would hardly dare to return at all if they had not been successful. O Rama, Sita must have been found!

"I am delighted that those heroes have eaten the fruit and honey," he said to the guardian of the grove. "We must be patient with the naughtiness of those who bring us victory. Return now and send them to me at once!"

When he returned, the guardian found all the monkeys resting happily on the grass or among the branches of the trees. He begged their pardon for having fought against them and gave them Sugriva's message, telling them that their king was not at all angry with them but was pleased.

So they all started home again, excited and happy, and their cries and shouts were heard long before they arrived and flung themselves at the feet of Sugriva and Rama. Hánuman, his hands joined palm to palm, said to Rama, "I have found Sita and spoken with her." He took from his finger the jeweled band that held the great pearl that Sita had entrusted to him and gave it to Rama who, with his brother, gazed at it with eyes full of tears.

"This pearl was given to Sita by her father on our wedding day," said Rama. "O Hánuman, tell me again and again all that my gentle, sweet-spoken, and beautiful princess said to you. How can she bear her life among those grim and fearful fiends? Now tell me everything!"

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 167-177.


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