In the meantime, all the citizens who were able to follow had run after Rama's chariot determined not to be left behind. Rama tried his best to persuade them to return but they refused, so the three of them alighted from the chariot and walked with them, until they reached the banks of the Tamasa river. Here all of them spent the night. A bed of leaves was made for Rama and Sita and here they slept while Lakshmana and Sumantra kept awake. Waking up well before dawn, Rama observed that the tired citizens were still fast asleep. He feared that they would keep urging him to return. So he called Sita and Lakshmana and requested Sumantra to drive them to the forest before they woke up. In the morning, the citizens were heart-broken to find Rama gone and lamenting their lot they sadly traced their way back to Ayodhya.
The chariot in the meanwhile quickly crossed the boundary ofKosala and arrived at the banks of the Ganga where they were met by the Nishada chief, Guha, who was delighted to meet the young princes and Sita. The tribal chief did all he could to host the royal three. That night
was spent on the banks of the sacred river. At dawn, Rama woke up and requested Guha to take them across the river. He asked Sumantra to return to Ayodhya for he preferred to proceed on foot. The charioteer was very unhappy to hear this and begged him to return with him, for the king had made him promise to bring him back, but he had no option but to obey Rama.
Rama said, "Sumantra, it is up to you to take care of my father. There is no one so devoted to our family as you. Please bring back Bharata immediately and then my father will feel better. Tell the king, that I am not in the least unhappy at leaving Ayodhya and living in the forest. Sita and Lakshmana also are not unhappy. After fourteen years, I shall return and take the dust of his feet. Convey my respects to my mothers and love to Bharata and Shatrugna. Sumantra, it is your duty to return and give what comfort you can to my aged parents. Please do not worry about us". Reluctantly, with tears streaming from his eyes, the noble Sumantra returned to Ayodhya.
In the meantime, Guha had arranged a boat and soon the three of them were rowed across the sacred river Ganga. From there the three of them proceeded on foot, much to Sita~s delight. The next day they reached the hermitage of sage Bharadwaja, picturesquely situated at the holy spot - prayaga or confluence of the rivers Ganga andYamuna. Having spent the night at that delightful hermitage, they proceeded the next day to the sacred hill of Chitrakoota, as directed by the sage. Rama was very conscious of the duty he owed to Maithili, the dainty princess of Mithila, who was prepared to brave the dangers of the forest in order to be with him and he tenderly helped her over the rough patches and kept up her spirits. She, on the other hand, was filled with delight at seeing all the wonderful plants and flowers of the forest and kept exclaiming with delight at everything, pointing out many new things to Rama and asking him about them. Rama said, "0 Lakshmana, please walk in front of the princess of Videha and clear a path for her so that her tender feet will not be hurt by the sharp stones and thorns. I will come after and guard her from the rear. If you see any beautiful flowers or fruits, please pluck them for her".
Lakshmana was delighted to do this service and soon Sita was loaded with bunches of flowers and fruit, so that she looked like a wood nymph. As they approached the region of Chitrakoota, made holy by the sages who lived there, Rama pointed out to Sita the various interesting things to be seen.
"Behold these trees, my love, heavy with fruits and nuts, this huge hive filled with honey and all these delicious roots. We will never go hungry. Though you may not have the delicacies of the palace, you will feast on the abundance of nature. You shall sleep on a bed of fragrant
grass and flowers and have the nightingale to sing a lullaby for you. You will be woken up by the cooing of the wood pigeons. Tell me, are they not more melodious than the bards of Ayodhya"!
Thus beguiling Sita with many interesting anecdotes, the party soon reached the holy mountain of Chitrakoota. Rama requested Lakshmana to build a hut of wattle for them, for he felt that this was the right place for them to live. Lakshmana made a beautiful hermitage for them and for about three months, they lived comfortably and happily at this charming place.
Sita and Rama used to roam around the mountains hand in hand while Lakshmana kept watch. Tiny wild flowers carpeted the hill sides, and silver cascades tumbled down the rocks. One day Rama and Sita bathed in the Mandakini river and then relaxed on the banks, tired by their walk and the swim. Sita leaned against a tree while Rama slept on her lap. At this time, an incident occurred which she was to narrate to Hanuman long afterwards. Rama dropped off to sleep, and a sharp wind came and whipped off her top scarf. Just at that time, a crow who was flying by, saw the beauty of her breasts and flew down and pecked at them, as if he suspected them to be berries. Sita screamed and shooed it off, time and time again. Rama who had been sleeping, had not witnessed the incident. Hearing her cries he woke up but he did not realise the extent of her injury and told her not to distress herself and went back to sleep. Again the crow swooped down and pecked her hard. Rama woke up when drops of hot blood fell on his face. He realised that this was no ordinary crow, but Jayanta, the son of Indra. He became very angry when he saw Sita's tearful face and taking a reed, he muttered the fierce incantation of Brahma and hurled it at the crow, who flew off in great fright. The potentised reed followed the crow to all the worlds and at last in great terror he returned to Rama and begged his forgiveness. As usual, Rama could never resist a person in distress, so he agreed to spare his life. But the reed, once discharged and made potent with the mantra, had to find a target, so instead of killing him, it blinded the crow in his right eye. Rama then comforted his frightened wife, who was sobbing with pain and rage.
While the three exiles were thus having a comfortable sojourn in the forest, the messengers sent by Vasishta brought back the two princes, Bharata and Shatrugna. As they entered the city of Ayodhya, they were surprised to see the gloomy looks of the citizens. They went first to the king's apartments and not finding him there, Bharata went to his mother's abode. Kaikeyi rejoiced to see her handsome son. When questioned by him about the sorrowful looks of the citizens and the absence of his father, she told him the entire story and waited for his look of joy at the thought that he would soon be installed as king, in his brother's place. Bharata could not believe his ears. He was amazed to see how little his mother knew him. "Surely my eldest brother, Rama should be king and not me", he exclaimed.
Now Kaikeyi told him the whole story of the king's promise and Rama's exile. She waited expectantly for her son's words of appreciation, at his mother's cleverness. She was shocked at his reaction. He jumped back as if stung by a wasp and exclaimed in horror, "Can you really expect me to rejoice at this news? Having deprived me of the two people I value most in life, my father and my brother, do you imagine that I will seize the throne for myself and rejoice at my good fortune! 0 wicked woman! I cannot bear to call you 'Mother'! It was my misfortune to have been born in your womb. You have brought nothing but calamity on our race. And now you are bent on exterminating it. What possessed you to act in this insane fashion"! Having ranted and raved at his mother thus, Bharata rushed to Kausalya's apartments, for he could not bear to look at Kaikeyi's face.
Kausalya turned her head away when she saw him approach. He was totally bereft at this treatment and fell at her feet and reiterated his innocence. At last she was convinced of his ignorance of his mother's plot and comforted him. Controlling his grief, Shatrugna and he proceeded to perform the last rites of his father.
The next day, sage Vasishta requested him to come to the court and urged him to accept the kingdom. Bharata vehemently declined the offer and said that he had decided to go to the forest to try and persuade his brother to return and take up his rightful heritage. When this news was bruited abroad, the whole city decided to accompany him. A huge cavalcade consisting of elephants, horses and chariots, soldiers and even the three dowager queens, set out happily from the city, determined to persuade Rama to return. When they reached the banks of the Ganga, the Nishada chief, Guha, gave orders that they should be stopped from crossing the river, for he suspected some foul play on Bharata's part. But when he realised that Bharata's intentions were completely honourable, he allowed him to proceed. From there, they went to the hermitage of sage Bharadwaja who apprised them of Rama's whereabouts. The sage, with his extraordinary powers or siddhis, then proceeded to feed the entire army in a lavish manner, much to the amazement of all, for such a feast could not be had, even in a palace.
The next morning the entourage proceeded to Chitrakoota. Rama had been sitting outside the hermitage with Sita, beguiling her with his graphic descriptions of forest-life, when he realised that the whole woodland was in a state of uproar. Birds were screaming and animals running about and a cloud of dust could be seen, rising in the distance. He asked Lakshmana to climb a tree and find out the cause of this disturbance. Lakshmana was horrified to see the approaching army with Bharata at its head and decided that Bharata had followed them with the sole intention of killing Rama, thus ensuring that there would be
no contender to the throne. He swore that he would kill him before he dared to approach. Rama pacified his impetuous brother and they awaited Bharata's coming with some trepidation on Lakshmana's part and full confidence on Rama's.
Bharata's eyes were so full of tears at the sight of his brother with matted locks and bark clothing, that he stumbled and would have fallen had not Rama run forward and caught him in a tight embrace. Seating him next to him, Rama tenderly inquired about the welfare of his father and others. He was greatly upset to hear of the demise of his father. Bharata then begged him to return and take up the reins of government, for he was unfit for the task. Rama advised him to do his duty, as he himself had done and return to Ayodhya and rule for fourteen years till his return. Bharata tried many methods to persuade Rama to return. He even said he would fast unto death unless Rama returned but the latter with his usual conciliatory and pacifying words, persuaded the grief-stricken prince to do his duty. Then Bharata begged that he be allowed to stay in the forest in lieu of his brother but to this also Rama gave a negative reply and said that in this case there was no question of proxy. It is rare indeed to find such a noble soul like Bharata especially in those times when it was quite common for the younger brother to kill the elder and usurp the throne. If Rama was the soul of dharma,,, Bharata was in no way inferior to him and was the very soul of honour. The Ramayana is thus an inspiring narrative where every character vies with the other to sacrifice his own interest for the sake of the other.
In the meantime, Vasishta led the royal ladies to Rama's presence. Rama bugged his mother and bemoaned the loss of his father. Rama and Lakshmana then performed the last rites for their father. Bharata
was at last reconciled to the fact that he would have to play the role of Prince Regent for that appeared to be the only way that he could serve his beloved brother. From the many beautiful articles which he had brought for his brother, Bharata took out a pair of polished, wooden sandals, embellished with gold. These he put before Rama and requested him to kindly place his feet on them. He swore that he could never ascend the throne of his father, which rightfully belonged to his brother but would place the sandals on the throne and be only an instrument for carrying out the orders of his brother. He also swore that as long as his brother lived in the forest, he would also live outside the city wearing the bark of trees, with matted locks and subsisting only on fruits and roots as his brothers were doing. This he would do for fourteen years, at the end of which, he would immolate himself in the fire, if his brother did not return.
Rama embraced his noble brother and tenderly stroked his head as Bharata sobbed on his shoulder. He blessed him and told him that he would certainly return, the moment the fourteen years were over and take up the reins of government. He then placed his holy feet on the sandals and stood for a few minutes in contemplation and then removed them and gave them to his brother. Bharata placed the footwear on his head and circumambulated Rama thrice. He then walked away while Rama bade farewell to his mothers, for he could not bear to see his weeping mothers. Having paid obeisance to the elders and his Guru, Rama walked into the hut, eyes filled with tears, for he could not watch them depart.
The royal party returned to a forlorn and bereft capital. The citizens wore gloomy faces for they had failed in their endeavour. Having takec his mothers back to the palace, Bharata decided to take up his residence at the village of Nandigrama, a few miles away from Ayodhya. The golden throne of the kings was brought to Nandigrama and he placed the wooden sandals on the throne and bowed low before them.
He said to his ministers, "The kingdom will be ruled by me as a sacred trust till my brother returns. Hold the white umbrella ol sovereignty over these sandals for they will rule and not me. Until I see his royal feet placed once more on these sandals I will live like an ascetic”.
All those who had assembled applauded these noble sentiments. For the next fourteen years Bharata lived a hermit's life. Every day the ministers came from Ayodhya and they were also clad in bark. They would bow low to the sandals as they would before the king and all matters of state would be discussed before them. For fourteen years there was no sound of mirth or music in Ayodhya. The chariot wheels were taken out and all the people walked, since Rama had to go on foot. Only the gardens round the empty palace were kept watered and alive, waiting for Rama's return. At least, Rama had Sita and Lakshmana with him and they enjoyed the simple pleasures of a forest life until Sita was abducted. Bharata is not even mentioned by Valmiki till Rama returns. But we can imagine what a strict life he led, denying himself even the simplest of pleasures. With matted locks and wearing bark garments, he refused even the pleasure of eating good food. It is said that his only fare were a few grains of wheat soaked in water. He would talk to the sandals and report everything to them. He did nothing without consulting them. It is impossible for us to even imagine such a character. Such sacrifice and self-denial are not seen even in sages. No wonder that Bharata has been extolled as a paragon of virtue.
An aura of gloom covered the ashrama after Bharata left. The tearstained eyes of his brother haunted Rama. None of the three could forget the painful episodes connected with Bharata's visit. The hermitage which had once been a scene of joy was now filled with sorrow. At the same time, Rama noticed that the sages who lived in the other ashramas seemed to be troubled about something. When he enquired into the matter he was told that the rakshasa living in their settlement called Janasthana had begun to harass them. The rakshasas were cannibals and would swoop down on the hermitages of the rishis and take off many of the ascetics. Their leader was called Khara and he was the cousin of their king, called Ravana. Due to this harassment, the sages decided to leave Chitrakoota.
Hearing this, Sita and the two brothers also decided to leave. They proceeded to the ashrama of sage Atri and his wife Anasuya who was famous for her chastity and for her tapas. They were welcomed with great love by the old man and his wife. She took Sita inside the hut in which they lived and praised her for her fidelity and love for her husband and her courage which had made her renounce the comforts of palace life, for the rigours of life in the forest.
Sita, in turn, said, "Mother, if you only knew the wonderful qualities of my husband, you would not wonder that I preferred to be with him rather than live in the luxurious apartments of the palace". Anasuya was delighted to hear this reply. She caressed Sita fondly and requested her to ask for any boon. She had done so much of tapas that she was capable of giving boons. Sita was surprised. This was the first time that she had met a lady ascetic who had accumulated so much power by austerities.
She smiled and said, "Mother what need have I for boons? Am I not the most fortunate woman alive? Have I not got the noblest living being as my husband"?
Anasuya was charmed by this reply. She brought all the garments and jewelry which she had and adorned Sita like a bride. She also gave her specially prepared perfumes which would make her smell sweet and keep her fresh all the time. Then she made Sita recount the events of her swayamvara, which Sita did with great joy. By this time, night was falling and the old lady blessed her and told her to go to her husband. Rama's eyes lit up with appreciation when he saw his beloved, dressed as she had every right to be.
They spent that night at the hermitage. In the morning, Atri asked Rama to go to the Dandaka forest. He said that the forest was infested with rakshasas who delighted in molesting the rishis. He requested him to go there and protect the sages from the harassment of these cannibals and allow them to continue their life of simplicity and renunciation.
Rama willingly agreed to this and the three of them entered the dark and forbidding looking forest called Dandaka.
Thus ends the fourth Canto called “Bharata’s Vow” of the Ayodhya Kanda in the glorious Ramayana of the Sage Valmiki.