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Chapter 3

Bharata’s Return

The following morning large numbers of singers and bards assembled at the palace with the intention of waking the king. They stood near his quarters and began their recitations, praising the emperor and telling of his ancestors’ glorious deeds. Holy Brahmins chanted sacred texts while expert musicians played on various instruments. Those chants and songs mixed with the singing of the birds on the palace trees and created an exquisitely beautiful sound.

The palace attendants, unaware of the king’s demise, gathered together the items required for his morning ablutions. Gold pots filled with scented water, along with many soaps and unguents were fetched. In accord with the Vedic tradition, young virgin girls, along with milk cows and other pure items like gold and silver, were brought before the king so that he would see these immediately upon waking, thereby creating an auspicious start to the day.

When everything was made ready just before sunrise, the royal ladies went into the king’s chamber to wake him. As they approached his bed they saw him lying motionless and showing no symptoms of life. Nearby Kaushalya and Sumitra were lying asleep, exhausted from grief. Their faces were tear-streaked and withered like lotuses scorched by the sun. The palace ladies fell back in alarm and began to shake like reeds in a stream. They touched the king’s body and, finding him cold and lifeless, realized he had died from grief. All those beautiful women began to wail loudly, like a herd of female elephants who have lost their lord in the forest.

Kaushalya and Sumitra were roused by the sound. Looking at the emperor and touching him, they cried out, “My lord!” and dropped to the ground. Kaikeyi ran into the room and she too became afflicted by pain and sorrow, falling down unconscious. The three queens tossed about on the ground lamenting loudly. They appeared like three goddesses fallen from heaven, deprived of their splendor. The whole chamber became crowded with men and women, all alarmed, bustling about excitedly. With the sudden death of the king everyone became perplexed and confused. Loud cries filled the air. The king’s three hundred maidservants surrounded him on all sides, weeping piteously.

Kaushalya looked at her husband’s face, which seemed like the sun shorn of its luster. Kneeling by his side she held his head and began to loudly reprimand Kaikeyi.

“O cruel Kaikeyi, are you now satisfied? Having killed the king you may now enjoy the throne without fear. Rāma has forsaken me and gone to the forest and now my husband has ascended to heaven. I cannot live any longer. Only Kaikeyi, casting all propriety to the winds, could live happily after seeing her husband die in agony. O cruel lady, you have destroyed our noble race!”

Kaushalya embraced her dead husband. She thought of Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣman. How would They learn of Their father’s death? What will They do when They hear of it? Even now poor Sītā must be clinging fearfully to Rāma, terrified by the sights and sounds of the forest. If this painful news should reach Her, surely She will die.

Kaushalya could not tolerate any more grief. Tearfully she cried out to Kaikeyi, “You have killed me as surely as you have killed the king. I shall enter the fire clinging to my lord’s body.”

With difficulty the king’s ministers separated Kaushalya from Daśaratha. They gently removed her from his chamber and began to perform the necessary rituals for the death of a king. As none of Daśaratha’s sons were present, They could not perform his funeral. Therefore, in order to preserve the body until Bharata arrived, they immersed it in a vat of fragrant oil.

The city of Ayodhya, already plunged in sorrow, became even more desolate. The people cried out their distress and everything remained still, no one going out for any business. The great city looked like a dark night bereft of the moon and stars. Loudly reproaching Kaikeyi in choked voices, the citizens grieved throughout the day and night, finding no rest.

The following day the king’s Brahmin counselors assembled together. Looking toward Vasiṣṭha, who was temporarily carrying out the king’s duties, the wise sages made different speeches pointing to the need for a prince to be quickly coronated. The sages described how, without a ruler, the kingdom would soon meet with ruin. In a land without a king even the rain would not fall in proper time and the crops would fail. Sons would disobey their fathers and wives their husbands. There could be no personal property without a protector and men could not sleep in peace. Everything would become chaotic and anarchy would soon prevail. Like fishes, men would devour one another. Atheism would become prominent and godless and misbehaved men would become leaders.

One of the chief Brahmins concluded, “Even as the eyes protect the body, so the king is ever vigilant to protect the people. The king is truthfulness and virtue incarnate. He is the mother and the father and the best benefactor of all men. All the principal gods reside in the body of the king; indeed he is the powerful representative of the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu. Therefore, O Vasiṣṭha, have Bharata and Shatrughna brought home. Quickly crown a qualified man as king, before this ancient and prosperous kingdom is thrown into utter confusion and darkness!”

When the Brahmin sages had finished speaking they sat awaiting Vasiṣṭha’s opinion. Vasiṣṭha looked around the assembly and replied, “We should immediately send swift messengers to the Kekaya capital, Girivraja. Since the emperor has bestowed this kingdom upon Bharata, He must be brought here as quickly as possible and installed as king. No other course of action can be considered.”

Vasiṣṭha wanted Bharata to be brought home before the news of His father’s death and Rāma’s exile reached Him. Bharata should be informed of the heartbreaking news while surrounded by His intimate family. Vasiṣṭha said to the messengers, “Tell the prince that all is well, but that He is required for some urgent business. Take with you excellent gifts for the Kekaya king and leave at once.”

The messengers mounted upon the best of the king’s horses, which were capable of covering hundreds of miles a day, and sped westwards toward Girivraja. They took the shortest possible route, at times leaving the road and traversing open countryside and woods. They crossed the Mālinī River, which flowed between the Aparatala and Pralamba Mountains, and also the Ganges where it flowed through Hastināpura. Moving quickly through the Pañchāla and Kurujangala provinces, the messengers reached the Saradanda River at the end of the second day. After crossing that river they entered the city of Kulinga, hardly pausing for a moment. Galloping together they passed through the city and soon crossed the Ikshumati River, then the Beas and Salmali Rivers, finally arriving at the Kekaya district at the end of the third day. With their horses all but exhausted, they entered the city of Girivraja and went straight toward the king’s palace just as dawn approached.

In His palace Bharata had just risen and was feeling disturbed. He had awoken from a dream filled with inauspicious omens. He sat alone, sunk in thought. Some of His friends approached Him and inquired why He looked so sad. Bharata replied, “In a dream I saw My father looking dejected, falling from the peak of a mountain into a filthy pool. He seemed to be laughing and he swam around in that pool. I then saw the ocean dry, the moon fallen upon the earth and the entire world assailed by demons. My father, dressed in black, wearing a crimson garland and smeared with red sandal-paste, got upon a chariot drawn by donkeys and rode southwards.”

Bharata knew the science of omens and dreams. He understood that these visions clearly indicated His father’s death, or perhaps the death of one of His brothers. Sighing heavily, the prince continued. “My throat feels parched and I am gripped by anxiety. Suddenly I hate Myself for no reason. Surely some great calamity is imminent.”

As Bharata spoke, a messenger entered His room to announce the arrival of envoys from Ayodhya. They came before Bharata and bowed low, touching His feet and saying, “We have been sent by the sage Vasiṣṭha. He sends word that all is well, but he requires Your immediate presence in Ayodhya for some urgent business.”

On behalf of Daśaratha, the envoys presented their gifts to the Kekaya king and his son. The messengers were feeling fatigued from their journey, so Bharata had them seated and served with the best of food and drink. He tried to find out from them the exact nature of the business for which Vasiṣṭha was summoning Him. Thinking of His dream, he asked about His father and other dear relatives. The messengers answered His questions politely, carefully avoiding telling Him about His father’s death or Rāma’s exile. Bharata could nevertheless sense that something was terribly wrong. He wanted to depart immediately and He went to King Aswapati, requesting his permission to leave. The king embraced Him and said, “In you my daughter Kaikeyi is blessed with a noble son. Leave now with my blessings, but return again when Your business is complete.”

The king of Kekaya presented Bharata with many gifts to take to Ayodhya. Huge elephants, horses, costly cloth and much gold were given by King Aswapati. He also quickly arranged for a detachment of his best soldiers to accompany Bharata.

Bharata received the gifts with gratitude to the best of His ability, but His mind was distracted. He was anxious and could not wait to depart. Taking leave of His friends and relations, Bharata mounted His chariot along with Shatrughna and They hurriedly left. Followed by hundreds of other chariots, as well as by the thousands of elephants and horses gifted by the king, the prince of Ayodhya went out of the city looking like a god leaving the heavenly city of Indra.

For seven days Bharata and His party traveled to Ayodhya. The prince longed to race ahead, taking the shorter route through the woods as did the messengers from Ayodhya, but He was hampered by His large retinue. They went along the established roads and passed through many villages and towns, but they did not stop anywhere.

Bharata’s mind was filled with apprehension. What could possibly be wrong, especially in the presence of Rāma and Lakṣman? Had Their father died? Was some powerful enemy besieging the city? Perhaps it was simply that His father wished to install Rāma as the king. But why had the messengers not told Him?

As the party reached the territory of Kośala, Bharata urged on His charioteer. His chariot went quickly ahead, leaving the army, headed by Shatrughna, to follow slowly behind. He soon arrived at Ayodhya. Looking at the city from a distance, Bharata said to His charioteer, “Something is surely amiss in this great and glorious city. I do not hear the usual clamor of men, nor the sound of sacred recitations made by throngs of Brahmins as they perform sacrifices. Even the animals are silent. No one is moving about on the roads and no one has come out to greet Me.”

As they passed along the main road into the city Bharata became even more concerned. Where were the young couples who would always sport romantically in the gardens lining the road? The trees in those deserted gardens, with their leaves falling all around, seemed to Bharata to be weeping. As He rode quickly into the city He saw various ill omens. Crows and vultures cried on all sides. The sun was enveloped by dark clouds and a chill wind blew, raising up clouds of dust and leaves.

Bharata reached the city’s western gate. The guards, gladdened to see Him, welcomed Him with loud shouts. The prince moved on after politely greeting the sentries. He was tired and His mind was dejected and disturbed. He spoke again to His charioteer. “Why have I been suddenly brought here, O noble one? I wonder what terrible calamity has occurred. Even without any apparent cause My heart is sinking and My mind is consumed by fear.”

The prince looked around as the chariot sped toward Daśaratha’s palace. He saw signs which seemed to Him to indicate the king’s death. Houses were unswept, dirty-looking and bereft of splendor, their doors standing wide open. There was no smoke from sacrificial fires rising up, nor the usual sweet aroma of aloe and sandalwood drifting from the mansions along the road. Men and women were standing here and there, wearing soiled clothes and looking pale and emaciated, as if they had not eaten for days.

Bharata looked at the closed shop fronts and abandoned market places, the temples with their dusty courtyards and the deities without fresh dresses or garlands—everything seemed desolate. Filled with sorrow to see the unprecedented state of His beloved city, the prince arrived at Daśaratha’s palace.

Bharata went quickly into His father’s rooms and was alarmed to find the king not present. Everyone looked down to avert His gaze. The palace ladies were weeping and a sorrowful silence had replaced the normal sound of drums, lutes and Vedic recitations. Bharata felt His stomach sink and His limbs seemed to dissolve. Too afraid to ask about His father from the people present, He ran to His mother’s apartments. As He entered, Kaikeyi sprang up from her golden seat. Bharata bowed and touched His mother’s feet and she embraced Him. It had been a long time since she had seen Him.

Holding her son and seating Him on her lap, Kaikeyi inquired, “How was your journey, my son? You must be tired. Are Your grandfather and uncle both well? Have You fared well Yourself while living in their kingdom? I have missed You here.”

After hearing her endearing questions, Bharata told her everything about Himself. Still filled with apprehension, He asked, “How is it that I do not see the king seated here with you? Where indeed is My pious father? Why do I find everyone looking disconsolate and not speaking? I long to clasp My father’s feet. Tell Me, gentle mother, is he just now in Kaushalya’s apartments?”

Possessed by greed for the kingdom, Kaikeyi began to tell her son the terrible news as if it were agreeable and pleasant. “Your high-souled and glorious father, who was always the shelter of all living beings, has attained the state of the gods. This kingdom is now Yours.”

Bharata looked at His mother in disbelief. He fell to His knees. Crying out “Alas, I am ruined!” He struck His arms on the floor. His worst fear was confirmed. With His mind confused and agitated, Bharata lamented. “This golden couch would always appear beautiful being adorned with the king’s presence. Now it appears dark and lusterless like the night sky bereft of the moon. Oh, where is My noble father?”

Bharata covered His handsome face with a cloth and cried in anguish. Seeing her son, whose body shone like that of a god, laying on the floor in a wretched state, Kaikeyi raised Him and said, “Get up, O king! Why are you lying here like one unfortunate? Virtuous souls like You are never overwhelmed by grief. Steady Your mind, which is always fixed in piety and knows the truth. This wide earth now awaits Your rule, O sinless one.”

Bharata wept for some time, unable to speak. He remembered His father’s love and affection, how the king had personally trained Him in statecraft, how they had played and sported together, the times He had sat with His father as he related tales of their great ancestors. Now he was gone! How could it have happened? Bharata could not understand why no one had called Him earlier. Calming His mind He said, “Having speculated that the king was to install Rāma as the Prince Regent, I came here swiftly. It seems My calculation was wrong, as I do not see either My father or Rāma.”

The prince was confused. His mother sat calmly as He spoke out His grief. “Of what disease did My father die, O mother? How fortunate are Rāma and Lakṣman that they were able to perform the last rites of the great monarch. Or is My father still present? Surely he does not know I have arrived or else he would have come quickly to see Me, embracing Me and offering his blessings. Where is that gentle hand which would often brush Me off when I would fall in the dust as a child?”

Bharata looked up into His mother’s face, His eyes streaming. “Please announce My arrival to Rāma. For a man who knows what is right, the elder brother is as good as the father. I shall fall at Rāma’s feet and ask Him what final words were spoken by the righteous and ever-truthful king. I wish to hear My father’s last kind message to Me.”

Kaikeyi slowly replied to her son, telling Him the course of events exactly as they occurred. “The glorious king, the best among the wise, departed from this world calling out, ‘O Rāma! O Sītā! O Lakṣman!’ Bound by the laws of time, even as a powerful elephant is bound by ropes, the king submitted to death saying, ‘Only those men who will see Rāma returned with Sītā and Lakṣman will have their desires fulfilled and be happy.’”

Hearing this news Bharata became even more confused. What did the king mean? Where were His brothers and Sītā? He asked His mother.

Kaikeyi began to relate how They had left for the forest, speaking as if it were something Bharata would be pleased to hear. “Prince Rāma, with Sītā and Lakṣman, left the city clad in tree barks. They have gone to a distant forest and will remain there for fourteen years.”

Bharata was shocked. How could it be true? Surely Rāma could not have been exiled. What crime could He possibly have committed?

The prince spoke in amazement. “Did Rāma wrongly seize property from some elevated Brahmin? Did My brother somehow kill a sinless man? Surely He did not look longingly upon another’s wife. I cannot imagine Rāma ever doing anything even remotely sinful. Why then has He gone into exile accompanied by the delicate Sītā and His loyal brother?”

Kaikeyi completely misunderstood Bharata’s mood. Out of ignorance she imagined He would be pleased to hear that, thanks to her machinations, He had become the undisputed ruler. She smiled as she spoke to her son.

“Rāma has committed no sin. However, entirely neglecting Your noble self, the king was intent upon installing Him as the Prince Regent. As soon as this news reached me I asked Your father to send Rāma away and install You instead.”

Bharata’s face froze as His mother continued.

“Bound by truthfulness, the emperor did my bidding and granted me two boons which were owed from a former occasion. After exiling Rāma, who was followed by Sītā and Lakṣman, the king was sorely afflicted with an unbearable grief. Overwhelmed with pain and constantly calling Rāma’s name, the lord of Ayodhya left this world and ascended to heaven.”

Kaikeyi saw Bharata’s pained expression. “Do not yield to grief, dear son. This city and indeed this earth now depend upon You. Be firm and perform Your father’s funeral ceremony, O Bharata. Then assume the throne as the undisputed ruler of the globe.”

Bharata could not believe what He was hearing. Had His mother gone mad? Did she really think He envied Rāma and coveted the throne? Covering His face with His hands and slowly shaking His head, He replied to the shameless Kaikeyi, “What came into your mind, O cruel woman, that you could have perpetrated such an act? What possible gain is there for Me in having the sovereignty of the earth while I stand deprived of My dearest relations? By sending My father to the next world and Rāma to the forest you have heaped calamity upon calamity!”

The prince was infuriated. His mother’s actions were unforgiveable. Kaikeyi shrunk back as He roared, piercing her with volleys of words. “You have appeared in My family like the goddess Kalaratri, the night of universal dissolution! Having clasped you to his bosom My father has brought about his own death and the extermination of his race. O woman who sees evil where there is none, you have ended My family’s joy through greed alone. Tell Me the reason that impelled you to kill the king and exile the sinless Rāma.”

Aghast at her son’s vehement reaction, Kaikeyi tried to defend herself. She spoke candidly, telling Him about her conversation with Manthara. “O prince, I would surely have said nothing to Your father, but Manthara pointed out how You were being wronged. My dear son, I simply acted with Your interests in mind.”

This only angered Bharata all the more. In grief and anger He stood blazing like fire. With copper-red eyes He gazed at His mother who sat on a couch with her head cast downwards. “Alas,” He continued, His voice incredulous, “I am shamed by My own mother! Having got you for their co-wife, the godly Kaushalya and Sumitra have been tormented with agony. How did you not grieve, O hard-hearted one, when you saw those gentle ladies weeping as their heroic sons left for the forest? Are you happy to see your husband lying dead, Rāma with Sītā and Lakṣman banished, and your remaining family seized with unbearable pain?”

Bharata wept aloud while Kaikeyi sat silently. He was astonished at His mother’s deeds. What on earth had possessed her? She had never acted like this before. She had always loved Rāma as much as her own son. How could she possibly think it would please Him to gain the sovereignty in this terrible way?

Bharata went on fiercely. “Blinded by lust you have clearly not understood My devotion to Rāma. I will never take this kingdom in His absence! My strength and intelligence depend only upon My powerful brother. Rāma should certainly become the king while I become His humble servant. I can no more take the weight of the kingdom than a young calf can take the load borne easily by a bull. Even if I were able to rule without Rāma, I will never allow you to achieve your cherished end. I would sooner die!”

Bharata’s mind raged. Kaikeyi’s insane action had to be somehow reversed. He resolved to go immediately to the forest and find Rāma. He first had to establish to Rāma that Kaikeyi’s abhorrent acts had nothing to do with Him. What must Rāma be thinking? Surely He would not believe that His own devoted brother was in any way guilty! Did anyone think that? Bharata was horrified. He rounded on Kaikeyi again.

“I cannot stand by and watch the path of morality abandoned as a result of your sinful desires. The eternal moral code prescribes that the king’s eldest son should inherit the throne—especially when that son is the most highly qualified and beloved of all the people. I shall doubtlessly bring back Rāma from the forest. O evil-minded one, you will never see Me installed as the king!”

Bharata continued to reproach His mother with sharp words. Kaikeyi remained silent, her mind bewildered. Bharata’s reaction was quite unexpected and she did not know how to reply.

Bharata shook His head. “Since you have committed a hideous sin, you shall surely reside in hell. There you shall wail endlessly with none of your desired objects attained. Do not say anything to Me, evil lady. I hereby desert you! You are neither My mother nor the emperor’s wife. Without doubt you are a wicked Rākṣasī who entered My family in the guise of a relation.”

Bharata hissed like an enraged serpent. Immediate remedial action was required. He would bring Rāma back and then take His place in the forest to fulfill His vow! How could He possibly remain in Ayodhya among the grieving citizens while Rāma sat in some lonely wilderness?

The prince pointed angrily at His mother as He went on. “For your part, cruel woman, you had best either enter fire, swallow poison or go yourself to the forest. There is no other course left for you to free yourself from the stain of your sinful deed. I myself shall be freed of this sin only when Rāma has been brought back and installed upon the throne.”

Bharata fell to the floor almost senseless with grief. With His garments in dissaray and his jewels tossed about, the prince looked like a banner raised in honor of Indra and suddenly dropped down again.

While Bharata lay absorbed in sorrow, Daśaratha’s ministers, having heard the commotion in Kaikeyi’s rooms, gathered around. After some time Bharata regained His senses and saw the ministers surrounding Him. Rising up quickly, the prince again rebuked His mother, who sat, miserable, her eyes full of tears.

Bharata turned toward the king’s advisors and said in a loud voice, “At no time did this sinful woman consult with Me concerning Rāma’s exile. I have never coveted the kingdom. Indeed, I knew nothing of the intended installation of Rāma. I was far away from Ayodhya. Only today have I learned all the facts from My mother, whom I utterly reject.”

Kaushalya, whose rooms were nearby, heard Bharata’s voice. She got up, desiring to speak to the prince. Bharata was also thinking of Kaushalya. He ran out of Kaikeyi’s apartments accompanied by Shatrughna. As they went toward Kaushalya, they saw her in the passageway. She was dressed in white silks and appeared pale and emaciated. Her body was trembling and she seemed distracted. As she saw the two princes approaching she cried out and collapsed to the floor. Bharata and Shatrughna quickly lifted her up and she embraced the brothers, who were both weeping.

The distraught queen said to Bharata, “You may now enjoy this kingdom stripped of all its enemies. Surely You hankered for the sovereignty and now Your mother has fully secured it for You. The cruel Kaikeyi has sent away my son as an ascetic. She should now send me away as well. Otherwise I shall place at my head the sacrificial fire and, followed by Sumitra, proceed happily along the road taken by Rāma. In any event I cannot remain here any longer.”

Kaushalya sobbed as she spoke. “Your mother has served you well, O Bharata! Your plan has succeeded. Rule now this wide earth abounding in riches, but first, please take me to wherever my high-souled son is staying. I shall spend my days with Him in the forest.”

The queen bitterly reproached Bharata with many painful words. Hearing this the prince was stunned and He practically lost consciousness, His mind utterly confused. He fell at Kaushalya’s feet and cried out. Kneeling before her with joined palms, Bharata said, “Surely you know My love for Rāma, O noble lady. How could you even imagine that I am in any way guilty of conspiring with Kaikeyi? I found out only today of this terrible turn of events.”

Bharata clasped Kaushalya’s feet. Did she really believe He was a party to Rāma’s exile? The prince spoke from His heart. “Let the man who agrees to Rāma’s exile reap the sins that follow every kind of wicked act condemned in the scriptures! Let him roam about this world like a madman, clad in rags and begging for his food. Let him never take delight in piety and truth. Let all his wealth be looted by robbers. Let him fall victim to every kind of disease. Let him never attain the higher regions inhabited by the gods. Indeed, let that merciless and evil man fall down to the darkest hell and remain there forever!”

The prince expressed His anger to Kaushalya, pleading His innocence by making numerous difficult oaths. He was mortified to think that anyone could imagine Him in any way inimical to Rāma.

The queen was reassured by Bharata’s words. She had spoken only out of her own anguish. In her heart she knew the prince was innocent. Gently stroking His head she said, “My agony is aggravated by Your pain, dear son. Surely You are free of all sins. Your mind has not deviated from righteousness and You are true to Your word. You will doubtlessly reach the realms of the virtuous, my child.”

As Kaushalya and Bharata spoke together, remembering Rāma and the king, they both fell to the floor, overpowered by grief. The palace attendants then helped them to their rooms, where they lay in a fitful sleep.