Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXXIII: Sugrīva, the Friend – Part III
May 6, 2020
Vālmīki’s Rāma was not prepared for the ordeal for a forest-exile for fourteen years. Sītā’s insistence that she must accompany him was an additional burden. Sītā did confide later that she felt unsafe to stay in the palace without the protection of her husband. It was not easy to protect her in the forest either. Lakṣmaṇa had volunteered to come with Rāma to facilitate in his ordeal. A slight miscalculation on the part of the brothers had caused Sītā to be abducted. Vālmīki’s characters make the story.
Rāma comes to know from a bird that Sītā was flown in the southerly direction by her abductor. Then he is told by a massive monster that Sugrīva, the vānara, could be of help. He treks the forest with his brother and eventually makes friendship with Sugrīva. The friendship between a man and a beast is expected to be unusual and here it was no exception. A man wants a deal and the beast wants his part accomplished first. Rāma reluctantly killed Sugrīva’s elder brother Vālī and helped Sugrīva to gain back his kingdom and his wife. Rainy season sets in and Sugrīva retires to his vānara-harem.
The very thought of accomplishing a goal can make a person anxious. The thought that there was possibility of gaining his wife back made Rāma thoroughly forlorn. He outpoured his emotion to his brother and counted the days for the rains to end. With Sugrīva still totally out of view, Rāma jealously imagined Sugrīva with his coterie of female counterparts contrasting himself lonely and desperate. His anxiety converted into anger and he dispatched Lakṣmaṇa with a threat message for Sugrīva “Do the job that you committed. Don’t let your fate turn out to be like that of your brother!”
The expectation in a man-beast friendship is different than the friendship of rationality in human beings. Rāma could be correct in distrusting Sugrīva’s motives particularly connected with the latter’s disappearance in his cave. Beasts have their own type of societal life and that need not be compared to the conduct in human society. Unlike a human king, the vānara king does not have to sort out daily disputes. With abundant forest food, the vānaras conduct themselves as a tribe. The vānara king has the task of defending the tribe against perceived intruders.
The interpretation of friendship is different between a man and a beast. Man is local and transactional. The beast retains gratitude in memory. Rāma’s friendship with Sugrīva is one of necessity, but he is unaware of Sugrīva’s potential and has conflicting thoughts in his mind as to the latter’s motive. The loyalty of the beast to the man is the poetic grandeur that Vālmīki exploits through the story. Unknown to Rāma, Sugrīva had already sent emissaries all around the world for the tree-living four-legged forest-dwellers to assemble in Kiṣkindhā.
Man can punish the beast. Man’s bow and arrow are more powerful that the fists and the muscle power of the beast. Man can shoot the arrow from arbitrary location. Lakṣmaṇa tried to barge ahead to carry out the “orders” only to be restrained by Rāma. Rāma was already lectured by Vālī about the protocol of duels. He was sensitive. He himself calmed down and advised Lakṣmaṇa to negotiate with Sugrīva regarding the follow up action in a “conciliatory language”.
Lakṣmaṇa is different. Once enraged, he would not calm down easily. He took rapid strides towards the Kiṣkindhā caves thus frightening the assembled monkeys. Though prompted by messengers, Sugrīva in the cave was already intoxicated and heavy in sleep. He was satisfying his desires after many years of deprivation. A beast takes life easy. The world can wait, the animal desire does not! Lakṣmaṇa did not know the state of affairs in the cave. He sent message inside via Aṅgada. Aṅgada reported to Sugrīva about the enraged Lakṣmaṇa waiting outside.
Sugrīva pondered: “I have not done anything wrong! Why should Lakṣmaṇa be annoyed?” Then, he reflected: “A friendship is easy to create, but difficult to maintain! I am afraid since it is not easy to repay the favors that Rāma has done to me!” Hanūmān, the wise counsellor, intervened. “The time for the expedition to Laṅkā has already arrived. Lakṣmaṇa is unhappy because you apparently have forgotten the commitment. It would be wise for you to beg forgiveness to console the distressed brothers!”
Escorted by Aṅgada, Lakṣmaṇa entered the tiered caves. He was stunned by the opulence and organization. Hearing the approach of Lakṣmaṇa, Sugrīva physically choked in fear. He remembered
Vālī ’s advice that Tārā had intuitive sense of detecting problems. He requested her if she could meet Lakṣmaṇa outside and learn what needs be done. “People restrain anger when they see women! I will meet Lakṣmaṇa after he is pacified by you!”
Tārā revealed to Lakṣmaṇa about the arrangements already made for the monkeys to assemble back in Kiṣkindhā. But Lakṣmaṇa would not give up. In his characteristic way, he entered the inner quarters of the cave and admonished Sugrīva pointing out the lapses in his moral conduct. Tārā came in defense, then Sugrīva reassured: “In case I have done anything wrong, I beg forgiveness. It is through Rāma’s grace only that I am restored to my kingdom and to my clan. Rāma will gain back Sītā through his own valor, I will accompany as an Assistant!”
Sweet words of flattery are a standard technique in pacifying men. Sugrīva applied the technique cleverly. Lakṣmaṇa’s anger did melt away. He said: “Such words are not possible for anyone else besides my brother! You deserve to be the king!” Having taken the control of the situation, Sugrīva ordered Hanūmān to make sure that vānara troops from all forests and mountains show up in ten days. Sugrīva exhibited his command in collecting the vānaras from all corners of the world. With fruit and herb presents in hand, they submitted “all vānaras are converging to Kiṣkindhā!”
Sugrīva rode on a resplendent golden carriage and was carried by his monkey followers to Rāma’s abode. Alighting from the carriage, Sugrīva fell down at Rāma’s feet in reverence and in an act of submission. Rāma was extremely pleased with the gesture. Sugrīva was reinforcing his value as a friend. After Sugrīva did get seated, Rāma counseled him on the character of a successful king. Rāma was keen to check if Sugrīva indeed can make a plan for the proposed expedition in rescuing Sītā.
“A king has to be careful to divide his time properly while being diligent to his many duties.” Defensive about religious merits and considering possible future lapses he continued “Unrestrained sensuous enjoyment lets a king fall like a bird sleeping on the treetop!” Then he requested “Time has come for action. Please consult all your ministers and leaders and formulate a plan!”
Sugrīva was happy not to see Rāma’s wrath and submitted “All my fortune and power is regained due to your help and goodwill.” To convince Rāma of his sincerity he said, “It is a disgrace for people who do not pay back their obligation.” Then pointing to the myriads of vānaras, monkeys, baboons and bears, he said “Look, these flocks and the mighty chiefs have arrived after being summoned by me world-wide. They have intimate knowledge of the wilderness and the forests. These millions would go to fight for you. They would kill Rāvaṇa and rescue Sītā!”
Rāma was overly happy. “Your friendship gives delight to people like Indra’s rains, sun’s light and like the moon in the night! You are always kind in your words and gentle in your manners.” Then he exclaimed - “I can win all my enemies with you as my companion,” and concluded “You are my benevolent friend, who is capable of helping me. Before long, I would be able to kill Rāvaṇa with my sharp arrows and rescue Sītā!”
“What is this? The sky is dark! There are swarms of monkeys everywhere!” Rama witnessed the large assembly of tree-living forest dwellers that had come from all around the world. They came from the oceans, from the mountain tops, from the river valleys and from the interior forests. Some were massive, some were small. Some looked vicious, some looked sweet. They were a fraternity. Sugriva’s call was doing wonders. They had mutual bondage.
All got seated in groups led by their own chiefs. Many were hanging from the tree branches. Then there was a swarm of massive bears who clan together with the vānaras. Sugrīva ordered the chiefs to report their horde’s strength for the sake of enumeration. The count was not in units or hundreds but in millions and billions. The beasts were united for the cause of warding off the intrusion by Rāvaṇa. The beasts take the humans as their friends. They had natural abhorrence to the creatures who may devour them as food! Rāvaṇa was their avowed enemy! Rāma was their friend!
Rāma noticed the magnificent endowment in the vānaras that they had the capacity in assuming forms as the situation demanded. They could create massive forms in travel and reduce themselves to squeeze in small places, to hang on to tree branches. They had a tremendous ability of creating rock-like fists to uproot trees and then change to soft palm to eat fruits. They were simple, they had mutual understanding! Sugrīva was their king. Rāma admired Sugrīva for his affection to his clan.
Let Sai bless all!