Dasharatha's Dilemma

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Harmonizing deference to destiny and diligence in duty.

What do we do when a promise we have given comes back to strangle us? What do we do when a loved one we have implicitly trusted acts like our worst enemy? What do we do when, at the very moment our dearest dreams are meant to come true, instead our worst nightmares come true?

The Valmiki Ramayana narrates how these questions confronted Dasharatha, the reigning monarch of Ayodhya, when his plans for succession were disastrously derailed.

The Devastating Demand

Dasharatha had decided to have his eldest son, Rama, installed as the heir to the throne and would have smoothly transferred power to Him, but things went disastrously wrong when Manthara, the leading maid of Kaikeyi, Dasharatha’s favorite wife, poisoned her mind. Despite the time-honored principle of primogeniture, by which Rama was entitled to be the next king, somehow Kaikeyi came to believe that Bharata, her son and Rama's stepbrother, was meant to be the king and was being deprived by a conspiracy.

Kaikeyi was a heroic wife worthy of a great hero – she had saved her husband’s life. Once, when the king was engaged in a deadly war with demonic forces, his charioteer was slain and he himself knocked unconscious. With fearless presence of mind, Kaikeyi grabbed the reins and steered his chariot to safety. Feeling astounded and indebted, Dasharatha offered to give her two boons of her own choosing. She told him she would ask for them sometime in the future.

Being incited by Manthara, Kaikeyi now decided to use those boons to fulfill her designs. When Dasharatha approached her the night before the ceremony that would officially recognize Rama as the prince regent, designating him as the next king, she placed herself in a disheveled condition in the sulking chamber. Concerned that something was afflicting his favorite wife, the king got carried away by his desire to pacify her and promised to fulfill whatever desire she had. Not knowing what Kaikeyi was going to ask and being elated at the upcoming elevation of his dear son Rama, he unwittingly promised to fulfill her request – and promised thrice in the name of Rama. Little did he know that he was like an ignorant animal entering a fatal trap.

Kaikeyi asked that Rama be banished to the forest for fourteen years and in his place Bharata be installed as the prince regent. On hearing Kaikeyi’s demands, he was stunned, shocked, shattered. Not even in his wildest dreams had he thought that she would ask for something like this. Desperately, he begged her to relent, even falling at her feet.

Yet Kaikeyi remained heartlessly unrelenting, consumed by her dark suspicion that the king was complicit in a conspiracy to dispossess her son. The more he pleaded against Rama’s banishment, the more she felt her suspicion confirmed and the more she became insistent about her demand. Despite crying and begging and fainting again and again during the long night, Dasharatha couldn’t budge her. When morning arrived, she had Rama summoned and, on the king’s behalf, informed Him that He had been banished.

Trapped Between Promise and Plan

Had Dasharatha erred in making a blanket promise when elated? Possibly, but not necessarily. He had no reason to suspect Kaikeyi – she had treated Rama like her own son and had shown no resentment at His being groomed as the heir apparent. When she made her demands, the principled monarch was torn between two duties – the duty of honoring his word to his wife and the duty of giving his son His due legacy.

On hearing Kaikeyi’s words, Rama took the news stoically and gracefully agreed to obey his father’s command. Actually, Dasharatha never directly commanded Him to go to the forest; it was Kaikeyi who spoke those unconscionable, unbearable words on the king’s behalf. And the mortified king looked on mutely, crying and swooning to see the horror unfolding before his eyes.

Rama entrusted His affairs to others, readied Himself to depart for the forest, and came to His father to take blessings. Seeing Him, Dasharatha fervently opposed Rama’s going to the forest. In utter despair he suggested to Rama that He stage a coup, overthrow and imprison him, and take the throne, thereby avoiding the forest sentence.

Of course, Rama declined, politely yet categorically. Expressing His wish that the king rule for many more years, Rama said that He looked forward to continuing His assistance to the king after returning from the forest. Feeling helpless, Dasharatha looked on as Rama departed.

Was a king’s sense of honor so important as to be worth the exile of one’s own son? Yes. The sense of honor ensured that monarchs wouldn’t abuse the considerable power at their command. Having it bred into them since childhood that a person was only as worthy as the worth of his word, they were thus trained to use power for honorable purposes. Though he had planned to honorably hand the kingdom’s reins to Rama, he was thwarted because of his word of honor to his wife.

Unavoidable Reaction to Unintentional Action

After Rama’s departure, Dasharatha could do nothing except think of Rama and call out His name. When his first wife, Kaushalya, tried to console him, he told her of a distressing incident from his past. Long ago, he had accidentally killed a young man he had mistaken for an animal drinking water in the wilderness.

Dasharatha had been out hunting, which was a means by which the kings kept the population of animals, especially predators, under control. Also, through hunting, the kings practiced the skill of archery and desensitized themselves to the sight of blood and gore to help them face unflinchingly the brutality of war. As the martial guardians of society, they had to be trained to fight when necessary for protecting the law-abiders from violent lawbreakers.

During this hunting expedition, Dasharatha had been practicing the skill of shooting targets that could only be heard, not seen. Rulers needed this skill to fight at night with devious enemies who didn’t respect the martial code that wars be fought only during the day or who attacked mystically using invisible weapons.  

Concealed in a thicket near a river, Dasharatha lay in wait for animals that would come to drink water. On hearing the sound of someone moving near the water, he shot an arrow in that direction with lightning speed and heard the sound of the arrow thudding into a target. His satisfaction turned into horror, though, when he heard a human scream. He rushed to the riverside and found a hermit boy lying there.

That boy was Sravana, who had come there to fetch water for his parents. He was the life of his parents, not just metaphorically, as are most children for their parents, but also literally, as his parents were blind and could do nothing without him. When Sravana, wincing through his pain, explained his parents’ plight, Dasharatha’s dismay multiplied manifold. With his final breaths Sravana beseeched the king to take water to his disabled parents. And, right before Dasharatha’s appalled eyes, the boy died.

His heart heavy with mountainous remorse, Dasharatha carried the body and the water to Sravana’s parents. When he approached them, they sensed by the sound of his movements that he was not their son. When they asked about his identity, the king tearfully told them what had happened.

On hearing that their son was no more, the aged couple was aghast. Sravana’s father somehow pulled himself together and performed his son’s last rites, with due assistance from a remorseful Dasharatha. Overcome by grief, Sravana’s parents couldn’t maintain their lives. Before dying, Sravana’s father declared that just as he was dying in the agony of separation from his son, Dasharatha too would one day die in a similar agony, being separated from his son.

Dasharatha felt no anger towards the dying father for having uttered this imprecation. He knew that he had erred grievously in inadvertently killing a citizen whom he was duty-bound to protect.

As that incident had happened many years ago, it had slipped out of Dasharatha’s mind. But after Rama’s banishment, when Dasharatha was trying to make sense of things, the curse returned to his mind. At one level, that recollection filled him with illumination, helping him see a pattern amidst his recent reversals. At another level, the recollection filled him with resignation, as he realized that destiny was taking its due course, a course that would lead to his death.

Diligence to Duty Amid Deference to Destiny

This Ramayana narrative, along with the flashback, raises several critical questions about the course of human affairs: Are certain things destined to happen? Are we just puppets in the hands of a destiny that makes us dance according to its will?

The Ramayana may seem to support this idea. After Rama was exiled, He invoked destiny repeatedly while pacifying others. When Lakshmana railed against the unfairness of Dasharatha’s order, Rama calmed him by saying that it was all the will of destiny. Later, when Bharata came to meet Him in the forest, Rama told Bharata to bear no animosity towards Kaikeyi, for she had simply acted as destiny had willed.

Reiterating this line of reasoning, the Ramayana states that Manthara's mind, and thereby Kaikeyi's, was influenced by the gods, who wanted Rama to leave Ayodhya and go to the forest to confront the cannibalistic demons there. Through the ensuing encounter, He would rid the world of demonic forces. And indeed, that’s how things turned out.

So, to fulfill His mission as a descent of the divine, Rama’s exile was arranged by destiny, using Manthara and Kaikeyi as agents. And since Rama is the Supreme, He is the Lord of destiny too – destiny acts according to His will. That means Rama was exiled by His own will. However, the Ramayana doesn’t stress Rama’s divinity – it focuses on His being the ideal human being.

And Rama’s actions are instructive in understanding how to respond to destiny. Despite repeatedly referring to destiny, neither Rama nor the other characters in the epic act as if they are puppets, pulled helplessly into doing particular things. When faced with perplexities, they reason conscientiously to determine their dharma, the right course of action for them. They draw insights from scripture and tradition, and use their intelligence to apply those insights to their particular situation.

Thus the characters simultaneously acknowledge destiny and deliberate dharma. Destiny connotes forces beyond our control, and dharma connotes actions we are meant to choose, implying that those choices are within our control. How can considerations of destiny and duty – of factors beyond our control and factors within our control – be reconciled? By seeing destiny and duty as complementary, not contradictory.

Nowadays we often rebel against any notion of predestination, any idea of resignation to any power higher than human. Most contemporary thought derides deference to destiny as fatalistic. However, such derision and the underlying denial of any suprahuman forces shaping human affairs take a heavy psychological toll. When we believe that we are our life’s sole controllers, we place on ourselves the burden of setting things right. When despite our best efforts we can’t fix things, we end up intolerably frustrated. Believing that we should be able to control things and being unable to accept that we can’t, we suffer cognitive dissonance. Such dissonance lies at the root of the spiraling mental health problems in today’s world.

When adversities befall us for no apparent reason, when trustworthy people go against us, when whatever we do to set things right only makes things worse, then we would do well to acknowledge the hand of destiny.

Does such acknowledgement amount to fatalism? No, not at all. Dasharatha wasn’t fatalistic; he tried his best to avert the calamity. Only when nothing worked did he share the story of his being cursed to explain that the adversity had been preordained. The Ramayana gives no indication that any fatalistic sense of predestination decreased his efforts to change Kaikeyi’s mind.

The thrust of the Ramayana’s discussions is that we not see the events happening in our life as isolated incidents – they are manifestations of a complex chain of factors, a chain into which we implicated ourselves by our past actions. Such a philosophically informed vision helps us respond to reversals intelligently, not impulsively, so that we can act to mitigate the situation, not aggravate it.

From Destiny Through Duty to Liberty

Such levelheaded pragmatism in the face of destiny is the most empowering option in a disempowering situation. And it becomes even more empowering when coupled with the spiritual practice of bhakti-yoga. This is evident in Dasharatha’s actions.

Though deeply afflicted by separation from Rama, and though confronted with the inevitability of his own imminent demise, Dasharatha didn’t become resentful or hateful towards hostile destiny. He saw the calamity as a reaction to his own past action. Of course, in his particular case that culpable action had been perpetrated in that very life, and he could recollect it. In most cases, we may not be able to recollect the relevant past action, for it may have been done in some previous life. Nonetheless, the key point is that destiny is not arbitrary or inimical; it is orderly and reactional. It gives us reactions to our own past actions.

Accepting the inviolable will of destiny, Dasharatha absorbed himself in the remembrance of Rama. The Ramayana embodies a dynamic, ecstatic tension in Dasharatha’s mind over Rama’s identity – is Rama human or divine? The king is told repeatedly by sages that his son is the Supreme Lord descended to this world, and hearing about his son’s divinity delights him. Still, that knowledge never became the defining basis of his relationship with Rama. Out of his paternal affection, he kept reverting to seeing Rama as his own son, to be protected and provided for by him.

Srimad-Bhagavatam, a pre-eminent bhakti text, declares that absorption in the Lord is always auspicious. If continued till the moment of death, such absorption can grant liberation, transporting one to the Lord’s eternal abode.

Dasharatha became absorbed in Rama, in a mood of parental affection and intense separation. Thus absorbed, he left his mortal frame and attained re-union with Rama in His eternal abode. The destiny that had brought him such agony ultimately led him to liberation.

And a similar auspicious result happened for the world at large – Rama freed it from the scourge of demonic forces. Intriguingly, destiny’s ways turned out to be auspicious for the demons too. Not all of them were innately, incorrigibly evil – they were just led by a fiendish pack of leaders headed by the lecherous Ravana. Rama eliminated those rogue leaders and entrusted the demons’ leadership to the virtuous Vibhishana, who brought auspiciousness into the demons’ lives.

If we too respond to adverse destiny by sticking to our dharma and absorbing ourselves in our Lord, destiny’s ultimate benevolence will eventually become manifest.

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of twenty-two books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit thespiritualscientist.com.