Rāma moved along the royal highway towards Sītā’s quarters, praised by the many Brahmins who lined the road. Sītā still had not heard the news of Rāma’s impending exile and was eagerly awaiting Him, Her mind absorbed in thoughts of his installation. As Her husband entered the room She sprang from Her seat. Rāma had left Lakṣman outside and had gone alone to speak with Sītā. He was perplexed as He considered how to tell His wife the terrible news. Although striving to control His mind and contain His grief, Rāma’s face wore a pained expression and His head hung low.
Sītā was astonished to see Him in that state, His face pale and bathed in perspiration. Apprehensively She inquired, “What troubles You, my lord? Today is the auspicious and joyful day of Your installation, but You seem to be covered by the dark shadow of grief.”
Sītā asked Rāma why He was not accompanied by the royal servants carrying the white umbrella. Why was He not wearing regal dress or anointed with sandalwood paste after having gone through the inaugural ceremony? Where was the king and his ministers? What was happening?
Rāma steadied His mind and looked upon Sītā’s face. “My worshipable father has ordered Me to enter the forest for fourteen years’ exile. O most beautiful princess, according to Kaikeyi’s desire, My brother Bharata will be installed in My place. Indeed, in days gone by two boons were granted to Kaikeyi by My ever-truthful father. She has recalled the king’s debt now and placed him under his word to send Me away, conferring the office of Prince Regent upon the noble Bharata. In obedience to morality I shall therefore depart forthwith to the forest. I have come to see You on My way.”
Sītā shook like a tree caught in a gale. How could this be true? She listened with astonishment as Rāma continued. “O high-minded lady, please remain firm. In My absence You should take to fasts and prayer, remaining disciplined at all times. Worship and serve My father and mother who are both grieving deeply due to My separation from them. Sumitra and Kaikeyi should also be served by You, as should Bharata and Shatrughna, who are both as dear to Me as My own self. Be especially careful not to praise Me before Bharata, for men endowed with power and wealth cannot tolerate hearing others praised. Indeed, Bharata will be the king and should therefore be served by You with all attention, carefully avoiding any offense.”
Sītā was dumbfounded. She turned pale and Her eyes opened wide. She knew without doubt that Rāma meant what He said. The princess listened in horror as He instructed Her. Rāma told Her to remain living peacefully in Ayodhya under the protection of the emperor and Bharata, devoting Herself to righteousness and religion. Rāma Himself would leave immediately for the forest.
After hearing Rāma speak, the noble Sītā became indignant out of Her love for Her husband. Her cheeks flushed red and She replied angrily, “How have You uttered such words today, O lord? They are never worthy of one possessed of strength and weapons, who is capable of affording protection to the weak. Your advice is not worth hearing!”
Considering Rāma as Her only refuge, Sītā spoke strongly. She described how the father, mother, brother, or any other relation were never the shelter of a chaste woman with a husband. The wife should share her husband’s fortune under all circumstances. She stood in front of Rāma, Her eyes flashing as She continued, “I am enjoined by ancient religious codes to enter the forest along with You, dearest Rāma. I cannot possibly remain in Ayodhya! If You leave today for the forest, I shall walk before You, clearing away the sharp grasses and thorns on the path.”
Sītā assured Rāma that He could take Her anywhere with confidence. She would live happily under His protection and would prefer forest life with Him to residence in the richest palace or even heaven itself without Him. She had been trained in all the arts of service and was well prepared to accompany Him. “I need no further advice, O lord. Simply order Me to depart. Remaining with You in fragrant woodlands, I shall be as happy as I am now living in Your palace.”
Sītā felt pained that Rāma had not considered taking Her with Him. Raised in a line of warrior kings, the princess was not easily disturbed by difficulty. Again and again She exhorted Her husband to take Her to the forest. “Certainly You are capable of guarding Me from any danger. Indeed, none other can guard Me as You can, Rāma. Nor is it their sacred duty. I shall therefore go with You today. That is My fixed determination.”
Sītā was fond of the country. She imagined Herself alone with Rāma amid beautiful mountains, woods and lakes. Even if it was austere She would nevertheless prefer thousands of years spent with Her husband in this way than a single day without Him. She spoke Her deepest feelings. “I shall enter the forest at Your feet. I am exclusively devoted to You, My mind is ever attached to You and I am determined to die if disunited from You. Therefore grant My prayer and take Me with You today.”
Rāma considered the difficulty of living in the forest and He did not feel at all inclined to take Sītā with Him. He spoke gently to His dear wife, who had buried Her face in Her hands and was sobbing. “My dearest lady, You are born of a noble line and are always devoted to virtue. Practice that virtue and appease My mind, for I cannot bear to see You suffer. I shall now give You advice meant only for Your good, frail Sītā. Not only is there no joy in the fearful forest, but it is always fraught with misery. Simply by taking You there I would be neglecting My duty to protect You.”
Rāma described the forest where He had gone many times for hunting expeditions. There were numerous lions and other fierce beasts. Marshes and rivers abounded in crocodiles and other fierce aquatics. The forest paths were rugged and often impassable. Innumerable thorny trees and stinging bushes made traveling difficult. Sharp grasses grew everywhere. Hornets, gnats, scorpions, spiders and mosquitoes were always present, along with snakes and serpents of every kind. In the deep forest the darkness was dense. Furious winds often blew, lashing a traveler’s face with debris.
Rāma was determined to dissuade the gentle Sītā from following Him. “Exhausted after searching all day for food, one must lie down at night upon beds of dry leaves. Baths must be taken in lonely lakes which are the abode of serpents. By day and night the terrible pangs of hunger can be appeased only by one’s mind, for food is scarce. O princess, one is subjected to all kinds of illnesses and mental anguish. Anger, greed and fear must be completely controlled. A forest is certainly a place of terrible suffering; therefore, give up this idea of following me there. It is not a secure place for one such as You.”
Sītā’s determination remained unshaken. “All these dangers will be as nothing to Me if I am able to remain by Your side. I will in any event have no fear whatsoever with You as My protector. Even Indra will not be able to harm Me when You are with Me. What then of mere beasts? You have always instructed Me that a wife can never be independent from Her husband, O Rāma; indeed she is half of his very self. How then can I not accompany You?”
Sītā remembered how, when She was a young girl, an astrologer had predicted that She would one day have to live in the forest. Surely that time had arrived. She continued to plead with Rāma. Was this not an opportunity for Her to fulfill Her religious duty by following Him to the forest? Would not any other course be against virtue? The husband was the wife’s supreme deity. Sītā quoted the scriptures. A chaste woman who remained throughout life by her husband’s side surely attained the same destination as him after death. That was Her only desire, to be with Rāma always. Looking into Rāma’s eyes, She spoke in a piteous voice. “For what reason then, O great hero, will You leave Me behind? I who am devoted and faithful, who shares alike Your every pleasure and pain and who desires to follow the religious path? You should certainly bring Me with You; otherwise, being sorely afflicted, I shall resort to poison, fire or water in order to bring about My end.”
Although Sītā’s lamentations hurt Him, Rāma did not relent. He tried to pacify and reassure Her, but She only became all the more determined to accompany Him. Agitated at the thought of separation from Her husband, She taunted Him.
“Has My father Janaka obtained as My protector a woman in the form of a man? How, in Your absence, could I tolerate the people falsely saying, ‘It seems that strength and valor are lacking in Rāma, as He could not protect His own dear wife’? What fear has assailed You that You now desire to desert Me, although I remain entirely devoted to You? I will not cast My eyes on another man even in thought! How then can You even consider delivering Me for protection to another, O My lord?”
Sītā continued to beseech Rāma. She had no intention of remaining behind without Him under any circumstances. Be it heaven or hell, She could only be happy by Her husband’s side. Sītā gazed imploringly at Rāma as She begged Him to take Her with Him.
Rāma was agonized by the thought of leaving behind His beloved wife. He would miss Her. Still, He feared Her suffering in the forest. His heart ached as She cried out to Him.
“Without You heaven would be exactly as hell to Me, while with You hell would be the best of all abodes. How can I remain here under the control of those who are inimical to You and have sent You to the forest? If I must watch You leave without Me, then I shall drink poison this very day. I cannot bear the pain of separation from You for even an hour. How, then, shall I stand it for fourteen years? Take Me with You or let Me give up My life here and now in Your presence.”
Sītā’s beautiful face was streaked with tears, which fell continuously from Her dark eyes like drops of water from blue lotus flowers. Rāma embraced Her and gently wiped away Her tears. He was still apprehensive about taking Her, but He could not see Her endure the pain of His separation. She was already almost senseless from grief and He had not even left. What would happen to Her during fourteen years of His absence? Making up His mind to take Her with Him, He spoke to Her reassuringly.
“I would find no pleasure even in heaven if I obtained it at the cost of Your suffering, O most pious lady! Not knowing Your real feelings and being afraid that forest life would cause You pain, I discouraged You from following Me. I see now that destiny has decreed You should dwell with Me in the forest. Follow Me then, O princess, and I shall protect You in strict accord with the moral laws always followed by the virtuous.”
Rāma made clear His firm intention to go to the deep forest and remain there for the full duration. He wanted Sītā to have no doubt of what lay ahead. He was fixed in His determination to obey His parents’ command. How could one who disregarded elders and teachers ever hope to please God, who is not so easily seen or obtained? Earth, heaven and the kingdom of God can all be achieved by one who serves his mother, father and teacher. Explaining all this to His devoted wife, Rāma said, “Not even truthfulness, charity or sacrifice are comparable to serving one’s father and mother. This is the eternal religion. Pious men, devoted to serving their parents, reach the regions of the gods and beyond. I therefore desire to do exactly what My truthful father has enjoined. I shall go to the forest today. As I see that You are set on following Me, My resolve to leave You behind has weakened. O lady of bewitching eyes, I shall take You with Me and together We shall practice asceticism in the deep forest. I am pleased with You, Sītā. Your determination to serve Me in every circumstance is worthy of Your dynasty and it adds glory to Mine. Prepare to leave immediately! Give away all Your riches to the Brahmins and go with only a simple dress and no belongings. We shall soon depart.”
Sītā was overjoyed to hear Her husband’s agreement. Her face bloomed like a full-blown lotus. Excitedly She began following Rāma’s instructions, giving away all Her costly garments and jewels, as well as all the other riches in Her palace.
In the meantime Lakṣman, who had been waiting patiently outside Sītā’s apartments, saw Rāma coming out. He bowed down before Rāma and held His feet tightly. “If Your mind is set upon leaving for the forest, then take Me with You,” he implored. “I shall walk ahead of You holding My bow and guarding against all dangers. With joy I shall accompany You through beautiful woods resounding with the cries of wild animals. Without You I do not desire even the rulership of all the worlds.”
Lakṣman hoped Rāma would approve, but Rāma tried to dissuade Him. “My dearest Lakṣman, You are dearer to Me than life itself. Always affectionate, devoted to virtue and firm on the right path, You are My constant and most valued companion. Yet if You follow Me to the forest, who will be left to serve Your mother Sumitra and the illustrious Kaushalya?”
Rāma suggested that Kaikeyi would not be kind to her co-wives once her son obtained the kingdom. Bharata would be devoted to His own mother, Kaikeyi, and thus the other queens would be neglected. Therefore Lakṣman should remain in Ayodhya to care for Kaushalya and Sumitra. By serving Rāma’s elders, Lakṣman would demonstrate His devotion to Rāma. Rāma concluded, “Incomparably great religious merit will be earned by You, O noble Lakṣman, and Our mothers will be saved from suffering.”
Lakṣman was not inclined to accept Rāma’s advice. How could He live without Rāma? In soft but firm words He argued that Bharata and Shatrughna were both devoted to Rāma. They would therefore serve all of Rāma’s elders equally. Lakṣman promised His brother, “If somehow They become proud and arrogant upon attaining the kingdom, abandoning virtue and neglecting Their elders, I will return to punish Them. For even while We live in the forest, news of the kingdom will reach Us through the sages and ascetics living there.”
Lakṣman had already anticipated Rāma’s objections and had carefully considered them. There was no doubt in His mind that He should follow His brother. Continuing to reassure Rāma, Lakṣman reminded Him how the king had already arranged more than adequate support for Kaushalya and her dependents. The revenue of thousands of villages was under her control. She was capable of maintaining herself as well as Sumitra and even Lakṣman Himself. He concluded, “Therefore kindly make Me Your personal attendant, for there will be no unrighteousness in this act. Going before You with My sword, I shall clear a safe path for You and Sītā. In wakefulness or sleep, You shall find Me by Your side ever ready to do Your bidding.”
Rāma was pleased and comforted to hear Lakṣman speak. Lakṣman was as dear to Him as life itself and Rāma had been sad at the prospect of leaving Him. Holding Lakṣman by the shoulders and looking into His expectant face, Rāma said, “Take leave of Your near and dear ones, O My brother, for We shall depart shortly.” Lakṣman felt a surge of happiness and His limbs trembled. He bowed to His elder brother and asked for His order.
Rāma asked Lakṣman to go to Vasiṣṭha’s hermitage, where He had left some divine weapons. There were two celestial bows along with a pair of inexhaustible quivers, two impenetrable pieces of body armor and a pair of long, shining swords. Rāma had received these as a dowry from Janaka and had left them with Vasiṣṭha so they could receive daily worship in his hermitage. He said to Lakṣman, “Bring all these weapons, dear brother, for I feel We will have need of them soon.”
Lakṣman joyfully went and fetched the weapons. Then He and Rāma together began to distribute Their wealth to the Brahmins. Many sages came at that time to offer their blessings to Rāma and all of them were given great riches. Gold, silver, jewels, pearls, chariots, horses, silken garments and hundreds of thousands of cows were distributed freely to anyone who came begging charity. Many thousands of Brahmins were given sufficient alms to maintain them for the rest of their lives. Rāma’s relations and dependents, as well as the needy and afflicted were also given much wealth. At that time in Ayodhya there was not a single Brahmin or needy person who was not provided with gifts. Being thus honored and gratified by Rāma, they all returned to their own homes, praising Him in their hearts.