Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – VIII :  Dāsī Mantharā

Bijoy Misra

June 15, 2015


We do not exactly know what a dāsī is; she is considered as a maid servant from the modern point of view.  From the anthropologic cultural point of view, a dāsī was possibly a bonded servant who was engaged in a serving task because of social or physical compulsions.  We learn in Valmiki’s story that the servants were mostly dwarfs; so a physical limitation was possibly a factor why people offered themselves in taking care of others.  Occasionally the male form dāsa is used to indicate a slave that is procured through invasions and battles.  In medieval India, poets and writers assumed the title dāsa or dāsī to show their complete dedication to the service of God.

Besides the socio-cultural roots of the occupation of serving a master, we may understand that the serving process was hereditary and that an economic order was established through guaranteed employment for the handicapped and the disabled.  Vālmīki’s Mantharā belongs in such a group.  She most likely belonged to an established family who had earned the respect to serve the royals in their inner quarters.  Loyalty is a difficult attribute to breed and it might take many generations of dedicated service to help create trustful servants.  Mantharā most likely had been a caretaker to Princess Kaikeyī from her birth, and did accompany her to the kingdom of Ayodhyā after her marriage to King Daśaratha.  She was Kaikeyī’s friend in the new abode deputed by the King of Kaikeya to protect Kaikeyī and their family interests. 

A less known fact behind Kaikeyī’s marriage to Daśaratha was the latter’s intention to obtain a son in order to protect his empire.  Daśaratha had been a successful king but was not blessed with a son.  He had married twice in search of a son, but did not succeed.  He was already old.  Though Vālmīki does not explicitly say this, we can infer from the story that Kaikeyī’s father was promised that the future king of  Ayodhyā would be Kaikeyī’s son in case a son was born to her.  Unfortunately Kaikeyī had no luck in conceiving a son causing huge frustration to King Daśaratha and the royal household.  Eventually the King took recourse to the special ritualistic sacrifice officiated by his own son-in-law.  This time he was blessed with four sons, Rāma being the first-born. 

Rāma developed as a righteous and loving young man and received everybody’s admiration.  His conduct and mannerisms were appreciated by all and Kauśalyā, the mother, did express her pride and satisfaction publicly.  Kauśalyā belonged to a different culture than Kaikeyī.  She would spend more time in austerities and devotional services while Kaikeyī loved opulence and pageantry.  Kauśalyā was the first Queen and the King respected Kauśalyā with the privilege.  Though he spent his private hours mostly with Kaikeyī and had his pleasure trips and battle expeditions accompanied with her, he respected Kauśalyā as a woman, especially as a mother.  With Rāma’s winning character, the King had made up his mind to install him as the Crown Prince of Ayodhyā  in making way to succeed him after his death.  

The King made his “decision” to host Rāma’s installation ceremony in a hurry while Kaikeyī’s son Bharata was away visiting is maternal uncle.   Though not explicit, Vālmīki’s narrative would let one infer that King Daśaratha wanted to get Rāma’s installation accomplished in Bharata’s absence.  His thinking was further reflected in his not informing Kaikeyī about this important decision.  Though Kaikeyī loved Rāma dearly, the King was possibly defensive such that the installation process does not get a road-block.  The possible road-block in the King’s mind was the thought if Bharata had a stake on the throne by virtue of the oral contract during the King’s marriage to Kaikeyī.  Such stakes were not known to many, but Mantharā was most likely deployed by the King of Kaikeya to keep a watch over the throne of Ayodhyā on behalf of the Kaikeya clan. 

Mantharā was utterly dutiful and loyal.  She never liked Kauśalyā’s simplicity and austerities.  It is possible the cultural background in Kaikeya was much different than in Kośala where Kauśalyā came from.  Even with her hump and ugliness, Mantharā would try to look dressed up, which was possibly unwelcome to Kauśalyā.  Mantharā certainly was playing a role in creating jealousy in Kaikeyī towards Kauśalyā, though Kaikeyī liked Rāma very much. When Mantharā discovered that Kauśalyā was distributing gifts to bystanders on the road, she was stunned.  Upon asking she learned that the reason of Kauśalyā’s gifts was the impending installation of Rāma as the Crown Prince the following morning.  Her life’s duty was to keep a watch on the throne of Ayodhyā on behalf the Kaikeyas; she decided to act!  

Many commentators who are fans of Rāma look down upon Mantharā as a crooked spoiler.  She indeed spoiled the party which was possibly ill-conceived to start with.  Given Vālmīki’s narrative, one would infer that it was King Daśaratha playing the short-cut and he was caught by Mantharā.  The King  was nervous and had no words.  Rarely a poet would characterize a “righteous” king in such a desperate situation.  The King was trapped in his own folly.  It is possible that Daśaratha had played such tricks before.  But Mantharā came out smarter.  She did her job.  Her task was to protect the Crown of Ayodhyā for Kaikeyī’s son. Rāma must be banished such that there were no obstacles.  If Daśaratha was taking advantage of Bharata’s absence in Ayodhyā, Mantharā outsmarted him in the royal game! She came from the land of opulence; maintaining opulence carries no scruples!

Kaikeyī was a simple-minded person.  Her family knew that she would need a trusted maid in order to protect the family interests.   Mantharā was experienced and she had Kaikeyī’s trust.  Kaikeyī expressed her joy when she heard that Rāma would be crowned.  She gave various gifts to Mantharā for breaking the “good news” to her.   Mantharā went on convincing her to impress why the news was bad for her. Kaikeyī was not impressed. She showered Mantharā with more gifts.  Then Mantharā teased Kaikeyī by suggesting that Bharata could be killed “since that’s what the Kings do to destroy rivals!”  With her own cultural background, Kaikeyī was trapped through this tease. Having now converted Kaikeyī to play the game, Mantharā coached her how to take advantage of the lustful King.  The King showed up in the night and Mantharā’s plot succeeded.  She performed the task that she thought was assigned to her!

Mantharā showed no emotion when Rāma left for the forest, but she got extremely scared when Bharata showed up and took everything amiss!  Bharata went on chastising his mother in long lectures, but Kaikeyī did not reveal that it was Mantharā’s idea to play the game. Mantharā possibly knew many more family secrets to be exposed by anyone.  Such sly persons do exist in society and incite people against each other.  In a larger sense, they protect themselves.   Mantharā might have conjectured that her life could become extremely miserable when Kauśalyā could operate as the royal mother after King Daśaratha retired out!  In order to protect her interests, she did not hesitate to give Kaikeyī a bad name in society!

Eventually Mantharā did show some remorse when she noticed that Kaikeyī’s influence was much reduced after King Daśaratha had passed away.  Her whole plot had gone wrong.  Bharata refused to assume the throne and prepared the adventurous journey to find Rāma in the forest in order to bring him back to Ayodhyā.  As usual, Kaikeyī took her own time to comprehend what a great tragedy it was that the King was dead.  She had no idea that her son would turn against her.  Mantharā possibly knew, but she did not project the King’s death in her plan.  She was used to experience some human emotion, but it was rather severe in Ayodhyā, and she could not deal with it.  She remained subdued and just looked for her daily survival.

Mantharā accompanied Bharata’s entourage as it moved to meet Rāma.  When Bharata blamed his mother at every step for the distress, Mantharā did not jump in to protect her.  She could be too scared; or completely confused far away from her parental kingdom!  She was the counselor to Kaikeyī, but she  had no counselor.  It is likely that such people do not listen to anyone and operate with their selfish plans in their own way.  They are too vulnerable and weak to be accused, but they can poison the world!  

Let Sai bless all.

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