by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER EIGHT

THE DEMONS ATTACK

 

One day Rama, Sita, and Lákshmana were coming back to their hut from the river, where they had been bathing. A female demon, monstrous and ugly, chanced to pass by, and seeing the two youths, so straight and tall and handsome, with Sita, as lovely as the moon, between them, she fell in love with Rama.

"What are you doing in these woods that belong to the demons and why are you in hermit's attire when you are clearly a warrior?" she asked rudely.

Rama told her courteously who they were and asked, in turn, of what race and family she came.

"I am Surpanakha, sister of Rávana, of whom you have no doubt heard. I live with Khara, another brother of mine, not far from here; he rules this forest. O handsomest of men, take me for your wife and we shall wander through the woods and across the summits of the mountains, wherever you please."

Rama smiled and said teasingly, "I am already married and this is my beloved wife; but my brother is without a wife and is young and handsome. Take him for your husband, O lovely one!"

The demon turned to Lákshmana, saying, "Your beauty equals mine, O handsome youth. Let us live happily together in the forest!"

But Lákshmana teased her as Rama had done and answered, "I am but the slave of my elder brother, O large-eyed beauty! Surely you do not wish to be the wife of a servant. He alone is worthy of you."

Surpanakha, furious, turned again to Rama. "It is this ugly, peevish little woman who stands between us. I shall devour her before your eyes, and then we can live happily together." And with blazing eyes she rushed at Sita.

Rama flung her back and said to Lákshmana. "It was foolish of us to taunt such an evil creature. Now she threatens Sita. Teach her a lesson and send her away!" Lákshmana drew his sword, and since he would not kill a woman, cut off her ears and her nose.

Surpanakha gave a terrible shriek and fled howling through the woods. She went to her brother's stronghold, deep in the forest, where he was sitting in his court, and flung herself on the ground, writhing and bleeding.

"Get up!" he said angrily. "Why are you rolling on the ground like a snake? Control yourself and tell us who has dared to disfigure you thus? That fool who has brought you to this sorry plight does not know that he has wound the noose of death about his neck. Tell me, whose body will the vultures tear apart when he has fallen under my blows?"

Surpanakha, sobbing, told him all that had befallen her. "I wish to drink the blood of those two youths and that beautiful damsel," she said.

Her brother called on fourteen powerful warriors and sent them forth, with his sister guiding them, to avenge her. They traveled swiftly, as clouds are driven by the wind, and Surpanakha led them to the hut where the two brothers and Sita were sitting.

"Stay here with Sita, O Lákshmana, while I slay these fiends," said Rama. He stood out in the clearing, stretching his great bow. "We are the sons of the king of Koshala," he said to the warriors. "We live as hermits in these woods and injure no one. Why do you wish to harm us? Halt where you are and come no farther! If you wish to live, turn back, O prowlers of the night!"

"It is you who will die under our blows," they answered, "for you have displeased our master, who has sent us to slay you." And they hurled themselves upon him, letting fly their spears. But Rama, taking fourteen arrows, turned aside the spears, and then with a shout, sped fourteen more, which pierced the bodies of the nightprowlers and entered the earth behind them as serpents enter their holes.

Surpanakha, seeing her avengers slain, sped away, blind with rage, and fell at Khara's feet again, wailing and shrieking. "What is this?" he asked harshly. "I sent fourteen of my best warriors to do your will. Why all these swoonings and wailings?"

She told him that the fourteen had been slain by Rama alone, and Khara was filled with fury. He summoned his whole host, which he himself led. They assembled with a great uproar, the beating of drums, the clash of weapons, and the shouts of those who were eager for battle. Then they went forth like a tempest through and above the forest, like a black storm cloud charged with hail, darkening the sky. Evil omens pursued them: jackals howled, a sign of misfortune in war; birds beat their wings against the demons' banners and their shields. Their leader started to raise a war cry, but his voice died in his throat. Nonetheless he did not turn back, but said with a defiant laugh, "I am able to shoot the stars from the sky and to defeat Indra himself who wields the thunderbolt. Why should I turn back before two men?" And he rushed on toward Rama's hermitage.

The two brothers heard them coming and saw the birds and deer fleeing in terror. "I hear the shouts and drums of our enemies," said Rama. "There will be a great battle and their defeat is certain. See, smoke is rising from my arrows and my bow bends of itself, eager for the string. I see victory already in your face, dear brother. I know that you could strike them down alone, and yet I pray you to take Sita to the cave and guard her there, for we cannot leave her alone during the battle. I can slay these rangers of the night myself." Though he longed to be in the battle, Lákshmana obeyed his elder brother and went with Sita to a well-hidden cave.

Then Rama put on his coat of golden mail; he strung his bow and twanged its string till the sound re-echoed from every hillside. He went out to meet that host which looked like a mass of dark clouds at sunrise, while he was the sun which would dispel them all. The demons hurled their spears and arrows at him, and he called upon the divine weapons given him by the sage when he was a boy. With one of these he turned aside the demons' shafts and with another he sent forth not one but a hundred arrows at once that flew like serpents through the air, each seeking out its foe and piercing his heart. The demons shrieked and fell, like dry wood consumed by fire. Again and again he bent his bow like a sickle, sending forth the deadly arrows that seemed to darken the sun. He too was wounded, but he stood as calm as a bull under a downpour of rain. Hundreds of the fiends were slain and lay upon the field among their fallen banners, their shields and bright swords, their helmets and ornaments. The rest fled in terror, but were rallied by their leader and returned to hurl themselves again upon Rama, armed with spears, lances, maces, and swords, while he had only his bow, from which he sent forth the divine missiles. The fight was so furious that sometimes it seemed that Rama was winning and sometimes that his enemies prevailed. Seeing himself surrounded, he gave a great shout and set upon his bowstring the most powerful of his weapons, which sent forth a thousand arrows, each of which found its mark in a demon's heart.

Then Khara, who had been directing the attack, came forward in his blazing chariot, for all his host was slain. His horses galloping, he rushed upon Rama as a moth flies to a flame, shooting deadly arrows from his great bow. First Rama cut down his banner, which fell as a flowering tree falls beneath the axe. Then he let fly six well-aimed arrows. Four killed the horses that drew the chariot; the fifth slew the charioteer, and the sixth cut in two Khara's bow at the place where he held it. His bow shattered, his chariot useless, the demon was forced to fight on foot, as Rama did.

He came forward for single combat with a splendid mace in his hand. Rama rested for a moment and said to him, "O dweller in darkness, he who injures others and engages in evil deeds forfeits his life and comes to a miserable end. How can you escape from the fate you invited when you murdered the hermits who dwell in Dándaka? O prowler of the night, however you defend yourself, I shall pluck off your head as I pluck ripe fruit from a palm tree."

"You are a poor creature, O son of a king, for the true warrior does not boast," answered his adversary. "Behold me, with my mace, immovable as a mountain! I shall not only destroy you but the three worlds! Say no more, for sunset is near and our fight must not be stopped by darkness," He hurled his mace, as massive as a thunderbolt, but Rama turned it aside with an arrow and it lay harmless on the earth.

"Is that all you can do, O disgrace of your family?" cried Rama. "Today the Dándaka forest will be free of you and the blessed ones will live here in peace." He chose an arrow that was made by the gods and shone like fire; it flew, flaming, at Khara's breast and struck it like a thunderbolt. The demon fell, like a forest tree struck by lightning, and gave up his life.

The gods had gathered to watch this conflict; their praises and the music of the nymphs sounded from the sky, while flowers fell upon Rama. Hermits had come from nearby places and others, through their spiritual power, came from afar with the speed of thought; all these gathered round him and praised and blessed him, for now the whole Dándaka forest was free of those evil ones who had lived in it so long. Lákshmana and Sita came forth from the cave and embraced him joyfully; and Sita led him to their hut where she washed and tended his wounds, caressing him with great love.

One demon had escaped the arrows of Rama and sped away from the forest over hundreds of miles of land and ocean, until he came before Rávana himself in his splendid city of Lanka. Surpanakha, too, who had watched the battle and seen her brother and all the host of demons slain, fled to Rávana, who was the head of all their clan. First one and then the other came before him where he sat surrounded by his ministers on the terrace of his palace.

He was splendid to behold, seated on a golden throne in royal garments, adorned with a chain of emeralds, ornaments of gold, and garlands of flowers. His chest was broad and his arms as strong as the trunks of palm trees; they bore the scars of the weapons of the gods which had wounded but could not kill him. Like all of his race, he could assume any form he chose; in his worst shape he had ten heads and twenty arms and was terrifying to behold. He was arrogant in his power and believed himself safe from any enemy.

When he was told that his brother and all his warriors had been slain, he was mad with fury. "Who is this Rama?" he roared. "How does he look? What brought him to Dándaka? Did all the gods come with him to kill my great army?"

"He is a mighty archer, equal to Indra, O great King," answered the demon, still trembling with terror. "He is young and looks like a lion, with shoulders like a bull's'; he is as handsome as the full moon. No gods came with him; he destroyed our whole army single-handed with his bow and his flaming arrows that hiss like serpents through the air. Wherever the demons fled in their terror they saw him standing, and so they all were slain."

"I shall go there myself and kill him," cried Rávana. "The gods themselves cannot stand against me; I am the lord of Time, the consumer of Fire, the death of Death itself! I can stop the wind in its course. What can this man do to me?"

"O King, no one in the world, not you and all your kinsmen, can defeat Rama in battle," said the demon humbly. "He is supremely virtuous ad brave; he could stop a river in its course and change the boundaries of the sea. He could subdue all creatures if he so desired. Indeed, he could destroy the three worlds and create a new universe. But listen, O ten-headed one, and I will tell you how you can destroy him. Rama is wedded to a woman more beautiful than any other on earth; indeed, that slender-waisted damsel is lovelier than any heavenly being. In some deceitful way, draw Rama and his brother into the forest, for they never leave her alone. Then carry her away! Without her, Rama will die!"

Surpanakha, who hated Sita, agreed with this advice. "No woman in the world has ever been so beautiful. My ears and nose were cut off because I was trying to bring her to you, my brother," she said to him.

"It is well," said Rávana, "Tomorrow I will bring that princess here to my palace."

The following day he mounted his chariot. It flew through the air, its wheels making a sound like thunder, and it was drawn by mules with goblins' heads. He looked down on forests and mountaintops and then on the shore of the ocean. He crossed it and on the other side saw a clearing in the forest and a solitary hermitage. He descended there, for it was the dwelling of his chief and most trusted follower, Maricha, who was now practicing penance.

Maricha, startled by his coming, bowed to him and asked, "Is all well in Lanka, O king of demons? Why have you come hither?"

"Listen to me, Maricha," said his master. "Rama, a son of Koshala's king, has destroyed my whole army in the Dándaka forest. He is a worthless fellow; he has been exiled by his father because of his evil conduct; he has disgraced the Kshatria caste; he is ruthless and injures others without cause, having cut off the nose and ears of my sister and destroyed my host. I have resolved to carry off his beloved wife by force, for that will be my best revenge. Without her, I am told, he cannot live. I want you to help me in the undertaking."

"Whoever advised you to carry off Sita is your deadly enemy, O King," answered his follower. "He might as well have told you to take out the fangs of a poisonous serpent with your bare hands. O lord of Lanka, Sita is dearer to Rama than his own life. Even if you were able to carry her away, he would never rest until he had slain you. You do not know him; you must have very poor spies if they have told you such lies about him. He was not exiled to the forest for any misdeed; he came of his own will, to uphold his father's honor. He is virtue itself; he is self-controlled and gentle and never injures others without cause, but protects all creatures who seek his help. Yet none can stand against his righteous wrath. This great hero is the lord of the whole earth, even as Indra is chief of the gods.

"Listen, O ranger of the night! When he was but a boy I ranged the forest under your orders, sowing terror into the hearts of all creatures. A great sage went to the king of Koshala and asked him to send his son, a boy of fifteen, to drive me and my companions away from his retreat. This was Rama. When I came near the hermitage he struck me with an arrow that flung me a hundred miles into the sea and then he drove all my followers away. Later I met him in the forest, where I was roaming in the form of a deer, with two companions. I despised him because he was in a hermit's dress and I rushed at him with lowered horns. But he, swift as the wind, loosed three deadly arrows from his bow and only by a mighty leap did I escape, while my two companions were slain. Since then, my lord, I see Rama behind every tree; I dream of him at night and wake in terror; if I hear a word beginning with the first two letters of his name, I tremble. For that reason I am here, practicing penance.

"I say this for your own good, O King of demons. Do not rouse that sleeping lion! Do not throw yourself into that inextinguishable fire! No one can defeat Rama in battle. If you take Sita, not only you but the whole city of Lanka, with its temples and palaces, will be destroyed. For who is there to defend it save you, who are the slave of your desires and passions, who know no restraint and listen only to evil counsel? Compare yourself with Rama! O King, there is no greater sin than stealing another man's wife. Return in peace to your own wives and leave Rama with his!"

"O wretch, your words cannot alter my resolve; my mind is fixed," said Rávana angrily. "A wise minister listens respectfully, with joined palms, to what his master says and answers in fitting words. But you forget your duty and speak arrogantly; these gloomy words do not please me. I did not come here to ask for your advice; I came to demand your help, for you are a master of magic. Now listen to my orders! Take the form of a golden deer, flecked with silver, with jeweled horns and hoofs. Show yourself to Sita, for she loves these wild things; play about her so that she will ask Rama to capture you for her. He will pursue you, for he will do anything to please her, leaving Lákshmana with her. Lead him far into the forest, and when you are there, imitate his voice and cry out as if in anguish, "O Lákshmana, save me!" Then his brother will leave Sita and I can easily carry her away. Do this for me and I will give you half my kingdom, O my friend. If you do not obey me, I shall slay you at once. Truly you risk your life by opposing Rama, but certain death awaits you if you oppose me."

Maricha's face wilted with terror; he stared like one already dead at Rávana. Then, licking his dry lips, he answered bitterly, "It is not I who should be pitied for the unexpected misfortune that has come upon me, but you who refuse to hear me, as a dying man refuses medicine. I shall perish as soon as I encounter Rama, and if you succeed, with my help, in bearing Sita away it will be the end of you, of Lanka and of our race. I am doomed, but I had rather die at Rama's hands than at yours. So let us go!"

Rávana embraced Maricha warmly, and they both mounted the chariot. Passing over forests and villages, kingdoms and cities, they came to Dándaka and saw Rama's hermitage, surrounded by palm trees. Nearby, but out of sight, the chariot descended.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 102-113.


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