by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER TWO

THE FIRST ADVENTURES

 

The sage led the way along the river southward, Rama walking behind him and Lákshmana following. When evening came, he told them where berries and succulent roots could be found for their food, and they gathered fruits for the holy one and themselves. They bathed in the river and said their evening prayers. Then, since the brothers were not used to sleeping on the ground, they gathered armfuls of grass and made beds, where they all slept soundly.

On the second day they came to a dark, entangled forest where the roars of beasts and the harsh cries of flesh-eating birds could be heard. There were no paths through it and no man seemed to dwell there. "Why is this forest so dark and terrifying, O wise one?" asked Rama. "Only beasts seem to live here, and it is a wilderness of trees and creepers."

"It was once a pleasant land, my son, with prosperous cities and cultivated fields," said the sage, "but a perverse demon came here and devastated it because it was the abode of a holy hermit who had once cursed him. He plundered the cities and blocked the roads, and the people all left for fear of him. You can slay him, O Rama, and free this land; he lives not far from here. Come, let us enter the forest and find him."

"I will do whatever you command me to do," answered Rama. "For that purpose I have come here."

He and Lákshmana strung their bows and Rama plucked his bowstring with a twang that made the beasts flee to their dens and the birds scatter like leaves in the wind. The demon heard it and came roaring out in a fury, but the brothers met him with a shower of arrows that sent him back into hiding. From behind the trees he threw out clouds of dust and a shower of stones. Rama drew from his quiver arrows that could follow sounds, and these, flowing like serpents through the air, found the demon and wounded him. He rushed forth again, and with one powerful arrow Rama pierced his heart.

They spent the night in the forest, which now was filled with peace and the songs of birds. The sage had seen the fearlessness and prowess of the two lads, and in the morning he said to them, "I am pleased with you, my children. Now I will show you the use of divine weapons, given me by the gods in former times. With these you can conquer all your enemies, whether gods, demons, or serpents. Listen to me carefully!" They bathed and purified themselves and sat beside their master with all their being concentrated on what he told them.

"With these spells you can summon weapons that can destroy or turn aside any missile sent against you and slay him who sent it," he said. "This one," and he taught it to them, "will bring you the Wind-God's power, and this the blast of Agni, the Fire-God, that none can stand against. This one will bring to your hand the thunderbolt of Indra and this a shaft that will put your enemies to sleep. This weapon is invisible, this one will take any form that you desire; and here is the very noose of death."

As he spoke the spells the weapons appeared and stood obediently beside him. Some shone like fire, others were dark as smoke. He showed the two brothers how to use them and made them repeat again and again the words that would summon and dismiss them. "Do not use them against any human foe," the master said. "But against demons who are skilled in magic and have more than human power, use them freely."

The spirits of the weapons bowed to Rama and said, "We are at your service, O prince. What would you have us do?"

"When I need you I will summon you," answered Rama. "Come to me then and serve me well."

"Then the weapons vanished, and the boys followed the sage, amazed and grateful, for they need not now fear any demon.

The next day they arrived at their teacher's hermitage, a lovely clearing in the forest where the birds were singing and the deer browsed unafraid. The huts of many hermits stood among the trees, and the holy men came out to welcome the travelers and offer them food, and water to wash their feet.

When they had rested, Rama asked the sage, "Who are these holy ones whose faces shine with an inner light, who live in this lovely hermitage with you, O sinless one? I know that you ruled a splendid kingdom. Who were these and why did they come here?"

"Many of them were Brahmans, like the priests and the learned men in your father's court, O Rama," answered the sage, "and some were Kshatrias, warriors or kings, for it is fitting for a man, when his hair is white and his sons are grown, to leave the world; and enter the forest. Here he frees himself from sin, through fasting and discipline, and gives his heart and mind to the search for God, that God who is above all gods, who can never be perceived by any sense, the Invisible, the Unmanifest, the knowledge of whom is bliss."

"How can a man gain that knowledge, O fountain of wisdom?" asked Rama.

"He must give up all the desires that dwell in the heart, and rid himself also of fear and anger, O virtuous prince," answered the sage. "The knowledge of God is found in the cave of the heart, which must be pure of any other purpose. A man must withdraw his mind from all the things that his senses perceive, as a tortoise withdraws his limbs and head into his shell. Hot and cold, pain and pleasure, praise and blame, joy and sorrow are the same to him. Controlled, disciplined, silent, he must find his joy within himself, not in outward things. Only thus can he find God; in his own self he finds that highest Self.

"Then he knows that Self to be present in all other beings as it is in him; he sees himself in all creatures and all creatures in himself. He has no fear and no desire and enters into peace and bliss. It is this union with God that the forest dwellers seek; it is this, when they obtain it, that makes their faces shine with inner radiance."

 

That evening after the sage had retired to meditate, his disciples told the two princes about their master. "He was a powerful king." said one of them, "for he was learned in all the branches of knowledge, he cared about the welfare of his people and was an unconquerable warrior.

"One time he assembled his army and went forth to tour his own domain and to visit other kings. He also paid obeisance to the holy ones who dwell in the forests, and he came one day to the hermitage of that saint who is now your father's teacher and high priest, O noble princes. The saint received him graciously and they talked together for a long time. When the king rose to take his leave, the blessed one said, "You have a large retinue and an army with you, who have waited patiently while we talked. I wish to offer them hospitality and beg you to accept the little that I have to give." The king demurred, but finally had to yield to the saint's insistence.

"Then the holy one called for his favorite spotted cow, Shabala, and said to her, 'Draw near and listen, O dear one! I wish to offer hospitality to the king and all his army and retainers. You are the wish-fulfilling cow; therefore bring forth splendid dishes which will be pleasing to them.'

"The cow provided all that could be desired; heaps of hot rice, milk, honey, wine, and sweets of all kinds, and the king and his priests, his ministers and his warriors partook of it all with great pleasure. After they had feasted, the king said, 'I beg of you to give me this cow, Shabala, O fortunate one, and I will give you in exchange a thousand excellent cows. Shabala is a jewel and jewels belong to kings and not to forest dwellers.'

"'I would not part with Shabala for a million other cows, not for mountains of gold and silver,' answered the saint. 'She provides for all who live here and enables me to entertain the gods themselves. She furnishes alms for all who come and offerings for my sacrifices; she is my very life and fulfills all my needs. I cannot give her up.' The king offered a thousand elephants adorned with golden trappings, a hundred chariots each drawn by four white horses, innumerable cows of varied colors, and much gold. But the holy one refused to give up his beloved Shabala.

"When the king left, he ordered his soldiers to carry her off by force. But Shabala, bellowing with grief, shook off her captors and ran back and knelt before her master, tears falling from her eyes. 'How have I offended you, my lord, and why have you cast me off? Why are the king's soldiers dragging me from the hermitage?' she asked. 'I have not cast you off, my dear one,' said her master, speaking to her as if she were his sister. 'The king is drunk with desire for you, and how can I defend you? He is a warrior with a mighty army, stronger than I am.'

"Now Shabala had often listened to the reading of the Vedas and she was skilled in argument. 'The power of a warrior is as nothing compared to that of a saint,' she answered. 'Allow me, my lord, to destroy the pride of this wicked wretch.' Her master gave her leave, and she produced a great army that put the royal army to flight. The king was shamed by this defeat; he was like a bird without wings, a snake bereft of its fangs, the sun in eclipse. He gave his kingdom to his eldest son and went into the forest in order to acquire the power that the holy man possessed.

"For many years he disciplined his mind and body, eating less and less until he lived on air alone, standing in summer between five fires, without shelter during the rains, and in water during the winter. The gods beheld his efforts, and the great god Shiva, the giver of boons, went to him and asked him what he desired. 'O adorable one, teach me the use of the divine weapons used by the gods,' answered the former king. The god granted the boon and so it was that he possessed those celestial missiles that he put into your hands, O Rama, for he has no use for them now.

"Our master had not yet conquered his passions," continued the disciple. "He desired the weapons so that he might overcome the saint who had refused to give him Shabala. So he went to the hermitage and flung the Fire God's weapon into the forest, setting it ablaze. Many of the hermits and disciples, as well as the birds and beasts, fled before the flames, but the saint stood firm and came to meet his enemy with only his staff in his hand. 'How can your power compare with that of the spirit, O vilest of warriors?' he cried. 'O stupid one, loose all your weapons against this staff of mine!' The angry king flung all the weapons that Shiva had given him, but they were all destroyed by the staff of the holy one, from whose body light poured forth and whose staff shone like fire. The king was again defeated, and this time he realized what had overcome him. He repented of his greed and his enmity; he gave up his anger and purified his heart, after many years of spiritual labor.

"Then the gods raised him from the Kshatria caste to the Brahman; he was reconciled to his former enemy and became our revered master, teaching and performing sacrifices and doing much good."

Rama and Lákshmana were delighted with this story and slept happily in the hermitage that night.

The next morning Rama said, "Begin your sacrifice when you will, O blessed one, and we shall protect it against the demons. May good fortune attend it!"

The ceremony was begun that very day. "Keep watch over this place for six days, my sons," their teacher said. "After that the rite will be completed and the danger past."

The two brothers watched for five days with their bows in their hands, their swords at their sides, and in their minds the divine weapons that they could call upon. They slept in turn, and were fed by the hermits with the fruit and roots of the forest; they never lost sight of the altar and its sacred flame. On the sixth day Rama said to Lákshmana, "We must be ready today. Let us summon the divine weapons, for we shall need them." They repeated the spells and the weapons appeared at their sides, none too soon; for even as Rama spoke the altar fire flared and wavered; a clamor arose from the woods and a powerful demon roared like a tornado out of the sky, followed by a host of others. The leader was named Maricha and was one of the most trusted friends and minister of Rávana himself.

Rama struck the breast of Maricha with the thunderbolt of Indra, flinging his body far over the forest. Lákshmana pierced another's heart with fire, and then with the Wind-God's weapon, they scattered the rest a hundred miles away. The battle was soon over and the two boys smiled at one another, delighted with the power of their new weapons. The sacrifice was completed; peace was brought to the hermitage, and all those who dwelt there blessed and praised the young heroes.

After resting in that pleasant place, fragrant with blossoms and sweet with the songs of birds, Rama said to the sage, "We are your servants, O master. Have you further need of us? We are here to obey you."

"The city of the just King Jánaka is not far from here," answered the sage. "He is performing a sacrifice which many of us wish to attend. Go with us, O princes! The king owns a rare and wonderful bow, given him by the gods. It is very heavy and splendid and no man can even lift it, much less string it, though many have tried. Go with us to the sacrifice and you shall behold this bow."

Many of the hermits and their disciples went with the master; the birds, the deer, and the monkeys also followed him, until he asked them to return to the hermitage. The two brothers rejoiced in the journey, for they had never before been outside their own kingdom. They crossed rivers, sometimes by a ford, sometimes by a ferry; they rested in hermitages, walked through fertile lands, passed through the busy streets of towns and spent one night as the king's guests in his beautiful and prosperous city

When they reached the city of Jánaka they were welcomed with joy by the king, who begged the sage to take the place of honor in his court. Rama and Lákshmana stood apart, side by side, dressed in yellow robes with golden necklaces and bracelets, and armed with their swords and bows. "Who are these young princes, beautiful as gods, majestic as elephants, who came with you, O wisest of men?" asked the king. "Tell me, whose sons are they?"

The sage told him who they were and how they had slain the demons and saved his hermitage, and the king welcomed them with honor. Then the sage said, "These young warriors wish to see the great bow that the gods have given you, O King, if you will permit them to do so."

"I will show it to them gladly," answered the king, "and if either one of them can lift and string it, I will give my daughter Sita to him in marriage. This daughter is very precious to me. She is very beautiful and has a tender heart and a sweet nature; she was not born of mortal man and woman. Some years ago I was preparing for the rites of spring, and I myself plowed the land for the ceremony. As I opened one furrow, there in the dust lay a baby girl. I took her in my arms and brought her home, and my wife received her with joy, for she was a lovely child. She has grown up as my daughter and I have named her Sita, the furrow, after her birthplace; for she seemed like the very daughter of the earth, a goddess of the spring.

"When she was old enough to marry I resolved that no ordinary man should wed her, but only one who could bend the mighty bow. So I announced that my daughter was ready for marriage and that any man of noble birth might compete for her hand. Many kings and princes assembled here and we held high festival, but not one of them could even lift the bow. And when they saw the beauty of the maiden, as she came forth holding the bridal garland, and none could win it, they were filled with rage. After they left my kingdom they banded together and came back and besieged by city for a year, resolved to carry her off by force. But I fought them off, at great cost to my city and my treasury. Now let these princes try their strength!"

He ordered the bow to be brought. Many men together lifted the iron chest in which it lay, put it on a cart and pulled it with difficulty into a courtyard of the palace. The news of this new trial flew through the city, and many people ran to the palace and crowded round to see what might happen. Rama stepped forward, opened the iron chest and looked at the bow. He grasped it at the center, lifted it easily, and picked up the bowstring. Resting one end of the mighty bow against his foot and putting forth all his strength, he bent it toward him to string it, and lo, under his hands, it cracked in two with a sound like a thunderbolt that echoed through the city. Those far away heard it and cried. "The bow is strung!" And those nearby cried out, "The bow is broken!"

King Jánaka, amazed and delighted, embraced Rama and said to him, "I will give to you the hand of my daughter Sita, who is dearer to me than my life. Now let us send with all haste messengers to your father, asking him to come hither to give his consent to this marriage and to be present at your wedding." Then he turned to the younger brother, saying, "O Lákshmana, I have a younger daughter who is also fair and virtuous. Do you take her hand in marriage, if you so desire."

 

In Ayodhya nothing had been heard from the two princes since they had set out on their dangerous journey with the sage. Now messengers on swift horses, tired by three days of speedy travel, arrived at the gate and were admitted to the king's presence. "O illustrious King," they said, "the ruler of Mithila, King Jánaka, sends his affectionate greetings and these good tidings: your two noble sons are at his court, well and happy. His daughter Sita has been won by your eldest son, Rama, who broke the sacred bow which no other man has even been able to lift. The king begs that you will consent to this marriage and also to that of his younger daughter, Urmila, to Prince Lákshmana. Come with all speed to his city, O ruler of men, with your counselors, your kinsmen, and your attendants, to witness the wedding of your children!"

The king was overjoyed at this good news, as were his queens and his sons Bhárata and Shátrughna. "Let us set out tomorrow," said he. "Load many carts with gold and jewels, with fine apparel, and golden and silver vessels! Make ready the royal chariot and litters to bring home the brides and their attendants; bring horses and elephants for my counselors and ministers, and let a division of the army go with us!"

This fine company, with banners flying from its chariots, with elephants and horses richly caparisoned, spent four nights on the journey and arrived on the fifth morning at the city of Jánaka, which was gaily dressed for the coming festival. It was fragrant with flowers and incense and resounded with music; the citizens in their best attire lined the streets, and the ladies leaned from their windows and terraces to greet the guests. The king welcomed them warmly, giving his royal visitor rich apartments for himself and his counselors and housing the army and its animals in comfort. Father and sons met with joy, and the four brothers were happy to be together again. Now the brother of Jánaka, king of a neighboring realm, had come for the weddings, and when he saw Rama and Lákshmana he wished that he had two such bridegrooms for his own fair daughters. Then Bhárata and Shátrughna appeared, as handsome and strong as their brothers, and he desired them as sons-in-law, thinking himself fortunate that four such youths existed in the world. He consulted the two kings and the princes; the marriages were arranged and the maidens sent for. The brothers were delighted that all of them would be wedded at the same time.

The wedding festivities began, with bards and minstrels praising both noble families. There were plays and dances in the courtyards and in the streets, acrobats and musicians entertained the citizens, and countless lamps and torches made the nights as merry as the days. The king of Koshala and all of his company were feasted, and both they and King Jánaka gave away rich gifts of jewels and precious apparel.

On the third day the sacred fire was lighted and the priests of both royal houses dressed the altar with flowers and lighted the pots of incense. King Jánaka's kinsmen and courtiers, his counselors and ministers, as well as all those who had come from Koshala, crowded the hall, waiting for the four young couples to appear. Rama and his brothers entered in rich attire, with wedding crowns, flashing earrings, and jeweled armlets, looking like young gods, and Rama was foremost among them. From the other side the four maidens appeared, in robes of flower-colored silk, their golden girdles and anklets set with little bells that sounded gently as they moved, their shining hair crowned with jeweled headdresses. Although they looked as lovely as celestial nymphs, they walked with modest steps and downcast eyes, for they were shy in the presence of so many people. Among them the great beauty of Sita shown as the moon does among the stars.

Then Rama took a seat by the sacred fire and Sita sat opposite him. She raised her eyes and they looked at one another across the flame and each gave to the other a heart full of love. "O Rama," said King Jánaka, "From this day my daughter Sita will be your companion on the path of virtue. Faithful and tender, she will follow you as if she were your shadow. Accept her, and take her hand in yours. May you both be happy!"

Then Jánaka called Lákshmana and married him to Sita's younger sister, and Bhárata and Shátrughna wed the two fair cousins. "Be gentle and faithful to your wives, as they will be to you, O princes of Koshala," said King Jánaka. "Receive them now and take their hands." The four brothers each took the hand of his bride; they walked three times around the fire, and the ceremony was completed by the priests according to the holy rules set down in the Vedas.

When all was done, the wedding guests, weary with happiness, left the city. That great sage who had given Rama the celestial weapons and who had brought about these happy weddings, blessed them all and took his leave, for he was going to the Himalayas to meditate in their vast solitudes. The king of Koshala also prepared to leave with his sons and their brides. The carts full of treasure that he had brought with him had been emptied by generous hands, and their contents given to Jánaka and his queens, to his priests and courtiers, and to the citizens. Now they were filled high again by Jánaka with dowry for his daughters. In addition to the gold and jewels and fine raiment, he gave mighty elephants with painted heads and trunks and fine seats fastened to their broad backs; swift horses and handsome chariots; maidservants for the princesses and men for their husbands. A great procession of people and animals went back to Ayodhya, where they were eagerly awaited.

Great was the delight of the people as they saw the four princes riding their prancing horses and the litters that carried their brides; and great was the joy of the three queens as they saw their sons again and took into their arms the lovely girls whom they welcomed as their daughters. Again, as at the birth of those four brothers, high festival was held in that happy city that seemed to know no sorrow.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 15-30.


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