Back in the āśrama, Sītā heard the cry of distress, which sounded just like her husband and with great anxiety she instructed Lakṣmaṇa, “Go and find out what has happened to Rāghava, for my very life is perturbed by the sound of his cry of anguish. Rush to your brother’s rescue, Lakṣmaṇa! He has fallen into the hands of rākṣasas, like a bull fallen prey to lions.” Recalling his brother’s instruction, Lakṣmaṇa did not go. Angered by this, Sītā said, “Saumitri! You are your brother’s enemy, masquerading as a friend. You refuse to aid him when he is in danger. You want Rāma to perish so that you can possess me. I think you would be happy if a disaster befalls him.”
Upon hearing these words uttered by Vaidehī, Lakṣmaṇa was overwhelmed with grief. To Sītā, who stood like a frightened doe, he said, “Devī, no deva, human, gandharva, rākṣasa, kinnara, piśāca, bird or animal can harm Rāma. Please do not speak to me thus; I cannot leave you alone in the wilderness in the absence of Rāghava. Ease your mind and give up grieving. Your husband will be back here before long, having slain the splendid deer. That was clearly not his voice but an illusion created by the rākṣasa. Rāma placed you under my protection like a sacred trust and I dare not leave you alone. Owing to the slaying of Khara and the other rākṣasas at Janasthāna, the evil rākṣasas have turned hostile towards us. They delight in causing harm and make all kinds of noises in the deep forest. Please do not worry!”
Though Lakṣmaṇa had spoken the truth, Sītā was enraged. Her eyes red with anger, she said, “Ignoble one! You are a disgrace to your race. I am sure you are happy to see Rāma suffer and that is why you say these things to me. It is not surprising, Lakṣmaṇa, for rivals to be cruel; evil men like you are always plotting in secret. You have followed Rāma to the forest as you desire to possess me or, perhaps, at the instigation of Bharata. I am married to the noble Rāma and how can I desire any other man? I will give up my life right before your eyes, Saumitri, for I cannot live for a moment without Rāma!”
Lakṣmaṇa, who was addressed this way was Sītā, was deeply wounded. Horrified, the self-controlled man replied with hands joined in respect, “I dare not answer you back, Maithilī – you are a divinity to me. But I am hardly surprised to hear such inappropriate words from you, for this is the nature of women around the world. Women hardly care for dharma; they are fickle-minded, sharp-tongued, and are breeders of dissension. May all the forest beings bear witness to your harsh reply in response to my words of reason. Fie upon you for suspecting me, while I have been only following the orders of my guru. This will lead to your destruction today. You have acted like every other perverse woman. I will go look for Rāma. May the deities of the forest protect you. I see ominous omens that frighten me. I hope I will find you safe back here once I return with Rāma!”
Hearing his words, Sītā started weeping, and said, “Bereaved of Rāma, I will end my life by drowning in the Godāvarī, hanging myself, drinking poison, or jumping into the fire. I will never touch any man other than Rāma, not even with my foot!” Sītā beat her belly as she cried out of sorrow. Lakṣmaṇa tried to comfort her, but Sītā would not utter a word more to her husband’s brother. Then, joining his hands in reverence, he bowed down before her and left to look for Rāma. As he walked ahead, he looked back again and again at Maithilī.
The ten-headed Rāvaṇa was waiting just for this opportunity. He disguised himself as a parivrājaka, a person who has renounced worldly pleasures, and approached Sītā, dressed in ochre robes. He had tied his hair in a topknot, held a chatra, a staff, and kamaṇḍala and wore sandals on his feet. He approached Sītā, who was separated from the brothers, like the pitch darkness that descends at dusk when there is no Sun or the Moon. On seeing the vile rākṣasa, the trees stopped rustling and the winds ceased to blow. Looking at the blood-red eyes of Rāvaṇa, the swift-flowing Godāvarī slowed down in fear. The evil man who was in a spiritual guise was like a deep well covered with grass. He went closer to Sītā, who was seated in her hut, tormented with grief. Though stuck by the arrows of Manmatha, Rāvaṇa’s lips were muttering the Vedas, and he spoke pleasingly to her. He asked, “Who are you, dear woman, of the golden complexion, clad in yellow silk, and wearing a garland of yellow flowers? Are you Devī Lakṣmī or Ratī, the goddess of pleasure? Your teeth are even, tapered, and bright white; your eyes are large and clear. Your hips are broad and eyes as smooth as an elephant’s trunk. Your breasts are rounded and the nipples firm. My dear lady, you ravish my heart with your beauty. No other being on the earth is this beautiful. This place is the abode of rākṣasas and wild animals; are you not scared of them? And how did you end up here? Who are you? And who do you belong to?”
Praised this way by Rāvaṇa, and noting that he was a dvija who had come with a begging bowl, Sītā honoured him with hospitality. She respectfully offered a seat, and water for his feet. Rāvaṇa gazed at her and made up his mind to abduct her; with that he offered himself to death.
Questioned this way by Rāvaṇa in disguise, Vaidehī thought that the brāhmaṇa, who was also a guest would curse her if she did not respond. She explained to Rāvaṇa in detail about herself, her husband, Lakṣmaṇa, and the reason for their coming to the forest. She said, “I am Sītā, the daughter of Janaka and the wife of Rāma. For twelve years, I lived in luxury in the house of the Rāghavas. In the thirteenth year, just as the preparations for Rāma’s consecrations were under way, Kaikeyī the wife of King Daśaratha demanded two boons which he had promised her in the past. She wanted my husband exiled and her son Bharata coronated. Though my father-in-law pleaded, she would not budge. My noble, virtuous, and honest husband was twenty-five years of age. When he learnt from Kaikeyī that he was to be banished for fourteen years, there was no trace of fear in my husband, and he immediately granted her desire. Rāma’s dearest friend and brother is Lakṣmaṇa, a valorous man, follower of dharma, and firm in his vows. The three of us, thus, entered the forest for the sake of Kaikeyī. You may rest here for a moment or you may even stay here, if you like. My husband will soon return bringing with him an abundance of forest produce. In the meanwhile, please tell me your name, gotra, and family, O brāhmaṇa! Why do you roam around alone in the Daṇḍakāraṇya?”
The disguised Rāvaṇa replied with harsh words: “I am Rāvaṇa, the king of Laṅkā, and the supreme lord of the rākṣasas. I terrify the worlds inhabited by devas, asuras, and humans. Now that I have spotted you, Sītā, I will derive no pleasure from any of my wives. In the past, I have abducted many beautiful women from different places. Become my chief queen over every one of them. The celebrated city of Laṅkā lies in the middle of the sea and is perched on a mountain peak. There, my beloved lady, you shall stroll through the gardens and will never longer desire the stay in the forest. Five thousand women will serve you, if you become my wife, Sītā!”
Enraged by his words, Sītā spoke out of utter contempt for the rākṣasa: “I am devoted to my husband Rāma, who is unshakable like the Mahendra Mountain. I am faithful to Rāma of great valour, and wide renown. But you are a jackal, and dare to seek me, a lioness! You can no more hope to touch me than the blazing Sun. You seek to pluck the fangs of a hungry lion or a venomous serpent. If you seek to violate the beloved wife of Rāma, it is as good as poking your eye with a needle and licking the razor’s sharp edge. It is like trying to grasp blazing fire in a piece of cloth. The difference between Rāma and you is like the difference between a lion and a jackal, the ocean and a rivulet, the sandalwood paste and sludge. As long Rāma walks on this earth, you cannot enjoy me, though you may abduct me.”
As the innocent Sītā spoke these words, a shudder passed through her body and she started to tremble. Looking at her shivering, Rāvaṇa tried to terrify her further by boasting about his lineage and power. He said, “I am the (half-)brother of Vaiśravaṇa – Kubera and all creatures fear me. For some reason, there was a battle between Kubera and me—and I defeated him. Tormented by me, he has left his own prosperous country and now resides in the Kailāsa Mountain. The splendid Puṣpaka, which files wherever one desires, once belonged to him, and I have captured it out of my valour. In my presence, the wind blows timidly and the fierce rays of the Sun become as cool as the moon. The trees stop rustling and rivers slacken their flow wherever I am and wherever I go. My city of Laṅkā has gateways and mansions made of gold; it is filled with elephants, horses, and chariots and the sound of musical instruments echoes all around. Its beautiful gardens bear all fruits that one may want. Living there with me, Sītā, you will enjoy divine pleasures and will not even think of Rāma who is as good as dead. Of what use is this unwise Rāma, who had lost his kingdom and lives like a tapasvī? Please do not reject this king of rākṣasas, and if you do, you will repent just like Urvaśī who kicked her lover Purūrava.”
Enraged and her eyes red, Sītā replied: “How can you commit such a sin, when you claim that Vaiśravaṇa, whom the entire world worships, is your brother? All the rākṣasas will soon perish, as they have you as their king! If you assault a woman like me, you are sure to die, even if you have drunk amṛta.”
Rāvaṇa replied in wild rage and declared his invincibility. Discarding the disguise of a bhikṣu, he assumed his fierce form, which looked like an embodiment of Death. He was in his colossal form bearing ten heads. With blazing eyes, he once again demanded Sītā’s love. He then seized her by her hair in his left hand and her thighs with his right. All the devatas of the forest fled in mortal fear looking at him. Rāvaṇa’s magical chariot, which was pulled by donkeys, appeared there and he forced Sītā on to the vehicle. Sītā, in despair, called out “Rāma!” but her husband was far off in the forest. Rāvaṇa flew up, as Sītā struggled to free herself. She screamed once again “O Lakṣmaṇa. Don’t you see me getting carried away by this rākṣasa? And you, Rāghava? Well, the consequences of evil deeds do not manifest immediately. Rāvaṇa, you are devoid of senses! I beg you, O Janasthāna, karṇikāra trees, and Mount Prasravaṇa! Please tell Rāma at once that Rāvaṇa has abducted Sītā. I bow down to you Godāvarī and the divinities inhabiting different trees. Tell my husband that the woman who he loves more than his own life is being carried away by Rāvaṇa. Jaṭāyu, you must tell Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa accurately about my abduction.”
Jaṭāyu woke up from his sleep hearing the commotion and immediately saw Sītā being carried off. He called out to Rāvaṇa: “I am Jaṭāyu, the king of vultures, and the lady you are abducting is the wife of Rāma, the king of the entire world. It is a despicable deed to defile another’s wife, Rāvaṇa! When Rāma, the embodiment of dharma, has never wronged you, why are you causing him trouble? You do not see the Death’s noose right around your neck. Though I am sixty thousand years old, I will not let you abduct Vaidehī, just as the eternal words of the Vedas cannot be hijacked by spurious logic. Both the princes are away and you hastily depart as you fear them. I will serve Rāma and Daśaratha even at the cost of my life!”
Addressed this way by Jaṭāyu, all the twenty eyes of Rāvaṇa were aflame with anger. The two attacked each other and there was a loud tumult, like that of the clash of thunderclouds. The bird withstood the hail of arrows shot by the evil rākṣasa and inflicted many wounds on his body using his sharp talons. Though many arrows pierced Jaṭāyu’s body, seeing Sītā weeping, he forgot his own pain and fought valorously. He smashed Rāvaṇa’s chariot, killed the donkeys, and with his mighty beak slew the charioteer. Rāvaṇa fell to the ground with Vaidehī on his lap. All the creatures there lauded the king of vultures for his valour. Seeing that Jaṭāyu was exhausted, Rāvaṇa leapt into the air carrying Vaidehī. The vulture chased after him, and called out “You are a coward, Rāvaṇa! A thief, and not a hero! You will soon lie dead on the ground like your brother Khara!” Jaṭāyu hurled himself violently on the back of the rākṣasa. Armed only with his claws, wings, and beak, the mighty bird tormented Rāvaṇa and ripped off his hair. He tried to chop off his ten left arms. Rāvaṇa released Sītā for a moment, drew his sword, and chopped off the bird’s wings, feet, and flanks even as Jaṭāyu tried to fight on Rāma’s behalf. Now the bird fell to the ground, his life ebbing away. Vaidehī ran to him in sorrow, as if he were her kinsman. She took Jaṭāyu in her arms and wept dearly.
Rāvaṇa rushed towards Vaidehī, and she clung to a tree in fear. The rākṣasa pulled her by the hair even as she shrieked, “Rāma! Rāma!” Pitāmaha Brahmā watched this and declared, “The inevitable has happened!” The divine seers watched helplessly. Rāvaṇa flew into the sky holding Vaidehī in his grip, even as she wept uncontrollably. The sound of her ornaments made Rāvaṇa look like a thundering cloud. The flowers from her hair and her gem-studded anklets fell to the ground as did her golden ornaments. Her pearl necklace slipped between her breasts and fell like the Gaṅgā descending from skies.
The trees, with birds nesting on them, were shaken by the wind, and seemed to reassure Sītā, “Do not fear!” The lotus-filled lakes with their frightened fish seemed to be grieving for Maithilī as if for a friend. Lions, tigers, deer, and birds from all directions swarmed together and went running behind Sītā’s shadow in a fury. The mountains appeared to weep through their waterfalls and their peaks looked like their upraised arms. At the sight of Sītā being carried away, the Sun went dull. It appeared as if all creatures wailed saying, “There is no dharma or satya in the world with Sītā being carried away by Rāvaṇa!” The little fawns helplessly looked up and wept. Although their eyes were clouded with tears, they kept gazing upward. Sītā continued to call out, “Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa!” looking at the earth. Her hair dishevelled, the viśeṣaka mark on the forehead besmeared, and her face drained of colour, Sītā was carried off by Rāvaṇa.