Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – III, King Daśaratha
July 23, 2014
Vālmīki’s characterization of King Daśaratha is a unique portrayal that meets the definition of a family man in a social narrative. Daśaratha has a reputed lineage; he inherits a kingdom. His task is to maintain and protect the kingdom, which he does exceedingly well. His kingdom is prosperous, fortified and his subjects are loyal and well-skilled. He is a pleasure-seeking king, who keeps busy in hunting expeditions and maintains an assembly of three hundred and fifty “queens” in his inner quarters. Out of the three hundred and fifty, he is duly married to three, who possibly have come to his life in his search for a son.
Daśaratha has a daughter, S’āntā, but Vālmīki does not say who the mother is. S’āntā and her husband Rṣi Rṣyaśṛṁga become instrumental in performing the sacrificial rites to help procreate sons for Daśaratha at his old age. Daśaratha’s senility in the old age is obvious. He does not seem to have clarity of purpose, his decision making is clouded with infatuation and attachment. He seems to operate on his whims; possibly whims worked for him all through his life. He is trapped through such whims in his last stage of life, and dies a bitter man.
In my thinking, Daśaratha is a characterization of the laukika person that we discussed in the previous article. Laukika by definition has to be the normal pattern on the earth. We must survive and protect our self-interests. Whenever there is conflict between our interests and another person’s interest, we must do everything to uphold our interests. In the laukika conduct, “righteousness” dharma is defined by the individual, or a group; it has little to do with the universal good. We rationalize and justify our conduct, only to reflect and repent at the old age. Daśaratha fits the model pretty well.
Daśaratha grew up as a bright young man. He got skilled in handling weapons like bow with arrow. He mastered the technique of discharging weapons that can follow audible sound. He wanted to try out his newly acquired skill in a hunting trip. He fired the weapon in the dark misjudging a man filling water in a pitcher to an elephant taking a drink in the stream. His weapon killed the man, who was an ascetic and the only support to his blind parents. The blind father was devastated and cursed Daśaratha to suffer similar pain as he was going through the bereavement of his son. Daśaratha conveniently forgot this only to remember after Rāma left for the forest; he was left to die being despised by his own people.
Daśaratha is kind and highly philanthropic. The opulence he shows with his success to get the blessings to beget sons is out of this world. He is protective of his children and develops particular affection to Rāma. He wants to install Rāma on the throne and conveniently chooses a time when Bharata is away. He does not inform Janaka most likely because the in-laws party might look for all brothers to be present. He makes various rationalizations of health and astrology to cover up his apparent calculations. He probably knew that Bharata could be a problem and he wants to inform his decision on Rāma’s installation to Bharata’s mother Kaikeyī in the dead of the night. The whole thing, as we now know, backfires!
To me, Daśaratha is a perfect example of an average man doing his maneuvers on the earth to gain apparent success with shrewd manipulations. He belongs in a class of people who protect the land. But as a King, he has to make “policy” and “decisions”. While people who have the aptitude of protecting others and the land are called Kṣatriyas in the Gita terminology, a king defines his own plan. The dharma defined in the vedic terminology gets a narrow political meaning for the king. A King may define dharma as a local rationale rather than the universal principle.
Vālmīki contrasts Daśaratha to Rāma. Rāma does not think of manipulation, he lives his life by the book. He follows the vedas to the letter. To him, the vedas are the supreme truth and the only truth. The vedas took away the propitiation that laukika had invented in offering sacrifices to the Mother to beg forgiveness. In the vedic style there is no forgiveness for a wrongful act. The disorder must be decimated through suffering in a new life, over all order must be established. The order is higher than the human acts. Always discriminate your action; look before you leap!
Daśaratha belongs in a group of people who believe in the vedic ways, but operate through their own whims. They keep a coterie of Ministers and wise men to help them in their decision-making. The wisest man of the time, Sage Vasiṣṭha, is a Minister in Daśaratha’s court. Daśaratha confers with them only when he is in trouble. Otherwise they assist him in this daily administration. The King makes up the rules and issues decisions. The Ministers are Advisers in need.
Vasiṣṭha is the teacher to Rāma. We are not told who Daśaratha’s teacher was, but it is likely that Daśaratha went through the same vedic education as Rāma did. Part of such instruction was that no misdeed remains unpunished. Life after death can be a torture for the miscreants. Not to keep one’s word is a great misdeed and the punishment is high, severe punishment can follow after the death. Daśaratha boasts of having never told a lie and he keeps quiet when Kaikeyī reminds him of his earlier “boon” to her. In his old age, he leaves it to Rāma to break the Vedic injunction. Rāma chooses not to break the injunction and proceeds to the forest. It is too late when Daśaratha realizes the mess he has created by keeping “silent” at the “right” time. He does not recover; he dies.
The important part in the story is that Daśaratha repents later that he should have conferred with his Ministers on his conduct. My thinking is that this is how an average man operates his life. The man lives in fear and insecurity. He makes allies and associations for convenience and desire. Daśaratha’s infatuation with Kaikeyī is his biggest weakness. He had married Kauśalyā, who turned out to be an extremely religious person. But she was not to Daśaratha’s style of pomp and luxury. Being without a son, he marries Sumitrā, a lady of dignity and wisdom. Again no son, and he marries Kaikeyī, a bride from a wealthy kingdom. Kaikeyī likes horses and wars, like Dasaratha does. He gets more attached to her. Kaikeyī is also young and good-looking; Daśaratha makes her the eventual bed-partner. Every convenience has its price. Kaikeyī manipulates Daśaratha. The King curses her after Rāma is gone to the forest, but it is too late!
Daśaratha demands respect from Kauśalyā when she accuses him to be the cause for Rāma’s exile. He reminds her of the Vedic point of view that a husband deserves respect irrespective of his failures. This is the patriarchic society that the Vedas helped create replacing the older matriarchic society. This part of social change has not been fully studied in Indian sociology. The upaniṣads declared the equality of man and woman and did elevate the mother as the first teacher. But men maintain their grip. They make arbitrary rules in cultures where upanisadic thoughts did not penetrate. In the land of upanisads itself, the woman’s dignity does get compromised often.
I admire Vālmīki’s characterization of Daśaratha because he understands how people justify manipulation. Power has a vanity, Daśaratha is a symbol to it. He believes that he protects dharma by supporting Brahmins. None of his charity comes to his aid in his death. Rāma is a contrast. The character of Daśaratha is played by most men on earth every day. They operate through local rationalization rather than global principles. Their practice of life is different than the prescriptions in the book. It is possible that the book is too idealistic and we must compromise to create a social structure. Vālmīki’s goal is to show living life through the vedic principles is doable. So, he proceeds to uphold the Vedas in the character of Rāma. We analyze further in the next article.
Let Sai bless all.