Women’s safety is a major issue across the world today. India has become notorious as one of the most unsafe places for women. Our print and electronic media are filled with news of rape and other forms of violence against woman, at least some of which shake the very conscience of the nation. We wake up every morning to hear reports of very young children being subjected to sexual atrocities. In such times, this story of a young girl raped brutally and destroyed by a power-intoxicated man and the consequences of that dastardly act that ancient India tells us can perhaps function as a warning to all of us.
The story is of Araja.
Araja could be her name. It could also be a description of what, or how old, she was. The word arajaa means one without impurity – from the word rajas, meaning impurity. Rajas could also mean many other things, including a woman’s monthly period, which would make the word Araja mean a girl who has not yet reached puberty. A prepubescent girl.
She was the older daughter of Shukracharya, the elder sister of Devayani famous in stories that relate her to Brihaspati’s son Kacha, to the asura emperor Vrishaparva’s daughter Sharmishtha and to Emperor Yayati. When the story happened, Devayani could have been just a child, or maybe she was not yet born.
On that day young Araja was all alone in the forest close to her father’s ashram. The spring had touched the forest a couple of weeks ago and its magic had transformed every tree. The wild mango trees seemed to be dancing in the wind that was pregnant with the fragrance of champaka flowers. Both the bakula and karnikara trees filled the not very dence forest with their intoxicating scents.
Araja loved the palasha groves and bamboo thickets where she sometimes spent hours. On the bank of the small stream that flowed singing a song that only the birds and wild animals understood, there were several thickets of ketaki bushes, their stems full of thorns, the trees avoided by all because of the snakes that abounded in the thickets when the divine fragrance that emanated from their golden leaves could be smelt half a mile away and drew people irresistibly to them. Here and there stood a bilva and peepal from which it was Araja’s proud job to collect leaves for the sacred rituals her father seemed to be always practicing. A young peacock followed the adolescent girl wherever she went, every now and then pausing in its walk, raising its head high and sending its long call to the heart of the forest – the peacock lived in the ashram, along with several deer and numerous other animals.
Young Araja was lost in the sweetness of the call of a cuckoo perched on a jambu tree when she was suddenly awakened by the awareness of someone close to her – a stranger.
The man was tall and handsome, powerfully built, very obviously a royal personage if not a king. His eyes were on her – and she realized, less on her face and eyes and more on her hips that had recently started spreading out under her clothes, her naked thin waist and on her chest that had just started budding. Araja pulled her clothes more tightly to her, which only seemed to interest the man more – a smile suddenly started spreading across his face.
He asked her who she was and why she was wandering alone in the forest.When she told him she was the daughter of Shukracharya, the place was safe because it is not too far from her father’s ashram, and she was collecting sacred leaves and flowers for his worship, his eyes glowed. With his smile broadening further, he told her Shukra was his royal priest. “I give him profuse dakshina and it is on that dakshina that the acharya lives.”
Araja stared at him, not liking his tone. She did not like anyone slighting her father. Her father was no ordinary priest – he was the chief priest of the asuras and even the gods feared him. As for the dakshina, her father’s powers were such that if he wanted he could command the god of wealth himself to give him as much of it as he wanted.
“I am King Dandaka, youngest son of Emperor Ikshwaku, grandson of Manu, great grandson of the first king on earth, Vivaswan, and all that is in this vast land south of the Vindhyas belongs to me. And that includes all the people who live here too.” He paused for a moment and added with a smile, “So, little girl, you are standing on my land this very moment and you belong to me too!”
Araja did not say anything. She did not feel like talking to such an arrogant man. She had met many kings in the past, they came to her father’s ashram every now and then, in their powerful chariots, but they were always humble, particularly around the ashram and before her father. They invariably stopped the chariot some distance away and alighting, came walking, usually barefoot, to her father, Most of them dared not even sit in his presence even when he insisted and almost all of them touched her father’s feet with their crowned heads, calling him their guru.
“You are very beautiful,” said King Danda. “My royal apartments are full of pretty women but I do not think anyone of them has the beauty you have – at least not as much as you would soon have, once your body blossoms fully. You are only a bud now, but I love buds more than flowers.”
The king stood appraising her with his eyes.
“I love you, pretty girl. Watching you, I am not able to control my desire for you. It is as though if I do not have you, I would explode.How about becoming my queen? I have hundreds of them in my inner apartments. The king has an exclusive right over all that is best within the kingdom. So that is where a precious jewel like you belong.”
The king spread out his arms and invited the confused little girl into them. She stood unmoving and then he started taking steps closer to her.
Araja started shivering in dread. “Don’t you do anything to me, rajan,” she said. “I am your guruputri and like a sister to you.”
His steps only became steadier as he laughed aloud at her words, his mirth spreading them in the wind.
“Let me make you mine,” said Danda. “Now. This very moment! You fill me with such desire.”
“If you need me you must ask my father,” said Araja. “I belong to him, and to anyone he gives me to. If your intentions are good, wait, the ashram is close by, ask him. But if your intentions are not good, remember, my father is the guru of all the asuras and before his awesome power, the world of the devas and asuras and the whole earth trembles. Don’t do anything foolish, I beg you, rajan. Touching me without my father’s permission will destroy you. Just because you are the king of this land, don’t think you can do anything. He can reduce you to ashes in a split second with his ascetic power.”
Her voice rose in the urgency and despair of her speech and became almost a yell. A strange dread that she had never known before possessed her. She wanted to scream and yet no sound came out of her mouth. She wanted to turn around and run, but her limbs would not move. All on a sudden, it was as though it was all a nightmare, she was in a nightmare, the surroundings of the ashram were part of some unspeakable horror she was experiencing in a horrid sleep . How else could something as horrible as this be happening to her – that too so close to her father’s ashram where all her life she had known no fear, where even dreaded animals became peaceful because of the spiritual power of her father, where every tree and bush was her friend?
She fought desperately with her dread and with a tremendous effort of will pulled her body out of the stupefaction in which it was frozen and turned around and ran. It was then that Danda caught her by her hair and pulled her to him. She pushed him away with all her might, but the little girl was no match to the raw male power of the mighty king in his mature age.
Her fight intoxicated him. Fresh energy shot through all his limbs and he held her tightly to him by one hand, still clutching her hair by the other hand.As she pushed at him with all her little strength, he slapped her hard on her cheek, releasing her hair at the same time, the blow sending her to the ground.
The next moment he was on her, pulling her clothes away from her, kissing her lips, kissing all over her face, kissing her shoulders, kissing the buds of her breasts in the frenzy of his lust that had suddenly grown insane. A violent scream that rushed out of her could barely leave her as he, now lying on top of her, smothered it with his left hand, while spreading her legs with his right hand. She tried to clutch her legs together, but he was already between them and thrusting violently.
A blood curdling scream arose from the depths of her being as he held her pressed down to the ground and tore into her, violating her brutally.
The forest stood still. The birds and animals had stopped breathing. The trees no more danced in the wind. Even the nearby stream seemed to have ceased to flow.
Then the peacock raised its head and cried violently. The monkeys perched on trees nearby started screeching. An owl, woken up from his sleep, hooted ominously, his deep voice booming. Form the distance came peals of laughter – hyenas.
And the next moment the whole jungle exploded with a thousand angry, fierce sounds. Elephants trumpeted furiously. The roar of a lion filled the forest. The stream rushed forward with violence in its movements. A hundred sleeping owls suddenly woke up and filled the jungle with their blood curdling hoots. A hundred peacocks raised their head and opening their beaks wide, began to cry without stopping. The vultures perched on a dry tree screeched, and spreading their wings took off into the air, their shadows falling over the king and the young girl. A dark-furred giant bear stood on its back legs, a shocked expression in his eyes, and watched, his mouth open.
The whole forest was shocked and protested in ferocious anger. Everything that was sacred in the jungle was shorn into shreds. Like a violent whirlpool, the jungle was at once restless and still.
The girl kept screaming.
And then King Danda was finished with the tender body of the young girl, his lust satiated for the moment. He let go of it, discarded it, fouled and bloody, like the leftover meat that a lion abandons and walks away because he has had his fill.
The jungle had grown silent again. Not a sound anywhere.
In the middle of that silence, the young girl tried to get up and sit down but failed collapsed on the ground. It was as though her body no more belonged to her. And perhaps it did not – she no more felt any ownership towards it. It was no more her body. It was a body that used to be hers, a body that had belonged to her all her short life until now, but no more. She felt totally alienated from it, wanted it no more, it had become a repulsive thing for her, abhorrent, she wanted to get away from it, discard it right there in the middle of the jungle and walk away, which of course she could not. She did not want to carry it into the sacred ashram that was her home, at least used to be her home. She felt polluted and felt if she entered the ashram she would pollute it too. For she was a disgusting, repulsive thing now, gross and sickening, loathsome.
It was a group of young disciples of the Acharya who had come there running that found her there, and from the words that she wrenched out of herself learnt what had happened. “King Danda…. King Danda…King Danda… He…He…Me… Me…”
Her eyes were on her blood-soaked clothes that remained stuck to her thighs.
Shukracharya’s body shook violently when he heard the words of his young disciples. His eyes spat fire. He ran to where his young daughter lay, hardly in touch with the world, her lips whimpering words that no one could make out, her eyes unseeing. Her body convulsed every now and then, becoming taught like a bow stringed and pulled, and then, after the convulsion, totally spent, without any energy, more dead than alive.
The only man in the world whom even the mighty gods dreaded stood in helpless fury as he watched his young daughter lying bathed in blood. He had failed. He was supposed to be the protector of the asuras, those men of boundless power who ruled much of the earth, at one time the whole earth, and he had failed to protect his own daughter! Shukra who wielded power beyond imagination, who could bring the dead back to life, who could change young men into old ones and give eternal youth to whom he wanted, who could command the earth and the heavens, storms and rains, at whose command mountains moved and oceans dried up – there was nothing he could do for his own daughter, the little girl whom he loved more dearly than his own life.
Time couldn’t be turned back.
The earth under his feet was scorched by the fire of anger in him. Each teardrop that fell from his eyes became fire as it touched the earth and rose up in flames. He wanted to destroy the whole earth.
Using the years of tapas he had practiced, using his superhuman powers, Shukracharya mastered himself. No, he will not destroy the earth. For the sin of one person, he will not destroy the whole vast earth, the mother of all beings. But he would destroy the king, destroy his land. All that is on that land would perish. It is the law, the eternal law. When a king commits sin, the whole kingdom is destroyed. Just as one part of everything, good and bad, that the subjects do goes to the king, the subjects too pay for the kings sins. The part of the earth of which he is the master too suffers with him and his people for his sins.
King Danda was doomed. His kingdom and all its people were doomed for the sin he had committed. And the very land shall pay the price.
“I, Kavi Ushana, Acharya Shukra, the guru of the asuras, curse you, rajan, on the strength of the life of tapas that I have lived all my life,” said the great ascetic, the maha-yogi, filling his palm with water from his kamandalu, “Know that for the next seven days fierce winds will blow through your entire land. Burning winds shall blow for seven days without relief, raising duststorms across your kingdom. Trees will be uprooted, mountains will split open, rivers will dry up, the earth will crack open, opening up deep ravines everywhere. No tree will remain in its place, not a mountain, not a river, not a lake, nothing. No living being within the kingdom, be it human, animal, bird or whatever, shall be spared. Everything will be choked to death by the wind and the dust it raises. There will be no air to breathe for any living being. The dust storm will blow nonstop for seven days, at the end of which dust will settle on everything. The entire kingdom will be buried in dust for ages, nothing living shall breathe in your kingdom. Nothing will grow – no trees, no bushes, not even grass. Yours will be the kind of land the earth has not known in the past. For ages it will lie choked by dust. Nothing will walk or crawl upon it. Even birds will dread to fly over it. There will be not a drop of water to drink for anyone, no air to breathe, the earth shall scorch, scorching the dust above it. And when your kingdom comes back after ages, it will be known as the Dandaka forest, where daylight will dread to enter. Filled with monstrous trees and animals, with marshes and creatures of the marsh, man will avoid it by miles.”
And that is how it was. That is what passed.
All over Danda’s vast land, hell fire rose up from the earth. First the grass and plants and then the tress and vines caught fire and burnt to ashes. All the rivers and lakes and ponds began drying up, killing everything in them. The mountains shook and crumbled. Dust rose up from the scorched earth. Fierce dust storms began howling through the kingdom, moving at speeds no one had ever known, a hundred miles an hour, two hundred miles an hour, three hundred miles an hour. People couldn’t see anything because of the dust, couldn’t breathe because all they could breathe in was dust that choked them with every breath. People took shelter inside their homes, but soon the houses crumbled, killing them with it. Birds and beasts and all that crawled on the ground perished as did all life in water.
Seven days of pure hell! An unending eternity of hell! By the end of which a vast land that was filled with magnificent cities, luxurious homes and rich palaces had been wiped out for ever and ever. The lush vegetation of the kingdom of Danda, its thick forests, farms, gardens, rivers, lakes, were all a thing of the past. All that remained was a kingdom of dust, an endless desert of dust, with no life in it.
The kingdom of Danda no more existed.
A woman raped by the man whose duty it was to protect her, and a kingdom wiped out from the face of the earth.
Centuries passed and slowly life, irrepressible life, began claiming the land back once again. Grass sprouted here and there, then small plants and trees, then insects, birds and beasts… Slowly life came back after long ages and the land began to be occupied again. By rakshasas. And then by a few ascetics here and there who mostly ended up as food for the rakshasas.
This is the Dandakaranya of the Ramayana fame – into which Rama was exiled for fourteen years by his angry stepmother Kaikeyi.
To me here, in this story, Shukracharya is not just the father of Araja and a great ascetic but the very hand of the power that controls the universe and rightly rewards us for our actions, good and bad – call it niyati, call it dharma, call it destiny, call it God.