NOT far from Chitrakuta was an outpost of the Rakshasas, called Janasthana, in charge of a famous warrior named Khara, who was a brother of Ravana. From this station, fierce Rakshasas ranged the forest round, molesting the rishis in their isolated ashramas. They made life so insecure that the rishis abandoned their hermitages in the Chitrakuta region in spite of all that Rama could do to dissuade them.
After Bharata's departure Rama was not quite happy in Chitrakuta. The face of his beloved brother tearful with disappointment and the sad drooping form of his widowed mother were ever before his mind's eye. Now that the going away of the rishis had deprived him of even their companionship, the lonely hut was so full of sad memories that he made up his mind to seek some other resting place in the Dandaka forest.
So they left Chitrakuta and proceeded to the hermitage of Atri, a rishi who knew the country, to seek his advice as to where they might establish themselves. They were most affectionately received and Sita won the heart of Atri's wife, the saintly Anasuya. Anasuya delighted at finding in Sita a perfect embodiment of wifely virtues, blessed her and presented her with beautiful garments and auspicious cosmetics that set out the charms of lovely young wives.
Anasuya was the embodiment of pure womanhood and her gifts added beauty and inner strength to Sita. She received the gifts and said: "My Lord the prince loves me with the love of a mother and a father. I am indeed blessed."
Then they made inquiries concerning the way and resumed their journey.
Walking, through the great Dandaka forest, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana reached a spot where many rishis lived. Even as they approached the place, they saw the sacrificial materials, bark garments and deerskins spread out to dry and they knew it was a colony of holy men.
The place was beautiful to look at. Birds and animals moved about with the freedom from fear born of affectionate familiarity with their human neighbors. Ripe fruits hung from the trees. The beautiful sound of Vedic chanting was heard.
As they came near, they saw the radiant faces of the rishis. They welcomed Rama. "O, King! You are our protector," they said. "Whether we are in the town or in the forest, you are our king." And they gave the new comers all they needed and a place in which to rest.
The following morning, the three took leave of the rishis and re-entered the forest, which was now denser than before and there were tigers and other wild animals. They proceeded slowly and cautiously.
Suddenly, a gigantic form distorted like a broken fragment of a hill rushed at them making a blood-curdling noise. It was a man-eating rakshasa and his roar was like thunder. He was unutterably ugly and the tiger-skin he wore was covered with blood and gobbets of flesh of the slaughtered beast were sticking to it still.
The corpses of three lions and the head of an elephant recently slain were impaled and strung in a row on the great spear which he shook menacingly at them.
The rakshasa lifted his weapon, roared horribly and, springing forward lifted Sita and as he held her, shouted at the princes: "Who are you, little fellows? How dare you enter this forest? You look young but wear matted locks and bark garments. You have disguised yourselves as ascetics; yet you carry bows and arrows, and go about with this woman by your side. Whom are you trying to cheat? Are you not ashamed of yourselves? You are besmirching the good name of the rishis by your conduct, you hypocrites! Know that I am Viradha himself. The flesh of rishis is my daily food. I shall have this lovely damsel for my wife, do you understand? I shall now drink your blood, you villains!"
Held in his grasp, Sita trembled with fear. Rama lost his usual self-control and said: "Lakshmana, this is unbearable. Kaikeyi must have known all this when she sent us to the forest!"
Rama was bewildered and did not know how to meet the Rakshasa. But Lakshmana, hissing like an angry snake, said: "Rama, you are strong like Indra and, with me by your side, you should not talk dejectedly. Look at what my bow and arrow can do. The earth will presently drink this monster's blood. My wrath which was denied outlet at Ayodhya, I shall now direct on this monster, and shatter him as Indra did the winged mountains of yore. I shall attack this creature and slay him."
Viradha roared again: "Who are you? Tell me at once." Rama's mind now cleared. His face glowed with courage and calmly he said: "We are princes of the Ikshvaku race. We have come to live in the forest. May we know who you are?"
The Rakshasa answered. "And so, you are the sons of Dasaratha, are you? My father's name is Jaya. And I am known among rakshasas as Viradha. You puny kshatriyas carrying arms, what can you and your ridiculous weapons do to me? I have secured a boon from Brahma that no weapon can hurt me. Leave this girl here and run away, if you wish to save your lives."
Rama's eyes grew red with anger. "It is time for you to go to Yama," he said and bent his bow and shot a sharp arrow at the monster. It pierced his body and emerged red with blood, glistening like fire, and fell on the earth beyond. But the rakshasa was not killed. Enraged by the pain, he placed Sita on the ground, and lifting his spear and opening his mouth wide rushed towards Rama and Lakshmana. The princes sent a shower of arrows at him. The arrows stuck so thick on his body that he bristled all over like a gigantic porcupine.
The rakshasa however laughed and shook his limbs, and down fell all the darts. He straightened himself and lifted his spear again. Rama and Lakshmana with two arrows broke the spear and rushed at him sword in hand. But he lifted them both up with his hands and put them on his shoulders and strode off into the forest. Sita saw them disappear in the darkness of the jungle and wept loud.
Rama and Lakshmana, seated one on each shoulder, knowing that weapons could not kill him, wrenched off his arms and threw them down. They then attacked him with their hands and feet. Still they could not kill him on account of Brahma's boon, but the agony of his wounds was so great that he howled with it. Unfortunately for him he had asked for immunity from slaughter, but not from pain.
The brothers threw down the exhausted monster and Rama planted his foot on his neck to prevent him from rising.
The touch of Rama's feet cleared the mist in which the curse incurred in a previous birth had shrouded his understanding, and in the sudden light of recollection he joined his hands and said humbly, "Your feet have touched me, Lord, and my eyes are opened. I have realised who you are. I am under a curse, but you can save me. I am not a rakshasa by birth, but a Gandharva. The boon I secured prevents my liberation. If you could somehow kill me, I shall recover my original form and go to heaven."
Accordingly Rama and Lakshmana smashed him without weapons and buried him in a pit they dug in the earth. And the rakshasa returned to the world of Gandharvas.
Then the princes went back to the place where Sita stood terrified and told her all that happened.
They proceeded to the ashrama of Sarabhanga. Indra was there with other gods, talking to the rishi. Knowing that Rama had arrived, he cut short his talk and went away. Then Rama, with his brother and wife, approached the rishi and humbly saluted him.
The old ascetic said: "It is for you I have been waiting. It is time for me to leave the body but my wish was to see you first. And so I have been waiting. Now my desire is fulfilled, I pass on to you all the merit of my penances."
Rama answered: "My Lord, should I not earn my own merit? How can I receive what you have earned? I have renounced everything to live in the forest. Advise me where I can best find an abode in the forest and send me forth with your blessing."
The rishi knew the secret of Rama's avatar and told him: "Learn from the sage Sutikshna where in the forest you should dwell."
Then Sarabhanga kindled a fire and entered it. The gross body perished in the flames and a youthful ethereal form rose from the pyre and floated up the heavens.
When the rishis of that forest heard the news of Viradha's death they came to Rama and surrounded him. "It is our good fortune, O King," they said, "that you have come to dwell in this region. Hereafter, we shall perform our penance untroubled by rakshasas. Look at those bones scattered all round. They are the remains of ascetics killed and eaten by the rakshasas. The rishis on the banks of Pampa and Mandakini live in constant fear of their lives from these man-eating monsters. The King's duty from which he may not fail without sin is to protect his subjects. Just as householders pay taxes, a share of the merit of our penances goes to the King's benefit. You are radiant like Indra, king of the gods. Protect us from this persecution of the rakshasas. You are our only refuge."
Rama answered: "I am bound, O great ones, to obey your command. I gave up kingship and came to the forest in obedience to my father's wish. If in discharging my duty as a son I can also serve you and do some good, I shall count myself twice blessed. I shall stay in the forest and destroy the rakshasas and free you from trouble. Shed your fear."
Rama's promise of help gave relief and joy to the rishis. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita then proceeded towards the ashrama of Sutikshna. They came to a big hill surrounded by a thick forest which they entered. There they saw bark garments drying in the sun and a little later came upon the old rishi himself.
Saluting him, the prince said: "My name is Rama, O holy sage. I have come to have darshan of you. I pray for your blessing."
The sage rose and embraced him. "Welcome, defender of dharma. My ashrama is fit up by your presence. It is now yours. When I heard you had left Ayodhya and taken up your abode at Chitrakuta, I knew you would come here, and have lived in hope of seeing you. Else I would have long ago given up this body. The merit I have accumulated I now pass on to you. Take it for yourself, your brother and the princess." The sage's face was bright with the light of long holy life.
It was the custom of the rishis thus to offer their acquired merit to those who came as their guests. From Rama's answer, we can see how such courtesies were to be received.
"O sage, I must earn merit by my own good deeds. With your blessing, I still hope to do so. I wish to dwell in the forest. The sage Sarabhanga directed me here to receive your blessing and seek your instructions as to where I could build a home for the rest of my stay in the forest."
The rishi's face was bright with joy and he said meaningfully: "You may live in this ashrama. There are many rishis living round about. The forest is full of fruit and roots. But evil beasts are abroad molesting the rishis and obstructing their penance. The sages are unable to bear this trouble. But for this, the place is good."
The prince understood what the sage meant to convey. He bent and strung his bow and said: "Holy sage! I shall destroy these evil-doers. My bow is strong and sharp are my arrows. It is not proper that we should dwell in this ashrama. It may interrupt your penance. We shall find a place for ourselves in the neighborbood. Permit us to do so."
That night they stayed in the sage's ashrama as his guests, The following morning, the three got up and bathed in the cool water fragrant with flowers, lit the sacrificial fire, performed their worship and touched the feet of the sage.
"By your grace, we spent a good night. We desire to see the other rishis in the region and receive their blessings. It is good to set out before the sun grows hot. Pray, give us leave to go."
The sage embraced the princes and blessed them, saying: "Visit the good rishis in the Dandaka forest. They have all gone through great austerities and obtained divine powers. The forest is indeed beautiful with deer and birds and lotus-filled tanks, and the hills with cascades and peacocks. Lakshmana, go now with your brother and with Sita. Come to this ashrama whenever you feel like it."
The three walked round the sage according to custom and took leave of him. Sita handed to them their swords, bows and quivers and the princes set out, more radiant than before because of the great sage's blessings.