6. Rama, the Prince

King Dasharatha grieves, Hindu bazaar art, before 1930

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Chapter 6

Rama, the Prince

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After Parashurama died, next came Rama, the prince. In this lifetime, Vishnu tried again to quell the wars, which were still ongoing, through a more carefully planned set of actions. He realized he could not end the wars by himself. He decided to do it by using the resources of a kingdom.

He was born the son of Dasharatha, the King of Ayodhya, a country in the North of India. Ayodhya was peripheral to the wars of the petty kingdoms and was much more powerful than any of them. The plan was that Rama would inherit the kingdom. Then he would be able to conquer the warring kingdoms and end the wars by uniting them.

People are not necessarily conscious of the fact that there was a plan, and many act their parts without remembering that they had agreed to perform them. Dasharatha had three wives. For a long time they had no children, and then they had four sons at almost the same time. This was not an accident. It was all part of a plan on the part of the gods, to end cycle of war and poverty that had been going on.

The oldest of the four prices, Bharata was the very incarnation of the god of virtuous idealism. As such, he was pretty much beyond corruption. His mother, however, was not. She was Kakeyi, who had been raised as a princess of a neighboring kingdom.

At one time, Kakeyi had charmed Dasharatha into granting her two boons. It is said that she did this when she saved his life, when he had been wounded in a battle. For each boon, Dasharatha promised would be given whatever she wished for, if it was within his power to grant it. She deferred making her choices until the time was right.

When Rama was sixteen years old, he traveled to the kingdom of Mithila. Its king was a man named Janaka. He had an adopted daughter, a young woman of exquisite beauty, named Sita, and he had invited princes to compete to see if they could marry her. To do so, they would have to lift and bend a great bow called the Shiv Dhanush.

This bow was so stiff that it was nearly impossible to bend. One by one, princes tried to string and use the bow, but none succeeded. When Rama tried to string it, however, it broke in his hands. Because of this, he was deemed the winner of the competition.

And so, Rama and Sita were to be married. Neither knew he was an incarnation of Vishnu. And no one knew she was Lakshmi, Vishnu’s celestial consort, come to Earth to be his companion. For eons, they had been together, god and goddess, each lover and beloved of the other, often as man and wife. United once more, they wed, and they lived in the court at Ayodhya.

Their presence at the court brought it a joyous energy it had never had before. Nearly everyone in the place understood that something very special was happening, though no one really knew what it was. There was more music, more dancing, and more poetry and storytelling. Food tasted better. The decorations of the court were more brilliant, and artists took more delight in expressing their visions of life.

The birds sang more beautifully. The sunshine was more pleasantly brilliant. The rain made music as it fell. Rest was more restful. Work was more rewarding. All things were alive with a wondrous energy that was difficult to describe, nearly all the people, not just in the court but throughout the kingdom, understood that they lived in a time of divine blessing.

“Why was that?” the people might have asked. They did not know, and though there may have been a few who suspected, they never seemed to say it out loud.

The wondrous thing that brought this about was that the Lord Vishnu and the Lady Lakshmi were united, living together in a harmony so profound that all things in nature rejoiced in their being.

Rama’s brothers also married. Bharata, his older half-brother, married Mandavi, a cousin of Sita. Shatrughna, Rama’s younger half brother, married Shrutakirti, another cousin of Sita. And Lakshmana, Shatrughna’s twin, married Urmila, Sita’s step-sister.

The brothers were devoted to each other, and each was devoted to his wife with feeling that was returned in each case. And for years, they were the joy of King Dasharatha.

With time, of course, Dasharatha grew old. As he did, he decided the time had come for him to choose which of his sons would become King of Ayodhya after him. He favored Rama above the others, but he did not decide to make Rama king without consultation. He asked his other sons, who all said they would gladly support Rama, and he asked the assembled court, who all concurred. And so it looked quite set that Rama would be crowned King of Ayodhya. At that time, Rama was twenty-eight years old.

Of course, something quite unexpected happened. Kakeyi, the mother of Bharata, decided it was time for her to take the boons Dasharatha had promised her. She was influenced in this by a servant woman called Manthara, who convinced her that Bharata should be king instead of Rama. And so she made two demands.

First, she required that her own son, Bharata, would be crowned king in place of Rama. Dasharatha said he could not grant this, because he had already sworn that Rama would inherit the kingdom. That being the case, Kakeyi chose to have her own son become king and remain king for fourteen years, after which Rama could come to his inheritance.

Second, she demanded that Rama be exiled for that whole time.

Shocked over these demands, Dasharatha nevertheless considered them carefully. He had won the consent of the court for Rama to be king, and everyone expected that he would be crowned. On the other hand Dasharatha had the right to choose whichever of his sons he might choose to be king, regardless of the expectations of the court. Furthermore, though the time of fourteen years was long, there was still the prospect of Rama becoming king, and there was no reason why anyone would object to Bharata, aside from the irregularity of the sudden change in succession.

Dasharatha was in great sorrow over these demands. In large measure, this was because he would be separated from Rama. But because he felt bound by honor to make good on his promises, he gave Kakeyi what she had required of him. And so Rama went to a hermitage in the forest, and Bharata was crowned to be king for that same time.

Since that time, generations of people of India have spoken of the greedy demands of Kakeyi. She was a woman who wanted her son to have power, and who believed that in fourteen years he would be able to establish permanent control of the government. But clearly, she did not understand him or the state of the world. He was devoted to Rama and to duty.

And since that time, much has been made of the actions of Manthara, and generations of people have speculated about her evil nature. And so, she is not remembered for her good qualities. Instead, she is remembered as an ugly woman with a hunched back, who manipulated Kakeyi for her own benefit. Over the centuries since she lived, she has been roundly cursed by many who remembered her actions.

There was more going on than just self-centered greed, however. At some level, whether it was conscious or not, Kakeyi was acting in accord with a plan by the gods to prepare Rama for his task in life. Rama still needed to have an education that he could not get in Ayodhya as a prince or a king. Both Rama and his half-brother, Lakshmana, needed to be taught some very special skills by one specific sage, Vishvamitra, who lived in a forest hermitage. And so neither Kakeyi nor Manthara is judged here. We do not know their minds.

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“What do you mean, that you don’t know their minds?” Justus demanded. “If you are going to make this story up, you might as well be able to say what these two women were thinking.”

“But he’s not making this up,” Dora Snyder said.

“And besides,” Grace MacDougal added, “they might really not even have known themselves.” Grace had been out with her dog, and sat on the edge of the porch to listen to the story.

“What do you know about this?” Justice asked Dora.

“Oh, everyone knows this story,” she replied. “Go on,” she said to August, “Tell us about the hermitage. I love the part about dancing at the hermitage.”

“Wait a minute! Where did you hear about all this? Did Gus tell you this before?”

“Oh, no. I think my mother must have told me. I’ve known this story since I was a little girl. Go on, Gus.”

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Rama and Sita were joined by Lakshmana and Urmila in their exile. They went to a series of hermitages in the forests of India. Because they were members of the royalty, they had a small retinue with them, and these included musicians, jugglers, storytellers, and various people skilled at arms to protect them.

And so they danced the dances of youth and joy in the forests. Their musicians playing into the night were joined by birds and beasts, singing and calling. Chirping insects kept rhythm. And the young princes and princesses, gods and goddesses, stomped their feet, clapped their hands and sang their songs of love and merriment on the forest floor.

Theirs was a joy so profound that it seemed nothing could end it; it had to live on. Indeed, the echoes of their laughter and singing have never ceased in the forests of India, because the Earth and the stones and the rivers have kept them alive.

Those who travel there today, to visit those same place where Rama and Sita lived, can feel the joy of their love, millennia later. Be they ever so changed, those who can feel joy at all can still feel it there. And those places, turned from forests to farms and from farms to cities, and those rivers, however muddy they may be, still convey their blessings to all who are open to have them.

In Ayodhya, however, things were no longer happy. The joyous energy that had so recently filled the city was muted, as Rama and Sita had left. Their love no longer present, the streets were just streets that benefited from their memory, just streets that people walked on, instead of dancing as they went. The walls no longer echoed with the laughter of all people. And the songs were not uplifting in the way they so recently had been.

Dasharatha died in sorrow at the loss of Rama. Bharata became king, though he was reluctant to do so. One of his first acts was to ask Rama to return.

Rama felt bound by honor to fulfill his father’s wishes. Though he might not have known it, he was also bound by a need to finish the education he was getting in the forest, learning the magical skills he would need to meet his enemies.

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“Are we still talking about the wars of the petty kingdoms that Parashurama wanted to stop?” Justus asked.

“Well, those were the wars Vishnu wanted to stop. Whether he was being trained for those wars was another matter. All he knew at the time was that he was being taught special skills. And soon he found a need for the training.”

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