1. The City of Ayodhya
To the north of Benares, between the Himalayas and the Ganges, stretched the beautiful country Kosala. It abounded in corn and in cattle and in forests, and everyone was wealthy and lived peacefully. Kosala was surrounded on every hand by strong kings and powerful kingdoms, but the capital of the country was walled and moated, adorned with towers and stately buildings. The capital was famous both for its wealth and the learning there.
On the throne of that capital once sat one Rama, the eldest son of the king Dasaratha and his wife Kausalya.
Before he became the king, Rama was highly trained and proficient in sports and skills of knights. Along with his half-brother he had surveyed the whole country. And one sunny day he was the guest of honour of King Janneka of Mithila, and given his daughter Sita in marriage. After the wedding they travelled back to the capital of Kosala with Rama's father. The people there enjoyed how well the newly wed prince administered the affairs of the city when he was not spending long hours of delight in her company.
Now seeing his son Rama was doing so well, his old father wanted to have him made king before he himself should die. It was done without delay. He called up a council, and when the nobles and ministers were all assembled, he told them what he had in mind, and asked advice. When the king ceased speaking, the assembled nobles and ministers and prominent citizens the king's proposal among themselves. As they all agreed with the aged king, they ended by clapping their hands in token of their acquiescence. The king was relieved and happy with the sanction he had got. He sent for Rama, summoning him to appear before the council, and they said they wanted to make him the new king next morning by a ceremony.
But the retiring old father of Rama felt uneasy still, and there was a good reason for it. He had more wives than one, and the youngest of them was jealous on behalf of her own son by the king. Her mind was too poisoned when her old husband visited her to tell her about his plans for Rama. He found her, his favourite wife, in her anger room. She was lying naked on the bare floor. He slowly asked what he could do to comfort her and said that nothing she could ask would be in vain.
Then his youngest wife rose and craved that he should banish Rama to the forests, sentencing him to live for fourteen years the life of a hermit. And she desired further that her own son Bharata should be installed and crowned in his stead.
At first the king refused, but she had outwitted him so that he had made a foolish promise. His favourite wife next told how disgusting and heinous a king of broken promise is. Again and again she insisted that the word had been given, so it must be kept.
In the morning she sent messengers to summon Rama to his father and her. Then she commanded the prince to leave the kingdom the same day, and withdraw to the forest for fourteen years, to live the life of the most pronounced ascetic, while her own son Bharata would ascend the throne and reign in his stead. She kept speaking harshly and cruelly in the presence of her husband, like the most ordinary of women -
Rama started to make preparations for leaving. He understood that the forest-life or a hermit in many ways was better than life on a throne, and the aged king's word must be made good. Sita went with him, and Rama's brother Lakshman.
And soon Rama's half brother, Bharata, was told that the kingdom was his. He did not like the idea when he found out what had happened. Instead he gave orders that his all the people was to regard Rama as their king, and Rama's mother as the queen-mother.
2. Sita is Captured
Sita, Rama, and Lakshman enjoyed the years of forest-exile. Wherever they went they were welcomed by companies of hermits and admitted to the forest ways of life. They quickly established themselves in huts made of leaves and carpeted with grass, like other ascetics. Quickly, too, they had gathered together their small stores of necessaries. Without loss of time Sita fell into the habit of cooking and serving them with her own hands.
From time to time it happened they met with ascetics who with folded hands begged the brothers to rid the forests of the demons and brigands that harrassed them violently. So Rama and Lakshman armed themselves and ranged through the forests, and slayed and maimed demons in combat everywhere. But far away, on the Island of Lanka, their ten-headed demon king got news of it and did not like the brothers. He even determined to have them killed and destroyed for their good and violent work. Thus, on quiet evenings when the brothers sat in the shadows of the forest and watched the last low rays of the setting sun and talked together while Sita fed the birds and called the squirrels to eat from her hands; or while they all watched the colours of the dawn, evil was brewing for them in the south, where the demon king lived. One of the kindred of the demon king had been scarred and disfigured by Rama, and could not forget.
One morning Sita was busy gathering flowers and fruits she noticed, at some distance, a small and very beautiful deer. It was bright golden, and was feeding and playing in the shadows of the trees. Suddenly she wanted the deer as a pet. And when at last it should die, its skin should be used by Rama, she fancied. She told the brothers about her wish. Lakshman, however,suspected some magic spell, and warned both Sita and Rama to be on their guard. But Rama desired to give his dear wife pleasure, and if this could do, he armed himself for the chase, and commended his wife to his brother's care and set forth, chasing it.
The deer led Rama far afield in pursuit. The sun had already passed noon when at last he succeeded and hit the animal in the heart with an arrow. Then the form of a wizard rose out of the killed animal and exclaimed in the voice of Rama "Sita! Lakshman!" several times and disappeared.
Far away in the cottage Sita heard these cries of Rama. She turned to Lakshman and begged him to go and look for Rama. But Lakshman was extremely against the idea of leaving Sita alone. He felt responsible for the safety of the young wife. But at last she entreated him so much that he went to look for his brother.
He had hardly left the hut when someone appeared at the door and asked for alms. And although Sita did not like the way he looked at her, she fed him well while she looked out for Rama and Lakshman - any of the menfolk. For quite soon she discovered that the one who stood before her was not what he first had seemed to be. It was someone with ten heads and twenty thin arms, the demon king. He wanted to carry her away for his harem.
Don't let such "ancient mutants" scare you stiff. After all, to move an arm you have to have bones and sinews and muscles too. There has to be place for them on the top of the back too. It is the same with the neck. You need at least an upper part of the spine for each, and so on. In other words, the idea of many-headed and many-armed beings - apart from rare freaks of nature with two heads - looks like fancy.When she said no to being his co-wife, Ravana seized Sita by force, and rose, carrying her, into the sky.
Weepingly Sita cried aloud to everything around her, the rivers, lakes, and trees nay, the very deer beneath her, to tell Rama that she had been seized by Ravana. At her cries the king of the eagles woke up from his slumber in a mountain not far from there, and flung himself at Ravana to rescue Sita. The eagle ripped every ornament from Ravana and broke all his weapons there in mid-air, and tore Ravana's flesh till he bled, but then the eagle was deadly wounded. Sita wept over the daring bird, and called on Rama and Lakshman to help her.
Ravana fastened his grip on her hair and rose higher, bearing her into the sky. They soon passed five monkeys who were sitting on the top of a hill. Without Ravana noticing it, Sita flung down to them some of her ornaments, and also her yellow veil.
3. Lanka is Conquered by Monkeys and BearsOn his way home after slaying the deer, Rama med his brother, and understood Sita was alone.The two of them hurried to their cottage, and found that she was gone. Rama settled on the idea that Sita had been eaten by demons, and fell into grief, reproaching himself and his brother for leaving her alone and unguarded.
Next morning Rama and Lakshman came across some of the flowers and jewels of Sita, Rama got red-hot angry, while Lakshman tried to soothe his brother, asking him to be patient. Calmed a little, Rama saw his brother was right, and together they found a trail of gore, arrows, and pieces of armour. Following it a while they came to the spot where the large eagle lay dying with both his wings cut off. Between gasps he told them of the the cries he had heard and the struggles he had witnessed. He was also able to tell the one who had abducted Sita, was the demon king himself. And when he would have told them more, he died.
Grateful to the valiant bird the brothers hurried on in the direction the bird had pointed out. Some time later they met with a band of monkeys. Sita had dropped her scarf and ornaments, among them, they told the brothers, and let them inspect the articles. Yes, they were Sita's. The brothers needed some rest by now, so the monkeys built sheds by branches with fragrant and beautiful blossoms to shade their guests, and all sat down and discussed the matter.
Now the monkey chief and Rama agreed that Rama should do the monkeys a turn, and then the monkeys would do him another turn. Rama was to slay the arch-enemy of the monkeys and bring back a wife he had captured, to the monkey chief. In return the monkeys would send out spies and find Sita. The two human fulfilled their part of the bargain within a few days. But the monkey did not at once start to do his part. Instead he got immersed in woodland frolics and let precious days and weeks slip by in this way.
But in the monkey group was a councellor called Hanuman. He protested against his chieftain against his unseemly delay and saw to it that a monkey army counting hundreds of thousand was gathered. Hanuman also assured the brothers that in many other parts of the forests would monkey armies and bear armies be found, each waiting to get their marching orders.
The first point was to find out where Sita was. Hanuman, who was going with the southern army. Rama gave Hanuman a ring engraved with his own name, as a token to Sita if the monkey should find her. After many weeks of vain search on foot, Hanuman recalled he was the son of the Wind. He concentrated on it, and then leapt at one bound across the sea to the Lanka island, the kingdom of Ravana. There, late at night, he found Sita in the splendid capital of the demons. It was not unlike New York, famous throughout the world, ruled over by might and wealth, and vigilantly guarded. Hanuman felt a bit dejected first and did not know what to do, when the full moon arose in splendour.
Sita had been banished to a park of asoka-trees, and placed there in charge of demon-women who wereinstructed to torment her. As the dawn approached, Hanuman found her there. She was sitting beneath a tree beside the river, pale and worn. But the monkey could see that this woman was very beautiful and gentle, but before he could go up to her, the ten-headed Ravana entered the garden and made Sita paler still, and trembling with fear.
Still she spoke with disdain to the demon, "I have warned you already. For what you have done you deserve to die. Only one who wants to bring ruin on himself, could act as you have done."
Then again she sat, looking before her into space, as if she neither saw nor heard.
When Ravana at last left the garden in rage and disgust, he sent back into it the demon-guards. They encircled the beautiful Sita and tormenting her for a while. Sita broke into tears and sobbed, and then the demon-guards left her. This was the opportunity that Hanuman had waited for. He began to run about, talking to himself about Rama in order to attract her attention.
At last Sita looked up. Then the monkey said very quietly, "I think you are the one I was sent to find."
"I am Sita," answered the captive. I am imprisoned here. And in two moons from now on, I am condemned to die."
Then Hanuman hastened to tell her of Rama., and that he had gathered together a great army in order to overthrow Lanka. What he told made Sita happy, but she also suspected it all to be another demon trick played on her. Then Hanuman came forward and placed at her feet the engraved seal of Rama, that he had sent her as a token.
Hurriedly Sita lifted the jewel and concealed it in her hair. She sobbed with joy. Then, with nervous, trembling fingers she took from some part of her dress a charm that her husband had given her, and told her messenger at the same time to remind the king of a certain great hawk who had wounded her and been slain by him, as they sat together one afternoon in the gardens of Ayodhya.
"Lady," said the monkey, "I will do as you desire."
A whisk of his tail, and another salutation, and he was gone, leaving the captive lonely but full of hope. Next day news was brought to her a monkey had been seen at one bound to leap across the sea.
When Hanuman returned to Rama on the seashore with the welcome news, Rama was ready to order the march. But how to get the troops across the straits to the island? the king of the sea suddenly appeared before Rama, understanding his distress. The sea king was kindly disposed, so he hurled up a part of the bottom of the sea, making a bridge from the mainland to the island. Then all the hosts of monkeys came forward with branches and logs and trunks of trees, and smoothed and improved on the bridge till it could witstand the tides and waves. Even little squirrels helped in the building of the bridge to Lanka, bringing stones and shells and broken nuts to make it smooth. And for this, when the work was ended, Rama took one of these smallest workmen in his hand and stroked him from head to tail. And because of this the Indian squirrel has three white stripes on his dark fur.
When the bridge was finished, the troops were brought safely across it. The next step would be seizing Lanka, destroying Ravana, and release Sita. When Ravana heard of all this, he leapt to his feet in consternation. But Rama's monkey army was now at the captial's gates. Ravana's wife and brother begged him to let Sita go "while yet there is time to save the city. Rama is in the right," they said.
In anger, Ravana drove his brother away, and said to his wife, "It is the enemy's duty to avenge himself on us if he can."
Some hours later Rama and Lakshman in their camp, saw an officer with soldiers drawing near to them under a flag of truce. It was Ravana's brother, who dismounted and said, "Gentlemen, we are entirely in the wrong in this matter. So I have come to offer you my alliance."
The princes received him well, and proclaimed that on the taking of Lanka he should be appointed governor.
Right after this the storming of the city began. The siege lasted many days, but the town finally fell, and only the fortress remained to be attempted.
And now, at last, Rama engaged in single combat with Ravana, and slew him with his own hand. Then the great doors of the castle were flung open, and the moment had come to take Sita back.
Hard are the roads that princes walk. Rama foresaw that if his reunion with the long abducted Sita was to be secure, it must be accompanied by some proof of her honour and devotion. Her future subjects had to love and trust her, so there was no place for stains of suspicion or reproach. She must be above suspicion, he saw.
But the first he hastened to crown and proclaim Vibhishana King of Lanka. This done, he called Hanuman secretly, and sent him to Sita to tell her privately of his victory and tell her to come to him on foot.
To her right and left were the soldiery. In front was Rama seated. He looked grave and solemn. All eyes were on Sita, who had never, since her childhood to this hour, been seen in public. How beautiful she was! How stately and full of grace. And yet . . . Every man that day held his breath when at a sign from her husband, and a few paces away, the queen stood still, and Rama looked up and said to her in thick, constrained tones. "Ravane has been duly defeated and slain," he said. "Thus has the honour of Ayodhya been vindicated to the utmost. Now choose how and where to live," he added. "But it is not seemly or possible to restore to you your old place after your fair fame has been sullied by living in the palace of Ravana."
At these words the queen stood like one who had been stabbed. Then she said to Rama's brother, "Go, Lakshman, and make for me here a funeral pyre. That seems to be theonly remedy for the disaster that has come on me."
Lakshman looked towards his brother in anger and surprise before he hastened to have the funeral pyre prepared.
When the wood had been piled and the fire set blazing, Sita walked three times round her husband, standing in his place, with head bowed, and it was evident to all that her heart was full of sweetness. Then she said, "Let the fire swallow me up!" Then, without hesitation, she entered into it. But as her foot touched the pyre, flames suddenly leaped up and carried her to her husband, joining them together.
"She is yours, not mine Rama," said the flames. "I guarantee she has been true to you in thought, word, and deed"
Rama was seriously moved and did so, and said to her, "My darling, I did not doubt you. But for the sake of the people I had to get you vindicated. I could not really renounce you"
And as they stood there together the fourteen years of their exile were ended, and as Rama understood he had to be coronated in his own country. A day or two passed, where he distributed wealth and rewards amongst the monkey soldiers. Then Rama mounted with Sita into a vehicle drawn by white swans, and they coursed swiftly through the sky to Ayodhya. From there Rama governing his kingdom so well that widows were not distressed. People lived happy together, the trees bore fruits and flowers and the winds blew pleasantly.
Ramayana, which this tale is condensed from, has co-formed Indian minds over many centuries. A culture is kept up and fostered and handed over by tales. Tales and other narratives socialise us.
Sister Nivedita was born Margaret Elizabeth Noble in 1867 in the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone, Ireland. She was a Scots-Irish social worker, author, teacher and disciple of Swami Vivekananda. It was he who gave her the name Nivedita. She had close associations with the newly established Ramakrishna Mission, and was very intimate with the widow of Sri Ramakrishna.
Margaret got her education in London. She studied physics, arts, music, literature and became a teacher at the age of seventeen. She established a school in Wimbledon and followed her own unique ways of teaching. She was a prolific writer.
She was engaged to be married to a Welsh youth, but he died soon after they were engaged. Afterwards she began to study various books on religion, and then met Swami Vivekananda in England in 1895, after she had become interested in the teachings of Buddha. Swami Vivekananda had come to London from the United States.
An aristocratic friend of Margaret invited her to a meeting with the person. He was clad in a saffron gown and wore a red waist-band, sitting on the floor, cross-legged, and speaking to the company with a deep, sonorous voice.
Margaret was influenced by the swami's personality and teachings. He told her of the pitiable condition of the women in India under the British rule at that time and wrote to her that what was wanted was a woman "a real lioness" to work for Indians, and she was "just the woman wanted." The swami's opinion was that education would help the Indian women. He asked Margaret to help in it.
In 1998 she went to India and left behind her mother, family and friends. The swami ushered her in and told her about India, achievements, conditions, and lives of great personalities.
Very soon two of the swami's women disciples in America, Sara C. Bull, wife of famous Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull and Josphine MacLeod arrived in India. The three became lifelong friends.
Robert Schumann once wrote that Ole Bull was among "the greatest of all," and that he was on a level with Niccolò Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing. Ole was also a friend of Franz Liszt and played with him on several occasions. Who was this Ole?
Nivedita travelled a lot in India with Swami Vivekananda, Josephine Mcleod and Sara Bull, and learned the art of meditation.
Within a few days of arrival in India, Margaret had met the widow of Sri Ramakrishna, who wrote of her impressions of Nivedita: "What sincere devotion . . . The inner soul feels for a sincere devotee."
Nivedita was now set on the road to educate girls, also girls who were deprived of basic education, She had widows and adult women among her students. She taught sewing, elementary rules of hygiene, nursing, etc., apart from regular courses.
She took part in altruistic activities. She worked to improve the lives of Indian women of all castes. It was sorely needed.
She was a prolific orator and writer and toured India extensively to deliver lectures, and got lots of friends among the elite too. She promoted Indian nationalism, for she came to witness the brutal side of the British rule, the repression and oppression and the division between the ruling elite and the ruled, and concluded that it was necessary for India to gain independence to prosper. Therefore she devoted herself wholeheartedly to opposing the British rule. She inspired many youths in taking up the cause of freeing India through her lectures.
She also met Indian artists like Anand Coomaraswami and inspired them to develop the Indian school of art.
Nivedita was very close to Aurobindo Ghosh (later Sri Aurobindo), one of the major contributors towards early nationalist movement.
Her works include The Cradle Tales of Hindusim on the stories from Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita shows where her ardent heart took her, and pursuits that followed.
She died in 1911.
[Wikipedia, s.v. "Sister Nivedita"]
Coomaraswamy, Ananda, and Margaret Noble. Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. New York: Dover, 1967. [and later editions]
Noble, Margaret. The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, Vols 1-4. Calcutta: Ramakrishna/Nivedita Girl School - Vol 1 and 2: 1967; Vol 3: 1968; Vol 4 (rev. ed) 1973.
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