Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XVI: Daṇḍakāraṇya
December 19, 2016
The story of Rāmāyaṇa is woven through three geographic areas: the first is Ayodhyā and its surroundings, the second is the large expanse of south India called Daṇḍakāraṇya, and the third is the island of Laṅkā in the sea. Other contiguous areas like Kaikeya and Mithilā are brought to the story to create nuptial relationship. Ayodhyā city was the capital of the Ikṣvāku clan inherited by the King Daśaratha but the overall area of Kośala spread through much of northern India. Daṇḍakāraṇya, which was the area to the south of the Vindhya mountain range, was in principle under rule of the Ikṣvāku but was undeveloped. Its northern fringes were popular with monks and holy people who liked seclusion in order to have an environment of solitude necessary for contemplation.
Littered with hills, rivers and ponds and populated with lush tropical forests, Daṇḍakāraṇya was the home of plentiful food and free movement. Animals of all kinds including varieties of deer, bears, snakes, tigers and lions roamed the forests. Primitive people of wild demeanor lived among the animals. There were all kinds of birds and water species. Amidst these, there would be mythical areas which appeared as heavenly abodes. The mystic men took residence in these areas in order to experiment on the fortitude of life. They possibly expanded their intuition through harmonious coexistence. The science of forest living and the benefits accrued to the mind and the body are yet to be researched from the civilization point of view.
Then there were breeds of ferocious human like creatures from clan called rākṣasa. From the evolution stand point, they were violence-prone and eccentric in their approach to life. In many ways, one considered them to be a part of human society, but they were utterly egoistic and irrational. They had their own kings, army and empire. As Vālmīki describes, they loved to slit human beings and drink their blood. Drinking animal blood is not unpopular in some cultures, but killing humans for protein is a different taste. Extreme characters of this latter kind were cannibals who consumed human flesh. Cannibal as an anthropologic object is also not unscientific.
As the story goes, the rākṣasa clan made their habitat in the equatorial area. Through the practice of penance and difficult exercises, some of them attained various skills connected to physical stamina and intellectual prowess. Vālmīki creates a character called Rāvaṇa, who apparently could operate with ten heads. Through battles and manipulations, he had acquired most of the world’s riches. With his expansive ambition, he also wanted to win over the human beings. Vālmīki paints him as a lecherous individual, who could get infatuated with any woman he might see. In Vālmīki’s hands, the character comes out as an evil and vicious being who is too obsessed with his own ego and vanity. The Rāmāyaṇa story is created to champion the cause of Rāma’s virtue against the crooked exploits of Rāvaṇa.
Being a land of wilderness and forests, Daṇḍakāraṇya was used as a stepping stone by Rāvaṇa for an assault on the habitat further north. Rāvaṇa’s generals and warriors populated pockets of Daṇḍakāraṇya and engaged in causing disturbance to the hermitages of the monks and the sages. The hermits were not skilled in military tactics and they would evacuate their cottages in fear of being devoured by the rākṣasa. Finally, a skilled military tactician named Agastya invented ways to tackle the maneuvers of the rākṣasa and created some areas safe for the sages. Rāma had heard of the Sage Agastya and made efforts to meet the Sage during his journey through Daṇḍakāraṇya. Weapons given by the Sage become the tools of victory of Rāma against Rāvaṇa and his Army.
The forests of Daṇḍakāraṇya were apparently used by the royals to exile people on punishment. Banishment as a punishment for non-criminal offences is an old tradition. It is not clear if Kaikeyī had other locations in mind to send Rāma in exile. Her thought could have been to send Rāma as far away as possible such that it would not be easy for him to wage a fight against Bharata. There was the tacit likelihood that Rāma might not survive the ordeal as had been the case with others in the past. Kauśalyā was heart-broken to hear of the exile of Rāma to Daṇḍakāraṇya.
After leaving Ayodhyā, Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā lived several months at Citrakūṭa mountains south of the Yamunā river west of Prayāga. There were many hermitages in the area including one of the Sage Vālmīki who helped to find a site for Rāma. Bharata and the family members visited Rāma in Citrakūṭa. Bharata collected Rāma’s sandals and symbolically placed them on the throne as substitute King. Sometime after Bharata’s party returned away, Rāma was alerted that the hermits were leaving the area since the members of the rākṣasa were encroaching. An old sage told Rāma that Rāvaṇa’s general Khara had been causing trouble to the hermits ever since Rāma took residence in the area. Rāma however did not seek out Khara to fight. He decided to relocate like the other ascetics did.
Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā proceeded south east from Citrakūṭa to enter the Daṇḍakāraṇya forest. After passing by Atri’s hermitage, they were confronted by the cannibal Virādha who operated as a self-appointed guard to the hermits in the area. He warned that women were not welcome in the area since it was a place for the ascetics. The cannibal carried Sītā on his shoulders and ran inside the forest. He was so rough and rugged in shape that the arrows from Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa had no effect to his body. Eventually Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa subdued him by breaking his arm. By recognizing Rāma’s internal strength, he revealed that he was a Gandharva born on earth out of a curse. He asked Rāma to bury him such that he could find liberation. Such burial could be a cultural legacy. The story of Virādha is fanciful but it is a sample story of Daṇḍakāraṇya.
Rāma’s party passed through the hermitages of Sarabhanga and Sutīkṣṇa. They entered the area of Pañcāpsarā lake that was known to be created by Sage Māṇḍakarṇī. An invisible underwater stream created a soft tilting sensation giving the impression of live music being played under water. The legend was that the heavenly nymphs were playing music in an underwater palace. Daṇḍakāraṇya’s rich natural geographical features were associated with various similar legends. Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā enjoyed these features for ten years by hopping around various hermitages in the area. Vālmīki’s poetic instincts blossom to high tones in describing the beauty of the Daṇḍakāraṇya forests.
The poet gives the story of two members of the rākṣasa clan: Vātāpi and Ilvala who had developed skills in Sanskrit and could pretend as brāhmaṇa. Vātāpi would take the body of a ram and Ilvala would feed the meat to the sages by inviting them to the s’rāddha. Then vātāpi would emerge out of the body of the sages tearing their stomachs in the process. Apparently this was a technique of employed in killing. The members of the rākṣasa clan were apt maneuvers than direct confrontation. Sage Agastya, as we referred earlier, knew how to outsmart the rākṣasa. He chewed the meat of the ram fully and completely digested it before the body could take a form again. The Sage Agastya is given the credit of learning the sciences of the oceans and mastering the special skills of capturing attributes from the natural elements using austerities and mantra.
In the modern days, Daṇḍakāraṇya is considered to comprise of the area in the western frontiers of Odisha proceeding west to cover Chattishgarh and some beyond. It spreads from Jharkhand to the northern Telengana in the north south direction. It has flat lands, hills, rivers and waterfalls with dense deciduous forests. The entire area has not been fully explored. Many primitive tribes still operate in the area as though frozen in time.
Let Sai bless all.