Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – V, Mother Kauśalyā
November 12, 2014
In the design of the universe, the institution of motherhood has the most important place. Every living being has an origin and such origin is attributed to a mother. The mother is a continuation of the flow of life in the universe. While the origin of life is still a speculation in science and cosmology, the mother becomes the protector and propagator of life. In older Indian thinking the universe is run by a mother; our health, strength, capacity of work and intellectual ability are nurtured by our mother. We respect our fathers, but we love our mothers. Mother is our friend and protection in this life wherever we are.
Poet Vālmīki sets up the story of the Rāmāyaṇa in search of that perfect human being who is good in all respects. He characterizes Rāma into the mold. It is the mother Kauśalyā who conceives Rāma and nurtures him to the man he would be. The mother is the first teacher and Kauśalyā represents that great tradition of motherhood where a mother always thinks about her son. Vālmīki creates the character of Kauśalyā as a woman, who joins King Daśaratha as his first queen, impresses everyone with her pious attitude, raises the most impressive person in the planet and gets devastated when the son leaves her in order to fulfill a perceived wish by the father. Kauśalyā’s story is that of a mother on earth who does her duty as responsibly as she can but rarely accrues any reward for her hard work. A mother is a bearer of life, rarely an enjoyer. Kauśalyā’s story is symbolic.
The poet does not give us the background of Kauśalyā except to suggest that she came in as a Queen to King Daśaratha. They had a daughter S’āntā, but no son was born for a long time. King Daśaratha needed a son for the continuity of the throne. Kauśalyā was unsuccessful in conceiving a son. She followed her religious duties sincerely and possibly got overly engrossed in the rituals hoping to be blessed with a son. Daśaratha remarried and a second queen Sumitrā came in. Queen Sumitrā failed to conceive which led to a third marriage of the King to Queen Kaikeyī. For reasons not fully explored, Queen Kauśalyā and Queen Sumitrā liked each other and remained as friends. Queen Kaikeyī was the youngest and she had good looks. She possessed martial qualities that the King liked. Though she also failed to conceive, she remained a favorite to the King in his intimate domestic life.
Queen Kauśalyā did not have much interest in hunting and other sports which were a pastime to the King. Queen Kaikeyī accompanied the King in these expeditions, but the King continued with Queen Kauśalyā as the royal queen. He respected her pious attitude. When he obtained the famous pāyasaṁ from the sacrificial fire performed to get a son, he offered half of it to Queen Kauśalyā. After Rāma was born and came out to be bright and brilliant, the King knew that Rāma’s conduct had much to do with the upbringing by Kauśalyā. He did make up his mind to install Rāma on the throne as the most rightful inheritor in the dynastic succession.
Queen Kauśalyā talks about the teases she receives from Kaikeyī and is mortally afraid being left alone when Rāma decides to go to the forest to fulfill his father’s vow. She begs Rāma to take her along in any manner and not leave her alone in the palace. She narrates the pain and misery she has suffered over the years because of lack of affection between her and the King. She strongly believes that the King buys into Kaikeyī’s youth and is unable to provide the help when she needs it. Kaikeyī has a field day in temper and foul language that is totally unacceptable to Kauśalyā. Kauśalyā declares that she would rather die than left all by herself bereft of Rāma in the palace.
Kauśalyā’s Motherly Afflictions
Upon hearing that Rāma would be installed as the Crown Prince, Kauśalyā was relieved that her years of discomfort in the palace through the tyranny of Kaikeyī and callousness of the King would come to an end. She proceeds on a spree of worship services and gift-giving in anticipation of her happy time. The maid Mantharā notices this and creates the plot to undo the installation. The King’s visit to Kaikeyī and his silent agreement to send Rāma in exile to the forest is unknown to Kauśalyā. Rāma visits his mother after agreeing with Kaikeyī to go the forest in order to fulfill the father’s boon to her. Kauśalyā is delighted to see her son early in the morning. With pride and contentment she invites him for breakfast. Kauśalyā did not use spies, she did not know the plot by Mantharā!
Rāma reveals to his mother of his impending exile and seeks her blessings for the journey. At this point Vālmīki transforms Kauśalyā to that powerful feminine force of conviction and strength that delivers words from the heart. She pooh-poohs Rāma’s arbitrary decision and chides him for his haughtiness and careless attitude. She champions the merits of the institution of mother against that of father. She reminds Rāma that it was she who protected him through various perils as a baby, and as a child, and as a young man. She declares that he had no business to follow a father’s whim ignoring a mother’s cry. She challenges his learning, she belittles his righteousness. She does not prevent Lakṣmaṇa in his rage when the latter wants to go on a fight to win over the kingdom even at the cost of King Daśaratha’s life!
Kauśalyā stands up as a rock in her mind and in her spirits. Most mothers do not speak up, but she pours out profusely. She expresses the internal motherly cry. She intuitively understands that Rāma’s exile was a fabricated plot and it had no merit in it. She is concerned about her son and wishes to prevent the exile with all motherly force that she can exert. She wants to express her deeply held conviction that a mother is equal to a father, and in many respects is more than the father! She enunciates that a son’s indebtedness to a mother is much larger than any possible duty towards his father. She claims that a mother has an eternal link to the child and she must follow Rāma as a cow that looks for a calf. She becomes the champion of maternity in the world!
Kauśalyā’s motherly blessings and protection
Rāma remains steadfast in his determination to leave for the forest in order to protect the truthfulness of his father. Kauśalyā realizes that Rāma’s respect to his father is a part of instruction that was imparted by her to make her son responsible and dutiful. She understands Rāma’s internal agony and changes her stance in order to be an ally in Rāma’s journey. This part of Kauśalyā’s motherly compassion and prayers to protect Rāma is poetically splendid. Vālmīki reaches a new height in characterizing the motherly protection that covers all sons and daughters who leave their mothers to stay in faraway places. A mother thinks that she does reach out to her children through her prayers!
Kauśalyā confidently reaches out to all forces of nature to keep an eye on her son. She reminds them of her constant remembrance of them through her daily worship. She appeals to them that they must look after her son while she herself would not be present. Through her utterances she personifies the protective feminine force that sustains the universe. With conviction she announces that her son should be protected by the same righteousness that he so diligently performs and adores. She calls out to the mountains, rivers, lakes, animals, birds, snakes and trees to let them know to help out Rāma in his unknown journey. Her wish is a mother’s charm to protect a child against the perils in the world. Her prayers and charm triumph. Rama indeed returns safe!
Kauśalyā’s admonition to Daśaratha and the death of the King
Though offering blessings and letting Rāma leave, Kauśalyā remains heart-broken. She feels dejected and completely lost. King Daśaratha also feels similar pain and leans on Kauśalyā for support. The mother in her cries out for her son. Her intense affection to Rāma makes her torn and forlorn. The situation reaches a climax when Sumantra returns and tells about Rāma’s journey in the forest. She breaks down and admonishes her husband with difficult language that she rarely used in her earlier life. When the King reminds her about her unsavory language, she is ashamed and begs apology. She repents that any misconduct in her part could have adverse effects on her son!
In her conduct as a dutiful person who lives her life through righteousness she runs a fine line between the motherly grief and wifely duties. She wants to give a hand to the King to support him but she finds herself incapable. While Daśaratha goes on narrating the story on the curse that he thought had caused the separation of Rāma from him, Kauśalyā goes to sleep out of fatigue and emotional drain. The King passes away in the night unknown to her or to Sumitrā sleeping nearby. When she discovers the death in the morning, she is further broken down. She goes into her vedic ritual of fasting, she loses all zest in her life. She gets lost!
Kauśalyā as the Royal Mother
With Daśaratha’s death and Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa away in the forest, Mother Kauśalyā takes a new role to put the kingdom together. She cooperates with Bharata in her expedition to meet Rāma. When Bharata himself breaks down with his utter longing for Rāma, it is she who stands up and gives him solace and offers him counsel to be steady. We will visit Kauśalyā again as the story develops further.
Vālmīki characterizes Kauśalyā as a person of immense virtues who showers her kindness in building her son. She commands respect from other children of Daśaratha and remains kind to all of them. Through her characterization the poet depicts the conflicts of a mother and a wife. In Vālmīki’s portrayal, a person plays a single role at a particular time. The role of mother overrides other competing roles in a woman’s life. We love Rāmāyaṇa because we identify Kauśalyā as a regular everyday mother who only thought good for her children!
Let Sai bless all.