by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER THREE

MANTHARA'S EVIL DESIGN

 

For twelve years after their marriages, Rama and his brothers lived happily in Ayodhya. They helped their father in the government of his kingdom, for he was an old man when they were born. Rama, especially, kept watch over all the people and saw to it that their needs were satisfied. He cared for them as if they were his children, helping the unfortunate, comforting those who were in distress, rejoicing with them in their festivals. Occasionally there was warfare on the borders or a raid by lawless men who envied the wealth of Koshala. Then Rama led his father's army to battle, with his three brothers beside him, and no enemy could stand against them. They obeyed the sage and used no divine weapon against men, but their skill in archery, their use of the sword and mace, the maneuvering of their chariots and their mastery of riding either horses or elephants made them unconquerable warriors. All the people felt safe with these young princes to protect them; they knew that when the old king died, Rama would succeed him, and they loved and trusted him beyond all men.

At home the brothers were obedient to their father and looked upon all three queens as their mothers, making no difference between them. They were happy in their marriages. Sita, beautiful and gentle, was the joy of Rama's life and he of hers. She knew her husband's thoughts before he told them to her and did everything to please him, and her love for him filled every moment of her life.

In the thirteenth year the king, seeing Rama as resplendent as the full moon and beloved of the people, decided to make him regent as well as heir to the kingdom. He was weary of the burden of government; he wished to lay it on the strong shoulders of his son and to see Rama crowned before he himself should die.

He called together his ministers and the elders of the people; he summoned also the rulers of those kingdoms that were subject to him, and when all were arrived, they assembled in his court, facing the royal throne where the king sat, looking like Indra among the gods.

"I have ruled this empire for many years and am now grown old and weary," he told them. "I have performed hundreds of sacrifices and have done my duty to the gods, to my ancestors and to men. Now, with your consent, I wish to give the protection of this dominion to my eldest son, Rama. If this seems right to you, give me your consent or say what shall otherwise be done."

They cried out in joyful agreement; but the king, wishing to make still more sure of their intent, asked them again, "You have accepted my suggestion gladly; but tell me truly why you wish to see Rama crowned."

Those who were present consulted together and chose a spokesman who said, "You are fortunate to have such a son, O mighty one. You have been the greatest ruler of your line, but none is so virtuous as Rama. His fame is already widespread and his splendor increases every day. In warfare he is more powerful than the gods; he never returns from battle until his enemy is defeated. Yet he never glories in his power or uses it unjustly. He loves the truth and will never break his word, whatever happens. He is as forgiving as the earth; he never speaks ill of others and is free from pride and jealousy; he is self-controlled, courteous, humble and wise. Yet he knows how to punish the evildoer even as he shows mercy to the innocent. He honors the wise and the aged. He is learned in the Vedas and in all knowledge and is skilled in the arts of music and painting. That mighty archer, lover of the truth, the servant of the people, blesses all who seek his protection and is always righteous.

"The people of the whole kingdom, at dawn and eventide, pray for his life and happiness. Truly, as his name declares, he has become the delight of the world. O giver of boons, we beg you to crown Rama without delay. We long to see him riding upon the royal elephant, under the white canopy."

These words filled the king's heart with joy. He sent for Rama, who entered that assembly, bowed low before his father and touched his feet. The king seated his son beside him on the throne and told him what had been decided. "So be it, my father!" answered Rama. "May all your desires be fulfilled!"

The kings and ministers acclaimed him, and then his father dismissed them all, keeping only his chief prime minister beside him. "It is for you, O blessed one, to arrange all that is necessary for the coming ceremony," he said.

The priest told the king's ministers to bring gold and silver, jewels, garlands of white flowers, white flags, a white canopy, and fly whisks made of yaks' tails, rice, butter and honey in separate vessels of gold shining like fire; a chariot spread with a tigerskin; elephants free of any imperfection, and bulls with gilded horns. All these were to be brought to the king's sacrificial pavilion where the coronation would take place. Food and gifts must also be prepared for all the Brahmans in the city and for those who had come with the visiting kings. He then gave orders for the decoration of the city.

 

Meanwhile the news, like a flock of birds, had blown through all the palace windows and over the city, and when Rama returned home the streets were full of happy people who greeted him with joy, as he passed by and who, when they returned to their homes, prayed to their household gods that nothing might stand in the way of his coronation.

No sooner had he entered his palace than, to his surprise, he was again summoned by his father.

He found the king uneasy and troubled. "O my son," his father said, "it is my desire and that of all the people that you become regent and rule this land. I have had fearful dreams; the star of my birth is in a dangerous position and evil omens have been seen by my priests, who say that they foretell the death of a king or some great misfortune. O blessed one, I wish to see you crowned before I die. Tomorrow, the astrologers say, a favorable star will arise; therefore I wish to have you proclaimed regent in the morning at dawn."

"But my brothers Bhárata and Shátrughna are not here, my father," answered Rama. "It is many months since they went to visit Bhárata's grandsire. Should we not wait for them?"

"It is my desire that it be done tomorrow," said the old king. "Tonight you and Sita must fast, lying on a bed of grass, with a stone for a pillow. Go now, my son, and prepare yourself."

When Rama returned home he did not find Sita there, so he went on to his mother's palace. There Sita and Lákshmana were sitting with his mother in her temple, meditating with closed eyes and controlled breathing, and praying for him, for they had heard of the king's decree. They welcomed him with joy, talking happily together of the coming event. "Share with me the government of our kingdom," Rama said to his brother. "It is as much yours as mine, for you are my second self." Then he told them that he and Sita must fast that night and she returned with him to their own palace. A bed of sacred grass was laid down for them in their temple, and after they had purified themselves they observed the vow of fasting and silence and, when night came, they lay down to sleep.

 

Meanwhile the city was in a turmoil of joy and excitement. Men were erecting aches over the principal streets and women were making garlands of flowers to decorate them. It was spring and the trees and flowers were in full bloom. Every house was gay with banners and flowers, and everyone was shouting and laughing; even the children were helping and talking about Rama. The royal kitchens were busy all day and night, for many people were to be feasted and cooling drinks and cakes were to be served at the crossroads. Soldiers polished their arms and armor, groomed the horses and painted with auspicious designs the head and trunk of the royal elephant on which Rama would ride, under the white canopy of kingship, while the jeweled fans and snowwhite yak tails were waved about him. As the news spread, the roads into Ayodhya were crowed with people, and the streets were so full that it was hard to pass through them.

Now Bhárata's mother, Queen Kaikeyi, had a serving maid who had been with her all her life; her name was Manthara; she was humpbacked and of an evil disposition, though devoted to her mistress. In the late afternoon she heard all the noise arising from the streets and stepped out on a balcony to see what is was all about. Beholding the festivity, she looked for someone who could tell her he cause and met a servant of Rama's mother gaily dressed in silken garments.

"Is it the mother of Rama who is giving away lavish gifts?" asked Manthara. "Why are the people so happy?"

"Tomorrow at dawn the king will crown Prince Rama as regent," was the answer.

Manthara was filled with jealousy and rage. She hurried to the room where her mistress was resting.

"Why are you lying there, O foolish one?" she cried. "Do you not know that a dire misfortune has befallen you, that you are in great danger?"

"What misfortune, what danger, O Manthara?" asked the queen. "Why do you look so wild?"

"Listen to me!" answered Manthara. "The king has announced that Prince Rama will be crowned regent at dawn tomorrow. I am filled with dread, O my Queen; I am as if scorched by fire, for your woes are my woes, your danger my danger. This deceitful king, who has always told you how much he loved you, has now exalted the mother of Rama and will destroy you and your son."

"You have brought me joyful news, O kind one," said the beautiful queen, smiling. "I am delighted to hear of Rama's coronation, for he is as dear to me as Bhárata and I make no difference between them. Take this as thanks." And she unclasped a jewel from her arm and gave it to the hunchback.

But Manthara threw it angrily on the ground. "O stupid queen," she cried. "This is no time for rejoicing. Bhárata has as good a right to the throne as his brother; Rama fears him and therefore, while he is away at your father's court, seizes the crown. The king's mother is honored above all other queens; after this you will wait upon Rama's mother like a servant, and your son, too, will be no better than a slave to his elder brother. Knowing all this, I tremble for you!"

"Rama is the eldest son, O hunchback," said the queen. "He is the one to be regent and heir to his father. Why are you so jealous of him? He will always honor and protect his brothers, for he loves them as he does himself. When he is crowned, there will be four kings."

"You are sinking in an ocean of misery and still you cannot see it," said her servant. "When Rama becomes king, your son will be like an orphan and you will be a slave. Rama loves Lákshmana as he does himself, but he fears Bhárata and will surely either banish him or put him to death. It would be best for him to escape now to the forest. Remember, O beautiful one, that you have often slighted Rama's mother because you were the king's favorite. Do you think she will spare you, when she is the mother of the king?

"O mistress, there is still time. I know a way by which Bhárata may be crowned and Rama banished to the forest."

Manthara's evil words had penetrated the queen's heart as a poisonous serpent glides into a bedchamber. She frowned and bit her nether lip. "How could Bhárata become king and Rama be banished?" she asked at last.

"Do you remember that a long time ago the king went forth to war and took you with him? I also went with you," said the wicked Manthara. "He was sorely wounded and would have died if you had not skillfully tended him and brought him back to life. In gratitude he offered you two boons and you said that you did not desire them then but would claim them when you needed them. You need them now, O Queen. For the first boon ask that Bhárata be made regent, and for the second that Rama be banished to the woods for fourteen years! During those years the people will forget him and will love Bhárata best of all, and even when Rama returns they will want your son to keep the throne. The king cannot refuse you; therefore act quickly, O lovely one!"

"How can I ask the king for two such boons?" asked her mistress.

"Go to the anger chamber at once," answered Manthara. "Loose your hair, cast off your jewels, lie down on the bare ground in your poorest raiment. When the king enters do not look up or speak, but lie there weeping, for he cannot bear your tears. He will offer you gold and jewels; refuse them and accept nothing but these two boons. Bind him with promises and use all the power of your beauty, O mistress, for your son's sake!"

The queen, possessed now by the evil design of her servant, followed Manthara as a chick follows its mother. In every queen's apartment there was a small, bare room where she could retire if she had been injured or if she desired something that was hard to grant. There the queen entered and flung her pearl necklace and all her other jewels and her garland of sweet, fresh flowers on the floor till it looked like the sky glittering with stars. Then she lay face down on the bare ground, loosing her beautiful hair and looking like a young doe struck down by the hunter.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 31-39.


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