The Forest Sages
After Bharata left, Rāma continued to live on Chitrakuta Mountain. As the months passed, Rāma began to notice that the ṛṣis living nearby were always fearful and anxious. He approached the leading ascetics and, bowing down humbly, asked, “O venerable ones, has something in My behavior given you cause for concern? Have either My brother or I been acting in a way not worthy of Our esteemed forefathers? Is Sītā behaving in a way unbecoming a young woman?”
Rāma had noticed on several occasions that the Brahmins spoke together while glancing at Him. He knew they were worried about something. Seated before them with folded palms, Rāma listened carefully as the leaders replied.
“How could there ever be any fault in the behavior of You or Your brother, O Rāma?” one ṛṣi said. “What unseemly conduct will ever be seen in the gentle and high-born Sītā? We know well Your true identity.”
The ṛṣis glowed with ascetic power. They constantly chanted various names of God, fingering their wooden beads as they intoned the mantras. With a desire to render service to Rāma, they addressed Him as if He were an ordinary man.
“There is a powerful Rākṣasa called Khara living near here,” the ṛṣi continued. “This demon is Rāvaṇa’s younger brother and he is brutal, haughty and sinful. Angered by Your presence, he has been afflicting us with more vehemence than usual.”
Rāma frowned as he heard about the Rākṣasa. He could not tolerate any aggression toward Brahmins.
The ṛṣi went on, “Khara and his hordes of Rākasas, constantly impede our sacrifices. The demons show themselves in hideous, savage and frightening forms. They throw flesh, bones, excrement and urine down from the sky, defiling our sacrificial arenas. They make strange and terrible noises and it is only a matter of time before they become violent toward us. We therefore desire to leave this place.”
Seeing sacrifice as their sacred duty, the ascetics wished to go to another forest where they would not be disturbed. As Brahmins, they would not themselves fight the Rākṣasas, although they were capable of checking them by their mystic power. They also understood that Rāma wanted to destroy the demons, especially their leader Rāvaṇa.
Rāma tried to reassure the ṛṣis, but they were determined to leave. Having stayed on Chitrakuta for some years, the renounced ascetics were also concerned that they may have become attached to their material situation. Normally they moved continuously from forest to forest, staying only one or two years in each place. After speaking a little more with Rāma, informing Him of where Khara lived, the Brahmins rose up in a body. With only their water pots and staffs they left the region. Rāma followed them for some distance in order to see them off with respect. He then returned to His hermitage, considering in His mind how to deal with the Rākṣasas.
When He reached His hut, Rāma said to Lakṣman, “I think the time has come for Us to leave Chitrakuta. The Brahmins have left, and I am afraid that We will again be visited by the people who now know of Our whereabouts. We should leave for some other more remote forest.”
Rāma decided to make His way to the Dandaka forest, which was inhabited by the Rākṣasas. He wanted to confront the demons. The two brothers donned Their weapons and, with Sītā walking between Them, immediately left.
After journeying for some days They entered the Dandaka forest and came upon a cluster of hermitages. The ṛṣis there greeted Them with respect. Those ascetics were endowed with divine vision, and they were astonished to see Rāma and His companions. The Lord of all the worlds was standing before them. Seeing Rāma and Sītā’s simple forest dress, the sages felt wonder and awe. They worshipped Rāma with various prayers and offered Him a hut for the night.
“Welcome indeed is Your arrival in these woods,” the ṛṣis said. “The king is the protector of righteousness and the only refuge of the people. He stands with his scepter and metes out justice as God’s powerful representative. O Rāma, we are Your subjects and Your servants. We are simple Brahmins who have renounced anger and controlled our senses. As such we deserve Your protection, even as a fetus is protected by its mother.”
Entertaining Rāma with forest produce, the ascetics described how the Rākṣasas had become increasingly violent. Under Rāvaṇa’s leadership the demons had become fearless and they attacked the Brahmins constantly. Fourteen thousand powerful Rākṣasas had taken up their residence in the Dandaka forest, headed by Rāvaṇa’s two brothers, Khara and Dushana. The situation was becoming unbearable for the sages.
Rāma and Lakṣman listened gravely. They resolved to deal with the Rākṣasas as soon as possible. While They were conversing with the ṛṣis, Sītā met Anasuya, the sage Atri’s wife. Anasuya gave Sītā a celestial garment, garland and ornaments, along with celestial cosmetics and unguents. Sītā accepted the gifts graciously and with Her husband’s permission adorned Herself with them. After decorating Herself with the heavenly apparel, She shone brilliantly, exactly like Lakṣmī, the eternal consort of Viṣṇu.
After spending the night with the ṛṣis, the princes left with Sītā and they penetrated deep into the Dandaka region. Lakṣman moved ahead and cleared a path with His sword, cutting through the thick creepers and bushes. Sītā, Her head covered with Her cloth to protect Herself from the swarms of insects that flew about, walked in the middle. Rāma brought up the rear, vigilantly watching on all sides and holding His bow at the ready. The cries of jackals and the shrieks of vultures and birds of prey could be heard all around. Here and there They saw uprooted, broken trees and the carcasses of slain beasts.
As They broke through into a clearing They suddenly saw a dreadful-looking Rākṣasa. Powerfully built and as tall as several men, he stood entirely blocking Their way. With high pointed ears, fierce teeth protruding from his cavernous mouth, and blood-red eyes staring out from an ugly misshapen face, the demon was terrible to behold. He held a long lance on which he had speared four lions, three tigers, a couple of wolves and about ten spotted deer. Around his blackish and hairy body were draped tiger skins, still dripping with blood and fat. He resembled the god of death standing with his staff of justice. When he saw Rāma and the others he let out a terrific roar that could be heard for many miles. He rushed furiously toward Them and quickly seized Sītā.
Taking the princess a little distance away, the Rākṣasa spoke to Rāma and Lakṣman in a voice resounding like claps of thunder. “Who are You two, looking like ascetics but carrying weapons? You shame the Brahmin class with this strange behavior. Why have You brought a woman into this dense forest? Sinful as You are, You shall meet death at my hands. This lady shall become my wife. Today I shall drink Your blood on the battlefield.”
Sītā trembled in the monster’s clutches, like a sapling trembling in a storm. Seeing Her carried away by the Rākṣasa, Rāma said to Lakṣman, “It seems that Kaikeyi’s cherished desire will today be fulfilled. This hideous demon has taken hold of My sinless wife. There is nothing more painful for Me than to see the princess of Videha touched by another. This is more painful even than the death of My father or the loss of the kingdom.”
Rāma cried tears of sorrow as He spoke. Lakṣman became infuriated with the demon and He hissed like an angry cobra. “Why are You, the Lord of all beings with Me as Your servant, grieving like an orphan?” He asked. “The earth will soon drink this beast’s blood. The anger which I wrongly directed toward Bharata will today be released upon that foul demon. Watch now as My arrow pierces his breast and he whirls around, falling lifeless to the ground.”
The Rākṣasa, still awaiting a reply to his question, again boomed out, “Who are You and where are You going?”
Rāma moved closer to the demon and replied, “We are two warriors of the royal order of Raghu who have come here in exile. Tell us who you are and why you roam this forest, O wicked one.”
“So, you are kings from Ayodhya!” the Rākṣasa replied. “Know me to be Viradha, a Rākṣasa who wanders this forest eating the flesh of sages. You should run away the way You came. I’ll not kill You. I have been granted boons by Brahmā and cannot be slain by any weapon, O Raghava. Leave quickly and abandon this princess to me. Assuming a human form I shall sport with Her as my wife.”
Rāma grew furious. With bloodshot eyes He spoke in a voice like Indra’s. “You pathetic fool! You are certainly seeking death. You will get it today on the battlefield. I shall not leave you with your life.”
Without uttering another word Rāma shot seven golden-feathered arrows at the demon. The arrows flew with the speed of Garuḍa and pierced right through Viradha, falling upon the earth drenched with his blood. The Rākṣasa roared in pain and released Sītā. With his lance upraised he rushed at Rāma and Lakṣman. The brothers immediately sent a shower of arrows at the demon.
Even though pierced all over, Viradha remained standing. Laughing aloud he yawned contemptuously. He then hurled his lance at Rāma with the force of a tempest. Rāma at once fired two arrows which cut the lance into three pieces as it coursed toward Him. As it fell to the ground the shattered lance resembled a rocky mountain ledge that had been struck by Indra’s thunderbolt. Rāma and Lakṣman took out Their swords, which resembled two black serpents preparing to attack. They rushed at the Rākṣasa and began striking him with great force. Viradha reached down and lifted both brothers, one on each arm. Placing Them on his shoulders he ran toward the woods.
As Viradha approached the dense forest Sītā cried out, “Alas, where goes My lord? O best of the Rākṣasas, please take Me also. How can I remain here alone?”
Hearing Sītā’s plaintive wail, Rāma raised His sword high and hacked off the demon’s right arm. Lakṣman lopped off his left arm, and Viradha fell upon the ground in a swoon. Although striking him with Their swords and with kicks and punches, the brothers saw that the Rākṣasa still did not die. Rāma said to Lakṣman, “It is clear that due to his boons this demon cannot be killed by force. We should bury him in a pit, for this is the traditional way of disposing of the Rākṣasas. Quickly dig a large pit, O tiger among men!”
Rāma stood with His foot pressing down upon the Rākṣasa’s neck. Viradha regained consciousness and said, “O Raghava, I am defeated by You. Your strength is not less than Indra’s. I now know You to be the all-powerful Rāma and Your wife the highly fortunate Sītā. I am the Gandharva named Tumburu. Due to not properly serving Kuvera, the lord of wealth, I was cursed by him.”
The fallen Rākṣasa explained how as Tumburu he had previously been Kuvera’s servant. One day Tumburu had been sporting with the Apsarās and had failed to properly attend upon his master. In anger Kuvera had cursed him to enter a demon’s fierce form. Tumburu had pleaded for mercy and Kuvera had replied, “When Rāma, the son of Daśaratha, defeats you in battle, then you will attain your own form and return to heaven.”
Viradha spoke with difficulty. “By your grace, O Rāma, I am freed from a terrible curse. I shall now go to my own abode. O Lord, ten miles from here lives the sage Sarabhanga, who longs to see You. Go to his hermitage, for he will give You good advice.”
Viradha begged Rāma to inter him in the pit so that he could die. Rāma and Lakṣman rolled the huge body of the Rākṣasa into the hole Lakṣman had dug. After covering him with earth and rocks, They comforted Sītā and then continued on Their way, looking for Sarabhanga’s hermitage.
In the sky the gods had witnessed the whole scene. Seeing Rāma, whom they knew to be the powerful Viṣṇu acting like a human, they were astonished. Nothing was beyond Rāma’s knowledge or power, yet He accepted the feelings and actions of an ordinary man. Pondering upon the import of Rāma’s deeds, the gods received Tumburu back to them.
Rāma searched for Sarabhanga, absorbed in a mood of affection for the sage. As the brothers came near the ascetic’s hermitage They saw in the sky a golden chariot. It shone like the midday sun and was drawn by a thousand greenish horses. A brilliant white canopy resembling a large cloud and decorated with magnificent garlands covered the chariot. Seated in the chariot was Indra, who was being fanned with white whisks by two beautiful young girls. In the sky many other gods surrounded Indra. Rāma and Lakṣman saw numerous Gandharvas and Siddhas, all dressed in resplendent silk garments and gold ornaments. All these high-souled beings were worshipping Indra with Vedic hymns.
Upon seeing this wondrous sight Rāma said to Lakṣman, “O Lakṣman, see here Indra’s wonderful chariot, full of grandeur. Those young men with broad chests and arms like iron clubs, wearing red garments and gold earrings and surrounding him in the hundreds, appear as unassailable as tigers.”
Lakṣman gazed up at the host of gods assembled in the sky. All of them appeared youthful and all had garlands as bright as fire on their chests. As the two princes looked on, the gods rose up into the sky and vanished. Amazed at this sight Rāma and Lakṣman walked on and entered Sarabhanga’s hermitage.
Sarabhanga was seated before the sacrificial fire. Having practiced asceticism for many years, he was able to fix his mind upon the Supreme Person within his heart. He had realized that Rāma was that same person. In meditation the sage prayed that he might be able to see God in His human form. Accordingly, Rāma approached the old ascetic and bowed low before him, touching his feet and saying, “I am Rāma, and this is My brother Lakṣman and My wife Sītā. At Viradha’s behest, We have sought your presence. Viradha has now risen to heaven with the gods. Pray tell Us what We should do, O jewel among sages.”
Sarabhanga rose immediately, his eyes flooded with tears. He showed the three travelers a seat. Offering Them water and fruits, he said, “O Rāma, there is no one more kind or merciful. After meditating for a very long time and reaching the end of my attachments to this world, I saw You in my heart. Now I see You here as the son of Daśaratha.”
After offering many prayers the sage fell silent. He sat for some time gazing with love upon Rāma’s face. Smiling, Rāma asked, “Why did I see here the lord of the gods, O sage?”
The sage said that Indra had come to take him to the higher planets, which he had earned as a result of his asceticism. Sarabhanga explained that, desiring to remain on earth to see Rāma, he had sent Indra away.
“Now that I have seen Your transcendental form I have no desire to go to the heavenly worlds, O Raghava,” Sarabhanga said. “Please take from me my ascetic merits.”
“You will doubtlessly rise beyond even the highest heaven and attain Viṣṇu’s immortal abode, O learned one,” Rāma replied. “But before leaving, pray tell Me where I should go now.”
Sarabhanga directed Rāma to the hermitage of another sage named Sutikshna. He then gazed at Rāma and entered a deep meditation. From within himself Sarabhanga invoked the fire element and immolated his mortal frame, which quickly burned to ashes. The sage appeared in a shining spiritual body and, after offering his respects to Rāma, rose up into the sky.
Rāma remained seated in Sarabhanga’s hermitage and many other ṛṣis came there and begged Him to dispose of the Rākṣasas. They told Him how the demons were killing thousands of Brahmins. Rāma assured the ṛṣis that He would annihilate the Rākṣasas in due course. He then left and went toward Sutikshna’s hermitage, following Sarabhanga’s directions.
Upon seeing Rāma, Sutikshna offered many prayers and then took Him to see the powerful Ṛṣi Agastya. On the way to Agastya They saw that the forest resembled the famous Nandana grove in the heavens. The ground was suddenly smooth, carpeted with soft grasses. Trees bent down on both sides under their heavy loads of ripe fruits. The clear lakes were filled with lotuses and crowded with swans, cranes and many other varieties of water birds. Flowers grew and trees blossomed everywhere. The animals were docile and approached the travelers without fear.
Rāma looked around at the wonderful scenery. “It seems We are near Agastya’s hermitage,” he said. “By his austerities the sage has transformed this forest into heaven. We will soon behold that shining ṛṣi.”
Requested by Lakṣman, Rāma told various stories about Agastya. He kept His brother and Sītā entertained as They walked throughout the day. Finally by evening They arrived at the hermitage. As They approached it Rāma said, “Let Us go see Agastya, for he will surely bless Us with all good fortune. I think that with his permission We should remain in this region for the rest of Our stay in the forest.”
Sutikshna went ahead and informed Agastya of their arrival. The sage quickly had them brought into his hermitage. As they entered the large compound they saw numerous sacrificial fires, each dedicated to a particular god and tended by Agastya’s disciples. All the principal deities, including the Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu, as well as Śiva, Brahmā and dozens of other gods were being worshipped. Sacrificial smoke and the sound of mantras filled the air.
Agastya, feeling ecstasy, rose up from his seat and came swiftly toward Rāma. Rāma saw the sage coming and along with Lakṣman He immediately prostrated Himself on the ground. Sītā stood close behind with Her hands folded and head bowed.
Agastya raised Rāma up and said, “I have been thinking of You for a long time, O Raghava. I am blessed by Your appearance here. You are always beyond the influence of the unsurpassable material energy. Simply by remembering You one can be carried beyond the great ocean of birth, death and suffering. What then can be said of one who sees You?”
Agastya sat the travelers down and after offering oblations into the sacred fire, he presented them with water and food. Seated in meditation the sage then caused a great golden bow to appear. There were also two quivers filled with sharp arrows which blazed like fire, and a long sword sheathed in a golden scabbard. Agastya presented the weapons to Rāma, telling Him how in a previous age Viṣṇu had used them to assist the gods in a war against the demons.
Rāma accepted the celestial weapons respectfully and then asked the sage to tell Him of a place where He could live. After again meditating for a while the sage replied, “By virtue of my austerities and meditation I have come to know You and understand Your purpose, O Rāma. I therefore suggest You go to a nearby forest called Panchavati. It is beautiful and sanctified. At that place all Your desires will be fulfilled.”
Agastya gave the brothers directions. After taking leave, Rāma, Lakṣman and Sītā began the twenty-mile walk to Panchavati, making Their way along the narrow forest paths.
After a few miles they came across a huge vulture lying in a clearing. Rāma and Lakṣman, assuming it to be a Rākṣasa, quickly prepared to fight. Rāma carefully approached the vulture, which resembled a hill.
“I am Rāma and this is My brother Lakṣman, two descendants of Raghu,” He declared. “Who are you and what is your race?”
In gentle speech the bird replied that he was an old friend of Daśaratha. His name was Jatayu and he was the king of the vultures. He recounted to Rāma his entire lineage, which began with the ancient sage Kardama. In the course of his narration Jatayu described how all the various species of birds and animals had descended. Jatayu was the nephew of Garuḍa, the invincible eagle carrier of Viṣṇu.
“This forest is infested with Rākṣasas and vicious beasts,” Jatayu said. “Allow me to accompany You in the forest. I shall protect Sītā when You two brothers go out to gather food.”
Rāma knew of Jatayu’s friendship with His father. He joyfully embraced the great bird and gave His permission for Jatayu to follow Him. Rāma then continued toward Panchavati, eager to encounter the demons.
After arriving at Panchavati, Rāma selected a spot near the sacred river Godavari. Lakṣman sanctified the spot with prayers and water from river. He constructed a large hut with mud walls, supported on strong wooden pillars, its roof thatched with kusha grass and reeds. Rāma was delighted to see the beautiful cottage and He embraced Lakṣman. “With You as His son, virtuous and always attentive to My needs and desires, surely the king still lives,” Rāma said affectionately. “O Lakṣman, You are to Me as good as My beloved father.”
Rāma and Sītā settled in the dwelling and lived peacefully, bathing in the Godavari and enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest.