RKD: 1.6: The King’s Heartbreak

Daśaratha, having seen that all the arrangements for the installation were underway, made his way toward Kaikeyi’s rooms for his evening rendezvous. The glorious monarch entered Kaikeyi’s excellent apartment as the moon might enter the sky at night, spreading its beautiful rays. Peacocks, parrots and other species of colorful birds crowded the palace, their cries augmenting the sounds of various musical instruments. Hundreds of well-dressed maids moved about in the great halls and rooms, in which were hung flowing silk drapes and numerous fine paintings. Along the outer walls grew trees filled with blossoms and fruits. Tall seats of ivory burnished with gold stood everywhere, along with expansive couches covered with soft cushions. Costly handwoven carpets covered the floors. First-class food and drink of every variety were provided in gold and crystal dishes laid out on golden tables.

Daśaratha swept through the palace, which rivaled paradise itself. The armed guards at the outer doors bowed low as he passed, while at the inner doors the female servants folded their palms in respect. Coming at last to Kaikeyi’s personal quarters, the king did not see her lying on her bed as expected. Daśaratha was surprised to find that his beloved spouse had failed to meet him at the usual time. He called out for her. When there was no reply the king was dismayed. What had happened? He searched about and, finding Kaikeyi’s doorkeeper, inquired of his wife’s whereabouts. With a dejected expression the portress told the king that Kaikeyi had entered the sulking chamber in an angry mood.

Even further dismayed upon hearing this strange report, the king quickly made his way towards his wife. He entered the sulking room and saw her there fallen on the floor in a sorry and unseemly state. Daśaratha looked sadly upon his youngest queen, who was dearer to him than his life, but who now held in her heart a wicked and sinful desire. Lying on the ground she looked like a rose creeper violently torn from its tree, or like an Apsarā dropped from heaven, or a doe caught in a hunter’s snare. Daśaratha looked upon her as the lord of elephants might look upon his mate lying pierced by a poisoned arrow. Fondly stroking her tear-streaked face, the agitated emperor spoke to her softly.

“Your anger is surely not meant for me, who only wishes for your unending happiness. Tell me, O gentle lady, by whom you have been insulted or rebuked so that you now lie here rolling in the dust? Who deserves punishment today at my hands? Or do you wish me to release someone who deserves to be punished? By whom have you been offended or whom would you seek to oblige?”

Kaikeyi said nothing and did not even look at the king. Daśaratha felt tormented as he sought at length to appease her. “If you are ailing, then I shall call here the royal physicians, who will quickly heal your pain. Speak out whatever is amiss and allow me to make amends. I can by no means tolerate your distress and will quickly perform any work which pleases you. This earth with all its wealth belongs to me. What shall I bestow upon you today? What can you gain by torturing yourself in this way, my beloved queen? Please rise up and tell me the source of your sorrow.”

Kaikeyi was comforted and encouraged by her husband’s entreaty. He was ready to do anything to please her. She prepared to put forward her terrible proposal. Seeing Daśaratha deeply moved by love for her, Kaikeyi spoke in strained tones. “I have not been insulted or offended by anyone, O king. There is, however, something I wish you to accomplish. Make me a solemn vow that you will fulfill my desire and then I shall tell you what it is.”

Daśaratha placed her head upon his lap and straightened her disheveled hair. He smiled at her and said, “Save for my son Rāma, there is none in this world more dear to me than you. I swear then by that invincible high-souled Rāma, dearer to me than life, that I shall satisfy your cherished desire. By that very Rāma, from whom separation would surely end my life, I swear to carry out your order. Indeed, by Rāma, whom I would have in exchange even for my own self, my other sons and the entire earth, I promise to do your bidding. Please, therefore, reveal your mind to me, O good lady.”

Kaikeyi saw that her husband had bound himself completely by this thrice-spoken vow. She inwardly rejoiced and felt that her ends were practically achieved. She then said to him what would have been difficult to say even for an enemy, and which was like death arrived at Daśaratha’s door. “Let all the gods headed by Indra witness your promise. Let the sun, the moon, the sky, fire, day and night, the four quarters with their presiding deities, the universe itself and the indwelling Lord in everyone’s heart take heed of your great vow. The highly glorious emperor, who is always true to his word and who knows what is right, has given me his promise.”

Looking intently at her bemused husband, Kaikeyi said, “Remember now, O king, how in former times you fought with the gods against the demons and how I saved your life. Surely you recall your offer to me then of two boons. Having kept those with you all this time, I now wish to take them. Grant me those boons, O lord, or see me give up my life this very day.”

Held under the powerful sway of passion and bound by his infallible promise, the king, like a deer stepping into a snare, made ready to accord the two boons to his queen. Kaikeyi continued, “For my first boon, let my son Bharata be installed as the Prince Regent in Rāma’s place. For the second, let Rāma be exiled to the forest and remain there for fourteen years. Be true to your promise, O king of kings, and cover both yourself and your race with everlasting glory.”

For some time Daśaratha gazed at his wife in utter disbelief. He was seized by an agonizing anxiety when he heard her cruel utterance. Surely this could not be happening. Was he really hearing this or was it a dream? Had something experienced in a former life suddenly returned as a vivid hallucination? Maybe he was simply losing his sanity. How could Kaikeyi have made such a request? She had always shown a deep affection for Rāma.

As he considered her words again and again, Daśaratha became overpowered by grief and fainted away. Upon regaining consciousness he saw before him his wife, sitting with a stern expression, and he remembered again her terrible request. As distressed as a deer at the sight of a lion, the king sat upon the bare floor. He sighed like a poisonous serpent transfixed by the mystic spells of a charmer. Crying out, “Alas, what a calamity!” he swooned once more.

As he again came back to consciousness the king began to feel furious. This was entirely unexpected from Kaikeyi. She was revealing a side of her nature he had never seen before. He thundered at his queen as if about to consume her with his blazing wrath. “O cruel and wicked woman, it seems you are set upon the destruction of my race. What harm have Rāma or I ever done you? Why then are you bent on bringing ruin to me and mine at such a time? By harboring you all this while I have held to my bosom a venomous snake. When practically the whole of humanity extols Rāma’s virtues, how shall I forsake Him? I might give up my wives, my kingdom and indeed my life, but I can never part with Rāma.”

Daśaratha broke off, too shocked to continue. Had he not always shown kindness to Kaikeyi? How could she hurt him in this way? Surely she realized that her request would kill him. Deeply impassioned, he spoke with tears in his eyes. “The world may exist without the sun, crops may grow without water, but in no event can life remain in my body without my seeing Rāma. Therefore give up your sinful desire, O beautiful lady! Placing my head upon your feet, I beseech you to be gracious to me.”

Daśaratha held his wife’s feet and gazed into her face, but Kaikeyi sat looking at him impassively, without saying a word. In plaintive tones the king continued. “If you feel I have slighted your son Bharata, then let Him indeed be installed in place of Rāma. But what need is there to send away the lotus-eyed and gentle Rāma? I cannot believe that you have alone developed a dislike for Rāma. On so many previous occasions you have told me of your love for my beloved son. Surely you are now possessed of an evil spirit.”

Daśaratha could not imagine how else his wife could behave in this way. She had never been harsh towards him before. He remembered the astrological omens. Surely his wife’s strange request was the work of some malevolent influence. He spoke more gently. “I have seen myself how Rāma serves you even more than does your own son Bharata. Have you not always told me so yourself? How then have you come to desire Rāma’s exile to the dreadful forest for a full fourteen years? Let Him remain here and let Bharata be king. What objection could you have to that?”

Kaikeyi did not waver. She had lost her trust in Daśaratha and she seethed with anger. He was simply trying to win her over with empty words. But she was not going to be fooled any more. She remembered Manthara’s warning. The king and his beloved Kaushalya were not going to cheat her this time. She would get her boons no matter what Daśaratha said. She sat in silence.

Daśaratha could not think clearly. He was torn by his love for Rāma and his promise to his wife, who had now seized him violently by the heart. Realizing that he could never order his son to enter the forest, Daśaratha feared he would bring infamy to his royal line. No king in his line had ever been known to break his word at any time.

Daśaratha implored his wife. “What will you gain by banishing Rāma? He will always render you every service and remain entirely devoted to your welfare. I have never received a single complaint against Rāma even from his subordinates, let alone elders like you. Truthfulness, charity, asceticism, self-control, kindness, non-duplicity, learning and service to his elders—all these are ever-present in Rāma. How could you wish harm to that guileless prince?”

Daśaratha could see that Kaikeyi was unmoved. It was obvious her feelings towards Rāma had changed. The king decided to try a different approach and he invoked his own love for her. “O Kaikeyi, you should show mercy to me in this, my great misery. An old and worn man, I am fast approaching the end of my days. I have now been subjected to an unbearable grief in the shape of your harsh words. What do you wish to possess? I can offer you anything that may be had in all of this world. Only ask for your desire and consider it done. Joining my palms I fall at your feet. Do not banish Rāma. Accept my piteous plea and save my life.”

Kaikeyi looked coldly upon her husband. He had fallen weeping to the floor and was tossing about, gripped by an overwhelming agony. He prayed again and again for deliverance, but Kaikeyi felt no pity. With her heart hardened by Manthara and her intelligence confused by the gods, she was fixed in her evil determination. Looking contemptuously at Daśaratha, she spoke fiercely. “After granting boons and failing to fulfill them, how will you again proclaim your piety in the world, O noble king? When in an assembly of sages you are asked about your promise, how will you reply? Will you admit that you proved untruthful to your own dear wife, to whom you owe your very life? Having once granted boons, and having again sworn three times to fulfill those boons, will you now falsify your word?”

Kaikeyi was standing, her face flushed with anger. She felt cheated by her husband. He had promised her anything. Now he was trying to back out. This simply confirmed her doubts about his sincerity. He had no intention of giving her what she wanted. Her voice became cold. “What honor will you bring to your line by this action, O king of kings? Do you not recall the many occasions when your forebears were prepared to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, in order to protect the honor of your race? O foolish king! It seems that at the expense of anything you wish to install Rāma as your successor and enjoy life with Kaushalya eternally!”

Kaikeyi was furious. The king was prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of Kaushalya’s son, but he cared so little for Kaikeyi that he would deny her rights even if it meant bringing infamy upon himself. She went on, her voice rising to a shout. “Whether your promise was righteous or otherwise and whether you made it sincerely or not, it cannot now be withdrawn. If Rāma is installed as Prince Regent I shall swallow poison and give up my life before your eyes! I would prefer death to seeing Kaushalya become the mother of the king. I swear by Bharata and by my own self that I shall not be appeased by anything less than Rāma’s exile.”

The king’s body trembled. Consumed by grief, he gazed with unwinking eyes upon the face of his beautiful wife. He was stunned by her words, which struck him with the force of a thunderbolt. He suddenly dropped to the ground like a felled tree, calling out Rāma’s name. Like one insane, he lost his mental balance and lay motionless on the cold floor for a considerable time. Gradually gathering his senses about him, the king stood up and spoke in a choked and anguished voice. “I cannot believe you are now speaking your own mind. Who has perverted you towards this evil course? As if possessed by some demon you speak shamelessly that which should never be spoken. What has inspired in you this great yet groundless fear? Why are you suddenly seeing Rāma as your enemy, uttering such cruel words? What do you expect to gain by Bharata’s becoming my successor instead of Rāma? I expect that Bharata, whose virtues compare with those of Rāma, will not even reside in Ayodhya without Rāma, far less accept the throne.”

The king had so many times seen Bharata serving Rāma with love. There was no question that Bharata would accept the kingdom, leaving Rāma aside. What had made Kaikeyi imagine this to be possible? Could it be the hand of the gods? But what purpose of theirs would be achieved by denying Rāma the rulership of the world? And even if Bharata should be king, why should Rāma be exiled for fourteen years? It was unthinkable. Daśaratha spoke aloud his thoughts. “Having said to Rāma, ‘Go to the forest,’ how shall I look upon his crestfallen face, which will exactly resemble the eclipsed moon? Surely the kings assembled from every quarter will say, ‘How has this foolish man ruled the world all this while?’ When asked by wise and learned men about Rāma, how shall I say that I sent Him away to the forest, being pressed by Kaikeyi? If I say I was supporting the cause of truth, then what about my declaration that Rāma would be installed as my successor?”

Daśaratha fell back onto a couch. His arms were outstretched towards Kaikeyi, who had again fallen to the floor on hearing her husband’s arguments. The king wailed in agony. “What reply can I make to Kaushalya when she asks why I rendered her such an unkind act? I have always neglected that godly lady in favor of you. Remembering my acts now gives me great pain.”

Daśaratha’s mention of Kaushalya only made Kaikeyi more furious. What a blatant untruth! How did he expect her to believe that she was more favored than Kaushalya? In his desperation the king was ready to say anything. Kaikeyi stared at her husband, her eyes red with anger.

The king continued to speak, his passionate words lost on his implacable queen. “Seeing Rāma departed for the forest and Sītā weeping, I shall soon lose my life. You may then carry on all the affairs of state along with your son as the undisputed ruler. I have always seen you as my devoted and chaste wife. That was my mistake! Inveigled by your empty inducements, I have long held you close. Now you have finally killed me, even as a hunter kills a deer after enticing it with melodious music.”

Daśaratha saw that Kaikeyi was not to be swayed from her purpose. His anxiety intensified. In his anger and confusion he began to blame himself. Surely the whole world would condemn him for sacrificing his sinless son for the sake of a sinful woman. This terrible turn of events could only be the result of his own wicked acts in some previous life. He sat with his head in his hands, crying softly as he spoke.

“I lament only for the sake of those who will suffer for my sake when I perform the evil act of exiling Rāma. For having deprived a son like Rāma of fatherly affection, all honest men will rightly revile me in the following words: ‘Alas, this old and foolish king, being bound by lust for his favorite queen, could even reject his dearest son!’”

Unable to contain his grief, Daśaratha lamented loudly for a long time. Censuring Kaikeyi and calling upon her to have compassion on her fellow queens, on Sītā and on the citizens of Ayodhya, he tried in many ways to change her mind. Kaikeyi remained adamant. The king then began to realize the inevitability of Rāma’s departure. He spoke to his queen in complete dismay.

“The very moment I ask Rāma to depart He will leave, being fully obedient to my order. I shall then be left, cast into the deepest despair with my life’s breath quickly expiring. Upon reaching heaven I shall be censured even by the gods for my vicious behavior. You too will earn unending infamy, O lady of wicked resolve. None shall praise you for causing the virtuous and highly popular Rāma to be sent into the wilderness.”

Daśaratha practically writhed in pain as he thought of Rāma leaving for the forest. That gentle prince was accustomed to ride upon the finest chariots and elephants. How would He roam the forest on foot? Every day Rāma was served by numerous royal cooks, competing to offer Him every fine dish. How could he subsist on wild fruits and roots? How could his son put on the coarse garments of the forest dwellers, having always been clad in the costliest of robes? The emperor, devastated, shook with grief. He felt his life slipping away.

Gazing at Kaikeyi, who he now saw as his mortal enemy, Daśaratha said, “O wicked woman, it is a wonder that on speaking such cruel and vicious words your teeth do not shatter into a thousand pieces and fall from your mouth. When Rāma goes to the forest, Death will surely take me. I will be condemned by all men. Kaushalya and Sumitra will then be cast into abject sorrow and will likely follow me to Death’s abode. Having inflicted such miseries upon us, and being left alone with your son to rule over this world, what other indescribable pains will you give to the remaining people, who are all so loved by me?”

Although Daśaratha had no intentions of asking Rāma to leave, he knew his devoted son would depart immediately upon realizing his father’s predicament. The king tried one last desperate plea to Kaikeyi. “Even if, upon my failing to exile my son, you are ready to swallow poison, throw yourself into fire or hang yourself, I shall by no means banish Rāma. You have disgraced your family and are intent upon destroying mine. I shall never accede to your ruthless request. O malicious queen, abandon now your evil desire! I fall helpless at your feet. Come to your senses and be gracious to me, who has always been your well-wishing protector.”

Exhausted by grief, Daśaratha sank to the floor like a man gripped by an illness, his hands stretched out to the feet of his queen.

The unflinching Kaikeyi, who had given up all affection for her husband, saw that her ends were still not achieved. Convinced by Manthara of the king’s ill intentions towards her, with her intelligence further confused by the gods, Kaikeyi could not accept Daśaratha’s entreaties. In a disdainful and harsh voice, she addressed the fallen monarch. “Where now is your honor, O king? Your claim that you adhere to truth is simply an empty boast! Are you to withdraw the boons previously promised to me and further sworn on this very spot? Fulfill my boons as you vowed and protect your far- reaching fame!”

Daśaratha, unconscious, could not reply. After some time he revived and looked upon his queen’s face. From her cold expression it was obvious that she was not in the least assuaged. The grief-stricken monarch gazed up at the clear night sky. He prayed to Nidra, the night goddess, to stay for-ever. How could he face the dawn, bringing as it would Rāma’s departure? Daśaratha sat weeping, continuously repeating Rāma’s name.

Kaikeyi spoke impassively. “I have only asked you to fulfill your promise to me, O king. Why then do you now lie down dejected? The path of morality has been clearly shown by your ancestors. Proceed upon that path now, O truthful one, and send Rāma away!”

The educated Kaikeyi, knowing her husband to be devoted to religion and piety, invoked the codes of morality. “Those men who understand right from wrong declare truthfulness as the highest virtue. I simply urge you to act upon truthfulness alone, O king, and do your duty. Truth is the support of all the worlds, the eternal Vedas represent truth, virtue itself is rooted in truth and truth sustains all beings. By following truth one attains the supreme. Therefore set your mind on truth, O king, and grant my prayer: banish Rāma to the forest.”

Kaikeyi stood up amid her strewn ornaments. Her eyes flashed as she made her final demand to the king. “Three times you promised and therefore three times I ask you. Fulfill my wish to see my son installed on the throne and send Rāma away to the woods. This alone will satisfy me and save me from giving up my life, after seeing you abandon your honor.”

As the unscrupulous Kaikeyi maintained her pressure on him, Daśaratha could see no means to escape from his avowed word. With great difficulty he controlled himself, drawing upon his reserves of fortitude. His heart burned with unbearable anguish as he looked through tear-dimmed eyes at Kaikeyi. How could he any longer consider her his wife? She was fit to be rejected. Her name should never again be associated with his. No one should call her the queen of Daśaratha.

The king spoke fiercely. “O perverted woman, here and now do I disown your hand, which I formerly clasped in the presence of the sacred fire and with the utterances of holy mantras. Now the night has passed and soon the people will joyfully urge me to install Rāma. However, as at your insistence I shall this day surely breathe my last, Rāma should be made to offer the last rites to my departed soul. O woman of evil conduct, you should make no offerings to me, for I fully reject you today.”

Kaikeyi fumed. What use were these empty words? Her husband had already rejected her when he favored Kaushalya. She addressed the king in piercing words. “Why do you say such scathing and hurtful things, O monarch? I merely ask that you give me what you have already promised. Summon now your son Rāma and give up this needless agonizing. Do your duty and stand fast to virtue!”

Like a first-class horse lashed with a whip, Daśaratha controlled his mind and righteously responded to Kaikeyi’s words. “Bound with the strong cords of morality, I am helpless. My judgment fails me, and in this evil hour I seek the refuge of Rāma. Bring my gentle son before me.”

The king fainted away, exhausted with grief and his futile efforts to change his wife’s mind.