As she was being carried away by Rāvaṇa, Sītā was stricken with misery. With her eyes red with anger, she said, “You don’t appear to feel ashamed for performing this ignoble deed. I’m sure it was you, a vicious coward, who contrived to get my husband away by resorting to the illusion of a deer, so that you can carry me off. You even struck down the brave creature that tried to save me. You have displayed wonderful prowess, O vilest of rākṣasas! You did not win me in a battle! People around the world will forever speak of this despicable deed of yours. If you were to come within sight of the two princes, you would have been dead by now. Let me free—separated from my husband, I won’t survive for long. The very purpose for which you have abducted me will go in vain. You will soon see the river Vaitariṇī filled with blood and the terrible forests where the leaves are all swords. You are caught in the noose of Kāla!”
As she was being carried off, Vaidehī saw no one who would help her until she saw five mighty vānaras on a mountain peak. She dropped her golden-coloured silk uttarīya so that it would fall in their midst. She also dropped her beautiful ornaments hoping that they might inform Rāma about her whereabouts. In his excitement, Daśagrīva did not notice her doing so. The vānaras looked up at her without blinking their eyes, even as Vaidehī cried out. Rāvaṇa made his way across the lake Pampā, passed over innumerable forests, rivers, mountains, and lakes, speeding through the air like an arrow shot from a bow.
Rāvaṇa entered the city of Laṅkā with Sītā, his death incarnate, on his lap. Making his way through the well-laid streets of the city, he entered his antaḥpura through an array of gateways. There, he set free Sītā, who was dazed with grief. He instructed the female piśācīs there: “Ensure that no one, male or female, visits Sītā without my permission. Pearls, gold, raiment, and ornaments – whatever she may desire – all should be given to her as if I have myself ordered it. And if you wish to live, never utter anything that might displease Sītā, either willingly or inadvertently.”
Rāvaṇa commanded eight powerful rākṣasas to take residence in Janasthāna to spy on Rāma’s activities. He instructed them to try their best to kill Rāma. He then rushed back to his dwelling to see Sītā. She was in deep sorrow and was like a boat sinking in the open sea tormented by strong winds. She was like a doe that had strayed away from the herd and was attacked by hounds. The rākṣasa forced her to see his magnificent palace, which was full of skyscrapers and mansions with thousands of women in attendance. There were pillars elaborately worked in burnished gold, crystals, silver, and diamond. War drums echoed through golden archways as he walked up the staircase with her. There were lattice windows made of ivory and silver, which looked out onto rows and rows of mansions. Sītā stood lost in her grief as Rāvaṇa showed her lovely pools and ponds filled with all varieties of flowers. After showing her every corner of the palace, Rāvaṇa told Sītā, “There are thirty-two crores of rākṣasas, not including the aged and children, who are capable of ghastly deeds. I am their master. The reins of my royal power and my life are in your hands, Vaidehī; you are dearer to me than my own life. Please be my wife and be gracious to me, for I am tormented. Laṅkā is surrounded by the vast sea on all sides and even the devas cannot assault it. Of what use is the weakling Rāma, who is bereft of his kingdom. Become mine, Sītā. Do you think Rāma will come here? No one can bind the wind with ropes or catch the flames of the blazing fire. The result of all bad deeds of your past life resulted in your stay in the forest and you have expiated them; now, because of your former good deeds, you will enjoy your time here. Here is the Puṣpaka-vimāna, which I have forcibly snatched from my brother Kubera. It is lovely and flies as swift as thought. Enjoy yourself in it. Don’t fear that your association with me is adharma. I am falling at your feet, my lady; I press my heads at your feet. I am your dāsa – your slave!”
With these words, Rāvaṇa thought that he had won over Sītā.
Thus addressed, Vaidehī retorted fearlessly, though weakened by sorrow. She placed a blade of grass between herself and Rāvaṇa and spoke, “Daśaratha was a dhārmic king, and his son Rāma, whose fame is known in all the three worlds is the scion of the Ikṣvākus. He, along with his brother, Lakṣmaṇa will slay you. If he had seen you abducting me, you would be lying dead in Janasthāna, just like Khara. Because of what you have done to me, Laṅkā will become a city of widows. This body of mine is devoid of sensation of bondage or death. I care nothing about preserving my body or my life, rākṣasa!”
Hearing her words, Rāvaṇa spoke to instil fear in her: “If you, my beautiful Maithilī, do not come to me in the next twelve months, my cooks will chop you into pieces and I will consume you for my breakfast.” At his command, the most fearsome and deadly looking women appeared. Rāvaṇa instructed them, “Take Maithilī to Aśoka-vana and keep guard over her. Using scary threats and gentle coaxing, strive to make her amenable to my will, just like bringing a wild she-elephant under control in the forest.”
Aśoka-vana was filled with all kinds of flowering and fruit-bearing trees and could produce them at one’s wish. Birds flocked the grove every season and filled the environs with melodious songs. But Sītā, who was amidst the ghastly rākṣasīs, was engulfed in grief like a doe amidst tigers. They glared at her through their threatening eyes. She always thought of her god-like husband and brother as she stayed in the grove.
Meanwhile, after having killed Mārīca, who had taken the form of a deer, Rāma quickly headed back towards his āśrama. As he rushed to see his dear wife Maithilī, he heard a jackal’s harsh howl behind him. He was worried that it was an indication of something inauspicious. He realised that the golden deer was a plot by the rākṣasas and that Mārīca had called out Lakṣmaṇa’s name only to lead him away from the āśrama. Filled with dread, Rāma hurried back to Janasthāna hoping that Sītā was safe. Birds and beats circled around him, going from right to left, uttering raucous cries. In a moment’s time, Rāma spotted Lakṣmaṇa, who seemed to be dejected and lacked lustre. Rāma, who was terribly distraught began to rebuke him for leaving Sītā alone in the rākṣasa-infested forest. He said, “Alas! Lakṣmaṇa, what a terrible thing you have done by coming here, leaving Sītā alone there. It was a rākṣasa, who lured me into the forest in the disguise of a deer. Where is Vaidehī, Lakṣmaṇa, the gentle lady, who followed me into the Daṇḍaka and shares my sorrows? I cannot bear to live, even for a moment, without her! I see and hear evil portents. I hope Vaidehī is still alive. Once I die craving for Vaidehī and with you out of the way as well, Kaikeyī will be thrilled with her desire fulfilled. And with her son dead, I hope Kausalyā will not be turned into a servant of Kaikeyī. If I do not find Vaidehī in the āśrama, I will end my life, Lakṣmaṇa! Please tell me if Vaidehī is still alive or if some rākṣasa has devoured her because of your carelessness. She is young and delicate and has known no suffering before. I suspect that the rākṣasa’s cry frightened you as well and in her panic, Vaidehī must have sent you off at once to find me. You have given an opportunity for the flesh-eating rākṣasas to avenge the death of Khara!”
Feeling hungry, tired, thirsty, his mouth parched and face pale, Rāghava reached his āśrama only to find it empty. He rushed inside and searched every spot where he used to revel in Vaidehī’s company. With his hairs on end, he thought, “Just as I had feared.”
When Rāma questioned him again, Lakṣmaṇa explained, “I did not come of my free will, abandoning her. When Maithilī heard the cry that sounded just like her husband’s voice, she insisted that I go to your rescue. I tried to convince her by saying I know of no rākṣasa who can harm Rāma and told her that it must be the voice of a deceptive rākṣasa. Out of her love for you, Vaidehī was in a disordered state of mind. With tears streaming down her eyes, she said these cruel words to me: ‘You are entertaining the wicked desire to have me when your brother is dead, but you shall never get me. You followed Rāma to the forest, as you are Bharata’s ally. That is why you refuse to help Rāma, when he is crying in pain.’ When Vaidehī spoke to me thus, I was enraged. With my eyes red and lips quivering in anger, I left from the āśrama to look for you.”
Rāma replied, “You did a grave mistake, my dear brother, by coming to seek me without her. I am extremely displeased that you abandoned Maithilī just because she spoke harsh words. You failed in your duty of adhering to my instructions and succumbed to your anger!”
The empty cottage now looked like a lotus pond that was devoid of Śrī, the goddess of beauty, upon the coming of the snowy season. The rustling trees appeared to almost weep, with their flowers faded and birds gone. At the sight of this, Rāma lamented, “She is dead, lost, consumed, or abducted. Or, is she hiding, scared of something? She has perhaps gone to pick fruits and flowers. Or, must have gone to the lotus pond or the river to fetch water.”
Rāma went searching like a madman. He went from tree to tree, river to river, and to the mountains and asked every animate and inanimate object about Maithilī. He asked, “O kadamba tree, have you seen my beloved, who was so fond of you? Bilva tree! Pray tell me if you have seen her. Her breasts are like bilva fruits and her limbs as smooth as your young shoots. O aśoka! You are free of śoka (sorrow), but I am submerged in śoka! Tell me where my beloved is, so that I can become aśoka (sorrowless) like you! O deer! Do you know where my deer-eyed dear is gone? She might be amidst the does for her glances are just like theirs. Elephant and you, tiger! Do you know where my Maithilī is? Ah, I spot you there, my beloved. Why are you running away? I just saw you hiding behind a tree! You never pull pranks on me but why are you ignoring me now. I can see your yellow silk clothes and they have betrayed you! Run, if you like! I have spotted you. But stop, if you have any affection for me. Phew, looks like it is not her. She must have been harmed, for she is not someone who would ignore my requests and pleadings. Her full-moon face is not eclipsed in darkness. I abandoned her only to be devoured by rākṣasas. O Lakṣmaṇa, do you see my beloved anywhere? O Sītā, where have you gone?”
Rāma cried out loud, “If you are trying to charm me by playfully hiding behind a tree, please stop it. The fawns which used to play with you are worried and tearful. My father will surely see me soon in the other world, as I will die of my grief. He will rebuke me saying, ‘How dare you come here so soon, breaking the vow you had made? Fie upon you!’ You have left me, O Sītā, like good reputation leaving a dishonest man.”
As Rāma sank down in sorrow like an elephant in a swamp, Lakṣmaṇa consoled him, with his best interests at heart. He said, “Don’t despair, O valorous one! Let us together search the forest. There are many beautiful caverns and Maithilī loves to move around in the woods. She might have gone down to the river or might be hiding to frighten us. Let us search for her.” They together searched the entire forest, the mountains, and the caverns, but were not able to spot Sītā. No words of Lakṣmaṇa could console Rāma.
Rāma asked Lakṣmaṇa to look for her near the river Godāvarī. When he returned finding no trace of Sītā, Rāma himself went down and pleaded the river to tell him where Sītā was. The wild animals did not tell him, though they knew that she was carried away by the king of the rākṣasas, who deserved to die. The creatures requested the river to reveal the truth. But Godāvarī did not tell anything, as she feared the appearance and actions of the wicked Rāvaṇa. As the river provided him no leads either, Rāma said to Lakṣmaṇa, “What shall I tell Janaka and Vaidehī’s mother when I meet them? The nights are going to be very long for me.”
Rāma then spotted a trail of flowers strewn on the earth and recognised them immediately. He said, “Lakṣmaṇa! These were the flowers I gave Vaidehī and she wore them.” Rāma grew furious and roared at the mountains and rivers: “I will burn your slopes with my arrows, if you don’t show me the golden-hued Sītā! Lakṣmaṇa, I will dry this river if it does not tell me about Sītā.” Rāma’s eyes looked as though they would burn the entire world. But suddenly, he spotted the footprints of Sītā and the huge ones of the rākṣasa. He immediately pointed out to his dear brother: “Look, here are specks of gold from Vaidehī’s ornaments. There are different kinds of garlands as well. Saumitri! The ground is covered with drops of blood that look like burnished gold. I think Sītā has been butchered by the rākṣasas who take any form at will. Or perhaps, two rākṣasas quarrelled over her at this place. Whose could be this great bow and golden armour lying shattered on the earth? Whose donkeys are these and whose arrows are those? My animosity towards the rākṣasas is now growing hundredfold. Sītā’s dhārmic nature could not protect her from being abducted. Watch now. I will fire arrows into the skies and bring all planets to a standstill; I will smash mountain peaks, dry up rivers and oceans, and uproot every tree and vine. If the devas do not bring back my Sītā right away, they will witness the full extent of my power. No creature will escape into the sky as my arrows form a net without a gap. I will get the world rid of the rākṣasas. My rage cannot be withstood by the world, just as old age, fate, and death have never been defied by any creature.” Rāma raged like Rudra at Dakṣa’s yajña.
Lakṣmaṇa had never seen Rāma like this before and joined his hands in reverence. With his mouth gone dry with fear, he said, “You have been soft-hearted and self-controlled all along. You should not allow your anger to overpower you. Don’t abandon your true nature. Just as the radiance of the moon, brilliance of the Sun, the movement of the wind, and the forbearance of the earth are constant, so is your unparalleled glory. A battle must have indeed taken place here; the spot looks dreadful. You must not vow to destroy the entire creation because of one evil being. It looks like only one rākṣasa has engaged in the fight and not more, for I don’t see footprints of many people. You have always been the refuge of all creatures and no being will approve the loss of your wife. You should look for Sītā with me on your side, the bow in your hand, and with the assistance of the great seers. If you cannot find her through peaceful means, by tact or diplomacy, you may unleash your power. If a person like you cannot bear this grief, what can we say of ordinary men! Everyone has suffered misfortunes. Yayāti, the son of Nahuṣa had to suffer even after going to Indra’s loka. Our purohita, Vasiṣṭha, lost all his hundred sons in a single day. Bhūmi, the mother of all the worlds, also suffers from quakes and tremors. The Sun and the Moon are eclipsed from time to time as well. No one can escape destiny. Carefully think over what we should do next without letting grief and rage cloud your mind. Act only after carefully weighing advantages and disadvantages of your decisions. In the past you always advised me. I am only trying to awaken your consciousness which has been put to sleep by grief. You have human and divine powers. Focus them on killing your enemy. What do you get by destroying everything?”
To be continued...
[The critically constituted text and the critical edition published by the Oriental Institute, Vadodara is the primary source. In addition, the Kannada rendering of the epic by Mahāmahopādhyāya Sri. N. Ranganatha Sharma and the English translation by Sri. N. Raghunathan have been referred.]