Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XV: Bharata meeting Rāma at Citrakūṭa
October 6, 2016
Rāmāyaṇa is a family story. Vālmīki is out to portray the distinctive love and respect of brothers to each other and their affection to the eldest. Here the eldest happens to be the best among them. The psychology of envy, jealousy and competition, prevalent in the present day social conduct, manifests as love, respect and friendship in Vālmīki’s story. The highest example of this presents itself through the character of Bharata, who refuses to assume the throne in Ayodhyā that his mother had carefully orchestrated for him.
The exact commitment of King Daśaratha to Kaikeyī’s father regarding the inheritance at Ayodhyā is not clear. What we can infer from Rāma’s statements that Bharata could be the legal heir through the previous commitment since Daśaratha had agreed that son borne by Kaikeyī would be enthroned. However, there was an exception: Kaikeyī failed to produce a son naturally, the case being similar to the previous wives of Daśaratha. This led the King to host the special son-seeking ritual, through which all the queens begot sons. In this situation, Rāma was the firstborn and did turn out to be the most capable among the princes. Rāma also became most dear to Daśaratha and the latter wanted to name him as the successor. The tension with the kingdom of Kaikeya on the inheritance possibly continued. The King Daśaratha planned to accomplish the succession when Bharata was away visiting his maternal uncle.
Bharata’s rejection of his mother’s strategy to create inheritance for him is a masterstroke by Vālmīki in the story. Bharata was convinced that the throne at Ayodhyā belonged to Rāma and that the King did wrong to Rāma by sending him away in exile. Not only Bharata scolded his mother, he made all efforts to reach his brother in order to request him to return to Ayodhyā. Bharata ordered special roads made for the chariots to go such that Rāma could return in royal style and grandeur. Thousands of soldiers and the inhabitants of the kingdom followed Bharata in this big march to reach Rāma in exile. They crossed the River Ganges and received directional instructions from the Sage Bharadvāja at Prayāga. Eventually they located the habitation of Rāma in Citrakūṭa by noticing the smoke coming through the chimney. It was evening time when Bharata’s party reached the location. Bharata with Satrughna advanced to check out the location in the mist of the dusk. The charioteer Sumantra and the tribesman Guhā accompanied them.
The drama of Bharata’s meeting Rāma in the cottage at Citrakūṭa is vivid and emotional. Rāma was sitting near a yajñavedī performing evening fire ritual. He had the forest-dweller’s locks and had tattered clothes. Bharata entered the cottage and was devastated to see Rāma in his torn out garments. Bharata exploded: “this is my brother who is the rightful king of Ayodhyā and now has assumed this pitiable condition!” Bharata deplored himself and chastised his own self. He took full responsibility for the unfortunate sight he was witnessing. He declared that he was personally accountable for Rāma’s exile. He lost his voice; he lost words. He choked in emotion.
Out of respect to Rāma, Bharata had clad himself in bark. Rāma had hard time in recognizing his younger brother. Finally, when Rāma did recognize, he was emotional. The embrace between the brothers witnessed in that evening lamp light is the majesty of the Rāmāyaṇa story by Vālmīki. Lakṣmaṇa joined Rāma in the meeting with Bharata and Satrughna. Sītā was a happy onlooker.
Unaware of King Daśaratha’s passing away, Rāma assumed his role as the elder brother and advised Bharata on the statecraft. He counseled Bharata in running a large kingdom like Ayodhyā. Eventually Bharata briefed him about the King Daśaratha’s death. He requested Rāma to return to Ayodhyā to assume the responsibility of the kingdom. Rāma was emotional and expressed his grief in the loss of his dear father. He argued that his return to Ayodhyā would be like to return to an empty house! Composing himself, he went to the river Mandākinī with Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā to perform the sanctifying rituals. The sage Vaśiṣṭha, the queens and all the townsfolk proceeded to visit Rāma near his cottage. The whole night passed in silence.
The drama becomes more interesting in the morning when Bharata takes permission to speak to Rāma formally. In ornamental poetic rendering, Bharata made his case why Rāma must return to Ayodhyā to help run the royal administration. “A dam breached by a mighty rush of water cannot be repaired by anyone other than you! … A sapling planted and nurtured by a man develops into a mighty tree that is difficult to be scaled by a dwarf!” - Bharata was sincere in his request. He was also possibly intimidated that a task bestowed on him for which that he had not prepared himself. He was convinced that Rāma was the person who was prepared and had everybody’s goodwill. It was not that Kaikeyī wronged Rāma, but it was Bharata’s conviction that Ayodhyā needed Rāma to help maintain the order and continuity.
Rāma was calm and restrained. He always believed that all actions have a purpose behind them. Such purpose would not be obvious at the outset. Men can only perform their duties as they come. “Freedom to act is not a property of the ātmā! Providence kṛtānta only drags ātmā in different directions! .. Do take it easy. Let not grief overpower you! Return home and act on tasks as our father has prescribed for you! I will continue to perform my part assigned to me by our father. Righteous people commit themselves to their father’s words. I will follow the words in action by remaining in exile in the forest!”
Bharata was insistent: “A true son overrides the errors of his father! Who acts otherwise, is the opposite! The actions of my father in ordering to send you in exile are condemned by the wise people. Please rescue me. Please excuse my mother, our relatives, friends and all citizens from this indignity!” This is when Rāma revealed King Daśaratha’s treaty with Kaikeyi’s father at the marriage that Ayodhyā be the price to give away to the future progeny born through Daśaratha and Kaikeyī. Rāma explained why his banishment in exile was the right decision by his father. “A son’s duty is to rescue father from the hell called “Put.” O! Jewel among men, do protect father from the hell. Accompanied by Satrughna, return to Ayodhya and protect people! I too shall enter the Daṇḍaka forest accompanied by Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa. Let the royal umbrella protect you from sun giving cool shade on your head and let me slowly seek the deep shades in the dense forest. Let Satrughna be your Assistant and Lakṣmaṇa be my good friend. Let four of us help enable the king installed in truth!”
After persuasions from various sages including the Sage Vaśiṣṭha, Bharata makes the unusual announcement that he would go on fast unless Rāma changed his mind. He prepared himself a bed of kusha grass and sat down on it. “I shall lie down as a pauper devoid from the world. I shall remain without food till you change your mind to return to Ayodhyā!” Rāma again counsels him against such a move to which Bharata responds with a quick alternative. “If the father’s words must be carried out as uttered, I shall stay in the forest for fourteen years!” This was stunning to Rāma who went on again counseling him that a “proxy” was not a condition that Kaikeyi had demanded. “The sale, deposit or purchase done by our father while alive cannot be undone after his death. No proxy may go in exile replacing me; it would be a matter of disrespect to our father!” – Rāma said.
After many arguments and counter-arguments, Rāma extolled Bharata’s humility and his virtuous personality. “Since you have this level of intelligence and leadership, you would be capable of ruling the entire world through your humility. Do consult the ministers, the friends and the wise men when you have concerns to solve. The Himalayas might get rid of its snow, the beauty may depart from the moon, the oceans may cross their banks, but I shall not violate my father’s word!” - Rāma reminded Bharata to remain kind to his mother and run the kingdom with equanimity.
Thus disarmed from his persuasive capacity, Bharata finally placed a pair of gold-laced wooden sandals on the ground. “Please ride these sandals. These indeed would ensure the security of your presence among people!” Putting his feet on the sandals, Rāma returned them back to Bharata. Paying his respects to the sandals, Bharata made the emotional announcement: “Having relegated the royal administration to these sandals, I will live on fruits and roots for fourteen years and dress myself as a forest dweller with matted locks and tree bark coverings. I will live outside the city anticipating your return. If I do not see you after the end of the fourteenth year, I will offer myself to fire!” Rāma embraced his brother with pride and love. Only words that came out from Rāma “so be it!”
Let Sai bless all.