After a day's stay in the City of Visala, Viswamitra and his party left for Mithila. On the way, not far from Mithila, they saw a beautiful ashrama which seemed untenanted. Rama asked Viswamitra: "Whose is this ashrama with ancient trees? Why does such a beautiful abode stand deserted?"
"This ashrama is subject to a curse. Sage Gautama lived here with his wife Ahalya, spending his days in peace and holy meditation. One day during the sage's absence from the ashrama, Indra, filled with unholy desire for the beautiful Ahalya, entered it disguised as Gautama and approached the lady with urgent solicitation. She was not deceived by the impersonation, but vain of her beauty and proud that it had won her the love of the lord of the celestials, she lost her judgment and yielded to his desire. When the sin had been sinned, realising its heinousness and the fierce spiritual energy of her betrayed husband, she warned Indra of his terrible peril and begged him to be gone in the instant. Indra was fleeing in guilty panic; but unfortunately for him he almost bumped into the rishi who was just returning from his ablutions, clad in wet garments and radiating spiritual lustre. Pretence was hopeless before that all- seeing wisdom and Indra bowed in abject supplication, and threw himself on the mercy of the rishi. The sage looked at him with wrath and loathing and cursed him: 'Lustful beast as you are, dead to all truth and righteousness, may your manhood fall away from you.' Indra at once became an eunuch and went back to the Devas in ignominious shame. Then the sage turned to his erring wife and prescribed a long penance for her. He said: 'Living on air, you shall stay here, unseen by anyone. After a long time, Dasaratha's son will pass this way. When he sets foot in this ashrama, you will be freed from the curse. Welcome him as a guest. You will then recover your lost virtue and get back your own beauty.' The sage then left his violated ashrama for Himalayas to engage himself in austerities there."
Viswamitra said to Rama: "Let us enter the ashrama. You will bring redemption to Ahalya and rekindle the light in her as the sage promised."
And they went into the ashrama. As Rama set foot in the ashrama, the curse was lifted and Ahalya stood before them in all her beauty. Having lain concealed behind leaves and creepers and kept her vow for many years, she now shone, says the poet, in Rama's presence, like the moon emerging from the clouds, like a flame issuing from smoke and like the sun's reflection in rippling water.
Rama and Lakshmana touched the feet of the sage's wife made pure by penance. She welcomed the divine princes with all the customary rites of hospitality. A shower of flowers descended from the heavens as Ahalya, cleansed of sin, shone like a goddess. Simultaneously the sage Gautama returned to the ashrama and received his repentant and purified wife back to his affection.
That is Ahalya's story as told by Valmiki. There are in other Puranas and popular stories slightly varying versions, but the differences need not trouble us.
Now, a word to those of our times who read Ramayana and Bharata and other Puranas. In these works, there are frequent references to Devas and Rakshasas. The latter were wicked, had no regard for dharma, and reveled in evil deeds. Asuras were also like Rakshasas. But even among Rakshasas there were a few wise and virtuous people. There spring up bad men even in the best of races and vice versa. On the whole, Asuras and Rakshasas were those who rejoiced in doing wicked deeds. It is a pity that some people in their ignorance identify the Asuras and Rakshasas with ancient Indian tribes and races, a view not supported by any literary work or tradition or recorded history.
The conjecture of foreigners that the Rakshasas were the Dravidian race, is not borne out by any authority in Tamil or other literature. The Tamil people are not descendants of the Asuras or Rakshasas.
The Devas were generally upholders of dharma and took on themselves the task of putting down the Rakshasas. According to the Puranas, they had at times to deviate from dharma in dealing with the Rakshasas, some of whom had attained great power through tapas.
The Devas were generally good; and those among them who swerved from the path of righteousness paid the price for it. There was no separate code of conduct for the Devas; the law of Karma admits of no distinction between the Devas and others. The law dealt with the Devas as with others.
Wedded to virtue as the Devas generally were, lapses on their part appear big to us, like stains on white cloth. The Rakshasas' evil deeds are taken for granted and do not attract much attention, like stains on black cloth.
The honest, when they happen to go astray, should evoke our sympathy. It is however the way of the world, but it is not right, to condemn in strong terms casual lapses of the virtuous, while tolerating habitual wrong-doers.
It should be noted that in the Puranas we see the gods getting entangled in dilemmas of Dharma. Indra and other Devas are shown often as committing serious sins.
Why did the sages who told the Puranas involve themselves in such difficulties? Their aim was to awaken people to a sense of the dangers of adharma. Else, the sages need not have deliberately attributed sinful acts to their own heroes and created difficulties for themselves.
Some persons take pleasure in jumping to wrong conclusions from the incidents in the Puranas. They argue: "Ravana was a very good king. Valmiki has falsely accused him of wicked deeds." They ask: "Did not Rama act unjustly on a certain occasion? Did not Sita utter a lie?" and the like. Valmiki could well have omitted incidents which are not edifying. Both Rama and Ravana were first presented to us by the poet Valmiki.
There was no earlier work referring to Ravana that can be quoted to contradict Valmiki and stamp him as being partial to Rama, Sita and the Devas, and twisting facts to deceive people. Valmiki's Ramayana is the fountain source of the story of Rama; in it, one comes across seemingly wrong deeds.
Calm consideration of such situations would show that they are just portrayals of similar difficulties in our day-to-day life. It is for us to benefit from the moral trials contained in them. The lesson of the Ahalya episode is that, however deadly one's sin, one may hope to be freed from its consequence by penitence and punishment. Instead of condemning others for their sins, we should look within our own hearts and try to purify them of every evil thought. The best of us have need for eternal vigilance, if we would escape sin. This is the moral of Ahalya's error.