Book 1: Bala Kanda - Book Of Boyhood

Canto II: The Avatara

Long, long ago in the beautiful land of Kosala on the banks of the river Sarayu, was situated the magnificent town of Ayodhya, ruled by the wise and just king called Dasaratha. He belonged to the solar dynasty in the lineage of lkshvaku, who was the son of Vaivasvatha Manu, the first of all created beings. Dasaratha had one sorrow and that was that he had no son to carry on his line. As he was brooding over this, his GurUy sage Vasishta exhorted him to perform the Horse sacrifice {Ashvamedha yaga), as well as the Putrakameshti yaga for the sake of begetting a son. He told him to approach the famous sage, Rishyasringa and request him to be the chief priest in conducting the yajna.

It was at this time that the gods approached the creator Brahma and begged him to intercede with Lord Vishnu on their behalf to kill the demon king, Ravana, who was harassing them sorely. Brahma conveyed the message to Lord Vishnu who agreed to descend to the earth, taking on four forms, as the sons of Dasaratha. At that very moment, king Dasaratha had successfully completed his Asvamedha yaga and had commenced his Putrakameshti yaga. Rishyasringa had raised the ladle high and had just poured the ghee into the flaming fire, invoking the presence of Lord Narayana, the protector of the world. Just then out of the sacrificial fire there appeared a striking figure - of a divine personage carrying a golden vessel containing an ambrosial confection of rice, milk and honey. The celestial being handed over the vessel to the king and told him to give it to his three queens. The king gave half of this nectar-like sweet to his eldest wife, Kausalya. He divided the remaining half into two portions and gave one portion to his second wife, Sumitra.

The remaining quarter he split into two and gave one part to his third wife Kaikeyi and the remainder again to Sumitra. As soon as they ate the pudding, the queens became pregnant with the spirit of Lord Narayana. In course of time they gave birth to four sons, each of whom manifested the power of the Lord in proportion to the amount that their mothers had partaken of the divine confection. The first to be born was Kausalya's son, Rama, who contained within him one half of the power of the Lord. He was born in the month of Chaithra - March/April, when the star Punarvasu was in ascendance, at a most auspicious time, when five of the planets were in an exalted state. Next, Kaikeyi, the youngest queen, gave birth to Bharata, who possessed a quarter of the Lord's powers and finally the second wife, Sumitra delivered twins who were called Lakshmana and Shatrugna. The king's joy knew no bounds. In place of the one son he had wished for, he had been given four. Gifts were distributed in abundance to all. The city of Ayodhya went crazy with joy. There was a month-long rejoicing and festivities.

As the children grew up they were given all the training necessary for royal princes. Their Guru was the great sage Vasishta. Even as a child, Rama exhibited extraordinary powers of intellect as well as great nobility of character. Though the other three were all devoted to him, Sumitra's son Lakshmana, followed Rama like a shadow and could not bear to be parted from him even for a minute, whereas his twin Shatrugna kept close to Bharata.

After their return from the hermitage of their preceptor, Rama was desirous of going on a pilgrimage round this holy land of Bharathavarsha. Dasaratha was pleased to grant his request and the four brothers went on a tour with their retinue. After his return, his father and brothers noticed a great change in Rama. He became very pensive, took no delight in the various sports and pastimes of his brothers, shunned all social contacts and even refused to eat, unless coaxed by one of his mothers. He became pale and emaciated. He politely evaded all the questions of his anxious father.

At this time, it so happened that sage Vishvamitra came to the court with a request. The king assured the sage that his wish would certainly be granted. Vishvamitra then asked Dasaratha to send his son Rama to kill the two demons, Maricha and Subahu who were molesting his ashrama and preventing him from completing his sacrificial rites. The king was stunned to hear this request for he feared for the safety of his son who was barely 16 years of age. He offered to send his entire army to help the sage or even to come himself but the sage refused all these offers, for he said that Rama alone had the power to kill the demons. At last, urged by his own Guru Vasishta, Dasaratha reluctantly gave his consent and ordered an attendant to fetch Rama. The attendant returned and gave the news that ever since his return from the pilgrimage, the prince was strangely lethargic. He seemed bereft of hope and bereft of desire and attached to nothing.

Hearing this Vishvamitra said, "His condition in not the result of delusion but is the result of wisdom and dispassion, leading to enlightenment. Let him be brought to the court".

Rama came to the Assembly hall and bowed to his father and the sages. His loving father asked him, "My dear child why have you become so sad and dejected, when you have everything in life? Who has harmed you? What has happened to you"?

Rama replied, "During my recent pilgrimage through this holy land of ours, I saw many sights which I had never seen before. Agony and suffering did I see and poverty, disease and death. A new trend of thought has taken hold of me. What happiness can we have from this ever changing world? All beings take birth only to die, and die only to be born again. I see no meaning in this transient phenomenon which has its roots in suffering and ignorance. Everything in the world depends on our mental attitude but the mind itself seems unreal, even though we are bewitched by it. We are not bonded slaves, yet we have no freedom. Ignorant of the world, we have been wandering aimlessly in this forest of samsara for many lives. How can this suffering come to an end. My heart bleeds with sorrow when I think of these things and I do not feel like eating or sleeping, much less engaging myself in vain pursuits, unless I have an answer to these questions".

He went on in this strain for some time and the whole Assembly was stuck by the depth and perspicacity of the young boy*s reflections. At last, he said, "I do not consider him a hero who is able to battle against an army. I regard him a hero who is able to conquer his mind. By reflecting on the pitiable state of living beings who have fallen into this pit called samsara. I am filled with grief. My mind is confused. I have rejected everything but I am not yet established in wisdom. Hence I am partly caught and partly freed, like a tree that has been cut, but not severed from its roots. Pray tell me how I am to reach that supreme state of bliss"?

All the assembled sages and people were thrilled to hear Rama's speech and settled themselves down to hear the reply of Vishvamitra and Vasishta.

Vishvamitra said, "0 Rama! You are indeed the foremost among the wise and there is nothing further that you need to know. However, your knowledge needs confirmation and I earnestly request sage Vasishta to instruct you so that all of us who are assembled here may also be inspired. Vasishta is truly a liberated sage, who is not swayed by sensual pleasures and who acts without motivation of fame or any other incentives".

On hearing Vishvamitra's request, the great Brahmarishi Vasishta proceeded to instruct Rama on Atmic knowledge and Brahmic bliss. This discourse came to be known as the "Yoga Vasishta". Though many people had listened to this marvelous discourse, it was only Rama, of mighty intellect, who could grasp in its totality the essence of Vasishta's teachings.

This was how Rama at the tender age of sixteen became a truly liberated being, who was steadfast in his quest of dharma, who cared not for the pursuit of personal happiness but only for the pursuit of righteousness, for he realised that only in dharma, could a person find eternal bliss.

At the end of this learned discourse, his father gave him permission to accompany Vishvamitra and accomplish whatever the sage had in mind. Lakshmana followed him. The king watched them go with anxious eyes but did not dare to say anything, for he did not want to incur Vishwamitra's wrath.

When they reached the river bank, Vishvamitra gave them two mantras which would make them invincible and protect them from all fatigue and hunger. Proceeding further they came to a forest in which many hermits lived. They went in fear of the demoness called Tataka. Vishvamitra told the princes about this demoness, who, though born a woman, was endowed with the strength of a thousand elephants. She and her sons Maricha and Subahu roamed the forests and killed anyone who came there. They also molested the sages who lived in that forest and stopped them from performing their sacrificial rites. Every time they raised their ladle to pour the oblation of ghee into the fire, they would find that their fires had gone out due to the blood, bones, and faecal matter which had been thrown into it. Vishwamitra requested Rama to kill her and thus save the forest dwellers.

Since she was a woman, Rama was reluctant to kill her and decided to maim her so that she would no longer trouble the sages. Taking up his bow he twanged it loudly. This infuriated Tataka and she rushed towards the sound. Seeing the princes, she showered rocks and uprooted trees on them and kept appearing and disappearing in the sky in order to confuse them. Rama was sorely perplexed as to what he should do. Vishwamitra told him to kill her immediately before she could wreak further havoc. She deserved no sympathy and she was far from being a weak woman. Thus commanded by Vishvamitra, Rama did not hesitate any more, for he realised that it was his duty to kill her since Vishvamitra had brought him there for that express purpose. As she rushed towards him with the intention of making an end of him and Lakshmana, Rama shot a deadly arrow at her so that she fell down lifeless in her tracks. Thus he earned the gratitude of all the sages and other forest dwellers. It was a king's dharma to protect the people under him and thus Rama was forced to kill Tataka even though she was a woman.

That night, the forest dwellers slept peacefully without fear of being molested by Tataka. In the morning Vishvamitra gave Rama many powerful missiles by which he could defeat all enemies, as well as knowledge of how to recall them. Then he took them to his own ashrama where the hermits were delighted to see them. The next day Vishvamitra commenced his yaga, after having instructed the two princes to be strictly vigilant for the next six days to see that the sacrifice was not interrupted.

Just as the yaga commenced, there was a fearful clamour in the sky and the two demons - Maricha and Subahu-swooped down on the sacrificial altar, scattering blood, pus and bones. Rama ran out and buried a missile at Maricha which sent him hurtling eight hundred miles away to the ocean. Next he killed Subabu without difficulty and thus saved the yaga as he had promised.

Next day, the sages apprised him of the sacrifice of the bow which was being held in the town of Mithila by the great sage-king Janaka. All of them proceeded towards Mithila and on the way, the sages regaled the boys with an account of Vishvamitra's birth and history as well as the story of the Ganga. They also told them the story of the churning of the milky ocean by the gods and the demons.

On their way, they reached a deserted hermitage which had belonged to the sage Gautama. His beautiful wife Ahalya had been cursed by him and had turned into a stone, for having unwittingly betrayed him. As Rama entered the ashrama he placed his foot on the stone and Ahalya was immediately released from her curse and rose up in all her beauty. Gautama also returned and the reunited couple paid all homage to Rama.

As the party entered the flower bedecked town of Mithila, where the festival of the bow was being held, Vishvamitra told the story of how the bow had belonged to Lord Shiva and was so huge that none could lift it. However, at a very young age, when Janaka's daughter, Sita, was playing with a ball, it had rolled beneath the bow. The king was astonished to find the child effortlessly lifting the bow to take the ball out. Then and there he decided, that anyone who aspired for his daughter's hand, would have to lift the bow, bend it and string it. Many princes had come to try their luck and had gone away disappointed. Vishvamitra knew that Rama was the one to wed Sita and that is why he took him to Mithila.

As they entered the palace gates, Rama's gaze was drawn to an open window in the palace 'through which he could see the head of a young girl. As if drawn by his look, she turned and looked straight into his eyes. So intense was her gaze that he felt as if he had got an electric shock. His heart left him forever and flew into the beauteous eyes of the child. She was none but a child, but child though she was, she also knew that in him, she had found her life partner. The boys walked on and the girl kept hoping with all her might that he would be able to bend the bow and marry her, for, she was none other than Sita, the adopted daughter of king Janaka. Once when the king had been ploughing the ground for a yaga, he heard the gurgling chuckle of a baby. He stopped the plough just in time and found a beautiful baby girl in the furrow. He gathered her up tenderly and decided to adopt her for she was so charming. He called her "Sita" which means a furrow.

Vishvamitra and the princes were welcomed by King Janaka with great joy. He told them the story of the bow and of his daughter, Sita. Vishvamitra assured him that Rama, the son of Dasaratha would easily bend the bow. Five thousand able-bodied men were needed to carry the chest containing the bow into the hall. The lid was opened and the bow was revealed to everyone. Urged by Vishvamitra, Rama took up the gigantic bow as if it was a mere toy and bent it, till it broke. There was a thunderous noise like the breaking apart of a mountain. The whole earth shook and shuddered with the impact. All the spectators fell to the ground, except for the two princes, the sage and the king.

Everyone gazed at Rama in wonder. The king was delighted, for he had almost despaired of getting a husband for his daughter, since all the mightiest kings of the land had come and tried their luck with the bow and failed. He immediately sent speedy messengers to Ayodhya to invite Dasaratha for his son's wedding.

When the king arrived accompanied by Bharata and Shatrugna and a vast retinue of followers carrying loads of gifts, he was met with all due honours by Janaka. Janaka suggested that his younger daughter Urmila, should be given in marriage to Lakshmana and his brother's two daughters, Mandavi and Srutikirti, would make suitable brides for Bharata and Shatrugna. Dasaratha was delighted to accept such beautiful brides for his sons.

At the auspicious hour called Vijaya the nuptials took place. Vasishsta prepared the altar in the centre of the marriage pavilion and decorated it with sandal paste, golden platters, vases filled with flowers, incense-burners, conchs, bowls filled with offerings and golden vessels containing unpolished rice, roasted and smeared with turmeric powder. Scattering darbha grass on the aitar, sage Vasishta began the ceremony with the recitation of the sacred marriage mantras given in the Rig Veda.

King Janaka now led his beautiful daughter bedecked with ornaments into the marriage pavilion. He took her hand and placed it firmly in Rama's. Sita looked up shyly at her husband and as their eyes locked, they both realised that they had already seen each other and chosen each other, some days ago, when Rama had arrived in Mithila. Neither of them could bear to tear their gaze away from each other and hardly noticed that the king was giving his daughter Urmila, to Lakshmana, and his nieces Mandavi and Srutakirti, to Bharata and Shatrugna. Clasping the hand of his bride, Rama led her three times round the sacred fire and thus plighted his troth. His brothers followed suit. The combined wedding took place with great pomp and eclat.

The wedding party left the very next day for Ayodhya. On the way they were accosted by the invincible Parasurama, who, though born a Brahmin, was yet a Kshatriya in his valour and might. He had sworn to exterminate the whole race of Kshatriyas since one of them had killed his father. Vasishta and the other sages tried to placate him but the irascible Parasurama who was supposed to be another avatara of Lord Vishnu, ignored all of them and addressed himself to Rama alone: "I have heard of your great prowess in breaking the mighty bow of Lord Shiva. I have with me the even mightier bow of Lord Vishnu.

If you are indeed a true Kshatriya and a man of valour, take this bow and string it and come for a duel". Dasaratha was totally bereft when he heard this challenge and begged Parasurama to let the boy go but the latter ignored him and challenged Rama again. Undaunted by the fiercelooking aspect of the sage, Rama took up the bow and strung it with ease and turning it towards Parasurama, he asked him in an authoritative voice, "0 holy Brahmin! Tell me at whom I should discharge this arrow"?

Recognising his Master, the fierce Parasurama became meek as a fawn and said, "0 Rama, I realise that you are none other than Lord Vishnu, for no one else can string this bow. I surrender all my powers to you and will now retire to Mount Mahendra for further austerities".

After Parasurama left, Rama handed over the bow of Vishnu to Varuna, the Lord of waters and the wedding party proceeded without interruption to the city of Ayodhya, which had been richly festooned to welcome the princes and their brides.

For the next twelve years Rama and Sita delighted in each other's company. Sita was as good as she was beautiful and Rama came to love her even more for her nobility of character as for her charm and beauty. As for Sita, she was enchanted with her handsome and noble husband and thanked the gods who had given her such a boon. Their love for each other grew with every passing day and they could not bear to be parted even for a moment. Thus the days and months passed like minutes for the radiant couple and time ceased to exist, while they gazed into each other's lotus-petal eyes.

Thus ends the second Canto called the "Avatara" of the Bala Kanda in the glorious Ramayana of the Sage Valmiki.

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