The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan


  Sugreeva replied in great sorrow, “When Rama is suffering such privations, only a monkey like me can be lost in physical enjoyment. Forgive me.” He turned next to Hanuman and said, “Our messengers have not arrived. When they return with the armies, bring them to Rama’s ashram. Stay here until then. I will now go.” He gathered his followers and proceeded to meet Rama, marching on in solemn silence, his mind full of guilt. But the moment he came face to face with Rama at his mountain retreat, Rama welcomed him with open arms, patted his back, and said, “I hope you and your subjects are happy and flourishing.”

  Sugreeva replied, “For one who has received your grace, the achievements of kingship seem trivial and light.” He felt unable to stop his speech and became passionately self-critical: “I have failed in my duty, in my promise, lost myself in pleasures. I have betrayed the limits of the monkey mind. I do not have the right to expect your forgiveness.”

  “The rainy season was unexpectedly prolonged,” Rama said, “and I knew that you must have been waiting for its close. Now your speech indicates your determination to help, which makes me happy. I do not doubt your devotion, but you must not belittle yourself so much. . . . Where is Hanuman?”

  “He will come presently, with an army.”

  “Now you may go,” Rama said; “you must have other duties to perform. Come back when the armies are ready.” Sugreeva replied, “So be it. We shall decide on the details of our campaign later.”

  After he left, Rama received from Lakshmana a full report of all that he had seen and heard during his mission to Kiskinda.

  In due course, various units, led by their commanders, appeared in the valley. In order to get an idea of their numbers, Sugreeva suggested that Rama stand at a height and watch, and ordered the commanders to parade their contingents one by one north to south. Rama’s hopes revived as he watched the marchers disappear troop after troop into an enormous cloud of dust raised by their feet. He said to Lakshmana, “I try, but constantly lose count of the numbers. If we stand here and try to count, we will never reach the end of it, or have any time left to search for Sita. Now that we have seen this army, I am confident of their ability to search and fight.” He turned to Sugreeva and said, “Now do not delay, get them into action.”

  Sugreeva called up the commanders and allotted to each a task, in different directions. Hanuman and Angada were to proceed southward, and that was the most important of the assignments. Before Hanuman departed, Sugreeva gave him detailed instructions as to how to search for Sita in each place they would be traversing.

  “When you leave here you will reach the cloud-topping Vindhya mountain peaks,” he continued. “Search for Sita in every nook and corner of that mountain range. Then you will cross the river Narmada, in whose cool waters even the gods will be sporting. Then you will reach the range called Hemakuta on whose gold-topped towers divine damsels descend, to spend their hours composing and singing lyrics which lull even birds and beasts to sleep. Leave Hemakuta and go farther south. Let your search everywhere be swift. You will come upon Vidarbha, with its frontiers marked with sandalwood and other fragrant trees, and a country of orchards of all the fruits nature can offer. Let not your army tarry here for a feast.” Thus he went on giving precise instructions for Hanuman’s passage through several parts of the country, giving a clear picture of the landscape, mountains, valleys, and rivers to be crossed so that the army might proceed on the right lines and not get lost. Finally he said, “Do not let any holy spot divert your attention from your main task. If you find yourself approaching that holiest mountain, Thiruvengadam, make a detour; a visit to this spot will doubtless give you salvation, but seek your salvation later after Sita has been found. Ravana is not likely to have set foot on this sacred ground. Your time is limited. I will give you thirty days to search. Soonest after that, I want you back here with your report.”

  Anjaneya was ready to depart, but at this moment Rama asked, “O learned one! If you come upon her, by what signs will you recognize her as Sita?” Hanuman had no answer for this. Whereupon Rama took him aside to explain, “If you observe her feet, you will find her toe-nails glowing red like ruby. Her feet are incomparable. Observe her heels carefully. Learned men have compared them to the quiver. I will not describe to you her waist, which is, as it should be, delicate and unseen.” It gave him a peculiar relief to recollect Sita’s features in detail and describe them to Hanuman. Hanuman absorbed with respectful attention every word of Rama’s, without interrupting him in any manner. Rama succeeded in creating a complete picture of Sita in Anjaneya’s mind, and Anjaneya began to feel that he was going in search of someone he had already known. In addition to her features, Rama gave an account of how she spoke, how she walked, what her voice would sound like, and so on. “When you have seen this person and if your conscience witnesses to it that she is the one and only person, approach her, observe the state of her mind and talk to her. Ask if she remembers how I saw her first on the terrace of Janaka’s palace on that evening when I passed along the road in the company of my master Viswamithra. Did she not say later that if the one who had snapped Shiva’s bow was other than the one she saw below her balcony in the company of Viswamithra she would give up her life? Did she not enter the hall of assembly at her father’s palace, decked in jewellery, and anxiously glance up to know if it was I or someone else? Remind her that when we started out on our exile, we had hardly reached the towering gates of Ayodhya, when she inquired innocently, ‘Where are the cruel, impossible forests that you spoke of?’ ” After this series of messages, Rama took the ring from his finger and said, “Give this to her. May your mission conclude successfully.”

  Hanuman and Angada went southward, taking a picked army with them. They crossed mountains and rivers. Wherever they suspected Ravana might be hiding, they fell to in a frenzy and ransacked every nook and corner searching for Sita. In their desperation to find a shelter where she might be hidden, they rushed into the mouth of a cavern and, proceeding along a tunnel, found it impossible to get out: they were trapped in complete darkness. They lost trace of all directions, landmarks, forms, and outlines in an all-consuming darkness. They had no doubt that Ravana had contrived this for them, and felt helpless against a trickery designed to deprive them of their vision. Hanuman, through his extraordinary powers, helped them to edge their way along, until they found themselves led, deep within the bowels of the earth, after many an hour’s journeying, to an enchanting city of palatial buildings, squares, fountains, parks, and avenues. Although no sunlight could pierce so deep, there was an unchanging glow emanating from the brilliant golden domes, embedded with precious stones emitting a natural light. With all this perfection, there was not a soul in sight. No human or any being of any kind anywhere. “Are we all dead and opening our eyes in heaven or is this another illusion that Ravana has created for us? If we are dead, how are we to discharge our duties to Rama? If we are alive, how are we to get out of this trap?”

  Their problems were answered presently when they saw a woman sitting cross-legged lost in meditation—the sole occupant of this vast city. At first the monkeys mistook her for Sita, thinking that Ravana had obviously found the perfect concealment for her in the depths of the earth. But observing her closely, Hanuman declared that she did not bear any of the marks Rama had mentioned for identification. They woke the woman from her meditation and when she narrated her story they found that she had been a goddess, who for some mistake committed had fallen from grace and had been condemned to dwell underground in this perfect setting, in complete solitude, precisely until this moment. After her long penance she feasted and entertained Hanuman and his followers; finally, through Hanuman’s own powers, they were able to shatter this underworld and come out, and also help this strange woman to escape from her imprisonment and go back to her own heaven.

  They journeyed southward, leaving no stone unturned along the way, and reached the southernmost point of a mountaintop, where they watched the rolling ocean beyond and spoke a
mong themselves: “There is nothing more for us to do. We have failed. We have long passed the one-month time limit. Should we renounce the world and stay on here as ascetics or take poison and end our lives, the only alternatives left for us?”

  Angada said, “When we started out, we were boastful in Rama’s presence. Now how can we go back and face him? We cannot return and report our failure. We may ask for more time but what shall we do with more time? If Rama asks what we are doing further, how shall we answer him? I cannot bear to face Rama’s disappointment. The best thing for me would be to end my life here. Some of you may go back and report the truth.”

  One of the leaders of the party was an experienced devotee and elder of the name of Jambavan, who although now in the form of a bear was a ripe soul full of knowledge and wisdom. He said to Angada, “You are your mother’s only hope and the anointed heir-apparent, and it is your duty to live. You must go back and tell Rama the truth that you have not discovered Sita’s whereabouts; and he will perhaps tell you what you should do next, and you may also tell him all the others you have left behind here have ended their lives.”

  At this moment Hanuman said, “We have, of course, exceeded the time given to us, but that is unimportant. Do you realize that there are many other parts of this world and other worlds where we may have to search? Do not despair or give up. There is much that we could still do. If we are to die let us die in a battle. Remember Jatayu, how he died nobly fighting Ravana to the last.”

  This sounded very encouraging in the present gloom, and the mention of Jatayu brought an unexpected repercussion. When his name was mentioned, they suddenly saw a new creature approaching them. Unidentifiable and gigantic, it approached their group with difficulty but with resolute strength. At the sight of this grotesque being, the monkeys withdrew in terror and revulsion. They thought this was a rakshasa in a strange guise. Hanuman stood up to face it and said challengingly, “Whether you are an asura or Ravana himself in this form, do not hope to escape me. I will destroy you.” Whereupon it shed tears and begged, “Tell me all about Jatayu.” Hanuman said, “Tell me who you are first and then I will explain, and the other said, “My name is Sampathi and I am the elder brother of Jatayu. Long ago, we were separated and now I heard you mention his death. Is he dead? Who killed him and why?”

  Hanuman spent time consoling the grief-stricken Sampathi, who then told his story: “We were both sons of Aruna, the charioteer of the sun god. We were very happy, skimming and floating in the higher skies. One day we decided to fly higher than ever so that we might have a glimpse of the heavens where the gods reside. We flew together higher and higher and crossed the path of the sun god, who felt irritated at the sight of us, and when he turned his full energy in our direction, Jatayu, who was protected in the shadow of my wings, was unhurt; but my feathers and wings were all burnt and charred and I fell as a heap of bones and flesh on this mountain. It has all along been a life of great suffering for me and I have survived because of the help of a sage who lives in this mountain. I have had enough determination to survive because I was told my redemption would come when I heard the name of Rama uttered within my earshot.”

  When he said this, Hanuman and his men cried in one voice, “Victory to Rama!” At this the creature underwent a transformation: his feathers grew again and his wings became large enough to lift him in the skies, and he developed into a most majestic bird. When he found that Hanuman and his followers were in despair about finding Sita, he said, “Ravana went this way with Sita. I saw him carrying Sita off to Lanka, which is farther south, and he has imprisoned her there. You will have to cross the sea somehow, and find out her whereabouts. Do not be disheartened by this expanse of water before you. You will ultimately succeed in your mission. Now I must take leave of you; our tribe is without a leader since Jatayu is dead. I must take on his duties.” Saying this, Sampathi floated up and flew away.

  After Sampathi left, they conferred among themselves as to how the sea was to be crossed, which they felt an utterly hopeless task to attempt, until Jambavan spoke once again. He said to Hanuman, “You are the only one who is fit to cross the sea and carry the message of hope to Sita.” He explained, “You are unaware of your own stature. That is a part of a curse laid on you long ago by your father—that you should be ignorant of both the depths of your learning and your own powers. This delusion will have to be overcome before you attempt anything further now. Remember that you can grow to any stature you wish and if you so decide, you can cover the entire world in one stride, outdoing even Vishnu in the days of Mahabali. Make yourself as immense as you need and you can have one foot on this shore and another across the sea, on the other shore—that will be Lanka. When you have reached Lanka, make yourself inconspicuous and your devotion to Rama will be enough to guide you to where Sita is kept.”

  Hanuman listened to this with his head bowed in humility. “Your words give me so much courage that I feel I can vanquish and eradicate the entire race of asuras if they will not yield to me my Goddess Mother. The span of this ocean seems to me insignificant. The grace you have conferred on me and Rama’s command are like two wings which will carry me anywhere.” So saying he assumed a gigantic stature; the mountain called Mahendra, which had till then loomed high up in the clouds, now seemed like a pebble at his feet. He stood there looking southward choosing his own moment to step across the ocean into Lanka.

  8

  MEMENTO FROM RAMA

  Landing on the soil of Lanka, Hanuman shrank himself to an unnoticeable size and began his search for Sita. He peeped into every building in the city. He saw several streets with houses in which Ravana had kept his collection of women from several parts of this world and other worlds. Since Ravana had grown indifferent to them after his infatuation with Sita, he ignored his favourites completely and Hanuman noticed that in every house, women sat longingly, hoping for Ravana’s return to their embraces. Hanuman presently came into an elaborate mansion with rich furnishings where he saw a woman of great beauty lolling in her bed while several attendants were fanning her.

  “Here is the end of my quest,” Hanuman said to himself, thinking that it might be Sita; he studied her features closely, recollecting again and again the description given to him by Rama. He was filled with pain and anger at the thought that Rama’s wife was living in such luxury, perhaps after yielding herself to Ravana. He almost wept at the thought that while Rama was undergoing such suffering in his quest for his wife, she should live in luxury now. For a moment, Hanuman felt that there was nothing more for him to do, and that all his plans to help Rama had come to an abrupt end.

  While he sat there on the roof unobtrusively watching, he realized he might be mistaken. Observing her further, he noticed several differences in the features of this woman. In spite of her beauty she had a touch of coarseness. She slept inelegantly with her arms and legs clumsily flung about, with her lips parted; she snored; and she talked in her sleep incoherently. “No, this could be anyone but the goddess I am seeking,” Hanuman told himself with relief; and presently he understood that this was Ravana’s wife, Mandodari.

  Hanuman next moved on into Ravana’s palace, observed him in his luxurious setting and, after satisfying himself that Sita was not imprisoned there, passed on. After exhausting his search of all the buildings he decided to search the woods and gardens. He finally arrived at Asoka Vana. It was Ravana’s favourite retreat, a magnificent park land with orchards and grottoes and pleasure gardens. When Hanuman came atop a simsupa tree, he observed several rakshasa women, grotesque looking and fierce, armed with weapons, sleeping on the ground. Sita was seated in their midst. He studied her closely: she answered all points of the description given by Rama. Now Hanuman’s doubts were gone; but it rent his heart to see her in her present state, unkempt, undecorated, with a single piece of yellow sari covering her body, and with the dust of many days on her. Suddenly the rakshasa women got up from their sleep, closed in on Sita, and menaced and frightened her. Sita shrank away from
them, but challenged them to do their worst.

  Presently the tormentors saw Ravana arriving and drew aside. He approached Sita with endearing words. He alternated between frightening and cajoling her into becoming his prime mistress. But she spurned all his advances. Hanuman shuddered at the spectacle before him but was also filled with profound respect and admiration for Sita.

  Eventually Ravana went off in a great rage, ordering the fierce women to be unrelenting and break her will. After he left, the women became so menacing that Sita cried, “O Rama! Have you forgotten me?” Presently the women retired and Sita made preparations to end her life by hanging herself from a nearby tree. At this moment, Hanuman slowly appeared before Sita, fearful lest he startle her, and hurriedly narrated who he was and why he was there. He explained all that had happened these many months; he answered all her doubts and established his identity. Finally he showed her Rama’s ring. His assurances and his message proved a turning point in Sita’s life. She gave him a single piece of jewellery that she had saved (concealed in a knot at her sari-end), and requested him to deliver it to Rama as her memento.

  Before he left, Hanuman assumed an enormous stature, destroyed the Asoka Vana, and damaged many parts of Lanka, so as to make his visit noticed. When news of this depredation reached Ravana, he dispatched a regular army to attack and capture this monkey, but it eluded them. Finally Ravana sent his son Indrajit, who caught and bound the monkey (for Hanuman allowed this to happen) and took him captive to the court. Ravana questioned who he was and who had sent him to destroy this land. Hanuman utilized this opportunity to speak about Rama, advise Ravana to change his ways, and warn him of imminent destruction at Rama’s hands.

 
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