A Different Crisis, A Tragic End
The Arjuna in the Bhagavad G?ta 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 G?ta.
As I was preparing to discuss Arjuna’s dilemma at my Chinmaya Mission G?ta study class in Singapore, I was reminded of King Da?aratha, in the R?m?yana, who also found himself facing a crisis.
Let us recall the crisis faced by Arjuna and Da?aratha 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 P??dava forces. ?r? K???a leads Arjuna’s chariot onto the battlefield of Kurukshetra and stations the chariot in front of Bh??hma and Dro?a. 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 G??d?va 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 ?r? K???a 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 Dhritir???ra 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 shokasa?vignam?nasa? – overwhelmed by grief and has put down his weapons.
Da?aratha’s dharmasa?ka?a, an existential and political crisis
Da?aratha, the king of Ayodhya, was a proud descendant of the Solar (Ikshv?ku) dynasty established by King Raghu. It was a matter of universal pride in Raghuva??a that “?????? ???? ??? ??? ?? ????? ??? ?? ??? ? ???". "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 Ikshv?ku dynasty that ?r? K???a refers to in verse 4-1 of the Bhagavad G?ta.)
One auspicious morning, Da?aratha and his cabinet decreed that the King's first son, R?ma, 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 Da?aratha had promised many years ago. Kaikeyi demanded that her son, R?ma’s half-brother, Bharata must be installed as crown-prince. For her second boon, she wanted that R?ma be exiled to the forest for a period of 14 years. In exile, she mandated that R?ma should live as a mendicant wearing clothes of bark and eating what forest dwellers eat.
Da?aratha is dumbfounded. He falls down, unconscious. When he recovers, Da?aratha 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 R?ma 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.”
Da?aratha’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 dev?s 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 R?ma. 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 R?ma would suffer, how Sita and Kaushalya would suffer. He finally foretells his own death. There is, finally, no room left for Da?aratha 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 Da?aratha does not comply with her demands.
Da?aratha’s worst fear is that R?ma will implicitly accept Kaikeyi’s boons and take the matter out of his hands. Predictably, when Kaikeyi tells R?ma 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 Da?aratha watched helplessly, R?ma 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 Da?aratha’s reaction to the crisis they face. However, the difference is that Arjuna finds redemption, and Da?aratha does not.
At one point, in Ayodhy?k???a 12-33, the king even refers to R?ma as ‘??????? – 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 Da?aratha believe that he can live with R?ma’s exile; his grief is just too overpowering. Tragically, never once does he overcome his fear of R?ma’s departure to ask R?ma or his own Guru, Rishi Vashishtha – “What shall I do?”
Da?aratha’s crippling grief is a contrast to the single-pointed focus shown by S?ta and Lakshma?a. S?ta is absolutely certain that her place is by R?ma and will not even allow R?ma to persuade her otherwise. Lakshma?a is initially outraged. He calls for overthrowing the king and killing Kaikeyi. Yet, Lakshma?a quiets down on R?ma’s word. Lakshma?a, too, is in no doubt that he must continue serving R?ma and joins him in exile.
It is the glory of Valmiki as well as characters such Bharata, S?ta, Lakshma?a, Hanum?n ?abari, the Keva? Guha and a host characters, small and large that readers and listeners of the R?m?yana are redeemed by enchanting stories of heroism and devotion. Unfortunately, Da?aratha’s fate is different.
Arjuna, we know is more fortunate. Yet, at the beginning of Chapter 2, ?r? K???a 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 (????????? yacchreya?) for me. I am your disciple. Teach me. I take refuge in you.”
?r? K???a smiles and starts his teaching with the words “ashochy?n – 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? ?????????? 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 P??dava 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 R?m?yana 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 Da?aratha 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