Did Rama really have a glowing childhood,
as the songs about him say?
Or was it a dark one,
overcast by dismal clouds?
Poets down the ages, singing about Rama, have portrayed a golden childhood for him. Rama and his three brothers play the childhood games of every child in the cozy comforts of the palace of Ayodhya where the soothing moonlight of love bathed everyone and everything constantly. The children fall, giggle in innocent mirth, rise up, jump and run. They play in the mud, among themselves and with their friends, as indulgent eyes watch over them. As they grow in age, as they move from infancy to childhood, the games differ, their sports differ, but the glow of love that bathes them remains the same. And the three pairs of motherly eyes are the same, adoring the children, along with the aging eyes of Dasharatha, wet with tears of joy. The seasons come and go, all in their time, all bringing their eternal gifts unfailingly, and everything is perfect. There is never a dark moment, never a moment of tension, nothing ever happens that shouldn’t happen. A more glowing childhood cannot be imagined.
And yet a closer look at Valmiki’s Ramayana tells us that Rama’s childhood could not have been all that wonderful. In fact, if we look at the Ramayana closely, we would find that Rama had a rather dark childhood. That rather than having a glowing childhood, Rama spent much of his early days as a prisoner in a dark chamber – in a chamber of sadness, of pain, perhaps of neglect, certainly in a world full of bitterness, jealousy, anger, frustration and hunger for revenge. Rama was not a child of light, but a prisoner of darkness – the darkness of misery and distrust, of vicious resentment, of dark hatred, of malign suspicions and noxious fears. The light was there, in the outside. From the outside, it was a world full of all that was desirable, glowing, bright and beautiful. But inside, it was a battlefield where dark forces raged and roared, usually wordlessly, making the roars and rages all the more frightening for their silence.
Darkness had fallen on the life of Rama long before his birth. Dasharatha had one child, a daughter, born perhaps soon after his marriage with Kausalya. And this daughter was given away to his friend Lomapada who was childless, even as Kunti was later given away as a child by her father Shoorasena to his friend King Kuntibhoja who was childless. And then for a long time he had no children at all, in spite of having another chief queen, Sumitra, and several other queens whose number ran into hundreds. [At the time of Rama’s leaving for the jungle on his exile, the Ramayana tells us, there were three hundred and fifty of these queens [trayashshatashatardha – Ayo 39/36]. It is then that he hears of Kaikeyi and marries her.
The Ramayana tells us that Kaikeyi was rajyashulka – that her bride price was Dasharatha’s kingdom. When the old king married her, he gave Kaikeyi’s father King Ashvapati the promise that her future firstborn son would inherit the throne of Ayodhya after him – the same promise that later in the Mahabharata Satyavati’s father was given before her marriage to Emperor Shantanu. Rama would himself remind Bharata of this when he comes to meet him at Chitrakoota begging Rama to take over the kingdom. “Long ago, when our father married your mother, oh brother, he gave your grandfather the promise to make you the next heir to the throne,” Rama tells Bharata. [Pura bhratah pita nas sa mataram te samudvahan, matamahe samashrausheed rajyashulkam anuttamam. – Ayo 107/3]
Rama had been disinherited even before his birth. He had been denied the right to the throne even before he was born.
For all we know, Rama grew up with this knowledge – with the knowledge that though he was the eldest son of Dasharatha, he had no right to the throne of Ayodhya. Such things are not hidden in a royal household. Not among the queens. Inheritance right is one of the most important topics that occupy the minds of queens, especially where there are doubts or ambiguities about it. Or anything unconventional.
We can understand Dasharatha’s promise to Kaikeyi’s father Ashvapati. He would not have felt any compunction about giving the promise. For both Kausalya and Sumitra had failed to give him a male child. It was not expected that they would give him one either since they had failed for so long. In the normal course of events, Kaikeyi’s son, the new queen’s son, would have been the eldest son. So Dasharatha makes the promise without pangs of conscience. The picture changes only when Kaikeyi too is unable to give him a child.
A sacrifice is performed for obtaining children for the aged king. That everything was not fine in the royal household of Ayodhya is clear from the way the payasa obtained from the sacrifice was distributed among the chief queens. Though by all accounts Kaikeyi is Dasharatha’s favourite at this time, to the extent that she is accused of having ensnared him completely, made him her slave, she gets the least part of the payasa. Dasharatha divides the payasa into two halves and gives one full half to Kausalya. The remaining half he divides into two and gives one half of it to Sumitra. Now one fourth of the payasa is remaining. This he takes to Kaikeyi – but suddenly he has a change of mind. He divides that again into two halves and gives one half to Kaikeyi and takes the other half back to Sumitra. Eventually Kaikeyi ends up getting only one eighth of the payasa, Sumitra one fourth plus one eighth, and Kausalya, a full half. [Bala 16/27-29]
Chances are that there were enormous pressures on Dasharatha to do the way he did. Chances are pressure groups worked on Dasharatha. Chances are Kausalya was again in a race to give an heir to Dasharatha.
After the sacrifice, it is Kausalya who gives birth to the first male child of Dasharatha. And soon Kaikeyi gives birth to Bharata. And with that, everything changes. Inheritance now becomes a vital issue. By traditional right, the throne should go to Rama. But because of the rajyashulka given to Kaikeyi, it belongs to Bharata.
The knowledge that he was not the heir to the kingdom of Dasharatha though he was the eldest son must have been very painful for Rama. And if was not, Kausalya would have made it so for Rama. Because by giving that promise to Ashwapati, it was her that Dasharatha had disinherited. It was her right to be the future queen-mother that Dasharatha had denied her.
There are clear indications in the Ramayana that she resented it. That she felt the resentment very deeply. That her entire life was vitiated by that resentment. That she strongly desired to be the queen mother, that she wished with all her heart that Rama would be the king. In fact, she tells Rama that her only hope in life was that one day Rama would be king. [Ayo 20/38] She lived to see that day.
We do not know what Kausalya’s nature was before these complications arose. But we know that in her later days Kausalya spends much of her time in prayers. She performs many rituals every day. The end she has in mind is Rama’s getting the throne of yuvaraja. And eventually when Dasharatha announces the decision to crown Rama yuvaraja, she claims it is because of her prayers. My prayers have now been answered – she says. It is because of my prayers that you are inheriting the throne of the Ikshwakus, she says. [Ayo 4/41].
Knowledge of the kind that Rama had is difficult to live with. We know how later Dhritarashtra’s entire personality would be poisoned by that knowledge. He too was the eldest son of Vichitraveerya and yet he was denied the right to the throne of Hastinapura because of his blindness at birth. Dhritarashtra’s frustration at this denial is at the root of all the tragedy that the Mahabharata eventually unfolds. But for that there would have been no contention between his children and the children of Pandu for the throne of the Bharatas. But for that there would have been no Mahabharata war.
We also know how the denial of his right to the throne altered the personality of Bheeshma, though in his case he chose to deny it to himself. Throughout the Mahabharata we see Bheeshma as a frustrated man, in spite of all his almost superhuman abilities. He is bitter, loses all initiative and becomes a passive observer to the tragedy that is unfolding before him, and eventually in the Mahabharata war he joins the side that he does not believe in.
It must have been very painful for Rama too to live with the knowledge that though he was the eldest son of Dasharatha, he had no right to the throne.
For Rama had the desire to rule. And later, along with the desire, he will also acquire the competency to rule. The competency to become a great ruler. That is perhaps why he accepts Dasharatha’s decision to crown him as yuvaraja quietly, even though he knew that crown belonged to Bharata.
In the Ramayana we very clearly see that Bharata had no desire to rule Ayodhya, that he was contented to be Rama’s younger brother. But Rama definitely had the desire to rule. And he becomes bitterly frustrated when he is told of the change in the plans to coronate him and of the new plan to coronate Bharata instead. He does not show his feelings before Kaikeyi or Dasharatha, or even before Kausalya or his friends. Before them he holds his anguish in his heart and controls himself [dharayan manasa duhkham indriyani nigrhya cha – Ayo 19/35]. But when he goes to Sita, he loses control over himself. He is so overcome by agony that seeing him, before a word is spoken, a deeply shocked Sita begins to shake. [Atha seeta samutpatya vepamana cha tam patim apashyat shokasantaptam chintavyakulitendriyam [Ayo 26/6]. Seeing Sita before him, Rama could no more control the force of anguish in his heart and his agony came pouring out. [Tam drshtva sa hi dharmatma na shashaka manogatam tam shokam raghavah sodhum tato vivrtatam gatah – Ayo 26/27] His face had turned pale, he was perspiring profusely, he could no more suppress his sorrow. [Vivarnavadanam drshtva tam prasvinnam amarshanam – Ayo 26/28]. Later, in a movingly beautiful chapter, on his first night away from others, alone with Sita and Lakshmana under a nyagrodha tree in the jungle, Rama weeps aloud, piteously, inconsolably, giving vent to all the anguish and pain and frustration in his heart and weeping, he becomes quiet. Quiet like fire without flames, quiet like the ocean spent of all passion, says Valmiki. [Gatarchisham ivanalam, samudram iva nirvegam [Ayo 53/28]. But it is only after he has vented his deep, dark feelings that he finds this release. It is only after wailing aloud, lamenting woefully filling the quietness of the night with his anguished cries, that he accepts the inevitable and finds some solace.
Rama did feel the loss of his right to rule. And felt it very, very deeply. He did have the desire to rule. In Chitrakoota, asking Bharata to go back to Ayodhya to rule, Rama tells him bitterly – you rule the subjects in Ayodhya, and I’ll go and rule the animals of the jungle. Even in his exile, Rama sees himself as the ruler, as the king, not as an ascetic. He is dressed as an ascetic, but he sees himself as the king. Even when Sita begs him to, Rama refuses to give up his arms. There is an entire chapter in the Ramayana in which Sita tries to persuade Rama to give up his arms and live the life of an ascetic as he had declared he would in Ayodhya, but Rama refuses. [Ara 9]
Rama always wanted to be the king. For all we know, right from the beginning. And living with the knowledge that he had no right to be king must have been deeply painful to him.
The strong desire to rule coupled with the knowledge that he had no right to the throne. A desire that makes itself felt every day. A knowledge that haunts him every day. That is enough to fill one’s world with darkness.
And we can be sure the men and women of Ayodhya never allowed Rama to forget that he had no right to the throne. That the men and women of the palace never allowed Rama to forget for a moment that he had no right to the throne. Not out of viciousness, but out of love for him, out of sympathy for him. Rama was dear to them. Very, very dear to them. And Rama was an ideal child. Self-controlled, obedient, paying respect where it is due, fulfilling people’s desires even before they were expressed. He was serene in his behavior, steady in his actions and matured far beyond his age. The queens of Dasharatha simply adored them – all three hundred and fifty-three of them. Dasharatha adored him. The men of the palace adored him. The men and women of Ayodhya adored him. And they knew this adorable, supremely competent, highly virtuous child had no right to the throne which should have been his by birth. It would have been impossible for them to hide their sympathy. It must have come out openly again and again. In the silences as he came near them. In the whispers as he passed by them. In the extra love that came out in their words and affections.
And that sympathy must have filled young Rama’s world with darkness.
And if it was not enough, there was his mother’s attitude towards Kaikeyi, his mother’s frustrations about Kaikeyi, her bitterness about the King’s favorite queen, her constant preoccupation with the woman whom she saw as her enemy, the usurper.
Kaikeyi was unlike any woman the antahpura of Ayodhya had seen. Most of the women of the Ikshwakus were like Kausalya and Sumitra. Devout, pious, and devoted to the needs of their men. But apart from their devoutness, the piety and their devotion, they did not have much to offer their men, except that they also became the mothers of their children. True, they would give their lives for their men. One of them, Harishchandra’s wife Chandramati, would have her husband sell her into slavery so that he can pay back a debt. Madayanti, ordered by her husband Kalmashapada, would offer her body to her kulaguru Vasishtha, to beget a son through niyoga, though she would later rebel against it and hit her pregnant womb with a stone in an attempt to tear it open and perhaps kill herself and the child in it, an attempt in which she only half succeeds because the child is born alive and is later named Ashmaka, ashma meaning stone.
But none of these women in the long history of the Ikshwakus was like Kaikeyi. Kaikeyi was different. She was what we would today call a true woman of substance.
She was beautiful of course. It was her beauty that first fascinated the old king and tempted him to ask her father for her hand. Even without make up, even in a fury, with her hair tastelessly tied up, devoid of her ornaments and accessories, wrapped in a piece of crumbled cloth, she looked like a kinnari, a heavenly damsel, says Valmiki [Ayo 10/8-9] As she lay on the floor of the Kopa Bhavana where she had gone in bitter anger, she looked like a celestial nymph fallen down from the skies, says Valmiki. The sage-poet never tires of describing her beauty. In the course of a single shloka, he calls her a damsel exiled from heaven, a fallen apsara, a lost Maya, the goddess of illusion, and a fawn trapped in the hunter’s net. [Kinnareemiva nirdhootam, chyutam apsarasam yatha, mayam iva paribhrashtam, harineem iva samyatam. – Ayo 10/25].
And she was a woman of great taste. Her sense of taste is reflected in the way she kept the palace the king had given her. Valmiki lovingly describes how it was surrounded by beautiful bowers and ever-flowering trees, how the beautiful sound of birds always filled it, how the melody of pleasing music constantly flowed from it. He describes the beautiful seats made of silver, gold and ivory in her palace chambers, the exquisite murals and paintings on the walls and the sprightliness of her servants. He compares Kaikeyi’s palace to heaven itself. [tridivopamam – Ayo 10/16]
There are many stories about the boons Dasharatha gave her. One story says he gave her two boons during one of the Deva-Asura battles, in which Dasharatha fought for the Devas against the Asuras. During the battle, Kaikeyi takes a wounded Dasharatha to safety and it is for this that she is given the boons by him. Here Kaikeyi is seen as a woman capable enough to be with Dasharatha in a battlefield and to drive him to safety when he is wounded.
Another story tells us that Shambara, the Asura, used maya, illusions and hallucinations, in his battle against Dasharatha and Kaikeyi who was a mistress of these arts countered him and saved Dasharatha and it is then that he gave her the boons.
Then there is the story that it was when she saved Dasharatha when the axle of his chariot was broken, or maybe the axle pin got loose and fell off, during a battle that he gave her the boons. There is also a story that tells us that soon after Dasharatha married Kaikeyi, a group of kings opposed him and he had to wage a battle against them. During this battle Kaikeyi drove his chariot, leading him to victory and it was for this that Dasharatha gave her the boons.
And yet another story tells us that she was given these boons by Dasharatha whom she had delighted in the bed – she was a mistress of the arts of Rati.
Whatever the story, one thing is clear: Kaikeyi was like no other woman the palace of Ayodhya had seen. Like few other women the long history and mythology of this ancient land of ours had seen.
And she knew how to love, how to give. In the Ramayana, she appears as a giver and not as a taker. The only time she asks for something for herself is when she asks the throne for Bharata and exile for Rama –after Manthara after long and hard efforts convinces her that she is being betrayed. Otherwise Kaikeyi appears in the Ramayana as a giver rather than as a taker, and a very happy giver. She gave Dasharatha more than she took from him.
Dasharatha immediately became completely enticed by his new queen, this woman of substance, this woman of immense talents, possessing all that men dream of finding in a woman.
Kaikeyi was the dream woman. The dream woman of every man’s fantasies.
And Kausalya’s life became miserable. She was no match to Kaikeyi. Speaking of herself, Kausalya later tells Rama: “Never for a day did I receive the happiness and position that are an eldest wife’s due when her husband is in power… Never did I receive any love or respect from my husband. What I received was complete rejection and rebukes. I have always been like one of Kaikeyi’s servants, or even worse.” [Ayo 20/38, 43]
Kausalya was deeply unhappy from the day Kaikeyi stepped into the palace of Ayodhya. All light disappeared from her life, and deep darkness enveloped it. The Kausalya Rama knew was not a happy woman, not a happy queen. She loved Rama dearly, there is no doubt about, but she certainly was not a happy mother, not a cheerful person.
Years later, after leaving Ayodhya, on that first night alone in the jungle with Sita and Lakshmana, Rama would think of his mother left behind in the palace. And the image that comes to his mind is dark and frightening, with an eerie, gothic quality to it. Rama says: “My mother brought me up all these long years, herself enduring great sorrow. And when time has come for me to reward her for her pains, I am leaving her behind and going away. Shame on me, Lakshmana! Far more grateful than I am, Oh Lakshmana, is that parrot of hers that keeps telling her, ‘Parrot! Bite the foot of the enemy!’” [Ayo 53/20, 22]
This is the image of his mother that comes to Rama’s mind: Of his mother standing before her pet parrot and that parrot endlessly repeating to her, ‘Parrot! Bite the foot of the enemy!’ [Shuka padam arer dasha]. Those are the words Kausalya constantly speaks to her parrot. Those are the words the parrot has learnt by heart from continuous listening and repeats to her constantly. ‘Parrot! Bite the foot of the enemy!’ A Kausalya obsessed with revenge. A Kausalya obsessed with punishing her enemy. A Kausalya deeply bitter and in the loneliness of her chamber talking to her pet parrot of her desperate need for vengeance. Of her obsession with vengeance.
That palace of Kausalya must have been dark indeed. And a complete contrast to the brightly lit, music filled, cheerful people-filled, heaven-like palace of Kaikeyi.
A mother who had lost her present to her rival wife. A mother who had lost her future to that rival wife’s son. A mother whose memories of past are all of pain and neglect and rebukes and humiliations. The home of a woman who has such bitterness in her heart is not the ideal place for a young sensitive boy to grow up in.
Rama loved his mother dearly. Rama was a very sensitive child. Rama was a keen observer. He felt things deeply. All his life, Rama is a very emotional person. There cannot be any doubt that Rama observed Kausalya’s pain and was influenced by it. That his inner world was darkened by it.
It is this mother that Rama saw constantly throughout his childhood. It is this mother whom Rama adored, worshipped incessantly in his heart.
Rama’s childhood could not have been a wonderful one. Throughout his childhood he must have remained a prisoner to darkness – the darkness that filled his mother’s life, her world.
And deep in his heart Rama must have resented the woman who caused that bitterness. He must have wanted to hate her with all his being. Albeit unconsciously.
The problem was that the woman he wanted to hate so bitterly gave him no chance to hate her. She loved him as dearly as Kausalya loved him. Even more, perhaps. And her love was a happy woman’s love, a contented woman’s love, not the love of an unhappy, embittered woman. Kaikeyi’s love was love that liberated you, not love that bound you. It was love that elevated you, love that made you free, that broke all that bound your heart and opened up the skies for you, made you float in the clouds. Love that lighted a thousand lamps in your heart, love that filled your being with light. Made you feel that you are in a vast meadow filled with fresh green grass with the mountains and waterfall and the brook not far from you. Not love that fettered you, not love that filled you with darkness, that made you a prisoner. That made you feel you are in a small, dark, claustrophobic chamber where it is difficult to breathe.
There are many proofs in the Ramayana to tell us that Kaikeyi loved Rama unreservedly, as much as she loved Bharata and even more. Kaikeyi tells us so, so many times. [For instance, “yatha vai bharato manyas tatha bhooyo’pi raghavah” – Ayo 8/18] Dasharatha says that when she asks for the crown of yuvaraja for Bharata. He says she has always loved Rama as much as she loved Bharata, even better. No one ever says this was not so.
And when she hears of the plans for the coronation of Rama as yuvaraja, her heart dances in joy. Dancing in joy, she removes a precious ornament and gives it to Manthara who had brought the news. She tells her again and again: “Oh, my heart is so full of joy! Nothing can be happier news! Come, Manthara, ask for something more! I am not happy with what I have given you. Ask for anything and I shall give it to you. Come, ask!” Kaikeyi’s joy is genuine. There is nothing in the entire Ramayana to tell us that it was otherwise.
She loved Rama unreservedly. To her, he was her eldest son, [Sa me jyeshthasutah – Ayo 12/17] as she kept saying again and again. Bharata was only a second son to her, after Rama. Rama was her heartbeat.
Kaikeyi loved two people more than anyone else in the world. This woman whose heart was so full of light, loved her husband, Dasharatha, beyond all measures. And she loved Rama with all her heart, with all her being.
Such was her love for Rama that she forgot all about the promise Dasharatha had given her father at the time of her marriage – the rajyashulka. She had forgotten it long before Dasharatha decided to betray her by crowning Rama yuvaraja while Bharata was away.
It is only when she clearly sees how she was being betrayed that she decides to act against Rama and Dasharatha.
Until that moment, Kaikeyi loved Rama unreservedly. As she continued to love him even afterwards. In the entire Ramayana Kaikeyi never speaks a word against Rama. When Bharata later asks her why Rama was being sent to the jungle, has he done anything wrong, Kaikeyi answers, no, Rama never does anything wrong, he is incapable of doing wrong. This is long after Rama’s quiet consent to Dasharatha’s betrayal of her. Kaikeyi was incapable of not loving Rama. Ever. She loved him unreservedly.
This must have complicated matters for Rama all the more. For, he wanted to hate Kaikeyi and he was not able to hate her, she gave him no opportunity to do so.
Rama must have been in tight knots. This inner conflict raising from her genuine, sincere, hearty, unreserved love for him and his need to hate her because of the pain she was causing his mother. It must have filled Rama’s childhood world with darkness, must have trapped Rama in a dark chamber.
His world would have been brighter if only he could hate her fully. Or if he could love her fully. He could do neither. And that must have been pure hell for the sensitive child that Rama was.
We know this conflict was there because the moment he gets the first opportunity Rama’s suspicion of Kaikeyi comes out, his suppressed mistrust of her, his hatred for her, comes out. After she thwarted Dasharatha’s plan to quickly crown him yuvaraja and sent him to the jungle, Rama, speaking to Lakshmana says that Kaikeyi is a wicked woman. He calls the woman who so loved him mean – kshudrakarma. That night under the nyagrodha tree, alone with Sita and Lakshmana, he says that she must be ecstatic in Ayodhya because her desire has been fulfilled. He says she might take the old king’s life. [chyavayet pranan – Ayo 53/7] Says she might poison his own and Lakshmana’s mothers. [Paridadyad… garam te mama mataram – Ayo 53/18] Says she has enslaved Dasharatha with her sexuality. That what has happened has proved that kama, sexual passion, is more powerful than artha and dharma, wealth and values. He calls his father a man lost to lust [kamatma] and says he has become a captive of Kaikeyi [kaikeyya vasham agatah – Ayo 53/8].
This was the poison that was deep in Rama’s heart, suppressed, hidden there in the deep recesses of his being, pouring out. Poison born of the dark days he had lived through.
Rama’s childhood could not have been a very wonderful one. This young prince of Ayodhya was a prisoner of darkness all through his childhood.
Rama’s suspicion of Kaikeyi, his hatred for her, the fear of her powerful sexuality that caused so much misery to him by depriving him of the crown of yuvaraja and to his mother by taking the king away from her, will color his attitude towards the entire womankind. The sexually assertive Shoorpanakha will pay for Kaikeyi’s sin with her nose and ears. Ayomukhi with her nose, ears, and breasts.
We see the sexual mores of Rama undergoing a complete change after the Kaikeyi episode. Before Kaikeyi intervened and snatched the crown of the yuvaraja of Ayodhya from him at the last moment, Rama has a liberal attitude towards even a deliberate sexual transgression. A young Rama shows no hesitation in forgiving Ahalya’s conscious, willful sexual transgression, her flouting the most central virtue of a wife in the traditional patriarchal Indian society. With full awareness, prompted by curiosity, intrigued and elated by the fact that the lord of the gods himself finds her sexually desirable enough to risk a curse from her ascetic husband, she commits adultery with him. But Rama shows no hesitation before bending down and touching her feet, albeit it was done after she has purified herself through austerities.
However, when it comes to Shoorpanakha, which is after the Kaikeyi episode, we find a different Rama. Shoorpanakha is the sexually assertive woman, even the sexually aggressive woman, perhaps the sexually liberated woman. She offers herself first to Rama and then, when he directs her to Lakshmana, to him. True, it is when she rushes towards Sita that Rama asks Lakshmana to punish her – but the punishment is typically sexual. It is a woman’s beauty that is being destroyed, and by extension, it is her desirability, her sexual desirability, that is being destroyed. It is her sexuality that is being punished. Woman’s sexuality that has the power to ensnare the male, make him her slave, force him do her bidding. Shoorpanakha was paying the price for what the sexually powerful Kaikeyi did to Rama and to Kausalya through her power over Dasharatha.
Ayomukhi sees Lakshmana walking in front of Rama while the brothers were moving through the jungles searching for Sita. She comes to him and offers herself to him, telling that the two of them shall revel together in the mountain caves and ponds by the river, that they two shall live all their life together in endless bliss. This time Lakshmana does not even have to be told by Rama. He pulls out his sword and quickly, efficiently, chops off her nose, then her ears, and as she is trying to flee for her life, screaming in agony, fighting, he holds her tightly and chops off her two breasts. Her crime: she approached Lakshmana offering life long love and devotion to him, offering him the joys a man and a woman can have together in mountain caves and ponds by the river, in the lap of wild nature. Rama does not say a word of protest as Lakshmana sexually disfigures the poor woman. He does not take a single step to save the woman screaming in terror and in intolerable pain. Why would he? For, it is his will that is working through Lakshmana.
This is the same Rama who had so unhesitatingly bowed down and reverentially touched the feet of Ahalya who had so consciously betrayed her husband and committed adultery. The Kaikeyi episode has transformed Rama. He will no more tolerate any woman who is sexually assertive, sexually liberated.
We may wonder if Rama’s hatred for Kaikeyi did not have a role in his so completely rejecting Sita in Lanka when she was brought to him as per his orders by Vibheeshana after the war with Ravana had ended. For it is saying that there are reasons to suspect that she has lost her chastity [praptacharitrasandeha – Yud 115/17] that Rama tells her that he will no more have anything to do with her, she is free to go and live with whoever she wishes – whether it is Lakshmana or Bharata, or Shatrughna or Sugreeva or Vibheeshana, or anyone else. Sita was pure and Rama knew it, but Rama finds it hard to accept her. For, she has committed a sin – Ravana found her sexually desirable. Was it not her fault?
Here again Rama is punishing a woman, this time his pure and chaste wife, for her sexuality. Her sexuality that has power over men.
Kaikeyi’s impact on Rama never entirely leaves him. He will never really forgive her the fact that Dasharatha found her irresistible, that she had such power over his father.
For, her power over his old father had filled his earlier years with so much darkness.
Also, it will color his attitude towards Bharata, Kaikeyi’s son, forever. That night under the nyagrodha tree, when the anguish in his heart comes out naked, speaking of Bharata, Rama would say that he would now enjoy the kingdom all alone. He is saying this of the Bharata who would refuse to touch the crown when it is later offered to him and would instead rule as Rama’s regent, placing Rama’s slippers on the throne. Rama’s words to Hanuman while he is returning to Ayodhya at the end of fourteen years, accompanied by two powerful kings and a group of mighty soldiers, and sends Hanuman in advance to Nandigrama where Bharata has been living the life of an ascetic, also speaks of Rama’s suspicion of Bharata and his lack of understanding of his brother who is one of the most unselfish persons in all of the Ramayana. He asks Hanuman to watch for Bharata’s body language, his gestures, facial expressions and other non-verbal clues, and secretly find out whether there is the desire to rule in his heart or he wants to hand over the kingdom to Rama. “Whose mind will not be tempted,” asks Rama, “by an ancestral kingdom that is rich with elephants, horses and chariots, filled with all imaginable objects of pleasure?” [Yud 125/16]
Later, after his coronation as king in Ayodhya, it is not Bharata that Rama wants to install as yuvaraja, in spite of the facts that the kingdom still really belonged to Bharata, that Bharata was so completely devoted to him, and that Bharata had proved himself to be a very competent ruler and had made Ayodhya ten times as rich as he had inherited it from Dasharatha. Rama offers the crown of yuvaraja to Lakshmana, offers it again and again, and it is only when Lakshmana rejects it repeatedly that he offers it to Bharata. [Yud 128/92-93].
Incidentally, this is perhaps the only occasion when Lakshmana says no to Rama – otherwise he invariably obeys him, even when Rama’s order is very distasteful to him, as when Rama asks him to take the pregnant Sita and abandon her in the jungle.
Rama not only takes over the kingdom from Bharata, he even refuses the position of the crown prince to him! After all, Bharata is Kaikeyi’s son. Such was the darkness that had filled Rama’s early years in Ayodhya where he found his mother constantly weeping, constantly ruminating impotent revenge against Kaikeyi by telling her parrot to bite the foot of the enemy.
Incidentally, Rama shows no hesitation, not even for the sake of formality, to accept the kingdom from Bharata, when it is offered to him by Bharata at his return from the jungle, though he knew it belonged to Bharata and not to him. He readily accepts it. Bharata offers the kingdom to him and the only thing he says is, tathastu – “Let it be so.”
Rama always wanted the kingdom for himself – perhaps his need for the kingdom was greater for the fact that it was denied to him even though he was the eldest son of his father, the king. It is not impossible to imagine that this need was at least partially the result of the darkness in his childhood – Bharata did not have that need for power, though the kingdom was his by right. Or perhaps because the kingdom was his by right.
In the Ramayana, more than anyone else, more than even Lakshmana or Rama, it is Bharata who appears to be the ideal brother. He never once fails in his love for Rama, never once falters. And for all we know, this love was there right from the brothers’ childhood.
Why is it that in spite of this Rama is never able to accept Bharata completely? Why is it that Rama never understands Bharata’s nobility fully?
Could this love of Bharata for Rama also have colored Rama’s inner world in dark shades in those early formative years? Perhaps yes. It was not love that Rama could accept easily. Rama definitely loved Bharata, there is no doubt about it. But he was also perhaps uncomfortable with Bharata’s unreserved love for him. For, Bharata was the rightful claimant to the throne. A throne that Rama wanted. A throne that Rama knew he couldn’t have. A throne that he believed Bharata too wanted.
Rama loved Dasharatha, there is no doubt about that. But his words too many times, as when he calls him kamatma and quotes him as an example for those who fall because of slavery to kama, speak of other attitudes towards him. At one time, Rama also talks of what he calls his father’s matibhrama [Ayo 53/9] – his insanity, his lunacy or foolishness. Rama could not have been happy about Dasharatha’s neglect of his mother. He definitely hated his over-attachment to Kaikeyi. Chances are that he hated the rajyashulka he paid her, but for which his life would have been like a smooth-flowing river, without the turmoil and turbulences, the woes and afflictions that it turned out to be full of.
Since Rama was aware of the rajyashulka Dasharatha paid to Kaikeyi and the consequent loss of his right to the throne, since he was aware of Dasharatha’s constant neglect of his mother and the rejection and rebukes she speaks of, it is possible that in spite of all his love for his father, there also remained some resentment for Dasharatha in some deep abyss of his heart, filling his childhood world with yet another kind of darkness.
Perhaps it is this resentment that we see in the abruptness with which he accepts the order to go to the jungle. Also, we can perhaps read this resentment in his refusal at Chitrakoota to come back to Ayodhya even when Kaikeyi’s demands that Bharata be installed the crown prince and Rama spend fourteen years in the jungle have become void because of Bharata’s refusal to take over the kingdom after Dasharatha’s death. Like Bheeshma later, who too would refuse to go back on his vows even after the vows became purposeless after the death of his father and both his half brothers, Rama too insists on keeping the promise Dasharatha gave to Kaikeyi, though that promise has become meaningless now. It would have been in everybody’s interest that Rama came back from Chitrakoota and took over the kingdom at Bharata’s request. Everybody presses Rama to do that. Bharata begs Rama to do that in chapter after chapter. And Kaikeyi had gone with Bharata to Chitrakoota to give weight to his request. Yet Rama refuses to come back.
I believe Rama’s refusal to come back was as much obeying Dasharatha as rejecting him. In fact, I see it more as rejection of Dasharatha than obeying him. It was that deeply hidden resentment towards Dasharatha finding expression. He was obeying Dasharatha in word, by rejecting him in spirit. What Dasharatha wanted more than anything else was that Rama took over the kingdom from him.
Another expression of the darkness that filled this very sensitive prince’s childhood world.
Such darkness can destroy all pliability in a man, render him unyielding.
One thing is certain. Unlike what the poets down the ages say, child Rama’s world could not have been one of rainbow colors. There was much darkness in it. Unlike what the poets say, child Rama was a prisoner of darkness. He was a child trapped in a dark chamber.
And the scars of this dark childhood remain with him throughout his life.
We do not see these scars in Valmiki’s Ramayana. That is, unless we look deeply into it. But folk traditions of the Ramayana are full of songs and stories that show these scars of Rama plainly. These songs sing of, and these stories narrate Rama’s neglect of Sita, his harshness and hard-heartedness towards her and so on much more openly than the sophisticated Ramayana of Valmiki does.
Rama is our greatest epic hero. And he is great and fascinating because of his complex personality. Rama fights many battles in his life – and all the battles he fights are not out there in the world. Many of them are within his own self. One of the toughest battles Rama had to fight was, as in the case of any one of us, with the forces of darkness within his own heart. For Rama’s inner world was not all of light. And it is this mixture of light and darkness within him that makes him the supreme epic hero that he is.
The word Ramayana here refers exclusively to Valmiki Ramayana. All translations from the Ramayana are by the author. The shloka and chapter numbers are as they appear in the popular Gita Press Sanskrit edition [Shreemad-valmeekeeya-ramayanam (Moolamatram), 2017 Vikram (1960-61) edition].