Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – IX :  Sārathī  Sumantra

Bijoy Misra

August 13, 2015


A king needs a confidante to keep track of his kingdom and people.  The person who fills the role normally comes from a family loyal to the king by generations.  The person keeps his total allegiance with the king with undivided attention to king’s orders and desires.  In a mobile environment, he helps transport the king by being his charioteer.  The charioteer, sārathī, is an old concept in Indian tradition. The strength and skills of a warrior are compared to the personality of the charioteer.  In the epic  Mahābhārata, S’rīkṛṣṇa was the charioteer to the warrior Arjuna.

King Daśaratha had a set of eight Ministers who counseled him on running the kingdom.  Sumantra was not a member of this team.  He was the personal counselor to the king and did form a part of the king’s inner family.  Sumantra applied his advisory role when the King was distressed having not succeeded in producing a son and was getting old.  It was his suggestion that the king should invite Rṣi Rsyaśṛṁga to officiate in a fire sacrifice that could help him gain a son.  This is where his role differs from that of the Ministers.  Ministers help the King in the affairs of the state, Sumantra advised him on his personal matters.

The King leans on Sumantra in dealing with his personal decisions.  It is possible that it was Sumantra’s counsel to install Rāma as the Crown Prince while Bharata was away.  The King makes up his mind and readies everyone to prepare for the august event.  He sends Sumantra to inform Rāma about his decision and summons Rāma to the court in order to advise him on the protocol.  Sumantra again comes in action when the King is stuck with the unbending Kaikeyī, who had taken word that Rāma be exiled to the forest.  

It is the early morning of the coronation day that Sumantra is called upon to summon Rāma to the difficult meeting.  He sees the priests and Ministers waiting to see the king and quickly goes back to inform the king.  Though he might have reason to guess that all was not well, he takes the chariot with Lakṣmaṇa in order to fetch Rāma.  He is discreet in his interaction with Rāma without giving him any indication on the anxiety in the mental state of the King.  Rāma comes to meet the king with full regalia and pageantry as though he would come for coronation.  Confidentiality is the virtue of the messenger!

Sumantra is the gate-keeper to King Dasaratha.  Noticing Daśaratha ’s frustration with the events about Rāma, Sumantra gets concerned and expresses his anger at Kaikeyī .  Through his proximity to the King, he knows things that few knew.  He publicly chastises Kaikeyī by pointing out the misconduct of her mother towards Kaikeyi’s father.  Sumantra’s narration of the story was designed to restrain Kaikeyī from her obstinate behavior.  But the story does not get traction.  Kaikeyī is too difficult, an offshoot of her mother!

After Kaikeyī objects to King’s orders that Rāma be sent to exile escorted by the army and the members of the Treasury, Sumantra is entrusted with the difficult task of dropping off Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā in the forest.  He prepares the chariot and the King bids farewell painfully.  Sumantra has to do his duty and believes that Rāma might return back after a couple of days of tour.  The townspeople including the King follow the chariot.  They request him to slow down such that Rāma does not go too far.  Rāma commands Sumnatra to drive fast such the agony in the King and among people is short-lived.  Sumantra has to choose a middle role; he has to be loyal to the King as well as to Rāma who rides the chariot.

Sumantra stops the chariot at the river bank in the evening.  The whole town had congregated there.  Rāma advises Sumantra to start up early in the morning before the tired people wake up.  Further he asks the charioteer to “confuse” the townspeople by running the chariot in the opposite direction.  Sumantra follows the orders and moves north for a distance before taking the the southerly course.  Sumantra manages to hide the chariot tracks in the forest thus letting Rāma escape the attention of the townspeople.

Reaching the banks of the Gaṁgā, Rāma pays ovation to Ayodhyā and bids farewell to all assembled.  Sumantra begs Rāma to return since he is scared of driving the empty chariot back to the town.  When Rāma urges him to return in order to serve the ailing father, Sumantra stuns Rāma by requesting to take him along as an attendant during his exile.  Sumantra shows his deep affection to Rāma through such a gesture.  Broken-hearted, he watches Rāma’s boat wading through the span of the Gaṁgā.  He simply waits there for any news from the party.  Days pass by.  On the third day, Guha’s spies return to report of Rāma’s journey to Citrakūṭa.  The report brings relief to Sumantra and he decides to return to Ayodhyā .   

Sumantra has to report the story of Rāma’s departure to the ailing King.  The King is intent to hear all detail and his grief only increases with the narration.  Sumantra is truthful in his story.  He reports to the King that Rāma had sent his respects and has requested everyone to take care of the King.  Sumantra further adds Rāma’s request that the King remain kind to mother Kauśalyā  such that she does not suffer the absence of her son.  Upon the King’s prodding, Sumantra reports that Lakṣmaṇa was upset in his journey to the forest and that he blames the King for the unfortunate turn of the events. 

While inquired by the King if Sītā had a message, Sumantra painfully reported the distressed blank looks of Daśaratha’s darling Sītā.  Sumantra went on reinforcing that Rāma was resolute and had no qualms about his exile.  Sumantra’s assertions however had little effect to quell the agony of Kauśalyā who burst out in tears and anger.  She admonishes the King for the unfortunate situation.  Sumantra stands helpless. The King narrates to Kauśalyā about the connection to the curse that the King had while young.  Daśaratha dies while telling the story.  Vālmīki does not give us the reaction of Sumantra to Daśaratha’s death.  

Vālmīki’s Sumantra is a model servant to an ageing king.  He belongs in the tradition of trustful people who act as personal counsellors to the King.  He is a contrast to Mantharā whose family also possibly had a long relationship with the king of Kakeya.  Vālmīki weaves these two characters to demonstrate the difficult situations the servants get into in order to protect the interest of the person that they serve.  Sumantra did try to outwit Kaikeyī by revealing the story of her mother, but he did not play tricks to trouble her. 

Rāmāyaṇa is a story of personal allegiance.  Through the story, Vālmīki creates and develops allegiance between various individuals.  There is allegiance between Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, there is allegiance between Rāma and Sugrīva leading to an allegiance between Rāma and Hanumān.  While Lakṣmaṇa, Sugriva and Hanuman served Rāma and helped him in many ways, Sumantra was a watchful eye to the King Daśaratha.  Though a servant, he elevated himself to be a counselor through his personal diligence and intimate association.  He served within his means but always with love and utmost patience.

Let Sai bless all.