The following morning Lord Rama, Laxman, Viswamitra muni & others went towards the northeast, heading for Mithila. Gradually the forest paths gave way to roads laid with stone that led to the city. The forest opened to fields of crops. As they came closer to Mithila they saw well-planned gardens and groves with seats and fountains. The sounds of wild animals were replaced with the clamour of people in the city.
Shouts of children and the rumbling of horse-drawn chariots greeted them as they entered the gates of Mithila. Huge elephants swayed along majestically, with smiling people waving from the howdahs on their backs. Gazing about them, the travellers saw the golden domes of innumerable temples along with many mansions of brilliant white stone. Along the roadside were shops displaying countless varieties of fruits, vegetables and all kinds of sweetmeats. Other vendors displayed rows of shining gems looking like numbers of rainbows. Everyone called out respectful greetings as the party moved slowly. As they went along the wide, smooth road they were met by the king’s ministers, who had already been informed of their arrival.
Headed by Visvamitra and the princes, the party was led along the main highway to Janaka’s palace. People thronged the sides of the road to gaze upon the famous sage and his two illustrious charges. As they looked upon the powerful princes, some of them guessed that they might be the sons of Emperor Dasaratha. The people wondered what had brought the princes to Mithila. Were they going to attempt to string the king’s great bow? As Rama smiled at the people they were filled with a desire to see this handsome, powerful prince win Sita’s hand.
Janaka personally came out to greet them, accompanied by his priests and counsellors. He immediately fell at Visvamitra’s feet and brought them all into the palace, where he offered him and the two princes golden seats. The king had fetched water for washing their feet and personally performed the ceremony.
Once the formalities were complete, a meal was offered to the sage and the princes. As they sat on the floor on silk rugs, ivory tables were placed in front of them. Gold and silver dishes were fetched containing choice foods of every description. They ate heartily and when they were finished, Janaka said to Viswamitra, “Great indeed is my good fortune today for I see before me your holy self. I am blessed by your presence. Tell me who are these two boys accompanying you? They appear like two powerful tigers and They rival the gods in beauty and grace. What brings you here to my house, along with these boys equipped with weapons?”
The king had waited until the travellers were rested and refreshed before making his inquiries. Viswamitra told him all about the boys and how they had disposed the Raksasas in the forest. They had come now to see the famous bow. Janaka was thrilled to hear that They were princes from Ayodhya. Nothing could be better than an alliance with Dasaratha’s line. If only Rama could pass the test of the bow.
At that point Satananda, Janaka’s head priest, spoke to the princes. After welcoming them he began to narrate the history of Viswamitra. Satananda was himself a great ascetic. He knew Viswamitra well, having previously spent time with him in his hermitage. Seeing the famous sage again, Satananda felt inspired by affection to speak of his glories. Looking upon the beautiful faces of Rama and Lakshman, who sat enraptured by his speech, the priest told the story of Viswamitra, who had performed difficult asceticism for thousands of years. [See Appendix Two, The History of Viswamitra.]
He told them how the sage had once been a great king and, after practicing tremendous austerities, had been blessed by Brahma to become a powerful ani. When Satananda finished his astonishing tale, everyone gazed with awe at Viswamitra, who sat flanked by the princes, his mind absorbed in thoughts of the Supreme Lord. Janaka approached the effulgent muni and spoke to him with joined palms. “I stand blessed by your appearance, O holy sage. This account of your many glories has filled my mind with wonder. Indeed, I could go on hearing it again and again. But dusk has now fallen and I beg your leave. Let us meet again in the morning and it will be my very great delight to satisfy your every desire.”
Janaka, along with his ministers and priest, circumambulated Viswamitra in respect and then departed. After performing their evening rituals and prayers, Viswamitra and the princes rested for the night in the king’s palace.
The following morning Janaka again came before Viswamitra. He bowed low before the sage and touched his feet, asking in a pleasing voice, “Please instruct me what I should do for you today, O sinless one. You are worthy in every way of receiving my service.”
Hearing these words from the virtuous and gentle king, Viswamitra asked that they now be shown the bow. Janaka assented, but before taking them to see the bow he described its history.
Long ago, in a former age the bow belonged to Siva. He had become angry with the other gods when they had denied him a share of the sacrificial offerings made by the sages. Siva had threatened them with the bow saying, “I shall now sever your worshipable heads from your bodies. Stand ready on the battlefield if you have any valor.”
But the gods relented and quickly worshipped the infuriated Siva. They had managed to appease him, whereupon he gave the bow to them. The famous bow was then given by the gods to Janaka’s ancestor, Devarata, after he had fought for them in a battle against the demons. It had since been kept in the king’s family, being worshipped as if it were Siva himself.
Janaka continued speaking to the sage and the princes, who listened with great curiosity. “Once I was performing a sacrifice to please the gods in order to get a worthy successor in my line. As the sacrificial ground was being prepared with a golden ploughshare, a wonderful child appeared from out of the earth itself. This female child, who became known by the name of Sita, grew up in my palace as my daughter. Her beauty is matchless. I have raised Her with love and will give Her in marriage to whoever can show exceptional prowess. Various rulers and princes have approached me and sued for Her hand. Seeing these kings, I set a standard for winning Sita, saying, ‘Whosoever can hold and string the mighty bow of Siva will win this princess.’
“Many proud kings thought they would easily bend the bow. However, coming before that bow they were soon shorn of their valor and pride. They were hardly able to move the bow even slightly, far less lift and string it. Angry at their failure, numerous kings together besieged Mithila for one full year. When my resources were exhausted I prayed to the gods for support. I then received from them a vast army equipped with every kind of weapon. That celestial army quickly dispersed those bellicose kings in all directions. Thus this bow remains here, unconquered and awaiting some truly powerful king.”
Janaka looked at the two royal brothers. Rama’s fame had reached him and he felt sure that the prince would win his daughter’s hand. As the king beheld Rama’s beautiful features, His powerful physique and noble bearing, he longed for the prince to pass the test and become his son-in-law. He stood before Viswamitra with folded palms. “Come now, O sage, and bring these boys with you. If any can string the bow, then the hand of the divinely born Sita will be won.”
Janaka led them to the part of his great palace where the bow was kept. It was stored in an iron chest which was adorned with gold engravings and covered over with numerous flower garlands. Three hundred powerfully built men somehow managed to move the chest to the center of the hall where it lay. Janaka turned towards Rama. “Here is the wonderful celestial bow. It has been kept and worshipped by the Janakas for many generations. Not even the gods, demons, Yaksas, Gandharvas or Kinnaras can string it; how then could any ordinary man? Gaze now upon this bow, O Rama.”
Janaka ordered that the chest be opened. As the lid was lifted the brilliant bow was revealed. It spread a golden glow all around. Constructed of pure horn, it was skillfully worked with gold and silver images of the pastimes of the gods. Hundreds of golden bells and ornaments hung from the bow, which was studded with diamonds and other gems.
Seeing the bow the two princes gasped in appreciation. Rama bowed down in respect and then walked slowly around it. He looked towards Viswamitra who nodded slightly. Understanding Viswamitra’s indication, Rama stood with joined palms at the bow’s center. He turned to Janaka. “I wish to attempt your test. I shall now try to lift this heavenly bow to gauge its weight and strength.”
While being extolled by Viswamitra and other sages, who uttered “Victory!Victory!”Rama placed his hand upon the bow. There was complete silence in the hall. Janaka held his breath as Rama stood motionless. Viswamitra, knowing the extent of Rama’s power, smiled slightly.
In the balcony of the hall stood Sita, She looked at Rama, feeling a natural attraction for the prince. Until then She had never been interested in any of Her suitors, although the most powerful kings from all around the world had come there. To the gentle Sita they were all arrogant and overly proud of themselves. Sita was deeply religious. All Her life She had prayed that Vishnu might become Her husband. As She watched Rama approach the bow She felt Her love for the Lord being awakened. Was this Vishnu himself? Becoming absorbed in Her loving sentiment, Sita felt anxious. Would Rama string the bow and become Her husband? She held the matrimonial garland with trembling hands.
Suddenly Rama seized the bow by its middle part and raised it high above His head. A gasp of astonishment filled the hall. It was inconceivable. Rama tossed the bow slightly to gauge its weight. Placing one end of the colossal bow on the ground, Rama then moved to the other end and strung it. He pulled the string and bent the bow round into a semi-circle. It broke suddenly and a sound like the crash of thunder reverberated around the hall. The earth shook as if there were an earthquake. Everyone was stunned and rendered senseless for some moments.
Janaka was amazed. He turned to Vicvamitra. “I have now witnessed Rama’s strength. His achievement is incredible. Having secured Rama as Her husband, Seta will bring undying fame to my family.”
Janaka’s eyes were filled with tears. Surely Rama was a divine personality. There could be no doubt. Till then no king had been able to move the bow even slightly; some could hardly even look upon it. But Rama had handled it as if it were a piece of bamboo. The king looked up to Seta in the balcony. She was filled with delight upon seeing Rama’s feat and Her breast heaved with excitement. Awaiting Her father’s indication to come down, She stood surrounded by Her many female attendants. Janaka turned to speak to Rama, who stood peacefully, having replaced the broken bow in its chest. “I shall now fulfill my pledge to give Seta’s hand to whoever could string this bow. Seta is dearer to me than my own life, but I gladly offer Her to You.”
Seta came down from the balcony with a garland of golden flowers in Her hands and stood by Her father. She was resplendent in a silk sari of deep maroon, a necklace of pearls shining on Her breast. As She walked Her golden anklets tinkled and her diamond earrings swung to and fro. Smiling gently, she shyly lifted her eyes a little and looked at Rama, who caught Her glance. Both felt Their hearts moved by love. In that moment Their union was forged. Seta’s father signaled and She went before Rama. She placed the garland around His neck, indicating Her acceptance of Him as Her husband. She blushed slightly and kept Her eyes down. Walking slowly, She went back to her father, who felt as if his heart might burst with happiness.
The king wanted to perform the marriage ceremony as soon as possible. He asked for Vicvamitra’s permission, and when the sage agreed, the king arranged for swift messengers to go to Ayodhya to inform Dacaratha.
The ministers of Janaka left immediately and arrived at Ayodhya after three days. They quickly went to the palace and were ushered into the presence of Dacaratha, who appeared to them like a powerful god. Put at ease by the emperor’s benign expression and gentle words of welcome, the ministers politely told him of the events in Mithila. The emperor was delighted to hear the submission of Janaka’s envoys. Rama and Laknman were well! They had conquered over the demons, and more than that, Rama had now won the beautiful Seta for His bride.
Dacaratha recalled how he had been contemplating the marriage of his son even as Vicvamitra had arrived at his palace. The sage must have been sent by Providence, by whose arrangement this union had surely been made. After consulting with his counselors, Dacaratha made up his mind to leave the next day for Mithila.
Taking with him his ministers and preceded by a party of priests, Dacaratha went the next morning towards Mithila, with his army marching close behind. They arrived after five days. Dacaratha approached Janaka, who graciously received the abundant riches brought as gifts. Janaka embraced the emperor, and the two old friends sat together discussing the wedding. Janaka told Dacaratha how Seta had appeared from the earth. He also told him of a prophesy he had heard.
“Once the celestial seer Narada informed me that Sita is Vishnu’s eternal consort and that he would one day become Her husband in this world. I thus devised a test which would only be possible for Vishnu to pass. Your son has now passed that difficult test and must therefore be Sita’s eternal husband.” Dasaratha was again astonished to hear of Rama’s divinity. He still found it hard to believe, having raised Rama as his child. He looked at the son who stood before him modestly with bowed head and folded palms. Dasaratha was overpowered by love. His loving sentiments overcame the thoughts of Rama’s divinity. The emperor looked again at Janaka and said, “I approve this marriage in every way. Perform the ceremony under the guidance of learned Brahmins. O king, the success of a gift depends upon the way it is given. Therefore be sure that all the necessary rites are properly observed without loss of time.”
Dasaratha wanted to ensure that the marriage ceremony was performed carefully according to scriptural codes. He did not want any ill fortune created by neglect of sacred rituals. Such errors would bring the marriage and create future difficulties for the couple.
Janaka issued instructions to his ministers and then sat with Dacaratha in his great palace hall. Both of them listened as Vasinöha recited Rama’s family lineage. After hearing of Rama’s ancestry, beginning with the sun-god, Janaka recited Seta’s genealogy, describing his own ancestry, which began with Brahma.
When Janaka finished, Viswamitra spoke. He suggested that Seta’s sister, Urmila, wed Rama’s brother Laknman. The sage also advised that Janaka’s brother Kushadhvaja allow his two daughters to marry Bharata and Shatrughna. Then there could be one ceremony for all four marriages.
Rising from his seat with joy, Janaka said, “Let it be so!” again and again. He fell prostrate before Vicvamitra and said, “I am ever your servant. Your words are worthy of my worship and I stand commanded by you. Let the wedding take place tomorrow, a day marked by favorable stars.”
As the two kings sat talking together, the sun gradually set. Janaka took his leave from Dacaratha and departed for his personal quarters, flanked by his ministers and a hundred warriors. Thousands of golden oil lamps lit up the hall as the crowds of Brahmins made their way out, all of them constantly uttering auspicious Vedic hymns.
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The following morning Dasaratha rose early and performed the first ritual for invoking good fortune. He had his four sons brought before him and then gave to the Brahmin priests a hundred thousand cows on behalf of each of them. The emperor also distributed gold and gems to the thousands of munis assembled in Mithila to witness the wedding. The four princes shaved their heads and dressed in silk robes, putting on brilliant jewelled ornaments. Surrounded by the four handsome and effulgent youths, Dasaratha shone like Brahma surrounded by the celestial guardians of the four quarters.
A great pavilion had been erected for the ceremony. Its walls were constructed of marble and it was supported on numerous pillars studded with sparkling gems. Fragrant and brightly coloured flower garlands were draped everywhere and the air was filled with the scent of black aloe incense. Large stands constructed of mahogany inlaid with coral and pearl, holding rows of golden seats, surrounded the sacrificial area. Kings from all around the world along with their ministers filled the stands, eager to see the wedding.
The entire pavilion was crowded with jubilant people who cried out, “All glories to Rama and Sita!” Hundreds of elderly brahmins wearing simple loin cloths, with clean white threads hanging from their left shoulders, were seated around the sacrificial arena. They recited Vedic hymns continuously and the melodic rise and fall of their metrical chanting filled the pavilion. Musical instruments played while expert singers sang the praises of Rama and Sita. The whole assembly appeared like an exuberant festival held in the heavens by the gods.
Dasaratha and his four sons approached the sacrificial fire, which was tended by Vasinoha. When they were seated, the princes saw Sita and the other three princesses enter the arena. The princes’ minds were captivated by the beauty of their wives-to-be. Adorned with shining silk garments, jewels and gold ornaments, the princesses appeared like four goddesses descended from the celestial realm. They sat down opposite their intended spouses, glancing down shyly, and Vasinoha immediately began the wedding ceremony.
Janaka stepped forward, speaking in a voice choked with emotion. “My dear Rama, I now give to You Sita, my own beloved daughter, to be Your assistant in all Your religious duties. She will always remain exclusively devoted to You and will follow You like Your own shadow. Take Her hand in Yours and accept Her. I bless You both.”
Janaka took Rama’s hand and placed it over Sita’s. Vasinoha sprinkled sanctified water over Their clasped hands, signifying the confirmation of the gift of Sita. Holding Sita’s hand, Rama led Her slowly around the sacred fire.
From the upper reaches of the pavilion, the gods were heard to exclaim, “Excellent! Bravo!” Celestial flowers rained down upon Rama and Sita. The entire assembly of onlookers erupted with a shout of joy. Both Dasaratha and Janaka looked with tearful eyes at the newlywed couple. Rama’s complexion, resembling a celestial emerald, contrasted the pure white features of Sita. They were both covered with golden flower petals and Their many jewels shone brilliantly. As They walked hand in hand around the fire, Sita looked down in shyness while Rama smiled at the loudly cheering crowds in the pavilion.
Each of Rama’s three brothers, one after another in order of their seniority, took the hand of one of the other three princesses. Lakshman was united with Urmila, Bharata with Mandavi and Shatrughna with Srutakirti. The three effulgent princes, holding Their brides’ hands, went around the sacred fire along with Janaka and the many sages.
Cries of happiness filled the pavilion. While the gods played their celestial drums, bevies of Apsaras danced and Gandharvas sang. The sages recited Vedic texts and the blast of conch shells was heard everywhere. All those present in the assembly were lost in ecstasy.
The ceremony ended at midday and the kings and princes gradually retired to their tents, headed by Dasaratha, Janaka and the four newly married couples.
The following day, Viswamitra, after taking permission from both Dasaratha and Janaka, left for the northern Himalayan ranges, his mind intent on the performance of asceticism. Janaka bestowed upon his daughters a dowry consisting of hundreds of thousands of cows and an equal number of elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. The king, whose wealth was virtually unlimited, gave away millions of pieces of silken and cotton textiles, tens of thousands of handwoven carpets, heaps of gold, silver and jewels, and hundreds of richly adorned maids for each of the brides.
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After a few days Dasaratha left for Ayodhya, proceeding as the head of a large army. As the king, surrounded by his sons and the host of sages, was travelling along the broad road that led to Ayodhya, he suddenly saw a strange omen. Birds began to cry out fearfully and swoop low over their heads. Witnessing this foreboding sign, Dasaratha’s heart quivered and his mind became fearful. The king asked Vasinoha if he knew the cause of those omens.
“These signs portend some grave danger,” replied the muni, “but here are groups of deer crossing our path from left to right. This indicates our deliverance from that danger. You should not fear.”
A fierce tempest blew up. The sun was enveloped in darkness and the sky became black. Trees crashed to the ground and the earth shook. A dreadful dust storm swirled around the travellers, confounding their senses. They were rendered virtually unconscious. Suddenly, from out of the darkness, appeared the terrible sage Parasurama. He was dressed in tiger skins and had matted locks coiled at the crown of his head.
Dasaratha and his followers immediately recognized him. Although a Brahmin, Parasurama was famous for his prowess as a fighter. In former ages he had single-handedly overcome the world’s warriors, annihilating them by the millions. The sage had become enraged when his father was killed by warrior kings, and he wreaked an awful vengeance. He had ranged the globe massacring the entire warrior class. He now stood before Dasaratha holding a battle-axe in one hand and in the other a fierce arrow which resembled a streak of lightning. He was as tall as two men and he had upon his shoulder a great bow. Appearing as irresistible as the fire of universal destruction, he blocked the path like an impassable mountain.
The sages in Dasaratha’s party quickly gathered together. They took water to wash Parasurama’s feet and hands and offered him gentle words of welcome.
Accepting the honor offered by the sages, Parasurama looked at Rama and said in a grave voice, “O Rama, I have heard of Your strength. By breaking Siva’s bow You have performed an incredible feat. How can I, who has formed a great enmity with all warriors, tolerate hearing of such prowess existing in a king? I have here another sacred bow, that of Vishnu’s. Let us see Your power now. Fit this celestial arrow upon this bow and simply draw it to its full length. If You are able to accomplish this task, then I shall challenge You to single combat. When You stand on the battlefield and are swept away by the force of my weapons, You shall earn undying fame.”
Dasaratha threw up his hands in horror. Knowing well of Parasurama’s power, he feared for Rama’s life. He approached the sage with joined palms and entreated him to spare Rama. Paying no heed at all to the king, Parasurama continued to speak only to Rama: “Both the bow broken by You and this one here were constructed by the architect of the gods, Viswakarma. The one you sundered formerly belonged to Siva. However, this one here was Vishnu’s property. It is thus more powerful than the one you broke, for Vishnu is always Siva’s superior.”
Parasurama took the bow from his shoulder. With furrowed brows, he gazed at Rama with bloodshot eyes, not immediately recognizing the prince’s divine identity. “The bow has been passed down from Vishnu’s to my ancestors and finally to me. I now offer it to You, O Rama. Considering Your sacred duty as a warrior to always accept a challenge, exhibit now the strength of Your arms!”
Parasurama held out the enormous bow. Rama, smiling slightly, stepped forward. “I have heard of your tremendous feat in fighting and killing all the world’s warriors twenty-one times. You have fully avenged your father with this commendable action.”
Even as a child, Rama had been told the story of Parasurama. The many kings killed by that sage had become debauched, and it was by divine arrangement that they had been annihilated. As a sage Parasurama had performed much asceticism and had finally been personally empowered by Vishnu’s himself. By dint of Vishnu’s own desire and power Parasurama had been able to exterminate the warrior class. Now Vishnu appearing as Rama, again stood before the sage. He continued to speak: “You are a Brahmin sage and are therefore worthy of My worship. However, since you despise Me, seeing Me to belong to the warrior class, I shall now display to you My personal prowess.”
Rama seized the bow along with the blazing arrow from Parasurama’s hand. He strung the bow in an instant and drew the arrow back to His ear. Looking angrily at Parasurama, He asked, “Where shall I discharge this deadly shaft, O sage? As you are My superior I dare not aim it at you.”
Hosts of gods had assembled in the sky. Seeing the celestial bow drawn in anger by Rama, and fearing that He may destroy the heavens, they cried out, “Vishnu! Save us, save us!”
Rama, standing with the bow, blazed as brilliant as the sun and Parasurama fell back in astonishment. He felt his own power completely eclipsed by Rama. Suddenly realizing Rama’s identity, the sage spoke in faltering tones. “You appear invincible and I can understand that You must surely be the imperishable Vishnu’s himself. I accept defeat but I am not shamed, as You are indeed the Lord of all the worlds.”
Parasurama recalled how Vishnu had long ago said He would come again to take back the divine energy He had given to the sage. The warrior-sage folded his palms and said, “O Rama, O all-powerful one, You have already divested me of my power and my pride. Please release this arrow upon my desires for heavenly pleasures and thereby burn them all to ashes. I wish only to serve You. With all my material aspirations destroyed by You, I shall be fit to become Your eternal servant. This is my deepest desire.”
Parasurama bowed low before Rama, who then fired the fearful shaft. The sage immediately vanished along with the arrow. Then Varuna, the god of the waters, appeared and Rama gave him the celestial bow to keep on behalf of the gods.
The exchange between Rama and the sage was heard and understood only by Vasinoha and a few other spiritually powerful Brahmins. The king and the others present had been wholly confounded by the events that had occurred. They were amazed and relieved to see that Rama had somehow appeased the sage. Everything again became calm and the party resumed their journey, soon approaching Ayodhya.