Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
All of us are used to driving vehicles. The rich go by cars, the not so rich by automotive two-wheelers and others by cycle. In this day and age, no one walks to his or her destination, irrespective of how near or far it is. While this applies to commuting to and from one’s workplace, when travel involves long distances, we use trains, buses and aeroplanes, as suits the pocket and occasion. Here too, none thinks of walking the distance. We adopt walking only as a form of exercise, what the doctor prescribed, and adhere to the ritual with greater faith and consistence than even to Sandhyavandanam. So accustomed have we become to modern conveniences, that no one consciously chooses walking as a mode of covering distances, long or short, except a few politicians, who resort to the gimmick of a “pada yAtrA”.
Such being the case, can you imagine anyone choosing to traverse the length and breadth of our BhArata VarshA on foot? In the case of this person, there was absolutely no compulsion to walk—having been born in an exalted and extremely rich family, it would have been perfectly natural for this person to have traversed the long distance He had to cover, through a much more comfortable mode of travel, behoving His status and position. Yet, notwithstanding all this, He chose to walk. And the walk carried Him not over smooth roads and paved paths, but over little-traversed jungle trails, strewn with thorns and pebbles. In fact, at many a place, He had to have the bushes and overgrowth cleared and a new trail created. And unlike in the case of our politicians undertaking “pada yAtrA”, there was no accompanying crowd of admirers in His case, making every step easy for Him. And this gentleman undertook such long marches not once, but twice, once when He was hardly into His teens and another when He was a young man.
Sri Rama’s life and times have been a shining model for human emulation, for countless millennia past and would continue to be a guiding beacon for posterity. Every word, every minor gesture, every action of this paragon of virtues inspires and enchants us beyond measure. His conduct during extremely adverse circumstances sets the standard for human behaviour, an exemplar in every way.
In the current piece, we shall look closely at the two long journeys He undertook on foot.
The first of these long marches is occasioned when Sage Visvamitra seeks the assistance of Rama, who is a mere infant then, not even out of His teens, for the protection of yagyas against terrifying rAkshasAs. When Dasaratha agrees with reluctance to part with Sri Rama, how does the Rishi take the boy to his abode at SiddhAshramam? One would have expected that the precious Prince of Ayodhya would have travelled by a glorious chariot, drawn by the finest of horses, covering the distance in a jiffy.
This, however, was not to be. Visvamitra, the hard-hearted Maharshi, took the Prince by foot! Akin to the agony experienced by Sri Nammazhwar over Sri Krishna, the Parabrahmam, being beaten up by Gopis for stealing butter (“Ayar kozhundAi avarAl pudai uNNum en MAya PirAn”), similar to the fury felt by Sri Tirumangai Mannan over the abuse hurled by unlettered GOpis at the ParamAtma Sri Krishna (“veNNai uNdAn ivan endru Esa nindra emperumAn”), we too are quite angry at Visvamitra, for having made the Prince walk the entire distance between Ayodhya and Mithila. And it was not as if there were no good roads between the cities Ayodhya and Mithila, preventing travel by chariot, for we hear of Dasaratha reaching Mithila by chariot for the divine wedding (“EtE dvijA: prayAntu agrE syandanam yOjayasva mE”). The minimum the Maharshi could have done was to ask Sri Raghava to ride horseback, as all the three (Visvamitra, Rama and Lakshmana) were expert riders.
Our heart goes out to the delicate Prince, who, though hitherto unaccustomed to walk except on a path strewn with flowers, had to traverse great distances on foot, crossing hard jungle paths, making His already delicate red feet redder with strain. It is these delicate tiruvadis, massaged gently by Sridevi and Bhoodevi, which traversed hill and dale. Howe many times would hidden roots and wayside boulders have made Him trip and stumble? What an amount of heat the rocky terrain must have radiated, making the delicate Prince sweaty and fatigued? And how severely the overhead Sun must have blazed, making the black tirumEni blacker still? The more we think of the episode, the angrier we feel with the Maharshi for having made Chakkravartthi Tirumagan cover the long distance by foot.
And when Sri Rama closes His eyes at night for getting some much- needed sleep at last, fatigued by the long walks during day, within what seemed to be mere seconds, Visvamitra wakes Him up promptly at sunrise—“utthishtta nara sArdoola!”. What a heartless person this Visvamitra must have been! And we would perhaps never pardon him for this unforgivable offence, but for his role in bringing the divine couple together. The magnitude of Visvamitra’s insensitivity becomes clear, when we consider the fact that the distance between Ayodhya and Mithila was 225 miles or 360 kilometres. Imagine a couple of infants, barely into their teens and totally unused to the inhospitable jungle environs, traversing this distance on foot! One irreverent thought is that the Lord would not perhaps have undergone all this trouble, but for the priceless prize of Piratti, which lay at the end of the arduous journey.
During the first pada yAtra, the trio appear to have left Ayodhya, travelled along the right bank of the SarayU river, wended their way southeast and reached KAmAshramam, located to the west of the confluence of the SarayU and the Ganga (in the present Ballia District of Uttar Pradesh State). Visvamitra tells the curious Rama that the SarayU had its origins in Mount Kailash and, reaching the plains, formed a garland around Ayodhya. The place where the ogress TAtakA was felled by Rama is thought to be located in the ShAhAbAd district of U.P. From here, the trio appear to have travelled to the SiddhAshramam (located in the present day Buxar Dist.), where Visvamitra performs his yAga and which is protected and brought to unhindered completion by the Princes of Ayodhya. After completion of the yAga, Visvamitra leads the unprotesting Princes to Mithila, crossing the Sone and Ganga rivers near the present-day Patna.
(A detailed account of the locations and landmarks lying along Sri Rama’s path is to be found in Sri V.D. Ramaswamy Iyengar’s informative work “RAma pAda yAtrA”).
In case some readers are upset over my remarks critical of Visvamitra for having made Chakravartthi Tirumagan walk the long distance, I can draw comfort from the comments of Raja Sumati, whose capital the trio visit en route to Mithila. Finding the Princes beautiful beyond description and resembling celestials, the King wonders how these exalted and enchanting youth were travelling on foot. While finding the gait of Sri Rama and Lakshmana majestic and regal, the King, in an implied criticism of the Maharshi’s action, wonders why such scions of royalty were travelling on foot. The following slokas of Sri Valmiki portray his own anguish in describing the phenomenon-
“imou kumArou bhadram tE! DEva tulya parAkramou
Gaja simha gatee veerou sArdoola vrishabhOpamou
Padma patra visAlAkshou khadga tooNee dhanur dharou
Asvinou iva roopENa samupastthita youvanou
Yadricchayaiva gAm prAptou dEvalOkAt iva amarou
Katham padbhyam iha prAptou kimarttham kasya vA MunE!”
The long march appears to have conferred a bonus benefit on everyone in the path of the trio—all were treated to the beautiful and stately gait of the Princes, resembling that of the Lion, Elephant, Tiger and the virile Bull, by turns. Blessed indeed were those eyes, which had the incredible good fortune of witnessing the Lord’s majestic progress. Sri Valmiki says that Sri Dasaratha used to ask Sri Rama to come to him and the moment the boy had reached his (DasarathA’s) side, to ask Him to go back. The only motive behind this parading was to have an enthralling eyeful of the way the Prince walked. That these were not the biased impressions of a doting father, but were shared by the world at large, is borne out by King Sumathi’s tribute. Another person to benefit from the Lord’s long walk was Ahalya, who would have remained an inert stone, but for Sri Rama’s entry into the Gouthama Ashramam, en route to Mithila. It was the sanctifying dust from Sri Rama’s tiruvadi that restored to the Rishi patnI her original form and beauty.
to be continued…
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore