by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER SEVEN

THE YEARS IN THE FOREST

 

After Bhárata had gone, Rama decided to leave the lovely mountainside of Chitrakuta and the hut that had sheltered them and to go farther to find another dwelling place. The memory of his brother's anguish and the sorrow of his mother on being again separated from him lingered in that place. Besides, the elephants and horses had broken the young trees and trampled the flowers and grasses and fouled the ground so that the deer and the monkeys did not return there and much of the beauty of the place was gone.

With Lákshmana and Sita he followed the forest paths, for many hermits lived in those woods. They came first to a clearing where a sage lived with his wife, who was as wise and holy as her husband. Indeed, by her discipline and meditation, she had been able during a season of great drought to make the fruits and berries grow abundantly, plump and rich, so that those who lived in the forest might not go hungry.

All of the forest dwellers had heard of Rama's exile and honored him for being so faithful to his father. They honored equally Lákshmana and Sita for following him. So these hermits welcomed the visitors and invited them to stay for as long as they desired. While the two brothers talked with the holy man, Sita sat with his wife, who asked her many things about her marriage and her parents and such things as women like to talk about. Then she went to a chest at the back of her hut and brought out beautiful robes which she gave to Sita. She gave her also ointments and powders. "Use these and your beauty will never fade, nor will these garments ever wear out or lose their colors," she said. "Now dress yourself in them and delight your husband's eyes." And Sita came forth from the hut looking more beautiful than before and showed the gifts to Rama and Lákshmana, who rejoiced with her. They spent the night there and went on farther.

"Let us visit all the hermitages in the forest and talk with these blessed folk," said Rama. "We can learn much from them and spend our years in the forest in their company."

So they went from one to another of the peaceful places where both men and women had come to purify their lives by discipline and meditation and to find God. They could tell when they were nearing a hermitage, because the animals and birds were tame and did not flee from them; herds of gentle deer and antelope browsed in the clearings and birds sang from every tree. The brothers unstrung their bows as they approached and never killed an animal within sight of the holy places.

Everywhere they were made welcome and urged to stay. A hut was given to them, and the hermits taught them many useful things: how to find the succulent and nourishing roots that lay under the ground; which herbs healed cuts and bruises and which made good medicines; which wood kindled most quickly into fire when two sticks were rubbed together. They stayed for long times in different hermitages, sometimes for two or three months, sometimes for twelve or more. So ten years of their exile passed.

In the cold winter evenings or during the summers when the rains poured ceaselessly from the heavy clouds, the hermits told them many stories, for most of them were learned men who had been priests and teachers or ministers of great kings before they came to the forest. The two brothers and Sita listened with delight as the sages told them how the world and all its creatures had been created, how gods and demons had fought together long ago. They told how the Lord Vishnu had saved the world again and again by being born into it in the form of different creatures.

Once the earth was sinking under the weight of its population, and Vishnu became a powerful boar who held it up with his single tusk until it recovered. A long time ago there was a great flood that washed over the whole earth, destroying all living things. But there was one holy man called Manu to whom Vishnu appeared in the form of a fish. He told Manu that the flood was coming and bade him build a strong boat with a long rope attached to it and to put into it the seeds of every living plant. So Manu build the boat, and when the waters rose over the earth, the fish returned and towed him and his boat to the one peak in the Himalayas that stood above the flood. There, when the water retreated, Manu recreated the world.

"And once, many thousands of years ago," said the hermit, "a powerful titan defeated all the gods and conquered the three worlds. The gods, with Agni, the lord of fire, leading them, went to Vishnu to beg for his help. This time he was born as a dwarf named Vámana. He grew up in the very hermitage that you protected when you were a boy, O Rama, for he had chosen as his earthly parents two saintly hermits who dwelt in that place. He waited patiently there for the time when he could win back the universe. At last he heard that the titan was about to perform a great sacrifice, and that as part of the ceremony he must give generous alms to all who asked of him. Vámana made himself still meaner by dressing as a beggar and appeared before the mighty king.

"'O lord of the three worlds,' he said, 'will you grant a poor beggar as much land as he can cover with three steps?' The titan laughed as he looked at the little creature and granted the request. Then Vishnu took his own mighty form. He placed one foot on the lower world, the other on this world that we know, and the third step he mounted to heaven. So the universe was saved."

They laughed over this story, and none of them realized, not even Rama, that the lord Vishnu was dwelling in the world again, in the person of his brothers and himself.

 

As they roamed the woods they went always farther south, away from Ayodhya. They came to the great forest of Dándaka, which lies between the Narbada and the Godávari rivers. In its depths the demons had a stronghold where Khara, a brother of Rávana, lived with many followers and whence they went forth, bent on mischief. In one hermitage many men had gathered together for fear of those demons. When they saw Rama and Lákshmana, armed with mighty bows and girded with swords, they came to them, asking for their help against the fiends who tormented them.

"O protector of the whole world, you are famed in earth and heaven for your valor and glory," they said. "Obedience, justice, and faith are united in you, O Rama. We beg you to defend and protect the Brahmans and hermits who dwell in this forest and who cannot defend themselves, since they have foresworn anger and violence. But you are Kshatrias and have the right to bear and use weapons, to protect the weak and to slay the evildoer. Come and behold the bodies of pure-hearted hermits who have been slain by these demons, while many more have been carried off and devoured by them! We can no longer bear their cruel deeds; we have no refuge on earth but you, O noble princes. Therefore, save us from them!"

"I am the servant of the sages," answered Rama. "I have come here out of obedience to my father and I believe, to deliver you from the demons. Do not fear; my brother and I will slay all those that harm you."

This promise troubled Sita, as if she foresaw the end of their happy life; and one day, as they were resting, she spoke to Rama about it.

"I wish that you were not going into this dangerous forest," she said. "I fear, my lord, that you will be tempted to acts of violence. There are three faults born of desire; one is to tell a lie, the second is to desire another man's wife, and the third is to slay a man without reason. The first two you could never commit, but I fear that if you enter the forest with your great bow in your hand, you may commit the third and slay the demons even if they do not harm you. I beg of you not to do so. You came here to live the life of a hermit. When you return to Ayodhya you can become a warrior again. I say this out of love and respect, O Rama, for how could I dare to teach you your duty? Think about it and do as you think best!"

"Your words are worthy of you, O lovely one, and they please me because one gives advice only to those one loves," Rama replied. "How shall I answer you? I believe that I have come here to protect these blessed ones. I should have had to do so even if they had said nothing; but now they have asked me for help and I promised it to them. How can I break my word?"

When they had visited all the hermitages they entered the Dándaka forest and made a new home for themselves, far south near the Godávari River. They built a strong hut again, of young trees plastered with mud that dried into firm walls; they leveled the floor and thatched the roof with broad, thick leaves. One day they saw a great vulture perched on a nearby tree. They were on the lookout for demons and therefore challenged him, asking him who he was, for they knew that the fiends could take whatever form they chose. The big bird answered them gently, "I am a friend of your father, my children; my name is Jatáyu. My older brother and I are descended directly from those gods who created all the birds and animals in the beginning of the world. I will live near you, if you so desire, O Rama, and I will watch over Sita when you and Lákshmana are away."

In that pleasant place they watched the seasons pass and delighted in the beauty of each one. Sita especially loved their forest life; she was always with Rama now, more than she had been in Ayodhya, where he was often busy with affairs of state and his duty to his father. She had always loved the flowers of her garden and had caged singing birds and taught them to talk to her. Now she had them all around her; they fed from her hand and answered when she called to them. She tamed mynas and parrots and taught them to speak, and when the peacocks spread their tails and danced as the rains began, she could not see enough of them. She loved the deer and made pets of the fawns, which followed her about. It was always a joy to wander in the woods with Rama, seeking brighter flowers for the garlands she made for them all, or richer berries and fruit. Rama or Lákshmana hunted, for they never left Sita alone, even though Jatáyu was there; and the days passed as leaves fall in the autumn.

Lákshmana served them as he had said he would do when they set out from Ayodhya. It was he who gathered the wood and kindled the flame with firesticks; he prepared the meat for cooking, skinned the animals they killed and tanned the hides for their use. He went far afield to find the richest berries and the ripest fruit, and he loved to find the earliest and the brightest flowers for Sita. When she and Rama returned from walking in the woods, he brought water and washed their feet. For the eldest brother was always honored and obeyed by the younger ones, and when the father died the eldest son took his place. He protected and cared for his younger brothers and they behaved to him as sons.

Sometimes in winter and the rainy season they sought one of the spacious caves in the hills, where they built a fire at the mouth that kept them warm and dry. "For nine months the sun has sucked the waters of the ocean and stored it in these great clouds that rise like mountains into the sky," said Rama one day as they were kept in by the rains. "It seems as if we could climb them and crown the sun with garlands of flowers. Now the lightning whips them with golden thongs and they groan in pain. How the cranes love the clouds, circling about them as if dancing for joy!"

"See how the raindrops fall, like pearls, into the folds of the leaves!" said Sita. "The birds drink them as if they were special gifts of the gods. What music we have here in the forest! The humming of bees, the frogs croaking for joy of the rain, the birds' songs and the thunder rumbling like the roll of drums seem more beautiful to me than the instruments of men."

"The rivers are washing away their banks and rushing toward their lord, the ocean, proud of their speed," Lákshmana added. "Our river must be overflowing, too. Bhárata will have collected the taxes and stored the grain. He must be celebrating the summer festival."

They rejoiced when the rains stopped, for the autumn was a lovely season. The clouds that had soaked the earth and filled the rivers to overflowing were gone, and the sky was as bright as a drawn sword. The lines of the mountains were clear and sharp in the sunlight and loomed dark against the bright stars and in the moonlight. The rivers ran smoothly and slowly, gradually uncovering their banks where the wild geese gathered among the swans and ducks. The elephants that had run madly through the woods in the spring, seeking and fighting for their mates, came sedately to the water; they sprinkled themselves all over through their long trunks and drank deeply. The peacocks lost their gorgeous tails and walked forlornly as if ashamed. But the lotus flowers burst forth in their glory and the forest was filled with fragrance and with the humming of bees, and the breeze was cool and sweet. This was the time, Rama and Lákshmana remembered, when kings and warriors set out for war or conquest.

Winter followed, when the nights were cold and the morning air was biting until the sun, which looked more like the moon than its blazing self, rose high and rejoiced the heart. There were mists in winter: the trees, whose flowers had fallen, seemed asleep, and while the cries of cranes and geese were heard, the birds themselves could not be seen. When the elephants came to drink, they drew their long trunks back again, shocked by the icy stream, and the waterfowl stood on the banks like cowardly warriors who fear the battle. There were clear days, too, and then the three forest dwellers sought the sun and rejoiced in its light and heat.

In the winter evenings, warm and sheltered, they whiled away the time with memories and with stories they had heard in their childhood or from the sages. One time Rama said, "When you told me that you would come with me here, my Sita, you said that you would follow me as Savitri followed her husband Satyavan. Tell us that story now." And Sita, her voice as sweet as any bird's, told them the tale.

 

Savitri was a proud princess and very beautiful, but when she grew to marriageable age, no man who was worthy of her asked for her hand. One day her father said to her, "It is a shame both to you and to me that you are not yet married. Therefore go forth and seek a husband who is your equal." He gave her a golden chariot and servants to attend her and sent two wise counselors with her to watch over her.

She did not go to the neighboring kingdoms or to fair cities, but ordered her chariot to go in the forest, where she visited the holy sages and looked about her. In a secluded hermitage she came one day upon a blind old man and his wife who were cared for by their son, a noble and beautiful youth named Satyavan, the truthful one. She fell in love with him and he with her. His father had been a king, but because of his blindness, he had been driven by an enemy from his throne when Satyavan was a baby.

Savitri went home and told her father that she had found a noble husband. He questioned his counselors and the wise men of his court, and they all agreed that Satyavan was in every way worthy of his daughter. But one of them, a seer, said, "There is a single thing against him which blots out all his virtues. One year after his wedding day he must die." Nevertheless Savitri would have no other for her lord; she married Satyavan and lived with him in the hermitage, carrying lovingly for him and for his parents.

When the year drew to its end, she fasted for three days and did not sleep; her husband and his parents were anxious because she was so thin and pale, but she told them nothing. On the day when she knew he was to die, he went into the woods with axe in hand to gather fruit and firewood, and Savitri went with him, though she had never gone before. In the afternoon he was taken suddenly ill and lay down on the ground with his head on her lap. Then she was aware of a mighty figure standing over them, clad in a red robe, a crown on his dark head, a noose in his hand. She knew him to be Yama, the God of Death, and she rose and made obeisance to him, after laying Satyavan's head gently down. The god told her that her husband's days had run out, and with that he pulled Satyavan's life out of his body and bound it in his noose. Then he turned away, walking southward.

Savitri followed him, and Yama said to her, "Turn back, O Savitri, and perform the funeral rites of your husband. You are free now of all duty to him and must come no farther."

"Whenever my husband is taken or whenever he goes of his own accord, I go with him," Savitri said. "This is the eternal custom, O lord of death. Besides, it has been said that two people may become friends after taking seven steps together. It is good to be in the company of the righteous, O exalted one."

"I am pleased with your words, O princess," answered Death. "I will grant you a boon--anything except the life of your husband." She asked that her father-in-law might regain his sight. "It shall be so," said Yama. "Now return, O lovely one! Do not weary yourself further."

"How can I be weary in my husband's presence?" asked Savitri. "Wherever you take him, there will I go. You have been called the lord of justice because you deal equally with all creatures, showing no favor. One is never downhearted in the company of the just."

"I have never seen a woman so devoted to her lord," said Yama, "nor heard one speak as you do. Now ask of me a second boon." She asked that her father-in-law might regain his kingdom and always rule it wisely. "He shall regain it soon and never swerve from the path of duty," answered the lord of death. "Now turn back, O gentle lady, for the way is long and you have come far."

"I have not noticed the distance, since I am beside my husband," Savitri replied. "Listen to me further, O chief of the celestials! The righteous are good to others without expecting anything in return; they never injure any creature, but love and protect all beings. Truly, the earth and the sun, the past and the future depend on those who follow the path of virtue."

"The more I listen to you, the more I respect your wisdom and humility, O faithful one," said Yama. "Ask some great boon of me."

"My father-in-law has no sons," she said. "Let sons be born of Satyavan and of me, to carry on his line!"

"You shall have strong and brave sons who will delight your heart," said the god. "Now come no further, for you have already ventured too far."

Then Savitri reminded him that she could not bear Satyavan's sons without her husband. Yama, the just one, saw that he was fairly caught; he undid the noose with good grace, blessing Savitri and all her descendants, and went on his way.

Savitri returned to where her husband's lifeless body lay and took his head upon her lap again. He woke and said, "I have slept a long time. Why did you not waken me, dear one? And where is that dark figure that seemed to stand above me?"

Savitri caressed him lovingly. "I will tell you all tomorrow, O blessed one," she said. "Now let us go home, for the sun set long ago and night has fallen."

She followed Satyavan not only into the forest, but even to the realm of death," said Sita as she ended the story. "And so I would follow you, O Rama."

"Were Yama's other boons also granted?" asked Rama. "Did Satyavan's father regain his sight?"

"That very afternoon his eyes were opened and he saw his son return from the forest with Savitri," answered Sita. "And a few days later messengers came from his kingdom to tell him that the man who had taken his throne and driven him out had been killed by one of his own ministers. The people wanted their old king back again and did not care whether he was blind or not. So he returned and ruled his kingdom wisely for many years, and when he died, Satyavan became king."

In such wise they spent their time; twelve years and more had now passed by. The demons seemed to be frightened by Rama's very presence and left the forest in peace. Yet the plan of the gods must be carried out, and misfortune came when they least expected it.


Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 88-101.


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