Devastation in Ayodhya
After Rāma and His party had gone into the jungle on the other side of the Ganges, Sumantra and Guha spent some time speaking together about Rāma. Both were shocked and saddened to realize His firm intention to spend fourteen years in the deep forest. They had both been hoping that He would relent and perhaps return to Ayodhya to punish the evil Kaikeyi, who did not deserve any kindness. Or He could at least remain with Guha and his people, where He could be reached easily. Now He was gone. Guha heard from his spies about Rāma’s meeting with Bharadvāja, and His going on from there to the Chitrakuta mountain. Sadly, the Niṣadha king returned to his own home in the city of Sringavera, from where he ruled over the forest tribes.
As the reality of Rāma’s departure sank in, Sumantra drove the chariot back toward Ayodhya. After two days traveling he arrived to find the city subdued and silent, overpowered by grief. Sumantra entered by the southern gate. As the empty chariot moved along the road, hundreds and thousands of people approached it crying, “O Rāma! Have You really gone? Where is that faultless hero? Alas, we are forsaken and lost!”
Sumantra, afflicted at hearing their laments, covered his head with his garment. He felt ashamed to have been the one who took Rāma away. He made his way along the royal highway to Daśaratha’s palace, hearing the wails of the women who stood on the balconies of their houses, gazing upon the chariot now bereft of its passengers.
Sumantra reached the palace and went quickly through the first seven gates, arriving at the eighth which led to the king’s inner chambers. He entered the large room and found the king seated on a couch, pale and withered from grief. The charioteer described his journey from Ayodhya with Rāma. Daśaratha listened in complete silence and then, having heard of Rāma’s definite entrance into the forest, fell senseless to the floor.
Seeing their husband fallen, the ladies burst into tears. Kaushalya, assisted by Sumitra, lifted him up and said, “Why do you not reply to the charioteer, my lord? He has carried out a most difficult task on your behalf. Are you feeling ashamed for perpetrating such an unseemly act? Be fixed in your determination, O king, for you have firmly adhered to truth! Do not submit to this grief, as we who depend upon you will not be able to survive seeing you filled with such despair.”
Kaushalya spoke with a faltering voice. Her dear son, whom she had not been able to go without seeing for even a day, was now gone for fourteen years. She dropped in a faint next to her husband. All the ladies flocked around, sprinkling cool scented water on the faces of the monarch and his queen, who lay like a god and his consort fallen from heaven.
When Daśaratha awoke from his swoon he summoned Sumantra, who stood silently nearby. The charioteer was covered in dust and his face was streaked with tears. With folded hands, he stood respectfully before the king.
Daśaratha sighed dolefully and said to Sumantra, “Where will Rāma live now, taking shelter under a tree and sleeping on the bare ground? What will He eat? The prince has known only luxury and deserves the best of everything. Formerly He would always be followed by my great army; how can He now live alone in the desolate forest?”
Although Rāma and Lakṣman had grown up to become fierce fighters, to the emperor They were still his tender young sons. Daśaratha could hardly tolerate the thought of Their living a life of austerity and abnegation, along with the gentle Sītā. Anxiously he imagined the scene facing his two boys. How could They survive in the wild among carnivorous animals and venomous snakes?
The king continued, “Did you follow Them as they walked alone into some bleak and lonely land? What were Their last words? O Sumantra, pray tell me what They uttered as They were leaving, for this shall be my only sustenance for the coming fourteen years.”
Daśaratha stood up and looked into his charioteer’s face, whose head hung down and who was shaking with sorrow. With a choked voice Sumantra replied to the king, “The ever-truthful Rāma asked me to touch yours and Kaushalya’s feet on His behalf, O great king. He requested me to convey His fond farewell to all the ladies in the royal court, who are to Rāma just like His own mother.”
After bowing at the feet of the king and queen, Sumantra continued to speak with difficulty, describing his parting from Rāma and the others. Faithfully he recounted the exact messages the two princes had given him.
“Rāma, who was constantly shedding tears as He spoke, asked that Bharata be quickly installed as the Prince Regent. He left instructions that Bharata should accord all respect to His aged father and to all of His mothers, especially the grief-stricken Kaushalya.”
The charioteer then recalled the final angry words of Lakṣman. “When Rāma stopped speaking, Lakṣman, hissing like an enraged cobra, said, ‘For what offense has this virtuous prince been exiled? The king has carried out Kaikeyi’s order without considering its merit. Regardless of his reasoning, I find no justification whatsoever for the emperor’s decision to send away the sinless Rāma. Rāma’s exile will end in remorse. It contradicts all good sense and is against tradition and even scripture. Having performed an act which has caused nothing but pain to all the people, how can father remain as the king any longer? Indeed, I cannot even see in him the qualities of a father. For Me, Rāma alone is My brother, master and father!’”
Sumantra, having summoned up the vehemence with which Lakṣman had spoken, calmed himself down and described his last sight of Sītā. “The blessed princess Sītā stood silent as I prepared to leave. As though Her mind were possessed by an evil spirit, She remained motionless and distracted, heaving deep sighs. Gazing upon Her husband’s face, She suddenly burst into tears, covering Her own face with Her two bejeweled hands, which looked like two white lotuses. Then the three of Them stood watching as I drove the chariot away.”
Daśaratha asked Sumantra to describe his return journey and the charioteer replied, “I remained with Guha for three days, hoping and praying that Rāma would return. Finally I concluded that I would not see Him again until the full fourteen years had expired. I yoked up the chariot and urged the horses to move, but they remained stationary, shedding tears of grief. After much cajoling they finally moved and I proceeded on the path back to Ayodhya.”
Sumantra stopped speaking for some time as he struggled to control his feelings. After sipping a little water he continued describing the scene he had witnessed on his return. On all sides in the kingdom he saw signs of grief and separation from Rāma. Even the trees with their flowers and leaves looked withered. The lakes and rivers were dried up and everywhere there were beasts and birds entirely immobile, not even searching for food. The woods were silent and gave off none of their former fragrance. The parks and gardens in the city appeared desolate and deserted. No one greeted him as he entered Ayodhya. Everywhere were sighing men and women, lost in thoughts of Rāma. As they saw the empty chariot they let out tremendous cries of grief. Even the animals wore wretched expressions. On the tops of high buildings he saw noble ladies gazing mutely at each other, their eyes overflooded with tears. The city appeared devoid of all happiness, looking exactly like the empress Kaushalya, bereft of her beloved son.
After Sumantra stopped speaking, Daśaratha became pensive, feeling extreme regret. How had he stood by as Rāma had left? Why did he not reprimand the wicked Kaikeyi? He cursed his foolish attachment to virtue that brought about such an unvirtuous end. Where was the truth in banishing the truthful prince Rāma?
In a piteous voice the king exclaimed, “It was out of infatuation for my wife alone that I exiled Rāma. I did not seek any counsel with my ministers and wise advisors, being dictated to by the sinful Kaikeyi.”
Daśaratha wondered how he could have acted so contrary to his own good sense and wisdom. Surely this great calamity had suddenly happened by the will of Providence simply to destroy his race. The king sighed, feeling helpless in the hands of fate.
Turning to Sumantra, Daśaratha said, “O charioteer, if I have ever done you any good turn, then please quickly take me to Rāma! My mind is drawn irresistibly to the prince. If I am still the king today then let anyone fetch Rāma back to Ayodhya! I shall not survive for even an hour longer without Rāma! Where is that Rāma, whose shining face is adorned with pearl-like teeth? Maybe that mighty-armed prince has gone far into the woods by now. Bring me a chariot and I shall immediately make haste to see Him. If I do not soon catch a sight of Rāma, I shall reach Death’s abode this very day!”
Daśaratha had been hoping beyond hope that Sumantra might somehow have returned with his sons. Realizing the finality of Rāma’s departure, the king gave full vent to his terrible grief.
“O Rāma! O Lakṣman! O Sītā! What could be more painful for me than not seeing You here? You do not know that I am dying from agony, like a lost and forlorn creature.”
The emperor fell senseless onto a couch. Close to him Kaushalya tossed about on the floor as though possessed by a spirit. Seeing Sumantra she exclaimed, “Charioteer! Yoke up the chariot and take me to Rāma, for I shall not live another moment without Him! Where now is my son reposing, His head placed upon His mighty arm? When again will I see His charming features surrounded by curling black locks? I think my heart is as hard as a diamond; otherwise, why does it not shatter to pieces even though I do not see Rāma?”
Sumantra felt all the more agonized himself as he saw the grief of the king and queen. He tried to comfort Kaushalya. “I think your son will settle happily in the forest along with Lakṣman and Sītā. Indeed, I did not detect in Them any dejection at the prospect of living as ascetics. Shaking off Their grief, They appeared pleased upon approaching the forest. Sītā seemed especially happy; much delighted at the sights and sounds of the woods.”
Kaushalya, not appeased by Sumantra’s kind words, turned toward Daśaratha, admonishing him out of grief and love. “My lord, you are famous in all the three worlds for your compassion and kindness, yet you thoughtlessly banished your faultless son! How will your two gentle boys, ever accustomed to every luxury, live like hermits? How will the frail Sītā, a child of a mere sixteen years, survive the ravages of forest life? She has always been offered the very best of cooked foods and will surely not survive on wild roots. How will She bear the terrible roars of lions and tigers?”
Kaushalya became increasingly angry as she spoke. Her eyes reddened, and black streaks of collyrium ran down her cheeks. She censured Daśaratha for his cruelty.
“You have utterly divested Rāma of his right to be king,” she cried. “Even after returning to Ayodhya, Rāma will surely not accept the kingdom. High-class men can never enjoy items left by others. Rāma will therefore not accept the kingdom left by His younger brother, even as a tiger would not eat the food brought to him by another animal.”
Kaushalya’s mind was absorbed in thoughts of her son and she raved inconsolably. How could Daśaratha have perpetrated such an evil act? Kaushalya railed at the king, holding her head in her hands.
“Rāma has been ruined by His own father, even as a brood of fish are swallowed by their father. I believe, my lord, that you can no longer tell right from wrong. The main support for a woman is her husband; the son is the second. Therefore, like Rāma, I am also ruined, my husband having lost his good sense and my son gone away! This whole kingdom has been ruined by you. All your people have been destroyed. Only Kaikeyi and her son are happy!”
Kaushalya stopped speaking and began to sob uncontrollably. Daśaratha, already deeply remorseful, felt even more anguish upon hearing his wife’s words. Crying out, “O Rāma” again and again, he sat disconsolate. With great difficulty he gathered his senses and went before Kaushalya with folded hands, speaking in a trembling voice, his head hanging down.
“Be kind to me, O godly lady. You are merciful even to your enemies. What then to speak of me. The husband is always the lord for the wife in good or evil times. Seeing me to be sorely pained, you should not increase my grief by such harsh words.”
Kaushalya immediately felt sorry. She took Daśaratha’s hands and folded them around her head. Kneeling before him and weeping, she spoke hurriedly through her confusion.
“Now I am surely ruined for having spoken words disagreeable to my husband. I deserve to be punished by you, who I know to be always truthful. She is a wicked and low-born woman who must be beseeched by her worthy and virtuous husband.”
Kaushalya was afflicted by many strong feelings and her mind became completely distracted. Her grief, despair and anger at losing Rāma were now compounded by remorse and guilt at having upset Daśaratha. She had spoken in an almost hysterical manner.
“Pray forgive me, O great king. Overcome by grief I uttered unseemly words. Grief destroys patience, eradicates knowledge and confounds the senses. Indeed, there is no enemy like grief. Even a great blow from an enemy can be endured, but the smallest amount of grief is intolerable. The five nights that Rāma has been gone seem to me like five years. Even as I remember Rāma again my grief grows like the ocean receiving the rapid flow of many large rivers.”
As Kaushalya was speaking the sun set. Daśaratha, being comforted by his wife, fell into a fitful slumber for an hour. Upon waking he sat sighing and recalled something he had done when he was a young prince. Realizing that long past deed to be the cause of his present suffering, Daśaratha related it to Kaushalya.
“Without doubt a person receives the results of his own actions, good or bad, O gracious queen,” the king said. “He who acts without consideration of the results, both immediate and long-term, is surely a fool. If a man cuts down a mango grove because the trees have unattractive blossoms, planting instead the brightly flowering palasha trees, he will later lament when the bitter fruits of the palasha appear. By sending Rāma away I have indeed cut down a mango grove just as it was about to bear fruit. Now I am tasting the bitter palasha.”
Daśaratha felt as if his heart might burst. He maintained his composure with a great effort and continued. “A long time ago, as a youth and before we were married, I went to the forest to hunt. I had acquired great skills at bowmanship and could easily hit even an invisible target by its sound alone. Little did I know that this skill of mine, of which I was so proud, would yield such a disastrous result.
“It was the rainy season and the rivers were swollen. Going out at night on my chariot, I made my way to the Sarayu. I waited there in the darkness by the river bank for a buffalo or an elephant to come by. Soon I heard the sound of gurgling at a point nearby, although I could not see what caused the sound. Thinking the sound to be that of an animal drinking, I took out an arrow and released it. From the quarter where I shot my snake-like arrow there came a loud wail of some forest dweller. In distinct and pain-filled tones I heard the following cry:
“How has this weapon fallen upon a harmless ascetic like myself? To whom have I given any offense? I am a simple seer who has forsworn violence and lives only on fruits and roots. Oh, I am killed! What foolish person has hurled this arrow? This act will result only in evil. I do not grieve so much for myself but for my aged and helpless parents. Without me, their sole support, how will they survive? With a single arrow some ignorant fool of uncontrolled mind has killed me and both my parents!’”
Weeping all the while, Daśaratha continued, “When I heard that plaintive shout I was mortified. My bow and arrows fell from my hands. I was all but overwhelmed with grief and dropped to the ground, almost losing my senses. I scrambled toward the source of the voice with my mind utterly perplexed. There, lying on the bank of the river, was an ascetic wearing tree-bark garments. My arrow was protruding from his chest. Smeared with dust and blood, with his thick mass of matted hair in disarray, he lay groaning. He had come for water and the sound I had heard was the gurgling of his pitcher, which lay nearby with its water run out.
“Seeing me to be royalty, the ascetic looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and spoke angrily. ‘What wrong have I done, O king, that I should receive this terrible punishment? I came here to fetch water for my blind parents. Even now, as I lie here dying, my poor father must be wondering where I am. But what can he do? He is old and feeble and cannot even move. He can no more help me than could any tree help another which is about to be hewn down. Seek his forgiveness, O king. You should quickly make your way along this path to where he waits.’”
Daśaratha’s grief for Rāma was compounded by the grief caused by remembering this long past unfortunate incident. With difficulty he continued to speak.
“The young hermit, writhing in agony, asked me to extract the arrow. I hesitated, knowing that the instant the arrow was removed he would die. The boy reassured me, telling me that he was prepared for death. I thus pulled out the arrow. Looking at me in dismay, due to anxiety about his parents, the boy died, uttering the name of Viṣṇu.
“Seeing the ascetic lying dead, killed by me out of ignorance and folly, I wondered how I could make amends. I quickly filled his pitcher and followed the path he had shown me toward his parents. As I reached the hermitage I saw his aged and blind parents, sitting forlorn like a pair of birds whose wings have been clipped. When he heard me approach, the boy’s father said, ‘Do not delay, my son. Bring the water immediately. Your poor mother is in anxiety because you have been sporting in the river for a long time. Our lives depend upon you, dear child. You are our only support and indeed our very eyes. Where are you? Why do you not speak?’
“I was gripped by fear to behold the sage and I replied to him in a faltering voice, ‘O holy sage, I am not your son but a prince named Daśaratha. I have committed a most terrible and evil act out of sheer folly. Hearing your son collecting water, I mistook him for a beast drinking. I released a deadly arrow and killed the boy. As a result of my rash act your son has ascended to heaven, leaving you here. Please tell me what I should do now.’
“When he heard my story, the sage, though rich in ascetic power and thereby capable of burning me with a curse, restrained himself. Sighing in sorrow with his face bathed in tears, that old ṛṣi, who appeared exceptionally glorious, said to me, ‘Had you not come here and confessed, then as soon as the news of my boy’s death reached me, your head would have been split into a hundred pieces by my anger. Indeed, if one consciously kills a hermit engaged in austerity, then death is the immediate result. You are only surviving now as you performed this deed in ignorance.’
“The sage asked me to take him to the place where his son lay. I immediately lifted both of the elderly ascetics on my two arms and carried them to the river bank. Being placed near the dead boy they cried out in agony and gently stroked his face. The sage said, ‘Why do you not greet us today, dearest child? Why are you lying here upon the ground? Have you become displeased with us? Here is your beloved mother. Why do you not embrace her, my tender son? Please speak to us. Whose heart-moving voice will we now hear beautifully reciting the holy Vedic texts? Who now will tend the sacred fire? Who will comfort us with consoling words, deprived as we are now of our only support? My son, how will I be able to support your old mother?’
“The sage sat weeping for some time, lost in grief. Holding his son’s head he said, ‘Pray wait a while, dear boy, and do not yet proceed to Yamarāja’s abode. I shall go with you and speak to the god on your behalf, saying, “Although my son has been killed as a result of some former sin, he has in fact become sinless. Therefore grant to him those regions which are attainable only by Brahmins perfect in asceticism and study of scripture, or by heroes who drop their body while fighting fearlessly for the good of the people.”’
“Wailing piteously, the ascetic and his wife offered sanctified water to their dead son with mantras and prayers. I then saw the boy appear in an ethereal form along with Indra, the king of heaven. He gently consoled his parents, saying that he had achieved his exalted status as a result of his service to them. He said they would soon join him in heaven. The boy then left, seated next to Indra in a shining celestial car.
“At that time the sage said to me, ‘In order to release you from the terrible sin of killing an ascetic, which can drag even the gods down to hell, I shall pronounce upon you a painful curse. Just as I am dying now in the agony of separation from my son, so in the future shall you die in the grief of separation from your son.’
“After saying this, the sage had me light a fire and place upon it his son’s body. Along with his wife he then entered the fire. The two ascetics gave up their bodies and went to heaven, leaving me stunned and pondering the sage’s words.”
Daśaratha was suddenly afraid as he realized that, in accord with the sage’s infallible curse, his death was now near. Controlling his mind he called out for Kaushalya. His eyes were blinded with tears and his body was trembling. He said to his wife, “That curse uttered so long ago by the sage is now coming to pass. I shall soon die of grief. Come here, Kaushalya, for I cannot see you clearly. Men on the threshold of death have all their senses confounded.”
Kaushalya sat close to her husband and comforted him with soft words. Daśaratha became deeply absorbed in remembrance of Rāma. He longed for one last sight of Him. He felt anguished and remorseful, wishing he had somehow been able to stop Rāma from leaving. The king lay back upon the couch and spoke in a trembling voice.
“This grief is drying up my vitality even as the blazing summer sun sucks out the earth’s moisture. Blessed are they who will see the pious and handsome Rāma returned fourteen years from now. I can no longer see or hear anything. All my senses are failing along with my mind, just as the bright rays of a lamp disappear when its oil has run out. This grief born of my own self is rendering me helpless and unconscious, just as the current of a swift river wears away its own bank. O Rāma, reliever of my suffering, are you really gone? O Kaushalya, my dear wife! O Sumitra, pious lady! O Kaikeyi, my sworn enemy and disgrace of my family!”
Daśaratha lamented and tossed about in agony for some time. Gradually he became silent, his mind fixed only upon Rāma. Stricken with the intolerable pain of separation, the great emperor gave up his life during the night and ascended to the highest abode of the Supreme Lord.