A Different Crisis, A Tragic End
The Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gīta instantly evokes sympathy in the listener. Even if we are not warriors, we can still stand in his shoes and imagine the awful shock of realizing that he is about to be the cause of death on an unimaginable scale. It is not surprising that we identify with his arguments in the first chapter of the Gīta.
As I was preparing to discuss Arjuna’s dilemma at my Chinmaya Mission Gīta study class in Singapore, I was reminded of King Daśaratha, in the Rāmāyana, who also found himself facing a crisis.
Let us recall the crisis faced by Arjuna and Daśaratha and how their stories unfolded.
Arjuna’s grief & despondence
Arjuna is confronted with the reality of a dharmayuddha, a decisive battle to establish dharma. In this battle, the massive Kaurava forces are arrayed against the Pāṇdava forces. Śrī Kṛṣṇa leads Arjuna’s chariot onto the battlefield of Kurukshetra and stations the chariot in front of Bhīṣhma and Droṇa. At the sight of his revered grandfather and teacher, Arjuna suffers a severe crisis of confidence. He says, “my mouth is dry, my skin is burning and the bow slips from my hand”.
Arjuna is in shock, unable even to hold onto his Gāṇdīva bow. He sinks into grief as he realized the scale of destruction that lies ahead. At first he wonders whether the end-goal is worth killing his revered grandfather and teacher. He looks at Śrī Kṛṣṇa who is unmoved. In his desperation, Arjuna starts the process of rationalizing. Arjuna argues that in this fratricidal war, whole families will be wiped out. When that happens, who will pass on that family’s unique culture and dharma. Who will protect the women? When left to their own devices, wouldn’t all lineages get intermingled? Slowly, everyone will sink into adharma and hell. He concludes by saying that “Even if the greedy sons of Dhritirāśṭra do not understand this, do we not know better? How can I enjoy such a kingdom?”
At the end of chapter 1, Arjuna is described as shokasaṃvignamānasaḥ – overwhelmed by grief and has put down his weapons.
Daśaratha’s dharmasaṁkaṭa, an existential and political crisis
Daśaratha, the king of Ayodhya, was a proud descendant of the Solar (Ikshvāku) dynasty established by King Raghu. It was a matter of universal pride in Raghuvaṁśa that “रघुकुल रीति सदा चलि आइ प्राण जाय पर वचन न जाय". "This is the eternal law in Raghukula, is this: 'We stand by our word even at the cost of our lives'” (Incidentally, it is Raghu's Ikshvāku dynasty that Śrī Kṛṣṇa refers to in verse 4-1 of the Bhagavad Gīta.)
One auspicious morning, Daśaratha and his cabinet decreed that the King's first son, Rāma, be consecrated as crown-prince. On that same day, after the word spread of the proposed coronation, Kaikeyi decided to encash the two boons that Daśaratha had promised many years ago. Kaikeyi demanded that her son, Rāma’s half-brother, Bharata must be installed as crown-prince. For her second boon, she wanted that Rāma be exiled to the forest for a period of 14 years. In exile, she mandated that Rāma should live as a mendicant wearing clothes of bark and eating what forest dwellers eat.
Daśaratha is dumbfounded. He falls down, unconscious. When he recovers, Daśaratha asks himself “Is this a dream? Does this forebode some evil? Or is it a malady of my mind?”
Then the king is outraged. “O malicious and wicked woman! O sinful woman bent on destroying this house! What harm has Rāma done to you or for that matter what harm have I done to you? I brought you into my home like one ignorantly brings home a poisonous snake.”
Daśaratha’s anger soon gives way to pleading. At one point, he even says, “I touch your feet with my head.” How could someone who helped the devās regain their kingdom have come to this point?
His attempts at negotiation are pitiful. “I shall give up Kausalya or Sumitra or wealth or even my own life but I cannot leave Rāma. All that can be secured on this earth which is extended upto ocean, I shall give you. Do not be overtaken by anger.”
The king appeals to Kaikeyi’s sympathy. Imagine, he says, how Rāma would suffer, how Sita and Kaushalya would suffer. He finally foretells his own death. There is, finally, no room left for Daśaratha to maneuver. He must fulfil the two boons that he had granted Kaikeyi or earn eternal infamy. Kaikeyi makes it abundantly clear that she will end her life if Daśaratha does not comply with her demands.
Daśaratha’s worst fear is that Rāma will implicitly accept Kaikeyi’s boons and take the matter out of his hands. Predictably, when Kaikeyi tells Rāma of her demands, his response is direct: “O devi! Do not be distressed. I declare that I shall go to the forest wearing the bark robes and matted hair. Be happy. Having been ordered by my father, my king, shall I not do, without fear or hesitation what pleases him?” As Daśaratha watched helplessly, Rāma himself gives orders that swift messengers be despatched to bring Bharata back to Ayodhya immediately.
The stories seem similar when we observe Arjuna’s and Daśaratha’s reaction to the crisis they face. However, the difference is that Arjuna finds redemption, and Daśaratha does not.
At one point, in Ayodhyākāṇḍa 12-33, the king even refers to Rāma as ‘गतिर्मम – gatirmama’, my refuge. Yet, when he sees Kaikeyi in the anger chamber, he cajoles her saying, “Don't you know that there exists none in this world dearer than you and best among men, none other than Rama?” However, at no point does Daśaratha believe that he can live with Rāma’s exile; his grief is just too overpowering. Tragically, never once does he overcome his fear of Rāma’s departure to ask Rāma or his own Guru, Rishi Vashishtha – “What shall I do?”
Daśaratha’s crippling grief is a contrast to the single-pointed focus shown by Sīta and Lakshmaṇa. Sīta is absolutely certain that her place is by Rāma and will not even allow Rāma to persuade her otherwise. Lakshmaṇa is initially outraged. He calls for overthrowing the king and killing Kaikeyi. Yet, Lakshmaṇa quiets down on Rāma’s word. Lakshmaṇa, too, is in no doubt that he must continue serving Rāma and joins him in exile.
It is the glory of Valmiki as well as characters such Bharata, Sīta, Lakshmaṇa, Hanumān Śabari, the Kevaṭ Guha and a host characters, small and large that readers and listeners of the Rāmāyana are redeemed by enchanting stories of heroism and devotion. Unfortunately, Daśaratha’s fate is different.
Arjuna, we know is more fortunate. Yet, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Śrī Kṛṣṇa response to Arjuna’s grief and dejection is swift and harsh. He reprimands Arjuna. “From where has this disgraceful display, this impotence come at such an inappropriate time?” Arjuna must have been shocked. He was expecting validation of his eloquent ethical and moral implications of the war.
Even as Arjuna briefly rehashes his earlier arguments, it is as if, suddenly, a light bulb goes off in his head. He stops himself and says: “You know what? I am confused about my dharma.Tell me decisively what is good (यच्छ्रेयः yacchreyaḥ) for me. I am your disciple. Teach me. I take refuge in you.”
Śrī Kṛṣṇa smiles and starts his teaching with the words “ashochyān – unworthy of grief” and Arjuna’s redemption is assured.
This is the bottom line for us. It comes down to our commitment to the quest. Sometimes it is a small voice that seeks to be heard in the din of our noisy minds. At other times, we are fortunate to have a Guru ready to answer. But, am I prepared for what the question really calls for?
Am I ready to really know the answer to life’s most fundamental question? यच्छ्रेयः? What is truly good?
According to Mahabharata Adiparva, Section 2 one Akshauhini consisted of 21870 chariots, an equal number of elephants and 109,350 foot soldiers (thanks to Shri Satya Sarada Kundala’s post and this Wiki entry). Multiply that by 18 (the Pāṇdava forces consisted of 7 such battalions while the Kaurava side consisted of 11 such) and you can understand Arjuna’s sense of shock.
All my references to the Rāmāyana are based on translations available at the Valmiki Ramayana website. Please note that i have not stuck to the exact sequence of the dialog between Daśaratha and Kaikeyi. I have also edited some typos.
The first picture in this article is titled “Vishnu in a chariot with Arjuna“ sourced via a Creative Commons license at https://flic.kr/p/akcNs4
The second picture in this article is titled “The Exiles Take Leave: Rama, Lakshmana and Sita with King Dasharatha” and is sourced via a Creative Commons license at https://flic.kr/p/akfAyu