WHEN it was known that the four princes and the three queens were reunited and could be seen together in one place, a chorus of joy went up in the army and retinue and they came surging forward to witness that happy spectacle. They were sure now that Rama would return to Ayodhya and the people embraced one another for the very joy.
The sage Vasishtha conducted the three queens to the hut. On the way, they saw the river Mandakini. When he showed them the spot where the princes daily took water for their use, Kausalya and Sumitra broke down and sobbed. Said Kausalya:
"From this pool in the river, Sumitra, your son takes water to the ashrama every day. Lakshmana is prepared to do the commonest task cheerfully for his brother. He does not mind the weight of the water pot on his princely shoulder."
They saw the spot where Rama and Lakshmana poured out libations for their father's Spirit. The darbha grass lay with the ends facing south, beside the oil cake.
Kausalya clung to Sumitra and said: "O Sister! This is the food that the mightiest kings have to be content with after death."
They reached the hut. There they saw the princes with faces clouded with sorrow, seated under a thatched roof. Unable to bear the sight, the royal mothers sank to the floor.
When Rama lifted Kausalya tip, she stroked him with her flower-soft hands and was at once sad and happy. She embraced Sita and said: "My child, Janaka's daughter, daughter-in-law to the King of Ayodhya, do you live in this hut in the forest? O, faded lotus-flower! O, golden image covered with dust! My heart melts at the sight of you."
Rama reverently touched the feet of Vasishtha who seemed another Brihaspati, the preceptor of the gods, come down to earth, and then sat by his mother. Bharata humbly sat apart facing Rama. The elders surrounded them, eagerly awaiting what Bharata would say and how Rama would react.
"Bharata, why have you left your kingly duties and come here in deer skin and with matted locks?" asked Rama. Bharata attempted to speak several times, but at first could not get beyond the word 'Brother.' Then he pulled himself together with a great effort and said:
"Sending you to the forest, but unable to bear the pain, our father's soul fled to heaven. All the good my mother has got from her evil plan has been that she has become a sinner and a widow and is in deep sorrow. Despised by the world, she experiences hell on earth. Only you can save us. Undo all the evil that has been done and wipe off our tears by agreeing to be crowned. It is to implore you for this that we and the citizens and the army and the widowed queens have come and are all here waiting on your word. Grant us our prayer. This alone will put an end to our sorrow and re-establish the dharma of our race. Without a rightful king, the land is like a widow, desolate and helpless. You must come back and make it happy and secure. Like the full moon rising, dispel our darkness. The ministers here and I fall at your feet and beg of you. Do not refuse, O, brother!"
Saying this, the great Bharata, with tear-filled eyes, clung to the feet of Ramachandra.
Rama raised him from the ground and embracing him said:
"Child, we were born in a noble family and brought up in good ways. Neither you nor I can do anything wrong. I see no fault in you, my blameless brother! Do not feel sad and do not speak unkind words about your mother. It is not proper that we should blame her. Surely our father had the right to tell us what to do, aye, even to decree banishment, just as he had the right to order a coronation. Our duty is to honor our father and our mother. How could I disobey or question their command? Was it for me to refuse my father's command that I should go to the forest? He gave you kingship and he ordained for me life in the forest. He certainly had the right to settle the manner of our lives. What right do we have to alter or reject his plans? Far from being wrong, it is your duty to rule the land. And I too shall do my duty and fulfil our father's last command by living fourteen years in the Dandaka forest. Failing to fulfil our father's wish, can I find contentment in the possession of the whole world?"
Bharata repeatedly besought and importuned Rama. Rama realised that Bharata grieved that it was for his sake injustice had been done and that he endeavored to remove the blot.
"Do not blame yourself," he said. "Do not think that all these things took place for your sake. Destiny rules everything. Give up your grief. Return to Ayodhya and rule the kingdom. Let us each perform the duties assigned to us by the father we love and revere."
The people who watched the talk and saw the determination of the prince were filled with joy and sorrow in equal measure. Bharata's affection and purity filled them with pride and joy.
Rama told Bharata his unalterable decision. "I cannot possibly disobey my father's word. You will please me by not persisting in trying to persuade me. Satrughna is there to help you in ruling, as Lakshmana is here to help me in forest life. With Lakshmana by my side, I lack nothing. Let us all four, brother, do our other's will."
The learned Jabali, one of the priests who had accompanied Bharata, here interposed a lesson on worldly wisdom for the benefit of Rama. "You talk again and again of your father's command. Dasaratha was a physical body which has now rejoined the five elements. You talk as though there is some continuing relationship between that person who is now no more and yourself. This is sheer illusion. Why do you like the foolish prating of dharma and seek to give up the good fortune to which you were born? Like a woman mourning with dishevelled hair, the city of Ayodhya is plaintively longing and waiting for your return. Go back. Accept the crown. Enjoy life's pleasures. Listen to Bharata. Do not fail in your proper duties."
This lecture angered Rama. He said with much sharpness: "Sir, you seem to set little value on truth and rectitude. Your materialist talk fills me with such abhorrence that I wonder that an unbeliever like you should have been tolerated in the court."
Jabali hastened to explain that, far from being an infidel, he had all his life been a teacher of the Shastras and that he had only spoken as he had done out of an earnest wish to persuade Rama to return. Vasishtha also intervened on his behalf and that unlucky interlude came to an end.
Vasishtha then put the case for Rama's return this way:
"On the whole, my opinion is that you should return to Ayodhya and accept the throne. Of course, your father's command also has to be considered, and reconciled to this step. You have obeyed that command at once and unhesitatingly, but now a new situation has arisen. Bharata in his helplessness, fearing infamy, has sought shelter at your feet. How can you spurn him? We all know that you love him as your life. You never refuse those who approach you for help. How then can you deny it to Bharata now? Is it not your life-principle to help those who seek refuge at your feet?"
But Rama showed no signs of relenting. Then, Bharata turned to Sumantra and said, "My brother has no pity for me. Please spread a bed of darbha grass here for me. I shall take the pledge of fasting unto death."
Sumantra hesitated and looked at Rama. Then Bharata himself fetched and spread the grass and sat on it.
"My child, this is not right," said Rama firmly. "Rise. Go to Ayodhya and fulfil your duties. Do not go against Kshatriya dharma."
Bharata got up and as a last resort appealed to the people who had accompanied him, a representative crowd of soldiers and citizens from Ayodhya: "O, citizens of Ayodhya! Why do you stand mutely looking on? Do you not want Rama to return? Why then are you silent?"
The people answered: "Rama will not swerve from truth. He will stand firm by his father's promise. He will not return to Ayodhya. What is the use of pressing him further?"
Rama said, "Listen to them, brother. They wish well by both of us. Virtue dwells in their hearts."
Bharata said: "Here I am as guiltless as Rama and a fit substitute for him. If the King's word should be fulfilled let me stay here in the forest in place of Rama. Let him fill my place and rule in Ayodhya."
Rama laughed and said: "This procedure of exchange cannot apply here. This is not trade or business for barter and agreement. It is true that sometimes one discharges the duties of another, when the latter is too weak and unable to do it. But how does it fit on this occasion? Can any of you say that for life in the forest I have no capacity but only Bharata has?"
Then the wise Vasishtha found a solution for the problem in which righteousness struggled with righteousness as to which should be more right. "O, Bharata, rule the kingdom under Rama's authority and as his deputy. No blame would attach to you then and the pledge would be kept."
Rama took Bharata on his lap and told him, "Brother, look on the kingdom as my gift to you. Accept it and rule it as our father wished."
A glory descended on Rama and Bharata at that moment at they shone like two suns.
Bharata said: "Brother, you are my father and my God. Your least wish is my dharma, Give me your sandals. That token of yours shall reign in Ayodhya till you return. And for fourteen years I shall stay outside the city and discharge the King's duties in your place, paying reverent homage to your sandals. At the end of that period, you will return and accept the kingship."
"So be it," answered Rama.
He placed his feet on the sandals and handed them to Bharata who prostrated himself on the ground and accepted them and put them on his head.
Bharata and his retinue turned back towards Ayodhya. On the way, they met the sage Bharadwaja and reported what had happened. He blessed Bharata saying:
"Your virtue will be for ever remembered. Are you not a son of the solar race? As water flows downwards, the virtue of your family runs its inevitable course in you. Your father Dasaratha is indeed happy. He is not dead but lives again immortally in you."
They met Guha again and crossed the Ganga and reached Ayodhya. Bharata and his followers entered Ayodhya. The city, bereft of the King and Rama, appeared desolate to Bharata. It seemed to be enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. When he returned in haste from Kekaya, he had entered the city in fatigue and shapeless fear and suspense; but today he entered it again fully realising all the tragedy.
He remembered the past and thought of the present and grieved afresh. He went to the palace and took the queens to their desolate apartments. He went to the assembly hall, and said: "Great is my sorrow. But I shall bear it. I shall stay in Nandigrama and carry out my tasks as I have promised Rama. Make all arrangements for this purpose."
This was done and he solemnly announced in the assembly, "This kingdom is Rama's. For the time being, he has asked me to be in charge. In my brother's place I have installed his sandals. Deriving my authority from them I shall do my work as king."
Accordingly, Bharata stayed in Nandigrama and with the help of ministers ruled the kingdom as a religious duty until Rama should return after completing his forest life. And indeed, is it not the law laid down in Scripture that one should serve the world unselfishly and without attachment, leaving the fruit of one's work at the feet of the Lord? Rama did his penance in the forest for fourteen years and all the time Bharata too did his penance at Nandigrama near Ayodhya.