by Lindsay Anderson
On the sunrise of a day long past a humble and aged mendicant named Valmiki was deep in ritual meditation. It was not long before his solace was interrupted by the unmistakable voice of Narada. Narada, son of Brahma, was cursed to wander through life without rest. As Valmiki stared at Narada the rsi was drawn to the wanderer’s divine presence. Valmiki asked Narada, “Has there ever existed a moral man who embodies all the most noble virtues?” Valmiki began to list off countless merits, watching as Narada’s expression grew more eager. Narada’s response was the name Rama. Narada began the story of Rama, the dharmic ksatriya, in a voice that mirrored the whispers of the wind. Valmiki was mesmerized by the heart-felt story of Rama.
A significant amount of time had passed since Narada’s visit, but as Valmiki was walking along the Tamasa River with one of his disciples, visions of Rama still echoed in his mind. Upon hearing the call of two kraunca birds Valmiki turned to watch them dance as they made love. Suddenly, an arrow shot by a hunter flew through the daylight sky, killing the male kraucha instantly and causing Valmiki to tremble. In his anger, a powerful curse escaped Valmiki’s lips articulated in a profound and rhythmic meter. Even in meditation Valmiki could not get the morning’s events out of his mind. His eyes flew open and saw the god Brahma before him. Brahma spoke, “Valmiki, have no fear, I authored those words you spoke. Narada came on my authority and you must now tell the story of Rama in the same style of your curse.”
Sitting by the banks of the Tamasa, Valmiki assembled the story of the Ramayana composing it in twenty-four thousand verses, into six books. It was not until Lava and Kusa arrived at Valmiki’s asrama, or hermitage, that he spoke the sweet words of the Ramayana, only to hear them be repeated in a way he could not speak. It was then that he knew these boys were sent from providence in order to sing his story. After the two young men memorized the Ramayana, they went on their way to share it with the world. They spoke the words fluently as they told the story of the Ramayana at a military camp amongst the common people. A king joined the circle with tears in his eyes, for this was his story. The poets who recited it were his own sons.
The young men sang the history of Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala, speaking of the past kings from whom the perfect man had descended. The current king was Dasaratha, who felt fulfilled, except for the lack of a son, who would be able to take over the kingdom after he passed on. His constant prayers had been ignored in the past so Dasaratha decided to perform an asvamedha yajna, horse sacrifice, with Rsyasrnga as the priest, following the fortune foreseen by the sage Sanatkumara that he would have four sons to continue the Iksvaku line. They waited for the perfect day, in which all the flowers were in bloom and the water was clear, before they sent the horse into the fields of Bharatavarsa. As the year drew to a close, Dasaratha approached Rsyasrnga, bowing to his feet and asked “Rsi, make me fruitful.” As Rsyasrnga began to carry out the putrakama yajna, a sacrifice to bring the birth of sons, the devas (gods) hovered above. They had recently begged Brahma to control Ravana’s evil. Ravana was a demon who had received two boons. The first boon, from Siva, granted Ravana strength no other creature in the universe possessed. The second boon, from Brahma, provided immortality with one exception; Ravana could only be killed by a member of the human race. In order to rectify the balance of the earth Brahma decided that Visnu would be born to Dasaratha in the form of a human son.
Rsyasrnga had nearly completed the yajna when a dark messenger appeared from the fire holding a chalice full of payasa, a liquid sweet. He handed it to Dasaratha and ordered him to give it to his queens. When Dasaratha turned the messenger vanished. Dasaratha approached his wives with the vigor of youth. He informed them that his prayers were answered and that he would soon have the gift of four sons. That night Dasaratha approached each queen and slowly made sweet passionate love to each. The potion was successful and each queen conceived.
During Rama’s birth Kausalya, Dasaratha’s senior-most wife, was in bliss. Rama did not cry and even as an infant was excited by the thought of adventure. This month became known as Caitra. Kaikeyi, the youngest wife, gave birth to the beautiful baby Bharata. Within the next twenty hours as the moon had shifted into Aslesha, Sumitra bore the twins Laksmana, and Satrughna. The crowds in Ayodhya were never ending because the citizens came to celebrate the birth of the children, and potential heirs to the throne.
As the next sixteen years passed Dasaratha was at peace. He had everything he had ever wanted. His sons had grown up quickly remembering every detail they had ever had been taught. They succeeded in archery, the study of the Vedas, and the roles of ksatriyas. They had learned to drive the chariot as no other; Rama was normally in the lead, with the inseparable Laksmana at his side, while Bharata and his sidekick Satrughna followed. However, one day, a commotion at the gates would dramatically change Dasaratha’s world. A stern man stood there with eyes as dark as coal, and demanded to be announced to Dasaratha. All knew this was Visvamitra, once a king, now a brahmarsi, a warrior mendicant. Dasaratha came to welcome him saying, “My kingdom and services are here to assist you in every way.” Visvamitra replied, “I am here to request Rama’s assistance. I need him to journey with me to defeat two raksasas (demons) whose unholy acts tarnish my sacrifice.” Pleading with Visvamitra, Dasaratha cried, “No, not Rama. Anyone but him.” Visvamitra insisted, “You know your son will be safe with me.” Again, Dasaratha resisted. Visvamitra’s voice boomed, “If you do not keep your word to me you will bring shame to your entire kingdom.” Dasaratha’s guru, Vasistha, argued that a ksatriya should follow his dharmic path. Dasaratha finally consented and allowed Visvamitra to take Rama, as long as Laksmana could accompany him.
With the blessing of their mothers, Rama and Laksmana did as their father had requested. They obeyed every word Visvamitra had spoken, and followed him on the path out of Ayodhya. Viswamitra taught Rama the bala and atibala mantras, special incantations which would allow him to avoid hunger, tiredness, and thirst. As Rama filled his palms with water, the sound of the mantra spun around him. Rama began to shine with new resonance. Visvamitra turned to Laksmana and spoke the same words, causing the same event to occur. They prepared to sleep, removing their swords from their waist, and the bows from their hands; they laid close together in the tall grass for the first time in their lives.
After worshipping the rising sun and receiving a blessing from Visvamitra they were on their way. They did not rest until they saw the amazing sight of the strong dark waters of the Sarayu River flowing into the heavenly waters of the Ganga. Visvamitra showed the place and told the tale of Siva who under the influence of Kama, deva of love, became entranced by Parvati, who was the mountain’s daughter. Of the people there, Visvamitra spoke, “They are Sivabhaktas and can see the future as we see the past, and they await our company.” There, they received a welcoming fit for a god, and stayed up with the Kamasrama rsis half way through the night telling tales of the great god Siva. It was not until Viswamitra called an end to their stories that the night was brought to an end. Dawn would approach quickly and Visvamitra and the princes would need to be on their way. They received a boat from the rsis and bid them farewell. They proceeded along their dharmic paths paddling through the rivers that flowed as if directly connected to the sea.
Reaching the shoreline the princes followed Visvamitra into the deep dark forest that preserved a thick haze of evil. Rama acknowledged that this would be an excellent place for rsis, only to be informed of the true history of the jungle. Visvamitra declared that originally there had been no jungle, only the kingdoms of Malda and Karusa. Indra had been guilty of brahmahatya, murder of a Brahmin, and tried to convince the rsi of Devaloka to wash away his sins. Devaloka agreed, resulting with the water falling to the earth at this very place. The kingdoms became luxuriant and flourished until the day Tataka had entered their territory. She had not been born a raksasi but a child of Suketu who performed a tapasya, or penance, for a son, but received a daughter. She had married Sunanda, son of Jajara who died shortly after the birth of their son Marica. Tataka, drunk on forest brew, ventured into Agastya’s asrama, making advances on the rsi. Furious, Agastya cursed her to become a dark and hideous demoness. Visvamitra continued to tell Rama that it had been foretold that he would free her of this wicked spell. Instantly Rama’s head quickly turned to face a grassy knoll nearby, just in time to hear Tataka’s revealing roar. With her body encrusted with blood and grime, she grasped handfuls of earth to heave at them. Visvamitra pierced her heart with a mantra. Tataka picked up a large boulder, while Rama raised his bow and shot an arrow that viciously ripped off her arm, causing the boulder to fall upon her own feet. In amusement, Laksmana lifted his bow, discharged the arrow, and he cut off her nose, and ears. Tataka made herself invisible as soon as black blood spewed from her face. Rama and Laksmana made their way up the hill pausing in the middle as the screams of Tataka ceased. Rama stood with his bow ready to fire as she pounced. Rama’s arrow penetrated her heart, killing her instantly, relieving her of her curse. Tataka returned to her natural radiant form. She thanked Rama for saving her from such an awful curse and ascended to the skies. After the evening’s events at peace in their heart’s Visvamitra and the two princes were at peace and settled in for a good night’s rest.
They were astonished when they awoke the next morning, for the forest had begun to bloom with flowers of every color of the rainbow, and the evil haze had vanished. Visvamitra was so amazed with Rama’s accomplishment that he gave him a gift. While Rama sat towards the east, Visvamitra also taught him the mantra that would allow Rama to harness the power of these extravagant weapons. As Rama spoke the powerful words, the lords of the astras (weapons) appeared between the divine and earthly realms and whispered, “we belong to you and will do your bidding.” Rama told them to remain in his mind until they were needed. Rama shared the mantras with Laksmana.
Laksmana, Visvamitra, and Rama continued their adventure, only to stumble upon Visvamitra’s asrama called Siddhasrama. There Visvamitra began a six-day oath of silence, while Rama, and Laksmana stood guard with their bows in hand. The fifth day had passed and they knew it was only time before the raksasas, Marica and Subahu, would appear to prevent the completion of the yajna. All the rsis gathered around the raging fire, chanting the Vedas repeatedly. An undeniable cackle suddenly erupted from the raksasas ending the silence of the rsis sacred chant. Rama released his arrow into Marica’s chest sending him flying into the air. However, since Rama was compassionate the demon was only punished and not killed. Without hesitation, Rama called upon an agneyastra, a fire weapon or missile, and within a blink of an eye, Subahu was a heap of ashes. Visvamitra instantly knew who Rama truly was, so he spoke of Janaka’s sacrifice and told of Siva’s bow that lay in Mithila. No one had ever been able to lift it, but there was no doubt in Visvamitra’s mind that Rama would master the challenge.
The next morning Visvamitra summoned the princes and they were off to Mithila. Along their path, they came across a flourishing and wealthy land; Rama and Laksmana had never seen such greenery. Rama asked to whom this beautiful kingdom belonged. Visvamitra replied that the king, Kusa, was a descendent from Brahma, and had four sons, half-human and half-divine, that each of whom found a separate city to rule. Among those four sons, there was Kusanaba, the eldest, who brought Gadhi into this world, and Gadhi was Visvamitra’s father. Visvamitra spoke of his sister, Satyavati, who had become the rsi Ricaka’s wife, gaining svarga (heaven), due to her purity. She returned to earth as a ravishing river. It was at the side of this river that Visvamitra could continue to hold and protect her. Visvamitra spoke about how he felt at peace beside the lovely river, while the princes listened contentedly. It was after the tale that they decided to rest.
Waking the next morning refreshed, they traveled north until they reached the Ganga, where Viswamitra told the extensive story of her descent, and the curse of the Iksvaku line. It began with Sagara, one of Rama’s ancestors, who had two wives. One wife gave birth to an evil son, Asamanja, who was to continue the family name. He bore sixty thousand sons all of equal strength and wisdom. Asamanja was once caught drowning young children and was exiled, leaving behind his most devoted son, Asuman. In the hopes of maintaining Asuman’s good nature Sagara performed an asvamedha yajna, which was never completed because Indra, jealous of the ritual, had spirited the horse away to a cave. In this cave, Maharsi Kapila Vasudeva sat in meditation. The sixty thousand sons looked everywhere for the horse, and eventually stumbled upon the cave. Ignorant of the rsi’s power, they drew their weapons thinking he had seized the horse. Kapila turned them to ashes. When his uncles did not return Asuman went in search for them. Finding the cave, he waited patiently until the Maharsi awoke. Recovering the horse Asuman returned home. Years passed, but the Iksvaku name continued to be tainted, until Asuman’s grandson, Bhagiratha, performed a yajna asking Ganga to descend to the earth. After receiving permission, Bhagiratha prayed to Siva to break Ganga’s fall, to prevent destruction. With the completion of the yajna, the sixty thousands sons of Sagara were revived, went to heaven, and the Iksvaku name was purified.
Continuing on Visvamitra, Rama, and Laksmana reached Visala, where Rama heard the tale of Gautama, and his wife, Ahalya. Ahalya could not resist the touch and attention from Indra. One night when Gautama was praying by the riverside, she allowed Indra to make love to her. She sensed the danger and encouraged Indra to leave, however Indra’s response was to persist in his seduction. Gautama opened the door, only to be stopped by shock. He cursed Indra’s body to be adorned with a thousand phalluses, and cursed Ahalya to become dust until Visnu in the shape of a prince removed the curse. Standing before the asrama, Visvamitra opened the door; Rama walked and merely touched the pile of dust. Suddenly Ahalya appeared radiant before them. As Rama watched, Gautama appeared and was once again reunited with his wife.
Arriving in Mithila, Visvamitra and the princes listened to Sadananda (Gautama’s son) thank them for freeing his mother and tell the life story of Visvamitra. With the rising of the moon, everybody listened intently to the story being told, and it was not until the next morning when Siva’s bow was once again mentioned. Janaka (king of Mithila) began the story of how he acquired the bow. It had begun when Siva’s father in law, Daksa, held a yajna to which neither Siva nor his wife Sati had been invited. Therefore, Sati attended performing an austerity so strong she turned herself to ashes. Angered, Siva approached with an army of a thousand men who helped him cut off Daksa’s head and replaced it with a goat’s head. Being unable to control his grief, he did not trust himself with the bow, and gave it to Devaratha. Janaka continued to inform Visvamitra and the princes that there was a prize for being able to lift and string the bow. He explained that some years ago he had been plowing his field and came across a remarkable child lying on the ground; he picked the child, Sita, up and decided to raise her as his own. Sita was a remarkable child, different from any other. After many failed attempts, Janaka decided that the only person worthy of Sita’s marriage was the man who could lift and string Siva’s bow. Janaka then lead Visvamitra and the princes to the palace arena. With hope in his heart, Janaka called upon Rama to come and attempt to lift the bow. Rama approached the table; he picked the bow up with ease and as he strung the bow, the earth shook and the people fell stunned as the bow broke in half. Janaka embraced the prince with excitement, as he ordered his guards to go to Ayodhya and summon Dasaratha for the wedding.
Dasaratha accepted the invitation and left the next morning. When he arrived in Mithila a roar of people exploded. Dasaratha spent a peaceful night with his sons, hearing about their heroic adventures. It was not until the next morning that Dasartha and Janaka discussed their family’s histories. Both officially agreed to the marriage. Janaka continued to speak of his other daughter, Urmila and suggested that Laksmana take her as his bride. Believing this was a great idea Dasaratha agreed. Visvamitra suggested that Janaka’s brother Kusadhvaja’s two daughters be married to Bharata and Shatrughna, allowing their houses to be bound forevermore. The city was full of festive colors as the four princes were married and blessed by Visvamitra. After his blessing, it was time for Visvamitra to return to his sister’s side in the mountains. Brokenhearted, Rama and Laksmana watched him walk away.
It was time for Rama and Laksmana to return home with their new brides. They traveled along the path toward Ayodhya when they were interrupted by a storm that made them quiver. Out of the storm, an unkempt rsi appeared bearing a battle-ax in one hand and a bow in the other. He was none other than Parasurama Bhargava. He spoke, “Rama I have heard of your feats and of your lifting the bow in Mithila.” He continued, stating that he had another bow with which to test him, the bow of Visnu. He gave Rama two options; he could fight a duel, or accept Parasurama as his superior. Without hesitation, Rama grabbed the bow from Parasurama’s hand and quickly strung it. Drawing the bow, he pierced Parasurama’s heart. Admitting his own defeat, Parasurama vanished along with the darkness, allowing Rama and the princes to continue on the pathway towards their home in Ayodhya.