MANTHARA'S EVIL COUNSEL

 

12. MANTHARA'S EVIL COUNSEL


THE King embraced Rama, seated him beside him on the throne and said: "I am old. I have enjoyed my life as a man and a king. I have discharged all my duties to my ancestors. There is nothing left for me to do. My only desire is to install you on the throne of our fathers. Last night I had bad dreams. Those who read, the future advise me that a great sorrow, even death, may overtake me very soon. Hence I wish to have the coronation performed tomorrow. Tomorrow, the readers of the stars say, is auspicious. Something within me says, 'Do this at once.' You and Sita should prepare for tomorrow's anointment by fasting tonight. Lie down on a bed of darbha grass and have trusty and vigilant friends to look after your safety. It seems to me that the present time when Bharata is away is particularly opportune for your installation. Not that I do not know that Bharata is the soul of righteousness in thought and conduct alike, and that he is devoted to you, but the minds of men are changeful and open to unexpected influences." 

And so the King decided that the coronation should be performed on the very next day and told Vasishtha of his decision. Bad dreams added to the reasons for fixing the day for the coronation at once. 

Taking leave of his father, Rama went to Kausalya's apartment to give her the news and seek her blessing. But the Queen had heard the news already. Sumitra, Sita and Lakshmana were all there with Kausalya, who, clad in ceremonial white, sat offering prayers for her son. 

Rama reported to his mother the King's latest command. She answered: "This I have heard. May you live long. Be a good ruler. Conquer your foes and protect your subjects and kinsfolk. You have pleased your father and you have made me happy." 

Then bidding farewell to his mother and step-mother, Rama went to his own apartment. As directed by the King, Vasishtha came to Rama's place. He was welcomed by him at the entrance, Vasishtha initiated Rama with due mantras in his pre-coronation fast. 

As Vasishtha returned to the King, he saw groups of people on the royal road, cheerfully discussing the great festival of the morrow. Houses were being decorated with flowers, festoons and flags. It was with difficulty that Vasishtha could make his way through the crowds to the King's palace. The King was pleased to hear that the fast had begun duly and all was being got ready for the ceremony. 

But in his heart of hearts there was a fear that some mishap might come between him and his one wish. 

The city was in a joyous commotion of expectancy. In every house, in every street, men, women and children looked on the coronation as a great and auspicious occasion in their own lives and awaited it with enthusiasm. 

Rama and Sita in their dwelling meditated long on Narayana, fed with ghee the sacrificial fire, and reverently sipped what remained of the ghee, and slept on grass spread on the floor. Early the following morning, they were roused from slumber by music and held themselves in readiness to proceed to the palace and in expectation of the auspicious call.

But the summons that came was of an entirely opposite nature. 

In accordance with the practice in royal households, Queen Kaikeyi had a woman companion and confidential servant. She was a hunchback named Manthara. Being a distant relation of the Queen, she claimed great intimacy with her. 

Manthara is one of the best known characters in the Ramayana. Every man, woman and child in our land knows and detests her, as the cause of Rama's exile, Dasaratha's death and all the sorrows which befell the royal family. 

On the day on which Dasaratha summoned the Assembly and decided to anoint Rama as Yuvaraja, Manthara happened to climb up to the terrace of the women's apartments and stood surveying the town below. She saw the streets were sprinkled with water and gaily decorated. Flags flew from the house-tops. Wearing new clothes and bright jewels, smeared with sandal paste and decked in flowers, people moved about in crowds, engrossed in happy talk. 

Musical instruments played in the temples. Manthara could not understand the reason for all this, for she did not know what the King had decided. Some celebration was on, she guessed. Manthara turned to a servant and asked her: "Why are you wearing this silk dress? What is on in the City? Kausalya seems to be distributing gifts to Brahmanas. She is a thrifty lady and would not be doing this for nothing. There are festive sights and sounds everywhere. Do you know what all this is about?" 

The little servant girl answered, dancing with joy: "Why, do you not know that our Ramachandra is going to be anointed Yuvaraja tomorrow morning?" 

This was news! Manthara was overpowered with sudden anger. Quickly she hobbled downstairs. Straight she entered Kaikeyi room. Kaikeyi was resting on her bed. "Rise, rise, foolish woman! A flood of misfortune is rising to drown and swallow you! You are betrayed and ruined. Your star is setting. Foolish girl, is this the time to sleep?"

Kaikeyi, fearing that some calamity had overtaken Manthara, asked her gently: "What is troubling you? Why are you thus upset?" 

And the clever Manthara began: "Destruction has come upon both you and me, my girl. Dasaratha has decided to make Rama Yuvaraja, the real ruler of this land. What greater cause for sorrow need I have? When grief comes to you, how can I remain unconcerned? I have come running to you. You were born and bred in a royal family. You were married into a royal family. Now, alas, all is over. Like the simple woman you are, you have been deceived. Your husband has cheated you with sweet words. It is a deep plot, as any one can see. He put Bharata out of the way by sending him to the distant place of his uncle, and is taking advantage of his absence by hurriedly crowning Rama. By tomorrow it will all be over. And you watch all this, lying in bed and doing nothing, while you and all who depend on you are being destroyed." 

And so, Manthara went on talking. Kaikeyi's ears heard the words without quite heeding their drift. Like the rest of the royal household her mind was overwhelmed now with the joyous expectation of Rama's coronation, for she loved and esteemed Rama like everybody else. 

"Manthara, you have brought me good news," she said. "Is my son Rama to be crowned tomorrow? What greater joy can come to me? Here, take this. Ask me for anything else." So saying, Kaikeyi took the necklace off her neck and gave it to Manthara. It was a royal custom at once to reward with a rich gift the bringer of any important good news. 

Kaikeyi thought Manthara, like any other officious personal attendant, was ingratiatingly jealous in her mistress's interests. How could this woman understand the goodness of Rama, or affairs of State? And so she thought her foolish fears would be banished if she saw that her mistress was happy at the event. Kaikeyi's mind was still uncorrupted. She had the culture of her noble lineage and was not easily amenable to low thoughts. 

This but increased Manthara's grief. She flung away the necklace and said: "Woe to you, stupid woman. All is lost and stupidly you laugh with joy. How can you be blind to the misfortune that is coming to you? Am I to laugh or cry at this folly? Your rival, Rama's mother, has conspired to making him King. And you jump with joy. Insane woman! What would be Bharata's state when Rama reigns? Would not Rama fear and ever look upon Bharata as a dangerous enemy? Rama knows human nature. He knows that Bharata alive would be a constant threat to his power and therefore must be killed. Does not one kill a cobra out of fear? Hereafter there is no security for Bharata's life. Tomorrow morning Kausalya will be a happy woman and you will bend before her as a well-dressed slave. You will stand before her, hands clasped in obedience. From tomorrow your son too will be a subject and a slave. In these apartments there will be no more honor or joy."

And she stopped, unable for grief to continue. Kaikeyi heard all this and wondered "Why should Manthara have such fears? Does she not know Rama? Is he not dharma embodied in human form?" 

She said: "Manthara, have you not known and rejoiced in Rama's truthfulness, right conduct and humility? He is the elder prince and he gets the kingdom. Bharata will get it one day after him. What is wrong with all this? Why, dear friend, do you feel such grief? After Rama, Bharata will reign for a hundred years. Do not cry. You know how affectionate Rama is to me. Indeed he cares for me more than for his own mother. Does not Rama hold his brothers as dear as life? It is not right that you should fear any harm from Rama." 

"Alas, Alas!" said Manthara. "Why are you so foolish? Once Rama is crowned king, what chance has Bharata? Do you not know the rule of succession? When Rama ascends the throne all prospects of royalty for Bharata and his line are at an end. After Rama, Rama's son will be king, and after him that son's son will be king, and so the succession will go on. Eldest son succeeds eldest son. There is no chance for a younger brother, no matter how good or manly he is. My dear, you know not even this. What is one to do?" 

"Once Rama is crowned," she continued, "he will not leave Bharata alone. There will be danger to Bharata's life. If you want Bharata to live, advise him to remain away, an exile from home; for if he returns he will be coming to his death. It would be safest for him to leave even his uncle's house, and hide his head in obscurity in some more distant land. And Kausalya is no friend of yours. She bears you a grudge because you are the King's favorite and have often slighted her. And now she is sure to wreak vengeance on you. You know the wrath of a rival wife is a raging fire when it finds its chance. You may take it that, if Rama is king, Bharata is as good as dead. Therefore, think hard. Be firm. Decide something and stick to it. Somehow Bharata must be crowned. Rama must be banished from the kingdom."

Fear now entered the heart of the Queen. Manthara won. Kaikeyi's face was flushed; her breath became hot. Helpless she clung to Manthara for comfort and safety. 

Because his first two wives had borne no children, Dasaratha, following the royal custom, married Kaikeyi. At that time Kaikeyi's father secured from Dasaratha the promise that the child of her womb should become king after him. In such a promise given by a childless king there was nothing surprising and nothing wrong. At that time, his then queens had long been childless. The King took a third wife for the sake of progeny. Even then his wish for a son to be born was not fulfilled. Many years passed. 

After the great sacrifice was performed, all three wives bore children. The son of the Queen Eminent, Rama, was the eldest among four sons. He was also great in virtue, fully equal to the burden of Kingship, acceptable to ministers, citizens and vassal princes. How could Dasaratha violate the royal custom and ignoring Rama's claim anoint Bharata? 

Moreover, neither Bharata nor Kaikeyi had ever thought of or wished for the fulfillment of this old and forgotten promise. During all the intervening years, no word had been spoken on this subject. Hence the King thought there could be no difficulty in installing Rama as Yuvaraja in accordance with the custom of the dynasty and public expectation. And there was no cloud in Kaikeyi's mind. This is clear from Kaikeyi's behavior. And Bharata was too noble to raise this question. 

And, yet, as Dasaratha told Rama, even the purest of minds is mutable. When fate conspires with bad counsel, any one of us might be corrupted. And this happened to Kaikeyi. The gods in Heaven had received an assurance, and the sages had performed tapas or the destruction of Ravana. What we call destiny, therefore, ordained that Kaikeyi's pure heart should be changed by Manthara's evil counsel. So says Kamban in the Tamil Ramayana in his own inimitable style. 

Fearing that delay might bring some unpredictable obstacles, Dasaratha had ordered the coronation to be done without waiting for Bharata's return to the capital. This same fear and hurry were used by Manthara to persuade Kaikeyi to take the wrong path. "Think, my Queen. Why this haste? Why does your husband rush through the ceremony when your son is absent? Is it not to cheat him of his right? Is not the motive plain? The King pretends to be enamored of you. But this is only his hypocritical shrewdness." 

Thus tempted, Kaikeyi thought over Manthara's advice. Kaikeyi was weak like any other woman. She had good feeling and good culture, besides a keen intellect. But she had little knowledge of the world. She was also terribly obstinate. Easily deceived, she did not have the power to foresee the full consequences of her action. Thus began the charter of grief in the Ramayana.





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