Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – VII, Queen Kaikeyī
March 18, 2015
The relationship between a mother and her son is always loving and affectionate in this earth. Rarely a situation would arise when a mother would be protective of her son thinking of his welfare in life and the son would ignore the gesture calling it selfishness on the part of the mother. So is the characterization of Queen Kaikeyī by Vālmīki in the epic Rāmāyaṇa.
Kaikeyī is the bad character in Rāmāyaṇa. No Kaikeyī, no Rāmāyaṇa. When the cannibal Virādha snatches off and elopes with Sita, the most patient Rāma does curse Kaikeyī before pursuing a strategy to rescue his wife! Kaikeyī is a real world character. She is a queen and is of royal breed. Her interests are extreme, her passions are total. Her actions are all-consuming. She must have her way. She does not express repentance. She bites her defeat through quietness!
Kaikeyī is the third wife of King Daśaratha. She is the princess from the opulent kingdom of Kaikeya known for their horses and regalia. Daśaratha had already two wives by the time Kaikeyī arrived , but the King needed a male progeny as the inheritor to the throne. Daśaratha commits to Kaikeyī ’s father that in case she produces a son, the son would inherit the kingdom of Ayodhyā. Kaikeyī is unable to produce a son and Daśaratha gets old. By noticing impotency all around, the King performs the special sacrifice ritual and obtains the sanctified pāyasaṁ. He gives one-eighth of the pāyasaṁ to Kaikeyī enabling her to produce the son, Bharata.
Kaikeyī has charming features and is smart. She is good in sport and hunting. She has style; she likes adventures as the King does. She becomes the company to the King. She goes with him to the battles and forests. They travel together. The king spends most of his personal time with her and shares her bed. Kaikeyī outshines the other two queens in her proximity to the King. In her royal style and with the attitude of a co-wife, she taunts the other two, she diminishes them in public. She has the King all herself; the other two queens have little to say. Kauśalyā is respected by the King as the first queen. Kaikeyī does not appreciate this gesture by the King.
Kaikeyī appreciates talents. She loves Rāma. When Mantharā informs her that Rāma is to be installed as the Crown Prince she is delighted. She gives expensive gifts to Mantharā for the good news. She knows that Rāma was the most deserving out of the four brothers. She does not hold on to Daśaratha’s earlier commitment since she had failed to produce a son. She is judicious and fair. She does not pick on Daśaratha that he had failed to inform her before he informed Kauśalyā. In her royal style, these could be small omissions. She believes that Rāma would be a fair ruler for all.
The most rational Kaikeyī has weakness. Her weakness is her son. Mantharā knows this and wants to play it crooked. It is possible that Mantharā did not like Rāma or was appointed by Kaikeyī ’s father to protect their interests in Ayodhyā. Mantharā is determined to derail Rāma’s installation and capture the throne for Bharata. She creates the game plan. Kaikeyī falls into it because of her weakness to her son. Kaikeyī ’s ego inflates out; she sees herself as the mother of the future king. Her royal instincts are larger than her rational instincts. She fails to foresee the disaster that she could bring to the kingdom. Her temper overrides her duty. She plays crooked and becomes the target of rebuke by all.
In the purāṇa and in history, we do witness the horrific temper that men and women exhibit. Women’s temper appears somewhat exaggerated. They are depicted to look for destruction than defeat. But they only flare up after all other avenues of negotiation fail. Women are the upholder of morality on the earth. Kaikeyī flares up not for morality, but for self-preservation. She is coached by Mantharā to pretend to be angry and she plays the role very well. While initially reluctant, her transformation to this pretentious ego-centrism is driven by the story made up by Mantharā that her son could be hurt if Rāma becomes the King! Many mothers may ignore such alarm; Kaikeyī gets wrapped up in it!
Kaikeyī takes full advantage of Daśaratha’s late night lustful conduct and accomplishes her objective to let the King agree to offer the Crown to Bharata and exile Rāma for fourteen years. It is not clear why the exile is for fourteen years and why it is at Daṇḍaka, the deep forest in the south. It could be her motherly protective instinct that there must not be any obstacle to Bharata’s occupying the throne. When Rāma shows up and asks, she tells him pretentiously why the King was silent. The King was depressed and possibly brooded his own death. Kaikeyī was plotting her royal entry to the throne! It is high drama!
When Daśaratha recovers from his reverie, he realizes the blunder he had created. He curses Kaikeyī , and threatens to cut her out from the palace. Kaikeyī is undaunted; she knows that Rāma would not go back after committing something. She plays out to the King’s rebuke without shouting back. But she does shout back when Daśaratha orders that Rāma be escorted by the army and the royal treasurer in his exile. She does not need Mantharā to give her strategy. She has her on wit to jump in to remind Daśaratha what exile means in the Ikṣvāku dynasty whatever the cause may be! Her biting sharpness silences the King! It is possible that she has exhibited her bite through earlier encounters with the King and Kauśalyā. Kauśalyā remains mortally afraid of her!
Rāma leaves for the exile, and Daśaratha dies. Bharata is called back to do the death rites and manage the kingdom. Bharata looks for his father, does not find. He looks for his brother Rāma, he does not find. Finally he lands up in Kaikeyī ’s palace to figure out the reasons for the lull in the kingdom. Kaikeyī greets him with affection but does not tell the news. Bharata probes and Kaikeyī says it accurately as everything had transpired. Bharata gets mad. He was probably mad earlier for other reasons. He has no mercy on his mother. Bharata curses her with the most unkindly language. A superb character that Bharata is in Vālmīki’s view demeans his mother in the most derogatory manner. Vālmīki’s Bharata is complex as his mother is!
Bharata shows his mettle by declaring that the Crown belongs to Rāma as he is the eldest son. He believes strongly in the Ikṣvāku tradition. Possibly he is tutored well in the tradition. He goes all out in a massive expedition to locate Rāma and to woo him back to Ayodhyā. It is possible that Kaikeyī realizes the intent of Bharata during these preparations. She does not quarrel with Bharata but participates in the trip along with the other queens. Kaikeyī remains defensive throughout, but does not wish to be left out.
It is possible that Kaikeyī is humiliated for the rest of her life until Rāma returns back. The example of public humiliation comes when Bharata has the opportunity to introduce his three mothers to the Sage Bharadvāja. Bharata introduces Kauśalyā first as Rāma’s mother. He introduces Sumitrā as Lakṣmaṇa’s mother. On Kaikeyī, he starts with a set of curse adjectives before stating that she was his mother. Bharadvāja does not stop him and Kaikeyī accepts the insult quietly! I do not know if returning back to her father’s kingdom was a possibility. Mantharā does drag along in this trip and does receive the ire of Bharata here and there.
Through their conduct, Rāma probably notices the abuses heaped on Kaikeyī and advises Bharata to be kind towards her. For Rāma, his father is the supreme and everything must be done such that his after-life is peaceful. Rāma wishes to respect his father’s marriage though Daśaratha himself was terribly hurt by Kaikeyī ’s conduct. But Rāma does not forget Kaikeyī ’s elimination strategy that not only Bharata gets the Crown, but that Rāma gets exiled to the forest. Rāma does discover how unprepared he is for the forest and he remembers Kaikeyī ’s vengeful strategy as new events unfold on him through his forest habitat.
Vālmīki’s Kaikeyī is a woman first, a royal princess next, and a mother third. As a woman she is private, stylish and exclusive. She has her own palace, and lives her own private life. As a princess, she has high opulence, best of the gardens and best of the furniture and accessories. She likes gold and sleeps on gold. She knows how to conduct herself as a princess. She has her own maids and her own staff. While she immensely succeeds in these two traits, she utterly fails as a mother. She wants the kingdom claiming to protect Bharata, but Bharata reads it differently. It is possible that most of her previous actions were also directed for her own tacit advancement, and they were not appreciated by Bharata. From Bharata’s many comments we may conclude that Kaikeyī was not a family person, but was arrogant and rude. She was not respected in the kingdom, but could capture the King!
Kaikeyī thought she had enough talents to run the kingdom herself. In those olden days, women were not given the privilege to run a kingdom and she was possibly jealous. She believes in Mantharā completely that ruling a kingdom allows one to resort to rough methods. She was trying out such methods but did fail in her calculations. Kaikeyī, as portrayed by Vālmīki, would be remembered as a Queen of a major kingdom who possibly did a lot in winning battles and keeping peace in the kingdom by creating inroads of goods and affluence. The Queen Kaikeyī did produce the remarkable son in Bharata, but failed to gain his respect and affection. She lost it all eventually!
Let Sai bless all.