Devdutt Pattnaik’s The Girl Who Chose, An Excerpt:
Devdutt Pattnaik points out that the story of Ramayana actually depended on five choices made by Sita -the earth princess. We bring you an extract from his book The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana.
Her First Choice
Shiva, who sits on Mount Kailasha, and from whose locks flows the Ganga, had a bow called Pinaka. It was a magnificent bow with which Shiva had brought down the three flying cities of asuras using a single arrow.
Asuras live under the earth, in a place called Patala, and often fight devas who live above the sky, in a place called Swarga. Asuras once built three flying cities to drive devas out of Swarga. These three cities could only be destroyed by a single arrow, which made them impossible to damage. So the devas turned to Shiva for help as only he had the mighty Pinaka, with which he could shoot such a lethal arrow in a single shot.
Shiva handed over this bow to Janaka, king of Mithila. But it was too heavy for any human to lift. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Shiva. ‘Your daughter will lift this bow and your son-in-law will string it. For they will be the avatars of Lakshmi and Vishnu. Vishnu has already taken birth as Ram in the house of Dasharatha, the sun-king of the sun-city, Ayodhya. Lakshmi is yet to be born in your house.’
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Vishnu is her protector. Vishnu often takes a human form. He is born in this form, and eventually dies. This mortal form of an immortal being is known as avatar.
Every year, the people of Mithila would till their fields and sow their seeds before the rains, and harvest the crops after. The king would be invited to do the first tilling of the field using a golden plough. That year, as Janaka was ploughing, he hit an obstacle. Was it a rock? Janaka dug the earth and found a pot, and in the pot, a little girl. He was thrilled to see her. ‘Is this the daughter Shiva had spoken about?’ he wondered. ‘I shall call her Sita. She will be my earth-princess.’
After Sita came into Janaka’s life, Janaka’s wife gave birth to a baby girl, called Urmila, and Janaka’s brother’s wife gave birth to two other girls, Mandavi and Shrutakirti. Mithila was a happy place with four princesses. And just as Shiva had said, Sita alone could lift Shiva’s bow. No one else could.
Many years later, a rishi called Vishwamitra came to Mithila. He brought with him two young men, Ram and his younger brother, Lakshman. They were two of Dasharatha’s four sons. The other two— Bharata and Shatrughna— had stayed back in the palace, as their father did not like all his four sons being exposed to the dangerous rakshasas of the forest.
Rishis live in the forest, appreciating nature, plants and animals. They believe that humans should control the earth with farming and the mind with rules. The rakshasas disagree. Hence, the conflict between rishis and rakshasas.
Vishwamitra had asked Dasharatha’s sons to help him rid the forest of rakshasas. Dasharatha’s sons had been trained in archery by another rishi, called Vasishtha and, thus, were believed to be good warriors. True enough, much to Vishwamitra’s delight, Ram successfully killed the ferocious rakshasa woman called Tadaka, also driving away her two companions, Subahu and Marichi.
Vishwamitra then took Ram to another hermitage in the forest and pointed to a stone there. ‘This was once a woman called Ahalya. She was wife to a rishi named Gautama. He saw her in the arms of Indra, king of the gods, and was so upset that he cursed her to turn into stone. It was a rash response and one that Gautama regretted, for now he could not reverse the curse to bring back his beloved wife. Can you reverse it for him, Ram? You, who took life of Tadaka— can you give Ahalya her life back?’
Ram understood clearly that forgiveness was better than punishment. So he touched the stone and wished for Ahalya to come back to life. And lo and behold! She did! Her joy knew no bounds. Gautama was happy too, as was Indra.
News of this radiant sun-prince, who killed Tadaka and liberated Ahalya, had reached Mithila even before the arrival of Ram. Janaka invited Ram, his brother and the sage Vishwamitra to his city. Maybe Ram was the prince who could string Shiva’s bow and be his son-in-law, as Shiva had foretold long ago. To everyone’s amazement, Ram picked up Shiva’s bow easily. Not just that, he also bent the bow to string it, as he was asked to. Only, he bent it too hard and it broke!
Hearing the sound of the bow breaking, a sage called Parashuram rushed to Mithila.
‘If you can break Shiva’s bow, then you must be Vishnu on earth. Are you Vishnu?’ he asked Ram.
Ram did not know what to say. Parashuram handed Ram a bow, saying, ‘If you can hold my bow, it means that you are Vishnu. And that the woman you are about to marry, Janaka’s daughter Sita, is Lakshmi.’
And sure enough, Ram picked up Parashuram’s bow, who smiled. ‘Blessed is the earth, for now Ram is here!’ he exclaimed.
Janaka was happy to hand his daughter to Ram in marriage. Sita’s sisters married Ram’s brothers—Lakshman married Urmila, Bharata married Mandavi, Shatrughna married Shrutakirti.
They all went to live together in the big palace in Ayodhya, where they were welcomed by Dasharatha, and his three queens— Kaushalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi.
‘Now that my sons are married, I should retire,’ declared Dasharatha.
‘I should crown Ram king and he can take care of Ayodhya with his brothers. With Janaka’s daughters by their side, they will surely be good guardians of the sun-city.’
But there was a problem. Kaikeyi, Bharata’s mother, was not pleased to see that Dasharatha was going to make crown-prince Ram the heir to the throne. She wanted her son to be the new king of Ayodhya.
Her maid, Manthara told her, ‘If Kaushalya’s son becomes king, then your son will be his servant and you will be the mother of a servant.’
Kaikeyi did not like this at all.
In the Mahabharata, the sage Markandeya tells the story of Ram to Yudhishthira. It is called the Ramopakhyana. Here, Brahma directs a celestial being, known as a gandharva, to take birth as Manthara, and goad Kaikeyi into asking Dasharatha for two boons. It was all part of a big plan to get Ram to go to the forest and kill the rakshasa-king, Ravana.
So Kaikeyi reminded Dasharatha of the two boons he had offered her a long time ago, when she’d saved his life in battle. ‘I want my son, Bharata, to be crowned king of Ayodhya. And I want Ram to go and live in the forest for fourteen years.’ Dasharatha protested. But a promise was a promise.
The rulers of the sun-city were called the sunkings because they dazzled by virtue of always following the rules of the land. If the rule said that a king must always keep his promise, then the promise would be kept. When Ram learnt of what his stepmother wanted, and of the promise made by his father, he decided to leave the kingdom immediately. The promise would be kept. The rules would be upheld. The sun-king and the sunprince would dazzle as their ancestors did.
Lakshman would always accompany Ram wherever he’d go. ‘I will come with you,’ he said, discarding his royal robes like his elder brother had, and wearing forest-dwellers’ clothes, made of bark, instead.
In the Puranas, Lakshman is called Adi Sesha, the serpent with a thousand hoods, on whose coils sleeps Vishnu. The two are eternal companions.
[Excerpted from The Girl Who Chose, The Ramayana for Children authored by Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Puffin (Penguin Random House India), 2017. MRP: Rs. 199.]
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