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RKD: 2.1: Into the Forest

After their father had returned, Rāma and Lakṣman left the city and went along country paths toward the forest. Even though They urged Sumantra to drive quickly, a large number of citizens continued to follow Them. Rāma stopped to rest after some time and allowed the people to reach Him. He said to them with affection, “You have shown your great love for Me beyond any doubt. Now for My pleasure, please bestow this same love upon My brother Bharata. I am sure He will take good care of you in every possible way. Although still a youth, He is old in wisdom and greatly heroic. He will prove a worthy master and dispel all your sorrows and fears. Serve Him well, for He has been selected by our lord the emperor. It is also My desire that all of you please Him with your service. Be kind to the emperor so that he may not suffer excessive agony in My absence.”

Rāma tried hard to make the people turn back, but they would not return. The more Rāma showed His determination to stick to the path of righteousness and truth, the more the people desired to have Him as their ruler. It was as if Rāma and Lakṣman, by the cords of Their virtuous qualities, had bound the people and were dragging them along.

The chariot began to move forward again and a group of elderly Brahmins, their heads shaking with age, ran behind, struggling to keep pace as the chariot picked up speed. They called out, “O swift steeds, stop! Come back and be friendly to Your master Rāma, who is always intent on pleasing the Brahmins. O horses, halt! Although endowed with excellent ears, do you not hear our plaintive cry? You should not bear Rāma away. He is pure-minded, heroic and virtuous. Therefore, you should return Him to the city to be our king, not carry Him away to some distant, lonely place!”

Rāma looked back, feeling compassion for the distressed Brahmins. He did not want to ride Himself while Brahmins walked, so he got down from His chariot and continued on foot. Although His heart was breaking to see the people's anguish, Rāma looked straight ahead and walked with firm strides, followed by Sītā and Lakṣman. Sumantra drove slowly behind Them in the chariot. As the Brahmins continued to beseech Them, They gradually approached the banks of the river Tamasa. Searching out a suitable site, they decided to camp there for the night. The citizens of Ayodhya camped nearby. Rāma released the horses and allowed them to drink the clear river water. After bathing, Rāma spoke to Lakṣman, indicating the forest across the water.

“There lie the desolate woods, My brother, echoing on all sides with the sounds of birds and beasts. The city of Ayodhya will similarly resound with the cries of forlorn men and women, lamenting for Our having left. I fear for My father and mother who must be weeping incessantly and will perhaps even lose their sight.”

Rāma thought of Bharata. By now He would have been informed of the situation. Thinking of Bharata's nobility, Rāma felt reassured as He spoke with Lakṣman. “I am sure the high-minded Bharata will take good care of Our parents, consoling them in every way. As I reflect upon Bharata's soft-heartedness and piety, My mind is pacified. My dear Lakṣman, I am grateful You have chosen to follow Me, for this too gives Me solace. Fasting for this Our first night in the forest in accord with the scriptural codes, I shall now sleep peacefully.”

Lakṣman had Sumantra prepare a bed of leaves on the ground and Rāma lay upon that with Sītā. He soon fell asleep, but Lakṣman stayed awake, guarding His brother. Nearby He could see the many fires lit by the people who were following Rāma toward the forest.

In the middle of the night Rāma rose and again spoke with His brother. “It seems there is no possibility of Us convincing the citizens to return to their homes,” He said, looking across to the place where the people had set up camp. “Just see the pains they are taking to follow Us, sleeping now on the bare ground. Surely they would sooner give up their lives than go back to the city without Us. Let Us leave immediately while the people still sleep. They should not have to endure this austerity further on Our behalf. As rulers of the people it is Our duty to eradicate Our subjects' suffering. Certainly We should not cause them pain. Thus We must leave now and throw them off Our trail.”

Lakṣman agreed and, as Rāma woke Sītā, he roused Sumantra and had him prepare the chariot. The two princes and Sītā climbed aboard, and Sumantra drove it swiftly upstream, away from the sleeping people. The charioteer crossed a shallow part of the river and then, leaving the common road, drove through the woods. Doubling back and going by different paths, sometimes riding through shallow waters for some distance, Sumantra made sure the people would not be able to track them. He drove quickly, and before dawn they had gone a considerable distance from where the citizens were camped.

As dawn approached in the camp, the sound of numerous birds mingled with the lowing of the cows which grazed freely on the riverbank. Roused by these sounds, the citizens arose and soon discovered that Rāma and His party had left. They were shocked and began to loudly lament. They condemned sleep for having stolen Rāma from them. Falling to the ground, they wept and said, “How could Rāma, who is fit to rule the globe, put on the dress of an ascetic and leave for distant lands? How did that jewel among men, who was like a loving father, go to the forest, leaving us forlorn? Let us now meet our end by fasting until death, or by setting out on the final great journey to the north.”

Looking all around they found big logs of dry wood. Some of them suggested they pile up the wood to make a funeral pyre and immediately enter it. What use was their life now? What could they say to their near and dear ones in Ayodhya when asked of Rāma's whereabouts? How could they say they let Him enter the forest even as they slept? When they returned without Rāma, the city would surely become desolate and devoid of all happiness. Having gone out with that high-souled hero, firmly determined to follow Him anywhere, how could they now go back without Him?

Continuously crying out, the citizens sought out the chariot’s tracks and began to follow them. When they found themselves thrown off the trail by Sumantra’s expert driving, they became utterly despondent. Their anguished voices echoed around the woods. “Alas! What shall we do? We are doomed by Providence!” Gradually the bewildered citizens began to reluctantly head back toward Ayodhya, following the tracks the chariot had made when leaving the previous day.

Depressed and despairing, the citizens finally arrived in the city. They were blinded by grief and hardly able to distinguish between their own relatives and others. They searched for their homes with difficulty, some of them even entering the wrong houses. Afflicted with sorrow, they cast their eyes all around and, although the city and their houses were filled with abundant riches, to them it appeared vacant and nothing gave them pleasure.

Ayodhya seemed at that time to be like the firmament bereft of the moon. Everywhere its citizens shed tears and all of them felt like giving up their lives. No one rejoiced on any occasion, even when coming upon unexpected fortune or seeing the birth of a firstborn son. Merchants did not display their merchandise, nor did the goods even seem attractive. Householders did not cook food and the household deities were neglected.

As the men returned home without Rāma, their wives reproached them. “Without seeing Rāma what is the use of our house, children or wealth?” the wives said. “It seems the only virtuous man in this world is Lakṣman, who has followed Rāma to the forest in order to serve Him!”

The men, pained by the loss of Rāma, made no reply. Their wives lamented at length. How could they remain under the protection of the old king, who had lost his good sense and sent Rāma away? Worse still was the prospect of serving Kaikeyi, whose aim was now completely achieved. Having forsaken her husband and disgraced her family for the sake of power, who else would she not abandon?

The ladies could not contain their feelings. Out of despair they remonstrated with their husbands. “Thanks to Kaikeyi, this kingdom will be ruined. With Rāma gone, Daśaratha will soon meet his end along with his distinguished line, which has existed for so long. How can there be any good fortune with Kaikeyi in a position of power? We should therefore end our lives. Or we should follow Rāma to some distant place where Kaikeyi’s name will never be heard. The glorious and ever-truthful Rāma shall be our only shelter.”

As the ladies of Ayodhya lamented, the sun gradually set on the city, leaving it dark and cheerless, its lights unlit and its temples and public meeting places deserted. Fallen upon evil days, the celebrated city became silent, the sounds of singing, rejoicing and instrumental music having ceased. All the people remained in their own homes, thinking only of Rāma.

* * *

During that night the chariot carrying the princes covered a long distance. As they traveled, Rāma remembered the pain of His relations and people. Reflecting again and again upon His father’s command, he kept His determination strong and urged Sumantra to drive swiftly. They passed many villages, seeing on their outskirts well-tilled and cultivated fields, as well as beautiful, blossoming woodlands. People from the villages, to where the news of Rāma’s exile had already spread, saw the chariot passing, by and they censured the emperor and especially Kaikeyi, saying, “The cruel Kaikeyi has acted without propriety. She has caused the exile of the highly virtuous Rāma. What will become of us now? How will the delicate princess Sītā survive in the forest? How shameful that the king could abandon all affection for such a son and daughter-in-law!”

Going more slowly as He passed the people, Rāma heard their comments and He smiled at them without saying anything. As the chariot moved on more swiftly, the travelers saw innumerable gardens, fruit orchards and lotus ponds. Temples resonant with the sounds of sacred incantations were everywhere. While sitting in the chariot and enjoying the sights of His flourishing kingdom, Rāma thought of His coming exile. He would long for the day of His return to this prosperous land of Kośala.

As they at last reached Kośala’s southern border, Rāma got down from the chariot and stood facing the direction of Ayodhya. With His face covered in tears He spoke in a choked voice. “I take leave of you, O foremost of cities. Protected by the emperor and your presiding deities, may you fare well. When I have squared My debt to My father and fulfilled his pledge, I shall return.”

Many country dwellers had gathered around Rāma. They were filled with grief to see Him bid His sad farewell to Ayodhya. Rāma glanced at them with affection. He thanked them for the love they showed for Him, and told them to go home.

The people simply stood gazing at Rāma, unable to move. Although He urged them to return home, they stood rooted to the spot. They could not turn away from the heroic and handsome prince. As they stood watching, Rāma remounted His chariot and it disappeared into the distance, even as the sun sets at the end of the day.

Gradually the party reached the Ganges river in the Ushinara province. Along the banks of the river for as far as the eye could see in both directions were clustered the hermitages of ascetics and ṛṣis. Hundreds of hills ran along the length of the river, and the river flowed with cool water flecked with white foam, making a roaring sound as it rushed past. Somewhere the river ran still and deep and somewhere else it dashed violently against rocks. In places it was covered with white lotuses, while in others thousands of swans, cranes and herons hovered on its waters. It was the resort of even gods and Gandharvas who sported along its banks. Surrounded by trees laden with fruits and flowers and full of varieties of singing birds, the river appeared most beautiful.

Seeing this celestial region, Rāma decided to stop for the night. He took shelter under the branches of a large tree and sat down to offer worship to the Ganges. Sumantra unyoked the horses and allowed them to drink and then roll on the grassy riverbank. The charioteer stood with folded hands near Rāma, who sat peacefully with Sītā by His side.

The king of that territory was named Guha, a dear friend of Rāma who ruled over the tribal people known as the Niṣadhas. Hearing from his people of Rāma’s presence, he immediately went to Him. Guha found Rāma by the bank of the Ganges and he stood at a distance, waiting respectfully for his audience. He was overjoyed to find his friend arrived in his kingdom, but his joy was mixed with sorrow at seeing Him dressed as an ascetic. Rāma looked up and saw Guha standing there, surrounded by his relations and elderly ministers. Quickly approaching him with Lakṣman, He tightly embraced him and they exchanged greetings. Guha spoke to Rāma, whom he had met on many occasions in Ayodhya when going there to pay tribute.

“I am honored by your presence in my kingdom. This land here is as much Yours as it is mine. Indeed, I am Your servant. Only order me and I shall immediately do whatever You wish.”

He showed Rāma the many varieties of food and drink he had brought, as well as the excellent beds he had prepared for them. Rāma thanked him and said, “I have been well honored by you today. You should know that I am under a vow to live in the forest as an ascetic. I accept your offerings but allow you to take them back. Please leave only as much as may be taken by My horses. Since these steeds are dear to Hy father, you will please Me by serving them well.”

Reluctantly, Guha commanded his men to do as Rāma had requested, having the best of food brought for the horses. He watched with sadness and admiration as Rāma accepted only water for Himself and then lay down to sleep on a bed of leaves. Lakṣman washed Rāma’s feet and again kept vigil nearby. Going over to Lakṣman, Guha said, “Here is a bed for You. There is no need to remain awake for I shall stand here, bow in hand, and guard You all from danger. There is nothing in these woods unknown to me. Indeed, along with my men I could withstand the attack of a vast and powerful army coming upon this region.”

Guha took Lakṣman by the arm and showed Him the bed, but Lakṣman politely refused his offer. “Under your protection we feel not even the least fear, O sinless Guha. But how can I rest while Rāma and Sītā lie down on the earth?”

Lakṣman looked at His brother lying beneath the tree. His mind was troubled. How could one such as Rāma, who was capable of withstanding even the gods in battle, be brought to such a state? Lakṣman’s thoughts drifted to Ayodhya. He became restless, thinking of His father and the subjects. Surely Daśaratha would soon breathe his last, having sent his dearest son to a life of severe austerity. Probably Kaushalya and the king would die that very night, uttering words of despair and anguish. Losing their beloved monarch after watching Rāma depart, the people of Ayodhya would be seized with agony after agony.

Engrossed in such thoughts, Lakṣman breathed heavily like an infuriated serpent. Hot tears glided down His face. Guha placed an arm around His shoulder and gently reassured Him. As the two men spoke the night gradually slipped away.

When dawn broke, Guha arranged for a large rowboat to ferry the princes across the fast-flowing Ganges. The time had arrived to leave the chariot and continue on foot. As the princes fastened on Their armor and weapons, Sumantra humbly approached Them with joined palms and asked for instructions. Rāma smiled and said, “You have rendered Me excellent service, O Sumantra. Please return now to the king’s presence and inform him of Our well-being. We shall now proceed on foot.”

Sumantra found it difficult to leave Rāma. Gazing into His face, he spoke in an anguished voice. “What man in this world has ever had to face such a perverse destiny, O Raghava? What is the value of cultivating piety and truth when we see such a result? We are actually lost and ruined by Your departure. Coming under the control of the sinful Kaikeyi, we will simply suffer.”

Sumantra broke down and wept for some time and Rāma comforted him. As he regained his composure Rāma said, “I cannot think of anyone who is as great a friend to our family as you, O noble charioteer. Please act in a way which will not increase My father’s grief. Whatever he instructs should be carried out without hesitation, even if he orders you to serve Kaikeyi.”

Rāma understood all the nuances of statecraft. He was worried that in his absence the king’s ministers and servants might try to undermine Kaikeyi. He wanted the kingdom to run smoothly and his father to be spared any unnecessary anxiety in dealing with intrigues. Wanting also to ensure that His family not be left anxious for His sake, Rāma added, “Please tell My father that neither Lakṣman nor Sītā nor I are grieving in any way. Happily do We commence Our sojourn in the woods. The period of fourteen years will soon pass and We shall return.”

Rāma considered the urgent need to re-establish stability in Ayodhya. He spoke solemnly to Sumantra. “Ask the king to fetch Bharata quickly and duly install Him as Prince Regent. Bharata Himself should be told to accept the post without any hesitation, for this will be most pleasing to Me. He should then serve the king and all the queens with an equally disposed mind.”

Rāma gave His permission for Sumantra to leave, but the charioteer still stood before Him, his mind perplexed. How could he return without Rāma? He revealed his mind to Rāma. “As we left the city the people were practically rendered senseless with grief even upon seeing You in this chariot. What then will be their state when they see the chariot returning empty? Surely Ayodhya will be torn in two, even as the army of a hero is split apart when it sees his chariot carrying only the charioteer, the hero having been slain.”

Sumantra thought of Daśaratha and Kaushalya. They would be devastated by grief when they heard that their son had actually entered the forest. Sumantra felt incapable of returning. He pleaded with Rāma to let him go to the forest too. He was prepared to remain with Rāma for the full fourteen years rather than go back to Ayodhya without him. Falling to the ground and clasping Rāma’s feet, he spoke with pain in his voice.

“My desire is to convey You back to Ayodhya at the end of Your exile. If I must return without You, then seated upon the chariot I shall enter blazing fire. I am Your devoted servant and it does not befit You to abandon me now. Let me follow You and render You every service. Fourteen years will be as many moments in Your presence, while in Your absence it will seem like fourteen ages.”

Rāma was moved by compassion for Sumantra, who was piteously supplicating Him again and again. He lifted the weeping charioteer. “I know your devotion for Me, Sumantra. However, I must ask you to return. Kaikeyi will not be satisfied unless she sees the chariot returned without Me and hears from you of My entry into the forest. For the good of the king I want her to be convinced that I have fulfilled the terms of her boons, and I also desire that her son Bharata be given the kingdom.”

Rāma knew that if any doubt remained about whether or not He had really gone to the forest, then, in the hope of His return, they would not install His brother Bharata. He therefore convinced Sumantra of the need for him to return to Ayodhya, carrying the messages He had given. With a heavy heart Sumantra finally assented and got up on the chariot. Rāma then turned and spoke to Guha. “It would not be proper for Me to stay in a region where I have many men to serve Me. I wish to go to some uninhabited part of the forest and live in a simple hermitage, gathering My daily food from wild roots and fruits.”

Rāma knew Guha and his people were hoping to accommodate Him in a nearby wood, but He was devoted to virtue and wanted to properly follow the scriptural instructions, which prescribed a life of strict asceticism for one taking the vow of living in a forest. Using the sap of a banyan tree, Rāma and Lakṣman matted Their hair into a thick mass. With Their matted locks and Their bark and grass garments, the two princes looked like a couple of ascetic ṛṣis. Rāma helped Sītā onto the boat, and then jumped aboard Himself, along with Lakṣman. Headed by Guha, the oarsmen plied the boat out across the river. Rāma waved to Sumantra, who stood motionless on the sandy river bank, gripped by despondency.

The boat approached the southern shore of the Ganges swiftly and smoothly. Sītā folded Her palms and prayed to the goddess Gaṅgā for protection in the forest. The river was placid and shone like a sheet of glass under the bright sun. Small ripples spread from the side of the boat as the oars gently and rhythmically splashed the water. Rāma and Lakṣman sat silently, thinking of Ayodhya and Their family and friends. They watched as Sītā sat in the prow of the boat, Her eyes closed in prayer. Gradually they approached the shoreline, with its sprawling forest reaching practically to the river’s edge.

After the party disembarked, Rāma said a fond farewell to Guha. He embraced the forest chieftain and then turned and walked toward the thick forest. Lakṣman went ahead of Him, placing Sītā between Them. As They walked They heard the sounds of beasts and birds—the shrill trills of parrots, the grunts of boars, the cries of monkeys and the occasional growls and roars of tigers.

Rāma was apprehensive about Sītā’s safety. The vast and trackless forest lay immediately ahead. What dangers would They now have to face? But as They began to penetrate into the forest, Rāma’s fear for Sītā gave way to delight. At last the moment had arrived! His father’s word would now be redeemed. Despite any danger He would surely stay here for fourteen years, thinking only of the glory of His aged and pious father. Keeping His mind fully alert, Rāma gripped the great bow which hung from His shoulder and placed His other hand on the hilt of the blue steel sword strapped to His belt.

The three travelers had become hungry and They searched for roots and bulbs, fit for offering in the sacred fire. After They had cooked and made the offering, They ate, and when the meal was over, They performed Their evening worship. Rāma and Lakṣman then sat together and Rāma spoke a little to His brother. “Surely the king will sleep only fitfully tonight, O Lakṣman! On the other hand, Kaikeyi will rest peacefully with her desired object fulfilled.”

Rāma was pensive. Until now he had not dwelt upon His own anxiety for fear of increasing the pain of those He loved. Now that He was finally in the solitude of the forest, He felt a deep disquiet. What other terrible suffering would Kaikeyi cause for His father? With Bharata installed as Prince Regent perhaps she would even try to bring about Daśaratha’s death, so that her own son might more quickly become the king. How could the king protect himself, being weakened by grief? What would become of His mother Kaushalya, as well as Sumitra? Rāma appeared anxious as He continued.

“I think that in the morning You should return to Ayodhya, O noble prince! Protect Our mothers and Our aged father. I do not see anyone else who can guard against Kaikeyi’s evil intrigues. Even now she may be plotting to poison Our parents.”

Although He felt helpless, Rāma nevertheless censured Himself for failing to secure His parents’ happiness. Having undergone great pains to nurture Him with love, they were deprived of His company just when they should have found their labors repaid. “Alas,” exclaimed Rāma, “I am an ungrateful and useless son!”

Rāma wept. He could by no means breach the order of Kaikeyi and His father, but He feared He might be acting wrongly if the result was His parents’ death. Torn apart by His feelings, He wanted Lakṣman to go back to Ayodhya to protect them. Rāma lamented loudly for some time. When He fell silent, Lakṣman replied, “Please do not grieve in this way, dear brother, as You simply cause grief for Myself and Sītā. It is not possible for Me to leave You as I would not survive even for a short while in Your absence. Placing Your faith in the pious Bharata, You should not send Me away. I only wish to remain with You here and do not desire even the highest heaven without You.”

Rāma remained silent. He knew well that Lakṣman would never leave Him. It had grown dark and the brothers sought the shelter of a large tree where Rāma and Sītā lay down to rest. Lakṣman remained awake a short distance away, vigilantly guarding Them from any danger. Gradually the full moon rose and shone through the branches of the high trees, illuminating the beautiful faces of Rāma and Sītā as They slept, which appeared to Lakṣman like two more moons fallen to the earth.

The following morning after sunrise They went in an easterly direction toward the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamunā. They were keen to find the hermitages of the ṛṣis whom They knew lived in that region. The famous sage Bharadvāja, the leader of all the Brahmins inhabiting that forest, dwelt nearby.

As They walked They were enraptured by the colorful beauty of the forest. Huge trees rose up on all sides. In some places the trees opened up into expansive clearings carpeted by innumerable varieties of flowers and shrubs. Lakes of crystal clear water covered with white, blue and reddish lotuses were seen here and there. The trees were laden with blossoms, filling the air with their fragrance. The sounds of cuckoos, parrots and peacocks echoed all around.

Keeping close together, the three travelers walked throughout the day, sometimes moving easily and at other times with difficulty through densely wooded regions. Toward the end of the afternoon They heard in the distance the sound of the two rivers rushing to meet each other. Around Them They began seeing signs of life: chopped wood and man-made paths. Catching sight of smoke rising above the trees, They realized they had found the dwellings of the ṛṣis and They quickly went toward them.

At the precincts of the hermitage they were greeted by a young ascetic who was a disciple of Bharadvāja. He led Them through the many thatched cottages of the Brahmin community, showing Them to a great sacrificial arena where Bharadvāja was seated. Surrounded by his disciples, the sage sat before the sacred fire, absorbed in meditation. As soon as the three travelers caught sight of the effulgent ṛṣi They prostrated themselves on the earth in obeisance. They waited respectfully at a distance for the sage to beckon to Them.

Bharadvāja had attained virtual omniscience by his long practice of asceticism and meditation. He immediately sensed the presence of his exalted guests and he rose up to greet Them. Going before the sage, Rāma said with joined palms, “We are Rāma and Lakṣman, the sons of Emperor Daśaratha, O highly venerable sage. Here is My blessed and irreproachable wife, a princess of Videha and the daughter of King Janaka. Ordered by My ever-pious father, I have come to this forest to live the life of an ascetic for fourteen years, and My brother and wife have chosen to follow Me. Please bless Us.”

Bharadvāja gazed upon the faces of his guests, understanding Their divine identities. He offered Them various delicious foods prepared from wild roots and fruits. Tears flowed from his eyes as he spoke to Rāma. “I already knew of Your exile and have been expecting You to pass this way. Your auspicious arrival here at My hermitage signals the success of all My austerities and sacrifices. It is highly difficult to have a sight of You and today I am supremely blessed. My dear Rāma, if You so desire You may remain here in this delightful stretch of land, which is quite suitable for the life of asceticism.”

Smiling and graciously accepting the sage’s offerings of love, Rāma replied, “This hermitage is well known and not so far from the state of Ayodhya. The people will soon seek Me out if I remain here. Please tell Me of some other, more lonely place, for I will not be able to tolerate the pain of the people again beseeching Me to return.”

Bharadvāja understood Rāma’s concern. He directed the prince to a mountain named Chitrakuta, lying some fifty miles away. After spending the night at the sage’s hermitage, the three travelers set out the next morning toward the mountain. It lay across the Yamunā, which They crossed by means of a raft constructed from timber and bamboo.

As They walked toward Chitrakuta They saw countless varieties of trees and plants spreading everywhere in tableaus of rich colors. The constant singing of thousands of birds resounded on all sides, mingling with the sounds of trickling rivulets and cascading waterfalls. From time to time the trumpeting of an elephant could be heard in the distance. Branches of great trees were bent low under their burden of sweet fruits. From many of them hung large honeycombs, heavy with the thick honey produced by the black bees droning around the fragrant forest flowers.

Sītā was captivated by the beauty of the forest, touching and smelling the many blossoms that hung all around. Completely forgetting His grief and anxiety, Rāma laughingly held Her hand and told Her all the names of the trees and plants. The three travelers were elated simply to see such a celestial region. In great happiness They moved toward Chitrakuta.

The part of the forest leading to Chitrakuta had been rendered quite passable due to the regular traffic of ascetics, and the travelers made good progress. Toward the end of the third day of Their departure from Bharadvāja’s hermitage They approached the foot of the mountain. They saw there a huge banyan tree which spread its branches of dark green leaves away in all directions. Bowing down to the presiding deity of the tree, Sītā offered Her respects. She prayed that They would successfully complete Their exile and return that way again on Their way back to Ayodhya. Lakṣman prepared beds of leaves near the foot of the tree. After saying Their evening prayers and preparing a meal, the travelers rested for the night.

At sunrise the following day Rāma and His party moved on again, with the great Chitrakuta mountain rising ahead of Them. Bluish in color, it was covered with copses of green, yellow and red trees. Numerous waterfalls sparkled in the morning sun. The mountain was sheer in places, smoothly sloping elsewhere. Its snow covered peaks disappeared into the clouds. The travelers stopped and stared for some time at its majestic beauty. They began to ascend the mountain and, some way up its side, arrived at the hermitage of the sage Vālmīki, situated on a broad plateau.

The sage was joyful to see Rāma and His companions. He greeted Them with hospitality and respect and they conversed for some time. Vālmīki told Them of his own history. Although he was now a powerful ascetic, blazing with bodily luster, he had previously been a robber who had maintained his large family by plundering travelers.

The ṛṣi told the whole story. Once, long ago, he encountered the sage Nārada in the forest and sought to steal from him. The sage told Vālmīki he would happily give him anything he wanted, but he told him to first go to his family and ask them the following question, “Are you prepared to accept a share of the sins which will ensue from my crimes?” Vālmīki assented to this request and went to his family. However, they declined to accept his sins, saying that they only wished to receive from him the fruits of his action in the form of money and goods.

Leaving them in disgust, Vālmīki returned to the sage, who then told him to renounce his life of crime and become an ascetic. In order to bring about in Vālmīki a full sense of the temporality of life, Nārada told him to meditate on the word mara, meaning “death.” Vālmīki thus constantly repeated the word mara, without realizing that he was, in effect, also repeating the holy name of Rāma. By his meditation he became a powerful ṛṣi.

Rāma decided to stay close to Vālmīki’s hermitage and He asked Lakṣman to construct a cottage. Lakṣman quickly erected a timber-walled hut with a thatched roof. Rāma lit a fire and, with roots gathered from nearby and cooked in the fire, He made offerings to the gods. He prayed to the Lokapālas, the principal deities who guard the universal quarters, asking them to sanctify and protect the dwelling. Then He entered it along with Sītā. Within that spacious two-roomed hut, Rāma constructed an altar for the worship of Viṣṇu in accord with the instructions of scripture. Rejoicing at having found such a delightful place for Their residence, the three travelers settled down in peace.