One of the saddest things about our society today is how few of us go back to the original sources to read about Rama, Krishna and our other devatas from our Itihaasa (our civilization’s history) and the Puranas. We rely on secondhand tales, often from biased anti-Hindu sources, including fictional TV serials and novels, to learn about our own traditions and shastras. While such adaptations can be useful in drawing in new audiences, they are no substitute for the authentic sources.
For this Ram Navami, I thought I would share excerpts from the Kishkindha and Sundarakanda portions of the Valmiki Ramayana – just slightly elaborated upon and adapted, the same content of the original retold in a slightly different voice. The hope is that it would encourage others to dive into the vast ocean of Hindu literature to discover the treasures for themselves.
The gold signet ring hung heavy in Hanuman’s hand. Weeks had passed since Rama had removed this ring from his finger and pressed it into Hanuman’s hand. Rama commanded him to present the ring to Sita as evidence of his being Rama’s messenger. The vanaras under Sugriva’s command, including Hanuman, had been dispatched to find Ravana and Sita after her abduction months ago. They had spread far and wide, blanketing the terrain of the subcontinent, to search for Sita, Rama’s beloved wife.
Hanuman was part of Angada’s party sent to the south. For weeks, they searched cave after cave, waded through waterfalls, prowled through dense forests and climbed up, down and all around the mountain slopes of the Vindhya range. They were in remote areas, many of which were uninhabited. They saw a forest that had no flowers or fruits or even leaves on its trees. The barren forest was surrounded by waterless rivers. No vegetation grew and no animal lived in this wild, desolate place. There was not even a single blade of grass. This was the territory of a rishi named Kandu. He had lost his son at the age of sixteen and, in his anger, he had cursed the forest to become as barren and lifeless as he was.
Such was the power of grief, the devastation wrought by the loss of a beloved one.
Hanuman’s hand began to sweat around the gold signet ring clutched in his palm. He still felt the warmth of Rama’s strong hand as it pressed the ring into his palm, and he took comfort from that kind prince, who had gazed at him with such soft eyes, full of hope and trust that Hanuman would be the one to find Sita, to bring news of her back to him.
Hanuman began climbing the mountain, leaving the storm-ravaged sandy shores behind. He could hear the waves crashing against the shore. He imagined how cold and deep and dark those waters would be if he fell into them. But he knew he would not, not with Rama’s blessings upon him. He would not.
They had spent one month searching every cave, every forest, and every crevasse of every mountain. The other vanaras had become more and more dejected. Day after day, they trudged through muddy mountain slopes, explored cold, dark, damp caves and sometimes got lost in the thick forests full of wild animals who attacked and chased them. Yet, there was no sign of Sita or of anyone who could give them information about her. They had seen otherworldly sights, amazing sights, like the Rikshabila cave. It was so dark inside that not a ray of light could enter. Each vanara held on to the arm of another and, forming a long chain, they went deeper into the cave. After traveling for one yojana (eight miles), they suddenly encountered an unearthly bright light surrounding a celestial garden. There were golden trees, ponds filled with bright clear water, gleaming white mansions that shone like silver castles. They found the woman who tended to the gardens. She was a female ascetic named Swayamprabha, and she fed them delicious heavenly fruits and wine.
Even that beautiful place, created by Maya, the architect of the asuras, gave the vanaras’ hearts no peace. They had to find Sita and leave that delightful cave. It was impossible to leave that cave for mere mortals, but through the power of her yogic practice, Swayamprabha was able to transport them. She instructed them to keep their eyes closed, and they did so, holding their hands over their eyes.
Then, in an instant, they found themselves surrounded by the mountain on one side and the cold, vast gray expanse of the sea on the other. As beautiful as the sea was, it filled them with fear and despair, too. They had come to land’s end with no sign of Rama’s wife. Angada, the young prince leading them, lost all hope and resolved to die. All the vanaras joined him, spreading darbha grass beneath them, touching the water once and sitting still, waiting to die, with tears flowing down their faces.
Perhaps that would have been the end of it, the end of their lives, were it not for Sampati, the aged eagle. As they were waiting to die, speaking lamentingly of Rama and Sita’s tale, Sampati emerged from a cave nearby. When he saw them, he said happily, “Usually, I have to go far and wide to find my food. But how lucky I am that today my food has come to me!” Prone to the dementia of old age, he did not realize that he had spoken these words out loud.
The vanaras were greatly consternated. Waiting on the seaside calmly for death was one thing, being devoured by a hungry, giant, old eagle was quite another!
However, Sampati was interested to learn about their connection with Rama and if they could tell him more of how his brother, Jatayu, another famous eagle, had died. Jatayu had been killed by Ravana when he tried to stop him from abducting Sita. Upon hearing about the demise of Jatayu, Sampati shared his sad story.
When they were young, he and Jatayu had competed to see who could fly the fastest towards the sun. They flew higher and higher, faster and faster. They came too close to the sun, and Jatayu became fatigued and weak, his body no longer able to bear the heat of the sun. His brother rushed to his aid, covering him up with his wings as they descended. Sampati’s wings had been scorched and broken and he became separated from his brother. He never again saw Jatayu and had only heard of his death later.
After hearing the full tale of Jatayu’s death, Sampati asked the vanaras to lead him to the sea so he could offer tarpana for his brother. Such were the samskaras of that age that even eagles and other animals offered tarpana for their dead relatives.
Sampati had lived for thousands of years. He had seen the Vamana avatara of Narayana, before he had become Rama, and he had even witnessed the churning of the ocean. Long ago, after he had lost his wings, when he was in despair and had contemplated killing himself, a rishi had come to him and told him to not give way to despair. He told him that he had to continue to live, because one day he would be able to help in the achievement of a great mission, and on that day, he would get back his strength and his wings.
Sampati felt compelled to help Rama on his quest. He was able to tell Angada and the others where Ravana had taken Sita; he explained that they were in Lanka, an island one hundred yojanas away.
Now at last Sampati felt peace, knowing that he had been able to help Rama. We all have a purpose and destiny in life; we all have a role to play; we each have our svadharma. It is only through the performance of our svadharma that we can find our true fulfillment. Sampati, an old bird, helpless without wings, had been able to do for the vanaras what they had not been able to do themselves after weeks and weeks of trying.
Suddenly, wings started growing out of the old burnt body of Sampati. His eyes grew brighter and his voice stronger. He became the eagle he had once been. Sampati was full of joy. He told the vanaras, “Nothing is impossible for those who strive for it.”
Sampati’s words were what had given Hanuman the confidence he needed to believe that he could do this, the seemingly impossible task of crossing the sea alone to reach Lanka. Sampati showed him that with willpower and sincerity, anything was possible. And so, when Jambavan approached him and asked him to be the one to cross the sea to Lanka to discover Sita’s whereabouts, Hanuman stood up immediately. His eyes gleamed with pride and confidence. He grew larger and larger in size. He appeared like a lion roaring on the mountainside, like a glowing flame.
As the other vanaras cheered him on, Hanuman began his journey. First, he saluted the devas presiding over the four directions: Surya, Indra, Vayu and Brahma. Then, he saluted his father, Rama, Lakshman, the seas and the rivers. He began ascending the Mahendra Mountain. It was a gloriously colored mountain, rainbow-hued from black, white, red, blue, yellow and pink minerals. Hanuman’s form grew so large that every step he took on the mountain made the earth shudder. His huge feet shook the mountain so much that the trees shed all their flowers and they fell in showers of blossoms across the mountainside. The stone edifice of the slopes began to crack and smoke arose from those fissures. Animals ran hither and thither in fright. Snakes hissed poison onto the mountainside and the rocks began to burn from the poison. Even the rishis and the vidhyadharas (wisdom holders) escaped from their caves in the mountain and flew into the skies to watch Hanuman leap off across the sea.
Hanuman leapt with great force and speed off the Mahendra Mountain. So strong and fast was he that the trees on the mountain were pulled up alongside him, and accompanied him for a time like well-wishers. The trees showered flower blossoms onto the sea as if to bless him. Even the devas blessed Hanuman– Surya shielded him from his heat and Vayu sent him a gentle, cooling breeze.
Even Varuna, the master of the seas, wanted to help Hanuman. He instructed the Mainaka Mountain, submerged in the sea, to raise itself so Hanuman could rest there along the journey. Mainaka did so and offered Hanuman a spot to rest. Hanuman smilingly declined: “I am moved by your affection for Rama and for me. Yet, time is of the utmost importance and I cannot wait.” He had taken an oath that he would not rest until he accomplished his mission. It was this one-pointed focus that made Hanuman successful in all his missions.
On and on Hanuman flew, high above the sea in the far reaches of the blue sky, along the path taken by the birds, the devas and the rishis like Tumburu, who also used the skies for traveling.
Finally, Hanuman reached Lanka. When he landed, Hanuman shrank himself to the size of a small kitten to remain inconspicuous. For long hours, he searched for Sita in the palaces, in the lanes between houses, in the gardens and in great palaces filled with the women abducted and taken by Ravana. He espied the Pushpaka Vimana and even saw Ravana sleeping in his bed. Once, Hanuman was almost sure that he had found Sita – he saw a woman radiant with good character and beauty. So gleeful was he that he jumped up and down, kissed his tail, climbed up and down the pillars, and ran here and there in excitement. He even sang aloud in joy. But it was Mandodari, Ravana’s wife. Hanuman realized Sita would not have stayed in Ravana’s place as his wife, and he continued his quest to find her.
When still Hanuman could not find her, he began to fear that perhaps Sita had been killed. Filled with abject despair, yet Hanuman did not yield to despair. He resolved to search all of Lanka again and again to find Sita, if he had to, but he would not return to Rama unsuccessful in his mission. It was then that Hanuman saw the Ashoka grove.
The very sight of that garden filled Hanuman with a queer feeling of joy. Hanuman felt a sudden hope, no, more than hope, a quiet sense of conviction, that this would be where he found Sita. Hanuman bowed to the eight Vasus, the eleven Rudras, the twelve Adityas, the seven Maruts, Ram, Lakshman, Sita, and then he prayed to Indra, Yama, Vayu, the sun and the moon, and his king, Sugriva. And then he entered the gardens.
The gardens were exquisite and had been designed by Vishvakarma, the architect of the devatas. After searching for some time, finally he saw Sita. She was amid an exquisite temple. The temple was brilliant white in color, reaching high up into the skies, so high, it must have touched the heavens, and it was supported in the center by a thousand pillars. Many ornately carved steps led up to the platform of the temple. The steps were inlaid with coral and built of fine gold.
There she sat on the bare floor of the temple, surrounded by raakshasis. Hanuman could hardly recognize her as Rama’s beloved wife, Sita. Rama had described her to him as she had looked when she was happy and healthy, when she was beautifully costumed and ornamented. Now she was a slender curve, bent downwards with despair, waning like the crescent moon, emaciated and pale. Her yellow sari was faded and worn, as if she had never changed it once in all these months. She was stripped of ornaments that instead hung on the branches of a tree nearby. That she had been fasting endlessly was obvious to Hanuman. Sighs wafted out of her trembling lips. Her hair was twisted into a lone braid that trailed down her thin back like a black serpent. Her eyes were large and wide, fearful and sad, bewildered. She who had never known unhappiness could not conceive of the tragedy that had befallen her.
Hanuman immediately thought of Rama and prostrated before him mentally, announcing to him with humility, “I have found Sita.”
Hanuman bided his time before he approached Sita. It was almost unbearable to watch her grief as the raakshasis and then Ravana himself tormented her, threatening to kill her in two months’ time, if she did not accept his advances.
Finally, she was left alone and Hanuman watched her from a distance. She approached the tree and fingered one of the branches musingly. She clung to that branch and whispered softly, “I will make a noose out of this long braid of my hair and hang myself from this branch.”
As soon as those terrible words escaped from her lips, Sita was suddenly visited by auspicious omens. Her left eye, left shoulder and her left thigh throbbed, all harbingers of good news. She wondered what could have happened to change her fortunes. Her hand stilled on the branch of that tree.
Hanuman, concealed in the branches of the tree above her, finally announced himself, speaking of Dasaratha, Rama, and their time in the forest and all the events that had led him there.
Sita was still holding her braid in one hand and the branch of the tree on which she thought to hang herself in her other hand. At the sound of Hanuman’s voice, she lifted her head to look for him. Hanuman revealed himself, clinging to the branch on the top of the tree. He was tawny colored, wearing a white cloth. He was tiny and looked innocent with golden colored eyes, sitting still and humbly.
Hanuman announced, “Devi, I have been sent by Rama. Lakshman is always with Rama and he is the only source of comfort to Rama, who is lost in grief for you. He sends his prostrations to you through me.”
Hanuman approached Sita slowly, standing before her with his palms folded. He carefully gave her the signet ring Rama had entrusted to him. Sita’s tears flowed over the ring. She pressed the ring to her heart, imagining it carrying Rama’s touch to her in this time of sorrow. After so long, she finally felt as if Rama was nearby. In the desiccated body of hers that had felt like a corpse for the past so many months, suddenly a ray of hope glimmered anew.
Sita eagerly asked for more news about Rama.
Hanuman told Sita how bereft Rama was without her, how he was living in a cave on a hill named Prasravana, how he did not eat or sleep, how he had lost all care for his body and was always lost in thought of Sita. If he ever fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion, he would immediately awake with Sita’s name on his lips. If his eyes saw anything pretty that Sita may have liked, anything that would have pleased his eye, he called out for Sita, and when there was no answer, he became inconsolable once again. Such was the grief of Rama. For months, he was inconsolable and did not move, could not bring himself to live again as he had before, until Lakshman roused him to action.
Sita blushed and hid her face. Half of her was thrilled that Rama loved her so much, and yet she could not bear for him to be unhappy, to know that he was suffering like her.
They talked for some time. When Hanuman offered to carry her on his back away from Lanka to Rama, Sita explained that it would not be practical to do so and moreover she explained, “It will not be a credit to Rama, if I should be rescued by you. For a woman like me, it is not possible even to think of the touch of a stranger. I belong to Rama and I cannot willingly touch another person. Ravana did touch me, but that was forced on me and I had not consented. I was helpless and could do nothing. The proper thing will be for Rama to kill Ravana and take me back himself.”
Sita’s purity and idealism humbled Hanuman and filled him with admiration. He asked if there was any message she wanted him to convey back to Rama.
Sita instructed Hanuman, “Repeat these words of mine to Rama. Rama, do you remember in Chitrakut, there was a favorite spot of ours near the banks of the river Mandakini close to the ashram. One day, as you so often did, you were resting on my lap.”
Sita paused, tears clogging her throat. She remembered all the happy times they had spent in the Chitrakut forest, those twelve years that had been the happiest of their lives. How tenderly Rama had taken care of her, ensuring that no thorns touched her soft feet, that she had all the fruits and flowers that she could desire, how they ambled amid all those beautiful forests, hand in hand, Lakshman silently following behind them, serving and protecting them.
She forced herself to continue. “A crow disturbed us that day. He pierced me with his beak. Even when I threw a pebble at him, he kept pestering me. You woke from sleep and saw my angry face and laughingly teased me. I felt embarrassed, and you took me on your lap to comfort me. Again we slept with your head in my lap.
“Then the crow came back. It scratched and pecked at my breast again and again, causing drops of my blood to fall on you. When you awoke to see this, you were consumed with anger that the crow had attacked me. Your eyes were red with anger and you pulled out a blade of darbha grass and invoked the Brahmastra (divine weapon of Brahma).
“The Brahmastra became a ball of fire that pursued the crow and chased it through all the three worlds. Neither the rishis, nor the crow’s father, Indra, could do anything to stop it. Finally, the crow fell at your feet in despair. You who are the only refuge in this world. In your compassion, you let him escape alive but said that the Brahmastra should not go waste. The crow offered to let his right eye be sacrificed for it, and so he became blind in one eye, and then he went back to his abode.
“Rama, at this slight offense to me, this small pain, you invoked the Brahmastra and would not let the crow escape punishment. How then can you be patient with one who has abducted me? You are a great hero and yet you have not killed this raakshasa with your astras (divine weapons). Why?”
Sita sobbed, “Hanuman, why has he forgotten me? Why has he not done anything? If, despite their prowess, Rama and Lakshman are not able to comfort me, it is because of some terrible sins, I have committed in my previous births. There is no doubt about it.”
Hanuman was aghast at her terrible grief. He comforted her, “Devi, I swear to you by Truth itself, that Rama is not indifferent to your fate. He has lost interest in all else, overwhelmed with grief at losing you, and Lakshman too is in agony at Rama’s plight. Soon, Rama will come to kill Ravana and take you back.”
Sita found comfort in his words and wiped away her tears. She unwrapped the end of her sari and took from there the jewel she wore in her hair, her chudamani, and gave it to Hanuman to give to Rama as a token of her love. After bowing to her, Hanuman went on his way, with the jewel and Sita’s fate in his hands. He would come back, he knew it and she knew it, with Rama and Lakshmana, one day soon, to bring her back home.
Many of us know the main contours of the story of the Ramayana, but in reading the original, we glean so many little gems – things like the story of Swayamprabha and the Rikshabila cave, the story of Kandu and his son, etc. There are wonderful moral lessons from so many parables woven into the story, so many heroic qualities in the characters for us to imbibe and inculcate in ourselves. More than that, there is an ethos that permeates the entire Ramayana, an idealism, a sense of Dharma and harmony that makes the reading of it uniquely peaceful and auspicious, even as the saddest of events unfolds in the narrative. From the Ramayana, we learn Dharma, we understand who is the Maryada Purushottoma (the character of the ideal man), and we learn it not as an intellectual exercise, but through osmosis, through inhaling and absorbing the full story, line by line, word by word, as Valmiki, the greatest of poets, intended.