20. Dasharatha Longs for a Son
King Dasharatha of Ayodhya married Kaushalya, princess of Koshala. She gave Dasharatha a daughter, Shanta, but not a son.
Dasharatha then went to King Ashwapati of Kekaya and asked to marry his daughter Kaikeyi, for he had heard a prophecy that a princess of Kekaya would give birth to a great son. “I will make your daughter’s son king after me,” Dasharatha promised. But Kaikeyi did not give Dasharatha any children.
Dasharatha then married Sumitra, hoping a woman who was not of royal birth would give him a son, but Sumitra likewise could not give Dasharatha a child.
21. Dasharatha Summons Rishyashringa
King Dasharatha consulted his advisors. “We must conduct a sacrifice so that the devas grant me a son,” he said.
“Long ago I heard a prophecy about this,” said Sumantra, the royal charioteer. “The prophecy said that Rishyashringa, the forest rishi, would bring King Dasharatha a son from heaven. Rishyashringa dwells in the neighboring kingdom of Anga. Summon him here to conduct the sacrifice!”
“I have heard of Rishyashringa,” said Dasharatha. “When there was a drought in Anga, he brought rain to the kingdom. I will ask him to use his powers to bring a royal son to this kingdom.”
22. The Story of Rishyashringa
Rishyashringa was the son of Vibhandaka, a forest rishi. By practicing austerities, Vibhandaka sought to acquire powers that could cause rain to fall or cause infertile couples to bear children.
The god Indra, fearful of Vibhandaka’s powers, sent a heavenly apsara to tempt him.
When Vibhandaka saw the apsara, his semen spurted forth and fell to the ground. A doe ate the semen and gave birth to a child, a beautiful boy with the antlers of a deer. That boy was Rishyashringa.
Vibhandaka then raised Rishyashringa in complete isolation, seeking to protect him forever from the females of any species.
23. Rishyashringa Meets a Woman
Because Vibhandaka defied Indra, Indra deserted Anga.
No rain fell. Crops failed. The people starved.
The king of Anga sent his daughter to Vibhandaka’s ashram. “Seduce Vibhandaka’s son, and bring him here. He will appease the rain-god.”
The princess waited for Vibhandaka to go gather food, and then she began singing and dancing.
Rishyashringa was enchanted. “Who are you?” he asked. “What are you?”
“I’m a woman,” she said.
Rishyashringa had never seen a woman before. He went with her to the palace, and rains returned to the land.
Later, Rishyashringa went to Ayodhya to help Dasharatha get a son.
24. The Devas Make a Plan
As Rishyashringa was conducting King Dashratha’s ritual, the devas begged Vishnu to take birth as Dasharatha’s son.
“As Dasharatha’s son, O Vishnu, you can put a stop to Ravana’s cruelty,” said Indra. “He torments the whole earth! You are the only one who can save us.”
“Ravana won protection from devas and danavas, from nagas, yakshas, gandharvas, and so on,” Brahma explained. “But in his arrogance, he did not request protection from humans.”
“I will do as you ask,” Vishnu said to the gods. “I agree to be born as Dasharatha’s son; Prince Rama of Ayodhya will be my avatar.”
25. The Devas Answer Dasharatha’s Prayer
As Rishyashringa completed the sacrifice, a celestial being appeared, bearing in his hands a bowl of kheer.
King Dasharatha gave the bowl to Kaushalya, chief among his three wives.
“We must share it,” she said.
So Kaushalya ate half, and gave the bowl to Sumitra.
Sumitra ate half, and gave the bowl to Kaikeyi, Dasharatha’s favorite.
Kaikeyi ate half, and then gave the bowl back to Sumitra, who ate what was left.
And so Kaushalya gave birth to Rama, Kaikeyi to Bharata, and Sumitra had two sons: Lakshmana, who was devoted to Rama, and Shatrughna, who was devoted to Bharata.
26. Rama Amazes Kaushalya
One day Kaushalya left Rama in his cradle and went to offer prayers. She was amazed to find Rama there, eating the puja sweets! “How can he be both here and there?” she wondered.
As she stared, Rama displayed his cosmic form: infinite beings, millions of universes contained in every part of his body. All of time, all of existence radiated from him.
Kaushalya bowed her head. “O Lord, I beg you to let me forget what you have shown me here.”
So Kaushalya forgot, and in obedience to his mother Rama never revealed his true form to her again.
27. Kaikeyi Saves Dasharatha
The god Indra asked King Dasharatha to help him fight the armies of the rakshasa Shambara.
Queen Kaikeyi rode with Dasharatha into battle as his charioteer, and when the wheel-axle broke, Kaikeyi bent over the edge of the chariot and stuck her hand through the wheel, using her arm to replace the axle.
Later, when Dasharatha was wounded by the rakshasas’ weapons, she carried him away from the battlefield to safety.
“I owe you my life!” said Dasharatha gratefully. “I grant you two boons to use for whatever you want whenever you want.”
Later, Dasharatha would bitterly regret this promise.
28. Dasharatha Goes Hunting
King Dasharatha was a skilled hunter; he could even shoot blindfolded, using only sound to guide him.
One day he heard a deer drinking. He fired.
Then, he heard a scream.
He had shot a boy!
“My parents…” the boy gasped, breathing his last.
Dasharatha picked up the boy and carried him through the forest until he found the boy’s parents, old and blind.
They wept over the boy’s corpse, and the father then cursed Dasharatha. “You too will lose a son!” he said. “You will feel our pain.”
The old man’s words haunted Dasharatha, but he told no one.
29. Vishvamitra Visits Dasharatha
The rishi Vishvamitra came to King Dasharatha’s court.
“During the sacrifices, unholy rakshasas attack the priests in my ashram,” Vishvamitra explained. “I seek royal protection for our rituals.”
“I will come gladly!” replied King Dasharatha.
“No, not you,” said Vishvamitra. “Your son must come: Rama.”
“He is too young to fight rakshasas!” exclaimed Dasharatha.
“You are wrong,” said Vishvamitra. “I know Rama.”
“I will send my army!”
Without a word, Vishvamitra got up to leave.
Dasharatha relented. “Let Lakshmana go with him,” he pleaded. “They have never been apart.”
So Rama, accompanied by Lakshmana, went with Vishvamitra to fight rakshasas.
30. The Story of Tataka
There were many rakshasas who had been attacking Vishvamitra’s ashram, but the most vicious and dangerous among them was Tataka.
Tataka had once been a beautiful yaksha on whom Brahma bestowed the strength of a thousand elephants.
When the rishi Agastya killed her husband, Tataka vowed revenge, and Agastya in turn cursed Tataka, turning her into a monstrous rakshasi.
Enraged, Tataka and her sons, Maricha and Subahu, attacked every rishi and defiled every sacrifice.
That is why Vishvamitra brought Rama into the forest.
“You must kill Tataka and her sons!” he commanded.
“I will do as you say,” Rama vowed.
31. Vishvamitra Arms Rama
Vishvamitra prepared Rama by giving him many weapons. There were deadly discs and spears, maces and lassoes, plus the divine weapons called astras, unleashed by the power of the mind.
Vishvamitra gave Rama weapons with which he could fight not just rakshasas, but also asuras and danavas, gandharvas and nagas, all possible enemies.
Rama received the weapons, and Vishvamitra recited the mantras that Rama would need to unleash this arsenal of supernatural power. Rama learned all the mantras.
The weapons then spoke to Rama with human voices. “We are yours to command,” they said, “and we will keep you safe.”
32. Rama Faces Tataka
Vishvamitra had brought Rama into the forest and taught him how to wield supernatural powers: arrows powered by the sun and moon, wind and lightning, air and fire, invincible weapons of the mind.
Then Tataka arrived. They could hear her voice shrieking ever louder as she approached the ashram.
“Kill her!” commanded Vishvamitra.
“But she is a woman,” protested Rama.
“The enemy has no gender,” replied Vishvamitra. “Kill her now!”
Rama chanted a mantra and then launched an overwhelming arrow in the direction of her voice.
His arrow struck Tataka in the heart and she fell to the ground, dead.
33. Tataka’s Sons Attack
Vishvamitra then commanded Rama and Lakshmana to guard his ashram against rakshasas while the priests conducted sacred rituals.
At night, rakshasas attacked: Maricha and Subahu swooped down, screaming with rage, spewing blood upon the fire-altar. These were Tataka’s sons, seeking to avenge their mother’s death.
Rama swiftly shot an arrow at Maricha which struck him in the chest, hurling him far away into the ocean.
Lakshmana, meanwhile, shot Subahu, who fell dead on the spot.
Freed from the rakshasas, the priests conducted their rituals in peace.
But the journey was not over; Vishvamitra had still more plans for the princes.
34. The Story of Ahalya
During their journey, Vishvamitra told the princes many stories. One story he told was about Ahalya.
Brahma created Ahalya, the most beautiful woman in the world. He then gave her to the rishi Gautama as a wife.
Gautama, however, had no time for Ahalya, focused as he was on his devotions.
Indra, meanwhile, lusted for the beautiful Ahalya. Disguised as Gautama, Indra took Ahalya to bed.
Gautama found out and cursed them both.
“You, Indra, will become impotent,” he said. Indra’s testicles fell to the ground.
“You, Ahalya, will turn into a stone.” Ahalya was trapped, motionless, inside a stone.
35. They Come to a Deserted Ashram
As they continued their journey over mountains and through forests, Vishvamitra led the princes into a deserted ashram. Rama wondered why Vishvamitra had brought them there. And then… something surprising happened. As Rama’s foot brushed against a rock, a beautiful woman suddenly appeared before him.
“You have liberated me, Rama,” she said. “I am Ahalya, and I welcome you to Gautama’s ashram.”
Next, Gautama emerged from the forest. He bowed to Vishvamitra and the princes, and then he extended his hand to Ahalya. Smiling, she took her husband’s hand.
All was forgiven.
Rejoicing, the devas rained down flowers from heaven.
36. The Story of Indra
After Ahalya departed with Gautama, Rama asked about Indra. “Was Indra ever freed from Gautama’s curse?”
“Indra begged the devas for help,” said Vishvamitra, “but no one knew what to do. Then Agni had an idea: they could give Indra the testicles of a ram. They found a ram tied to a pole, ready to be sacrificed. They cut off the ram’s testicles and took them to Indra, so that he could replace the testicles he had lost.”
Lakshmana burst out laughing, but Rama knew this was a serious matter. The curse of a rishi can afflict even the gods.