Monday, April 23

THE FOREST SAGES

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THE FOREST SAGES

After Bharata left, Rama continued to live on Chitrakuta Mountain. As the months passed, Rama began to notice that the rishis living nearby were always fearful and anxious. He approached the leading ascetics and, bowing down humbly, asked, “O venerable ones, has something in my behavior given you cause for concern? Have either my brother or I been acting in a way not worthy of our esteemed forefathers? Is Sita behaving in a way unbecoming a young woman?”

Rama had noticed on several occasions that the brahmins spoke together while glancing at him. He knew they were worried about something. Seated before them with folded palms, Rama listened carefully as the leaders replied.

“How could there ever be any fault in the behavior of you or your brother, O Rama?” one rishi said. “What unseemly conduct will ever be seen in the gentle and high-born Sita? We know well your true identity. “

The rishis glowed with ascetic power. They constantly chanted various names of God, fingering their wooden beads as they intoned the mantras. With a desire to render service to Rama, they addressed him as if he were an ordinary man.

“There is a powerful Rakshasa called Khara living near here, ” the rishi continued. “This demon is Ravana’s younger brother and he is brutal, haughty and sinful. Angered by your presence, he has been afflicting us with more vehemence than usual. “

Rama frowned as he heard about the Rakshasa. He could not tolerate any aggression toward brahmins.

The rishi went on, “Khara and his hordes of Rakshasas, constantly impede our sacrifices. The demons show themselves in hideous, savage and frightening forms. They throw flesh, bones, excrement and urine down from the sky, defiling our sacrificial arenas. They make strange and terrible noises and it is only a matter of time before they become violent toward us. We therefore desire to leave this place. “

Seeing sacrifice as their sacred duty, the ascetics wished to go to another forest where they would not be disturbed. As brahmins, they would not themselves fight the Rakshasas, although they were capable of checking them by their mystic power. They also understood that Rama wanted to destroy the demons, especially their leader Ravana.

Rama tried to reassure the rishis, but they were determined to leave. Having stayed on Chitrakuta for some years, the renounced ascetics were also concerned that they may have become attached to their material situation. Normally they moved continuously from forest to forest, staying only one or two years in each place. After speaking a little more with Rama, informing him of where Khara lived, the brahmins rose up in a body. With only their water pots and staffs they left the region. Rama followed them for some distance in order to see them off with respect. He then returned to his hermitage, considering in his mind how to deal with the Rakshasas.

When he reached his hut, Rama said to Lakshmana, “I think the time has come for us to leave Chitrakuta. The brahmins have left, and I am afraid that we will again be visited by the people who now know of our whereabouts. We should leave for some other more remote forest. “

Rama decided to make his way to the Dandaka forest, which was inhabited by the Rakshasas. He wanted to confront the demons. The two brothers donned their weapons and, with Sita walking between them, immediately left.

After journeying for some days they entered the Dandaka forest and came upon a cluster of hermitages. The rishis there greeted them with respect. Those ascetics were endowed with divine vision, and they were astonished to see Rama and his companions. The Lord of all the worlds was standing before them. Seeing Rama and Sita’s simple forest dress, the sages felt wonder and awe. They worshipped Rama with various prayers and offered him a hut for the night.

“Welcome indeed is your arrival in these woods, ” the rishis said. “The king is the protector of righteousness and the only refuge of the people. He stands with his scepter and metes out justice as God’s powerful representative. O Rama, we are your subjects and your servants. We are simple brahmins who have renounced anger and controlled our senses. As such we deserve your protection, even as a fetus is protected by its mother. “

Entertaining Rama with forest produce, the ascetics described how the Rakshasas had become increasingly violent. Under Ravana’s leadership the demons had become fearless and they attacked the brahmins constantly. Fourteen thousand powerful Rakshasas had taken up their residence in the Dandaka forest, headed by Ravana’s two brothers, Khara and Dushana. The situation was becoming unbearable for the sages.

Rama and Lakshmana listened gravely. They resolved to deal with the Rakshasas as soon as possible. While they were conversing with the rishis, Sita met Anasuya, the sage Atri’s wife. Anasuya gave Sita a celestial garment, garland and ornaments, along with celestial cosmetics and unguents. Sita accepted the gifts graciously and with her husband’s permission adorned herself with them. After decorating herself with the heavenly apparel, she shone brilliantly, exactly like Lakshmi, the eternal consort of Vishnu.

After spending the night with the rishis, the princes left with Sita and they penetrated deep into the Dandaka region. Lakshmana moved ahead and cleared a path with his sword, cutting through the thick creepers and bushes. Sita, her head covered with her cloth to protect herself from the swarms of insects that flew about, walked in the middle. Rama brought up the rear, vigilantly watching on all sides and holding his bow at the ready. The cries of jackals and the shrieks of vultures and birds of prey could be heard all around. Here and there they saw uprooted, broken trees and the carcasses of slain beasts.

As they broke through into a clearing they suddenly saw a dreadful-looking Rakshasa. Powerfully built and as tall as several men, he stood entirely blocking their way. With high pointed ears, fierce teeth protruding from his cavernous mouth, and blood-red eyes staring out from an ugly misshapen face, the demon was terrible to behold. He held a long lance on which he had speared four lions, three tigers, a couple of wolves and about ten spotted deer. Around his blackish and hairy body were draped tiger skins, still dripping with blood and fat. He resembled the god of death standing with his staff of justice. When he saw Rama and the others he let out a terrific roar that could be heard for many miles. He rushed furiously toward them and quickly seized Sita.

Taking the princess a little distance away, the Rakshasa spoke to Rama and Lakshmana in a voice resounding like claps of thunder. “Who are you two, looking like ascetics but carrying weapons? You shame the brahmin class with this strange behavior. Why have you brought a woman into this dense forest? Sinful as you are, you shall meet death at my hands. This lady shall become my wife. Today I shall drink your blood on the battlefield. “

Sita trembled in the monster’s clutches, like a sapling trembling in a storm. Seeing her carried away by the Rakshasha, Rama said to Lakshmana, “It seems that Kaikeyi’s cherished desire will today be fulfilled. This hideous demon has taken hold of my sinless wife. There is nothing more painful for me than to see the princess of Videha touched by another. This is more painful even than the death of my father or the loss of the kingdom. “

Rama cried tears of sorrow as he spoke. Lakshmana became infuriated with the demon and he hissed like an angry cobra. “Why are you, the Lord of all beings with me as your servant, grieving like an orphan?” he asked. “The earth will soon drink this beast’s blood. The anger which I wrongly directed toward Bharata will today be released upon that foul demon. Watch now as my arrow pierces his breast and he whirls around, falling lifeless to the ground. “

The Rakshasa, still awaiting a reply to his question, again boomed out, “Who are you and where are you going?”

Rama moved closer to the demon and replied, “We are two warriors of the royal order of Raghu who have come here in exile. Tell us who you are and why you roam this forest, O wicked one. “

“So, you are kings from Ayodhya!” the Rakshasa replied. “Know me to be Viradha, a Rakshasa who wanders this forest eating the flesh of sages. You should run away the way you came. I’ll not kill you. I have been granted boons by Brahma and cannot be slain by any weapon, O Raghava. Leave quickly and abandon this princess to me. Assuming a human form I shall sport with her as my wife. “

Rama grew furious. With bloodshot eyes he spoke in a voice like Indra’s. “You pathetic fool! You are certainly seeking death. You will get it today on the battlefield. I shall not leave you with your life. “

Without uttering another word Rama shot seven golden-feathered arrows at the demon. The arrows flew with the speed of Garuda and pierced right through Viradha, falling upon the earth drenched with his blood. The Rakshasa roared in pain and released Sita. With his lance upraised he rushed at Rama and Lakshmana. The brothers immediately sent a shower of arrows at the demon.

Even though pierced all over, Viradha remained standing. Laughing aloud he yawned contemptuously. He then hurled his lance at Rama with the force of a tempest. Rama at once fired two arrows which cut the lance into three pieces as it coursed toward him. As it fell to the ground the shattered lance resembled a rocky mountain ledge that had been struck by Indra’s thunderbolt. Rama and Lakshmana took out their swords, which resembled two black serpents preparing to attack. They rushed at the Rakshasa and began striking him with great force. Viradha reached down and lifted both brothers, one on each arm. Placing them on his shoulders he ran toward the woods.

As Viradha approached the dense forest Sita cried out, “Alas, where goes my lord? O best of the Rakshasas, please take me also. How can I remain here alone?”

Hearing Sita’s plaintive wail, Rama raised his sword high and hacked off the demon’s right arm. Lakshmana lopped off his left arm, and Viradha fell upon the ground in a swoon. Although striking him with their swords and with kicks and punches, the brothers saw that the Rakshasa still did not die. Rama said to Lakshmana, “It is clear that due to his boons this demon cannot be killed by force. We should bury him in a pit, for this is the traditional way of disposing of the Rakshasas. Quickly dig a large pit, O tiger among men!”

Rama stood with his foot pressing down upon the Rakshasa’s neck. Viradha regained consciousness and said, “O Raghava, I am defeated by you. Your strength is not less than Indra’s. I now know you to be the all-powerful Rama and your wife the highly fortunate Sita. I am the Gandharva named Tumburu. Due to not properly serving Kuvera, the lord of wealth, I was cursed by him. “

The fallen Rakshasa explained how as Tumburu he had previously been Kuvera’s servant. One day Tumburu had been sporting with the Apsaras and had failed to properly attend upon his master. In anger Kuvera had cursed him to enter a demon’s fierce form. Tumburu had pleaded for mercy and Kuvera had replied, “When Rama, the son of Dasarath, defeats you in battle, then you will attain your own form and return to heaven. “

Viradha spoke with difficulty. “By your grace, O Rama, I am freed from a terrible curse. I shall now go to my own abode. O Lord, ten miles from here lives the sage Sarabhanga, who longs to see you. Go to his hermitage, for he will give you good advice. “

Viradha begged Rama to inter him in the pit so that he could die. Rama and Lakshmana rolled the huge body of the Rakshasa into the hole Lakshmana had dug. After covering him with earth and rocks, they comforted Sita and then continued on their way, looking for Sarabhanga’s hermitage.

In the sky the gods had witnessed the whole scene. Seeing Rama, whom they knew to be the powerful Vishnu acting like a human, they were astonished. Nothing was beyond Rama’s knowledge or power, yet he accepted the feelings and actions of an ordinary man. Pondering upon the import of Rama’s deeds, the gods received Tumburu back to them.

Rama searched for Sarabhanga, absorbed in a mood of affection for the sage. As the brothers came near the ascetic’s hermitage they saw in the sky a golden chariot. It shone like the midday sun and was drawn by a thousand greenish horses. A brilliant white canopy resembling a large cloud and decorated with magnificent garlands covered the chariot. Seated in the chariot was Indra, who was being fanned with white whisks by two beautiful young girls. In the sky many other gods surrounded Indra. Rama and Lakshmana saw numerous Gandharvas and Siddhas, all dressed in resplendent silk garments and gold ornaments. All these high-souled beings were worshipping Indra with Vedic hymns.

Upon seeing this wondrous sight Rama said to Lakshmana, “O Lakshmana, see here Indra’s wonderful chariot, full of grandeur. Those young men with broad chests and arms like iron clubs, wearing red garments and gold earrings and surrounding him in the hundreds, appear as unassailable as tigers. “

Lakshmana gazed up at the host of gods assembled in the sky. All of them appeared youthful and all had garlands as bright as fire on their chests. As the two princes looked on, the gods rose up into the sky and vanished. Amazed at this sight Rama and Lakshmana walked on and entered Sarabhanga’s hermitage.

Sarabhanga was seated before the sacrificial fire. Having practiced asceticism for many years, he was able to fix his mind upon the Supreme Person within his heart. He had realized that Rama was that same person. In meditation the sage prayed that he might be able to see God in his human form. Accordingly, Rama approached the old ascetic and bowed low before him, touching his feet and saying, “I am Rama, and this is my brother Lakshmana and my wife Sita. At Viradha’s behest, we have sought your presence. Viradha has now risen to heaven with the gods. Pray tell us what we should do, O jewel among sages. “

Sarabhanga rose immediately, his eyes flooded with tears. He showed the three travelers a seat. Offering them water and fruits, he said, “O Rama, there is no one more kind or merciful. After meditating for a very long time and reaching the end of my attachments to this world, I saw you in my heart. Now I see you here as the son of Dasarath. “

After offering many prayers the sage fell silent. He sat for some time gazing with love upon Rama’s face. Smiling, Rama asked, “Why did I see here the lord of the gods, O sage?”

The sage said that Indra had come to take him to the higher planets, which he had earned as a result of his asceticism. Sarabhanga explained that, desiring to remain on earth to see Rama, he had sent Indra away.

“Now that I have seen your transcendental form I have no desire to go to the heavenly worlds, O Raghava, ” Sarabhanga said. “Please take from me my ascetic merits. “

“You will doubtlessly rise beyond even the highest heaven and attain Vishnu’s immortal abode, O learned one, ” Rama replied. “But before leaving, pray tell me where I should go now. “

Sarabhanga directed Rama to the hermitage of another sage named Sutikshna. He then gazed at Rama and entered a deep meditation. From within himself Sarabhanga invoked the fire element and immolated his mortal frame, which quickly burned to ashes. The sage appeared in a shining spiritual body and, after offering his respects to Rama, rose up into the sky.

Rama remained seated in Sarabhanga’s hermitage and many other rishis came there and begged him. to dispose of the Rakshasas. They told him how the demons were killing thousands of brahmins. Rama assured the rishis that he would annihilate the Rakshasas in due course. He then left and went toward Sutikshna’s hermitage, following Sarabhanga’s directions.

Upon seeing Rama, Sutikshna offered many prayers and then took him to see the powerful rishi Agastya. On the way to Agastya they saw that the forest resembled the famous Nandana grove in the heavens. The ground was suddenly smooth, carpeted with soft grasses. Trees bent down on both sides under their heavy loads of ripe fruits. The clear lakes were filled with lotuses and crowded with swans, cranes and many other varieties of water birds. Flowers grew and trees blossomed everywhere. The animals were docile and approached the travelers without fear.

Rama looked around at the wonderful scenery. “It seems we are near Agastya’s hermitage, ” he said. “By his austerities the sage has transformed this forest into heaven. We will soon behold that shining rishi. “

Requested by Lakshmana, Rama told various stories about Agastya. He kept his brother and Sita entertained as they walked throughout the day. Finally by evening they arrived at the hermitage. As they approached it Rama said, “Let us go see Agastya, for he will surely bless us with all good fortune. I think that with his permission we should remain in this region for the rest of our stay in the forest. “

Sutikshna went ahead and informed Agastya of their arrival. The sage quickly had them brought into his hermitage. As they entered the large compound they saw numerous sacrificial fires, each dedicated to a particu’ lar god and tended by Agastya’s disciples. All the principal deities, including the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, as well as Shiva, Brahma and dozens of other gods were being worshipped. Sacrificial smoke and the sound of mantras filled the air.

Agastya, feeling ecstasy, rose up from his seat and came swiftly toward Rama. Rama saw the sage coming and along with Lakshmana he immedi-ately prostrated himself on the ground. Sita stood close behind with her hands folded and head bowed.

Agastya raised Rama up and said, “I have been thinking of you for a long time, O Raghava. I am blessed by your appearance here. You are always beyond the influence of the insurpassable material energy. Simply by remembering you one can be carried beyond the great ocean of birth, death and suffering. What then can be said of one who sees you?”

Agastya sat the travelers down and after offering oblations into the sacred fire, he presented them with water and food. Seated in meditation the sage then caused a great golden bow to appear. There were also two quivers filled with sharp arrows which blazed like fire, and a long sword sheathed in a golden scabbard. Agastya presented the weapons to Rama, telling him how in a previous age Vishnu had used them to assist the gods in a war against the demons.

Rama accepted the celestial weapons respectfully and then asked the sage to tell him of a place where he could live. After again meditating for a while the sage replied, “By virtue of my austerities and meditation I have come to know you and understand your purpose, O Rama. I therefore suggest you go to a nearby forest called Panchavati. It is beautiful and sanctified. At that place all your desires will be fulfilled. “

Agastya gave the brothers directions. After taking leave, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita began the twenty-mile walk to Panchavati, making their way along the narrow forest paths.

After a few miles they came across a huge vulture lying in a clearing. Rama and Lakshmana, assuming it to be a Rakshasa, quickly prepared to fight. Rama carefully approached the vulture, which resembled a hill.

“I am Rama and this is my brother Lakshmana, two descendants of Raghu, ” he declared. “Who are you and what is your race?”

In gentle speech the bird replied that he was an old friend of Dasarath. His name was Jatayu and he was the king of the vultures. He recounted to Rama his entire lineage, which began with the ancient sage Kardama. In the course of his narration Jatayu described how all the various species of birds and animals had descended. Jatayu was the nephew of Garuda, the invincible eagle carrier of Vishnu.

“This forest is infested with Rakshasas and vicious beasts, ” Jatayu said. “Allow me to accompany you in the forest. I shall protect Sita when you two brothers go out to gather food. “

Rama knew of Jatayu’s friendship with his father. He joyfully embraced the great bird and gave his permission for Jatayu to follow him. Rama then continued toward Panchavati, eager to encounter the demons.

After arriving at Panchavati, Rama selected a spot near the sacred river Godavari. Lakshmana sanctified the spot with prayers and water from river. He constructed a large hut with mud walls, supported on strong wooden pillars, its roof thatched with kusha grass and reeds. Rama was delighted to see the beautiful cottage and he embraced Lakshmana. “With you as his son, virtuous and always attentive to my needs and desires, surely the king still lives, ” Rama said affectionately. “O Lakshmana, you are to me as good as my beloved father. “

Rama and Sita settled in the dwelling and lived peacefully, bathing in the Godavari and enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest.

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