by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER FOUR

THE BANISHMENT OF RAMA

 

After the king had dismissed Rama he went to the inner apartments, eager to tell the good news to his queens. He went first to the dwelling of his youngest and most beautiful queen, Kaikeyi, whom he loved dearly. He passed happily through the garden, where peacocks displayed their splendid tails and parrots screamed from the blossoming trees, and entered the room where the queen usually rested on her couch, awaiting his coming at the end of the day. But she was not there, and when he questioned a maidservant, she answered fearfully, "O Sire, she has entered the anger chamber."

The king's heart sank. He went into the small room and saw her lying on the ground like a broken garland or a nymph fallen from heaven.

"Oh lovely one, why are you displeased?" he asked. "Has anyone insulted you? Are you ill? I have skillful doctors who will restore you in an instant to health. Tell me what troubles you, for you have only to speak, and I will do whatever you wish, even at the cost of my life."

"I am not ill nor has anyone insulted me," answered the queen, still lying face downward. "I have one desire, which you can satisfy. If you are willing to do so, then give me your solemn promise, and I will tell you what it is."

The king sat down beside her and raised her body so that her head lay on his lap.

"You know that no one is dearer to me than you, except my son Rama," he said tenderly. "I swear to you by Rama, without whom I cannot live, that I will do whatever you ask of me."

Now the queen knew that she had him in her power, because he could never break a promise that he gave in the name of Rama.

"You remember, O King, that a long time ago you granted me two boons, after I had saved your life when you were sorely wounded in battle. I claim them now. O sun and moon," she cried, "O day and night, O gods and spirits, be witness now to the boons granted to me by this great king who has never broken his word?

"The first is that my son Bhárata be proclaimed your regent and heir. The second is that Rama be banished to the forest for fourteen years, taking a hermit's vows, so that Bhárata may rule undisturbed. This is the desire that you have promised to fulfill, O King."

The king's heart was pierced by these words as if they had been sharp arrows. He could not utter a word; he was like a quail when the hawk swoops upon it in a wood. He thought to himself, "Am I dreaming? Have I lost my mind or am I possessed by some evil spirit?" Then he came to himself and looked at Kaikeyi as if his glance could burn her to ashes.

"O wicked one, O destroyer of my house!" he cried. "How dare you demand the exile of Rama, who is the friend of all the world, whom all the people love for his generosity and purity, who is the protector of every living being? For what fault should he be banished? What harm has he or have I ever done to you that you should ask this thing? He has always treated you as he does his own mother, and you have often told me that you loved him as your own son. Bhárata is as virtuous as his brother; do you think that he will approve the banishment of Rama or that he will accept the throne while his elder brother lives? What evil spirit possesses you that you ask for such a boon?"

"If you repent of granting me those two boons, no one will call you just or righteous," she said. "When you are asked to make a promise, what will you say? That you broke your word to her who saved your life? Not only man is bound by his word; even the ocean, whose boundaries are fixed, does not pass beyond them when its tide is high at the time of the full moon. Truth is the crown of righteousness, O King. If you withdraw your pledge I shall drink poison before your eyes. Nothing will satisfy me save those two boons."

"Is it just or righteous to send my dear and truthful son into the forest?" he asked. "What will the kings and elders of the people say when they hear that at your behest I have changed my mind and banished my sinless son instead of crowning him? They will say that I am old and childish and deluded by a woman; the whole world will despise me. The people of my own city will hate me, for they love and honor Rama above all men. What can I say to his mother and to Sita? How can I give that pitiless message to him who has never spoken a harsh word to anyone?"

Then he pleaded with her: "O child, O giver of delight, I am old and my end is near. I beg of you to show mercy and to take back the words that you have spoken, and the wide world shall be yours. See, I lay my head upon your feet; be gracious to me and do not break my heart."

He fell at her feet and remained there speechless. When he recovered he begged her again and again to take back her deadly words, but the more he entreated the harder her heart became.

"If you withdraw your pledge I shall end my life," she said coldly. "O great King, you must fulfill the promise made to me, for it can never be revoked."

"O sinful woman, O evil one," he cried, "at the time of our wedding I took your hand in mine beside the sacred flame, but today I cast you away. You are no longer my wife. I have held you in my arms as a child plays with a venomous snake; I have cherished you as a man carefully keeps a rope that is going to hang him. I shall not live if Rama goes away. Let the preparations for his coronation be used for my funeral rites. Then govern this kingdom with your son, O destroyer of the house of Koshala!"

"Why do you grieve so much, O King?" she asked. "Put my son upon the throne and send Rama into exile. Then you will have done your duty."

The king realized that she would not change and that dire calamity was upon him and those he loved.

"I am caught in the net of destiny," he murmured. "I cannot understand what has happened. O starry night, do not pass away! O kindly night, have pity on me and forbid the dawn! How can I look upon the faces of the people, filled with joy because of the enthronement of Rama? O Rama, Rama!" he cried and sank down upon the floor like a felled tree.

 

The morning dawned; the high priest and his disciples came to the palace carrying the sacred water of the Ganges in a golden vessel and various fragrant herbs, seeds, and jewels for the coronation. As he went through the streets they were being swept and watered and then strewn with flowers by happy people, talking and laughing with one another. Flags fluttered on the housetops and pots of incense and of sandalwood were being lighted. Shops were opened, filled with lovely merchandise, and stalls were set up where cool drinks and sweetmeats would be sold. Here and there companies of actors and dancers entertained the people, singing sweetly and playing their instruments. All were busy and full of joy.

When he arrived at the palace, the high priest found a crowd of Brahmans, warriors, and the chief merchants waiting in the court; musicians were chanting the praises of the king and Rama; the sun was rising, but there was no word or movement from within. The priest met the king's trusted friend and charioteer, Sumantra, and asked him to tell the king that Rama must be crowned with all haste while the favorable star was at the zenith. Therefore Sumantra sought out the king and was surprised to find him in Queen Kaikeyi's rooms, his garments in disarray and his face distraught.

"Awake, O great King!" cried Sumantra. "Rejoice the hearts of the people by your presence! Don your royal robes and your most precious jewels, for the night is past and the joyful day is come when Rama will be crowned."

"Speak no more, Sumantra," said the king feebly, with bowed head. "Tell them to stop their music, for I cannot bear it."

Sumantra stepped back, amazed at these words, and the queen said to him, coolly, "The king was so happy that he did not sleep this night, so he is now tired. Go, Sumantra, and bring Prince Rama hither. His father wishes to see him."

The charioteer, wondering why the queen should wish to summon Rama, went to the prince's palace. His courts, too, were filled with priests and warriors, with yoked chariots whose handsome horses were eager to be off, and the great elephant on which he was to ride after his coronation. He found Rama, dressed in splendid robes and jewels, with Sita, as beautiful as the full moon, beside him. They had risen before dawn and had their palace cleaned and decorated. Poets and singers had delighted them by reciting the great deeds of Rama's ancestors and the glories of his dynasty. They said their morning prayers and worshiped the sun as it rose; then they dressed in their royal robes and jewels and awaited the summons of the king.

As soon as Sumantra gave him his father's message, Rama rose, bidding Sita await him there, and mounted the royal chariot, while his friends acclaimed him. Lákshmana was in the courtyard and mounted also, standing behind his brother. Sumantra urged the horses on and drove briskly through the gay, perfumed streets, surrounded by happy crowds who cheered and blessed them, while women threw flowers before them from the balconies. "O delight of your mother, how happy she will be today to see you crowned!" they cried. "Most fortunate of all women is the Princess Sita, who is so dear to you!" All along the way he heard words of praise and joy and when he entered the palace the multitude awaited his return as the ocean awaits the full moon.

Rama went into the inner rooms of the palace, followed by Lákshmana, and found his father, pale and unkempt, seated beside Kaikeyi. Fear struck his heart as he beheld the king's misery; nevertheless he saluted them both with joined palms and waited for his father to speak. But the king, his voice choked with sorrow, could say only, "Rama, Rama," and nothing more.

"Why is my father not happy to see me today?" asked Rama, turning to the queen. "Have I displeased him? Why is he so pale and distressed? Answer me truly, O Queen, I beg of you."

"The king is not angry with you nor is he ill, O Rama," answered the queen, "but there is something that he fears to tell you because it is unpleasant and he loves you dearly. Long ago he granted me two boons which you must fulfill. Now he repents of them, like one who cares not for virtue. Have a care, Rama, lest the king abandon truth for love of you."

"For shame, Mother, to speak thus to me," answered Rama. "I am willing to do anything my father wishes me to do, even to casting myself into the fire or into the sea. Tell me now what he has promised; I vow that I will fulfill it. Rest assured; I do not break my word."

"The two boons I have asked of him, O virtuous one, are these," said the queen. "The first is that Bhárata be crowned regent instead of you. and the second is that you go into the forest for twice seven years, wearing a hermit's dress, living on fruits and roots, so that the earth may be ruled by your brother. It is for this that the king is distraught and cannot look at you. O Rama, obey him and fulfill his vow to me!"

That slayer of foes, hearing the queen's words, keen as the pangs of death, was in no way moved by them. He answered, "It shall be as you say! I shall honor my father's promise and leave at once for the forest to live a hermit's life for fourteen years. Therefore rejoice, O Queen! Send messengers on swift horses to summon my brother Bhárata from his grandsire's court and let him be crowned! But why does my father not lay his commands on me himself? Why does he sit with bowed head, shedding tears? How much more would I do for him to preserve his honor!"

"The king is overcome with shame and dares not ask you to go," said the cruel queen. "Therefore go at once, O Rama, for he will neither bathe nor eat until you have departed!"

The king cried out, "O woe, woe!" and fell back fainting, on the couch. Rama lifted him up and then made obeisance to him, touching his forehead to his father's feet. He bowed low to the queen and took his leave.

"I go to say farewell to my mother and to comfort my Sita," he said to Kaikeyi. "Let Bhárata rule the kingdom justly and serve our father faithfully."

With a serene and cheerful face, Rama came out into the court where his friends and his father's priests and ministers stood waiting. Lákshmana, his eyes filled with tears and his heart with fury, followed him. Rama told them what had happened and bade them farewell affectionately, leaving them dumbfounded. Then he went on to his own mother's rooms.

The queen had spent the whole night in prayer for her son, and when he entered she was pouring a libation on the sacred fire of her home. She went to him joyfully, embracing and blessing him and offering him sweetmeats, which he merely touched, not taking any.

"O Mother, you have not heard of the misfortune that has come to us," he said. "This is a season of sorrow for you and Sita and Lákshmana. Kaikeyi has claimed two boons that the king promised her long ago. Now she has forced my father to give the throne to Bhárata, while I must go to the forest for fourteen years, dressed in deerskins and eating fruit and roots and honey. I have come to ask your permission to depart at once."

His mother's joy was turned in a moment to despair.

"O my son," she cried, "if I had never had a child I should be spared this sorrow. How can I live, even for a day, without seeing you? Why should you abandon me at the unjust behest of my rival, your father's favorite queen, who has bewitched him? You have a duty to me as well as to him. If you go to the forest I shall surely die. I forbid you to go, my son!"

Then Lákshmana spoke, breathing like an angry snake, "O Rama, take over this kingdom before the people have heard these evil tidings! I will stand beside you, and who can oppose us, armed with our bows and swords? How can the king dare to give the kingdom to Bhárata while his eldest son still lives? He is old and feeble and has been enslaved by a woman. If he opposes you, I will slay even him; all your enemies shall fall before me like clouds split by lightning. O my brother, why must you submit to the will of a wicked woman? What virtue or justice is there in my father's commands? What valor is there in obeying them?"

"I know your love for me and I know your bravery and your prowess; none can stand against you," answered Rama. "But my bravery consists in obeying my father's commands and fulfilling the vow he made to the queen. The king is our ruler and our father; he is an old man; for all these reasons I must obey him. I am doing no new thing; many men in our royal line have sacrificed their very lives in obedience to their father's wishes. I walk in the path of my ancestors and of virtue. I cannot sacrifice duty for the sake of a kingdom."

He went to Lákshmana and wiped the tears from his brother's eyes. "Give up grief and anger, O dear one, and arm yourself with patience," he said. "Prepare now for my departure as willingly as you prepared for my coronation. This is the work of destiny. What man cannot understand must be the will of the gods. If it were not so, how could Kaikeyi, the daughter of a king, who has always looked upon me as her own son, speak such cruel and pitiless words today in the king's presence? When moved by destiny, people do not know what they say.

"O Mother, my father is sorely distressed by these boons that he has granted. When I am gone, do not let him be overcome by this great grief. For my sake, serve him well so that he may be alive when I return. Do not fear, I shall return after fourteen years when I have fulfilled my vow. Now grant me your permission to go, and pray for me in my absence."

"Alas, my child, I have no power to hold you back," said his mother, seeing that nothing would change his decision. "Enter the forest, then, in peace, and my happiness attend you! When you return, I shall know joy again." She called upon all the gods, the sun and the moon, the earth, the forests and rivers and all that inhabit them, to protect and bless him. He knelt and bent his head to her feet and left her.

He went on to his own palace to say the hardest farewell of all, to Sita. He passed serenely through the crowds of his sorrowing friends and followers, but as he came to Sita's rooms, his heart was stricken at the thought of leaving her, and he entered with his head bowed.

Sita rose, anxious and fearful. "What is this, my lord? This is the time of your coronation. Why are you here? What has happened that you look so distressed?"

Rama told her the evil news, saying at last, "When I enter the forest, O dear one, remain here with a quiet heart. My father and mother are both grieving because of my exile; comfort and serve them while I am away and obey our brother Bhárata when he is king, for he will protect you and care for you."

"O son of a great king, O Rama, how can you say such things?" she answered proudly. "Why, I could laugh at you, my lord. Do you not know that a wife is a part of her husband and shares all his fortunes? If you must go into exile and live in the forest, it is my right to go with you. I will walk before you, clearing the thorns and the sharp grass from your path. I will live with you in the forest as happily as in our own palace, wandering through the honey-scented woods according to the ancient spiritual custom, free from all worldly desire. My royal father taught me all the duties of a wife; is there any fault in me that would condemn me to stay here without you? Take me with you, O lord of my life! I shall not be a burden to you."

"Life in the forest is hard, my delicate princess," said Rama. "Do not think of sharing my exile. The rivers that rush down from the mountains are hard to cross; wild beasts roam about and their roaring will frighten you; marshes and rivers are full of crocodiles, and you hear the harsh cries of waterfowl; the way is barred with briars and sharp grass and fallen trees. Great storms visit the forest, and what will shelter you? When you are tired, there are no soft pillows or silken couches; you must sleep on the bare ground, your bed the fallen leaves; there is nothing to eat but fruit and berries and roots and what I can kill by hunting. Life is hard in the forest, my Sita; do not go with me but stay here in our home."

"All these hardships will be changed into joys if I am with you, my lord," said Sita. "If you can protect a kingdom with all its people, can you not protect one woman, O mighty hero? Journeying in the forest with you will not tire me; it will be like walking in the garden. The thorny briars will be as soft as deerskin. I shall share with you a couch of grass as gladly as I would a bed of silken down, and any food you bring me will be like the food of the gods. O what joy to be together in the forest! I fear nothing when I am near you, but I would rather die than remain here without you!"

Then Rama took her in his arms, "I advised you to stay here, O beautiful one, because I did not fully know your mind. But now, seeing your fixed resolve, my heart is filled with joy. Come with me, then, and help me to fulfill my duty. O Sita, let us prepare at once to go into exile, for I wish to leave today. Let us give all that we own to the Brahmans, to the old and the ill and to our servants, and then we shall go together, for I should not want to enter even heaven without you."

Lákshmana entered at this moment, his face still dark with grief and anger, and heard what Sita and his brother said. "If you are resolved to go to the forest, I will go with you and serve you," he said. "I shall go before you and clear the way, armed with my bow and carrying a spade and basket."

"You are as dear to me as my life, O Lákshmana," answered his brother, "but if you go, who will care for your mother and for mine? They will be unhappy with both of us gone, and Kaikeyi will not be kind to them."

"Bhárata will protect and cherish them," said Lákshmana. "My mother still has Shátrughna, and those three will see to it that your noble mother comes to no harm. Let me go with you; sleeping and waking, I will serve you."

"Ask, then, the permission of your mother," said Rama joyfully, "and of your wife, Sita's sister, to go with us. Bring the great bows given by the gods to King Jánaka; bring our impenetrable armor and the two swords that Sita's father gave us when we were married. Then help me to give away all my wealth, O faithful one!"

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 40-53.


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