– Ramayan: Book 3: Aranya Kanda – Book Of Forest Canto I – The Forest Dwellers

Though the forest looked dark and gloomy from the outside yet as they went into it they were amazed to find that it was filled with ashramas in which many sages lived. The pleasant aroma of sandal and incense coming from the sacrificial fires assailed their nostrils. They noticed that even the wild animals walked about freely without fear. Rama and Lakshmana unstrung their bows for they realised that they had nothing to fear in this place. There were lakes and flowers in plenty and the trees were laden with fruits and nuts. The spiritual energy which permeated the place could be physically felt by all three of them. Rama’s fame had spread before him and the sages welcomed him with all love and invited him to spend the night at one of the hermitages.

Next morning the three of them set out once again and penetrated deeper into the forest. It was only now that they understood why this forest had been called fearful. The ground was rough, trackless and deserted. The trees were twisted with lianas trailing their tentacles down, ready to catch the throats of the unwary traveler. Bamboo thickets infested with snakes creaked in the dry, hot wind. Wild animals like tigers, wolves and bears roamed at large. The birds seemed to have been struck dumb for they no longer chirped happily as they had done at Chitrakoota. Even the lakes looked deep and forbidding with dark waters in which no lotuses grew. Sita crept closer to her husband and timidly caught the end of his bark garment. He turned and gave her a reassuring look and held his hand out to her. She clung to his strong arm and shivered at the ominous sounds coming from the thickets. He knew that this was not the type of forest which she enjoyed and held her comfortingly close. Sometimes he carried her across swamps and dying trees. They passed many heaps of white bones belonging to the hermits who had been killed and eaten by the cannibals. They proceeded cautiously, with Lakshmana in front, and Sita clinging to Rama, coming after him. Lakshmana hacked his way through the fierce undergrowth of poisonous roots and vines.

Suddenly an enormous figure sprang up in front of them and blocked their path. It held a trident in its hand on which was impaled the carcasses of lions, deer and an elephant, all dripping with blood. A long red, hairy arm reached out and grabbed Sita round the waist and held her high above the branches of a tree while she screamed and struggled. He then roared at them.

“Who are you who have been foolish enough to enter the dreaded Dandaka forest. You are dressed like rishis yet walk around with weapons and a woman in your midst. My name is Viradha and I live by eating those rishis, who are stupid enough to enter this forest. You shall provide my fare for today and this woman, I shall make my wife”.

Seeing his beloved trembling like a leaf in the vile hands of the monster, Rama lost his courage for a minute. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought of the injustice he had wrought on the princess by bringing her here. But Lakshmana was undaunted. He sprang at him with upraised sword but Viradha laughed scornfully and said, “Desist from this foolishness, 0 stupid mortal. Know that I have a boon by which I cannot be killed by any weapon. So leave this woman with
me and I’ll let you go unmolested”.

Rama was furious when he heard this and sent seven scorching arrows at the monster which simply fell off his chest. He dropped Sita on the ground and rushed at Rama with trident upraised. The latter split the trident in two and Viradha lifted both brothers on his shoulders and marched off into the forest, leaving Sita bereft. She sobbed loudly and requested the monster to take her and leave her beloved alone. Rama
and Lakshmana proceeded to chop off the monster’s arms. Thus maimed, he fell to the ground but they were unable to kill him.

At last Rama said, “Lakshmana, let us strangle him and bury him. That’s the only way he can be killed”.

As soon as he heard these words Viradha said, “Ah, now I know who you are. You are Rama. You are the one who has been ordained to rescue me from this curse. I am actually a Gandharva who has been cursed by Kubera. Please hurry up and bury me, then I can le~ve this dreadful body and regain my own form. After burying me you should proceed to the hermitage of the great sage, Sharabanga and take his blessings’.

Rama and Lakshmana did as he told them and the Gandharva was released from his curse and returned to his heavenly abode. The shades of night were falling by now, so Rama took Sita’s hand in his so that she would not be frightened. She forgot her fatigue and they hurried towards the ashrama.
They saw a divine chariot waiting outside the ashrama. They waited and soon saw Indra, king of the gods coming out of the hermitage and leaving in the golden chariot. The old sage was waiting for their coming, with heart filled with joy. In fact, it is said that he had refused Indra’s offer of taking him bodily to heaven, for he did not want to leave this earth without having a glimpse of the Lord in the form of Rama. He asked Rama to bless him with his loving gaze while he shed his mortal frame and entered the blazing fire.

The next day all the rishis living in the neighbourhood came with

a supplication to Rama. They showed him a heap of bleached bones and told him that it belonged to the hermits who had been killed and eaten by the rakshasas. They begged him to rescue them from this constant threat of these creatures. Rama gave his assurance that he would kill the rakshasas and enable them carry on their austerities in peace.

After this, the three of them proceeded to the ashrama of the sage Sudeekshana, who was expecting them, having known of their coming through his intuitive powers. He invited them to stay there as long

as they liked but the three of them decided to proceed and check on all the other ashramas in the forest, as they had promised the sages.

After a good night’s rest, they set out once again penetrating deeper into the dark forest. As they walked on, Sita spoke gently to her husband.

“My Lord”, she said, “for a long time I have been wondering about the meaning of the word dharma. It is not always easy to know what one’s dharma is. To act without swerving even a hair’s breadth from it, is possible only for one who is absolutely without desire. I am frightened, my Lord, of the possible consequences of your promise to the ashramiteSf to protect them from the rakshasas. They have done you no wrong, yet you are prepared to kill them. Is this not against the dictates of dharma) I do not think we should go further into this forest. If you see some rakshasas, your fingers will itch to string your bow, for that is the duty of a Kshatriya. But now you have adopted the garb of a hermit. Don’t you think you should live like one? Forgive me for presuming to speak to you like this, for I know that you are the

very soul of dharma. It is only my fear of the unknown that has prompted me to speak”. Poor Sita, little did she realise that what she spoke was the truth and she herself was going to be victimised for Rama’s killing of the rakshasas.

Rama was pleased to hear this discourse on dharma by his dutiful wife. He replied lovingly to her, “0 Janaki, you are the daughter of Janaka, one of the wisest men of the age. It is not surprising, therefore, that you should know all the nuances of dharma. But consider the predicament of these sages, my love. They have abandoned all worldly pleasures only for the sake of tapas. By their tapas the country itself gets purified. All negativity will be cleared. At present, they are unable to perform their austerities due to the harassment of the rakshasas. They have begged me to save them and since I am a Kshatriya, and their king, don’t you think it is my duty to protect them. Even if they had not requested me, it would have been my duty to do so. Now, of course, after having given my word, I cannot think of breaking it. I know well that it is only your wifely concern for me that made you speak as you did and I thank you for it, but my dear, I cannot stand by and see these poor ascetics being devoured by these cannibals, even if it brings their wrath on my head”.

Thus saying Rama walked ahead with Janaki following and Lakshmana in the rear.

Thus ends the first Canto called ?The Forest Dwellers? of the Aranya Kanda in the glorious Ramayana.
of the Sage Valmiki.

Next: Book 3: Canto II – Panchavati

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