This part of the ‘Raja Rama’ series examines Sri Rama in contrast to his contemporaries, including Ravana, examine his foreign policy, and look at the Shambhuk episode that he is second-most attacked about.
Albatross of Shambuka
A common consensus on the Shambuka episode is that it was a latter-day addition, and almost certainly never happened. The biggest proof (and there are many, scattered across more disciplines than the scope of this essay) is that not only is it absent from Valmiki’s account written in Rama’s lifetime, but it also does not feature in the three most popular retellings as well — Ramacharitamanas (Awadhi), Kamban Ramayana (Tamizh) and Krittibas Ramayana (Bengali). But if assumed to be true, the argument would finally not hold water. It is presumed by those who cite this episode that Shudras were prohibited from performing tapasyā and Rama killed Shambhuka because he was a Shudra doing tapasyā.
As for any ‘ban’ on Shudras performing austerities and doing tapasyā, there are enough instances in Ramayana itself to disprove the notion. Just an instance — the father of Satykama Jabali, one of Rama’s advisors, was unknown and his mother was a Chandala. Another one is Valmiki himself (of course by modern metamorphosis; going by the scriptures, Valmiki was a son of Rishi Pracheta and brother of Brahmarshi Vashishtha).
As for the tapasyā, it needs to be stressed that there are many variants and methods, some of which include harming others, like narabali (sacrificing another human). So the question is what method he was using that led to the death of a 15-year-old child who, by accident of birth, was a Brahmin?
Almost all the authentic narrations of this episode do mention a Brahmin who says that it was Shambhuka’s tapasyā that killed his son. Now, if the Shambhuka episode is considered to be true, the part that his austerities led to the death of a child must be considered too. One cannot cherry-pick a part of the story to be true. Another ‘Brahminical propaganda’?
Deciphering the story leads to only one inference that the tapasyā by Shambuka was of the occult variety, which involves sacrificing of humans of a certain age. If it were any other kind of death, Rama would have sent one of his emissaries or Hanuman himself, but this was the death of a Brahmin who is totally dependent on king for protection, being prohibited from bearing arms except to teach others the skill of warfare.
Moreover, Brahmins were valued in such times when writing was a prohibitively expensive and tedious task, for their exact memorisation of the same. Their death meant a loss of knowledge quiet literally.
Rama was bound by duty to be the punisher of a killer of Brahmins. That is why He slayed Tadaka and Ravana (who was a Brahmin, that’s why Rama had to atone for this killing).
The punishment meted out to Shambuka was consistent with Rama’s previous actions and not an aberration. It was consistent with the legal system of the time. Even now, human sacrifice is abhorred and punishable by life sentence or death.
Secondly, the hétu (motivation) of Shambuka’s tapasyā was to go to dévaloka in the human form. This was prohibited, and even Rama’s own ancestor Satyavrat Trishanku was cursed to become a Chandala for trying to bribe his guru’s disciples to fulfil this aspiration. When Vishwamitra, in competition with Vashishtha, forcefully tried to send him to swarga, he was left hanging upside down in the middle of nowhere.
Interestingly, Shambhuka was performing tapasyā in the same posture — upside down. Rama, being a king, was bound to uphold the dharma; so he acted in a way optimal for the dharma of the king.
Sri Rama vis-à-vis other kings of His time
Rama lived amongst some of the greatest kings of his time. And he stood out amongst them.
Dasharatha was undoubtedly a great king. At the beginning of Ramayana, Valmiki gives a fair glimpse of how prosperous Ayodhya was under him. But his drawback, in fact, a fatal flaw, was that there was always a part of him that was not steadfast on the promises made. Be it going back on his promise to Vishwamitra initially or going back on his promise to Kaikeyi, he was prone to making promises without completely being in charge of the situation.
Rama, on other hand, always put his dharma before Himself. An example of this was where Sita told Him He did not need to ‘unnecessarily’ kill the rākshasas after Rama promised to bring peace to the places of tapasyā for Rishis of Dandakaranya. To this, Rama said that rākshasas were doing adharma by killing and devouring defenceless humans like the ascetics, and so killing them would be dharma. He said He would sacrifice anything and anybody — including Sita and Lakshmana — for dharma.
The term ’unnecessary’ was used by Sita. She related a story of a king who had acquired false pride after possessing weapons. She said if the rākshasas had not acted in a way harmful to Rama, His family or His kingship and if He otherwise had no enmity with them, it was not right to kill them. The right to attack and kill anyone came even to Kshatriyas only if they could prove a personal or political enmity to the other party.
Two things make Rama stand out here. Firstly, Sri Rama, unlike His father, is not someone who issues ‘blank cheques’, or believes in blanket definitions. He acts on a very specific request of the ascetics, and He counters Sita’s arguments about blanket application of “dharma” or lack thereof in the action of killing rakshasas by citing a specific case and its conditions. This shows his political wisdom of the kind that even those who had come thousands of years after Him did not show.
Two great warriors of the Mahabharata, Karna and Bhishma, could have learnt from this story. Bhishma should have recognised his father’s promise (or Matsyagandha’s father’s demand) of breaking the primogeniture for the sake of marriage, and instating her children on the throne, as the same mistake that Dasharatha had made in case of Kaikeyi.
Similarly, Karna could have learnt from Sri Rama that a Kshatriya and a king could not be under a blanket obligation of an individual because a Kshatriya’s first obligation is to safeguard dharma. Sri Rama always asked the price for every favour he sought, even from Hanuman and Sugriva, and repaid them as soon as He could, leaving Himself free of debt.
Second, even though Dasharatha had three principal wives and 300 junior ones, love or lust for Kaikeyi alone led him astray from the proper discharge of his official responsibilities. Sri Rama, on the other hand, is one-woman man, and despite that, He tells her straight away that He would happily sacrifice her in the discharge of the dharma of his position.
Next, Sri Rama stands out even in the comparison with His guru and former king Brahmarshi Vishwamitra. Before turning into a universe-creating Rishi, Vishwamitra was a great king called Kaushika. But, as Kaushika, he had mistakenly believed that he, or the state machinery, had first rights over any and all resources of his kingdom. This led to his clash with Brahmarshi Vasishtha over the wish-giving cow Shabalaa. Vishwamitra wanted to take the miracle cow by force or by temptation, by virtue of his being king. He argued that a king could do greater welfare by such a magical creature than a hermit who would ‘selfishly’ want to restrict the access to the all-wishes-fulfilling cow, keeping her only for use by rishis of the ashrama. King Kaushika did not pause for even a moment to reflect on his adhikāra, the right to possess or harness a celestial, magical creature.
In the age of socialist collectivism on both right and left trampling on individual rights and liberties, and coldly justifying it in the name of ‘greater good’ of society, this episode is an eyeopener. It demonstrates why the individual sovereign must be respected over the state authority, and what happens when the state transgresses its maryāda. And this is true even for a state ruled by as good a ruler as Kaushika.
When Kaushika’s army was finished off by the rākshasas produced by Nandini in her and Vashishtha’s defence, he tried to use all divine weapons at once against Vasishtha just in pursuit of his desires. It is to be noted that divyāstras (celestial weapons) are meant to be invoked under strictly limited conditions, chiefly being to neutralise someone else’s first use of them, in a war against asuras, or to assist gods in supernatural tasks. Using them against a fellow human adversary, a frail and unarmed Rishi at that, is abhorrent.
While Kaushika did become a great ascetic and Rishi Vishwamitra (the friend of all universe) later on, his temperament did not completely change. As a rishi as well, he failed multiple times because he could not place dharma before self.
Contrasting Rama’s character and His attitude against the previous life of His own teacher is even easier than comparing Him to his father. Rama, in course of His exile, consistently refused royal treatment despite being offered, by Nishadraja Guha, Bharata, several rishis, etc, just to honour the spirit of his father’s promise to Kaikeyi. Kaikeyi wanted Rama to go to exile in forest to be in pain and to undergo hardships, and undergo hardships without ever expressing discomfort He did. He preferred to undergo hardships rather than putting His subjects to it.
Even in the use of weapons, He was conservative and cautious, unlike His teacher — not letting even an arrow go waste, or be shot randomly or astray. He takes out Agni’s astra to dry the ocean only when He fails in every avenue of placating him had failed. When Samudra did appear for a truce before Rama could fire his arrow, Rama did not randomly shoot the arrow just about anywhere. He asked Samudra where should he fire this astra so as to cause hurt only to those who deserve it. For every asura he killed in battle, in Lanka and elsewhere, he used a divyāstra only when needed. Unlike Indrajit (Meghanada), Ravana’s eldest son and crown-prince of Lanka, who used Brahmastra to capture Hanuman, Rama kept the weapon only for very rare occasions. Today, in the world sitting over a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, this can be better appreciated.
Next comes Vali, the valiant king of Pampa Kishkindha, son of Indra. He was a powerful vanara king with divine powers. But he mistook his authority for a gift derived from his prowess and not a means to serve the seat he was occupying. So he went on fighting asuras for the sake of it, unlike Rama.
Then Sugriva was crowned the king due to the emerging circumstances (he never wanted to be one). Sugriva was willing to abdicate when Vali came back. But Vali, drunk on power and violence for the sake of violence, not only imprisoned him but also took away his wife by force. And when Sugriva left, he repeatedly plotted to kill him despite the younger brother not being a threat.
Compare this to Rama who refused to come back to Ayodhya even at the request of Bharat who, like Sugriva, was made the de facto king because of circumstances. Rama was undoubtedly second to none in martial prowess. However, instead of taking Ayodhya by force (we have discussed this in detail in the previous piece), He preferred to enforce civil law.
Finally, His chief adversary Ravana cannot even be considered for comparison with Sri Rama. Ravana was a slave of senses in all possible ways and who used his position as king for further aggrandisement of his senses. All his tapasyā, yajna and austerities were for furtherance of his own interest. In this process, Lanka emerged as a great city not by design but by imposition. Ravana decimated other kingdoms for his sensual pleasures to have more women to enjoy and indulge with. He even wanted the wife of his own Ishta — by some accounts.
Ravana judged people by their appearances and acted as per those impressions — be it Hanuman or Sri Rama who, on the other hand, was dedicated to serving His people. Sri Rama did all that He could for them, even at personal cost. Rama’s austerities, tapasyā and yajna were for his people — whether He was establishing the Rameshwaram Shivalinga or performing Durga puja. No wonder, the initiations by Sri Rama have now become traditions. Rama killed the two kings Vali and Ravana — one for His friend’s rightful claim, the other for His wife’s abduction.
Foreign policy based on dharma
Pragmatic self-interest has become an excuse for abandoning all morality and ethics in matters of modern foreign policy and diplomacy. When India needs oil, it votes against its quasi-civilisational ally Israel in the UN. When the US needs Pakistan’s help in its strategic operations in Afghanistan, it blocks or cold-shoulders India’s proposals against Pakistan at the Security Council. Rama, on the other hand, risked His own, as well as His kingdom’s interests where furthering them would mean being on the side of adharma. In terms of foreign policy, he followed this thoroughly. He supported Sugriva despite Vali being more powerful. In fact, after Vali was hit and was dying, and Rama showed up, Vali remarked that he could have single-handedly subdued Ravana and fetched Sita, for Vali was the only king on earth Ravana both feared and respected, having been defeated by him on an earlier occasion. To this, Sri Rama replied that Vali’s transgressions against dharma had become so egregious that it would have not been possible for Rama to ally with someone like him.
Rama also supported Vibhishana despite the surety that this act would increase the wrath of the apparently invincible Ravana, and might even endanger Sita’s life. This aspect of foreign policy is still relevant as the Tibet problem is alive in the neighbourhood. Rama forged a marital alliance between his two uncomfortable allies, by getting the son of Sugreeva married to Vibhishana’s daughter. This not only ensured peace between two tribes that had been at the throats of each other but also strengthening His own alliance with both as the peace-broker.
Interestingly, Sri Rama did not appoint vassals after His conquest. He reinstalled legitimate heir from the resident royal family. In Kishkindha, He instated Sugriva as the king but made Angada (son of killed and deposed Vali), instead of Sugriva’s son, the heir apparent. In Lanka, he made Vibhishana the king. Later, Samudragupta followed this template when he went for his own conquests, and he is still fondly remembered in the lore and legends of not only the places he ruled but also the places he conquered as well.
Rama was also a harbinger of the future. He chose monogamy when polygamy was a norm for the royalty. His own father had 300 junior wives, apart from three chief wives. He instituted an annual celebration of Durga puja at a time (autumn) when earlier it was unheard of. He established that the legitimacy of a ruler does not come from his personal prowess with weapons but from established precedence and the personal conduct of the ruler.
The real power in politics is not the office one holds. It does not come from laws instituted either. Both office and law fade away eventually. Policies are not paramount either; they will be reversed either by time or by adversaries succeeding to the throne. The real power is when you change the way people perceive, think and make sense of reality. This lasts way beyond the ruler’s lifetime and very few achieve it. Rama is that power, He is that way of thinking, He is that framework through which the collective consciousness of India makes sense of reality.
Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata followed this path laid down by Rama and eventually ascended to heaven in his body attaining “Jaya”. That’s why India still looks with hope and love for that Rama to descend on the earth again. That is why Ayodhya matters.
The next part of this series will deal with the biggest accusation Sri Rama faced: Sita’s agniparīksha and exile, and some other aspects of his polity and political decision-making.
In collaboration with and editing contributions from Mrinaal Prem Swarroop Srivastava