By Prasad Sundararajan
The Ramayana of Sage Valmiki is considered as adi kavyam (first poem) in the Sanskrit Literature. Valmiki’s Ramayana consists of six books (Bala kanda, Ayodhya kanda, Aranya kanda, Kishkindha kanda, Sundara kanda and Yuddha kanda) and a later addition, Uttara kanda. The other two famous vernacular versions of the Ramayana, Tulsi Das’ Ramacharithamanas in Hindi and Kambar’s Ramavatharam in Tamil each consist of only the original six books. For millennia, Ramayana, along with Mahabharata, has made a profound impact on the art, culture and architecture of much of East and South Asia.
Aranya Kanda, the third book of the Ramayana contains the life story episode of Jatayu, the eagle’s fight with demon Ravana and the liberation of Jatayu upon his death by the grace of Lord Rama. When Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana were happily residing in the Panchavati forest near river Godavari, they met a great eagle, Jatayu, who was the son of Aruna, the charioteer of Surya (Sun god). Jatayu learned about the demise of his friend and ally Dasaratha and offered to guard Sita when the brothers may be away from their hermitage. Rama accepted his offer and considered the eagle as his own father.
One day, Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana the rakshasa king of Lanka chanced at them. When Surpanaka’s amorous advances were refused by Rama and Lakshmana, she tried to attack Sita. Lakshmana cuts the tip of the rakshashi’s nose and ears. Surpanaka then seeks the help of rakshasa chieftain Khara and his general Dushana but when they attacked the divine brothers, the rakshasas and their entire army was destroyed. Surpanaka then goes to her brother and encouraged Ravana to steal away Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama. Ravana forced his uncle, Maricha, to go to Panchavati in the form of a golden deer. Sita was mesmerized by the strange deer and asked Rama to fetch it for her. Rama agreed to pursue it despite Lakshmana’s warning that the deer is not real but a rakshasa in disguise.
After luring Rama a great distance, the deer was shot by an arrow from Rama and then Maricha, shedding his illusory deer form, cried loudly, Hey Sita! Hey Lakshmana! in Rama’s voice and died. On hearing the cry, Sita believed it was Rama’s voice. She urged Lakshmana to go to Rama’s rescue despite Lakshmana asserting that there is none in the worlds that can harm Rama. When Sita threatened to end her life, Lakshmana reluctantly left her in the hermitage and went in search of Rama. Anticipating this moment, Ravana who was hiding nearby approached Sita in the form of a mendicant. When Sita came out of the hermitage to greet with food and water, Ravana abducted her in his flying chariot and sped towards Lanka.
Jatayu, the old noble eagle, heard Sita’s cries for help and rushed towards the rakshasa king. After Ravana rejected Jatayu’s advise to desist from this unworthy act for a king, a great aerial battle took place between the rakshasa and the eagle. Jatayu did great damage to Ravana’s chariot and pierced the rakshasa’s body with his beak. Ravana was amazed by the bird’s strength but in a desperate move, took up his sword and sliced off both the wings of the bird. Jatayu fell to the ground. Sita loosened Ravana’s hold on her and gathered the bird in her arms and wept. Ravana pulled her up roughly and he rose up into the sky once again towards his kingdom. After a long search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana saw the dying bird, Jatayu and rushed towards the eagle. Jatayu told the brothers that it was Ravana who abducted Sita and he was sorry for not being able to rescue her. Touching Rama’s feet with his beak, Jatayu gave up his mortal life.
The act of trying to protect Sita earned the grace of the Lord that the bird was instantly liberated.
Valmiki in Ramayana:
स गृध्र राजः कृतवान् यशस्करम्
सु दुष्करम् कर्म रणे निपातितः |
महर्षि कल्पेन च संस्कृतः तदा
जगाम पुण्याम् गतिम् आत्मनः शुभाम् || ३-६८-३७
“King of eagle Jatayu, who has performed a creditworthy deed of stalling and combating Ravana, but who was felled by Ravana, went away to the merited and auspicious heavenly realms of his own, consecrated by sublime sage like Rama.” [VR 3-68-37]
Tulsi Das in Ramacharitamanasa:
“asking the boon of uninterrupted devotion, the vulture (Jatayu), ascended to Sri Hari’s Abode. Sri Rama performed his funeral rites with due ceremony and with His own hands”
Kavi Kamban in Tamil Ramavatharam:
“பாதங்கள் கண்ணின் பார்த்தான்…போக்கு இலா உலகம் புக்கான்”
“Jatayu who saw the feet of Lord Rama went to the world that never gets destroyed (“Vishnu’s Abode”). [KR 3631]
Jatayu moksham is an important episode found in the Ramayana where it shows the spiritual importance of association with and service to the Lord and His devotees whereby one attains liberation (moksha) by the grace of God.