What took place in the inner apartments of the palace was not yet known to the town-people. But Rama for his part lost no time in preparing for forest life.
He went to Queen Kausalya to receive her blessings before leaving the city. Kausalya said to him again: "How can I stay in Ayodhya after you are gone? It is best that I go with you to the forest." Of course, she knew that her duty was to serve her husband in his old age and share his sorrow in Ayodhya. And yet her mind was now so confused by grief that she did not see things clearly.
But Rama would not hear of it and put her in mind of her duty to be with the heart-stricken old King in his sad solitude.
She recognised the justice of this counsel. She gave him her benedictions in sweet words diluted with the salt of broken tears. "Do as your father has decreed and return in glory." Rama put heart in her with a smile saying: "The fourteen years will pass quickly and you will see me back."
The poet says that, as Rama received his mother's benedictions, his bright face glowed with added effulgence. How truly he pictures the sublime loveliness that comes of a great renunciation that illumines one's being as with an Inner Light!
We saw that Rama left Sita and went to the King in answer to the message brought by Sumantra. Sita was expecting Rama to return in a chariot with the royal umbrella, followed by a great retinue. But now she saw Rama return alone, unattended, with none of the royal insignia. And she noted on his face the glow of some fixed resolve. Rama was thinking as he came how he could break to his beloved the news that his father had decreed that he was to go to forest.
"Something troubles the mind of my lord," thought Sita, "but what can anything matter so long as there is our love?" And she asked him: "What is the matter? Why do you look so strangely?"
Rama told the story briefly and then added: "Princess, my love, I can well imagine your sorrow at having to part from me and stay here. Janaka's daughter requires not my guidance to her duty. Be thoughtful of the comfort of the King and the three Queens, your mothers. Do not expect any better treatment than that given to the other princesses in the palace. Be respectful to Bharata who will be ruler and guard against any offence to his feelings. Your love for me, I trust, will not grow any less during this absence. I shall return from forest after these fourteen years. Till then do not neglect customary rites and ceremonies. Mother Kausalya in her sorrow will need your attentive care. Bharata and Satrughna are dear to me. You will look upon them as your brothers. Conduct yourself as befits your royal race and your own nature. Avoid extolling me so as to give possible offence to other good men. I must go to the forest today. Keep your mind steady and calm."
When Sita heard this unexpected speech, her love for Rama manifested itself as anger that he should for a moment conceive that she could consent to part from him and live in comfort in the palace while he was a homeless wanderer in pathless forests. "A fine speech you have made, knower of dharma. It is to me a strange doctrine that a wife is diverse from her husband and that his duty is not hers, and that she has no right to share in it. I can never accept it. I hold that your fortunes are mine, and if Rama has to go to the forest, the command includes Sita also, who is a part of him. I shall walk in front of you in the forest ways and tread the thorns and the hard ground to make them smooth for your feet. Do not think me obstinate. My father and mother have instructed me in dharma. What you tell me is totally opposed to what they have taught me. To go with you wherever you go, that is my only course. If you must go to the forest today, then today I go with you. There is no room here for any discussion. Do not think that I cannot bear forest life. With you by my side it will be a joyous holiday. I shall not be a source of trouble to you. I shall eat fruit and roots like you and I shall not lag behind as we walk. I have long wished to go to the woods with you and rejoice in the sight of great mountains and rivers. I shall spend the time most happily among the birds and flowers, bathing in the rivers and doing the daily rites. Away from you, I do not care for Heaven itself. I shall surely die if you leave me behind. I implore you to take me with you. Have pity on me. Do not forsake me now."
Beginning in anger, her speech ended in sobs. Rama explained to Sita that life in the forest was not as easy as she thought and set out at great length the difficulties and dangers and again insisted that she should not think of accompanying him.
Sita's eyes filled with tears. "Tigers, lions, bears, snakes none of them will come near me. They will flee from us at the sight of you. The sun, rain, wind and hunger and the spikes and thorny shrubs you speak of, I shall endure them all cheerfully. I am not in the least afraid, and on the other hand you may be certain life will depart from this body if you leave me here and go."
"When I was in Mithila," she said, "the Brahmanas and astrologers told my mother that I was destined to live in the forest for a while. Can I fulfil this prediction alone in the forest? Here is the opportunity for me to fulfil it in your company which will make the forest a garden of delight. For whom is forest life unpleasant? Only to those men and women who have not controlled their senses. You and I can be masters of our senses and miss nothing. I implore you, put me not away from you, for parting from you is more cruel than death."
There is a strength in supreme love which defies reason and laughs at death itself. And Rama suffered himself to be persuaded, partly because his love was great as hers and every passionate word she spoke found ready lodgment in his heart, and partly because he was confident of his ability to protect her. It was settled that Sita should accompany Rama to the forest.
She sent for the poor and gave away all her belongings and prepared herself for life in the forest. Lakshmana also decided to go with his brother and be of service to him in the forest, and Rama had to agree. The three went to take leave of the aged King.
In the streets and on the balconies were crowds of people looking on. Through the windows and from the terraces of mansions, men and women saw Rama and Lakshmana and the princess proceeding on foot, like the poorest in the land.
Filled with boundless grief and indignation, the people said to one another: "What kind of a King is this who sends so noble a prince to the forest? And their Sita walks a princess that should command the service of the royal chariot. Can she bear the heat and the rain of the forest? This is monstrous! We shall go then to the forest too. Let us gather up all we have and get away to the forest with these princes. The forest where Rama dwells shall be our Ayodhya. Let these houses here henceforth deserted be infested with snakes and rats. Let Kaikeyi rule over the ruins of Ayodhya. Wild beasts and vultures of the forest will come to stay here. This will become a forest, and the forest will become Ayodhya."
Rama heard people talking thus, but took no notice. At the entrance to Kaikeyi's palace, Rama saw Sumantra seated sorrow fully aside in a corner. Rama tenderly spoke to him: "The three of us have come to meet the King. Sumantra, crave leave for us to enter his presence."
Sumantra went, in accordingly to announce them to the King. What a sight met him there! Like the sun in eclipse, like an oven filled all over with ash, like a tank gone dry, the King was stretched flat on the floor, his glory gone and his face shrunken and distorted with anguish.
Sumantra, his voice trembling with grief and his hands clasped together, said: "The Prince waits at the entrance and seeks audience to take your blessings before he gives away all he has to the Brahmanas and starts for the Dandaka forest."
The King bade Sumantra let the Prince in.
Rama came and bowed to the King from a distance. As soon as he saw Rama, the King suddenly rose and rushed with out stretched arms to embrace him, but dropped in a swoon before reaching his son.
Rama and Lakshmana tenderly lifted him up and put him on the couch. "My Lord," said Rama, "we have come to seek your leave to go to I the forest. Vaidehi and Lakshmana too are going with me in spite of all I could do to make them desist. Pray give us your benedictions and leave to depart."
Dasaratha then said: "Rama, I am bound by the boons that I have given to Kaikeyi. But you are not so bound. Why do you not brush me aside and seize the kingdom by force?"
That had long been in the King's mind as the best and only solution of this cruel problem and came out now clearly in words.
But Rama said: "I have no desire for kingdom or power, father. May you reign for a thousand years more. My heart is now set on going to the forest and I am even now in readiness to start after receiving your blessing. When the fourteen years have passed I shall return and tender obeisance."
The King's faint hope, it was now clear, must be abandoned. "My son! Bring glory to our line of kings. Go, but come back unscathed. May danger flee from your path. Cling to dharma. You are unshakable in resolution. Firm and unchangeable is your will. But do not go away today. Spend but this night here with me. Let me fill my eyes with the sight of you. You can go away at dawn. Like one handling a live coal deceptively covered with ash, I gave the promise to Kaikeyi not knowing what was in her mind. I am now helpless and caught in her net. And you say, 'I shall fulfil my father's promise. I shall not let dishonor blot the name of my father. I shall give up the kingdom and go to the forest.' Where in the world can one find a son like unto you? I swear to you, I did not intend this great wrong."
Thus piteously spoke the King. It was Dasharatha's wish to die without losing, even in his last moments, the respect of Rama.
"Father, send for Bharata at once and fulfil the promise you have given to mother Kaikeyi. Do not be troubled by the thought that you are doing me a wrong, for I had no desire for the throne, and do not feel it a deprivation to be denied it. Untroubled by grief or doubt, have Bharata crowned and give him your blessings. Cast all grief aside. Shed no tears. Can the ocean dry up? So may you too not lose your balance ever, great father. My sole wish is to make good the word you gave. If I got all the wealth of the world, but falsify your word, what joy would that be to me? I shall spend my time happily in the forest. Where but in the forests can one find beauty or joy? Father, you are my God. I take it that it is God that sends me to the forest. When the fourteen years are over, you will see me again. Do not grieve. What profits it that I stay here a night longer and go tomorrow? Time is made up of a succession of tomorrows and one day is just like another. Inevitable sorrows do not become joys by postponement."
"Well then, send for the commanders," said the King to Sumantra, "and order them to get ready the chariots, elephants, horses and foot soldiers, to go with Rama to the forest. And along with the army send all the necessary stores for Rama to live with the Rishis of the forest. Let there be nothing wanting in men, money or things."
Poor Dasaratha imagined that he could make Rama's exile to the forest something like a royal tour affording a pleasant change from routine and enlivened by exchange of gracious hospitalities with the sylvan population.
As he spoke Kaikeyi's face paled with anger. She glowered at the King, and in a voice tremulous with scornful wrath she said:
"A good and generous monarch surely! You will give Bharata this kingdom after squeezing out of it all the good it holds, as one might offer in mockery an empty drinking vessel to a man dying of thirst! What pleasure or glory will my son have in ruling a deserted state?"
Dasaratha groaned in helpless chagrin and marveled at a cruelty that could stab a man already crushed under an intolerable burden. Angry words rose from the mouths of those around, for even the courtiers found this open heartlessness more than they could suffer in silence. Rama put an end to all recriminations by saying he would not agree to take paraphernalia incongruous with what was intended in forest life.
"Honored Lord," he said, "what use have I, who am departing to the forest to live on what sylvan nature yields, for an army or the glittering equipage of a royal pageant? After gladly renouncing the throne, what use have I for its restrains? Would it not be covetous folly, after having parted with the elephant, to burden oneself with the ponderous chain? Father, I have cheerfully relinquished my claim to the kingdom in favor of Bharata and his mother, and with it all the incidents of royalty. For my fourteen years of forest life I require nothing but bark garments such as Rishis wear and simple necessaries of forest life such as spades and baskets."
Hardly had Rama spoken these words when the unabashed Kaikeyi hastened to produce the forest dress! She had kept it ready and gave it herself without a blush to Rama. Then and there Rama dressed himself in bark. And in these garments be shone like a Rishi. Lakshmana too changed into bark dress, while Dasaratha watched all this in helpless anguish.
Then Kaikeyi brought a bark dress for Sita too. She received it and stood bewildered, for she had never worn such garments before and did not know how to change into them.
Approaching Rama, who stood there resplendent with divine effulgence, Sita said shyly: "Pray tell me, how does one put this thing on?" As Rama took up the bark dress and, wrapping it over Sita's silk, made a knot over her shoulder, the ladies-in-waiting wailed aloud and Dasaratha fell into a swoon.
When he regained consciousness, he loudly reviled Kaikeyi, but she only smiled scornfully. She surely was not responsible for Sita going to the forest. The princess sought her own pleasure by going to the forest with her husband and would not be dissuaded.
Lowering his eyes as he was leaving, Rama said: "Father, I leave behind my mother Kausalya, blameless and tenderhearted lady, bereft of her son in her old age. This sudden fate is bitter to her as death, but she consents to live only for your sake, to share your sorrow and console you. She is incapable of harboring an unkind thought towards anyone, and she has never before felt the pang of such poignant parting. Be kind to her when I am no longer here and, when I return after my long exile in the hope of putting my head on her feet, let me not hear that she has died of sorrow." Thus Rama spoke, unable to bear the thought of his mother's grief. As Rama went out speaking thus, Dasaratha could not endure the sight and covered his face with his hands.