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Chapter 5

Crooked Advice for Queen Kaikeyi

The aging Daśaratha, thinking of his retirement, gradually entrusted more and more of the state affairs to Rāma and Lakṣman. Those two princes, along with Their wives, served the king in every way. They always thought of the welfare of the people. Everyone became pleased with Their disposition and conduct. They were gentle and kind, but firm when necessary. They demonstrated complete mastery of the military arts and, having slain the powerful Rākṣasas even while boys, were respected as great heroes.

Rāma was especially dear to the king and the people. He was always tranquil and soft-spoken, not retorting even when someone spoke harshly to Him. He recognized the smallest of services rendered and did not take to heart any wrongs against Him. Rāma had conquered anger and was full of compassion. Making all arrangements to protect the people, he surrounded Himself with intelligent advisors and never made a decision without due consultation. Despite His power and ability, He always remained humble, mild and self-controlled. He was not influenced by envy or hatred, did not engage in frivolous talks and always sought the good in others. Free from sloth, He was ever vigilant to carry out His duty.

Rāma gave delight to even the gods, who would frequently grace Ayodhya with their presence. He was as tolerant as Mother Earth, as wise as Bṛhaspati, and as valorous as Indra. His personal beauty was as resplendent as the brilliant sun-god.

Daśaratha, seeing his son endowed with so many virtues, longed to see Him installed as the Prince Regent. The king discussed his desire with his ministers and priests. They all unanimously agreed that Rāma, as the eldest son, was the rightful heir to the throne and that He would be the most popular choice of the people. However, when the royal astrologers were calculating a favorable time for the coronation, they discovered dreadful signs in the heavens, portents that indicated that some calamity would soon occur.

Daśaratha became concerned. The omens must surely foretell of his own impending death. He decided to perform the ceremony quickly at the earliest opportune moment. Having set a date for Rāma’s installation, he summoned to Ayodhya rulers and important men from around the globe. But the gods so arranged that Daśaratha, in his haste, neglected to invite King Kushadhvaja. Thus neither Bharata nor Shatrughna came for the ceremony. Daśaratha realized too late his omission, for it was a journey of some days to Rajagriha. Nevertheless, he considered that his two absent sons would soon receive the delightful news of Their elder brother’s installation. He felt sure They would be overjoyed and would not take offense.

Soon a large gathering of kings and Brahmins appeared in Ayodhya and Daśaratha had them assembled in the royal court. Sitting in state in the assembly, the emperor blazed forth like Indra in the midst of the gods. He spoke in a pleasing and melodious voice, which was at the same time sonorous and grave.

“All of you know how the earth has long been protected by me and the kings who previously appeared before me in my line. To the best of my ability I have ruled the people, giving protection even at the expense of personal comforts. My body has become worn out in the shade of the royal umbrella. Carrying on my shoulders the burden of governing the globe, I have become old. I wish now to bestow this kingdom upon one well suited to take my place. Here is my beloved and eldest son Rāma, who vies with the king of the gods in all virtues. With the agreement of my closest advisors and in accordance with custom and law, I desire to place Rāma at the head of the state. With your permission, therefore, the ceremony will take place tomorrow morning.”

Daśaratha looked around the vast assembly of kings and sages. All of them gazed at him intently as he spoke. The kings saw Daśaratha as the leader of the entire earth. They all had affection for the old emperor, who always administered the law with justice and compassion. They willingly paid him tributes and sought his guidance in the affairs of state management. Daśaratha oversaw the world situation, ensuring that the different kings and leaders all ruled according to the codes of religion. All the assembled kings felt that Rāma was the perfect choice to succeed Daśaratha. As the emperor looked at his obedient and gentle son, he was moved by love. He continued to speak with tears running from his eyes.

“Rāma, who possesses every desirable quality, will be your worthy protector and even the universe will be better ruled with Him as emperor. If my plan finds favor with you, then be pleased to give your consent. Otherwise, if you consider that some other course should be taken, then speak out. Perhaps you may find me overly attached to Rāma, choosing Him when a better choice could be found. The views of the dispassionate are always to be sought when deciding a difficult issue.”

The whole assembly was filled with delight upon hearing Daśaratha speak. They erupted with loud acclamations of joy, even as a crowd of peacocks would acclaim the appearance of a large rain cloud. The sound echoed all around Ayodhya, seeming to shake the earth. “Let it be so! Let it be so!” was heard everywhere, and every man was in agreement.

Stepping forward, a leader of the Brahmins said, “You have long protected us with love, O king. Now you have a worthy son and can retire peacefully. Pray install Rāma as the Prince Regent, for He alone deserves to be your successor. We long to see Rāma riding upon the great royal elephant, His head shielded by the white umbrella.”

Upon hearing the assembly voice their unanimous agreement to Rāma’s installation, Daśaratha stood up, his eyes flooded with tears of joy. “It is fortunate for me and indeed the world that you all wish to see Rāma succeed me as king. This confirms my decision. I shall begin the arrangements for Rāma’s installation immediately.”

Daśaratha came down from his throne and approached Vasiṣṭha, touching his feet. “With your permission, O holy Brahmin, we shall proceed with the ceremony tomorrow. If you are agreeable, then please make all preparations.”

“So be it,” Vasiṣṭha replied, and he immediately commanded the king’s ministers to set about making ready all of the items required for the installation the following day. The assembly then dispersed with a loud clamor, and shouts of “Victory to Rāma!” were heard everywhere.

That night, however, Daśaratha remembered the astrological predictions. He became fearful and called for Rāma. Speaking with Him in private, Daśaratha said, “I have enjoyed a long life and have always protected the people to the best of my ability. In thousands of religious ceremonies, I have bestowed abundant charity. By sacrifice, worship and charity I have repaid my debt to the gods, the Brahmins and the forefathers. I have also fully satisfied myself through the enjoyment of numerous pleasures. All that remains for me to do is to install You as my successor.”

Daśaratha clasped Rāma close to his bosom. The king’s body trembled and his eyes shed tears. He desperately longed for his son to succeed him. At last it was imminent. Surely no evil destiny could prevent it now. Would not even the gods desire to see this magnificent prince become the king? Daśaratha revealed his concerns to Rāma, telling Him of the malefic stars. He also told his son of the many bad dreams he had recently experienced.

“My dear Rāma, due to seeing all these omens, Your installation has been sought swiftly by me before any problems arise. With Your good wife, Sītā, make offerings into the sacrificial fire tonight. At sunrise tomorrow we shall commence the installation ceremony.”

Rāma nodded in agreement and then bowed and took His leave from the king. He went back to His palace and, along with Sītā, sat before the sacrificial fire making offerings to Viṣṇu.

The news of Rāma’s installation quickly spread around the city, delighting everyone. The temples were thronged with people offering gifts and worshipping the gods. As evening fell the city streets were filled with a flurry of joyous citizens. The large crowds of men moving about Ayodhya resembled the tossing waves of the ocean. Everyone spoke only of the installation. Poets and bards composed songs about the occasion. Flags were hoisted high on the housetops and garlands of forest flowers were draped everywhere. Colorful festoons hung across the streets, which were swept and sprinkled with perfumed water. Shining lamps hung from every tree lining the streets. The city echoed everywhere with the loud chanting of Vedic hymns. Elephants and bulls roared on all sides and the whole atmosphere throbbed with excitement. No one could wait for sunrise, when the ceremony would commence.

In the palace of Kaikeyi, the king’s youngest queen, there was a hunchbacked maidservant called Manthara. Upon seeing the celebrations, Manthara approached Rāma’s former nurse and inquired, “What occasion gives rise to this display of delight on every side? Is the emperor going to perform some great sacrifice?”

The nurse, her face blooming with happiness, told Manthara about the king’s decision to install Rāma as the heir-apparent. “Tomorrow, under favorable stars, our lord Daśaratha will give to the sinless Rāma the office of Prince Regent. What greater occasion for joy could there be?”

Manthara’s mind recoiled at this news. She was immediately seized with anger. Surely this was a disaster! With Rāma installed as king her mistress Kaikeyi would soon fall out of favor, her own son Bharata being left as nothing more than Rāma’s servant. Manthara raged within herself. She had long enjoyed special privileges as Kaikeyi’s senior maidservant. The emperor particularly liked her mistress, who had given Manthara the esteem she desired. As a hunchback she had always been the butt of jokes and abuse among the other servants. But as her mistress became more influential, the other servants, even those of the senior queen Kaushalya, had been obliged to pay her respect.

Sighing with anxiety, Manthara ran to Kaikeyi’s room where she found the queen lying upon a couch. With her face flushed she began addressing her bemused mistress in harsh tones. “Get up, foolish woman! How can you lay there when calamity stares you in the face? You languish here at ease even as a flood of misery sweeps towards you. Thoroughly neglected by your husband, you are threatened now with utter ruin.”

Kaikeyi looked affectionately at her servant. Manthara had been her childhood nurse and Kaikeyi saw her like her own mother. The queen had not heard the news about Rāma and she inquired from Manthara, “Pray tell me what causes you sorrow at this time? You seem sorely afflicted.”

Manthara became even more incensed upon hearing Kaikeyi’s question. She replied in a low voice trembling with anger. “There is no doubt that disaster now threatens us both. With your destruction will come mine, as much as with your good fortune rests mine. I am therefore saying this only for your benefit.”

She grasped Kaikeyi’s hand, trying to impress upon her mistress what appeared to her to be the obvious facts. “Although born in a royal line, you seem ignorant of the ways of kings. A king will speak sweet words to a person while at the same time planning their destruction. The emperor has acted as your beloved spouse while performing deeds which will ruin you to the very roots.”

Kaikeyi sat up and looked at her servant curiously. Manthara’s eyes blazed as she continued. “Having sent your own son Bharata away to a distant kingdom, this wicked king now plans to install Rāma as Prince Regent. What greater misfortune could there be for you?”

Kaikeyi smiled. She loved Rāma as much as her own dear son, while Rāma for His part looked upon Kaikeyi as being equal to His own mother Kaushalya. She felt a surge of joy upon hearing Manthara’s report. She could not understand why Manthara was disturbed. Why was she so vehement? If anyone else had spoken about Daśaratha and Rāma in such a way, she would have had them punished, but Kaikeyi was accustomed to her servant’s sullen temperament. She felt there was no malice in Manthara, despite her often angry expressions.

Taking from her bosom a necklace of brilliant diamonds set in gold, Kaikeyi handed it to her servant and said, “My dear Dhātrī, this is surely the best news you have ever brought me. My heart swells with pleasure at hearing your words, which seem to me like nectar. I wish to reward you. Take this gift and tell me if there is anything else I can do for you.”

Manthara threw down the necklace and began rebuking Kaikeyi. “This is no occasion for joy, foolish lady! What strange frame of mind has seized you? An ocean of grief threatens to overwhelm you and yet you stand here smiling. Your stepson Rāma will become king while your own son Bharata is left aside. Bharata’s claim to the throne is the same as Rāma’s and thus Rāma will see Him as an enemy. Lakṣman serves only Rāma, and Shatrughna serves your son. Therefore it is only Rāma or Bharata who may be crowned as the sovereign of this world. My mind quakes with fear to think of the danger to your son from the powerful Rāma once He is king.”

Manthara’s eyes grew bloodshot with fury and her face whitened as she spoke. Why was Kaikeyi not understanding? Kaushalya had long been snubbed by the king in favor of Kaikeyi. When Rāma became the king that would all change. Kaushalya would be exalted to the highest level, while Kaikeyi would lose her special position as the king’s most favored consort. Kaushalya would certainly exact her revenge for her long suffering. Kaikeyi would become Kaushalya’s maidservant and Bharata would at best be Rāma’s servant-more likely he would be exiled. Where would that leave Kaikeyi’s servants? Praying to the gods to help her, the hunchbacked maid became more ardent in her plea.

“You must do something! This is a great disaster. Once the crown has passed to the other side of your family, you will in time see your own side sink into oblivion, bereft of all royal fortune.”

Hearing this strong submission from her servant, the beautiful Kaikeyi thought of Rāma. She could not imagine him bearing any ill will toward Bharata. Manthara’s fears were quite groundless. Rāma always acted in perfect accord with religious principles. He was devoted to truth, disciplined and always kind. He doubtlessly deserved to be king. After He was crowned He would surely look after His younger brothers like a father. Manthara had no reason to feel such distress. Kaikeyi chided her gently.

“When such an occasion for rejoicing has come, you should by no means give way to grief, my dear maidservant. Nor should you think ill of Rāma. My son Bharata will be in no danger from Rāma, and in the future He may well succeed Him to the throne. There is no need for lamentation.”

Manthara would not be placated. In order to improve her own position she wanted her mistress to be the mother of the king. Blinded by her own greed and envy, Manthara considered the emperor to be acting from similar motivations. She continued to beseech Kaikeyi in increasingly rancorous tones.

“Surely it is due only to stupidity that you fail to see your impending doom, O deluded one. Rāma will be crowned king and after Him will come His son. Where then will Bharata be left? Not all the sons of a king can assume the throne; it falls only to one among them. Having taken hold of the throne, Rāma will ensure that it goes to His own son, if necessary by banishing Bharata, or perhaps even by sending Him to the next world. You and your line will be lost and forsaken. I am here to awaken you to a great peril now arrived at your door. Do not disregard me.”

Manthara’s lofty position in the palace had gone to her head. She was furious at the prospect of losing her status and she continued to present many arguments to her mistress. She played upon the natural rivalry existing between the king’s co-wives. Kaikeyi’s affection for Rāma was deep and the discussion went back and forth for some time, but gradually Manthara began to change her mistress’s mind. By the gods’ arrangement, her arguments swayed Kaikeyi’s mind and the queen’s intelligence became confused. Although she loved Rāma, she began to consider that His installation was an injustice.

Manthara saw in Kaikeyi’s face that her mind was wavering. She grasped the queen’s hands. “There is a way by which we may not be ruined. If Rāma can be sent to the forest and Bharata installed in His place, then the sovereignty may be secured in your line.”

This idea had entered Manthara’s mind by the sudden inspiration of the gods. Kaikeyi, intrigued, looked at her servant. “How can this be accomplished?”

Manthara recalled a story she had heard from her mistress many years earlier. “Some time ago you told me how you once went with your husband when he was assisting Indra in a battle against the demons. Having fought hard one day, your husband lay unconscious on the battlefield, his body severely wounded. A grave danger beset him then from a demon who would come at night to devour the bodies of the warriors still on the field.”

Kaikeyi remembered the incident. Many years back the emperor had gone to the heavens, taking Kaikeyi with him. He was famed as an invincible warrior and the gods had asked his assistance in a fight. At that time he had fought so powerfully that his chariot appeared to be facing ten directions simultaneously and the gods had therefore named him Daśaratha, or “ten chariots.”

Manthara continued, “At that time, seeing the danger to Daśaratha, you rode out in a chariot and rescued your lord. Upon recovering he offered you a couple of boons, but you deferred them to a time when you might need them most. Surely that time has now come. Go to Daśaratha and ask that he banish Rāma and install Bharata in His place as the Prince Regent. In this way we shall both be saved.”

Despite her love for her husband and her attachment for Rāma, Kaikeyi became convinced by Manthara’s arguments. She was upset. How could the king have treated her in such a way? He was always so kind and loving. Was all that just a show to win her favor? She began to feel angry. The king might have spoken so many sweet words to her, but by his behavior it was obvious that he favored Kaushalya. They had probably even conspired together to have Bharata sent away. Why had she not realized it before? It was obvious! Now the whole situation was revealed. Daśaratha had shown his real feelings by completely neglecting her and favoring Kaushalya’s son instead.

Kaikeyi heaved a doleful sigh. “Your suggestion finds favor with me, Manthara. I shall this very moment go before the king and ask of him these boons.”

Manthara’s mind was full of cunning. Her eyes narrowed. “You should ask that Rāma be banished for no less than fourteen years. Within that time your son Bharata will become dear to the people and He will be firmly established on the throne.”

Manthara intelligently knew that Bharata could never become the king in Rāma’s presence. The people would not allow it to happen. Even the humble Bharata Himself would almost surely not accede to such an arrangement. Rāma had to be banished. The maidservant continued, “Do not allow Rāma to remain in the kingdom. By his power and influence He will seize the throne, even if Bharata is crowned. Your son has long been away while Rāma has been here, winning the hearts of the people. It is imperative that Rāma be sent away for a long time.”

Kaikeyi listened with full attention as her maidservant revealed her insidious plan. “Listen as I tell you the means of approaching the king. Putting on soiled garments, you should go to the sulking chamber and lie down on the bare floor. With your ornaments cast about and your hair in disarray, lay there weeping.”

Manthara knew that her mistress was guileless by nature. The queen would not have acted politically, even though angered, but her servant led her along. She spoke of Daśaratha’s special affection for his youngest and most beautiful wife. “The king will never be able to tolerate your sullen mood. He cannot ignore your order. For your sake he would enter fire and even lay down his very life. Using the power of your charms you will easily achieve your ends, O beautiful lady.”

Clenching her fists, Kaikeyi sat on her bed, spread with a pure white silk sheet. Manthara was right. The king obviously liked her for something, if only her beauty and charms. Every evening he spent time with her. Tonight he would be in for a surprise! Kaikeyi came fully under the sway of anger as Manthara continued.

“When the king sees you distraught, he will take you up and offer you anything. He will present priceless gems and pearls in order to pacify you. Do not be distracted from your goal of banishing Rāma. Insist upon the two boons long ago given by your lord. Take those boons now, O queen. Demand the exile of Rāma and the coronation of Bharata.”

Although Manthara showed her mistress an evil course disguised as good, Kaikeyi accepted her advice. Kind, gentle and wise by nature, Kaikeyi nevertheless lost her good sense under the influence of her envious maid. Considering her husband and Rāma as enemies, she spoke with hot, heavy breaths. “You have given me good counsel, O wise woman. I have been cheated by the king. You have acted as my well-wisher by pointing this out. When my son is installed on the throne, I shall confer upon you numerous boons and much wealth.”

Manthara smiled and urged Kaikeyi to make haste. “Let us go quickly to the inner rooms, for the king will shortly come for his evening visit with you. You should by no means stand by as Rāma is made Prince Regent. Act swiftly for the interests of your son and your own self.”

Kaikeyi was pierced again and again by Manthara’s sharp words. The servant repeatedly spoke against the king and Rāma, stoking Kaikeyi’s anger more. Arriving at the sulking chamber, the queen threw herself on the floor and said to Manthara, “Either Rāma is exiled and Bharata made king, or I shall remain here in this state, taking neither food nor water. If my desire is not fulfilled, then you shall see me depart from this spot for the region of the dead.”

With her ornaments scattered and her garland crushed, Kaikeyi lay on the beautiful mosaic floor, appearing like a goddess fallen from the heavens. Her face dark with rage, she tossed about and sobbed.