Skip to main content

Chapter 3

With the Sage Viśvāmitra

Viśvāmitra walked ahead of the two princes, who each carried a bow in hand and had swords strapped to Their waists. Wearing on Their shoulders two large quivers of arrows, the princes looked like a pair of three-headed serpents following behind the sage. Their brilliant jewels set off Their dark complexions. The two resplendent boys added luster even to the shining sage Viśvāmitra, as the two gods Skanda and Ganapati adorn the immortal Śiva.

After covering about twelve miles along the beautiful southern bank of the Sarayu, they arrived at a stretch of soft grass, sheltered by trees. Viśvāmitra stopped and turned towards Rāma and Lakṣman. “Sit here comfortably and sip a little sanctified water for purification. I will now tell you the mystical mantras known as Bala and Atibala. These hymns will confer upon You freedom from all fatigue and fever. Indeed they will release You from hunger and thirst and will even prevent decrepitude. While You mutter these sacred spells, none on earth will be Your equal in either battle, intellectual judgment or argument. Bala and Atibala are the sources of all wisdom, being the daughters of the self-born creator, Brahmā.”

Viśvāmitra looked upon the brothers’ faces and he felt a deep affection for Them. Although he knew They were not ordinary men, out of love he wanted to serve Them, acting as their teacher and guide. For Their part the princes felt an equal affection for the sage, and They gladly reciprocated his love, accepting him as Their guru. The sage positioned himself near the seated princes and, after sipping holy water for purification, held up his right palm and began chanting the mantras.

With a cheerful expression Rāma and Lakṣman received the two hymns from the sage. When the instruction was complete, They rested for the night on the bank of the river, enjoying the cool breeze that wafted gently across the water.

Shortly before dawn Viśvāmitra, who had remained awake in meditation all night, awoke the two princes, calling out to Them. “O Rāma and Lakṣman, O tigers among men, the sun approaches the eastern horizon! Rise up now and perform Your ablutions. We must proceed.”

The brothers immediately rose and bathed in the river. After Their prayers and meditations They approached Viśvāmitra and bowed at his feet. The sage, having bestowed blessings upon the boys, again led the way as the sun rose upon another cloudless day.

Soon they saw the river Ganges where it met the Sarayu. On the bank of the Ganges were many simple dwellings made from leaves and mud, in which there lived a community of ascetics. The princes asked Viśvāmitra about the hermitage. The sage, remembering the history of the site, laughed heartily and told them the story of how Cupid had once come to assail Śiva here.

A very long time ago the god of love had a human form. On one occasion he had been bold enough to fire his arrows of love at the unconquerable Śiva. The powerful Śiva, who had been absorbed in deep meditation at the hermitage, became infuriated and gazed at Cupid with his third eye. A searing flame shot out, reducing Cupid’s body to ashes. From then on Cupid became known as Ananga, the bodiless one, and the land there became known as Aṅga.

Finishing the tale Viśvāmitra said, “All these sages are disciples of the glorious Śiva. Let us halt for the night here and converse with these mystics, O princes.”

While Viśvāmitra spoke, the ascetics dwelling in the hermitage sensed from a distance the approach of the sage and the princes. Realizing who they were, those worshippers of Śiva, who himself always worships Viṣṇu, felt happy in heart and came out quickly to greet their exalted guests.

Having been graciously received, the three travelers performed their evening rituals and took a simple meal of forest fare. Viśvāmitra entertained the assembly with ancient tales of heroes and sages of the past.

The following morning, after crossing the Ganges in a boat provided by the ascetics, Viśvāmitra and the princes came to a vast, desolate region. On all sides were huge trees stripped of their foliage. The ground was laid waste and a wind gusted, carrying sand and debris which lashed their faces. The cries of wild animals and vultures resounded there and even the sky above was dark and overcast.

Rāma and Lakṣman looked around. What had happened? The land so far had been beautiful and verdant. Rāma asked Viśvāmitra, “This forest ahead appears inaccessible and foreboding. What is this land inhabited with fierce beasts of prey and presenting such a terrible aspect?”

Smiling even in the face of that fearful scene, Viśvāmitra replied, “My dearest Rāma, a long time ago this was the site of two prosperous kingdoms built by the gods. It came to pass one day that Indra became afflicted with the sin of killing a Brahmin. Overcome with impurity, Indra sought the powerful ṛṣis, the most exalted of the Brahmins, as his refuge. They performed rituals of purification and bathed his body with Ganges water which fell here on this tract of land. Pleased with this land for receiving his impurities, Indra blessed it saying, ‘Here will rise two great kingdoms which will flourish for many years and will be known as Malada and Karusa.’”

The party had stopped at the edge of a forest of bare trees as Viśvāmitra spoke. The way ahead was virtually enveloped by darkness. Terrible sounds emanated from the forest. The sage continued telling the brothers about the land. Some time after Indra had founded the cities, there came to that region a Yakṣa woman named Tataka, as powerful as a thousand elephants and able to assume any form she desired. She was the mother of Maricha, who now assailed Viśvāmitra’s hermitage. Fearsome and filled with malice towards all beings, Tataka constantly ravaged that land and thus no one lived there. Although it was once the site of flourishing cities, it was now almost impossible to even approach.

Turning towards the princes, Viśvāmitra said, “The time has now come for the demise of the evil Tataka. You two princes should follow me to the place where she resides. Search her out and end her life immediately.”

Rāma replied with a smile, “Being a woman, O sage, how can Tataka have such power?”

Viśvāmitra knew that the virtuous Rāma was hesitant to attack a woman, but Tataka was no ordinary woman. The sage described her background. She had been born as the beautiful daughter of a great and powerful Yakṣa named Suketu. As a youth she was given a boon by Brahmā that she would possess the strength of a thousand elephants. She married the famous Yakṣa, Sunda, who was eventually killed as a result of a curse made by the sage Agastya. When Tataka learned of her husband’s death, she became infuriated with Agastya and, along with her son Maricha, she rushed towards the sage desiring to kill him. The sage stood his ground. He said to the two advancing Yakṣas, “As you act so wickedly may you both become demons! O Tataka, you shall lose your attractive form and instead become an ugly man-eating Rākṣasī!” Agastya then vanished from the spot.

Viśvāmitra raised his hand and indicated the path ahead of them. Tataka had turned the entire region into a desolate forest by her malevolent presence. She was always angry and would attack anyone who approached the area.

Having told the brothers Tataka’s history, the sage reassured them: “Although the scriptures state that a woman should always be protected and never attacked, in this case You need not fear any sin. The killing of Tataka is necessary for the good of society. One wishing to protect the afflicted must sometimes perform even a seemingly sinful act. This is the eternal duty of kings. O Rāma, You should not hesitate.”

Citing other historical examples of kings and gods who had killed evil women, Viśvāmitra urged Rāma to quickly kill Tataka.

Rāma accepted the sage’s order and grasped His golden bow. Standing ready for combat, He said to Viśvāmitra, “My father instructed Me on leaving Ayodhya that your order should be followed without hesitation. In obedience then to both his and your command I shall now face the fierce Rākṣasī. I wish to do good to the Brahmins and cows in this region, as well as to satisfy your holy self. Please point out to me the whereabouts of that wicked demon.”

Viśvāmitra led Them a little further into the wilderness. Rāma twanged his bowstring, which produced a terrific sound, filling the four quarters. All the forest animals were terrified by the noise.

Tataka herself was stunned and overcome with anger. Who had dared to challenge her? Whoever it was, they would soon regret their foolishness. She came out from her cave and ran towards the source of the sound, screaming horribly.

Seeing her at a distance emerging from the forest in a terrible fury, monstrous in size and awful in appearance, Rāma said to Lakṣman. “Behold, My dear brother, this formidable and fearful Yakṣa woman. The very sight of this sinful wretch would break the hearts of the timid. Watch Me put her to flight with My sharp arrows. In truth, I do not really want to kill her, as she is a woman. I shall put an end to her strength by rendering her immobile and powerless, cutting from her body her hands and feet.”

As Rāma spoke, Tataka rushed towards him roaring, with her arms upraised. Uttering a powerful mantra, Viśvāmitra checked her progress, calling out, “May victory attend the Ayodhya princes!”

Creating a swirling cloud of dust, Tataka confounded the princes and disappeared. With her mystic powers of illusion she employed numerous conjuring tricks. She assumed many forms, one after another. Sometimes she appeared in front of the brothers. Then she would be above Them. Then again she would suddenly appear behind Them. One moment she appeared as a furious horned animal. In the next moment she became a terrible looking fiend. Then she swooped down upon Them as a great clawed bird. Hurling upon the brothers huge rocks and boulders, she screamed fearfully.

Rāma flew into a rage. He parried the rocks with a shower of shafts from His bow. He shot arrows with blinding speed. His bow appeared to be always bent into a circle. Taking razor-headed arrows He severed Tataka’s two arms, even as she came running towards him. Lakṣman also became furious. He released sharp arrows with deadly accuracy and sliced off her nose and ears.

The Yakṣa woman disappeared and rose up to the sky. Even though deprived of her arms, she used her sorcery to throw down more massive trees and boulders. Remaining invisible, she moved hither and thither, screaming all the while. Viśvāmitra saw the boys mystified by the Rākṣasī’s illusory powers. He realized They were holding back because Tataka was a woman. The sage called to the brothers. “Have done with Your tenderness! This woman should not be spared! Sinful and wicked, she thoroughly deserves death at your hands. Act swiftly to end her life before nightfall, as the demons are always more powerful after sunset!”

Rāma then showed His skill at archery. He released arrows capable of striking an invisible target by seeking out sound. Reciting mantras as He let them go, Rāma covered Tataka in a network of arrows. Those arrows reduced the falling stones to powder. They pierced the Rākṣasī and she screamed in pain. She quickly came down to earth again. Tataka then assumed a vast form and rushed with the force of a tempest towards the two brothers. Rāma decided that she should be killed. He quickly fired an arrow imbued with the energy of a thunderbolt. It hit the Rākṣasī full in the chest. Tataka’s heart was ripped apart and with a hideous cry she fell down dead.

Having watched Rāma slay the demoness, the gods, headed by Indra, assembled in the skies and applauded. Celestial flowers rained down on the two princes. Acknowledging the gods’ pleasure, Rāma and Lakṣman modestly bowed Their heads. The thousand-eyed Indra said to Viśvāmitra, “All the gods are gratified with Rāma’s feat. O holy Brahmin, show Rāma your affection by giving to Him your knowledge of the celestial missiles. A great objective of the gods will soon be accomplished by Rāma with the use of these weapons.”

Indra was considering Viṣṇu’s desire that Rāvaṇa and his Rākṣasa hordes be annihilated. As he looked upon the mighty Rāma he knew that the time for the destruction of the Rākṣasas was imminent.

After Indra had spoken, the gods returned to the heavens and twilight fell. Embracing Rāma and Lakṣman, Viśvāmitra said, “Let us remain for the night in this forest. Freed from the curse of Tataka, it is now rendered so very peaceful and attractive. In the morning we shall continue on to my hermitage.”

The three of them rested for the night, praised by heavenly bards and singers who had assembled in the canopy of the sky.

The next morning Viśvāmitra remembered Indra’s words. He sat the two princes down and faced them. “Steady Your minds, O heroes, for I shall now tell You the knowledge of the gods’ mystic weapons, including even those presided over by the invincible Brahmā, Śiva and Viṣṇu. Equipped with this knowledge You will be able to forcibly bring under Your control even the hosts of gods and demons, including the Gandharvas and Nāgas, the powerful celestial serpents.”

Viśvāmitra sat facing the rising sun and, after purifying himself by sipping water and intoning sacred hymns, he began to repeat to Rāma a string of mantras capable of invoking the celestial weapons. Calling each weapon by the name of its presiding deity, Viśvāmitra delivered to Rāma all those divine missiles, thousands in number and difficult for even the gods to remember in their entirety. As they were called they came before Rāma in their shining ethereal forms. Some appeared like glowing coal, others were smoky while others were brilliant like the sun or moon. Filled with joy at being called to Rāma’s service, they stood before Him with folded hands and asked for His command.

Rāma accepted them with affection and asked them to personally appear within His mind whenever He thought of them. The personified missiles replied, “It shall be as You say.” Taking leave of Rāma, the weapons circumambulated Him with respect and returned to their own heavenly abodes.

After teaching the brothers the full knowledge of firing and recalling the weapons, Viśvāmitra finally said, “The instruction is complete. O glorious princes, we should now continue towards our destination.”

They moved on from that spot and soon saw in the distance a great cluster of trees, appearing like a mass of dark clouds on the horizon. As they came closer they saw it was a beautiful copse containing varieties of flowering and fruit-bearing trees. Sweetly singing birds filled the air and graceful deer moved about next to rivulets of clear water. Looking at Viśvāmitra, Rāma inquired, “What is the name of this place so pleasing to the mind? It seems we have arrived at the site of some holy hermitage. Can it be that we have now reached your own abode, O learned Brahmin?”

Although possessed of infinite knowledge, Rāma had fully assumed the role of Viśvāmitra’s student. He listened attentively as the sage smiled and told Him the ancient story of Bali and Indra. Once the immensely powerful King Bali, lord of the demons and enemy of the gods, seized the seat of Indra and began to rule over the universe. Becoming famous throughout all the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell, he remained in that position for a long time.

The gods had become perturbed and with Indra at their head they sought out Viṣṇu. The Lord then appeared as Vāmana, accepting the form of a Brahmin boy. On the plea of charity, He took from Bali the three worlds, restoring them again to the gods. Vāmana then remained for some time at this hermitage, known as the Siddha-ashrama, sanctifying it by His presence. Viśvāmitra concluded, “It is here that I have my dwelling, O Rāma. Let us go there now.”

Taking the two princes by the hand, the sage entered his hermitage. As he walked into the large compound he resembled a full and cloudless moon accompanied by two brilliant stars. There were numerous hermits moving about in that grassy enclosure. Some tended sacred fires, while some of the younger ones chopped wood or worked on constructing the large central altar meant for the main sacrifice. In some places groups of sages sat reciting the Sanskrit hymns of the Vedas, while elsewhere other sages cleaned and prepared sacrificial paraphernalia. Rāma and Lakṣman looked with interest upon the busy scene that greeted Them. Despite the bustle, an atmosphere of tranquility prevailed and the hermits glowed with ascetic power.

Seeing that Viśvāmitra and the princes had arrived, the hermits sprang up and paid their respects. They offered water and forest fruits to the two princes. It was late in the evening and long shadows stretched across the ground. The sacrifice would begin the next day. On Viśvāmitra’s order the hermits showed the two boys to a secluded cottage. One of the sages said, “Rest now for the night, and tomorrow, led by Viśvāmitra, we will go through the ceremony to consecrate our sacrifice. Surely our success is now certain because we see you two princes before us, equipped with every weapon and shining like the sun.”

The sages gazed with gratitude at Rāma and Lakṣman. They had been afflicted by the Rākṣasas for a long time and had prayed for deliverance. In his prayers and meditations, Viśvāmitra had understood the Lord’s plan. The sage had thus gone to Ayodhya, looking for Rāma. Now the divine prince had actually come to personally deliver the ascetics from their suffering. As they watched the two boys lie down to sleep, the sages were struck with wonder. In their hearts they offered worship and praise to Viṣṇu.

Before dawn the next morning the princes rose and went through Their daily rituals. After offering obeisances to Viśvāmitra, They sat down by the side of the sacrificial altar. Facing the sage with folded hands, Rāma asked, “O venerable sir, please tell Us when and where We can expect the evil Rākṣasas to appear?”

Viśvāmitra remained impassive, but the other hermits applauded the boys, seeing their readiness to tackle the demons. One of them replied, “Viśvāmitra is now observing a vow of silence, which he will keep for the next six days and nights, remaining awake throughout. At the end of that period, close to the completion of the sacrifice, the two demons will assail this area with all their force. But be ready, for the treacherous Rākṣasas could appear at any time!”

The princes were eager for a fight. They stood vigilantly by Viśvāmitra’s side as he sat silently meditating upon the sacrificial hymns. Rāma leaned on his great bow, which stood almost as tall as Him. Lakṣman held in His hand a shining blue sword, its golden handle impressed with bright gems.

As the sixth night approached and the final rituals were being performed, the sacrificial fire suddenly blazed forth furiously. A loud clamor came from the sky, which was covered over by clouds. Swooping down upon that sacrifice, the two Rākṣasa demons Maricha and Subahu, appeared from the sky. They were accompanied by their fierce and terrible looking followers. As they spread their sorcery, torrents of blood and pus, as well as large pieces of flesh, fell upon the altar. Blazing fires sprang from the earth and hot coals flew everywhere.

Shrieking horribly, the Rākṣasas danced about, wreaking havoc. The hermits fell back, but this time they were not fearful. Viśvāmitra quickly stood up. It was time for these evil beings to receive their just deserts. They had defiled his sacrifice once too often. They would not do so again. Gathering the other ascetics, Viśvāmitra moved aside and ordered Rāma to attack the Rākṣasas.

Rāma became infuriated upon seeing the scene of devastation. He rushed forward toward the Rākṣasas, calling to His brother, “Watch now as I scatter these wicked demons who feed on raw flesh.”

Even as he spoke, Rāma continuously worked His bow. He sent swift arrows in all directions. The Rākṣasas were stunned; they had not expected any resistance. Some of them closed quickly on Rāma, covering Him on all sides. Rāma released arrows with deadly accuracy and speed. The Rākṣasas were cut to pieces. Rāma looked for Maricha. Seeing his huge form nearby, tearing at the sacrificial altar, Rāma invoked a celestial weapon. He placed it on His bow and, although still feeling furious, he calmly said to Lakṣman. “I shall release the Manava weapon, presided over by the father of the gods, Manu.”

Rāma angrily fired His weapon at the fearsome, roaring Maricha. The demon was struck by the mighty missile and he was lifted and flung a distance of eight hundred miles, landing in the ocean. Although reeling and struck senseless by Rāma’s arrow, Maricha was not killed. Rāma looked at Lakṣman. “See the force of that weapon, My brother. It easily hurled the demon to a vast distance.”

Rāma and Lakṣman continuously discharged flaming arrows at the other Rākṣasas. Imbued with mystic power one arrow expanded into thousands. It appeared as if a continuous line of shafts was leaving Rāma’s bow, so fast was His movement. The Rākṣasas screamed in pain. Some of them vanished and others fell dead on the ground. Some entered the earth while others flew into the sky.

Regrouping, a large number of the demons rushed down from the sky towards the princes. They hurled lances, iron maces, massive rocks and blazing coals. Rāma and Lakṣman stood firm, parrying that shower of weapons with Their arrows. Tightly grasping His golden bow, Rāma said to His brother, “Fear not Lakṣman, for I shall now swiftly deal with these blood-sucking demons. They are wicked and merciless and always given to sinful acts. This indeed shall be the last sacrifice they defile.”

Having said this to His brother, Rāma moved with agility, evading the rocks thrown by the demons. He invoked the weapon presided over by the god of fire, Agni. Fired from Rāma’s fully extended bow, the weapon hit the Rākṣasa Subahu full upon the chest. His heart torn apart, he fell dead on the ground like an uprooted tree. Rāma then invoked the Vāyu-astra, the powerful wind weapon. He fired it and a roaring gale went towards the Rākṣasas. They were blown away like so many pieces of dust and debris. Those who were not killed by that weapon fled for their lives.

As the clamor of the battle died down, Rāma and Lakṣman felt their anger subside. They stood holding Their bows and looking at Viśvāmitra. The sage was delighted. He approached the princes. “I have accomplished my purpose, O mighty-armed heroes. You have perfectly followed your preceptor’s order. We can now continue the sacrifice for the good of the people.”

With tears in his eyes Viśvāmitra gazed for some time at the two handsome brothers. He thought of Viṣṇu’s cosmic arrangement. The Lord always protected his worshippers and, for the well-being of the world, ensured that sacrifices could proceed. Overwhelmed with love the sage finally said to the boys, “Rest peacefully now, for tomorrow we shall leave this place.”

The many ascetics in the hermitage gathered around to congratulate the brothers. They led Them to a spacious cottage near the river. After showing the princes Their accommodation, the hermits offered Them forest fruits and cooked wild vegetables. Rāma and Lakṣman graciously accepted their offerings and then laid down for sleep, exhausted by the day’s events.

The next morning the princes came before Viśvāmitra and respectfully asked, “What other order of yours should we now carry out, O best among the Brahmins?”

The sage told them of a sacrifice about to be performed by Janaka, the king of Mithila. He wanted to take the princes there, where they would see a magnificent bow owned by Janaka. The strength of that bow was inestimable. It was formerly held by Śiva himself and it could not be bent by either gods, Gandharvas or demons-what to speak of humans. Janaka kept it enshrined in a hall where it was worshipped daily by his priests.

“Indeed,” said the sage, “the bow can hardly even be gazed upon except by the mighty. The king has declared that any man who bends this bow will win the hand of his daughter Sītā, a veritable jewel among women who was born from the earth itself. Let us leave for that place immediately.”

Viśvāmitra gave orders to the sages to make ready for the journey. A hundred carts were filled, largely with sacrificial paraphernalia, and yoked to strong asses. At the head of a thousand ṛṣis, who were all reciting auspicious texts from the scriptures, Viśvāmitra and the two princes set off towards Mithila, traveling in a northerly direction along the bank of the Ganges.

As they left, herds of beasts and flocks of birds dwelling around the hermitage began to follow them out of affection. Viśvāmitra and other sages addressed the creatures in their own speech and persuaded them to return.

They walked for some days. Having covered a long distance and arriving at the bank of the Sone river, the sages stopped to rest just before nightfall. The lowing of cattle and the cries of cowherds could be heard all around. As they settled down the travelers looked across the smooth waters of the river, which glowed orange under the setting sun. During the day they had passed many flourishing villages and settlements and seen that the land was farmed and well managed. Rāma, seated comfortably among the ascetics, asked Viśvāmitra where they were.

Viśvāmitra, who had lived thousands of years and knew the history of the entire earth, smilingly began to narrate the story of that land. It was called Kushanabha after an ancient king of the same name who was a son of a ṛṣi named Kusha. Kushanabha was Viśvāmitra’s grandfather. Having descended in the line of Kusha, Viśvāmitra was also known as Kauśika and he had an elder sister named Kaushiki. After unfailingly serving her ṛṣi husband, she had ascended bodily to heaven and later become the holy river Koshi. Viśvāmitra had for a long time led a life of asceticism on the bank of that river, by the side of the Himālayas. Because of his desire to perform a sacrifice, he came down to the plains and it was soon after that he had secured Rāma’s assistance.

The evening passed as Viśvāmitra told this and other tales. Seeing the onset of night the sage at last said, “The beasts and birds are buried in sleep and all the quarters stand enveloped in darkness. The firmament shines brightly with stars as though covered with innumerable eyes. Here rises the moon, dispelling the darkness of the world and spreading his soothing rays all around. Fearful hosts of nocturnal fiends are freely roaming here and there. Let us rest, ready for our renewed journey tomorrow.”

Glorifying Viśvāmitra, the brothers lay down and courted sleep, awed at the sage’s stories.