There was a great king named Aja in the Ikṣvāku dynasty. Daśaratha was his son. He had four sons who were all experts in dharma – Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Bharata, and Śatrughna. Rāma’s mother was Kausalyā; Bharata’s mother was Kaikeyi; Lakṣmaṇa- Śatrughna’s mother was Sumitrā. Janaka, the king of Videha, had a daughter named Sītā. Tvaṣṭṛ (Brahmā) himself created her to become the beloved queen of Rāma.
The creator of all the worlds and the self-existing one Prajāpati himself was the grandfather of Rāvaṇa. Pulastya was the son of Prajāpati, born from his mind. Pulastya had a son named Vaiśravaṇa; he left his father and went to live with his grandfather. Angered by this, Pulastya had another son named Viśravasa. Prajāpati Brahmā had great affection for his grandson Vaiśravaṇa and gave him immortality, immeasurable wealth, overlordship of the world, love for the Supreme, and a son by name Nalakubera. Viśravasa always looked upon Vaiśravaṇa with rage.
Vaiśravaṇa learnt that his father was angry with him and so he offered his father three rākṣasis – Puṣpotkaṭā, Rākā, and Mālinī – who would take care of his needs. They would entertain Pulastya with song and dance; pleased with their service the sage showed his love and affection to them. Puṣpotkaṭā gave birth to two sons who were of immense strength – Daśagrīva (Rāvaṇa) and Kumbhakarṇa; Mālinī gave birth to Vibhīṣaṇa; Rākā gave birth to Khara and Śūrpaṇakha. Among all of them Vibhīṣaṇa was the most good-looking, hardworking, and ardent protector of dharma. The oldest of them all, Daśagrīva, possessed great enthusiasm and immense valour; he became a skilled warrior. Kumbhakarṇa gained enormous strength, skills of magic and illusion, as well as a violent temper. Khara became accomplished in the art of archery; he began hating the Supreme, took to meat-eating, and would often cause trouble to the siddhas and sages. Śūrpaṇakha also developed a violent temperament. They all lived with their father on the Gandhamādana mountain. One day, they happened to see Vaiśravaṇa sitting with his father with great pomp and luxury. A competition was seeded with their desire to become like him. Therefore they undertook severe penance and impressed Brahmā. Rāvaṇa asked for the boon: “Let me not be defeated by any gandharva, deva, asura, yakṣa, rākṣasa, sarpa, kinnara, or bhūta!” He scornfully looked upon humans merely as animals that he ate. Kumbhakarṇa asked for prolonged sleep. Vibhīṣaṇa asked for the boon that however testing be the times, he should retain his dhārmic intellect and that he should obtain the brahmāstra without having to learn the science of it.
Soon after he received the boon, Rāvaṇa went to Lanka, defeated Vaiśravaṇa in war, and drove him away; he went and settled in Gandhamādana. Rāvaṇa stole Vaiśravaṇa’s puṣpakavimāna; however, Vaiśravaṇa cursed him saying, “Let this never seat you; let this become the vehicle of one who kills you in battle! May you be destroyed soon for thus ill-treating me, one who is elder to you!” Vibhīṣaṇa was respectful towards Vaiśravaṇa and for that reason he was made the chief of the armies of the yakṣas and rākṣasas. The rākṣasas and piśācas made Daśagrīva their king. He would take any form at will, roam about the skies, grew tremendously strong, thrash the devas and daityas, loot all their gems and wealth, and bring it back to his kingdom. In this manner he tortured the people of the world and made them scream in pain, so he got the name Rāvaṇa – the one who makes people cry out.
Then, all the brahmaṛṣis, rājaṛṣis, and siddhas, placing Agni in front of them, went to Brahmā and pleaded for help. Brahmā said, “He cannot be defeated by the devas or asuras; let Viṣṇu undertake this task; to support him in this endeavour, let the devatas obtain children among the monkeys and the bears!” Then he called a gandharvā damsel named Dundubhi and ordered her to take birth as a hunchbacked old woman named Mandharā; then he told her what should be done.
In Ayodhya, Daśaratha’s children grew up into fine young men; they became valorous warriors; they learnt the Vedas; they became expert archers; they got married; Daśaratha was extremely fond of them all; Rāma gained the love and affection of the people. Seeing that he was getting old, Daśaratha decided to anoint Rāma as the crown prince. All his ministers gave their consent saying that Rāma was deserving of it, being capable in every sense. Daśaratha called the purohita and said, “Tonight, the constellation of Puṣya (corresponding to γ, δ, θ Cancri) will attain a favourable position in the sky; therefore make all the preparations necessary; ask Rāma to come.” Mandharā heard this, went to Kaikeyi and said, “Today the king has uttered something that spells your misfortune, Kaikeyi! O unfortunate one! A poisonous snake shall bite you in anger. Kausalyā is the lucky one; her son will be anointed the crown prince; when your son has no share of the kingdom, where will you find good fortune!” Upon listening to those words, the beautiful Kaikeyi decked herself with all ornaments, made herself extremely attractive, sporting a bewitching smile, met her husband when he was all alone and spoke in a sweet tone, as if she was expressing her love. She said, “Mahārāja! O man of integrity! Long back, you had given me a boon out of your compassion; grant me that boon and take this burden off my back.” Daśaratha said, “O indeed! So be it! What do you want? Whom should I kill? Whom should I set free? To whom should I grant wealth? From whom should I snatch it?” She held on to those words firmly, and knowing her position of strength, said, “From all the preparations that have been made to anoint Rāma as the crown prince, make Bharata the crown prince and let Rāma go to the forest!” Upon hearing those words that were both hateful and oppressive, Daśaratha was engulfed with sorrow; words failed to leave his mouth. The courageous and wise Rāma, having learnt about this, set out to the forest in order that the king’s integrity remains untainted. Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā followed him. After Rāma went to the forest, Daśaratha succumbed to Time. Kaikeyi called Bharata and said, “Daśaratha has attained heaven; Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa are in the forest; take the reins of this trouble-free and healthy kingdom!” That great epitome of dharma said, “O wicked lady, destroyer of the dynasty! You have done a most terrible deed; you have killed your husband due to your greed for wealth; you destroyed the family; you have forever bound me to dishonour; let it be so, Mother! May your wish be fulfilled!” Saying so, he burst into tears. Soon after that, he gave an account of his innocence to all his subjects and went to bring Rāma back. Placing the chariots of Kausalyā, Sumitrā, and Kaikeyi in the front, Bharata and Śatrughna went along with Vasiṣṭha, Vāmadeva, and others as well as the people of the city. At that time Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa were in Citrakūṭa dressed as ascetics. Since Rāma was firm in his vow of adhering to his father’s words, Bharata brought Rāma’s sandals with him, installed that on the throne and ruled the kingdom (on behalf of Rāma) from Nandigrāma.
To be continued…
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.