By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
We can learn valuable lessons from the actions of Kaikeyi, who was drawn into her maidservant’s cunning scheme.
One of the most heartwrenching events in the entire Ramayana is the conspiracy that led to the exile of Rama. From the devotional perspective, this pastime brings forth the exalted spiritual emotion of love in separation. From the cosmic administration’s perspective, it triggers the chain of events that culminate in Rama’s fulfilling the purpose of His descent: ending Ravana’s reign of terror. Simultaneously, from the ethical perspective, the pastime illustrates our human vulnerability to disinformation – it shows how even good people can get misled into doing terrible things.
In our culture, many vested interests promote their self-serving ends through systematic disinformation campaigns. So, a close look at this Ramayana pastime can help us combat disinformation.
A Mission of Manipulation
This story unfolded in the city of Ayodhya, the capital of the kings of the solar dynasty. Dasharatha, the reigning monarch, had ruled virtuously for many years. On seeing his old age approaching, he felt inspired to transfer power to a worthy successor, his oldest son, Rama. To formalize this decision, he called an extended assembly of courtiers and leading citizens from various classes. The assembly unanimously approved his decision. They resolved that the process for succession begin the very next morning.
The Ramayana’s spotlight shifts from this jubilant public setting to a private setting: the inner chambers of the palace of Kaikeyi, Dasharatha’s youngest wife. Kaikeyi’s beauty had made her the king’s favorite queen, displacing the senior queen, Kaushalya. Despite the inevitable tensions created by such a power shift, the overall family atmosphere remained cordial. Neither Kaushalya nor Kaikeyi bore any malice towards the other. Their respective sons, Rama and Bharata, as well as the two other siblings, Lakshmana and Satrughna (sons of an intermediate queen, Sumitra), lived in cheerful fraternal amity.
This familial harmony was destroyed in one night during which a self-interested person launched a mission of manipulation. That dark instigator was Manthara, an elderly hunchbacked maidservant of Kaikeyi. This spinster-schemester wanted to maintain at all costs her privileged position in the royal palace as the favorite maidservant of the king’s favorite queen. She feared that if Rama became the king, his mother would become the foremost dowager and Kaikeyi would be relegated to the position of just another member in the royal family. This would downgrade Manthara to the level of just another maidservant. Manthara’s hunchback had sometimes made her the butt of jokes, which she bitterly resented. Such banter had stopped with her ascension to a prominent position in the royal staff. Dreading a return to a position of insignificance and scorn, she decided to use her wiles on Kaikeyi and somehow stop the transfer of power.
When Manthara informed Kaikeyi about Rama’s upcoming succession, Kaikeyi became joyful and gifted her maidservant a jewel necklace for bringing such good news. But Manthara hurled the necklace on the ground and called her mistress a naïve fool for not seeing what was happening. She said that the haste with which the succession ceremony was being executed, especially during the absence of Bharata, pointed to a conspiracy for depriving the absent prince of power. Actually, Bharata’s absence at that time was simply a happenstance. Moreover, Bharata, being the youngest son, had no claim to the throne, which was meant to go by primogeniture to the oldest son, Rama.
Such facts notwithstanding, Manthara exploited the coincidence of Bharata’s absence to sow a seed of suspicion in Kaikeyi’s heart. And then she watered that seed well into the night with a dystopian tale spun from her imagination: A vindictive Kaushalya would have Kaikeyi reduced to a veritable serving maid; and a despotic Rama would have Bharata incarcerated, if not executed.
By the end of Manthara’s diatribe, Kaikeyi was ready to do anything to stop the “conspiracy.” Seeing her readiness, her maid suggested that she use an old promise by the king that he would grant her two wishes. Kaikeyi soon agreed to ask that first, Bharata be designated as the royal heir, and second, that Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. Manthara anticipated that the king would vehemently oppose his beloved son’s banishment. So she warned Kaikeyi to not go soft on that demand – only when Rama was outside the kingdom and indeed outside any position of political power would Bharata be able to consolidate his hold on the throne.
Hard Heart Breaks Hearts
What followed was a collision between Kaikeyi’s heart and Dasharatha’s heart. While the king’s heart was soft at the prospect of the coronation, his queen’s heart had become harder than stone by her believing the conspiracy theory. When their hearts collided, the impact left the king heartbroken.
Late in the night, Dasharatha finished overseeing the arrangements for the next day’s ceremony. Wanting to share his joy with his favorite queen, he went to her palace. When she reminded him of his past promise, he unsuspectingly reiterated his commitment to honor it. But when he heard her two wishes, he was petrified and collapsed in a swoon. On returning to consciousness, he realized that the nightmare was real. He strove feverishly to deter his wife from her ruthless resolve. Finally, he broke down into piteous tears and fell begging at her feet – both actions utterly uncharacteristic of a monarch. Yet Kaikeyi remained unmoved by her husband’s desperate pleas.
Being bound by his word of honor, the king was forced to grant her wishes. But being horrified to see that his loving wife had become an unfeeling ogress, he disowned her. In a voice choked with agony and fury, he declared that with the granting of her wishes, his obligation to her was over, as was his relationship with her.
Despite hearing such a dreadful declaration, Kaikeyi still remained unrelenting. Her heart had become so cold and hard that it had no room left for anything except her scheme: No room for any conjugal affection for her husband. No room for any maternal affection for her stepson Rama, who accepted the grievous diktat against him with disarming grace. No room for feminine concern for her daughter-in-law Sita, who had to don rough tree-bark to join her husband in His exile. No room for respect for the venerable royal priest Vasishtha, who implored her to desist from her nefarious plan. And no room for fear of public censure as the shocked courtiers and citizens condemned her.
After Rama departed for the forest, the aggrieved Dasharatha found separation from Him unbearable. Even more agonizing was the thought that he himself had sentenced his son to exile. This sentence was reserved for the worst of criminals, being just one level below execution. And he had meted out that brutal sentence to one who had done no wrong, to one whom he should have protected, to one who had been born from his own blood. Crushed by anguish, Dasharatha’s broken heart broke down totally – he breathed his last. The whole kingdom sank into gloom at this double loss of both their cherished prince and their revered monarch.
The Imaginary Bharata Versus the Real Bharata
Manthara had exploited the fissures between co-wives to set off a catastrophic earthquake. That quake had now given rise to a tsunami that inundated the whole of Ayodhya with agony. Yet not one drop of that ocean touched Kaikeyi’s heart. Her transmogrification from wise, kind, and gentle to foolish, cruel, and harsh is astonishing.
Given that she was not innately evil, how did she justify to herself her horrendous actions? By masking them in the garb of vigilant maternal concern. She imagined that she was doing all this for her son Bharata, who, being absent, couldn’t protect his interests. She believed her maternal rationalization so completely that nothing else mattered to her – no one’s words, emotions, or actions could dent her resolve. Yet her justification couldn’t but crumble to powder when debunked by the very person it claimed to defend: Bharata.
Kaikeyi’s son had anxiously hastened to Ayodhya, being summoned by Vasishtha, who was officiating as the provisional head of state. On arriving in Ayodhya, Bharata saw the once cheery city looking dreary, like a ghost town. Feeling deep misgivings, he rushed to his mother’s chambers, expecting to meet both his parents there. On seeing his mother, he offered her his respects and enquired about his father’s wellbeing. Kaikeyi recounted her own version of events, stressing how she had done so much to protect Bharata’s right to the kingdom.
Bharata was too sharp to fall for such spin doctoring. Hearing about his father’s demise and his brother’s exile left him shaken. Hearing that his own mother had caused these calamities left him shattered. Hearing her claiming that she had done all this for his sake left him sickened. He found his mother’s words so revolting that he felt sorely tempted to violate the kshatriya code that one should not raise one’s hand against a woman. Somehow checking himself, he poured his fury out in words. Castigating his unrepentant mother, he deemed her an evil witch born for the destruction of their dynasty.
Kaikeyi heard her son’s denunciation with disbelief and dismay. She had imagined a Bharata who lauded her actions. When the real Bharata condemned those very actions, she realized to her horror that the Bharata who lauded her was nothing more than her imagination. As that imaginary Bharata died a quick death, so did her rationalization. And the monstrosity of what she had done hit her with the force of a thousand thunderbolts. She repented fervently, begging for Bharata’s forgiveness. She even went with him to the forest to second his request that Rama return and reclaim the throne. But it was too late – the juggernaut had already gained a fearsome momentum and nothing, not even its first pusher, could stop it.
How did Kaikeyi become so misled? By a double blunder: she believed uncritically whatever Manthara told her, and she didn’t seek any second opinion. She let herself be so persuaded by just one person’s view that she rejected everyone else’s advice.
Don’t Just Talk About Others – Talk With Others
As Kaikeyi had her Manthara, we too may have people who seem to be our well-wishers but who end up coming between us and our actual well-wishers. Meddling relatives come between affectionate couples. Envious colleagues come between a team member and a team leader. By drawing an imaginary line between unconnected events and planting unwarranted suspicions in our heart, such disinformers may paint the grim picture that we will soon be betrayed. Once our paranoia is triggered, we may end up becoming the betrayer, as Kaikeyi did.
When someone casts an aspersion on a loved one, rather than believing the accuser, we need to give the accused a chance to respond. A common blunder is to talk about people rather than with people. If Kaikeyi had talked with Dasharatha as soon as the doubt had risen in her mind, things would have been amicably clarified and resolved. But instead of talking with Dasharatha, she talked about Dasharatha with Manthara. Or rather, she let Manthara talk about him to her. And because Kaikeyi heard uncritically from Manthara, Kaikeyi’s suspicion became a conviction. And with that conviction, she convicted Dasharatha in the court of her heart without giving him any chance to defend himself. She became the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s lawyer, the judge, and the jury all rolled into one. Actually, the reality was worse – she was just a bystander persuaded to become a plaintiff and then give power of attorney to Manthara. And Manthara, acting as the plaintiff’s lawyer, the judge, and the jury, found Dasharatha guilty – a verdict Kaikeyi naively accepted.
While it is easy to condemn Manthara and even Kaikeyi, it is more helpful to introspect about times when we ourselves might have acted like them, and how we could have avoided or at least minimized conflicts by seeking clarifications.
A note of caution: Clarifications need to be sought in a nonaccusatory way. If others don’t have any inkling of where we are coming from, then just voicing the suspicion may hurt them grievously. So, instead of making a value judgment of any kind, we can just present facts and seek explanations. If Kaikeyi had gently asked Dasharatha why he was appointing his successor so hastily in the absence of Bharata, Dasharatha would have explained the jolting reminders of his mortality. And Kaikeyi’s apprehensions would have been allayed without her needing to even voice them, let alone act on them. In fact, hearing his concern might well have brought her closer to him at a spiritual level as they prepared together to accept the retired order of vanaprastha.
But instead of seeking clarification, Kaikeyi presumed Dasharatha’s motivation, thereby bringing a calamity on the dynasty and the kingdom. Instead of unwittingly bringing a similar calamity on our relationships, we can seek clarification by objectively presenting facts and gently soliciting explanations.
To protect ourselves from disinformation, we need to strengthen our intellectual and ethical muscles. With stronger intellects, we can penetrate to the actual beyond the apparent, thereby discerning the disingenuousness in disinformation. With better ethical muscles, we can resist the promises of quick pleasure that disinformationists dangle to make us lower our guard.
The process of bhakti-yoga helps us strengthen both these muscles. Devotional study of scripture sharpens our discerning power and hones our intellectual muscles. Devotional remembrance of Krishna provides a higher inner fulfillment that empowers us to say no to lower temptations.
Unfortunately, disinformation is so pervasive that it can distort our perception of bhakti-yoga too. With a barrage of half-truths and untruths about spirituality and spiritual organizations, disinformation can assault our sacred faith. We can best protect our faith by entirely avoiding such anti-devotional propagandists. But if we somehow hear from them, we shouldn’t let their opinions determine our spiritual decisions. By seeking clarification from trustworthy spiritual mentors, we can get a balanced understanding that protects our faith in bhakti’s potency.
Disinformation threatens us not just externally (from others) but also internally (from our own mind). If we compare Ayodhya with our heart, then Manthara is like the mind. The mind comes up with the deadly duo of doubt and desire: doubt paralyzes our devotion, and desire aggravates our worldly infatuation. Being misled by the mind, we become like Kaikeyi and exile the Lord from our heart.
To counter the mind’s insinuations, we need to meticulously avoid the two mistakes Kaikeyi made. First, we need to avoid hearing the mind uncritically. Unfortunately, the mind is always with us and it always has the opportunity to spin its self-serving yarn – so, we need to be constantly vigilant. Second, if the mind’s persuasion starts swaying us from our moral and spiritual principles, we need to counter it with the enlightening voices of guru-sadhu-shastra. We can take both these precautions by conscientiously engaging ourselves in devotional service. By such absorbing spiritual engagement, we will preempt the mind’s misleading stratagems and will instead be led by timeless wisdom towards our all-round well-being.