POOR Dasaratha was in extreme agony, pulled by natural affection on one side and by the moral obligation to fulfil a pledge on the other. He had fondly hoped that Kaikeyi would relent and that somehow the conflict of duties would be resolved. But now he saw that this was not to be.
He had still one faint hope: "Rama is in no way bound by my promises and pledges. Strong as he is in people's love and in his peerless prowess, he may disregard my promise, and stand on his own rights. But I cannot conceive his doing so, for my slightest wish has always been sacred to him. Yet, if by some chance he did so, it would save the situation."
In the confusion and anguish of his heart, the old King consoled himself with such false hopes, forgetting that Rama would never think of disregarding his father's promise and that filial obedience was a fundamental rule of his life.
But the false hopes did not persist long. He felt that his death was near. In this agonising conflict of duties, death would be a relief, and save him from the disruption and sorrows to come.
As death drew near, his mind recalled past events. He remembered a great sin committed by him in youth. He felt that he was now reaping what he then sowed: "I killed the Rishi's son and brought grief to his aged parents. How could this sin be wiped off except by my suffering the anguish of losing a dear son?" Thus Dasaratha resigned himself to his fate as a just retribution for the wrong he had once done.
He concluded that be had no alternative but to fulfil his word to his cruel wife and left the ordering of things entirely to Kaikeyi.
Day dawned. The hour fixed for the coronation was approaching. The procession of Vasishtha and his disciples carrying the golden vessels containing the waters of holy rivers was coming towards the palace.
The great street was decorated and was crowded with eager men and women. They rejoiced to see Vasishtha and his disciples march to the palace with the holy waters, and the paraphernalia of installation. As they saw the honey, curds, clarified butter, fried rice, sacred grass, flowers, maidens, elephants, horses and chariots, the white umbrella, the bull, the horse and the tiger-skin seat moving to the accompaniment of music from many instruments, the people made loud and jubilant acclamations which filled the air.
Vasishtha, approaching the palace gate, saw Sumantra and said to him: "Pray, go in at once and inform the King that the people are waiting and all preparations are complete."
Sumantra approached the King's bedchamber and chanting the morning hymn, conveyed Vasishtha's message. "Oh King," he said, "arise from slumber to the hymn of your charioteer as the king of the gods does to Matali's waking songs. May all the gods be gracious unto you. The elders, generals, and chief citizens are waiting for your darshan. The goddess of night has withdrawn. The day's work awaits your ordering. Oh King of kings, be pleased to rise. Holy Vasishtha and his men are waiting."
At that moment the King was speechless with agony, but Kaikeyi boldly answered for him and told Sumantra: "The King spent the night talking of Rama's coronation and had no sleep. So now he is in a slumber. Go at once and bring Rama."
Thus the clever woman sent Sumantra to fetch Rama to convey the King's command. She knew that Dasaratha had agreed but had not the strength to do what had to be done. Hence Kaikeyi resolved that she would herself do what needed to be done.
Sumantra went to Rama's palace. Sita and Rama were getting ready for coronation. Then Sumantra gave to Rama the message that the King and Queen Kaikeyi wanted his presence. Rama hastened to obey.
The unexpected delay and these strange goings and comings roused doubts, but no one dared to talk of them. The men concerned hoped that somehow things would turn out right and went on with their allotted work.
The streets were brightly decorated; the great hour was approaching as in the Queen's chamber strange and sinister events were developing.
"Why this long delay?" the people wondered. "Perhaps the preliminary rites are more elaborate than we had thought."
The crowds in the streets grew bigger and bigger and more impatient.
Sumantra accompanied Rama to Kaikeyi's palace, treading the way with difficulty through the throng. Rama entered the Queen's apartment. As he stepped over the threshold, he started as if he had set his foot upon a snake, for he saw with awe-struck amazement his father lying on the bare floor in anguish. The King evidently had been struck down with some great sorrow. His face was like a parijata blossom wilted in the sun.
He touched his father's feet and paid the same filial worship to Kaikeyi.
Dasaratha uttered in a low voice the name of Rama and stopped. He could speak no more. He could not look straight into the face of Rama.
Rama was perplexed and filled with apprehension at the sight of his father, lying there unable to speak, in the grip of some great agony. What it could be Rama could not even guess.
He turned to Kaikeyi and said: "Mother, this is indeed strange. No matter how angry he was, my father would speak sweetly to me. Have I without knowing it offended him in any matter? Has some sudden sickness struck him down? Has someone spoken rudely to him? Do tell me what has happened. I can bear this suspense no longer."
Bold Kaikeyi seized the chance and said: "The King is angry with no one. There is nothing wrong with his health. But there is something in his mind which he is afraid to tell you. That is all. He is afraid to say it to you, lest you should feel hurt. That is why he is silent. Once upon a time, pleased with me he offered, and I accepted, the gift to two boons. Now, like an uncultured person, the King regrets he did so. Is this worthy of him? Is it not unbecoming of a King to pledge his word and then regret it? You have the power to fulfil his promise, but he fears even to tell you of it and is thinking of violating it. Would it be right? If you assure him that he need not be anxious about your attitude and that he should keep his word at all costs, you will give him the needed strength to behave righteously. You must give him the help he needs. The thing is in your hands. I shall tell you what it is, but after you promise me that you will help the King to fulfil his pledge."
Rama, saddened at the thought that he should in any way be the occasion of distress to his father, said to Kaikeyi: "Mother, am I indeed the cause of all this trouble? I do not deserve that you should have any doubts about me. If my father asks me to jump into the fire, I shall not hesitate to do it. If he asks me to drink poison, I shall drink it without hesitation. You know this. You know well enough that at his bidding I would drown myself in the sea. Here mother, I give you my solemn promise that I shall fulfil the King's promise to you, and I never break my word."
When Rama uttered these words, Kaikeyi exulted, for she knew she had conquered. The King for his part was in despair, seeing that all escape was now barred.
Thereupon the pitiless Kaikeyi uttered these terrible words: "Rama, your words are worthy of you. What higher duty has a son than helping fulfilment of the word his father has given? Now I shall let you know your father's promise to me. When in the battle with Sambara your father was wounded, I rescued and revived him. Your father in gratitude for having been rescued by me when grievously wounded gave me two boons to be claimed and specified when I choose. I have claimed and specified them now. They are that Bharata should be anointed Yuvaraja and that you should be sent away this very day to the Dandaka forest, to remain in exile for fourteen years. You have sworn solemnly to carry out his promise to me, and now it is your duty to prove true to your pledged word. If you find right conduct as hard as your father did, that is another matter. Otherwise, listen to what I say. It is for you now to relinquish the installation and to go out into exile with matted locks and hermit weeds, leaving the preparations now ready to serve for Bharata's installation."
When she uttered these cruel words the King writhed in agony, but Rama heard her untroubled. Kaikeyi beheld a miracle. There was not the slightest sign of disappointment or sorrow in Rama's face. Smiling, the Prince said: "Is that all, mother? Surely, the King's promise must be fulfilled. My hair shall be twisted and I shall wear the bark and I shall go this very day to the forest."
Kaikeyi spoke prophetic words when she said Rama's dutifulness would bring him glory undying. That glory will continue as long as the Himalaya stands and the waters of Ganga flow and as long as the ocean-waves beat on the solid earth.
Rama said to Kaikeyi, in unperturbed tones: "I am not in the least annoyed. Would I not be happy to give anything to Bharata? Even if no one asked me, I would cheerfully give him my all. And how can I hold back a moment when my father commands it? What pains me a little is that father should have entertained any doubt about my willingness. Why should he have hesitated to tell me what he wanted and left it to you to say it to me? Am I not his son, bound to do his behest? What glory or what joy can I look for except to make good his word? How did I deserve it that my father should avert his face from me and refrain from speaking loving words to me? My grievance, if at all, is that he did not send for me straight and give me his command. I shall go to the forest this very day, with no regret. Send swift messengers at once to fetch Bharata home."
The Prince's face glowed like a sacrificial fire bursting into flame as the ghee is poured into it. Kaikeyi felt glad at her apparent success. She could not look into the future and its sorrow, for what greater grief can come to a woman than the scorn of her own son? Greed deceived her into folly. It prevented her from understanding aright the mind of her own son Bharata.
Like a captive elephant hemmed in on all sides, Dasaratha lay in anguish. With needless harshness, Kaikeyi hurried Rama saying, "Do not wait for the King to speak and prolong the affair."
At this Rama said: "Mother, you have not, it seems, known me. I value no pleasure higher than to honor my father's pledge. Let Bharata carry the burden of kingship, and look after our aged father. It will indeed give me the greatest joy."
Dasaratha, silent till now though listening intently, moaned aloud. Rama touched the feet of his father and Kaikeyi and hurried out of the chamber. Lakshmana had been standing outside. He knew what had happened and with eyes red with anger he followed Rama.
On the way Rama saw the vessels holding the consecrated water for the coronation. He walked round them in worship. With calm majesty lie left behind the white umbrella and other royal insignia and advised the crowds to disperse. The Prince, in whom desire had been vanquished, went to the house of Queen Kausalya to give her the news and take her blessings before departing to the forest.
Readers should exercise their imagination and build up in their own hearts the passions and sorrows of the persons figuring in this epic. Dasaratha's anguish, Rama's cheerful renunciation and the greedy passion of Kaikeyi which smothered all noble impulses these are familiar phases in our daily lives.
Valmiki and Kamban saw with the vision of genius and made the events in Rama's story live again in song. We too should see them through imagination. This is the meaning of the tradition that wherever Rama's tale is told Hanuman himself joins the gathering and reverently stands listening with tear-filled eyes. May everyone that reads this chapter receive by Rama's grace and strength to bear the sorrows that have to be faced in life.