WIFE OR DEMON? | RAMAYAN

 

14. WIFE OR DEMON?


Dasaratha was thunder-struck. When his mind resumed its function, he doubted the reality of what had happened. "Could it be other than a hideous dream? Or the phantasmagoria of a disordered brain? Or the sudden materialisation of the sins of some past birth called up for my chastisement? I am certainly the victim of an illusion. I cannot believe this to be reality." 

Unable to stand the confused agony of shapeless terrors, he closed his eyes and became unconscious. Opening his eyes a little later, they fell on Kaikeyi and he trembled like a stag at the sight of a tiger. He sat up on the floor and moaned, swaying helplessly this side and that like a cobra held by the spell of a potent charm. Again he swooned. 

After a long interval, be recovered his senses and, with eyes turned to his tormentor and inflamed with helpless anger, cried out: "O wicked ogress! Destroyer of my dynasty! What harm has Rama done to you? Has he not looked upon you as his own mother? I thought you were a woman. I now see you are a venomous serpent brought from far away and cherished in my bosom only to sting me to death!" 

Kaikeyi was unmoved and spoke not a word. 

The King went on: "On what pretext can I banish Rama, whom all the people love and praise? I may lose Kausalya and survive. I may lose the pure-minded Sumitra and survive. But if I lose Rama, I cannot live thereafter. Without water, without sunlight, I may live for a while, but never without Rama. Expel from your mind this sinful thought. With my head bowed at your feet, I beg of you. Have you not said many a time, 'Two dear sons I have. And of them Rama, the elder, is dearer to me'? In deciding to crown Rama, what have I done but carry out in action your unspoken wish? Why then do you demand these cruel boons? No, no, it cannot be really that you mean this. You are only testing me to find out if I indeed love your son Bharata. Do not, through a great sin, destroy our famous line of Kings." 

Even then Kaikeyi spoke no word, but her eyes blazed scornful anger. 

The King continued: "Till this day you have done nothing to cause me sorrow, never spoken an unworthy word. Who has corrupted you now? I cannot believe that this evil thought is your own. How often have you told me, my dear, that, noble as Bharata is, Rama is nobler still? Is it the same Rama that you now want to be sent to the forest? How can he dwell in the forest? How can you even entertain the thought of his going away into the wilderness infested by ferocious beasts? How lovingly has Rama treated you and served you! How can you forget all this and steel your heart and utter the words, 'Send him to the forest'? What fault has he committed? Of the hundreds of women in the palace, has anyone ever uttered a word against his honor or virtue? The whole world loves him for his great and good qualities. How did you alone among so many find cause to dislike him? Is not Rama like Indra himself? Is not his face radiant with goodness and spiritual light like a rishi's? The whole world praises his truthfulness and friendliness, his learning and wisdom, his heroism and humility. No one has heard a harsh word from his lips. How can I, his father, say to him 'Son, go to the forest'? This can never be. Have mercy on me, an old man nearing the end of his days. Kaikeyi, ask for anything else in this kingdom, ask for everything else, and I will give. With folded hands, I beg you, do not send me to Yama. Clinging to your feet I beg you, I beg you humbly, save Rama! Save me from sin!" 

To the King thus struggling in a sea of grief, pitiless Kaikeyi spoke cruel words: 

"King, if having promised the boons you regret it and will be forsworn, what sort of king would you be and what right would you have to speak of satya and dharma? How can you face other kings? Will you shamelessly confess to them, 'Yes, Kaikeyi saved me from death and I gave her a promise. Later, I was sorry I gave it and I broke it'? What else could you tell them? All monarchs will shun you as a disgrace to their order! And common people will laugh in scorn at their rulers and say, 'Kings break promises even when given to their queens. Do not expect kings to keep their word.' Do you not know that Saibya, to redeem the pledge he gave to a bird, cut the very flesh off his bones and gave it away? Have you not heard of Alarka who plucked his eyes out to keep his word? The sea stays within its limits and does not overflow the land, because it feels bound by its agreement. Do not violate your solemn pledge. Follow the path of your royal ancestors. O, I fear that you, their unworthy descendant, will forsake dharma; you will crown Rama and you will dally with Kausalya. What do you care what happens to dharma? What do you care what happens to satya? If you deny me the gifts you promised on oath, I shall this very night drink poison and end my life. You may anoint and install Rama, but before your eyes, O, promise breaker, I shall be dead. This is certain. And I swear it in the name of Bharata. It will be well and good if you fulfil your promise and banish Rama to the forest. Else, I shall end my life." 

With this firm declaration, Kaikeyi stopped. Dasaratha stood speechless, staring at his pitiless wife. Was this lovely creation really Kaikeyi or a demon? Then, like a huge tree felled by a forester with his axe, the King shook and toppled down and lay stretched unconscious on the floor in pitiful ruin. 

Regaining his senses after a while, he spoke in a low voice: "Kaikeyi, who has corrupted your mind to see me dead and our race destroyed? What evil spirit has possessed you and makes you dance in this shameless fashion? Do you really think that Bharata will agree to be king after sending Rama to the forest? He never will, and you know it. Can I possibly bear to tell Rama to go to the forest? Will not the kings of the world despise me, saying, 'This uxorious old dotard has banished his eldest son, the best of men'? Don't you see that they would laugh at me? It is easy enough for you to say 'Send Rama away to the forest,' but can Kausalya or I survive his departure? And have you thought of Janaka's daughter? Would it not kill her to hear that Rama is to go away to the Dandaka forest? Cheated by your face I thought you a woman and took you for my wife. Like a deluded man, tempted by the flavor of poisoned wine, I was lured by your beauty into marrying you. Like a deer ensnared by a hunter, I am caught in your net and perish. Like a drunken Brahmana in the streets I shall be universally despised. What boons have you demanded? Boons that forever will taint the fame of our dynasty with the ignominy of lustful dotage that drove an old fool to the banishment of a beloved and peerless son. If I tell Rama to go to the forest, yes, he will cheerfully obey and go to the forest. Myself and then Kausalya and Sumitra will die. How will you enjoy the kingdom thus secured, O sinful, foolish woman? And will Bharata agree to your plans? If he does agree, he shall not perform my obsequies. O shameless woman, my life's enemy, kill your husband and attain widowhood to enjoy the kingdom with your son. O, how sinful are women and how pitiless! No, no. Only this woman is cruel. Why should I insult other women? What a pity that my Bharata should have this monster for a mother! No, I can never do this. Kaikeyi, I fall at your feet and beg you. Have some pity on me!" 

The King rolled on the ground and writhed in agony. What shall we say of this scene? A great emperor, famous for his long and glorious reign, crying and rolling on the ground, clasping his wife's feet and begging for mercy. It was like Yayati, thrown back to earth when, his accumulated merit exhausted, he was ejected from Swarga. 

No matter how humbly he begged, Kaikeyi was obstinate and said firmly: "You have yourself boasted that you are a truth speaker. But now having sworn before the gods that you have granted a boon, you attempt to retract your promise. If you break your word, I shall surely kill myself and that, will not add greatly to the glory of your dynasty, of which you are so proud!" 

"Very well, then," said Dasaratha. "Let Rama go to the forest and let me die. Having destroyed me and my race, a jubilant widow, you will gain your wish and seek joy in your life!" 

Again, after a while, the old King cried: "What good you will gain by sending Rama to the forest, I fail to see. The only result will be that the whole world will despise you. After many years of prayer and penance, I had Rama by the grace of God. And him I now banish into the forest, I, most wretched of men!" 

Lifting his eyes to the sky, he said: "Oh night! Stay on. For when you pass and day dawns, what shall I do? What shall I say to those eager crowds, who, full of love for Rama, will be awaiting the coronation festivities? O heavens! Stay still for my sake with your stars! No, no. Stay not, for then I must keep looking at this sinful woman. Depart at once, O night, so that I may escape this face." 

Thus delirious and conscious by turns, the poor old man suffered agony, a king who had reigned for sixty thousand years. 

"Pity me, Kaikeyi," he said. "Forget the harsh things I uttered .in anger. I beg you in the name of the love you bore me. You may take it that I have given the kingdom to you. It is yours. And you can give it with your own hands to Rama and see that the coronation goes through. The Raja Sabha has decided and I have announced to the elders and to Rama that his coronation is to take place tomorrow. Let not this announcement become false. Have pity on me. Give the kingdom as you own to Rama. The fame of this magnanimous gift will last as long as the world endures. My wish, the people's wish, the Elders' wish, Bharata's wish, they are all that Rama should be crowned. Do this, my love, my life." Again the King clung to the feet of Kaikeyi. 

But she answered: "Have done with this foolery, see that you do not break your word and drive me to keep mine, and kill myself. It is useless for you to try to evade." 

The King said: "With due rites and in the presence of Fire, I took your hand and called you wife. Here and now I renounce you, and with you the son you bore. Night is gone; the dawn is near and the morning will see not Rama's coronation, but my funeral." Kaikeyi cut him short: "You are prattling vainly. Send at once for Rama. Let him come here. Tell him the kingdom is Bharata's and he should go to the forest. Keep your promise. Do not waste time." 

Dasaratha groaned: "Very well. Let me at last set eyes on Rama's face. My death is near. Let Rama come. Let me see his face before I die. Tied down by dharma this old fool is helpless." 

And again he fell unconscious





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