175. The Story of Ratnakar
To understand what happens next, listen to the story of Ratnakar:
Ratnakar was a robber, supporting his family by theft and murder.
One day, Ratnakar had robbed a man and was about to kill him. That man was the rishi Narada.
“Stop!” Narada said. “Would your wife and children approve?”
Ratnakar was surprised by this question and went to ask his family.
“I earn my living by robbery and murder,” he told them. “Do you approve?”
“The crime is yours alone, not mine,” said his wife.
His children said the same.
Ratnakar became a new man; he renounced crime forever.
176. Ratnakar Becomes Valmiki
After Ratnakar renounced his life of crime, he went deep into the forest to live a hermit’s life.
As he sat there, unmoving, deep in meditation, ants built an anthill around him. The anthill, “valmiki” in Sanskrit, became his home. Plants wrapped their tendrils around him, and birds nested in his matted hair and beard.
Meanwhile, he thought only of Brahman, the Cosmic Reality. “All is Brahman, all is God. All this Universe is Brahman, all that lives and moves and dies.”
Years later, he awoke, enlightened, and emerged from the anthill.
Ratnakar the robber was now the rishi Valmiki.
177. Valmiki Becomes a Poet
Two cranes, devoted to one another, lived by a river near the rishi Valmiki’s ashram.
One day as Valmiki watched the birds making love, a hunter shot an arrow from the bushes. One crane fell to the ground, dead, and his mate screamed in grief as she gazed at his blood-spattered corpse.
In anger and sorrow at this reckless slaughter, Valmiki cursed the hunter in verse:
The hunter who this loving bird did slay
For his great crime a grievous price will pay.
These lines of verse were the first poem in the world, and Valmiki was the first poet.
178. Narada Tells Valmiki about Rama
The rishi Narada visited Valmiki in his ashram.
“You’re the man I almost killed!” Valmiki exclaimed.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” said Narada, smiling. “And now, we meet again.”
“In your wisdom, perhaps you can tell me: who is the perfect man?” Valmiki asked. “What man possesses strength and a sense of duty? What man is truthful and steadfast in his vows, compassionate and wise, handsome and powerful, free from anger and envy, but fearsome when he is roused to righteousness?”
“That rare person is Rama,” replied Narada, “the son of King Dasharatha…”
Narada then told Valmiki the story of Rama.
179. Valmiki Reads Hanuman’s Ramayana
Valmiki composed the Ramayana, the epic story of Rama’s journey.
The devas and devis all praised his poem; Valmiki was proud.
But then Narada said, “Hanuman’s is better.”
Valmiki stared in disbelief.
“Go read it yourself! He lives in an orchard in the Himalayas, and he wrote his Ramayana on banana-tree leaves.”
Valmiki went to Hanuman’s orchard, and there he read Hanuman’s Ramayana on the leaves.
“Hanuman’s is better,” Valmiki admitted, weeping.
Then Hanuman appeared. “Why are you weeping?” he asked.
Hanuman grabbed the leaves and swallowed them. “Now your Ramayana is the best,” Hanuman told Valmiki, smiling.
180. Gossip Spreads
One day Rama was laughing and joking with the friends of his youth. “Tell me,” Rama said, “what is the talk of the town these days?”
“The citizens are still talking about your victory over Ravana, delighting in your triumph,” they said.
“Tell me more,” Rama insisted. “Not just the good, but the bad also.”
“Well,” one of his friends admitted, “some men complain that you allowed Sita to come back into your house. They now wonder if they must do the same for their gadabout wives.”
This gossip affected Rama deeply. He dismissed his friends and then summoned Lakshmana.
181. Rama Makes a Decision
“The people are complaining about Sita,” Rama said to Lakshmana. “I know she was faithful to me, but the people doubt her. Their doubt fills me with sorrow.”
Lakshmana looked at his brother in confusion.
Rama continued. “Tomorrow you will take Sita into the forest, leaving her there near Valmiki’s ashram. She has been wanting to visit the forest ashrams.”
All the color drained from Lakshmana’s face.
“And you will never speak to me of Sita again.” With tears in his eyes, Rama left the room.
Lakshmana stood there, unable to believe what his brother had asked him to do.
182. Lakshmana Takes Sita to the Forest
“Rama asked me to take you to visit the forest ashrams,” Lakshmana said. “Let’s go there now.”
Sita smiled at Lakshmana. “I told Rama I wanted to visit the ashrams again,” she said happily, expecting Rama would join them later.
When they reached the forest, Lakshmana began to weep. “Rama has ordered that I leave you here, Sita. He urges you to go to the rishi Valmiki, who will shelter you in his ashram.”
Sita also wept. “Do what you must,” she said, and Lakshmana left her there.
When Lakshmana disappeared from view, Sita fell to the ground in despair.
183. Sita Meets Valmiki
As Sita lay sobbing on the ground, the sons of the rishi Valmiki called to their father and ran to help her.
“So she has come,” Valmiki said to himself. He was not surprised, for the gods had revealed this to him in a vision.
Still, Valmiki was moved to pity when he saw the queen. She began to explain what had happened, but he interrupted her. “Say no more,” Valmiki assured her. “I know you aren’t to blame, and my home is yours.”
Valmiki brought her to the ashram, and Sita lived there with Valmiki’s family and his followers.
184. Sita Gives Birth
While living in Valmiki’s ashram, Sita gave birth to her twins.
Valmiki performed a ritual with kusha grass to protect the first-born son. “This child will be named Kusha,” said Valmiki, and Sita smiled.
Valmiki had saved a portion of kusha grass for the second son. He performed the ritual again, and said, “This child will be named Lava,” (“Lava” means “portion”). Sita smiled again.
The boys grew up in Valmiki’s ashram, and later Valmiki taught them the song he had composed, the Ramayana, the song of their father’s adventures, but the boys did not know Rama was their father.
185. Another Story of the Twins
Others, however, say that Sita gave birth to only one son, Lava, and she raised him in Valmiki’s ashram.
One day, Sita went to the river to do the laundry, leaving the toddler in Valmiki’s care. When Valmiki wasn’t looking, Lava wandered off. Valmiki couldn’t find him anywhere!
In desperation, Valmiki took a handful of kusha grass and used a mantra to turn the grass into a boy, a duplicate of Lava.
At that moment, Sita returned, holding Lava in her arms. Surprised to see the second child, she asked, “Who is that?”
“That is Kusha,” said Valmiki, “Lava’s twin.”
186. Shatrughna Hears the Twins Singing
One day a stranger arrived at Valmiki’s ashram: Shatrughna, Rama’s brother. He had gotten lost in the forest and was seeking shelter.
Recognizing her brother-in-law, Sita was overcome with emotion and hid in a hut where Shatrughna would not see her.
Valmiki offered the noble prince food and water. Then after the meal, the twins, Lava and Kusha, sang Valmiki’s Ramayana, the song of Rama.
Shatrughna listened in amazement. The song included everything; even Shatrughna was part of the boys’ song.
“What a beautiful song,” Shatrughna exclaimed, “and what beautiful boys!”
But he did not guess they were Rama’s sons.
187. Valmiki Takes the Twins to Ayodhya
The song Valmiki composed about Rama was very long. “You must memorize it all,” he said to Lava and Kusha. The boys obeyed, learning the whole Ramayana by heart.
Everyone who heard the boys’ song was amazed; they gave the boys gifts and blessed them.
Valmiki then took the boys to Ayodhya, where Rama heard them sing.
“Who are these two boys? They look like celestial gandharvas, the musicians of heaven! But how do they know of my adventures?” Rama wondered. From high on his golden throne, King Rama commanded the boys, “Sing! Sing some more!”
188. Rama Summons Sita
Because the Ramayana was so long, and because Rama wanted to hear the whole song from beginning to end, he kept inviting the boys to return to the palace.
Meanwhile, the people of Ayodhya were very curious. “Those boys resemble our king,” they whispered to one another. “Who are they really?”
As the boys reached the end of their story, describing how Sita gave birth in exile, Rama stared at them in wonder, realizing who the twins must be.
“Bring your mother to the palace,” Rama told the boys. “Let her prove her innocence again in front of all Ayodhya.”
189. Sita Arrives
Valmiki brought Sita to Ayodhya and presented her to Rama. “Here is the blameless woman you exiled because of gossip,” said Valmiki. “And these boys are your sons. Now Sita will again prove her innocence.”
Sita kept her eyes fixed on the ground. “If I was loyal to Rama, thinking of no one else,” she said, “let the earth-goddess Bhudevi receive me.”
The goddess arose from under the ground, seated on a shining throne. Bhudevi took Sita in her arms, and then they sank back down, and the ground closed over them.
The gods rained down flowers in Sita’s honor.
190. Rama Makes Plans
After Sita vanished into the earth, all that remained were blades of grass.
Overwhelmed with grief, Rama caressed the grass, thinking of the past.
He then embraced Lava and Kusha, acknowledging them as his sons, princes of Ayodhya.
Later, Rama secured kingdoms for the sons of his brother Bharata, and likewise for the sons of his brother Lakshmana.
Following Bharata’s advice, Rama declared that his own sons, Lava and Kusha, would rule Ayodhya after him. Legend reports that Lava founded the city of Lavapura (modern Lahore), and Kusha founded the city of Kasur to the south of Lavapura.
191. Rama Makes a Statue
After Sita vanished forever, everyone expected Rama to remarry.
“Who will be his bride?” the people wondered. “Perhaps someone from Ayodhya!” said some. “Perhaps a princess from the south!” said others. “Or the north!” “Or the west!” “Or the east!” “A princess from a nearby kingdom!” “A princess from far away!”
But Rama refused to remarry.
His priests protested. “You must have a queen! You should have a queen by your side when you conduct the holy rituals.”
“Sita is still my queen,” said Rama, and he had a golden statue made of Sita, keeping that statue by his side.
192. The Statues Speak to Rama
Some say that Rama had a new golden statue of Sita made for every sacred ritual. Then, after each ritual, the golden statue would be installed in a special temple.
One day Rama went to visit the temple, and the golden statues of Sita all called out to him. “Husband!” they cried. “Husband! Who will take care of us when you depart this earth?”
“I will see you again,” Rama promised, “and we will be reunited in love during my next lifetime.”
In his next lifetime, Rama would return as Krishna, and the golden statues would be Krishna’s beloved gopis.
193. Rama Confronts Shambuka
An old brahmin came to Rama, carrying his dead child. “This is your fault!” he said to Rama. “Things are out of control. My son has died before me.”
Not sure what to do, Rama sought advice from Narada. “There is a low-born man practicing austerities in the forest,” Narada said. “He is a shudra, the lowest caste, and a shudra should not aspire to gain heaven by practicing austerities. His name is Shambuka, and you must stop him.”
Rama found Shambuka in the forest and beheaded him.
At that very instant, the dead brahmin boy came back to life.
194. Kala Comes to Rama
Once when Rama entered Ayodhya, Hanuman glimpsed Yama, God of Death, lurking in the crowd. Hanuman lashed his tail on the ground in warning.
Death fled in fear.
Then Kala, God of Time, came to Rama. “Let no one disturb us,” Rama ordered Lakshmana. “Whoever disturbs us must die.”
Meanwhile, the rishi Durvasa arrived. “I must see Rama!” he said.
“Please wait,” said Lakshmana.
“I shall curse Rama, his sons, and his kingdom!” shouted Durvasa.
To save the kingdom, Lakshmana let Durvasa in.
“Lakshmana must die,” said Kala.
Thus Lakshmana departed for the Sarayu river, and he beheaded himself there.
195. Rama Grieves for Lakshmana
After Lakshmana’s death, Rama went to the river every day and wept for his brother.
There was also a monk who came to the river. Rama saw him fill his watering can and then pour the water over a large rock. The monk did this every day.
“That rock is not a plant,” Rama told him. “It can’t grow or produce fruit. So why do you water the rock?”
“Why do you shed tears for your brother?” replied the monk.
Rama then understood that his weeping served no more purpose than watering a rock, and he set his grief aside.
196. Hanuman Seeks Rama’s Ring
Rama dropped his ring, and it fell through a crack.
“I’ll get it!” shouted Hanuman.
He jumped down through the crack into the land of the nagas, and they took Hanuman to Vasuki, their king.
“I seek Rama’s ring,” said Hanuman.
Vasuki offered Hanuman a platter of rings: hundreds of identical rings!
“Which one is Rama’s?” asked Hanuman.
“They all are,” Vasuki explained. “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings. When a Rama incarnation ends, his ring falls down. By now, your Rama will have departed.”
Hanuman rushed back to Ayodhya.
What Vasuki had said was true.
197. Rama Departs
After Lakshmana departed, Rama was overcome by grief. “Bharata will now be king,” he declared.
Bharata, however, refused. “I have no wish for the kingdom without you in it,” he said. “You should crown Kusha and Lava instead.”
So the boys became the kings of Ayodhya, and Rama left the city. His bow and his arrows took on human form and walked with him. His brothers Bharata and Shatrughna followed, along with all the people of Ayodhya.
Rama stepped into the Sarayu river, and the devas applauded. “Welcome, Rama!” they shouted. “Come, Vishnu!”
So Vishnu returned at last to heaven.
198. Afterword: A Story about Tenalirama
The royal painter decorated the palace walls with Ramayana murals. Tenalirama scoffed. “Where’s the rest of Lakshmana?” he asked, pointing to one figure.
“That’s a profile!” replied the painter. “You have to imagine the rest.”
“I will decorate the summer palace with my own Ramayana paintings!” boasted Tenalirama.
A month later, he was done. The king came to see … and there were only noses. Everywhere! Noses painted all over the walls!
“What is this?” he shouted angrily.
“Well, this is Rama, of course. And Sita, Lakshmana…” Tenalirama pointed out each nose one by one. “You have to imagine the rest.”
199. Another Story about Tenalirama
A courtesan invited Tenalirama to recite the Ramayana, the epic story of Rama’s adventures, just for her.
Tenalirama began with the story of King Dasharatha and Rama’s birth, followed by the intrigue in King Dasharatha’s court, then Rama’s exile into the forest, accompanied by his devoted wife Sita and his loyal brother Lakshmana.
“So,” he said, “Rama, accompanied by Sita and Lakshmana, went into the forest to begin their exile.”
Then Tenalirama fell silent.
The courtesan waited, and finally she could wait no longer. “Then what happened?” she demanded.
“Be patient,” said Tenalirama. “They are still walking through the forest.”
200. A Story about Shiva
The world’s maya is like a magician’s magic. The magician is real; the magic isn’t. The illusion lasts for only a moment.
Shiva was sitting atop Mount Kailasha with his bull Nandi. Suddenly, a loud shout reverberated through the air and the earth shook.
“What was that?” asked Nandi.
“Ravana is born,” replied Shiva.
A few minutes later there was more shouting and the earth quaked.
“What was that?” asked Nandi again.
“Ravana is dead,” replied Shiva, smiling.
Birth and death are like bubbles in water; the water is real, but the bubbles arising from the water appear and disappear.