Scriptures Suffering Surrender

how to understand and deal with grief?

romapada-swami-on-dealing-with-grief
Written by Romapada Swami

Question: I have recently experienced a miscarriage in my 11th week of pregnancy. Though my husband and I are coming to terms with the fact that maybe this was not the right time for the soul to manifest and though we are trying our best to take shelter in the scriptures, it has not been easy. I have many questions that seem unanswered and I feel extremely helpless and fallen as chanting the holy name also appears tasteless to me. My husband and I feel guilty that I did not take some external hormones that were prescribed to me during my pregnancy, as we wanted to keep the pregnancy as natural and free from medicines as possible. We feel guilty now that maybe it was because I did not take those tablets that the soul in my womb is no longer there? It was not willful negligence but the pain and the guilt refuses to go away. What can we do?

Romapada Swami Answers: As devotees, our primary and all-potent process of healing is hearing and chanting in the association of devotees.  Ultimately, overcoming any emotional distress has to do with surrender or coming to a deep level of acceptance of the situations which Krishna is very kindly sanctioning in our lives to help reclaim us and bring us back to Him, despite the fact that the situations in and of themselves may seem very difficult or even harsh as we are passing through them. Our scriptures are replete with very strong and convincing philosophy which can carry the recipient far beyond the temporal realm; before presenting such teachings to someone experiencing grief, however, we must consider the time, place, and circumstances.  In the previous ages, people were more advanced in spiritual understanding, thus with senses and mind under higher command, and more philosophically oriented. Most people in this age find it difficult to respond to direct philosophy or words conveying transcendental wisdom, when challenged by trauma or grief.

In helping others, therefore, it is very important to acknowledge their humanness. Part of grief counseling is to allow people to grieve and express their feelings. One primary goal, however, is to assist them in accepting the reality of whatever has happened. Counseling therefore requires sensitivity and genuine compassion. The combination of enormous empathy, while gently and adeptly offering philosophical teachings, proves most successful for helping people through their grief.  It affords people the opportunity to become free of illusion and fear.

As devotees we know that the only way to become truly fearless is to take cent-percent shelter of the Lord.  Fearlessness comes when we have a sense of an unshakeable shelter and a sense of eternal identity beyond the many illusory identities or designations we carry.

In the remainder of the document below, we will try to understand what grief is from a medical or psychological standpoint, and then go through steps applying principles which professional counselors often advise, interspersed with our Vaisnava teachings. While most devotees do not have such professional training, understanding these steps and counseling principles can be useful for us as devotees provided we process them properly.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to loss.  It is a strong and sometimes overwhelming emotion for people.

Grief is both a universal and a personal experience. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature, and circumstances of the loss and one’s available support systems. Grief may be triggered by the death of a loved one. People also can experience grief if they have an illness for which there is no cure, or a chronic condition that affects their quality of life. The end of a significant relationship, job loss, loss through theft etc. may also cause a grieving process.

Everyone feels grief in their own way. However, there are common stages to the process of mourning or grieving.  It starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss. (Attached is a chapter from Ramayana, which describes how different personalities who remained behind in Ayodhya reacted to the loss of Lord Rama when He was exiled to the forest for 14 years.)

For a transcendentalist who is fixed in transcendental knowledge, the impermanent is not their focus. Abundant teachings are within scripture to teach us this lesson over and over again.  Until that stage is reached, however, there is no doubt about it – grief is a harrowing process, no matter from what angle you approach it.

“Grief destroys patience, eradicates knowledge and confounds the senses. Indeed, there is no enemy like grief. Even a great blow from an enemy can be endured, but the smallest amount of grief is intolerable.” (Kaushalya speaks in Ramayana Ch. 2 – highlighted in the REFERENCE section below)

Psychologists describe grief as both an emotion and a process –

When someone experiences a significant loss, it often produces many other losses, such that the person might say, “I feel like I am losing everything.”  Whether or not they are losing everything may be debatable, but it feels like they have and it is important to validate their feelings. The initial loss is often referred to as the Primary Loss, and the losses that follow are identified as Secondary Losses.

E.g. someone may be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That loss of health was the primary loss. But that actually triggered many other losses, which came about as a result of that initial loss of health, such as loss of his mobility, loss of his ability to function, loss of his business, all of which came as a result of that primary loss.

Similarly, it helps to recognize primary (grief) and secondary (anger, fear, depression, guilt, sadness, blaming etc.) emotions.  Secondary emotions are life inhibiting while primary emotions have the potential of being life promoting – they pass through you, they do not hold you hostage.

The process of grieving –

Different counselors describe the process of grieving in different ways or steps but it may be summarized in a few essential steps.  Everyone may not go through all the phases and one may also not go through them sequentially in a linear fashion but they are helpful to recognize.

1. Numbness or denial – Often after a major loss like death, people feel quite numb.  It is actually our human defense mechanism, which “shuts down” until we can marshal our resources to face the reality of what has occurred.  Some common emotions experienced during this stage might be shock, confusion, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, fatigue, apathy etc.

2. Disorientation – When the numbness wears off, (time frame varies) what many people experience can be described as being like an explosion or an avalanche of emotions. Everything seems to touch the person on the raw nerve.

Throughout this “stage of disorientation”, the loss still doesn’t seem real to the grieving individual. The person cannot yet believe that this has really happened and their desire is to “find” that which is lost; so they engage in the internal psychological task of searching.  They search and do not find, yet they yearn, and that longing is not fulfilled. Only after this process can the reality of one’s loss be faced. Some emotions during this stage may be oversensitivity, anxiety, fear, panic, vulnerability, impatience, restlessness, irritability, searching/yearning etc.

It helps at this stage to express one’s raw feelings to a close friend or family member, but only if they are able to sincerely listen and validate one’s feelings without offering too much advice on how to just move on.  And if one is not in the mood to talk, recording one’s thoughts in a journal also helps one.

The more one’s shelter or identification or attachment is in the object of the loss, the more one may experience these stages because that sense of shelter has been suddenly and forcefully ripped away from them.

3. Confrontation – In one sense, the stages of numbness and disorientation are a time of avoidance, and that is natural. The challenge of the process of grieving is to accept the reality of our loss and experience the pain of that realization. At first we are protected from the full impact, but the time comes when we are confronted by the reality of the loss, and that there is nothing we can do to change it.

Thus, this is characterized by some as a time of “angry sadness”.  What is it that people confront? More often than not, the reality of the loss makes people confront their own powerlessness to change the situation or their sense of inadequacy to control the situation.  This often becomes the foundation of responses like anger, guilt, helplessness, loneliness and depression. It is wise to recognize that often the guilt and anger are related to that sense of powerlessness, and are a reaction to it, an attempt to gain some sense of control in a situation that is beyond control.

From a Vaishnava perspective, our greatest asset is our blessing in the form of faith in Guru, Krishna and scripture.   Most acutely in these challenging times, one can try to see Krishna as one’s well-wishing friend, the Supreme controller, protector and maintainer.  Understanding that there is life after death, and coming to learn to accept the Lord’s infinite grace, His indiscernible higher plan, and His tender mercies in all forms, can be a great source of strength to confront and deal with the loss.  An essential part of surrender is accepting the situations that are beyond our control and serving Krsna according to His terms.

4. Adjustment – Just as each grief response by every individual is unique, so the adjustments to that specific situation will be different in every case. The question that each individual must address is “How is my life different in the light of my loss?” That challenge will be faced in numerous areas of the individual’s life, including the following:
Practical adjustments, where there may be tasks that have to be assumed, some involving new skills or responsibilities; and tasks that may have to be relinquished etc.
Emotional adjustments, such as coming to terms with loneliness, or not having this special person to talk to or share with, can be challenging.
Social adjustments, where activities that were shared with the deceased are no longer there, or feeling “out of place” in a social setting.
Physical adjustments, where the person may be missing the physical presence of someone or adjusting to the loss of some physical capacity due to illness.
Perceptual adjustments, where the bereaved feel marginalized, as if people are looking at them through different eyes, or treating them as broken, or “not quite whole”.

Fortunately as devotees we have many ways to find empowerment, guidance and support while making these core adjustments.

5. Reorganization – The stages of adjustment and reorganization are precursors to a reestablishment of life, by a social and emotional reentry to the everyday world. We learn to live with loss as we reinvest ourselves in new persons, ideas and things. Reconciliation of grief means coming to the place where we can accept life as meaningful, even in the light of loss.
We do not recover from grief, in the sense that the loss changes us forever; but when we learn how to integrate loss into our life, and affirm that life is still meaningful, we have come a full circle in our grief journey.

Grief should not last forever, and we need to come to the place from where we can move on.

As one goes through this process of grieving, one may feel sometimes that the pain will never end and that it is going to pierce one and torment forever. But with time, Krishna’s love, the help of spiritual master/counselors/close friends and family, bringing to light what is in the subconscious to the conscious realm, the aching eventually subsides.

A few other helpful things –

It is especially helpful to be able to communicate directly with others who have had similar experiences. They are able to lend one the strength and help get through the ordeal. It is extremely comforting to know that you are not the only one out there who has felt such an intense loss.

Some phrases to avoid – Though one may be well-intentioned, a few phrases that don’t help when a person is going through the acute stage of grief are things like – e.g. – in case of grief after miscarriage – “Maybe this is for the best”, or “You can always try and have another child” or “At least you know you can get pregnant” or “There must have been something wrong with the baby” or “Be grateful for the children you do have.”

Some helpful phrases  – “I am sorry for your loss.” “Is there something I can do to help? Can I bring a meal or watch your children?” “I am here for you if you need me.”

One of the most important things is to listen intently to the person who is grieving and follow the cues they are giving. If they want to talk and cry, welcome them with open arms. If they want to be left alone, then respect their wishes. Remember just to be their friend and check in with them periodically to see if you are needed.  Above all, don’t just completely ignore the situation and pretend it never happened.

Effective grieving is not done alone – Society has unrealistic expectations about mourning and often responds inappropriately.  Most people do not understand what is normal in grief, expecting us to get over it quickly and expressing these expectations in a way that seems less than sensitive.  Sometimes when people are using clichés or expressing unrealistic expectations one feel like shutting themselves away.  Often people are uncomfortable with our grief and there seems to be a conspiracy of silence.  Many people mistakenly believe that grief is so personal that they want to keep it to themselves.  Grieving people need to talk.  Not everyone may be willing or even able to respond to you.  In fairness, not everyone can and we need to accept that but yet finding that one person with whom one can share their heart with is very important and helpful (an essential part of Rupa Goswami’s teaching – guhyam akhyati prcchati – and an important part of Vaisnava culture).

Grief comes and goes – Grief is not a disease like a sore throat where things are painful for a few days, then the pain eases off and gradually disappears. Grief is not unlike a roller coaster.  One day we feel pretty good, the next we may find ourselves in the depths of despair.  Just when we think we are getting over it, we may experience another devastating setback.  This can be discouraging to those who do not know what is happening.   Grief comes and goes and takes much longer than most people expect.  There are many levels or layers of acceptance that one has to go through.  Some of the layers come to light only after a period of time.

Studying the lives of great personalities in scripture who also faced intense losses in their lives– Srimad Bhagavatam is described as the ultimate refuge in the age of Kali!  There are many pastimes when carefully studied can address every portion of our heart that perhaps no one else other than Krishna has access to because after all He is our ultimate benefactor.  There are many examples of how a saintly personality dealt with some loss and by studying their example, praying to them and glorifying them, somehow we also get the strength to deal with our loss. (E.g. Narada Muni losing his mother, Pariksit Maharaj being cursed, Queen Kunti’s prayers, Dhruva Maharaj being rejected by his father etc)   Anyone who studies Srimad Bhagavatam regularly will share his or her experience of how it has an incredible, inconceivable and imperceptible or a mystical way of giving us a sense of REAL shelter and changing the way we view the world, people, events etc.!

Taking shelter of the Holy Name – Chanting attentively and finding shelter in the holy name can do wonders on our heart!

suditashrita-janarti-rashaye
ramya-chid-ghana-sukha-svarupine
nama gokula-mahotsavaya te
krishna purna-vapushe namo namah

“O Harinama, You destroy the many sufferings of those who take shelter of You. O Holy Name, You are the playful embodiment of intense spiritual bliss, a festival of happiness for Gokula. O perfect and complete Holy Name of Krishna, I offer pranam unto You time and again.” (Namastaka verse 7)

adhayo vyadhayo yasya
smaranan-nama-kirtanat
tadaiva vilayam yanti
tam anantam namamy aham

“I offer my prostrated obeisances to that infinite Lord, because by remembering Him and singing His names, all physical and mental ailments are forthwith rooted out.” (Skanda Purana)

 


REFERENCE
Ramayana, Chapter 2
Devastation in Ayodhya

After Rama and His party had gone into the jungle on the other side of the Ganges, Sumantra and Guha spent some time speaking together about Rama. Both were shocked and saddened to realize His firm intention to spend fourteen years in the deep forest. They had both been hoping that He would relent and perhaps return to Ayodhya to punish the evil Kaikeyi, who did not deserve any kindness. Or He could at least remain with Guha and his people, where He could be reached easily. Now He was gone. Guha heard from his spies about Räma’s meeting with Bharadväja, and His going on from there to the Chitrakuta mountain. Sadly, the Nishadha king returned to his own home in the city of Sringavera, from where he ruled over the forest tribes.

As the reality of Rama’s departure sank in, Sumantra drove the chariot back toward Ayodhya. After two days traveling he arrived to find the city subdued and silent, overpowered by grief. Sumantra entered by the southern gate. As the empty chariot moved along the road, hundreds and thousands of people approached it crying, “O Rama! Have You really gone? Where is that faultless hero? Alas, we are forsaken and lost!”

Sumantra, afflicted at hearing their laments, covered his head with his garment. He felt ashamed to have been the one who took Rama away. He made his way along the royal highway to Dasharatha’s palace, hearing the wails of the women who stood on the balconies of their houses, gazing upon the chariot now bereft of its passengers.

Sumantra reached the palace and went quickly through the first seven gates, arriving at the eighth which led to the king’s inner chambers. He entered the large room and found the king seated on a couch, pale and withered from grief. The charioteer described his journey from Ayodhya with Rama. Dasharatha listened in complete silence and then, having heard of Rama’s definite entrance into the forest, fell senseless to the floor.

Seeing their husband fallen, the ladies burst into tears. Kaushalya, assisted by Sumitra, lifted him up and said, “Why do you not reply to the charioteer, my lord? He has carried out a most difficult task on your behalf. Are you feeling ashamed for perpetrating such an unseemly act? Be fixed in your determination, O king, for you have firmly adhered to truth! Do not submit to this grief, as we who depend upon you will not be able to survive seeing you filled with such despair.”

Kaushalya spoke with a faltering voice. Her dear son, whom she had not been able to go without seeing for even a day, was now gone for fourteen years. She dropped in a faint next to her husband. All the ladies flocked around, sprinkling cool scented water on the faces of the monarch and his queen, who lay like a god and his consort fallen from heaven.

When Dasharatha awoke from his swoon he summoned Sumantra, who stood silently nearby. The charioteer was covered in dust and his face was streaked with tears. With folded hands, he stood respectfully before the king.

Dasharatha sighed dolefully and said to Sumantra, “Where will Rama live now, taking shelter under a tree and sleeping on the bare ground? What will He eat? The prince has known only luxury and deserves the best of everything. Formerly He would always be followed by my great army; how can He now live alone in the desolate forest?”

Although Rama and Lakshman had grown up to become fierce fighters, to the emperor They were still his tender young sons. Dasharatha could hardly tolerate the thought of Their living a life of austerity and abnegation, along with the gentle Sita. Anxiously he imagined the scene facing his two boys. How could They survive in the wild among carnivorous animals and venomous snakes?

The king continued, “Did you follow Them as they walked alone into some bleak and lonely land? What were Their last words? O Sumantra, pray tell me what They uttered as They were leaving, for this shall be my only sustenance for the coming fourteen years.”

Dasharatha stood up and looked into his charioteer’s face, whose head hung down and who was shaking with sorrow. With a choked voice Sumantra replied to the king, “The ever-truthful Rama asked me to touch yours and Kaushalya’s feet on His behalf, O great king. He requested me to convey His fond farewell to all the ladies in the royal court, who are to Rama just like His own mother.”

After bowing at the feet of the king and queen, Sumantra continued to speak with difficulty, describing his parting from Rama and the others. Faithfully he recounted the exact messages the two princes had given him.

“Rama, who was constantly shedding tears as He spoke, asked that Bharata be quickly installed as the Prince Regent. He left instructions that Bharata should accord all respect to His aged father and to all of His mothers, especially the grief-stricken Kaushalya.”

The charioteer then recalled the final angry words of Lakshman. “When Rama stopped speaking, Lakshman, hissing like an enraged cobra, said, ‘For what offense has this virtuous prince been exiled? The king has carried out Kaikeyi’s order without considering its merit. Regardless of his reasoning, I find no justification whatsoever for the emperor’s decision to send away the sinless Rama. Rama’s exile will end in remorse. It contradicts all good sense and is against tradition and even scripture. Having performed an act which has caused nothing but pain to all the people, how can father remain as the king any longer? Indeed, I cannot even see in him the qualities of a father. For Me, Rama alone is My brother, master and father!'”

Sumantra, having summoned up the vehemence with which Lakshman had spoken, calmed himself down and described his last sight of Sita. “The blessed princess Sita stood silent as I prepared to leave. As though Her mind were possessed by an evil spirit, She remained motionless and distracted, heaving deep sighs. Gazing upon Her husband’s face, She suddenly burst into tears, covering Her own face with Her two bejeweled hands, which looked like two white lotuses. Then the three of Them stood watching as I drove the chariot away.”
Dasharatha asked Sumantra to describe his return journey and the charioteer replied, “I remained with Guha for three days, hoping and praying that Rama would return. Finally I concluded that I would not see Him again until the full fourteen years had expired. I yoked up the chariot and urged the horses to move, but they remained stationary, shedding tears of grief. After much cajoling they finally moved and I proceeded on the path back to Ayodhya.”

Sumantra stopped speaking for some time as he struggled to control his feelings. After sipping a little water he continued describing the scene he had witnessed on his return. On all sides in the kingdom he saw signs of grief and separation from Rama. Even the trees with their flowers and leaves looked withered. The lakes and rivers were dried up and everywhere there were beasts and birds entirely immobile, not even searching for food. The woods were silent and gave off none of their former fragrance. The parks and gardens in the city appeared desolate and deserted. No one greeted him as he entered Ayodhya. Everywhere were sighing men and women, lost in thoughts of Rama. As they saw the empty chariot they let out tremendous cries of grief. Even the animals wore wretched expressions. On the tops of high buildings he saw noble ladies gazing mutely at each other, their eyes overflooded with tears. The city appeared devoid of all happiness, looking exactly like the empress Kaushalya, bereft of her beloved son.

After Sumantra stopped speaking, Dasharatha became pensive, feeling extreme regret. How had he stood by as Rama had left? Why did he not reprimand the wicked Kaikeyi? He cursed his foolish attachment to virtue that brought about such an unvirtuous end. Where was the truth in banishing the truthful prince Rama?

In a piteous voice the king exclaimed, “It was out of infatuation for my wife alone that I exiled Rama. I did not seek any counsel with my ministers and wise advisors, being dictated to by the sinful Kaikeyi.”

Dasharatha wondered how he could have acted so contrary to his own good sense and wisdom. Surely this great calamity had suddenly happened by the will of Providence simply to destroy his race. The king sighed, feeling helpless in the hands of fate.

Turning to Sumantra, Dasharatha said, “O charioteer, if I have ever done you any good turn, then please quickly take me to Rama! My mind is drawn irresistibly to the prince. If I am still the king today then let anyone fetch Rama back to Ayodhya! I shall not survive for even an hour longer without Rama! Where is that Rama, whose shining face is adorned with pearl-like teeth? Maybe that mighty-armed prince has gone far into the woods by now. Bring me a chariot and I shall immediately make haste to see Him. If I do not soon catch a sight of Rama, I shall reach Death’s abode this very day!”

Dasharatha had been hoping beyond hope that Sumantra might somehow have returned with his sons. Realizing the finality of Rama’s departure, the king gave full vent to his terrible grief.

“O Rama! O Lakshman! O Sita! What could be more painful for me than not seeing You here? You do not know that I am dying from agony, like a lost and forlorn creature.”

The emperor fell senseless onto a couch. Close to him Kaushalya tossed about on the floor as though possessed by a spirit. Seeing Sumantra she exclaimed, “Charioteer! Yoke up the chariot and take me to Rama, for I shall not live another moment without Him! Where now is my son reposing, His head placed upon His mighty arm? When again will I see His charming features surrounded by curling black locks? I think my heart is as hard as a diamond; otherwise, why does it not shatter to pieces even though I do not see Rama?”

Sumantra felt all the more agonized himself as he saw the grief of the king and queen. He tried to comfort Kaushalya. “I think your son will settle happily in the forest along with Lakshman and Sita. Indeed, I did not detect in Them any dejection at the prospect of living as ascetics. Shaking off Their grief, They appeared pleased upon approaching the forest. Sita seemed especially happy; much delighted at the sights and sounds of the woods.”

Kaushalya, not appeased by Sumantra’s kind words, turned toward Dasharatha, admonishing him out of grief and love. “My lord, you are famous in all the three worlds for your compassion and kindness, yet you thoughtlessly banished your faultless son! How will your two gentle boys, ever accustomed to every luxury, live like hermits? How will the frail Sita, a child of a mere sixteen years, survive the ravages of forest life? She has always been offered the very best of cooked foods and will surely not survive on wild roots. How will She bear the terrible roars of lions and tigers?”

Kaushalya became increasingly angry as she spoke. Her eyes reddened, and black streaks of collyrium ran down her cheeks. She censured Dasharatha for his cruelty.

“You have utterly divested Rama of his right to be king,” she cried. “Even after returning to Ayodhya, Räma will surely not accept the kingdom. High-class men can never enjoy items left by others. Rama will therefore not accept the kingdom left by His younger brother, even as a tiger would not eat the food brought to him by another animal.”
Kaushalya’s mind was absorbed in thoughts of her son and she raved inconsolably. How could Dasharatha have perpetrated such an evil act? Kaushalya railed at the king, holding her head in her hands.

“Rama has been ruined by His own father, even as a brood of fish are swallowed by their father. I believe, my lord, that you can no longer tell right from wrong. The main support for a woman is her husband; the son is the second. Therefore, like Rama, I am also ruined, my husband having lost his good sense and my son gone away! This whole kingdom has been ruined by you. All your people have been destroyed. Only Kaikeyi and her son are happy!”

Kaushalya stopped speaking and began to sob uncontrollably. Dasharatha, already deeply remorseful, felt even more anguish upon hearing his wife’s words. Crying out, “O Rama” again and again, he sat disconsolate. With great difficulty he gathered his senses and went before Kaushalya with folded hands, speaking in a trembling voice, his head hanging down.

“Be kind to me, O godly lady. You are merciful even to your enemies. What then to speak of me. The husband is always the lord for the wife in good or evil times. Seeing me to be sorely pained, you should not increase my grief by such harsh words.”

Kaushalya immediately felt sorry. She took Dasharatha’s hands and folded them around her head. Kneeling before him and weeping, she spoke hurriedly through her confusion.

“Now I am surely ruined for having spoken words disagreeable to my husband. I deserve to be punished by you, who I know to be always truthful. She is a wicked and low-born woman who must be beseeched by her worthy and virtuous husband.”
Kaushalya was afflicted by many strong feelings and her mind became completely distracted. Her grief, despair and anger at losing Rama were now compounded by remorse and guilt at having upset Dasharatha. She had spoken in an almost hysterical manner.

“Pray forgive me, O great king. Overcome by grief I uttered unseemly words. Grief destroys patience, eradicates knowledge and confounds the senses. Indeed, there is no enemy like grief. Even a great blow from an enemy can be endured, but the smallest amount of grief is intolerable. The five nights that Rama has been gone seem to me like five years. Even as I remember Rama again my grief grows like the ocean receiving the rapid flow of many large rivers.”

As Kaushalya was speaking the sun set. Dasharatha, being comforted by his wife, fell into a fitful slumber for an hour. Upon waking he sat sighing and recalled something he had done when he was a young prince. Realizing that long past deed to be the cause of his present suffering, Dasharatha related it to Kaushalya.

“Without doubt a person receives the results of his own actions, good or bad, O gracious queen,” the king said. “He who acts without consideration of the results, both immediate and long-term, is surely a fool. If a man cuts down a mango grove because the trees have unattractive blossoms, planting instead the brightly flowering palasha trees, he will later lament when the bitter fruits of the palasha appear. By sending Rama away I have indeed cut down a mango grove just as it was about to bear fruit. Now I am tasting the bitter palasha.”

Dasharatha felt as if his heart might burst. He maintained his composure with a great effort and continued. “A long time ago, as a youth and before we were married, I went to the forest to hunt. I had acquired great skills at bowmanship and could easily hit even an invisible target by its sound alone. Little did I know that this skill of mine, of which I was so proud, would yield such a disastrous result.

“It was the rainy season and the rivers were swollen. Going out at night on my chariot, I made my way to the Sarayu. I waited there in the darkness by the river bank for a buffalo or an elephant to come by. Soon I heard the sound of gurgling at a point nearby, although I could not see what caused the sound. Thinking the sound to be that of an animal drinking, I took out an arrow and released it. From the quarter where I shot my snake-like arrow there came a loud wail of some forest dweller. In distinct and pain-filled tones I heard the following cry:

“How has this weapon fallen upon a harmless ascetic like myself? To whom have I given any offense? I am a simple seer who has forsworn violence and lives only on fruits and roots. Oh, I am killed! What foolish person has hurled this arrow? This act will result only in evil. I do not grieve so much for myself but for my aged and helpless parents. Without me, their sole support, how will they survive? With a single arrow some ignorant fool of uncontrolled mind has killed me and both my parents!'”

Weeping all the while, Dasharatha continued, “When I heard that plaintive shout I was mortified. My bow and arrows fell from my hands. I was all but overwhelmed with grief and dropped to the ground, almost losing my senses. I scrambled toward the source of the voice with my mind utterly perplexed. There, lying on the bank of the river, was an ascetic wearing tree-bark garments. My arrow was protruding from his chest. Smeared with dust and blood, with his thick mass of matted hair in disarray, he lay groaning. He had come for water and the sound I had heard was the gurgling of his pitcher, which lay nearby with its water run out.

“Seeing me to be royalty, the ascetic looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and spoke angrily. ‘What wrong have I done, O king, that I should receive this terrible punishment? I came here to fetch water for my blind parents. Even now, as I lie here dying, my poor father must be wondering where I am. But what can he do? He is old and feeble and cannot even move. He can no more help me than could any tree help another which is about to be hewn down. Seek his forgiveness, O king. You should quickly make your way along this path to where he waits.'”

Dasharatha’s grief for Rama was compounded by the grief caused by remembering this long past unfortunate incident. With difficulty he continued to speak.

“The young hermit, writhing in agony, asked me to extract the arrow. I hesitated, knowing that the instant the arrow was removed he would die. The boy reassured me, telling me that he was prepared for death. I thus pulled out the arrow. Looking at me in dismay, due to anxiety about his parents, the boy died, uttering the name of Vishnu.

“Seeing the ascetic lying dead, killed by me out of ignorance and folly, I wondered how I could make amends. I quickly filled his pitcher and followed the path he had shown me toward his parents. As I reached the hermitage I saw his aged and blind parents, sitting forlorn like a pair of birds whose wings have been clipped. When he heard me approach, the boy’s father said, ‘Do not delay, my son. Bring the water immediately. Your poor mother is in anxiety because you have been sporting in the river for a long time. Our lives depend upon you, dear child. You are our only support and indeed our very eyes. Where are you? Why do you not speak?’

“I was gripped by fear to behold the sage and I replied to him in a faltering voice, ‘O holy sage, I am not your son but a prince named Dasharatha. I have committed a most terrible and evil act out of sheer folly. Hearing your son collecting water, I mistook him for a beast drinking. I released a deadly arrow and killed the boy. As a result of my rash act your son has ascended to heaven, leaving you here. Please tell me what I should do now.’

“When he heard my story, the sage, though rich in ascetic power and thereby capable of burning me with a curse, restrained himself. Sighing in sorrow with his face bathed in tears, that old åshi, who appeared exceptionally glorious, said to me, ‘Had you not come here and confessed, then as soon as the news of my boy’s death reached me, your head would have been split into a hundred pieces by my anger. Indeed, if one consciously kills a hermit engaged in austerity, then death is the immediate result. You are only surviving now as you performed this deed in ignorance.’

“The sage asked me to take him to the place where his son lay. I immediately lifted both of the elderly ascetics on my two arms and carried them to the river bank. Being placed near the dead boy they cried out in agony and gently stroked his face. The sage said, ‘Why do you not greet us today, dearest child? Why are you lying here upon the ground? Have you become displeased with us? Here is your beloved mother. Why do you not embrace her, my tender son? Please speak to us. Whose heart-moving voice will we now hear beautifully reciting the holy Vedic texts? Who now will tend the sacred fire? Who will comfort us with consoling words, deprived as we are now of our only support? My son, how will I be able to support your old mother?’

“The sage sat weeping for some time, lost in grief. Holding his son’s head he said, ‘Pray wait a while, dear boy, and do not yet proceed to Yamaräja’s abode. I shall go with you and speak to the god on your behalf, saying, “Although my son has been killed as a result of some former sin, he has in fact become sinless. Therefore grant to him those regions which are attainable only by Brahmins perfect in asceticism and study of scripture, or by heroes who drop their body while fighting fearlessly for the good of the people.”‘

“Wailing piteously, the ascetic and his wife offered sanctified water to their dead son with mantras and prayers. I then saw the boy appear in an ethereal form along with Indra, the king of heaven. He gently consoled his parents, saying that he had achieved his exalted status as a result of his service to them. He said they would soon join him in heaven. The boy then left, seated next to Indra in a shining celestial car.

“At that time the sage said to me, ‘In order to release you from the terrible sin of killing an ascetic, which can drag even the gods down to hell, I shall pronounce upon you a painful curse. Just as I am dying now in the agony of separation from my son, so in the future shall you die in the grief of separation from your son.’

“After saying this, the sage had me light a fire and place upon it his son’s body. Along with his wife he then entered the fire. The two ascetics gave up their bodies and went to heaven, leaving me stunned and pondering the sage’s words.”

Dasharatha was suddenly afraid as he realized that, in accord with the sage’s infallible curse, his death was now near. Controlling his mind he called out for Kaushalya. His eyes were blinded with tears and his body was trembling. He said to his wife, “That curse uttered so long ago by the sage is now coming to pass. I shall soon die of grief. Come here, Kaushalya, for I cannot see you clearly. Men on the threshold of death have all their senses confounded.”

Kaushalya sat close to her husband and comforted him with soft words. Dasharatha became deeply absorbed in remembrance of Rama. He longed for one last sight of Him. He felt anguished and remorseful, wishing he had somehow been able to stop Rama from leaving. The king lay back upon the couch and spoke in a trembling voice.

“This grief is drying up my vitality even as the blazing summer sun sucks out the earth’s moisture. Blessed are they who will see the pious and handsome Räma returned fourteen years from now. I can no longer see or hear anything. All my senses are failing along with my mind, just as the bright rays of a lamp disappear when its oil has run out. This grief born of my own self is rendering me helpless and unconscious, just as the current of a swift river wears away its own bank. O Rama, reliever of my suffering, are you really gone? O Kaushalya, my dear wife! O Sumitra, pious lady! O Kaikeyi, my sworn enemy and disgrace of my family!”

Dasharatha lamented and tossed about in agony for some time. Gradually he became silent, his mind fixed only upon Rama. Stricken with the intolerable pain of separation, the great emperor gave up his life during the night and ascended to the highest abode of the Supreme Lord.

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