Three months had passed since Rama had settled on the Chitrakuta mountain. Living peacefully in their thatched cottage, Rama, along with Lakshmana and Sita, was happy. From their hut they could see the top of the mountain, some of which was yellow, some red as madder, some glittering silver and some blue-green like a shining emerald. Thousands of other subtle hues shone on the side of the great mountain, and it teemed with deer of every description and hosts of harmless tigers, leopards and bears. Trees laden with flowers and fruits were crowded with varieties of colorful and sweetly singing birds. Clear rivulets flowed from countless springs, and waterfalls sparkled in the sunshine.

Rama felt gladdened at heart to see all this and, sitting at ease on the porch of his hut, he spoke with Sita: “Look at the Kinnaras as they sport on these delightful slopes, having descended from their own planets. See also the Vidhyadharas and Gandharvas courting their womenfolk after hanging their swords and other weapons from the boughs of trees. This place is finer even than heaven. Surely we will easily spend fourteen summers here as if they were a month. “

Sita smiled. She felt joyful to be living there with Rama. Despite its simplicity she liked forest life, preferring it even to her life of luxury in the city. She looked down at the Mandakini River where lines of ascetics, clad only in loin cloths, stood in the water with their arms upraised as they worshipped the sun. A cool breeze carried the aroma of tree blossoms, which cascaded on all sides of the mountain. On the sandy bank of the river heavenly Siddhas were appearing and disappearing, moving about in delight. Further down the river she saw a group of elephants standing amid the red and white lotuses as they drank the clear water.

Rama continued, “Let us take our midday bath in the river, O princess. With you by my side I do not miss any of my relatives or even Ayodhya itself. Your beauty puts to shame the so-called beauty of these heavenly damsels, and it gives me newer and newer pleasure. “

Rama looked at his brother, who stood at a distance holding his bow. “The godly Lakshmana stands over there equipped with weapons and ready to carry out my every command. Living on the delicious forest fare he gathers, we reside here most happily, dear Sita. What more could I desire even if I lived in Ayodhya?”

Rama and Sita descended to the river and found a secluded spot to take their bath. After bathing and sporting for some time in the cool waters, they came out and sat in the sun on a large flat rock. As Rama conversed with Sita he noticed in the distance a cloud of dust rising to the sky. Looking around he saw frightened animals running in all directions and heard a terrific noise, which became progressively louder.

Rama called out to his brother. “Lakshmana! What do you think is causing this disturbance? A sound like a terrible crash of thunder is coming from the north! Is some king or prince out hunting in the forest, followed by his army? Or is it some vast herd of beasts on the move? Please go and see. “

Lakshmana immediately climbed a tall tree and looked all around. Fixing his gaze on the north, he saw in the distance a large army crowded with elephants, horses and chariots, and joined with a mass of marching foot soldiers. He shouted to Rama and informed him.

“Let Sita quickly find a cave, ” Lakshmana advised Rama. “Extinguish the fire so that the smoke will not be seen. We two shall stand here clothed in mail and holding upraised weapons, for a powerful army approaches!”

Rama, who was not at all fearful, replied to Lakshmana, “Look carefully at the ensigns. Try to determine whose army you think it might be. “

Lakshmana stared at the head of the army and saw a tall ensign waving in the breeze, bearing the emblem of a kovidara tree. The prince became infuriated and looked at the army as if he might consume it with his gaze alone.

“Clearly this is Bharata’s army!” he exclaimed. “I see there the mark of the kovidara. Evidently he has secured the throne of Ayodhya and now desires to attain undisputed sovereignty by killing us both. Even now I see swift horses going ahead to seek us out. “

Lakshmana seethed with anger. “It is fortunate indeed that I shall now see Bharata’s face, for whose sake you are enduring this forest life deprived of your sovereign rights. Surely he has come here as an enemy and as such deserves to be killed outright! I see no sin in this action, O Rama, for Bharata has sorely wronged you. “

Lakshmana descended from the tree and picked up his weapons. He held his sword aloft. “Today Kaikeyi, who is so desirous of the kingdom, will be seized with sorrow when she sees her son slain by me! I shall then kill her also! Let the earth drink the blood of all these warriors. Beasts of prey will drag about the corpses of elephants and horses, as well as of thousands of men pierced by my arrows. Killing Bharata along with his army, I will repay my debt to my weapons!”

Rama replied gravely to the enraged Lakshmana. “These sentiments do not befit you, dear brother. The mighty Bharata has come here longing to see us and you wish to greet him with weapons. I have given my word of honor to remain in the forest. How then can I forcefully take the kingdom from Bharata, thereby gaining a sovereignty stained with infamy?”

Feeling admonished by his brother, Lakshmana looked down and sheathed his sword. Rama continued, “I will never accept a royal fortune won at the cost of the death of my kinsmen. Indeed, I would only accept the kingdom for the pleasure and protection of my relatives, for I have no personal desire for sovereignty. If any joy should come to me that is not enjoyed by yourself, Bharata or Shatrughna, then let it be reduced to ashes. “

Rama knew Bharata’s heart. Bharata was no less devoted to him than Lakshmana. He could understand why his brother had come to see him. He also longed to see Bharata. Comforting Lakshmana, Rama said, “When Bharata heard of my exile I am sure he would have felt his heart overwhelmed with affection and his mind distracted by grief. After censuring Kaikeyi with harsh words, he no doubt left Ayodhya intent on bringing me back. Of this I feel certain. “

Lakshmana felt ashamed to have spoken angrily about Bharata. He remembered the close and loving relationships the four brothers had enjoyed in childhood. Rama was right. Bharata could not possibly have come in a martial spirit. Lakshmana blushed as Rama continued.

“I cannot imagine Bharata harming us even in his mind, ” Rama said gently. “Has he somehow previously offended you, dear brother, so that you wax so wrathful toward him now? If you are set upon the slaughter of Bharata, then I shall order him to hand over the kingdom to you this very day. Certainly he will remain here in your place, clad in tree barks, while you rule over this broad earth. “

Lakshmana shrank with shame. It had been wrong of him to think so badly of Bharata. There was never a time when any malice or envy had been seen in that prince. Lakshmana tried to make amends for his previous outburst.

“It must be as you say, dear Rama. I think the mighty-armed emperor himself has personally come here accompanied by Bharata. Our father will doubtlessly try to persuade us to return, handing you the sovereignty refused by Bharata. Indeed, I saw father’s gigantic elephant, Shatrunjaya, rocking about at the head of the army as it marched. “

From their vantage point on the mountainside Rama could see the army coming into view. Spotting the king’s elephant he felt a sudden apprehension. Why was there no white umbrella held over its back? Shatrunjaya would not have come out without the king. Unless, that is, there was no king. Rama was fearful. Along with Lakshmana and Sita, he waited near his hut for Bharata’s arrival.

When they reached the mountain, Bharata detailed a number of expert trackers to go in search of Rama’s hermitage. He himself went ahead on horseback and began searching on foot when he reached the dense forest on the mountainside. Accompanied by Vasishtha and other brahmins, Bharata pressed ahead into the forest, anxious to see his brothers. He said to Vasishtha, “Blessed is this mountain reach, O sage, where Rama and Sita now roam. How fortunate is Lakshmana who always beholds the moon-like face of Rama. I long to hold Rama’s feet on my head. There will be no peace for me until I see him duly consecrated and seated upon Ayodhya’s throne. “

Bharata climbed a tall tree and gazed all around. Upon seeing a column of smoke he surmised it to be coming from Rama’s hermitage. Rejoicing, he descended quickly and went in that direction. Confident that they were now close to Rama, he sent Vasishtha back to bring the queens. Then, along with Shatrughna and Guha, he went as quickly as possible up the mountain slope.

As they arrived at a plateau they suddenly burst into a clearing and saw there, on a leveled piece of ground, Rama’s hut. Rama and Lakshmana were sitting in front of the leafy cottage. Bharata saw the sacrificial fire placed on an altar surrounded by blades of kusha grass. Hanging on the sides of the hut were two long bows, plated with gold and shining like rainbows. Large quivers filled with fearful looking arrows stood by the bows, along with two great shields adorned with gold engravings. A couple of swords hung by the bows, sheathed in silver and gold.

When Bharata saw Rama dressed as an ascetic, his hair matted, he let out a cry and fell prostrate. Rising up again he gazed with tear-filled eyes at his beloved brother, who appeared like Brahma seated in his celestial assembly hall. Rama turned and smiled at Bharata, who along with Shatrughna was rushing toward him. Stumbling even as he ran over level ground, Bharata swiftly approached Rama and fell before him. In a choked voice he began to lament.

“Alas, here is my elder brother, who deserves to sit in a royal assembly, seated now in the company of deer, ” Bharata cried. “What a cruel destiny!

Here is that exalted soul who should wear garments worth many thousands wearing the barks of trees. All this is on my account! Woe to me, condemned by all the world. “

Sobs stifled Bharata’s voice as he lay near Rama, his hands stretched toward his brother’s feet. His face was covered with perspiration and he called out, “Oh, my brother, my noble brother!” Shatrughna also shed tears and bowed before Rama. Rama and Lakshmana quickly got up and closely embraced both of their brothers. The four princes coming together appeared as if the sun and moon had conjoined with Venus and Jupiter in the heavens.

Rama asked Bharata what had brought him away from Ayodhya. Surprised to see him with matted locks and wearing a deerskin, Rama said, “Why have you come here without our father, dearest brother? I hope all is well in Ayodhya. As long as father lives you should surely wait upon him with great attention. Still, I am glad to see you here, although you appear pale and emaciated. Why the ascetic dress, noble Bharata? I think your love for me must be very deep. “

Rama gently stroked Bharata’s head. Looking up he saw Guha standing at a distance with folded palms and he smiled at him. Rama was fully absorbed in loving exchanges with his friends and relatives. Feeling pain and concern to see Bharata’s condition, he continued to speak. “I hope you have not lost the kingdom due to immaturity and inexperience. Surely you know all the facets of diplomacy and kingly science, O powerful prince. “

By way of loving instruction, Rama asked after many aspects of the kingdom. He inquired if the people were properly protected, the animals cared for, the army well maintained and the brahmins given sufficient charity. Bharata listened respectfully as his elder brother spoke.

“I see here all my mothers, ” said Rama. “Indeed it seems that the entire kingdom of Koshala has accompanied you, dear Bharata. This gives rise to grave doubts in my mind. Please tell me why you have all arrived here today, for you have aroused my curiosity. “

Bharata knelt before Rama, clasping his feet. “Dear Rama, the act perpetrated by my mother was wicked and never approved by me. Casting you into the forest and afflicting the whole of Ayodhya with unbearable pain, she hoped to see me installed as the king. This will never happen! Please return now with us, O Raghava, and take your rightful position as ruler of this world. Be kind to me and to all these people, O tiger among men. “

Rama felt compassion for Bharata. He questioned him again. “What need is there for your adopting this mode of ascetic life, dear Bharata? The order of our father is that you become the king. I too stand enjoined by our father to remain here in the forest. Our pious father’s order is supreme.

Therefore, without censuring your mother Kaikeyi, you should enjoy the kingdom. For myself, I am happier staying here in obedience to our father than I would be in attaining to the imperishable abode of Brahma. “

Bharata’s head sank. He knew his elder brother’s mind. It would be impossible to convince Rama to transgress an order given by his elders. Still he felt impelled to try. He could not possibly take the throne in place of Rama. With a heavy heart Bharata informed Rama of what had happened in Ayodhya.

“While I was away in the Kekaya kingdom and you had already gone to the forest, our glorious father ascended to heaven. Thinking only of you and lost in grief at your separation, the king left his mortal body. Now, by the time-honored rule, you, as the elder son, should inherit the kingdom. There cannot be any doubt on this point. “

As he heard for the first time the news of his father’s death, Rama felt as if his heart had been pierced. Raising his arms and crying out, he sank to the ground like a tree filled with blossoms cut at its root. He lay motionless with the color drained from his face. Bharata quickly sprinkled him with cool water. Rama sat up and held his head, wailing piteously.

“With my father dead and gone what shall I do in Ayodhya? Alas, I am surely a wretched and useless son. My father died because of me. Nor was I even able to cremate him. Even when the fourteen years expires I shall not have the courage to return to the city, seeing it desolate and bereft of its protector. Who will now speak those kind and loving words my father spoke when he saw me well-behaved?”

Rama went over to Sita and Lakshmana who were seated nearby. “Dear Sita, your father-in-law is no more. O Lakshmana, you are now fatherless. Our brother brings the sorrowful news of the king’s ascent to heaven. This world now stands without a ruler. “

Sita’s eyes filled with tears and she was unable to look at her husband. Rama and Lakshmana wept along with Sita as Bharata and Shatrughna comforted them.

Rama controlled his feelings and said, “I must now perform the last sacred rites for the king. Let us go to the river. “

The four princes and Sita, stumbling due to their grief, descended with difficulty to the river-bank. They were assisted by Sumantra and other ministers of the king, who stood watching as Rama entered the water along with his brothers and Sita.

Rama faced the southern quarter, over which Yamaraja presides, and held water in his cupped palms. He let the water trickle through his fingers and said in a choked voice, “May this sacred water reach you, O great tiger among kings! Let this offering serve you, dear father, who have gone forever to the world of our forefathers. “

Rama offered prayers for his father and then returned to his hermitage to prepare an offering of food for the departed king. After the offering was made, Rama and his brothers clasped each others’ hands and began to wail loudly. The sound was like the roaring of lions and it reverberated all around the mountain passes.

Hearing that confused noise the soldiers in Bharata’s army were alarmed and they said to one another, “Surely Bharata and Shatrughna have met Rama and Lakshmana. This sound must be the loud cry of those four brothers mourning for their deceased father. “

The soldiers got up quickly and began running toward the sound. Crashing through the undergrowth on foot, horseback and in chariots, everyone in Bharata’s entourage rushed toward Rama’s hermitage, eager to see him again. The noise of all those thousands of people moving through the forest was tumultuous. Deer, buffaloes, boars, lions and elephants ran in all directions, terrified by the great commotion. Birds of every kind cried loudly and flew up into the air.

Dasarath’s widowed queens got down from their chariot and went on foot into the woods, accompanied by Vasishtha. Walking with difficulty along the narrow forest paths, they finally arrived at the spot where Rama was standing with his brothers. Rama saw them as they entered the clearing and he ran quickly toward them. He bowed down to Vasishtha and each of the three queens, touching their feet. After Lakshmana and Sita had also offered their respects, Rama sat down with Vasishtha on the wooden seats in front of his hut. The queens wept aloud upon seeing the ascetic dress of Rama and Sita.

Kaushalya went to Rama and tenderly wiped the dust from his face. Turning to Sita, she said, “How are you surviving in this lonely forest, dear Sita? Your face appears pale and withered. Alas, my grief upon seeing you here blazes up like a fire fed with abundant fuel. “

Rama consoled Kaushalya, while Lakshmana spoke with Sumitra, who was also deeply pained. Bharata then came and sat at Rama’s feet. With his palms folded he said, “Kaikeyi is now satisfied and the kingdom has been offered to me. If this kingdom is mine, then I hereby give it to you, O Rama. Please take it without any hesitation. “

As Bharata sat before Rama and Lakshmana, the three brothers shone like three sacrificial fires. Bharata held Rama’s feet as he spoke. “The power to rule this world rests only with you, O Rama. I can no more emulate that power of yours than a donkey can emulate the gait of a horse or a sparrow the flight of Garuda. Indeed I am dependent upon you. Let the world behold you shining with splendor on the Ayodhya’s throne. We shall take you there in state this very day!”

All the people gathered there called out, “Well said!” upon hearing Bharata speak. With tears streaming from his eyes Bharata sat looking up at Rama. He hoped desperately that Rama might somehow be persuaded. He could not imagine going back to Ayodhya without him.

Seeing his brother and other relatives weeping, Rama felt compassion. Keeping his own grief in check, he replied, “No man is free to act as he pleases. In this world the embodied soul is dragged here and there by the all-powerful force of Providence. No one can control that force. All gains will end in loss, every meeting ends in separation and all life has its end in death. As there is no fear for a ripe fruit other than a fall, so there is no fear for any man other than death. “

Everyone listened attentively as Rama spoke, their feelings of sorrow relieved by his instructions. “The passing of days and nights quickly exhaust the life span of all beings, even as the summer sun sucks up the water in a lake, ” Rama went on. “You should grieve only for yourself; why do you grieve for another? Death is our constant companion. He walks with us, sits with us and having gone a long distance with us when we travel, he duly returns with us. “

Rama still had no desire to return to Ayodhya. He wanted to encourage Bharata and give him strength. Stroking his brother’s head, he continued to instruct him.

“Beloved brother, the power to prevent one’s own death does not exist in a person grieving for another. Our father departed after a long life of piety and we should by no means grieve. We ourselves have embarked on the very same path trodden by the emperor and will join him in due course. Let us therefore throw off grief and dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of piety by which we too shall attain the blessed regions reached by the king. “

Rama looked around his hermitage. Thousands of people were crowding on the mountainside, all looking towards him. There was complete silence as Rama spoke. Even the animals seemed silent. Only the sound of the river and the rustling of leaves in the breeze could be heard. Dappled shadows moved over the ground in the late afternoon sun. With a mild smile Rama continued to address Bharata, within the hearing of everyone there.

“Father has shed his old, worn-out body and, with an ethereal and undecaying form, he now sports in great happiness. Rather than grieve for him we should now carefully do his bidding. For your part you should rule over the earth, dear Bharata, while I for mine should remain in the forest until fourteen years have expired. This will ensure our welfare in both this world and the next. Under no circumstances should we disobey our virtuous father. “

Rama spoke for more than an hour and Bharata felt joy to hear his brother’s words of instruction. But he was also dispirited to see Rama’s determination to stay in the forest.

When Rama stopped speaking, Bharata grasped his feet and replied, “Your position is glorious, O mighty brother. You are never dejected at adversity nor exhilarated at finding joy. You are always able to distinguish truth from untruth. Therefore you know what is real and what is only temporary and thus ultimately unreal. It is certainly the soul and not the body that one should nurture in this world. “

Bharata realized that Rama was only acting with philosophical understanding; he knew that Rama could not possibly act outside the codes of religion or morality. Nonetheless, Bharata was himself still doubtful about the justice of Rama’s exile. He spoke to Rama in order to clear his doubts. “Were it not for moral codes, I would have surely slain my sinful mother. How did the king allow himself to fall under her sway? Due to infatuation or foolishness our father acted wrongly. As his sons is it not our duty to correct his mistakes? Surely this is the proper religious path for an honest and worthy son. “

Bharata turned and indicated the people gathered around. “All these people need your protection. This is the duty of rulers according to scripture. Nowhere is the duty of a ruler stated as being life in the forest. March back to Ayodhya at the head of this vast army. Let your friends feel joy today and your enemies run frightened in all directions. O Rama, if you resolve to stay here, then you shall find me by your side. I can by no means find in myself the strength to rule in your absence. “

Bharata sat with his head bowed. Everyone was enthralled by the conversation between the two royal brothers, and they became simultaneously joyful to witness his firm resolve and disconsolate to realize he would not be returning to Ayodhya.

Rama replied to Bharata in a solemn voice. “All his life our father followed the path of piety. This is widely known. Impiety would not have been possible for that truthful man. When our father accepted Kaikeyi’s hand he promised her father, as the bride price, that her son would inherit the kingdom. Furthermore, sworn under solemn oath by Kaikeyi, the king promised you the kingdom and ordered me to go to the forest. Whatever the reasons, this was the king’s promise. If that promise is broken our father will be liable to sinful reactions. Our duty as his sons is to fulfill his promise and thereby save him. No other course is possible for us. “

Rama paused for a moment. He got down from his seat and lifted up Bharata and Shatrughna. “You two should return to Ayodhya and protect the people. O Bharata, get yourself consecrated as king and rule the earth. I shall become the emperor of wild beasts. The white umbrella should be held over your head as you ride on the royal elephant, while for my part I shall go on foot, shielded by a canopy of trees. Leave with joy for the city, my brothers, and I with Lakshmana will joyfully enter the woods. In this way we shall preserve our father’s piety. “

Bharata said nothing. He felt reassured by Rama’s reply, but was profoundly sorrowful at the prospect of leaving him.

At that moment a brahmin named Jabali spoke, trying to convince Rama to return on the basis of atheistic doctrines. “Why are you attached to your father, Rama? He was nothing more than flesh and bones and has now merged again with the earth. People who consider that others are in some way related to them are simply mad. Alone we came to this world and alone we shall leave. As such we should only work toward our own interests. You need not suffer now for the interests of your deceased father. Take the throne and enjoy it, O Rama, for this will be in your own best interests. “

Jabali did not himself believe the philosophy he was espousing. He was only trying somehow to change Rama’s mind. Perhaps Rama would accept the arguments as a pretext for going back to Ayodhya. Most likely, though, he would defeat Jabali’s position and thereby establish the path of religion. Either way Jabali would be satisfied and he continued to speak his atheistic philosophy.

“I lament for those who forsake sense pleasures for the austerities of a religious life, ” said Jabali, rising to his feet. “Hoping for future happiness they meet only with extermination at death, having led a life of suffering. The scriptures have been written by intelligent brahmins who wished to exalt sacrifice and charity. In this way these brahmins have assured their own livelihood. “

Jabali smiled as he spoke his false philosophy. No one in the assembly accepted his words, but they too hoped that Rama would yet be convinced to leave the forest. Everyone listened in silence as Jabali concluded his speech.

“Knowing this truth, O Rama, you should renounce your foolish asceticism. There is nothing beyond this visible universe. Do not depend for your happiness on anything outside of that which you can see and immediately experience. Therefore, O great prince, accept the kingdom and enjoy it as the undisputed ruler. “

Rama sat down again as Jabali stopped speaking. Looking at the brahmin he said, “A man is known by his conduct alone. Although posing as a learned and cultured person, one who acts as you direct is to be accepted as sinful and debased. Those who are wise never praise a person who acts only to please his senses. Such a person is mean, selfish and greedy, driven only by lust for pleasure. His immediate happiness soon turns to distress and he sinks into a hellish condition. “

Rama appeared angry as he refuted Jabali. His eyes were red and he spoke gravely. “If I were to follow the path espoused by you, O atheistic one, then this entire earth would be cast into ruin. All men follow the king’s example. Abandoning the religious path, the people would become licentious and uncontrolled. Chaos would prevail and everyone would suffer. “

Jabali sat down before Rama with his palms joined and his head bowed. He said nothing as Rama explained how the attempt to find happiness through sense enjoyment was futile. Both the senses and their enjoyments are soon destroyed. Only the soul and God are eternal, along with the spiritual realms where the Lord resides. Those who are actually learned therefore follow the path of truth which leads to those ever-existing realms of bliss.

Rama paused and gradually his anger subsided. After some minutes he spoke again. “My father was wedded to truth. Following his instruction will lead only to happiness. I shall therefore remain in these woods and Bharata should rule the earth. This will be our only assurance of happiness, both in this world and the next. O Jabali, you should not speak in this way again, for to mislead the people is a very great sin. “

Rama, having spoken to instruct all people, fell silent. He knew Jabali’s heart and did not feel anger toward him, only toward his words. The people’s pain was Rama’s pain and he knew that Jabali’s presentation of hedonism led only to pain.

Saying “It is exactly as you say, ” Jabali prostrated himself before Rama and returned to his place among the other brahmins.

Vasishtha stood up and spoke in the midst of the assembly. “This Jabali knows well of the soul and its actual happiness. He spoke only out of his desire to see you installed as the king. This is also my desire, O Raghava. As the emperor’s eldest son it behooves you to now accept the throne. You need entertain no doubt in this regard. “

Vasishtha recounted the history of Rama’s line. One by one he named the previous kings and explained how each had handed the kingdom to their eldest son. Finally he said, “O Rama, this is my instruction to you. I am your preceptor and as such I am even more worthy of your obedience than your father. Indeed, I was also his preceptor. Therefore I command you to accept the throne of Ayodhya. “

The sage had spoken only out of love. He was aware that Rama was enacting a divine plan by remaining in the forest, but still he longed for him to return.

Rama looked with affection at Vasishta and replied, “The debt owed to one’s parents cannot be easily repaid, O learned sage. They give everything they have for their children. Feeding them, nurturing them, putting them to bed and rubbing them with oil, the father and mother give their love at every moment. My worthy father’s word should not prove false due to my negligence, for I wish to render him some service in return for his love. “

It was obvious that Rama was not going to be convinced by anyone to leave the forest. Bharata suddenly stood up and exclaimed, “Seated upon blades of kusha grass spread on the ground, I shall remain here in front of Rama’s door. Without taking food or water I will not move until Rama agrees to accept the throne. “

Quickly grabbing a bunch of grass from near Rama’s hut, Bharata spread it out and sat down. Rama said in surprise, “O Bharata, why do you take such a vow? Your duty is to rule the kingdom, not sit upon the ground like a destitute brahmin. “

Bharata turned toward the people and implored, “Why do you not plead with my brother to return?”

A leader of the brahmin community stepped forward. “It is clear that Rama will not be swayed from his determination to follow his father’s command. What can we do? Our hearts are breaking with the thought of Rama’s separation. “

Rama glanced lovingly at the brahmin and then said to Bharata, “Get up, O tiger among men. Return to Ayodhya. Become the king and rule with justice. In fourteen years you will see me returned. “

Bharata stood up and replied to Rama, “If our father’s order must be followed, then allow me to stay here in your place. “

Rama gently admonished Bharata, telling him that it was not possible for one’s promise to be fulfilled by another person. Rama had given his word and it was he who had to keep that word. He promised that when he returned to Ayodhya he would accept the throne, but he would not under any condition return before the fourteen years had expired.

The many eminent sages who were present had listened intently to the conversation between the two divine brothers. They were thrilled and astonished, thinking of the deep import of their discussion. Hosts of heavenly rishis along with the gods, stood invisible in the sky. The divine beings then spoke so that only Rama and his brothers could hear.

“Hearing this wondrous dialogue between Rama and Bharata, we long to hear it again and again, ” said one of the gods. “O Bharata, please allow Rama to fulfill his promise to his father. By virtue of Rama’s vow Dasarath has ascended to the highest heaven, freed of his debt to Kaikeyi. “

The gods were anxious for Ravana’s death which they saw as imminent. They showered celestial flowers on Rama and his brothers and then returned to their heavenly abodes. Encouraged by hearing the demigods, Bharata was prepared to accept the responsibility of ruling Ayodhya. Falling at Rama’s feet he voiced his final doubts. “My lord, how does the power to rule our vast kingdom exist in me? I am young and inexperienced. Nor am I possessed of any great ability. Surely the kingdom will meet with ruin under my incapable guidance. “

Rama raised his younger brother and placed him on his lap. Stroking his head he said, “Your humility is your real qualification. By virtue of this wisdom you can protect the entire earth. Always seek the counsel of learned brahmins and rule with confidence, O jewel among men. “

Bharata then brought before Rama a pair of ornate wooden sandals embellished with gold. He put them on the ground and said, “Please place your feet in these sandals, dear Rama. Let these shoes be the rulers of the kingdom and I shall remain as their servant. “

Rama immediately put on the sandals and then took them off again, handing them back to Bharata. Bharata placed the sandals on his head. “For the coming fourteen years I shall live in a hut outside Ayodhya, ” he said, sighing. “I shall survive on only fruits and roots and my hair shall be matted. If at the end of this time I do not see you return, O Rama, then I shall enter blazing fire. “

“So be it, ” replied Rama and he embraced each of his brothers. He again told Bharata that Kaikeyi should not be condemned and that she should be treated with kindness. Rama paid his respects to all the people there according to their positions, speaking fond farewells to everyone. Kaushalya and the other queens stood in front of Rama unable to say anything, their throats choked and their eyes flooded with tears. Rama bowed to each of them in turn.

As the queens departed Kaikeyi turned and spoke privately to Rama. She censured herself again and again, begging his forgiveness. The queen fell at Rama’s feet. “I am entirely ignorant and have acted like a fool, ” she said tearfully, “but now I understand that you are the eternal Supreme Person. Who would not be bewildered upon seeing your human pastimes? O Lord, please forgive me and destroy my attachments to family and wealth. “

Rama smiled at her with affection. “It was I who, for the sake of the gods, prompted you to act as you did, ” he said. “You are not to blame, nor am I angry with you. Hardly anyone knows my real nature. I am never affected by desire in the same way as ordinary men. I act simply to reciprocate the service and love I am given. Gentle lady, return to Ayodhya and live peacefully. Think of me day and night and you will soon be freed from all your attachments to this temporary world. “

Kaikeyi felt deeply relieved and gladdened. With folded hands she circumambulated Rama and again joined the other queens.

Bharata had the golden sandals placed upon the royal elephant and shielded by the white umbrella. With the elephant at their head, the citizens of Ayodhya returned the way they had come.

As they entered Ayodhya some days later, they saw that it had become dark and desolate. The streets were unswept and rubbish was strewn all around. The doors and windows of the empty houses swung open. The city had become overrun by cats and owls, and mice ran everywhere. No offerings were being made in the temples and all the shops and pleasure houses were closed. The streets were deserted and the city, which had always been full of the life and joy of countless people, was now silent and still. The city resembled a vast army which has been defeated in battle, its armor shattered, its ensigns torn down, and its heroes killed.

Bharata made his way to Dasarath’s palace, dejected to see the state of his beloved Ayodhya. After entering the palace, which was like a mountain cave abandoned by its lion, Bharata went into the assembly hall with Vasishtha and his other counselors. He placed Rama’s sandals on the throne, then sat next to them and said, “I shall not accept the throne of Ayodhya. These sandals should be consecrated as the king and I shall be their servant only. Indeed, I shall live in a hermitage outside the city. When Rama returns I shall again place these sandals on his feet, as he alone is the king. “

The brahmins applauded Bharata. “So be it!” they exclaimed. They then duly installed the sandals with the coronation ceremony.

Bharata then moved with Shatraghna into a small wooden hut, eating only forest fare and wearing ascetic dress. Each day he would submit the affairs of state before Rama’s sandals. Only then would he carry out any necessary action. Any gifts he received he would also offer to Rama’s sandals. In this way he ruled the kingdom.

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