To The FOREST | RAMAYAN

 

18. TO THE FOREST 


AFTER Rama left his father's presence with these words, the stricken King lay prostrated in speechless sorrow, and it was some time before he could muster his faculties sufficiently even to think. 

When he recovered some strength, he muttered half unconsciously: "Surely I must in a previous birth have inflicted hideous suffering to loving hearts. I must have torn calves from their mothers, children from their parents, husbands from their wives. How else could I suffer thus? And death does not come when we want it. And I have to endure the torture of always having before my mind's eye my godlike son deprived of his birthright and forced into the bark-garments of a hermit. O life, how bitterly you cling to those who would be rid of you! Rama has gone into exile and yet I do not die! Rama ... Rama ... Have you gone? ..." 

A little later, his mind clearer, the King said: "Sumantra, get ready the chariot and take my sons and Janaki to the frontier of the kingdom." 

Lakshmana touched the feet of his mother Sumitra and uttered the single word "Mother." She embraced him, kissed his head and said: "Your devotion to your brother has filled your mother's heart with pride and joy. It is your duty, child, to guard and serve Rama. Always stand in vigilant watch by Rama's side in the forest. Your elder brother is to you both preceptor and king. This is the dharma of our race. Go with my blessing, Lakshmana. In the forest, regard Rama as your father and look upon Janaki as myself and the forest will be to you as Ayodhya. Go cheerfully, my dear son, and God bless you." 

In the Ramayana, Sumitra is a woman of few words and mature wisdom and great tact and infinite courage, full of faith, in whom 'hope shines like a fame when it has gone out in all others.' The tradition is that Sumitra knew Rama's divinity and the purpose of his incarnation and that this enabled her not only to comfort Kausalya but to see a holy ministration in Lakshmana's sharing Rama's exile. 

Sumitra said: "Ascend the chariot, O Prince. God blesses you. Tell me where I am to drive, for the fourteen-year period has begun, my Prince." 

Sita got up the chariot cheerfully. Kausalya had made up for her a packet of personal requirements. The shields, bows and arrows and other weapons of the two brothers together with pickaxes and baskets were placed in the chariot. Pickaxes and baskets are essential in the forest. Rama and Lakshmana ascended the chariot. Sumantra drove it forward. 

Let us pause a while at this stage when Rama's forest life begins, and pray that we may be purified of our sins. Truth, courage and love are the gospel of the Ramayana to us. To give it to us was Rama born. We shall gain these gifts if we meditate on the Princes and Janaki in the bark habiliment as they left the city. 

The crowds in the street cried to the charioteer: "Go slow, go slow. Let us have a look at Rama's face. Alas, Alas, who could send such children to the forest? How could their mothers endure this sorrow and survive? Look at Vaidehi's face. She is indeed blessed. And Lakshmana is happy to have such a brother to whom he can give devoted service. He is indeed a hero and a knower of dharma." So the people of the city talked among themselves as they followed the chariot. And their grief swelled like a flood. 

Rama was saying to the good charioteer, "Faster, faster" The people were saying, "slow, slow." And the crowd became bigger and bigger. Sumantra managed somehow to take the chariot out of the press of the mourning town where, in addition to the loud sorrow of the crowded streets, the houses were full of mourning women and children. 

The King stepped out of Kaikeyi's apartment and looked at the departing chariot. A long time he stood there watching the cloud of dust as though he saw in it the beloved form of Rama. When even this went out of sight, he fell down, moaning. Kausalya and Kaikeyi sat on either side. 

"Do not touch me," said Dasaratha to Kaikeyi. "I hate the sight of you, sinful woman! Everything is at an end between you and me. I renounce you here and now." 

"If Bharata agrees to your arrangements and accepts the kingdom," he said again, "he need not perform my obsequies, and even if he did, my departed spirit would reject his offering of waters. How can Rama live in the forest? Will he sleep on the bare ground with a stone or a log for a pillow? Will he eat fruits and berries?" 

Thus the king went on lamenting helplessly. 

Sometimes he would turn to Kaikeyi and say, "May you be happy in your success! Long may you live a happy widow." 

Heart-broken and empty like one returning home from the cremation ground, he entered Kaikeyi's apartment by force of habit; then suddenly he said, "Not here. Take me to the dwelling of Kausalya." 

And so they did, and there he lay waiting for his end. 

At midnight, he said, "Kausalya, are you there? Touch me with your hand. My sight is gone with Rama." 

Poor Kausalya did her best to comfort the King, but what comfort was there in her wounded heart to give? For as the slow sorrow-laden hours crawled from watch to watch, the cold night seemed to her a devouring flame, and the gentle moon fierce as the noonday sun. 

To her thus sorrowing Sumitra said: "Sister, you have heard the Shastras and know dharma. Why should you grieve like this? It is your office to put courage in others, you should not lose heart yourself. Rama has gone to the forest for guarding the King's honor. You are indeed blessed among women, for you are the mother of a hero who has scorned a kingdom and preferred to uphold his father's honor. Why should you grieve for a son who fulfils a difficult duty to perfection? We should not feel sorry for one who walks in the path of his ancestors and wins undying fame. I am proud that Lakshmana has accompanied Rama. Janaki, though knowing well the hardships she has to face, has also gone with her husband. Rama's glory will shine like an undying lamp. This is no occasion for grief. His purity, his virtue shall be a shield and armor to them. He is so great and holy that the sunrays falling on him will not burn him and the wind that blows will caress him with its coolness. His pure frame, as he sleeps at night, will be embraced and protected by the moonbeams as an infant is by its loving mother. Shed all anxiety over your heroic son. No foe can en counter him and escape with life. Our Rama is endowed with all auspicious qualities. Your hero son will surely return to Ayodhya and ascend the throne. The Lord of the world, and no other, is Rama. Sita is with him, and Sita is no other than the Goddess Lakshmi. Rama will return and ascending the throne will fill with delight the kingdom which now laments his exile. You saw the grief of the citizens as they watched his departure. My heroic son, the devoted Lakshmana, armed with bow and sword, has gone with him to guard his person. No harm, no danger can approach Rama. You will see with your own eyes Rama returning after fulfilment of his vow. Believe me, Rama will return, beautiful like the full moon, and touch your feet with joy and devotion. You will then shed tears not of grief but of joy. Dear, dear Kausalya, give up your grief. You will see the three of them returning. You should console and encourage the other women in the palace and not stand broken-hearted yourself. Who else in this world stands firm by dharma like Rama? Is this a cause for grief? No, be proud of your son, Kausalya!" 

Listening to Sumitra's words, Kausalya was somewhat consoled. 

The people of the city followed Rama's chariot in a huge crowd. They tried to stop the chariot, shouting, "Do not go to the forest. Return to the city." 

"I am going to the forest to uphold my father's, word," Rama said. "There is no time for sorrow here and you should not seek to hinder me." 

But the people would not listen to him, and went in crowds after him shouting wildly: "Do not go to the forest, do not go to the forest!" Rama stopped the chariot and addressed them with his eyes full of love for them: "Citizens of Ayodhya, I know the love you bear for me. You will show it best by transferring it on my behalf, and at my behest, to my beloved brother Bharata. Nothing else will please me more. Bharata is good and noble, has all royal qualities and is fully worthy of love. So conduct yourselves as to please him. Young in years, he is old in wisdom and his heart is at once heroic and tender. He has the strength to protect you. He is your king, and you owe him loyalty and affection. I am going to the forest to fulfil my father word and the King has appointed Bharata as Yuvaraja. He is in every way fitted for that position. You and I alike should obey the King's commands. You should go back and try to mitigate the sorrow of my father at parting from me." 

Thus Rama spoke to them in kindly tones. But they loved him all the more because of this and would not be consoled. Some Brahmanas, old in years and excellent in virtue, looking at the chariot wept and cried: "Why, O horses, do you carry our Rama into the forest? We have heard it said that horses are sharp of hearing. Listen to us then and bring back our Rama." 

Hearing these words of yearning from old Brahmanas, Rama stopped the chariot. The three descended from it and went forward walking. 

The common people, leading citizens and wise elders, men of penance, why, even the birds on wings, tried to prevent Rama from going to the forest. The river Tamasa, says the poet, seemed to conspire with them, for now it flowed across his path. The chariot stopped on the riverbank. Sumantra unyoked and watered the horses and let them loose to graze. Rama said: "Lakshmana, this is the first night of our forest life. Let us spend it on the bank of this holy river. Life in the forest holds no hardship, as you and I know. Look, the birds, the animals and even the trees seem to sympathise with us. The only pain is when we think of the grief of our parents in Ayodhya, though I feel reassured as I think of Bharata's nobility and goodness. He will assuredly tend our parents with true affection. Sumantra, go, look after the horses." 

Then, Rama offered the evening prayers by the river and said: "Let us fast on this first night of our forest life, Lakshmana. Your presence by my side rids me of all care." 

Lakshmana spread some grass on the ground for Rama and Sita to sleep on but he himself spent the night in vigil talking with Sumantra. 

Long before dawn Rama rose from sleep and told Sumantra: "The citizens who have followed us, fatigued by their long journey, are fast asleep. I am deeply moved by their affection; but I cannot permit their love to force me to go back. Let us therefore, move on even now, while they are yet asleep." 

The horses were harnessed and the chariot slowly crossed the river. Standing on the southern bank, Rama told Sumantra: 

"If you take the chariot to the other shore, where the people are asleep, and drive it for a little distance towards Ayodhya and then bring it back to this side, we can proceed on our journey before they wake up. They will see the track of the chariot going towards the city, and thinking that we have returned home, may themselves go back. Unless you do this the crowd will go on following us." 

Sumantra did this and, when the chariot returned, the three got into it again and proceeded southwards.





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