RKD: 1.4: The Trial of Strength
A beautiful sunrise over the Sone heralded the dawn. The sounds of birds and forest animals filled the air as the
The boys looked around and saw nearby a line of
After some time they sighted the Ganges shining in the late afternoon sun, appearing in the distance like a line of gold running across the landscape. Upon reaching the riverbank, they broke their journey and prepared to rest for the night. After worshipping the river with libations of water and lighting the sacred fire, the boys sat before Viśvāmitra and inquired, “O holy sage, we wish to hear of the origin of this great river, which arrives at the Himālayas from the heavens, flows across the earth and, it is heard, courses even through hell itself. How has this river become so holy and why does she spread her influence through all the three worlds?”
Moved by this question Viśvāmitra called to mind the glories of the Ganges and began to speak. [See Appendix One, The Story of the River Ganges.] In flowing and beautiful Sanskrit verse, Viśvāmitra narrated at length the history of the sacred river. When he was finished, the princes were wonderstruck. Asking the sage again and again to continue speaking, the brothers listened all night as Viśvāmitra recounted various other stories of the gods and demons.
The following morning they went towards the northeast, heading for Mithila. Gradually the forest paths gave way to roads laid with stone that led to the city. The forest opened to fields of crops. As they came closer to Mithila they saw well-planned gardens and groves with seats and fountains. The sounds of wild animals were replaced with the clamor of people in the city.
Shouts of children and the rumbling of horse-drawn chariots greeted them as they entered the gates of Mithila. Huge elephants swayed along majestically, with smiling people waving from the howdahs on their backs. Gazing about them, the travelers saw the golden domes of innumerable temples along with many mansions of brilliant white stone. Along the roadside were shops displaying countless varieties of fruits, vegetables and all kinds of sweetmeats. Other vendors displayed rows of shining gems looking like numbers of rainbows. Everyone called out respectful greetings as the party moved slowly past. As they went along the wide, smooth road they were met by the king’s ministers, who had already been informed of their arrival.
Headed by Viśvāmitra and the princes, the party was led along the main highway to Janaka’s palace. People thronged the sides of the road to gaze upon the famous sage and his two illustrious charges. As they looked upon the powerful princes, some of them guessed that they might be the sons of Emperor Daśaratha. The people wondered what had brought the princes to Mithila. Were they going to attempt to string the king’s great bow? As Rāma smiled at the people they were filled with a desire to see this handsome, powerful prince win Sītā’s hand.
Janaka personally came out to greet them, accompanied by his priests and counselors. He immediately fell at Viśvāmitra’s feet and had him brought into the palace, where he offered him and the two princes golden seats. The king had water fetched for washing their feet and personally performed the ceremony.
Once the formalities were complete, a meal was offered to the sage and the princes. As they sat on the floor on silk rugs, ivory tables were placed in front of them. Gold and silver dishes were fetched containing choice foods of every description. They ate heartily and when they were finished, Janaka said to Viśvāmitra, “Great indeed is my good fortune today for I see before me your holy self. I am blessed by your presence. Tell me who are these two boys accompanying you? They appear like two powerful tigers and They rival the gods in beauty and grace. What brings you here to my house, along with these boys equipped with weapons?”
The king had waited until the travelers were rested and refreshed before making his inquiries. Viśvāmitra told him all about the boys and how They had disposed of the Rākṣasas in the forest. They had come now to see the famous bow. Janaka was thrilled to hear that They were princes from Ayodhya. Nothing could be better than an alliance with Daśaratha’s line. If only Rāma could pass the test of the bow.
At that point Satananda, Janaka’s head priest, spoke to the princes. After welcoming them he began to narrate the history of Viśvāmitra. Satananda was himself a great ascetic. He knew Viśvāmitra well, having previously spent time with him in his hermitage. Seeing the famous sage again, Satananda felt inspired by affection to speak of his glories. Looking upon the beautiful faces of Rāma and Lakṣman, who sat enraptured by his speech, the priest told the story of Viśvāmitra, who had performed difficult asceticism for thousands of years. [See Appendix Two, The History of Viśvāmitra.]
He told them how the sage had once been a great king and, after practicing tremendous austerities, had been blessed by Brahmā to become a powerful
Janaka, along with his ministers and priest, circumambulated Viśvāmitra in respect and then departed. After performing their evening rituals and prayers, Viśvāmitra and the princes rested for the night in the king’s palace.
The following morning Janaka again came before Viśvāmitra. He bowed low before the sage and touched his feet, asking in a pleasing voice, “Please instruct me what I should do for you today, O sinless one. You are worthy in every way of receiving my service.”
Hearing these words from the virtuous and gentle king, Viśvāmitra asked that they now be shown the bow. Janaka assented, but before taking them to see the bow he described its history.
Long past, in a former age the bow had belonged to Śiva. That deity had become angry with the other gods when they had denied him a share of the sacrificial offerings made by the
But the gods relented and quickly worshipped the infuriated Śiva. They had managed to appease him, whereupon he gave the bow to them. The famous bow was then given by the gods to Janaka’s ancestor,
Janaka continued speaking to the sage and the princes, who listened with great curiosity. “Once I was performing a sacrifice to please the gods in order to get a worthy successor in my line. As the sacrificial ground was being prepared with a golden ploughshare, a wonderful child appeared from out of the earth itself. This female child, who became known by the name of Sītā, grew up in my palace as my daughter. Her beauty is matchless. I have raised Her with love and will give Her in marriage to whoever can show exceptional prowess. Various rulers and princes have approached me and sued for Her hand. Seeing these kings, I set a standard for winning Sītā, saying, ‘Whosoever can hold and string the mighty bow of Śiva will win this princess.’
“Many proud kings thought they would easily bend the bow. However, coming before that bow they were soon shorn of their valor and pride. They were hardly able to move the bow even slightly, far less lift and string it. Angry at their failure, numerous kings together besieged Mithila for one full year. When my resources were exhausted I prayed to the gods for support. I then received from them a vast army equipped with every kind of weapon. That celestial army quickly dispersed those bellicose kings in all directions. Thus this bow remains here, unconquered and awaiting some truly powerful king.”
Janaka looked at the two royal brothers. Rāma’s fame had reached him and he felt sure that the prince would win his daughter’s hand. As the king beheld Rāma’s beautiful features, His powerful physique and noble bearing, he longed for the prince to pass the test and become his son-in-law. He stood before Viśvāmitra with folded palms. “Come now, O sage, and bring these boys with you. If any can string the bow, then the hand of the divinely born Sītā will be won.”
Janaka led them to the part of his great palace where the bow was kept. It was stored in an iron chest which was adorned with gold engravings and covered over with numerous flower garlands. Three hundred powerfully built men somehow managed to move the chest to the center of the hall where it lay. Janaka turned towards Rāma. “Here is the wonderful celestial bow. It has been kept and worshipped by the Janakas for many generations. Not even the gods, demons, Yakṣas, Gandharvas or Kinnaras can string it; how then could any ordinary man? Gaze now upon this bow, O Rāma.”
Janaka ordered that the chest be opened. As the lid was lifted the brilliant bow was revealed. It spread a golden glow all around. Constructed of pure horn, it was skillfully worked with gold and silver images of the pastimes of the gods. Hundreds of golden bells and ornaments hung from the bow, which was studded with diamonds and other gems.
Seeing the bow the two princes gasped in appreciation. Rāma bowed down in respect and then walked slowly around it. He looked towards Viśvāmitra who nodded slightly. Understanding Viśvāmitra’s indication, Rāma stood with joined palms at the bow’s center. He turned to Janaka. “I wish to attempt your test. I shall now try to lift this heavenly bow to gauge its weight and strength.”
While being extolled by Viśvāmitra and other
In the balcony of the hall stood Sītā. She looked at Rāma, feeling a natural attraction for the prince. Until then She had never been interested in any of Her suitors, although the most powerful kings from all around the world had come there. To the gentle Sītā they were all arrogant and overly proud of themselves. Sītā was deeply religious. All Her life She had prayed that Viṣṇu might become Her husband. As She watched Rāma approach the bow She felt Her love for the Lord being awakened. Was this Viṣṇu himself? Becoming absorbed in Her loving sentiment, Sītā felt anxiety. Would Rāma string the bow and become Her husband? She held the matrimonial garland with trembling hands.
Suddenly Rāma seized the bow by its middle part and raised it high above His head. A gasp of astonishment filled the hall. It was inconceivable. Rāma tossed the bow slightly to gauge its weight. Placing one end of the colossal bow on the ground, Rāma then moved to the other end and strung it. He pulled the string and bent the bow round into a semi-circle. It broke suddenly and a sound like the crash of thunder reverberated around the hall. The earth shook as if there were an earthquake. Everyone was stunned and rendered senseless for some moments.
Janaka was amazed. He turned to Viśvāmitra. “I have now witnessed Rāma’s strength. His achievement is incredible. Having secured Rāma as Her husband, Sītā will bring undying fame to my family.”
Janaka’s eyes were filled with tears. Surely Rāma was a divine personality. There could be no doubt. Till then no king had been able to move the bow even slightly; some could hardly even look upon it. But Rāma had handled it as if it were a piece of bamboo. The king looked up to Sītā in the balcony. She was filled with delight upon seeing Rāma’s feat and Her breast heaved with excitement. Awaiting Her father’s indication to come down, She stood surrounded by Her many female attendants. Janaka turned to speak to Rāma, who stood peacefully, having replaced the broken bow in its chest. “I shall now fulfill my pledge to give Sītā’s hand to whoever could string this bow. Sītā is dearer to me than my own life, but I gladly offer Her to You.”
Sītā came down from the balcony with a garland of golden flowers in Her hands and stood by Her father. She was resplendent in a silk sari of deep maroon, a necklace of pearls shining on Her breast. As She walked Her golden anklets tinkled and her diamond earrings swung to and fro. Smiling gently, she shyly lifted her eyes a little and looked at Rāma, who caught Her glance. Both felt Their hearts moved by love. In that moment Their union was forged. Sītā’s father signaled and She went before Rāma. She placed the garland around His neck, indicating Her acceptance of Him as Her husband. She blushed slightly and kept Her eyes down. Walking slowly, She went back to her father, who felt as if his heart might burst with happiness.
The king wanted to perform the marriage ceremony as soon as possible. He asked for Viśvāmitra’s permission, and when the sage agreed, the king arranged for swift messengers to go to Ayodhya to inform Daśaratha.
The ministers of Janaka left immediately and arrived at Ayodhya after three days. They quickly went to the palace and were ushered into the presence of Daśaratha, who appeared to them like a powerful god. Put at ease by the emperor’s benign expression and gentle words of welcome, the ministers politely told him of the events in Mithila. The emperor was delighted to hear the submission of Janaka’s envoys. Rāma and Lakṣman were well! They had conquered over the demons, and more than that, Rāma had now won the beautiful Sītā for His bride.
Daśaratha recalled how he had been contemplating the marriage of his son even as Viśvāmitra had arrived at his palace. The sage must have been sent by Providence, by whose arrangement this union had surely been made. After consulting with his counselors, Daśaratha made up his mind to leave the next day for Mithila.
Taking with him his ministers and preceded by a party of priests, Daśaratha went the next morning towards Mithila, with his army marching close behind. They arrived after five days. Daśaratha approached Janaka, who graciously received the abundant riches brought as gifts. Janaka embraced the emperor, and the two old friends sat together discussing the wedding. Janaka told Daśaratha how Sītā had appeared from the earth. He also told him of a prophesy he had heard.
“Once the celestial seer Nārada informed me that Sītā is Viṣṇu’s eternal consort and that he would one day become Her husband in this world. I thus devised a test which would only be possible for Viṣṇu to pass. Your son has now passed that difficult test and must therefore be Sītā’s eternal husband.” Daśaratha was again astonished to hear of Rāma’s divinity. He still found it hard to believe, having raised Rāma as his child. He looked at the son who stood before him modestly with bowed head and folded palms. Daśaratha was overpowered by love. His loving sentiments overcame any thoughts of Rāma’s divinity. The emperor looked again at Janaka and said, “I approve this marriage in every way. Perform the ceremony under the guidance of learned Brahmins. O king, the success of a gift depends upon the way it is given. Therefore be sure that all the necessary rites are properly observed without loss of time.”
Daśaratha wanted to ensure that the marriage ceremony was performed carefully according to scriptural codes. He did not want any ill fortune created by neglect of sacred rituals. Such errors would blight the marriage and create future difficulties for the couple.
Janaka issued instructions to his ministers and then sat with Daśaratha in his great palace hall. Both of them listened as Vasiṣṭha recited Rāma’s family lineage. After hearing of Rāma’s ancestry, beginning with the sun-god, Janaka recited Sītā’s genealogy, describing his own ancestry, which began with Brahmā.
When Janaka finished, Viśvāmitra spoke. He suggested that Sītā’s sister, Urmila, wed Rāma’s brother Lakṣman. The sage also advised that Janaka’s brother Kushadhvaja allow his two daughters to marry Bharata and Shatrughna. Then there could be one ceremony for all four marriages.
Rising from his seat with joy, Janaka said, “Let it be so!” again and again. He fell prostrate before Viśvāmitra and said, “I am ever your servant. Your words are worthy of my worship and I stand commanded by you. Let the wedding take place tomorrow, a day marked by favorable stars.”
As the two kings sat talking together, the sun gradually set. Janaka took his leave from Daśaratha and departed for his personal quarters, flanked by his ministers and a hundred warriors. Thousands of golden oil lamps lit up the hall as the crowds of Brahmins made their way out, all of them constantly uttering auspicious Vedic hymns.
* * *
The following morning Daśaratha rose early and performed the first ritual for invoking good fortune. He had his four sons brought before him and then gave to the Brahmin priests a hundred thousand cows on behalf of each of them. The emperor also distributed gold and gems to the thousands of
A great pavilion had been erected for the ceremony. Its walls were constructed of marble and it was supported on numerous pillars studded with sparkling gems. Fragrant and brightly colored flower garlands were draped everywhere and the air was filled with the scent of black aloe incense. Large stands constructed of mahogany inlaid with coral and pearl, holding rows of golden seats, surrounded the sacrificial area. Kings from all around the world along with their ministers filled the stands, eager to see the wedding.
The entire pavilion was crowded with jubilant people who cried out, “All glories to Rāma and Sītā!” Hundreds of elderly Brahmins wearing simple loin cloths, with clean white threads hanging from their left shoulders, were seated around the sacrificial arena. They recited Vedic hymns continuously and the melodic rise and fall of their metrical chanting filled the pavilion. Musical instruments played while expert singers sang the praises of Rāma and Sītā. The whole assembly appeared like an exuberant festival held in the heavens by the gods.
Daśaratha and his four sons approached the sacrificial fire, which was tended by Vasiṣṭha. When they were seated, the princes saw Sītā and the other three princesses enter the arena. The princes’ minds were captivated by the beauty of their wives-to-be. Adorned with shining silk garments, jewels and gold ornaments, the princesses appeared like four goddesses descended from the celestial realm. They sat down opposite their intended spouses, glancing down shyly, and Vasiṣṭha immediately began the wedding ceremony.
Janaka stepped forward, speaking in a voice choked with emotion. “My dear Rāma, I now give to You Sītā, my own beloved daughter, to be Your assistant in all Your religious duties. She will always remain exclusively devoted to You and will follow You like Your own shadow. Take Her hand in Yours and accept Her. I bless You both.”
Janaka took Rāma’s hand and placed it over Sītā’s. Vasiṣṭha sprinkled sanctified water over Their clasped hands, signifying the confirmation of the gift of Sītā. Holding Sītā’s hand, Rāma led Her slowly around the sacred fire.
From the upper reaches of the pavilion the gods were heard to exclaim, “Excellent! Bravo!” Celestial flowers rained down upon Rāma and Sītā. The entire assembly of onlookers erupted with a shout of joy. Both Daśaratha and Janaka looked with tearful eyes at the newlywed couple. Rāma’s complexion, resembling a celestial emerald, contrasted the pure white features of Sītā. They were both covered with golden flower petals and Their many jewels shone brilliantly. As They walked hand in hand around the fire, Sītā looked down in shyness while Rāma smiled at the loudly cheering crowds in the pavilion.
Each of Rāma’s three brothers, one after another in order of their seniority, took the hand of one of the other three princesses. Lakṣman was united with Urmila, Bharata with Mandavi and Shatrughna with Srutakirti. The three effulgent princes, holding Their brides’ hands, went around the sacred fire along with Janaka and the many
Cries of happiness filled the pavilion. While the gods played their celestial drums, bevies of Apsarās danced and Gandharvas sang. The
The ceremony ended at midday and the kings and princes gradually retired to their tents, headed by Daśaratha, Janaka and the four newly married couples.
The following day, Viśvāmitra, after taking permission from both Daśaratha and Janaka, left for the northern Himālayan ranges, his mind intent on the performance of asceticism. Janaka bestowed upon his daughters a dowry consisting of hundreds of thousands of cows and an equal number of elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. The king, whose wealth was virtually unlimited, gave away millions of pieces of silken and cotton textiles, tens of thousands of handwoven carpets, heaps of gold, silver and jewels, and hundreds of richly adorned maids for each of the brides.
* * *
After a few days Daśaratha left for Ayodhya, proceeding at the head of a large army. As the king, surrounded by his sons and the host of
“These signs portend some grave danger,” replied the
A fierce tempest blew up. The sun was enveloped in darkness and the sky became black. Trees crashed to the ground and the earth shook. A dreadful dust storm swirled around the travelers, confounding their senses. They were rendered virtually unconscious. Suddenly, from out of the darkness, appeared the terrible sage Paraśurāma. He was dressed in tiger skins and had matted locks coiled at the crown of his head.
Daśaratha and his followers immediately recognized him. Although a Brahmin, Paraśurāma was famous for his prowess as a fighter. In former ages he had single-handedly overcome the world’s warriors, annihilating them by the millions. The sage had become enraged when his father was killed by warrior kings, and he wreaked an awful vengeance. He had ranged the globe massacring the entire warrior class. He now stood before Daśaratha holding a battle-ax in one hand and in the other a fierce arrow which resembled a streak of lightning. He was as tall as two men and he had upon his shoulder a great bow. Appearing as irresistible as the fire of universal destruction, he blocked the path like an impassable mountain.
Accepting the honor offered by the
Daśaratha threw up his hands in horror. Knowing well of Paraśurāma’s power, he feared for Rāma’s life. He approached the sage with joined palms and entreated him to spare Rāma. Paying no heed at all to the king, Paraśurāma continued to speak only to Rāma: “Both the bow broken by You and this one here were constructed by the architect of the gods, Viśvakarmā. The one you sundered formerly belonged to Śiva. However, this one here was Viṣṇu’s property. It is thus more powerful than the one you broke, for Viṣṇu is always Śiva’s superior.”
Paraśurāma took the bow from his shoulder. With furrowed brows, he gazed at Rāma with bloodshot eyes, not immediately recognizing the prince’s divine identity. “The bow has been passed down from Viṣṇu to my ancestors and finally to me. I now offer it to You, O Rāma. Considering Your sacred duty as a warrior to always accept a challenge, exhibit now the strength of Your arms!”
Paraśurāma held out the enormous bow. Rāma, smiling slightly, stepped forward. “I have heard of your tremendous feat in fighting and killing all the world’s warriors twenty-one times. You have fully avenged your father with this commendable action.”
Even as a child Rāma had been told the story of Paraśurāma. The many kings killed by that sage had become debauched, and it was by divine arrangement that they had been annihilated. As a sage Paraśurāma had performed much asceticism and had finally been personally empowered by Viṣṇu himself. By dint of Viṣṇu’s own desire and power Paraśurāma had been able to exterminate the warrior class. Now Viṣṇu, appearing as Rāma, again stood before the sage. He continued to speak: “You are a Brahmin sage and are therefore worthy of My worship. However, since you despise Me, seeing Me to belong to the warrior class, I shall now display to you My personal prowess.”
Rāma seized the bow along with the blazing arrow from Paraśurāma’s hand. He strung the bow in an instant and drew the arrow back to His ear. Looking angrily at Paraśurāma, He asked, “Where shall I discharge this deadly shaft, O sage? As you are My superior I dare not aim it at you.”
Hosts of gods had assembled in the sky. Seeing the celestial bow drawn in anger by Rāma, and fearing that He may destroy the heavens, they cried out, “Viṣṇu! Save us, save us!”
Rāma, standing with the bow, blazed as brilliant as the sun and Paraśurāma fell back in astonishment. He felt his own power completely eclipsed by Rāma. Suddenly realizing Rāma’s identity, the sage spoke in faltering tones. “You appear invincible and I can understand that You must surely be the imperishable Viṣṇu himself. I accept defeat but I am not shamed, as You are indeed the Lord of all the worlds.”
Paraśurāma recalled how Viṣṇu had long ago said He would come again to take back the divine energy He had given to the sage. The warrior-sage folded his palms and said, “O Rāma, O all-powerful one, You have already divested me of my power and my pride. Please release this arrow upon my desires for heavenly pleasures and thereby burn them all to ashes. I wish only to serve You. With all my material aspirations destroyed by You, I shall be fit to become Your eternal servant. This is my deepest desire.”
Paraśurāma bowed low before Rāma, who then fired the fearful shaft. The sage immediately vanished along with the arrow. Then Varuṇa, the god of the waters, appeared and Rāma gave him the celestial bow to keep on behalf of the gods.
The exchange between Rāma and the sage was heard and understood only by Vasiṣṭha and a few other spiritually powerful Brahmins. The king and the others present had been wholly confounded by the events that had occurred. They were amazed and relieved to see that Rāma had somehow appeased the sage. Everything again became calm and the party resumed their journey, soon approaching Ayodhya.
Word had already reached Ayodhya of the approach of Daśaratha’s party. Thousands of Brahmins and citizens had come some miles out of the city to greet them. They stood along the wide roads throwing rice grains and fresh green leaves in front of Daśaratha. Seated aboard his chariot, the emperor and his sons waved at the people. They moved slowly through the crowds and entered the city in state. It was decorated with flags and festoons and strewn all over with flowers. Trumpet fanfares sounded and joyous people thronged around the king’s party as it went slowly along the main thoroughfare.
Daśaratha entered his own white marble palace, which resembled Mount Himavat. He was greeted by his wives, who had organized a ceremonious reception for their sons and new daughters-in-law. After the greeting the princes and princesses went to their respective palaces and began to enjoy life in Ayodhya exactly like the gods in heaven.
After a few weeks, Daśaratha asked Bharata and Shatrughna to go to the kingdom of their father-in-law, Kushadhvaja, who himself had no sons. The emperor instructed the princes to assist Kushadhvaja in the affairs of state. Along with Their wives and a large army, Bharata and Shatrughna therefore soon left the capital and went to Rajagriha, where Kushadhvaja lived.