by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER SIX

BHÁRATA'S RETURN

 

Sumantra watched the three leave the boat on the opposite shore of the river and followed them with his eyes until they were lost to sight. Then he yoked his unwilling horses, which also gazed after Rama, the tears falling from their eyes. He bade farewell to Guha and drove back the way that he had come, reaching Ayodhya on the evening of the third day.

The city was stricken and silent. No children played in the streets nor was there any sound of music or of laughter. The shops were closed and the markets empty; the birds sat motionless on the trees, and in the houses no lamp was lighted. The once happy city was like an emptied pool where water jars lie on the parched earth; like a tavern deserted by revelers, the wine spilled and fragments of glass lying on the bare floor; like a meteor that falls dead upon the earth, its flame extinguished.

Sumantra went to the palace and entered the inner apartments, asking for the king. He found him in the rooms of Rama's mother, lying old and feeble on a couch, attended by his two queens, for he would have nothing to do with the wicked one who had betrayed him. Sumantra gave Rama's message to the king and the queens. The old man received it in silence, but Queen Kaushalya, the mother of Rama, wept anew as she asked Sumantra how he had left them, how they looked and where they slept, and how the tender Sita bore the hardships of her life.

"Do not grieve or be anxious for them, O Queen," said the charioteer. "They will live happily in the forest. Prince Lákshmana will serve his brother devotedly, and the princess will be as happy there as in her own home. Indeed Ayodhya would be a wilderness to her without Rama and the forest will be a pleasure garden, since she is with him. Her beauty is not marred by the fatigue of the journey, by the winds or by the heat of the sun. She has not put off her jewels, but walks the forest paths with tinkling anklets and feet as fresh as lotus petals. There is no need to grieve for these three. The willing exile of your son, to fulfill his father's vow, will be remembered by the whole world as long as the sun and moon abide in the heavens."

But the king could not be comforted. When night came he lay awake, wondering again why this great misfortune had come to pass. Then he remembered a grievous sin that he had committed, though unwittingly, in his youth. He called to his queen, "Draw near and touch me, O Kaushalya, for I cannot see you. A man must gather the fruit of all that he does whether it is good or evil. Let me tell you how I have destroyed my own happiness by a deed which I did long ago out of ignorance.

"When I was young, before I was king, I prided myself on my skill in archery. I learned to aim my arrows in the dark, following a sound. One night I went to the river bank to hunt, at a place where elephants, tigers, and buffaloes came to drink. I heard the sound of water being taken up and shot a poisoned arrow toward the sound, thinking an elephant had come there. But, alas, I heard a human voice cry out, 'Who has slain me? I have no enemies in the world and live a hermit's life here in the woods. What will my parents do when I am dead? Alas, we are all slain by a single arrow.'

"I went to him and found a youth lying mortally wounded on the ground. 'O warrior,' he said, 'what harm have I done to you that you have killed me while I fetched water for my parents? They are old and blind and cannot live without me. Go quickly now, by the path behind you, to my father's hut and try to make your peace with him, lest he curse you or burn you to ashes with his anger!'

"With those words he gave up his life. I filled the pitcher that had fallen from his hands and followed the path to his parents' hermitage, where with anguish I told them what I had unwittingly done. They asked me to lead them to where their son's body lay, and when they touched it they lamented sorely for him. Then the father said to me, 'If you had done this knowingly, I would have burned you to ashes with my curse. Since you did not, I will lay this lesser curse upon you: that you suffer the same grief that you have caused me. The loss of your son shall cause your own death.' Then the two gathered wood and kindled a fire; they laid their son's body upon it, and when it was burned they entered the fire themselves and joined their only child. Now the curse of that father has been fulfilled; I have lost my son and I die."

Thus, overwhelmed by his grief, that mighty and generous king at midnight gave up his life.

On the morning, after the king's death his ministers met together and the chief priest said, "The king is dead; Lord Rama is in the forest with the mighty Lákshmana, and Prince Bhárata with Shátrughna, is in his grandfather's city, many miles away. We must send for him immediately, since his father has promised the kingdom to him. A land without a king falls into ruin: the farmers sow no grain; sons do not obey their fathers nor wives their husbands. In a land without a king there is no peace: thieves and brigands have their way, the rich are not protected, and the cowherd, the shepherd, and the farmer cannot sleep at ease with open doors. The holy festivals are not held, nor do actors or the leaders of song and dance find joy in such a land. For the king is a father to his people; he leads them in the path of virtue and is their greatest benefactor."

He then summoned trusted messengers and bade them go at once to fetch Bhárata and his brother. "Say to him that he is needed urgently in Ayodhya, but do not tell him that his father is dead or that Rama is exiled," he said to them. "Take fine robes and jewels for his grandfather, the king."

The messengers rode as swiftly as the horses were able to go, but still it took them nearly a week to reach the kingdom of Kekaya. There Bhárata asked after the welfare of the king, the queens, and his brothers, and the messengers answered, "All those who are dear to you are well, O lion among men. But summon your chariot, for you are needed at home."

Bhárata and Shátrughna asked their grandfather's permission to depart and gave him the gifts sent from Ayodhya. Then they had horses saddled and left the city, followed by elephants, camels, and carts bearing gifts from their grandfather. They were troubled by the urgent message they had received and outdistanced their escort, traveling through Panchala, crossing the Ganges at the great city of Hástina, until on the seventh day, with tired horses, they arrived at the gate of Ayodhya.

There they found the city sad and silent and their hearts were sick with dread. They entered the palace, where no one met them, and strode through the halls seeking the king. Finding him nowhere, they went to the apartments of Bhárata's mother, where their father often sat.

Queen Kaikeyi, happy to see her son after his long absence, rose and embraced him. He and Shátrughna made obeisance to her, touching her feet, and answered her first questions as to their welfare. Then Bhárata asked anxiously, "Tell me, Mother, why the city is so sad and empty. Where is my father, whom I have come so far to see?"

His mother told him of the king's death, and the two princes mourned their father bitterly, for they loved and honored him. "How fortunate my brothers were, who were here when he died!" said Bhárata. "Where is Rama? Now that he is king, he will be a second father to me. Where are he and Lákshmana?"

Then his mother told him the whole story of the two boons that she had demanded of the king: "When I heard that Rama was to be crowned king, I asked your father to banish him and to bestow the kingdom upon you, and he did so because he had to keep his promise to me. Then he died, since he could not bear to be separated from his eldest son. All this I brought about for your sake, my child. Do not grieve; perform the funeral rites for your noble father and accept the throne, for the kingdom and the city are now without a ruler and depend on you for their very life!"

Bhárata rose, his eyes red with anger. O sinful one, O destroyer of the family, how did you ever think of such a deed?" he cried. "Why have you slain my father and banished Rama, who ever delights in virtue and who loved you as his own mother? What have you gained by such wickedness? Did you not know how much I love and honor Rama? Did you believe that I would rule the kingdom while he lived? It is the custom in our noble house that the eldest brother rules and that the younger ones obey him. You do not know the duty of a king or the rules of government, though you yourself were born of a royal house. You have cast the glory and the honor of this kingdom into the dust, and it is I who must bear the blame of your wickedness, for all men will despise me, and I am bereft of my father and of my two brothers.

"O cruel-hearted one, O traveler on the road to your own ruin, listen well to what I say! I will never fulfill your evil designs! I shall bring Rama back from the forest and serve him with my whole heart for the rest of my life!"

He left her, and the queen, seeing that she lost both her husband and her son, and that her plans had come to nothing, began to repent bitterly of what she had done.

The mother of Rama, Queen Kaushalya, heard the sound of Bhárata's lamentation and went forth from her rooms to find him. Bhárata and Shátrughna saw how pale and weak she was and wept as they bowed before her, touching her feet. In her sorrow she spoke bitter words, saying, "You wished to rule the kingdom, O Bhárata, and your cruel mother has fulfilled your desire and made you the sovereign of this great empire. But why must the pitiless queen send my son into exile? Let her banish me also! O Bhárata, take me to that place where Rama, that lion among men, lives like a hermit in a garment made of bark!"

"O Mother, you know how dearly I love Rama and that I am quite innocent of his exile," said Bhárata, pained by her hard words. "If I caused or agreed to the exile of Rama, may I forget the holy books and the traditions of our race! May I become the slave of the lowest caste or beg my bread from door to door, clothed in rags! May I receive the punishment of one who rebels against a just king, of one who does not pay the wages of those who labor for him, of one who strikes a cow, who speaks evil of his teacher or betrays his friends! If I ever had a secret wish to banish Rama, may I meet the fate of one who eats good food but offers none to the gods, to his ancestors, or his guests! May I fall as low as one who abandons his hungry children, who turns away from a faithful wife, as one who drinks the milk of a cow whose calf is not yet weaned, or who sleeps at sunrise or at sunset!

"If I have ever done anything but love and obey my elder brother, whose countenance is as radiant as the sun and the moon, may I not live to see his coronation!"

The queen was convinced of his innocence and embraced him tenderly, saying, "It is fortunate that your heart and those of the twins are ever devoted to Rama. Surely you will all enter the regions of the blest!"

Then Bhárata, finding himself unwillingly in Rama's place, took up the duties of the eldest son. First of all the funeral rites of the old king must be held. His body had been embalmed until at least one of his sons could be present; now it was clothed in royal garments and carried on a litter to the bank of the river, where a pyre of fragrant woods was raised. All the court, the three queens, the priests, and many citizens followed the litter, Bhárata and Shátrughna leading them. They stood beside the pyre while it blazed and consumed the king's body; they poured libations upon it while the priests recited the holy verses. Then they returned to the city, and for ten days of mourning they slept on the bare ground.

One day when Bhárata and Shátrughna were talking together, the hunchback Manthara came to the door of the women's apartments. They had heard of the part she had played in their great misfortunes, but had not seen her. Now one of the palace guards seized her and brought her to them. "This is the sinful wretch who caused the death of the king and the exile of Lord Rama," he said. She was dressed in splendid garments and adorned with jewels and looked like a pet monkey. Shátrughna took her and shook her so hard that her jewels flew off in all directions and she shrieked with terror. He threw her down and dragged her into Kaikeyi's room, where he reviled them both with bitter words. Kaikeyi, too, was terrified and appealed to Bhárata, who said to his brother, "Women must never be slain or even hurt by us. If it were not so, what would I not have done to the queen, my mother: Rama would wish us to forgive this crippled woman; therefore set her free, O Shátrughna!" Manthara fell, trembling and weeping, at Kaikeyi's feet and the two brothers left them.

On the fourteenth day, after the king's ashes had been gathered and the last rites performed, the high priest summoned the two princes, the ministers and the counselors of the kingdom, and the leaders of the army, to the assembly hall. He said to Bhárata, "Today you are our lord, O mighty prince. The kingdom has no ruler, and your father left it to you. Your coronation has been prepared and everyone looks to you for protection and guidance. Therefore ascend the throne of your noble ancestors!"

"It is known to you, O sinless one, that in our royal house the throne is always inherited by the eldest son," answered Bhárata. "Therefore it is not right that you should ask this of me. The kingdom belongs to Rama and I also belong to him, since he is my elder brother. I never wished to rule and I knew nothing of what happened in my absence, since I was far away. My heart is filled with anguish because of my father's death and my brother's exile. Now I intend to bring him back to Ayodhya and to his rightful kingdom, while I go into exile for fourteen years in his place. I shall start at once for the forest and shall crown him there. Therefore let roads be made and rough places smoothed, so that the army may follow us and all of you, the queens, and the chiefs of the people may be present at his coronation!"

There was great joy at this announcement in the palace and among the citizens, who were happy for the first time in many sad weeks. All praised the faithfulness of Bhárata and rejoiced that Rama would soon be with them. The city was busy again as skilled mechanics, bridge builders, woodcutters, and all kinds of workmen streamed from the gates to prepare the way, while the streets were washed and decorated. The people laughed and talked again and heard the sound of drums and cymbals.

When all was ready, Bhárata and Shátrughna mounted their chariot and set forth eagerly. Ministers and priests rode on horseback or in chariots; the great elephant that was to bear Rama back was richly caparisoned and decorated; the queens and their ladies traveled in curtained litters; the leaders of the army and the chief merchants of the city followed, and dozens of carts drawn by bullocks carried food and tents and other baggage. All went joyfully forward to bring Rama home again.

The road had been smoothed and widened all the way to the Ganges, where Sumantra had left the two princes and Sita, and there Bhárata set up his camp for the night.

Guha, the ferryman, had seen them coming and was frightened at the sight of warriors and such a large company. He called his ministers and followers together. "The flag of Koshala flies over the largest tent of this great army," he said. "It must be Prince Bhárata who comes here to find Rama. Perhaps he wishes to slay his elder brother in order to make his rule secure. Arm yourselves, my friends, and line the river bank; call all our boats together and let their crews be well armed! If Bhárata means no harm, we shall welcome him and ferry him across."

Then Guha went to meet Bhárata, carrying the usual offerings of food. Sumantra had told the prince that the ferryman was a good friend of Rama, and Bhárata welcomed him warmly. "Tell me, O King of watermen," he said, "how I can reach the dwelling place of my two brothers and Sita? I know that with your help they crossed the river at this place."

"Have no fear, great prince," said Guha. "My followers know the forest well; they will guide you, and I myself will go with you. But this great army frightens me. Do you seek Rama with any evil intent?"

"Do not think evil of me, my friend," answered Bhárata, whose heart was as pure as the unclouded sky. "I go to crown Lord Rama and bring him back from his exile; he is as dear to me as my father."

"O Bhárata, there is none equal to you in the world," said Guha joyfully. "Your fame will live forever, since for your brother's sake you give up an empire that has fallen into your hands through no act of your own."

They rested and spent the night on the bank of the river, and in the morning Guha gathered hundreds of boats and rafts together to take them across. There were only footpaths on the other side, and the great crowd of men and animals had to break their way through the forest, cutting down trees and leveling the ground, and the noise they made and the dust they raised frightened the animals and birds, who fled away on all sides.

Guha led Bhárata to the hermitage of that saint who had welcomed the three exiles on their second night in the forest. When they came near to it, Bhárata told the rest of the company to halt there, while he put off his weapons and his rich attire. Clad in a single garment, he approached the saint with the high priest and Shátrughna. The holy one welcomed them and refreshed them with forest fruits. Then he told them where Rama had gone and that they would surely find his dwelling on the side of the lovely mountain Chitrakuta.

Before they left, the queens came to take leave of the sage, and he asked Bhárata to present each one as she came forward to touch his feet. "Here is my father's chief queen, O holy one," said Bhárata, "weak with fasting and sorrow. She is the mother of Rama, that lion among men. And this one who is ever near her is the mother of those heroes Lákshmana and Shátrughna. O great sage, she who has brought about all our sorrow and caused the death of the king, the cruel Kaikeyi, is my mother."

But the holy one, who knew both the past and the future, looked upon Kaikeyi, who stood stricken with remorse, apart from the others, and said, "Do not reproach your mother, my son. The exile of Rama will bring about great good."

Then the whole great company set out joyfully for Chitrakuta.

 

Rama, Sita, and Lákshmana had become accustomed to their life in the forest and were very happy there. They bathed two or three times a day in the bright waters of the river, where cranes and wild geese stood in the shallows and where they gathered lotus blossoms and water lilies. They walked through the woods, finding cool caves and flowery clearings; they sought out the finest fruit trees--figs, mango, breadfruit, and banana--and gathered honey and berries for their food and for offerings to the gods. Sometimes the two brothers shot a deer or an antelope and used the soft skins to cover their beds and to make warm garments. Sometimes they speared fish in the river, broiling the sweet flesh over a fire they built on the sands.

One day they were sitting on a rock near their dwelling, eating venison that they had roasted. Suddenly a great noise disturbed the peace of the forest, and they saw a cloud of dust rising above the trees. Birds fled by with cries of fear, and a herd of deer leaped swiftly through the woods. Lákshmana climbed a tree and saw the vast company of Bhárata, with its horses and elephants, its chariots and litters.

"Put out the fire, brother, and arm yourself!" he called. "Let Sita enter the cave, for an army comes."

"Look at the flag and see whose army it is," answered Rama.

"I see a chariot with a white flag bearing the emblem of our own dynasty," cried Lákshmana angrily. "Bhárata has come to kill us both so that he may rule in peace. O Rama, let us arm ourselves, for surely there is no sin in slaying one who has wronged you. O mighty one, today I will let loose the anger that has been hidden in my heart and free the world of Kaikeyi and her son, and you shall rule the whole earth."

"What harm has Bhárata ever done us that you should speak so harshly of him?" Rama answered. "I am sure that when he returned and found us gone, he wished to come here to see us out of love and grief. I can see no other reason for his coming. If you speak thus because of the kingdom, O Lákshmana, I will ask him to give it to you. If I say to him, 'O Bhárata, give the kingdom to Lákshmana,' he will surely do it."

"I see the royal elephant," said Lákshmana, abashed by his brother's reproach. "Perhaps it is our father who has come to see us. But I do not see the white canopy that would be held above his head if he were there."

While they spoke, the noise had ceased, for Bhárata had seen the smoke of their fire and wished to meet Rama with only Shátrughna, Sumantra, and Guha. He followed a well-worn path and saw first a charming hut on whose walls hung bright shields and mighty bows and quivers of arrows; then he saw his beloved brother, clad in a hermit's dress, seated between Sita and Lákshmana.

Bhárata ran forward, speaking his brother's name, and knelt weeping at his feet. Shátrughna also bowed to Rama's feet and then to Sita's, and the four brothers embraced one another with unspeakable joy. Then Rama, looking at Bhárata, said, "I scarcely know you, dear brother, you look so thin and so careworn. What brings you here to the forest? Is the king, our father, well, or has grief ended his life?"

Bhárata told him of his father's death, and Rama grieved sorely, knowing that his own departure had been the cause of it. He and his brothers went to the river, and standing in it, filled the palms of their hands with its pure waters, and Rama said, "O mighty King, may this water offered today by your sons be yours forever in the realm of our ancestors." In the same way they offered to his spirit the fruit and berries of the forest.

Then the high priest, the ministers, the queens, and the citizens came forward and Rama greeted them all, touching the feet of the priests and the three queens, while his mother and Lákshmana's embraced their sons and Sita joyfully. Everyone felt as if the exiles had been away for years although, indeed, it had been only a few weeks.

When the joyful meeting was over, all those who had come sat down around the hut, looking at the two brothers who sat side by side; for they all longed to know what Bhárata would say to Rama and what the answer would be. For a time there was a deep silence; no one spoke and they felt at peace.

At last Bhárata said, "O mighty one, our father, the king, was forced by my mother to do a shameful thing, and he has died of grief in consequence. Although I am Kaikeyi's son I am your devoted follower and servant. I beg of you to let yourself be crowned today and to ascend the throne. The priests and ministers of the kingdom, the elders of the people, and my mother herself have come to entreat you. O best of men, you are the eldest son and should by right succeed our father. Accept the burden of kingship and fulfill our desire! The earth, ruled by you, will be as content as the winter night when the moon is full. I will put on a hermit's dress and take your place in the forest. O Rama, do not let us plead in vain!"

Bhárata, his eyes filled with tears, bowed his head to Rama's feet. His elder brother raised him and embraced him. "O Bhárata, how can a good and wise prince ask his elder brother to do wrong?" he said. "The father, the king, or the spiritual teacher can command us to do whatever he wills, and our duty is to obey. Our father commanded me to go to the forest and you to ascend the throne. How can we dare to disobey? Return to Ayodhya, O sinless one, and enjoy the kingdom my father has given you, while I remain here and enjoy what he has given me. I should not want to rule over the whole world in defiance of his will."

"Be gracious to me and listen to me, O Rama!" entreated his brother. "When I was far away my mother committed the sin that causes all my sorrow. I am born of a virtuous king and I know what is evil and what is good. It is said that a man loses his judgment as he draws near to death, and our father has proved this to be true. How else could a man who knew so well the laws of virtue do such a thing in order to please a woman? He acted also without consulting his advisors or the people. You are not bound by such a deed; you should rather hide it from the world and so defend the good name of the king.

"O Rama, it is your duty to save your father, my mother, and myself from the results of this deed which everyone condemns. It is your duty as a Kshatria to protect and rule your people. O noble one, listen to me! I am only a child, compared to you, in wisdom, in virtue, and in rank. How can I be king? With my head at your feet I entreat you to wash away the stain of my mother's guilt and to let us all rejoice at your coronation."

All those who were present praised Bhárata and added their entreaties to his. They admired the faithfulness of Rama and yet longed for his return.

"Two boons were granted by my father to your mother, O Bhárata," said Rama. "In order to uphold his honor and the truth of his word, I am willing to fulfill one of them and to live in the forest for twice seven years. Now it is for you to redeem the second boon: to return to Ayodhya and accept the throne. Be the king of men, my brother, and I will reign here over the animals of the forest. The royal canopy shall shelter you from the sun's heat, and the cool shadows of the trees shall give me shade. Shátrughna will attend you and Lákshmana will stay here with me. So shall we, the four sons of our noble father, guard his honor in the realm of truth."

Then the high priest spoke to him, reminding him that from the beginning, in the noble dynasty to which Rama belonged, the eldest son inherited the throne. "It is not right for you to break this sacred rule, my son," he said. "When a man is born he must obey his father, his mother, and his spiritual teacher. Parents give men their body, but the teacher gives them wisdom. I am your father's teacher and yours; hear my counsel and follow the path of virtue. Behold, here are your relatives, the learned priests, the warriors and merchants of the capital; here is your mother, whom you should obey. Do your duty to us all and yield to your brother's entreaty!"

"The good that parents do to their son cannot easily be repaid," Rama answered. "When he is a child they dress him in delicate clothes and give him tempting foods; they put him to rest and tenderly rub his body with oil and give him gentle counsel; they teach him what he needs for his welfare. I cannot set aside the commands of my father. The moon may lose its light and the Himalayas their snow, the ocean may overflow its bounds, but I shall not break the vow I made in his presence."

Bhárata said to Sumantra. "Bring some kusha grass, O charioteer, and make a seat for me here at the door of Lord Rama's hut. I will sit here and fast until he consents to return to Ayodhya."

"What wrong have I done you, dear brother, that you should sit thus before me?" asked Rama. "A man may do so to one who has wronged him, but it is not right for you to act so to me."

Bhárata turned to the citizens of Ayodhya who sat silent around him. "Why do you not also entreat Lord Rama?" he asked them.

"We cannot entreat him any more," answered one of them, "for his mind is made up."

Then Bhárata surrendered, falling at his brother's feet and crying, "O Rama, Rama!" He had brought royal raiment for the coronation; now he sent an attendant to fetch the sandals adorned with gold and jewels that were a part of that apparel. Place your feet in these sandals, O blessed one," he said, "for they will be all that we have to support and protect us."

Rama put his feet in the sandals and then gave them back to his brother. "From today on, I shall put on the hermit's dress and live on forest food outside the city walls, awaiting your return," said Bhárata. "I shall place these sandals on the throne under the royal canopy, and they shall rule the kingdom for twice seven years. If you do not return on the last day of the last year, I shall enter the fire and die."

Rama embraced him lovingly and said, "So be it!" Then turning to the people, he said, "Bhárata is pure of heart and a lover of the truth; he will rule you well. When I return from the forest, I shall accept the kingdom from him and with his help, follow the path of my ancestors."

He took leave of them all, bowing low to the priest, his mothers, the ministers, and the citizens and lovingly embracing his two brothers. Bhárata raised the sandals to his head, them placed them on the back of the royal elephant, and the great company returned the way they had come.

When they arrived in Ayodhya, Bhárata did as he had said he would do. He took the queens back to the palace, then he drove again in his chariot out of the gate of the city, which he would not see again for fourteen years. The ministers and warriors and the elders of the people followed him though he had not spoken to them. He stopped in the village of Nandigrama, not far from the wall, and there he dismounted, and with Shátrughna beside him, spoke to the people.

"My brother, Lord Rama, has given this kingdom to me as a precious trust. Until he returns, these sandals shall represent him. I shall place them upon the throne and raise the royal canopy above them. When Rama returns I shall put them upon his feet again and deliver the kingdom to him."

He lived there in a simple hut and ate a hermit's food; his wife also put on the hermit's dress and lived there with him, and so did Shátrughna and his wife. All the affairs of state were laid first before the sandals on the royal throne; all gifts were offered there before they were brought to Bhárata and distributed by him. And the people of that kingdom and all the subject kingdoms knew that everything possible had been done to bring Rama back; they saw the faithfulness of his brothers and knew that even Queen Kaikeyi had repented of her wicked deeds. So they took up their occupations again and held their festivals and were happy under the just rule of Bhárata.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 67-87.


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