Now begins the Aranya Kanda. The poet begins with an episode that prepares us for the misfortunes of Sita. A new responsibility has been cast on the prince. He is to destroy rakshasas who molest the rishis in the Dandaka forest. A fear arose in Sita's heart like a shadow cast by events to come.
"Why should you and Lakshmana who are properly to be merely ascetics in the forest" asked Sita of her beloved husband, "take on yourselves this task of protection? You have come here to fulfil a promise of the late King. The duty of protecting the rishis belongs to the ruler who is actually reigning. It is not for you, engaged in penance, to protect rishis. To kill anyone, except in self-defence, is opposed to the vow of ascetic life. But you have rashly promised protection to the rishis. I wonder where this will lead us?"
Thus Sita argued in soft and affectionate words while they were going from Sage Sutikshna's ashrama towards some other ashrama in the Dandaka forest.
"Bear with me, my Lord," she said, "for seeming to counsel you. I speak but as a weak woman out of my infinite love for you. You know what dharma is. But, men, it is said, are driven by desire into three kinds of sin: falsehood, lust and violence. Falsehood is unthinkable in one who for truth's sake has renounced a kingdom and is here in the forest. And as for lust do I know that you will not allow even the thought of another woman to enter your mind. But I am afraid of the third kind of sin. Should we kill one who does not attack us? Whether it is a rakshasa or anyone else, why should we kill anyone who leaves us alone? You were in a hurry, I feel, to give your word to the rishis. To destroy the wicked is no doubt the duty of a kshatriya but can that duty still cling to you when you have renounced the privileges that go with it, and elected the life of a recluse in the forest? The duties of kingship go with actual status. Dressed in garments of bark and with hair matted, you are now an ascetic, pure and simple. Of course, you know best. I am only asking you to think well before undertaking anything."
Rama's love and admiration of Sita rose all the more for her is misgivings. "Indeed, my love," he said, "you speak like a true daughter of Janaka. But, Sita, did you not once say yourself that the weapons borne by kshatriyas are for protecting others? When helpless people suffer persecution, how could a kshatriya sit still? When we came here the sages complained of their sufferings and entreated our protection. They could not endure the cruelties of the Rakshasas who looked on them as so much meat and made shambles of the hermitages. Did they not show us a great heap of bones to show what had been done? 'You are the king's son,' they said. 'Our troubles will now end as darkness before the rising sun. You are our only refuge.' Could we princes hear their piteous appeal and refrain from helping them? Every kshatriya, everyone has to do his duty, not the king alone. You are, of course, solicitous for my safety. Even granting that what you say is right, I have given my word and I cannot go back. They said, 'You are our refuge,' and I have given my word to protect them. A pledge thus given cannot be withdrawn. What I have spoken cannot now be unsaid. You and I must tread together the path of dharma. How can we differ?" Talking thus, they went along the forest path.
This conversation occurs in the poem like the cloud that precedes the storm. It is the artistic creation of a changing atmosphere and not a random casting up of facile verses.
For ten years, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita lived quietly among the rishis. In the great Dandaka forest, there were a number of ashramas where the rishis lived practising their austerities and living their lives of abnegation. The princes spent a month in one ashrama, three months in a second and perhaps a year in a third as welcome and happy visitors.
The forest was indescribably beautiful, with deer and bison, boars and elephants. The birds, the trees, the creepers, the blue waterlilies, all live again in the beauty of Valmiki's poetry.
Rama was very happy these ten years, the joy of association with great and holy men being added to his joy in the quiet companionship of Lakshmana and Sita. These ten years are disposed of in a small chapter. Time happily spent seems short and needs no length in recording.
When after ten years had thus passed, the end of their forest life was approaching, Rama wished to have darshan of the sage Agastya who lived in the south. The sage was, like Vishwamitra, famous through the three worlds. It used to be said that if all the wisdom and spiritual merit between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas were put on one scale and Agastya sat on the other, the southern scale would go down by his weight.
There is also the story of Agastya's service during the wedding of Siva and Parvati. All the rishis had gone to Mount Kailas for the great event. Agastya alone, staying in the south, maintained the balance of the earth. Once the Vindhya Mountain steadily grew towards the heavens and threatened to obstruct the sun's passage between the northern and southern hemispheres.
The gods grew frightened and approached Agastya for help. The Sage stood before the mountain which bent low in reverence before him. Then he blessed it saving: "May you ever remain thus", and so the mountain stretches low and long even now. So goes the story.
Two Rakshasas, Vatapi and Ilvala, gave much trouble to the rishis. The former had obtained a boon that no matter into how many pieces his body was cut up, they would all reunite and his body would be whole and strong as before. IIvala, disguised as a brahmana, would go to the ashrama of one rishi after another and say, "O Learned One! Go over to my humble home and oblige me by accepting the consecrated food prepared for my manes."
On no account, according to ancient rule, could one refuse such an invitation. The rishis therefore had to accept the invitation. To them Ilvala served as food his brother Vatapi cut up and cooked lusciously and after the unsuspecting guests had eaten the meat, the host would, according to custom, ask the guests, "Are you satisfied?" The answer would be "Yes. We are content." Then, Ilvala would shout, "Vatapi Come out!" And at the call of Ilvala, Vatapi reunited into life would come out tearing the bowels of the guests. Many rishis had to die in this way.
One day, Ilvala tried to play this trick on Agastya. As usual, Vatapi entered Agastya's entrails as meat. Agastya of course knew this, but he was a devotee of Ganapati and had obtained the power to digest the Rakshasa.
"Are you satisfied?" asked Ilvala. "Yes, I am satisfied," answered Agastya. IIvala shouted, "Vatapi, come out." Agastya, laughing, said, "Vatapi has been digested, my host!" "What?" cried Ilvala. "Have you killed my brother?" And he rushed against Agastya. The Sage opened his eyes in indignation and the rakshasa was reduced to ashes. No rakshasas would thereafter come near Agastya and he protected the other sages also. Rama first went to the ashrama of Agastya's younger brother and obtained his blessings before visiting Agastya himself. Proceeding south and approaching Agastya's place, Rama noticed the brightness of the whole region, the birds and animals playing about without fear and brahmanas gathering flowers for worship.
He told Lakshmana to go in advance and announce him to the sage. Lakshmana met one of the disciples of the sage and sent word through him: "Ramachandra, son of Dasaratha, has come with his brother and wife to seek the great sage's blessings.
Agastya warmly welcomed the princes. He said: "I heard of your having come to dwell in Chitrakuta, and I was looking forward to your visit. The end of your exile is approaching. Stay here during what remains of it in peace. This place is free from the fear of rakshasas."
Rama answered: "I am happy to receive your blessing and I thank you for your gracious welcome. But I have promised protection to the rishis in
Dandaka and now that I have received your blessings, I must return to that forest."
And Agastya answered: "What you say is right." Then the Sage gave to Rama the bow made by Viswakarma for Vishnu and an inexhaustible quiver, as well as a sword. He blessed him saying, "Rama, destroy the rakshasas with these weapons which of yore Vishnu gave me."
Agastya advised the prince to spend the rest of his exile at Panchavati.
"May God bless you, O, Prince," said Agastya, "take good care of Sita who for love of you cheerfully submits to hardships to which she was not born or accustomed. Women are by nature fond of comfort and averse to hardship but no such weakness is found in Sita. She is like Arundhati. Wherever you are, Ramachandra, with Lakshmana and Sita by your side, the place will be filled with beauty. But Panchavati is itself a beautiful spot and Sita will love to live there, secure in the protection of you both. Fruit and roots are there in abundance. Stay there on the bank of the Godavari. The period of your exile is coming to an end. You will soon fulfil your father's plighted word. Like Yayati, Dasaratha is served by his eldest son."