by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER FIVE

THE WAY TO THE FOREST

 

When Lákshmana returned with the weapons and armor, Rama summoned the Brahmans of the city and gave away all his wealth, pouring coins and jewels into their hands, while Sita gave her lovely robes and jewels to their wives. Cows and horses, elephants and chariots were given to his teachers, his fellow students, and his friends. Their servants were helping them, weeping; to each one Rama gave enough to keep him the rest of his life and said to them all, "Take care of this palace of mine until we return from the forest." Even more wealth was left over, and that was sent to the ill and the aged of the city.

There was one old priest who lived in great poverty with his wife and children. His wife said to him, "Hurry to Prince Rama's palace, for I have heard that he is giving away all his wealth." The old man put on his rags, and leaning on his staff, hastened to the city and came to where Rama stood, surrounded by many people.

"I am a poor man with many children, great prince. Have pity on me!" he said.

Rama answered, half in joke, "I still have many cattle. Stand still and throw your staff as far as you can, and I will give you as many cows as can fill the space between you and the staff where it has fallen."

The old man bound his rags about him, twirled his staff and flung it with all his might. It flew through the air and sailed across the river to the opposite bank where many cows and bulls were grazing. Rama laughed and ordered all the cattle to be given to him, and the old priest went home delighted, driving his herd before him.

When all was done, Rama with his brother and Sita went on foot to take leave of their father, their servants following them carrying the great weapons.

Many people, sad and silent, watched them from the streets and the housetops. "Behold Lord Rama, who used to ride at the head of his army, followed now by a few servants." "The beautiful Sita, whom even the winds could not touch, now walks in the streets beheld by all the crowd." "Ah, what a prince! He did not rejoice at his coronation nor does he weep at his exile; pain and pleasure are the same to him. He is already a sage, although so young." "Surely the king is possessed by an evil spirit to send such a son into exile." They heard such words as these spoken by the people in the streets, but they walked on with serene faces, looking ahead.

When they came into the king's presence they found him overwhelmed by despair, his old age having suddenly come upon him; he was unable at first to speak a word. Then, for the first time, he looked into his son's face and said, "I have been deceived by Kaikeyi, because of a promise, O Rama, put me aside and seize the kingdom by force!"

But Rama answered him humbly, "May you rule the earth for many more years, O lord of men! I must go to the forest, since we both honor the truth, and in fourteen years I shall return to serve you again. Now give me your permission to go and grant also that Lákshmana and Sita go with me, since they are resolved, against my advice, to do so."

"O child, none can divert you from the path of truth," said the king. "I am tied by the rope of my own vow. I am caught in the net of destiny and I cannot forbid you. Go in peace and enter the forest and may no danger or hardship ever visit you there. Stay but one night more with your mother and me and set out in the morning early."

"If I stay for this night, what of tomorrow?" said Rama. "I wish to leave at once, O Father, do not grieve; I do not desire wealth or kingdom or pleasure; I shall be happy in the forest. All I wish is to carry out your commands and to uphold your honor. I shall return when the time is fulfilled. Bring me a hermit's dress and let us start at once."

The wicked queen, hearing these words, rose, and brought three robes, woven of the coarse fiber of trees, and deerskins, such as hermits wear. She offered them to Rama, saying shamelessly, "Then put these on!"

Rama and Lákshmana laid aside their rich apparel, stepped from their jeweled sandals and put on the rough robes, throwing the deerskins over their shoulders. Standing barefoot and unadorned in the royal hall, they looked like the twin Ashvins, the Gods of Dawn and Twilight. Sita, dressed in a soft-hued silken sari, looked at the dress offered to her as a doe looks at a snare. She turned to Rama and asked piteously. "How does one wear these robes?"

He started to help her, but the king's high priest rose in anger and said sternly to the queen, "You are dead to all decency and good sense, O evil-minded one, O destroyer of your husband's dynasty! You asked only for the exile of Rama. Sita chooses to go with him. Let her be richly clad and adorned and let her go to the forest in a royal chariot!"

The king, his voice weak and choked with sorrow, ordered Sumantra to yoke the finest horses to his chariot and then said to his treasurer, "Bring costly robes and jewels that will serve the princes for fourteen years!"

When all the farewells were said, Rama, Sita, and Lákshmana, with joined palms, walked three times round the king, keeping him on their right, even as the sun shines on the earth; even as the sun bestows every blessing and protects from evil and darkness, so with reverence, they blessed him as they departed. Then they mounted the chariot with cheerful hearts, and Sumantra drove them from the palace to the great gate.

The people of the city were as if crazed by grief. Young and old ran after the chariot, crying to Sumantra, "Drive slowly, O charioteer, so that we may see the face of Rama a little longer! Faithful is the princess Sita who follows her lord as his shadow. Noble is his brother who shares his misfortune. How can we live without them?"

Rama looked back and saw that his father and mother had come out of the palace and were gazing after the chariot, their arms outstretched. He could not bear the sight and said, "Drive faster, O Sumantra!" while the people cried, "Slower! Slower, O charioteer!" The dust raised by the wheels of the chariot was laid by the people's tears.

After they had passed the gate many people still followed, running beside the chariot, weeping and begging Rama to return. "O people of Ayodhya," he said, "for my sake bestow the love and honor that you show to me--yes, and more--upon my brother Bhárata. He is wise and gentle, and courageous and will rule you well. Do not cause him any distress when I am in the forest, and if you wish to please me, obey my father, who has given him the throne."

But the people still followed him, as if drawn by a cord. "O swift and excellent steeds, do not carry Rama from us into the forest!" they cried. "See, even the trees try to follow and bend their branches to the ground, but they are held back by their strong roots. Have pity on them and on us!"

Rama looked back and saw that many Brahmans and old people were still trying to keep up with the chariot; so he told Sumantra to stop, and he and Lákshmana and Sita walked slowly ahead, in order not to tire those who were on foot. As the sun set, a river barred their way, and they decided to spend the night on its bank. Sumantra loosed the horses and let them roll on the ground while he gathered grass for them to eat. Rama, Sita, and Lákshmana drank only some water and fasted; and when darkness came, all that company lay down to rest, fasting, on the ground. Lákshmana and Sumantra gathered young leaves and made a bed for Rama and Sita, who were soon peacefully asleep; but the other two stayed awake all that night, keeping watch and talking quietly to one another of all that had occurred that day.

 

At dawn Rama awoke and, seeing the people lying asleep, said to Lákshmana, "the people who are sleeping here are determined to bring us back to Ayodhya. Let us leave before they wake so that they may not suffer or tire themselves further. If they find us gone they will return home."

Lákshmana agreed, and Rama said to Sumantra, "Yoke the horses quietly and let us drive swiftly and silently away, so that the people do not see us go."

They crossed the river at a shallow ford and drove along a rough path overgrown with briars where the mark of the wheels could not be seen; then they came out upon a pleasant road where they could travel freely, and they drove on swiftly toward the southern border of Koshala. As they went they looked with joy on the prosperous towns, on the fine highways, the fields full of grazing cattle, the pools of water and groves of trees that bespoke the wise rule of the king. When they had crossed the Southern boundary, Rama turned his face toward Ayodhya and with joined palms addressed it. "O Ayodhya, loveliest of cities, I take my leave of you and of the gods who dwell in you and protect you. When the time of my vow is fulfilled, I shall come back from the forest and behold you and my parents again."

After they had passed the boundary of the kingdom they came to the sacred river Ganges, on whose banks holy men gather to perfect their lives, to whose waters the celestial nymphs and even the gods come to play and bathe. Its waves rippled with the sound of laughter, white lotuses blossomed in its pool, where swans and ducks abounded, while cranes stood beside its high banks or on its shelving sands.

Beholding that mighty river, beautiful as a woman adorned with jewels, Rama said, "Let us stop here and rest, O kind charioteer. We shall find shelter under that great fig tree whose wide branches and broad leaves will protect us." They unyoked the horses and offered homage to the river and then sat at the foot of the tree, looking across at the forest that was to be their home.

While they rested there the king of the small country that bordered the river came with his ministers to welcome them, for he had heard of their exile. He was a ferryman named Guha, but he possessed territory and an army and was called the king of watermen. He was sorrowful when he saw Rama clad in a hermit's dress, and said, "O prince, I am your servant. Let my small kingdom be to you as Ayodhya and rule it as if it were your own, for we are all obedient to you. Pray accept this food that I have brought with honey and spices, these soft beds, and fodder for your horses."

"You have come here on foot to welcome us, O Guha, and I am much honored by you," answered Rama. "But I have taken a hermit's vow and may eat nothing but fruit and roots and what we may bring down with our arrows. We may not linger in your kingdom, for tomorrow we must cross the river and enter the forest. I gladly accept fodder for the horses, for they are tired, and my father loves them. This and your kind welcome are enough hospitality."

Guha spent the night with them under the fig tree, and in the morning before sunrise, when the birds were singing, he ordered his ferrymen to bring a sturdy boat. They took the two brothers' great weapons and the light chest containing Sita's robes and jewels and placed them in the boat, for the chariot could go no further.

Sumantra came to Rama with joined palms and said, "What more can I do for you, O lion among men?"

"Return to the king, O good Sumantra, and serve him well so that he does not sink under the weight of sorrow," said Rama. "Tell him that Sita and Lákshmana and I have entered the forest and are not troubled; that fourteen years will soon pass, and that we shall see him again. Give the same message to our mothers, bowing to their feet, and when Bhárata returns, tell him for me to give them all the same love and honor that he gives the king."

Then Sumantra wept and said, "How can I return without you, O sinless one? When the chariot returns empty the heart of the city will be broken in two. Let me stay with you! The horses and the chariot may be useful to you and I will serve you in any way I can. My greatest desire is to drive you back to Ayodhya when the fourteen years are over. Give me leave, my lord. I beg of you!"

"I know your devotion, O Sumantra, but I will tell you why I wish you to return," said Rama. "When Queen Kaikeyi sees you, she will know that I have entered the forest, and she will leave my father in peace. Bhárata also will know that I shall be away for fourteen years and that he must govern the kingdom. I wish my father and my mothers to receive the messages that I have sent them. Therefore, to please me, return quickly to the city."

Then he and Sita and Lákshmana took leave of Sumantra and Guha and entered the boat, which was driven swiftly across the current by the strong arms of the oarsmen. In midstream Sita, delighted by the beauty of the great river, joined her hands together and worshiped it, saying, "O blessed Ganges, I bow down and adore you. Protect, I pray you, this noble prince who obeys his father's commands. When he returns safely and occupies his throne, I will give you a thousand cows. When I return to Ayodhya I will offer you a sacrifice of a hundred jars of wine and rice. O goddess, grant that Rama and Lákshmana, free of sin, return again to their kingdom!"

When they reached the farther bank, the forest received them and they found a path leading into it. "This is our first day in the wilderness by ourselves," said Rama to his brother. "We must protect Sita carefully from now on. Do you go first to search out the way, let Sita follow you, and I will come last to defend you both. So far the daughter of Jánaka has not tried her strength, but today she will have to bear the hardships of a hermit's life. Until we find a home, only one of us shall sleep at night."

They went deep into the woods, finding fruit and berries to quench their hunger and clear brooks to refresh them. Then Lákshmana hunted a deer and they roasted its flesh over a flame which they kindled by rubbing together two sticks of wood. As darkness came they found a sheltering tree and made their beds of grasses and the tender leaves of spring. Instead of soft couches with silken covers only these leaves were between them and the hard ground; instead of the gleam of polished and finely wrought lamps of gold and silver, the bright stars shone far off between the branches; instead of a palace filled with people who loved and served them, the nearby dwellings of their father, mothers, and brothers and the peaceful city they loved so well, the black and lonely forest surrounded them, where night birds cried and fluttered, and far off they heard the howls of beasts that hunt their prey by night.

They could not sleep at first for the strangeness and the solitude, and they talked long together, wondering what was happening in Ayodhya and what Bhárata would do when he heard of their exile and his coming coronation. And Rama, now that he was alone with the two whom he loved best, thinking of his parents' sorrow and of all that he had lost, laid aside the control that he had put upon himself for so long, and wept bitterly.

 

The next morning the sun rose in a cloudless sky, and they went on toward the place where the river Jumna runs into the Ganges. For Sita's sake, they rested often under flowering trees, on soft grasses, and she delighted in the many singing birds, in the monkeys peering at them from the treetops or swinging gracefully among the branches, in the herds of deer and delicate antelopes who wandered freely there, for no man hurt them.

Toward the end of the day they saw smoke, as blue as a pigeon's neck, rising through the trees, and went toward it. They found a hermitage where a mighty saint dwelt who welcomed them as they bowed reverently before him and told him their names. He offered them water to wash their feet, and a hermit's food.

"I know that you have been banished without cause," he said. "Stay here and live in peace in this holy place where the two great rivers meet."

"Your hermitage, O blessed one, is too close to the abode of men," answered Rama. "I fear that people would seek us out if we remained here. Tell us of a lonelier place where we may live in peace."

The hermit told them that a beautiful mountain, named Chitrakuta, lay but ten miles away, that it was purified by the presence of many holy men, and that animals and birds lived freely there, undisturbed by anyone. So they slept that night at the hermitage, and neither brother needed to stay awake to watch over Sita.

Then, with the blessing of the sage, they went on to the mountain, which lay on the far side of the Jumna. The two brothers gathered wood and built a raft, tying the logs together with long vines, and filled the cracks with grass and leaves. Lákshmana spread young branches to make a seat for Sita, and she, clinging to Rama's hand, took her place while the brothers laid their belongings on the floor of the raft. Again she prayed to the river and offered it sacrifices when they should all return.

They found the mountainside even more beautiful than the hermit had said it was, and saw with wonder and delight, trees and blossoms, birds and beasts that they had never known before. Lákshmana climbed high into the trees to bring flowers to Sita, who wove them into garlands; he gathered a honeycomb as large as a waterpot that hung from a branch and fruits that also clustered there.

Everywhere the birds sang and peacocks spread their splendid tails before their modest hens. A clear river flowed nearby, and this mountain seemed the perfect place for their hermitage. They found a level field bordered with trees and chose that for their dwelling place.

Rama and Lákshmana took their axes, cut young trees and drove them into the ground in the form of a square; then they wove flexible branches between the posts and raised a roof thatched thickly with broad leaves; soft grasses made the floor. Lastly they built altars on the four sides, and after they had bathed in the river, offered sacrifices of fruit and flowers to the gods and repeated the Vedic prayers. When they entered the hut, sheltered from wind, rain, and sun, their hearts were filled with joy.

"How beautiful it is here!" said Rama. "O Sita, I could live here with you and Lákshmana for countless years and feel no grief or anxiety. How splendid are these peaks that reach to the skies and gleam with veins of gold and jewels! When the wind stirs the trees the hills seem to dance and the flowers that it scatters are like offerings to this lovely river on which they fall. There are shallows here where we can bathe and play as you used to play with your maidens at home, my dear one, pelting them with flowers and with splashes of water. Surely we shall be happy here and never miss the comforts of Ayodhya."

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 54-66.


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