A month had passed since the coronation. Gradually the celebrations ended and life in Ayodhya returned to normal. Knowing that His guests were thinking of returning to their own kingdoms, Rāma began to say His farewells. He spoke first to His father-in-law, Janaka, who had been staying with Him in His palace. Folding His palms in reverence, Rāma said, “My lord, surely you are our immovable support. We stand protected by you, O king. By virtue of your ascetic power and your blessings I was able to slay Rāvaṇa. The bonds of affection between our two families are unbreakable. Please accept these gifts and then feel free to proceed back to Mithila at your pleasure. Bharata and Shatrughna will follow at your heels to escort you there.”
Tears filled Janaka’s eyes as he witnessed Rāma’s humility. He looked over at the great pile of riches Rāma was offering him. “I feel gratified simply by Your sight, O Rāma. Let all this wealth be bestowed upon my daughter Sītā. I have no wish to leave, but duty dictates that I return to Mithila. I shall now depart, but my mind will never leave You.”
Janaka rose to leave and tightly embraced Rāma. He then went out of the chamber followed by his ministers and by Bharat and Shatrughna.
One by one, Rāma said fond farewells to all the other kings who had come for the coronation, offering each of them gold and other wealth as parting gifts. Those kings all expressed their sorrow to be leaving and gazed at Rāma’s face without feeling satiated. After circumambulating Him in respect, they gathered together their followers and armies and slowly marched out of Ayodhya. The earth shook as the many hundreds of kings and princes left the city on their golden chariots, accompanied by their multitudes of troops. As they left they expressed their disappointment that they and their armies had not been able to join Rāma in His fight against Rāvaṇa. “Surely this great display of might is useless as we were not able to engage it in Rāma’s service,” they lamented. “Bharata summoned us too late.”
When all the kings had gone, Rāma spoke with the monkey chiefs. He thanked them again for all their service and embraced them with love. Taking valuable ornaments from His own body, Rāma placed them on the bodies of Aṅgada and Hanumān. He spoke affectionately to all the monkeys, offering them profuse quantities of riches. “O Vanaras, you should depart now for Kishkindha. Rule over your subjects with justice and love. You have all rendered Me a very great service which I shall never forget.”
Hanumān knelt before Rāma and folded his palms. “O Rāma, I do not know how I can leave You. I have one request before I go. Please let my supreme affection for You stand forever. May my devotion remain constant and may life remain in my body for as long as Your story is being told on this earth. Let me stay in some heavenly region, continuously hearing Your story being told to me by Apsarās and other celestial beings. In this way my pain of separation from You will be allayed.”
Rāma smiled. “It shall be so, O prince of monkeys. Your life and indeed your fame will endure for as long as My story lasts in the world. That will be for as long as the worlds themselves last. I am forever indebted to you, O monkey. May My obligation to you stay always in My heart. May the time never come when I need to repay your service, for such times are times of difficulty.”
The monkeys, who felt as if the past month in Rāma’s company had been only a day, reluctantly departed from Ayodhya, their eyes filled with tears and their minds absorbed in thoughts of Rāma.
Rāma then said his farewell to Vibhishana, asking him to rule Lanka with righteousness. He also instructed the Pushpaka chariot to make its way back to Kuvera in the heavenly planets. Within a few days everyone had left and Rāma began His rule of Ayodhya, assisted by Lakṣman and guided by the ṛṣis. Within some days of His guests’ departure, Rāma was visited by a number of great sages, headed by Agastya. After they had been received with all respect by Rāma, they took their seats in His assembly hall. Questioned by Rāma, Agastya related everything about Rāvaṇa’s birth and history, as well as that of all the principal Rākṣasas. The sage also told the royal court about the history of the great Vanaras.
After Agastya had finished speaking, Rāma said, “O all-powerful sage, I am amazed at hearing your wonderful narrations. By your very sight we have all been blessed, but I have one request. Soon I shall perform sacrifices for the good of the world. Please bless Me that these will be successful. Indeed, if it pleases you, then come again to Ayodhya at that time to grace us with your holy presence.”
Rāma requested all the sages to attend His sacrifice and they replied, “It shall be so.” Then they rose in a body and left the assembly.
As Rāma ruled over Ayodhya everything became auspicious. It was seen that nobody died prematurely, nor was their any fear of diseases. The world had no robbers and no one suffered any harm from others. Every creature felt pleased and all men were devoted to righteousness. They performed all their duties as service to Rāma, and they always thought of Him within their hearts. Rains fell when desired and the earth gave forth abundant produce. All people had everything they needed and were fully satisfied, being free from avarice.
Two years passed. One day Rāma was walking with Sītā in the palace gardens. Having just heard that She had become pregnant, He smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Excellent! O beautiful lady, tell Me what desire of Yours should be fulfilled.”
As they strolled Sītā admired the many blossoming trees and bushes in the garden. She was reminded of Her time with Rāma in the forest. Remembering the celestial beauty of the forest, she said, “O Lord, I have a longing to once more visit the penance groves inhabited by the sages. Let Me stay there for a night at the feet of those ṛṣis.”
Rāma squeezed Sītā’s hand. “O princess, be it so. You will surely go tomorrow.”
The couple sat down in a shaded bower where They were entertained by Apsarās and Nāga damsels, who danced to the exquisite music played by Gandharvas. Soon the sun set and They retired for the evening into the palace inner chambers.
The following morning after He had performed His religious rituals Rāma entered His council hall. Taking His seat on a great golden throne, He enquired from His chief minister, “O Bhadra, tell Me what are the talks of the people? What do they say about Me and about My rule? Kings who are not devoted to duty are criticized everywhere.”
With joined palms Bhadra replied, “O King, delightful are the talks I have heard from the people. Mostly they discuss Your conquest over Rāvaṇa and recovery of Mother Sītā.”
Bhadra glanced downward as he spoke and Rāma, catching the gesture, asked, “What else do they say, O minister? Leave nothing out. Tell Me both the good and the ill words which are spoken. I shall then know what must be done by Myself. O Bhadra, speak without any fear or anguish.”
Bhadra took a deep breath. “O Lord, listen as I relate the words I have heard while moving among the people. Everywhere—in market places, public squares, crossroads and in the forests—the people are heard to recite the glories of Your wonderful victory. However, O great emperor, I have also heard criticism.”
Bhadra described how some of the citizens were questioning Rāma’s acceptance of Sītā back into His home. “They say that the princess, having been taken onto Rāvaṇa’s lap and kept by him for almost one year, cannot now be considered pure. Because, O Rāma, You have allowed Her back into Your house, these people say they will have to tolerate similar unchaste behavior from their own wives. Whatever a king does becomes acceptable behavior for all the people.”
Bhadra looked down at the mosaic floor. Tears fell from the corners of his eyes. He had not wanted to tell his master about the criticisms, but he knew that nothing could be kept concealed from Rāma.
Rāma appeared shocked. He looked around at His other ministers. “Is this true? Are such talks indulged in by the citizens?”
All the ministers appeared aggrieved. They affirmed what Bhadra had said, each of them bowing low before Rāma as he spoke.
Rāma became pensive. He dismissed the court and asked that Lakṣman be summoned. As the prince entered the court He saw Rāma sitting with downcast expression, seeming like an eclipsed sun. He hurried to His side and asked what was wrong. Rāma explained everything, then said, “Dear brother, the calumny of the people eats into My very vitals. It can never be tolerated by a virtuous monarch. Surely I knew that this criticism would ensue, and thus did I test Sītā at the time of Her return. However, it seems that even though the gods have attested to Her purity the citizens are still not satisfied. Alas, surely one’s infamy is easily proclaimed in this world.”
Rāma shook His head as He went on, “Infamy is to be avoided by all means. It is censured even by the gods. As long as one’s infamy remains current on earth one stays in hell. Great souls always endeavor for fame and good repute in this world. To avoid disrepute I would give up My brothers or even My own life—what then of Sītā?”
Rāma instructed the astonished Lakṣman to immediately take Sītā out of Ayodhya and into the forest, where She should be left. She was already expecting to go there for a visit, so He would not need to tell Her the truth. Rāma spoke gravely, “I will not hear any arguments against this, dear brother. Sītā should be taken this very day to Vālmīki’s ashrama which lies on the banks of the Ganges. After leaving Her there, come back alone to Ayodhya.”
Having spoken, Rāma left the court and went with a heavy heart to His personal quarters. Lakṣman slowly made His way toward Sītā’s rooms. Surely this was the most difficult task He had ever faced. If it were left to Him, thought Lakṣman, He would go out and find the men who were criticizing Rāma and put them straight. Where was the question that Sītā could ever be unchaste? What fault had Rāma committed? But Rāma’s order could not be avoided. Lakṣman had Sumantra prepare His chariot and He went before Sītā, telling them that Rāma had asked Him to fulfill Her desire to visit the forest.
Highly pleased, Sītā asked Her servants to gather together many costly garments and precious jewels. “I shall distribute these to the wives of the ṛṣis,” She said, smiling.
Lakṣman said nothing in reply. He turned and walked toward the chariot, with Sītā following behind. As She walked She began to notice unusual omens. She spoke in surprise. “O son of Sumitra, why is it that My right eye throbs and My limbs shiver? My heart feels heavy and My mind is filled with anxiety. The earth itself seems distressed and all quarters appear desolate. May all be well with My lord and indeed with all living beings.”
Sītā prayed with folded hands as She made Her way out of the palace. Reaching the chariot, Lakṣman said, “All is well, O Queen. There is no cause for fear. I think Your mind is disturbed at the thought of separation from Rāma for even a day. Ascend the chariot and we shall leave at once for the banks of the auspicious Ganges.”
Feeling reassured, Sītā climbed aboard the large chariot and Lakṣman jumped up next to Sumantra in the front. The charioteer urged on the horses and they set off for the forest. After journeying for most of the day they arrived at the riverbank, close to Vālmīki’s ashrama. The three travelers got down and offered their respects to the holy river, bowing their heads to the ground.
Thinking of Rāma’s order that He return at once, Lakṣman looked at Sītā, who was kneeling by the side of the river offering prayers. The time had come to leave Her. She would have no difficulty finding Vālmīki’s ashrama, which lay only a short distance away along a smooth forest path. Ashamed of Himself for abandoning the queen, the prince did not want to enter the ashrama. He sighed deeply. Now He would have to tell Sītā the truth. Losing control of Himself, He suddenly let out a great cry and fell to the earth.
Sītā looked up in surprise. “What ails You, O Lakṣman? We are here by the banks of the sacred Ganges and about to see the great ṛṣis. Why do You wail at such a happy moment? You are making Me sad. I know You are always by Rāma’s side. Is it that separation from Him for even two days is so intolerable? O hero, take heart. Rāma is just as dear to Me, but I do not give way to such sorrow.”
Sītā asked Lakṣman to take Her to the ascetic’s hermitage. “Let us spend a single night with those sages, dear Lakṣman, and then return to Rāma’s presence.”
Lakṣman slowly got up. His face was covered with tears and His body trembled. He folded His palms and replied with difficulty, “O auspicious one, My heart feels as though pierced with a dart. I have been entrusted with a task that will make Me worthy of the whole world’s censure. Surely I would rather die.”
Sītā was mystified. She had no idea what He meant. Feeling perturbed, She asked, “What is wrong, My dear brother? Is something amiss with Rāma. Speak out the truth at once.”
Lakṣman sighed. Gazing downwards, He said, “O Janaki, before we left Ayodhya Your husband was told about a most painful rumor circulating among the people. The words He heard cannot be repeated by Me. Yet even though You have been proven to be free from blame by the gods themselves, Rāma could not ignore the complaints. Struck with grief, He ordered Me to bring You here and then return alone. O gentle lady, You have been forsaken by Him out of fear of disrepute.”
Lakṣman broke off, too pained to continue. Sītā stood as though petrified. She could hardly believe what She was hearing. Had She been born only to experience grief? Covering Her face with Her two bejewelled hands, She dropped to the earth with a piteous wail.
Getting a grip on Himself, Lakṣman said, “Do not give way to sorrow, O queen. Here is Vālmīki’s delightful ashrama. Approach him for shelter and live here peacefully. Remain loyal to Your husband, observe fasts and practice prayer and meditation. Keeping Rāma forever in Your heart, You will doubtlessly secure Your everlasting welfare.”
Sītā fainted and lay on the ground looking like a wild creeper bedecked with blossoms and torn from a tree. Coming round after some moments, She began to lament, “Alas, this mortal frame was certainly fashioned by the creator simply for sorrow. Indeed, today it seems like the very embodiment of grief. What sin did I commit that I should suffer in this way? How can I live all alone in the hermitages of the sages? What will I say to those ascetics when they ask Me why I was abandoned by the great Raghava? I would at once drown Myself in the flowing Ganges, but I would thus break Rāma’s line by killing His unborn child. O Lakṣman, do what You must. Forsake Me, the miserable one, but listen first to what I have to say now.”
Sītā got to Her feet. Shaking with sorrow, She held onto a tree for support as She spoke to Lakṣman. “O tiger among men, go then to Ayodhya and leave Me here. After offering My respects to all My seniors, please say this to My lord: ‘O Raghava, You should always act in such a way as to ensure Your unrivalled fame in this world. Surely My abandonment is necessary to save You from ill-repute. Thus, although torn by grief, I feel no anger. For a chaste woman the husband is the master, deity and preceptor.’”
Having spoken Her message for Rāma, Sītā dropped again to the ground. Lakṣman looked at Her with tear-filled eyes. Unable to make any reply, He cried loudly and bowed His head to the earth. He then walked around Sītā with His palms folded. After regaining His balance of mind, he said, “O faultless one, to say farewell I now look upon Your face for the first time. Oh, how can I bear to see You separated from Rāma and dwelling in the deep forest?”
Crying, Lakṣman bowed again to Sītā and then ascended His chariot, where Sumantra sat in silent sorrow. He urged on the horses and the chariot moved off. As He went along the path away from the river, the grief-stricken Lakṣman could hear Sītā’s plaintive cries echoing through the woods, resembling those of a peacock calling for its mate.
Shortly after Lakṣman had left, a couple of young ascetics were walking in the woods to gather firewood when they heard Sītā’s sobs. Spying Her through the trees, they ran back to their hermitage and spoke to Vālmīki. “Sir, some noble lady looking exactly like the Goddess of Fortune lies near the riverbank, crying loudly in despair. Perhaps She has descended from the heavens. She certainly does not deserve any pain or sorrow. In our view She is a divine woman who has sought your shelter. O lord, we feel She is worthy of your protection.”
Vālmīki could understand everything by virtue of his inner vision. Taking up an offering of arghya, he went quickly toward the river followed by his disciples. The effulgent sage found Sītā lying with Her arms outstretched, weeping. He spoke to Her comfortingly. “O gentle one, I know You are Daśaratha’s daughter-in-law and the beloved queen of Rāma. I am Vālmīki. Welcome to my hermitage. By my meditations I have understood why You are here. Indeed, all that exists within the three worlds is known to me. I thus know of Your purity and blamelessness. O child, be composed and accept this offering. Come with me to the ashrama of the female ascetics. They will surely take care of You as if You were their own daughter. It will be exactly like Your own home.”
Sītā bowed respectfully to the sage and accepted the arghya he was proffering. She replied, “Let it be as you say, O great ṛṣi.”
Vālmīki led the way to the ladies’ ashrama. As they reached that secluded and delightful part of the woods, some of the elder ladies came out to greet them. One of them asked, “What would you have us do, O greatest of sages?”
Vālmīki introduced Sītā to the ladies and asked that they take good care of Her. He told them that She was expecting Rāma’s child and should be afforded all affection and respect, exactly as they would show the sage himself. Receiving their assurances, he then returned back to his own ashrama, Sītā began to reside with the ascetics, Her mind always rapt in thought of Rāma.
For some time Lakṣman and Sumantra traveled in silence, thinking of Sītā. Finally, as the chariot came out of the forest and onto the main road leading to Ayodhya, Lakṣman said, “O charioteer, how great must be Rāma’s grief that He is again separated from Sītā. Truly this is the effect of destiny. Fate is inexorable. Is it not astonishing that Rāma, who could extirpate the entire celestial hosts, should have to submit to fate? It seems to Me that Rāma was more pained by banishing Sītā than He was by His own exile and even Her abduction. Why did He submit to the cruel words of the citizens? What virtue did He acquire?”
Sumantra comforted Lakṣman. He then told Him of a story he had long ago heard from the Ṛṣi Durvāsā. “This sage once stayed at Vasiṣṭa’s hermitage. O prince, at that time your father went there and I drove his chariot. He enquired from Durvāsā about the prospects for his sons—how long they would live and rule over the world. Durvāsā then narrated the following history.”
Lakṣman listened attentively as Sumantra repeated what he had heard from the ṛṣi. Durvāsā had described how in ancient times the Daityas had been conquered in battle by the gods. They had fled and sought shelter in the ashrama of the powerful sage Bhrgu. Only the sage’s wife had been present and, out of compassion, she let them hide in the ashrama. When Viṣṇu, who was assisting the gods in their campaign against the Daityas, learned of this, He became angry with Bhrgu’s wife and severed her head with His discus. Bhrgu had then returned and seen his wife slain by Viṣṇu. He immediately cursed Viṣṇu, saying, “As You have killed my innocent spouse, so You will take birth in the mortal world and meet with separation from Your wife for many years.”
Sumantra concluded his story. “As soon as he uttered the curse Bhrgu became sorry and he bowed at Viṣṇu’s feet and worshipped Him. However, Viṣṇu said, ‘O sage, for the good of the world I shall accept this curse.’ Durvāsā then went on to explain that, although Rāma would become the Lord of Ayodhya and rule over the earth for eleven thousand years, He would be separated from Sītā. Thus it has come to pass, O Lakṣman, for the words of the ṛṣis can never fail.”
As Sumantra ended his story the chariot approached Ayodhya. Entering the city, Lakṣman went at once to the royal court. He found Rāma seated on His throne with His face downcast. Lakṣman fell at His feet and told Him that Sītā had been left at Vālmīki’s ashrama. In a pained voice He said, “Do not grieve, O tiger among men. All gains end in loss, all elevations end in a fall, all union must end in separation, and life itself always ends in death. The wise therefore do not become attached to wives, sons, friends or riches. You know this well, O Rāma, therefore take heart and shake off Your sorrow.”
Lakṣman assured Rāma that the disrepute among the people would now be destroyed by Rāma’s act of sending Sītā away. Rāma appeared encouraged by Lakṣman. He smiled and replied, “What You say is true, O hero. I shall take joy in the execution of My duties, for this is the path to everlasting happiness. Let Us rest now for the night.”
Rāma stood up and embraced His brother, and They then retired to Their quarters.
Twelve years of Rāma’s rule went by. During that period His dominion over the earth became firmly established as all other monarchs paid Him tribute. His brother Shatrughna slew a powerful demon named Lavana and all other demonic elements were subdued. Rāma then thought of performing an Ashvamedha sacrifice for the benefit of the world. Arrangements were made and invitations sent out to all the kings of the earth, as well as to many great ṛṣis. Vālmīki was also invited and he prepared himself to go to Ayodhya.
While in Vālmīki’s ashrama Sītā had given birth to twin sons named Lava and Kusha. The boys had been lovingly raised by Vālmīki as if they were his own sons. Despite never having seen their father, they had flourished in Vālmīki’s ashrama and grown into powerful youths. Vālmīki had taught them all Vedic knowledge and had also taught them Rāma’s story, which they became expert in reciting.
As the time for Rāma’s sacrifice approached, Vālmīki took both Lava and Kusha, as well as hundreds of his other disciples, and went to Ayodhya. He entered the sacrificial arena like the sun surrounded by glowing planets. As soon as Rāma saw him He immediately ordered that he be worshipped and offered a place of honor in the sacrifice. After he had been shown to his quarters, Vālmīki said to Lava and Kusha, “Tomorrow you two should go among the Brahmins here and sing the Rāmayana. Go also to Rāma’s palace and sing this most holy narration where the king will hear it. If Rāma calls you before Him, then you should recite to Him the poem in its entirety. Sing it to the best of your ability and with a pure heart. Do not let your minds be captivated by the opulence and wealth that you see. If Rāma should ask whose sons you are, you should tell Him that you are two disciples of Vālmīki.”
The two humble and obedient boys replied, “We shall do exactly as you ask, O lord.” The boys were eager to meet Rāma. As well as knowing the Rāmayana by heart, they had heard their mother speak many times about Rāma and, although they had come to see Vālmīki as their father, they knew they were Rāma’s actual sons. Looking forward to meeting Rāma the next day, they lay down happily for sleep by the side of the sage.
Two hours before sunrise the boys rose and performed their ablutions. After saying their morning prayers they made their way to the assembly of Brahmins and began to sing the Rāmayana. As they sang they expertly played upon lutes, and the music they produced stole the heart and captivated the mind. The Brahmin sages were enthralled and they repeatedly applauded the boys. “Excellent! Well done! We are all amazed by this magnificent poem. Its exquisite music and meter are without compare. It is replete with the nine sentiments of love, pathos, mirth, heroism, terror, wrath, disgust, wonder and serenity. The boys’ expert singing creates a vivid picture of the story they are telling, and we feel as if we are seeing it actually happen.”
The sages gazed in wonder at the twins. They both looked like Rāma himself and were endowed with many auspicious marks. After making various gifts to the boys, the Brahmins said, “This song, composed by Vālmīki, will be sung by poets throughout all the ages. It is conducive to long life, begets prosperity, invokes all good fortune and ravishes the ears and mind of the hearer. Go now, dear boys, and recite it for the pleasure of Rāma Himself.”
The twins offered their obeisances to the sages and went at once to the palace compound, where they again began to sing. Hearing them from within the palace, Rāma immediately ordered that they be brought in. They were offered golden seats within the royal court and Rāma said to them, “O ascetics, we have heard your excellent singing. Please recite your poem here for the pleasure of the Brahmins in this court, as well as My brothers and Myself. I think there is no song its equal, nor indeed singers such as yourselves.”
Rāma looked carefully at the two boys. He turned to Lakṣman and said, “Although dressed as ascetics, these two appear like rulers of the earth. Surely they are from royal stock, or even have some divine origin. Let Us listen now as they repeat their wonderful poem.”
The entire royal assembly sat enchanted while the boys sang. As evening approached and they completed their recitation, Rāma said, “Wonderful, wonderful! O boys, we desire to know who you are and from where you have come. I wish to bestow upon you gold and other gifts in abundance.”
The boys replied that they were Vālmīki’s disciples. Remembering the ṛṣi’s instructions, they politely declined Rāma’s offer of wealth and asked His permission that they be allowed to return to Vālmīki. Rāma agreed and the boys departed, leaving the assembly astonished and entranced by what they had heard.
After they had gone Rāma dismissed the assembly and sat alone. Hearing His sons recite His life story had made Him think of Sītā. He longed to see Her again and it was ordained by scripture that a king should perform sacrifice with his wife. It had been twelve years since Sītā’s departure and He had not seen Her since. His heart had often ached with Her separation but He had wanted to make absolutely certain that the people had no cause at all to criticize Him. Feeling that this had now been achieved, Rāma desired to bring Sītā to the sacrifice. He summoned Bhadra and said, “Please have the venerable sage Vālmīki informed that I would like him to fetch Sītā. Let both he and the Queen Herself take oath before the assembly that She has always remained pure. I do not want any further obloquy about Myself or Sītā circulating in the kingdom.”
Bhadra, surprised and gladdened by Rāma’s request, replied, “It shall be done as You wish, my Lord.” Envoys left at once and told Vālmīki of Rāma’s desire. The sage immediately made arrangements for Sītā to be brought from his hermitage. He told the messengers that She would be present the following day and they left to inform Rāma.
The next morning Rāma addressed the royal court. “Today the noble Sītā will come to the sacrifice. There She will take oath as to hHer purity, supported by the great Ṛṣi Vālmīki, who has given Her shelter these last twelve years. I desire that all the kings and sages hear this testimony. Indeed, let as many people as may desire be present.”
The assembly cheered Rāma and everyone began to make their way to the sacrificial arena outside the city. All of them longed to see Rāma and Sītā united again. Although they did not question Rāma’s judgment, it had broken their hearts when He had sent the queen away. For twelve years they had prayed for this day when She might return.
Gradually the vast arena filled up with royalty and ṛṣis. All the greatest sages in the world came there. Nārada, Parvata, Vasiṣṭa, Vamadeva, Kaśyapa, Viśvāmitra, Durvāsā, Cyavana, and hundreds more were seen there. Representatives of the Rākṣasas, as well as many Vanaras, Gandharvas and other celestials arrived. In the sky the gods assembled and Rāma took his place in the arena.
Vālmīki then made his way into the center of the arena, followed by Sītā. She was dressed in an ochre-colored sari and Her golden earrings glinted in the sunshine as She walked with Her head down. Although She thought only of Rāma within Her heart, out of fear She did not look up at Him. She folded Her palms in respect and stood silently before Her husband.
Seeing the queen with downcast expression, the assembly was agitated and gave out various cries. Some were sorrowful, some praised Rāma, and still others praised Sītā. When everyone finally settled down, Vālmīki began to speak.
“O son of Daśaratha, out of fear of criticism this pious Sītā of righteous conduct was left by You near my hermitage. She will now testify to You as to Her unfailing purity. I too can swear that this chaste lady is sinless. I do not remember ever having spoken an untruth. O Rāma, know for sure that Sītā is entirely free from wicked conduct of any kind. Know also that the two boys who recited the Rāmayana to You are certainly both Your sons. I have practiced penance for many thousands of years and if my words are false, then may I not obtain the fruit of that asceticism. Knowing that Sītā was innocent, I accepted Her into my ashrama. She is devoted to You only, O Raghava, and will never sway from You under any circumstances.”
Rāma smiled. “It is exactly as you say, O Brahmin. I also know Sītā to be without blame. This was previously established by even the gods and thus did I allow Her to enter My house. Only due to public censure did I send Her away again, even though I never doubted Her innocence. Please forgive Me. I hereby proclaim My love for the chaste Sītā. I also accept these two boys, Lava and Kusha, as My sons. Let Her now take oath before this assembly and establish Her purity once and for all.”
Sītā slowly looked up at Her husband who gazed at Her with affection. She glanced around the assembly. As well as many kings and ṛṣis, She saw all classes of celestials standing there—Adityas, Vasus, Rudras, Sādhyas, Viśvadevas, Nāgas and numerous others. Above the assembly on his swan carrier sat Brahmā, the universal creator, surrounded by all the principal gods. Everyone waited silently for Sītā to speak.
With Her hands folded in front of Her face, Sītā looked down again and said in a tremulous voice, “If I have never even thought about anyone other than Rāma, then may the earth goddess grant Me shelter. As I worship only Rāma in mind, speech and action, so may the earth give Me space. If I have truthfully said that I know only Rāma as My lord, let the earth receive Me now.”
Sītā felt that She had become a problem for Rāma. Despite having been declared pure by even the ever-truthful gods, still the doubts remained. It seemed that as long as She was present there would be those who would find fault with Rāma. She would have given up Her life the very day She had been sent away to the forest if She had not been pregnant with Rāma’s sons. Now the boys were old enough to join their father in the city. It was time for Her to depart. Rāma’s reputation could not be sullied by even the slightest doubt and only Her departure could ensure that.
As Sītā finished speaking the ground next to Her opened up and a celestial throne rose up. That brilliant, bejewelled seat was borne on the heads of four great Nāga snakes. Sitting on it was Bhumi, the earth goddess, glowing with her divine effulgence. She rose up and held out her hand to Sītā with gentle words of welcome. Sītā got onto the throne and sat next to Bhumi. Suddenly a great shower of fragrant flowers fell from the sky and covered Sītā. The gods loudly praised Sītā and, as all the kings and ṛṣis looked on in amazement, the throne slowly re-entered the earth. Everyone glorified Sītā for Her incomparable devotion and chastity to Rāma.
Rāma himself cried out as Sītā disappeared into the earth, which again closed as the throne entered within. He leaned on the side of His seat and wept in grief. Wringing His hands in despair, He said, “Upon seeing Sītā enter the earth I am afflicted with a sorrow greater than I have ever known before. How can I tolerate it? How shall I allow Sītā to be taken by the earth? When She was stolen by Rāvaṇa I crossed the vast ocean on foot to recover Her. I shall again bring Her back or go with Her for good.”
Rāma looked down at the earth. Becoming angry, He said, “O goddess, you should return Sītā to Me or you will feel My wrath. Sītā was formerly brought out from your womb, thus you are My mother-in-law. Therefore be kind to Me and return Sītā, or else grant space to Me also. I will stay with Sītā wherever She has gone, whether it be heaven or the nether regions. O earth-goddess, hear My words or else I shall destroy you with all your mountains and forests.”
Rāma’s eyes blazed in anger and He stood up, reaching for the bow by His side. Brahmā then spoke from his position above the sacrifice.
“O Rāma, Lord of all the worlds, do not be grieved. Remember Your identity as Viṣṇu. By Your own arrangement has this separation from Sītā been ordained. The pure and noble daughter of Janaka has gone to celestial realms where You will see Her again without doubt. O Lord, listen now as Your sons finish the narration of Rāmayana. They will recite to You all of Your future acts, culminating in Your return to Your spiritual abode. Everything is happening according to Your will, O Rāma. Do not therefore destroy the world.”
Rāma was pacified by Brahmā’s speech and He sat down again. Seeing Him peaceful, the gods departed for the heavens. As evening fell the assembly dispersed and Rāma went sorrowfully back to His palace, taking His two sons with Him.
The following morning Rāma had Lava and Kusha sing the remaining portion of Rāmayana, dealing with future events. Sitting amid His ministers and the court Brahmins, Rāma listened as the two boys recited the beautiful poetry they had heard from Vālmīki. They briefly described the period of Rāma’s rule over the earth, a time of unparalleled peace and opulence. Their narration was concluded with a description of how Rāma and His brothers would finally leave the world.
After Sītā’s departure from the world, Rāma often thought of Her. He could not even think of taking another wife and He had an exquisite gold image of Sītā made by expert artisans. That statue sat next to Him in the royal court and at sacrifices, serving as the queen. A period of eleven thousand years passed with Rāma ruling the world, assisted by His three brothers. He performed ten thousand great sacrifices and the earth enjoyed unprecedented opulence. All creatures were happy and everything functioned in accordance with the arrangement of the Supreme Lord. Religion was firmly established and everyone led pious lives.
One day, toward the end of his rule, Rāma was visited by an unusual ascetic, who glowed with a divine radiance. That Brahmin, having been worshiped by Rāma, introduced himself as a messenger of Brahmā. He asked for a private audience with Rāma, saying, “O emperor, no one should hear the words that pass between us. If anyone should interrupt us, then they must be killed by You.” Agreeing to this request from the Brahmin, Rāma brought him into His personal quarters. He told Lakṣman to stand outside and prevent anyone from entering, explaining to Him what the ascetic had said.
When they were alone, the ascetic said to Rāma, “O Lord, You should know that I am Death. Brahmā has asked me to come here and inform You that the time allotted for Your earthly pastimes is drawing to a close. You have achieved all that You desired to achieve. Now, if it so pleases You, You may return to Your own eternal abode.”
Death described to Rāma some of His former incarnations in the material world, concluding by saying, “O Rāma, You are the eternal Supreme Being. You appear in the world to establish religion and destroy the demons. The time set by Yourself for this incarnation is now almost over. Be pleased then to resume Your place as the Lord and protector of the gods.”
Rāma laughingly replied, “O destroyer of all, welcome is your visit here. Surely your words fill Me with pleasure. It is indeed time for My departure. Please return to Brahmā and tell him that I and all My brothers shall leave within a short time.”
As Rāma spoke with Death, the great mystic Durvāsā came to the city. Desiring to see Rāma, he was shown into the palace, where he was met by Lakṣman. He asked for an audience with Rāma, but Lakṣman told him Rāma was busy at that time. Immediately blazing up with anger, Durvāsā said, “I will not be kept waiting. Go at once, O son of Sumitra, and inform Rāma of my presence. Otherwise know that I shall curse You, Your brothers, this territory and all Your descendents. Indeed, my anger is already difficult to contain.”
Seeing the irascible sage preparing to utter a curse, Lakṣman bowed to him and quickly went towards Rāma’s quarters. Thinking, “Let there be only My death rather than that of all My kinsmen,” He entered the room, where He saw Rāma speaking with Death.
When Rāma heard that Durvāsā was waiting, He immediately came out to greet him. Touching the ṛṣi’s feet, He asked, “What shall I do to please you, O great one?”
Durvāsā replied that he had been fasting for one thousand years and desired to take food that day and break his fast. “Kindly bring me cooked foods, O Rāma, so that I may end my long penance.”
Rāma had Durvāsā seated comfortably in the palace and He personally served him with varieties of excellent food. After the sage had left, and Death had also departed, Lakṣman said to Rāma, “I must now die, dear brother, for that was the promise You made to Death. Punish Me in accord with Your word to that deity.”
Remembering His discussion with Death, Rāma felt shocked. Speechless with grief at the thought of separation from Lakṣman, He shed tears and stood gazing at His beloved brother. How could He be killed?
Lakṣman folded His palms and said, “Do not feel sorrow for Me, O gracious one. Time is all-powerful. Bound by our former acts, we must all come under death’s sway. O King, keep Your promise without fear. Those men who break their promises will go to hell.”
Rāma sat down on His throne, struck with sorrow. He called for His ministers and informed them of what had taken place. Vasiṣṭa then said, “O Rāma, all this was foreseen by me. The time for the conclusion of Your pastimes has arrived. You should abandon Lakṣman now. Do not give up Your promise, for if You do, then righteousness in this world will perish. Along with righteousness all beings will also be destroyed. Therefore, O lion among men, be separated from Lakṣman today.”
Rāma looked at Lakṣman. “I leave You, O son of Sumitra. Let not virtue suffer. Desertion and slaying are considered equal according to the wise. Therefore do I abandon You today.”
Lakṣman prostrated Himself before Rāma with tears in His eyes. He then stood up and left the palace, going directly to the forest. Reaching the banks of the Sarayu, He sat down in meditation, preparing to observe the praya vow of fasting till death. With His eyes half-closed, He suspended His breathing and entered a deep trance. As He sat absorbed in thought of the Supreme, Indra came there invisible to all and took Him away to the heavens. Thus it appeared to all men that Lakṣman had died.
Hearing of this, Rāma was overcome by grief. He felt that He could not remain on earth any longer. Crying out in pain, He said, “I shall confer the kingdom on Bharat. This very day I will follow the path taken by Lakṣman.”
Bharat replied, “How can I think of ruling the world in Your absence, O Rāma? Along with Shatrughna, We shall all leave together. Bestow the kingdom upon Your two sons.”
Vasiṣṭa agreed with Bharat. “This is proper, O Rāma. The time fixed by Yourself for Your rule has all but ended. Surely You must now depart, taking Your brothers who are all a part of Yourself. Knowing this, the people have become afflicted with sorrow. They are lying prostrate on the ground, mortified at the thought of losing You.”
Rāma was upset to hear of the citizens’ unhappiness. He called for their chief representatives and said, “What should I do to assuage your grief? I must now leave this world.”
The citizens begged Rāma to take them all with Him. “Wherever You are going, O Lord, be it the forest, mountains, ocean, heaven or even hell, we desire to follow You. If it pleases You, let us accompany You.”
Rāma assented. “It shall be so.” He then arranged for His sons to be coronated. Lava and Kusha could hardly face the prospect of separation from their father. They loudly lamented and fell to the earth when they heard that Rāma was departing. Rāma gently raised them and said, “Dear sons, you must remain on earth to carry on a righteous rule. Establish your capitals in the northern and southern territories. Always thinking of Me, lead the people with justice and compassion. Surely we will be united again in the future.”
Lava and Kusha tightly embraced their father and then left Ayodhya for their respective kingdoms, which became known as Kushavati and Sravasti, taking vast amounts of wealth with them.
After this Rāma dressed Himself in pure white silks and prepared to leave Ayodhya. The next morning He had Brahmins take His sacred fire from the palace and lead the way toward the forest. With Vasiṣṭa reciting hymns from the Sāma Veda, Rāma went slowly out of the city seated on a great golden chariot. Those with divine sight could see by His two sides the goddesses Lakṣmī and Bhumi. Ahead of Him went the personified power of resolution, while all around Him were His weapons in human forms. Rāma was followed by the Vedas in the form of Brahmins, as well by the goddess Gayatri and the personified form of Omkara, the divine syllable always meditated upon by great yogīs.
All the female inhabitants of the palace then followed, accompanied by Bharat and Shatrughna. Crowds of ascetics, chanting Vedic mantras, came at the head of the citizens, who were grouped according to their respective classes. Hundreds of thousands of Vanaras, Rākṣasas and bears also followed behind. Everyone left Ayodhya to go with Rāma. Even the animals and birds left the city and went with the procession. No living creature of any kind remained in Ayodhya and they all made their way westward to the banks of the Sarayu.
As they travelled Rāma met one last time with Hanumān to say His farewells. Embracing the monkey, He said, “You have made your decision to remain here on earth, so do not let your words become false.”
Hanumān replied, “Surely I shall always be in Your presence simply by hearing of Your glories, O Lord. So long as Your divine narration circulates in this world, so I shall remain.”
Rāma also asked two other Vanaras, Mainda and Dwivida, to stay behind, as well as the king of the bears Jambavan. They all bowed before Rāma saying, “So be it.” Meeting with Vibhishana, Rāma said to him, “O best of the Rākṣasas, you should stay in the world to rule over your people. As long as the sun and moon stay in the heavens, so will your rule last. Always worship Viṣṇu in His form as Jagannatha, the presiding deity of the Ikṣvākus.” Accepting that order, Vibhishana prostrated himself before Rāma and then left for Lanka.
Followed by His vast entourage, Rāma traveled upriver to the point where it joined the Ganges, then went along the course of that holy river until He reached the foot of the mountain from where it emanated. At that place, where the path to heaven could be found, millions of divine chariots appeared. All the gods, headed by Brahmā, were visible. Celestial music played by the Gandharvas could be heard and showers of flowers fell from the skies.
It was seen that Viṣṇu appeared in the sky on the back of Garuḍa. Within the sight of all, and being praised by the gods, Rāma and His two brothers entered Viṣṇu’s form. Every creature present, who were all absorbed in thoughts of Rāma, then gave up their mortal bodies and assumed their eternal spiritual forms. The gods saw them rising up on celestial chariots toward Rāma’s undecaying abode in the spiritual world. It seemed to those celestials that the very city of Ayodhya went with Rāma.
Astonished by this unprecedented sight, Brahmā and the gods left for their own abodes, praising Rāma within their hearts. His pastimes were complete.
Jaya Śrī Rāma!