Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXXIV: Sugrīva, the Friend – Part IV
August 7, 2020
Sugrīva was a vānara and he was a king. As a king, he had full control on his forces. The tree-dwelling monkeys and bears had their total loyalty to him. Vulnerability for survival most likely influences the animals to flock together and to restrain them from their own individuality. Friendship and loyalty are interpreted differently by the non-humans. Unlike the humans the animal commitment to a task is total. Sugrīva submitted his entire troops consisting of thousands of monkeys and bears at the disposal of Rāma.
Sugrīva knew that Rāma with his bow and arrow in hand was more powerful than any forest-dweller could ever be. He had seen evidence of Rāma’s skills earlier in the killing of Vālī. But then how does he return the favor? Sītā’s whereabouts were unknown and the task to find her was arduous! He thought at least he could exhibit his prowess by assembling the monkeys and bears from all around the world. As we would know later, the rules of administration were tough. Any disobedience was punishable by death, possibly caused by ostracizing and isolating from the group!
Sugrīva submitted - “Here at your service, Sir, the best of the monkey clan in the world! They are capable, strong, attentive and powerful. They can do wonders because they can change their body shapes at will! They can travel long distance on land and can leap over the oceans! Each of these chiefs has thousands of followers, who are equally good, loyal and ready to follow your orders. Though I know what you want, it would be proper for you to command them to action!”
A friend who is sincere in his commitment to friendship can tease a friend! It is not clear if Sugrīva’s arrival with his royal pomp along with the assembly of the massive number of monkeys was designed to convey the message that Rāma had misread his commitment. Rāma was at a loss to hear the request from Sugrīva to take command of the monkey troops! Though the monkeys were the only resource he had, he had no clue what to do with them! He had no idea how to initiate an action for the search. He had to submit to the friendship and was forced to express his anxiety in words.
A man’s decision making is different than a monkey’s. For Sugrīva, the elimination of Vālī was the only option. For Rāma, finding Sītā was the principal option, punishing the abductor Rāvaṇa was secondary. As we later see, he could forgive Rāvaṇa in case Sītā was restored peacefully. But the task does not move if Sītā was not alive. This latter event could have wider implications not confined to him only! Closing in to Sugrīva, Rāma said - “We have to first figure out if Sītā is alive or not. I can only act if she is alive! You are the only person who can help determine if Sītā is alive!”
With explicit dependence expressed in words, Sugrīva sealed his friendship with Rāma. A friendship is built on mutual need. Rāma needed Sugrīva since he had no other recourse. His father had died and he did not know if it was right for him to return to Ayodhyā without Sītā. He must solve the puzzle of Sītā’s abduction before he could return home. But the solution was not straightforward. Whatever had been heard, he had come to realize that Sītā could be in real danger for her life, or more negatively, might have perished in the turmoil!
Rāma begged to Sugrīva – “You are dear to my heart! You know what my task is. You alone are capable of dealing with the monkeys in accomplishing this task. Neither I nor my brother Lakṣmaṇa would be capable of handling it!”
A friend may not rise up to action by simple begging, some flattery could be required. Acknowledging Lakṣmaṇa’s presence, Rāma said in a flowery language - “You are the second among my dear ones. You are bright and practical. You know when and how to act! You are trustworthy and you are the most reliable among all who know my heart!”
Loaded with these superlatives, Sugrīva had to act! Possibly he knew what to do. Searching for objects was not a regular task for the monkeys, none of them had seen Sītā. The task reduced to the looking for an abducted woman perceived lonely in the forest. Vālmikī does not give us any clues how Sītā could be found except that he uses Sugrīva to offer a lesson on the known world geography of the time. Sugrīva shows off in describing the geographic markers in the world as he dispatches the monkeys to proceed in different directions in search of Sītā.
Sugrīva was committed to produce some result for Rāma. He had confidence that he would be successful in finding Sītā if he was freed from the terror of Vālī. Rāma did provide him that privilege and he was installed as the King of Kiṣkindhā. Thus, he controlled the entire monkey pool in the world. In order to make a successful search, he did have to plan properly. Apparently, he had thought it through during the rainy season when he was hibernating. It is possible that Hanūmān had done the brain work for him.
Sugrīva’s advanced planning helped him in appointing selected people to proceed in different directions. But he knew that the flock traveling together but searching individually could get scattered unless they knew prescribed tracks. Acting as a “world-class general” in the theater of battles, he directed his troops with confidence and conviction. He wanted to send homogeneous troops under a leader in four different directions. The leaders were named and the tracks were defined. Sugrīva exhibited his organizational skills and his command of the world geography.
Pointing to one of his friend monkey-chiefs Sugrīva said - “O Vinata, you are strong and powerful. Take with you a hundred thousand monkeys and proceed in the easterly direction. You would come across the Videha kingdom and the river Bhāgīrathī. Pass through the rivers Sarayū and Kauśikī and the kingdom of Kāśī and Kośala. Search through the mountains and search through more rivers. You would see strange people with long ears and dark skin. Cross the oceans and proceed to Yava islands.”
“Go further, observe the hermits. Look for Rāvaṇa in those dreadful forests and streams. Be careful of the magic tricks of the Rākṣasas. You can do it! Continue to cross several seas, you would meet Lord S’eṣa seated on a golden mountain. Further east you would see the ever-lasting golden peak through which the sun sends light to the earth. Search in all peaks, in all corners, and in all banks and in all forests. You must return in a month! Remember, disobedience is punishable by death! Extreme rewards would be bestowed on success!”
Sugrīva had the view that Sītā was taken in a southerly direction. He wanted to send Hanūmān to south. He chose Nila, Suhotra, Gaja, Gavākṣa, Mainda, Dvivinda and other strong chiefs to go with him. He chose Aṅgada, the son of Vālī, as the leader of the group. He commanded - “Friends, explore the thousand peaks of the Vindhya range thoroughly. Go to the river Narmadā, the river Godāvarī and the river Kṛṣṇaveṇī. Search the territories of Mekhala and Utkala. Meet the sage Agastya and take his help to cross the alligator-infested river Tāmrapaṇī. Reach the territories of Pāṇḍyas and search the Mahendra mountains.”
“Beyond the sea you would enter the islands of Rāvaṇa’s dwelling. Be very careful. There are sea-creatures who seize the flying objects through their shadows. But you must search all places. Go beyond and you would enter the territory of Vāsuki, the dreadful king of snakes. There would be sandalwood trees, but refrain from touching them. Go beyond and you would find the territory of Yama, the God of Death. You would see gloom and the end of the world. Remember, you are strong in your conviction and in your prowess. You are virtuous. Let you succeed in finding Sītā!”
Turning to his father-in-law, the great monkey-chief Suṣeṇa, along with the powerful Arciṣman and Arcirmālya in the family of clan of family of the sage Mārīca, and other monkey-birthed children of other sages, he said “Please proceed in the westerly direction with two hundred thousand monkeys. Let Suṣeṇa be your Leader. Explore the territories of Saurāṣṭra, Bālhīka, Candracitra, Kukṣi, and all the forests therein. Search in the rivers, fields and the deserts. Be careful in crossing the ocean there since they are infested with the whales! Go to the river Sindhu and see the massive mountain touching the sky. Search this mountain all through!”
“You would see the Gandharvas in the shape of fire in the mountains amidst the sea, but you should not feel fearful. Just don’t approach the area. You would be all right once you respect their presence! Then you will find an island in the sea which has gems and beautiful trees. Explore there in search of Sītā. Further west, you would reach the land of lions and elephants. The demon Naraka resides there. Explore the mountain carefully. Further proceed to the Mount Meru where the sun sets in the evening. Enjoy the golden hue everywhere there and search for Sītā. Meet the sage Merusāvarṇi there and offer your obeisance. Please ask him about the whereabouts of Sītā. The world for the monkeys ends at that mountain!”
Finally, Sugrīva turned to the powerful monkey-chief name S’atabali and requested him to proceed north. “Please take the hundred thousand monkeys born in the clan of Sun and explore the Himālaya mountains and beyond. We are all grateful to Rāma and we are paying back our debt to him! Rāma has cultivated friendship with us and we help him to find Sītā. Please search all corners, the streams and all places remote in the mountains. You scour the land of the Mlecchas, the Pulindas, the S’ūrasenas, the Prasthalas, the Madras, the Kāmbojas, the Yavanas, the Sakas and the Daradas. You would find mountains with caves in these lands. Search all the caves carefully to locate the highly blessed Sītā!”
“Then you would enter the thicket of forests, a refuge of birds of all kinds. You would see trees of many kinds and you should search through the streams and the waterfalls. There exists a no tree, no-mountain land beyond that. Pass the area quickly and reach the Kailāsa mountains. The Yakṣa-king Kubera’s palace is in that mountain. You must search for Rāvaṇa and Sītā in that mountain and the palace. Going forward, you would reach the Krauñca mountains. There exists the wish-fulfilling Mānasa peak in those mountains. Search for Sītā in those peaks, the plateaus and the caves.”
“Then you reach the Maināka mountains and the land of the hermits. Pay your respects to the Vaikhānasa ascetics there and ask for the Information on Sītā. The land beyond is called Uttarakuru and is the abode for people who are liberated from the earth. You should return from there!”
Sugrīva addressed all with majesty: “You search these locations as I have instructed you, and also look for the neighboring places not mentioned. Though your collective work, you would satisfy Rāma and bring pleasure to me! The task of your search would be comparable to the powers of air and fire that reach every object and every corner! Not only that you would be rewarded by me for your work, you would also have the privilege to roam the world with your kinsmen and your beloved partners!”
Rāma was stunned to see the command performance. He felt encouraged that Sītā might not be a lost case. Hearing from Sugrīva that It was Hanūmān who most likely would locate Sītā, Rāma felt it proper to give his name-inscribed insignia ring to Hanūmān as a token of message identification. “Through this token Jānakī would recognize you as the appropriate messenger.” He exclaimed - “With Sugrīva’s efforts and your resolute mind, I can feel that success is “talking” to me!”
Let Sai bless all!