1. Prelude to the Ayodhyākāṇḍa
Although one can no longer claim with Jacobi’s confidence that in its “original” form the Rāmāyaṇa began with the Ayodhyākāṇḍa,[Note 1] nonetheless, the main narrative of the poem commences in this book. The name of Ayodhyā, the capital city of the ancient state of Kosala in east-central India, is an apposite choice for the title of the section. For in contrast to the other four central books of the epic, where the
action takes place in the unpeopled wilderness (Book Three), the land of the monkeys (Book Four), and the island fortress
of the rākṣasas (Books Five and Six), here the center of interest is the city, where social life reaches its greatest degree of complexity
It was probably not much earlier than the seventh century b.c. that the major urban centers of aryan India came into existence,[Note 2] and yet during the composition of the Rāmāyaṇa in pre-Mauryan times the city had already become the literary focal point of civilized life. Not surprisingly, given the
conditions of their existence, the epic poets were primarily concerned with life as played out in the city. Their interest
embraced both social life — especially the family with its inherent tensions, the responsibilities it imposes on the individual,
and the often conflicting allegiances it exacts — and political life, the “state,” and the powers of the state, which appeared
in their most tangible manifestation in the city. For all the attention they pay it, the village might not have existed for
the epic storytellers. Moreover, as we shall see in the Araṇyakāṇḍa (Book Three), they regarded the “desolate forest” as a zone of mystery, where supernatural forces came into play, yet where
a certain Edenic quality had been preserved, as well.
The contrast — at times tension — between the city and the forest, which was increasingly to command the attention of the
urban poet,[Note 3] becomes palpable, perhaps for the first time in Indian history, here in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. It is with an unmistakable sense of liberation that Rāma will find himself banished from Ayodhyā and its troubles, and declare:
To set one’s eyes on [Mount] Citrakūṭa and the Mandākinī[River], my lovely, is far better than living in the town.[Note 4]
This attitude, partly a function of the innovative world view that we shall discover in the hero, seems also to be symptomatic
of a new urban malaise.[Note 5]
But this opposition remains secondary in the present book. For the most part, Vālmīki directs our attention to the city and its central concerns — those social and political features that are thrown into particularly
high relief in an urban setting. As a consequence, the Ayodhyākāṇḍa is a remarkably human book; the story it tells is realistic and credible, and its subject-matter familiar and immediately
understandable to an audience, village or urban, that would never march with an army of monkeys against a demon fortress.
Although these characteristics distinguish the Ayodhyākāṇḍa from the rest of the Rāmāyaṇa, the book by no means stands isolated from the main concerns of the poem as a whole. Quite the contrary. Because the scene
later shifts beyond the human social order, the issues raised here may become attenuated, but they still remain the fundamental
ones for Vālmīki.
These problems can be formulated through a large comparative generalization. If Homer, for example, addresses a transcendent problem, showing us what makes life finally impossible — in the words of one writer,
“the universality of human doom”[Note 6]— Vālmīki poses the more difficult question: What is it that makes life possible? This is more difficult because it is a social, not
a cosmic question. The answer, as we might anticipate, is complex, raising additional questions that demand resolution: it
is behavior in accordance with dharma, “righteousness,” that alone makes life possible. But what exactly does “righteousness” mean? What are the kinds and limits
of the obligations it imposes? Who is placed under these obligations, and to whom and how are they to be discharged?
Vālmīki, who represents the culmination of an epic tradition, was certainly not the first to explore this problem. On the basis of
all the epic poetry we know, it seems safe to say that “the subtlest of things, dharma,” had figured centrally in the genre from the start. That the interest in this issue was historically vital is demonstrated
by the fact that an emperor of the third century b.c., toward the end of the creative epic period, had the question carved into rock: “Dharma is good. But what does dharma consist of?”[Note 7] Vālmīki, however, subjected the matter to an especially, sustained and profound analysis, and offered a set of answers that has deeply
affected and durably fixed itself in the Indian imagination.
Synopsis of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa
The story opens abruptly. Bharata, the king’s second-eldest son, departs with his younger brother Śatrughna to the north-west land of Kekaya, to visit his maternal family. Rāma meanwhile carries out, on his father’s behalf, the administrative duties of the kingdom, and his unique virtues begin to
manifest themselves to the king, who consequently decides to consecrate him as prince regent. Daśaratha convenes an assembly of vassal kings and leading citizens, declares his resolution, and receives their ceremonial ratification
(sargas 1-2). Rāma is informed of the decision, and then in a private meeting with his father learns that the ceremony is to take place the
following day lest, as Daśaratha points out, Bharata have time to return and contest the succession. The people of Ayodhyā joyfully decorate the town, while the family priest Vasiṣṭha ritually prepares Rāma and Sītā for the ceremony (sargas 3-6).
Bharata’s mother Kaikeyī, meanwhile, learns about the king’s plans from her hunchback servant, Mantharā. At first delighted for Rāma, the queen is gradually convinced by the servant that the coronation poses a serious threat to Bharata. She resolves to secure her own son’s succession and Rāma’s banishment to the wilderness of Daṇḍaka for fourteen years (sargas 7-9). In her meeting with the king that follows, Kaikeyī attempts to realize her objectives by means of two boons Daśaratha had granted her long ago, the terms of which she now formulates in a devious way. Alternately threatening and pleading, the
king in the end finds himself unable to change her mind (sargas 10-12).
Kaikeyī has Rāma summoned, and amid the joyful bustle of preparation for the consecration the prince makes his way to the king’s palace (sargas 13-15). While Daśaratha lies prostrate and speechless with grief. Kaikeyī tells Rāma about the two boons and the demands she had made, and insists on his compliance. He agrees unhesitatingly, assuring her he
will depart the same day (sarga 16). Rāma then leaves to inform his mother Kausalyā of the calamitous reversal of fortune, and both she and his youngest brother Lakṣmaṇa attempt to dissuade him from obeying Kaikeyī. Rāma stands firm in his resolve, and finally Kausalyā gives him her blessing for a safe journey (sargas 17-22). Returning then to his wife Sītā, he breaks the news to her and, though he is at first apparently reluctant, he is finally persuaded to take her along to
the forest (sargas 23-27). He also grants Lakṣmaṇa permission to accompany him into exile (sarga 28). While preparing to leave, Rāma gives away all of his wealth to brahmans, mendicants, and his dependents, and then returns to his father to receive formal
permission to depart (sargas 29-30).
The king at first remonstrates with Rāma, exhorting him to disobey — in fact, to depose him. When that course of action is rejected by Rāma, Daśaratha orders the whole army and treasury of Ayodhyā to accompany his son. But Rāma refuses it all and, dressing in the barkcloth garments of an ascetic, he takes leave of his parents and sets out, now amid
the lamentation of the inhabitants of the city (sargas 31-36). The king desperately wants to follow Rāma, but his ministers prevail upon him to return. Back in the palace, Kausalyā laments and denounces her husband until she is calmed by the sage words of Sumitrā, Lakṣmaṇa mother (sargas 37-39).
Many inhabitants of the city, however, resolutely continue to follow Rāma; on the next morning he deserts them, for their own good, and they return grief-stricken to Ayodhyā (sargas 39-42). Rāma makes his way south to the Ganges river, where he meets his old friend, the tribal chief Guha. After dismissing his charioteer Sumantra, he crosses the river and reaches the abode of Bharadvāja (sargas 42-47). This seer advises Rāma to establish his hermitage on Mount Citrakūṭa, and it is there that Rāma, his wife, and brother finally settle down (sargas 48-50).
On returning to Ayodhyā, Sumantra delivers Rāma’s greetings to the king and queen, and attempts to console the sorrowing parents. Daśaratha and Kausalyā continue to grieve through the day and evening until late at night, when from out of the very depths of his misery, Daśaratha recovers the memory of something that had happened in his youth. He had accidentally killed a young ascetic, and the boy’s
father, a sage, had laid a curse on him that he, too, would end his days in grief for a son. A little after midnight on that,
the sixth night of Rāma’s exile, Daśaratha dies (sargas 51-58).
While the palace and city mourn the death of their king, the ministers, who are reluctant to perform the funeral with no prince
at court, embalm the corpse. After consultation, they determine that the proper course of action is to fetch Bharata (who, after all, is now heir-apparent), in order to install him as king. Envoys are dispatched to the land of Kekaya (sargas 59-62). On the night of their arrival, Bharata has an ominous dream, and returning to the city of Ayodhyā, he learns to his horror of the crimes his mother has perpetrated in his absence (sargas 63-68). After protesting his own innocence to Kausalyā, Bharata performs the funeral rites for Daśaratha (sargas 69-72). The ministers afterward press the kingship upon him, but he adamantly refuses it, vowing instead to have Rāma brought back from the forest (sargas 73-76).
With a vast army Bharata goes out in pursuit of Rāma. Along the way he encounters Guha and Bharadvāja, and allays their suspicions concerning his intentions. At last he reaches Citrakūṭa (sargas 77-87). Rāma, strolling over the mountain, perceives the army of Bharata approaching. Lakṣmaṇa is convinced the expedition is a hostile one, but Rāma calms his fears and meets with Bharata (sargas 88-93). Assuming Bharata now to be king, Rāma interrogates him about his administration, only to learn of Daśaratha’s death. After Rāma performs the funeral rites on his father’s behalf, repeated attempts are made — by Bharata, the minister Jābāli, and the family priest Vasiṣṭha— to persuade Rāma to return and assume the kingship. But it is all to no avail: he is resolved to keep his father’s promise and his own (sargas 94-103). He consents only to give his slippers to Bharata in token of his kingship, and after receiving them Bharata returns home and begins the period of his viceroyalty from the neighboring village of Nandigrāma (sargas 104-107).
Sometime later, the sages among whom Rāma is living decide to quit the hermitage on Mount Citrakūṭa because of repeated attacks of rākṣasas, and soon afterward Rāma departs as well. He heads further south, to the hermitage of Atri. The seer’s wife Anasūyā bestows precious gifts on Sītā, and the princess tells her the story of her marriage to Rāma (sargas 108-110). The hook ends with Rāma, Sītā, and Lakṣmaṇa leaving Atri’s hermitage and entering at last the wilderness of Daṇḍaka.
3. The Central Issues
The meaning and significance of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa will come into focus more readily if we view the story against the background of other ancient Indian epic narratives and
locate those narratives in their historical context.[Note 8] Although the problems addressed by Vālmīki are typical of the epic genre, the manner in which he treats them is markedly innovative. History can suggest why these problems
were addressed by resuscitating for us the crucial importance they once possessed. Just as, according to the first rule of
interpretation, we determine the signification of a word in reference to the words surrounding it, so the literary text can
be viewed as a semantic entity that acquires specific meaning in reference to the “texts” in which it is embedded: the literary
genre, for example, and its historical situation. These are critical procedures the Ayodhyākāṇḍa presses upon us in an unusually insistent manner, though here it is not possible to do more than indicate their application
in a brief and general way.
Indian epics — not only the other great epic, the Mahābhārata, but also the Harivaṃśa and a variety of lesser heroic tales — are admittedly interested in a wide range of issues. In the course of their transmission,
in oral and afterwards in written form, and as a result of their appropriation by brahmanical orthodoxy, a congeries of topics
— mythological, philosophical, religious, and so on — was incorporated into them. But at the root, in the very heart of many
of these epic narratives, can be found a political problem similar to the one with which the Ayodhyākāṇḍa confronts us. This is true, for example, in the Mahābhārata. Here two claimants, Yudhiṣṭhira and Duryodhana, contend for the succession to the Kuru throne. They are related as bhrātṛvya, first cousins in the male line, called also bhrātṛ, which signifies in the first instance “brother,” half- as well as full (Yudhiṣṭhira refers to Duryodhana’s father as pitṛ, “father”). Their contention leads to the division of the kingdom and eventually to the exile of Yudhiṣṭhira. The dispute is finally resolved only by a cataclysmic struggle that spirals out to engulf the entire Indian world, besides
resulting in the extermination of Duryodhana and all his ninety-nine brothers. The Harivaṃśa, on the other hand, tells the story of Kṛṣṇa, the bhrātṛ[Note 9] of the usurping prince Kaṃsa. He is likewise exiled, in a sense, but returns to slay the tyrant and reinstate the deposed ruler, the father of Kaṃsa himself. King Nala, in the Nalopākhyāna, finds his position usurped (by his bhrātṛ) and is driven into exile. In the stories of Yayāti, Śakuntalā, and Devavrata (Bhīṣma), to cite only a few more of the better-known examples, the struggle among “brothers” for succession to the hereditary throne
forms the core problem of the narrative.
It seems, then, that an integral theme of Sanskrit epic literature is kingship itself and its attendant problems: the acquisition,
maintenance, and execution of royal power, the legitimacy of succession, the predicament of transferring hereditary power
within a royal dynasty. We are naturally led to wonder why this question should assume such importance for the Indian epic.
We are not dealing here, as in other epic traditions, with just the heroic deeds of warrior kings, but with the nature and
function of kingship as such: and these questions are not tangentially significant but central to the structure of the epic.
One explanation may be that the problems of kingship addressed so insistently by the epic texts were new ones and, in their
very nature, urgent.
This formative and referential relationship with historical reality that I propose holds true for certain other important
aspects of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, as well. The historical context is a complex one, and no less than the literary text an object of interpretation. But a
couple of major developments and their consequences seem clear and especially relevant.
During the three or four hundred years following the middle vedic age (c. 800 b.c.),[Note 10] a critical period of dynamic transition, fundamental and enduring changes came about in the Indian way of life. Besides the
growth of cities like Ayodhyā and the rise of politically discrete polities like Kosala, the most important social development seems to have been a far more markedly defined hierarchical ordering of society.[Note 11] The pyramidal social organization maintained by institutionalized inequality is now often met with; the assumptions about
it are made clear enough in the Rāmāyaṇa itself:
The kshatriyas accepted the brahmans as their superiors, and the vaishyas were subservient to the kshatriyas. The shudras,
devoted to their proper duty, served the other three classes (varṇas) (1.6.17).
However gross and ideal this schematization might be — whether, indeed, we are here presented with fact or, far more likely,
hope or injunction — seems finally beside the point. It has now become the single paradigm of social relations, an inflexible
hierarchy based on birth.
A second change, more pertinent to our immediate purpose, concerns the extraordinary expansion of the role of the king. Whether
or not it is true that vedic India knew no “institution that we can usefully call kingship,”[Note 12] the nature of monarchy in this period appears unlike anything existing earlier. As the Rāmāyaṇa represents it, the welfare of the “state” — the economic, social, political, and cultural welfare — was now felt to depend
exclusively on the king.[Note 13] Again, the model contained in this representation is of principal interest here, whether it was fully actualized or not —
though it is a fact that the king’s central position in the life of the community was steadily enhanced until, by the end
of the epic period, his power would radiate out to encompass every sphere of social activity.
Political power, moreover, came to be concentrated in royal dynasties as exclusive proprietors. For the first time it became
the conventional practice to transfer the kingship through heredity.[Note 14] This is a significant development because it implies a specific type of control of royal power: even more important, it is
in itself problematic and regarded as such by the epics. Several consequences of hereditary monarchy are continually thrust
upon our attention by their central position in the story of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa; none of them figures significantly in the pre-epic documents.
One such feature is the yauvarājya, “prince regency,” whereby the still-reigning king appoints his successor (as Daśaratha intends to appoint Rāma). It is likely that this type of transfer of power would evolve as a response to the problem of legitimacy within a dynastic
succession,[Note 15] presumably because other, more communal mechanisms for legitimation, such as popular assemblies, are no longer effective
(the assembly in sarga 2 of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa is clearly pro forma). Another feature is intertribal — or what is now really interstate — marriage. Its function is to secure a political alliance
(such as the Kosala– Videha alliance here, or the Kuru–Pañcāla in the Mahābhārata), and that can be done effectively only when high office is transferred within a single dynasty. Closely related to this
is the politically significant practice of rājyaśulka, “the brideprice consisting of the kingship (or kingdom),” which Daśaratha had offered to the king of Kekaya (99.3). Like the marital alliance, this brideprice, a pledge to the woman’s male relations that her son shall succeed to
the throne, would be practicable only when the kingship is proprietarily controlled.[Note 16] Moreover, one must wonder whether there had actually been any clear conception of an exclusive royal dynasty in the vedic
period. We almost never hear of heirs displaced either by rival claimants or because of incompetence,[Note 17] so frequent an occurrence in the epics (as happens to Asamañja, 32.12–20). There seems to be no term for “royal dynasty,” and the common epic word for it, vaṃśa, is not once employed in vedic texts in this signification (we hear only of undifferentiated, nonroyal lineages, gotras). Nor is any major role played by genealogy, which is the principal method of dynastic self-authentication and primogenitural
validation.[Note 18] Thus we have good reason to suppose that the special prominence dynasties and dynastic succession acquire in epic texts is
at least partly the result of major changes in the structure of political power in late vedic times.
One final, and critical, intrinsic problem of kingship remains. The new restricted control of political power entailed a heightened
competition attending its transfer. The process of transferring high office is inherently a perilous one, but the antinomies
involved in hereditary monarchical succession posed the constant threat of the sharpest possible intensification of the process:
the divisive and usually violent dynastic struggle.[Note 19]
If, as most evidence leads us to believe, the genesis of Sanskrit epic literature is to be located in the period that witnessed
these historical changes, then our interpretation of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa may acquire some new points of leverage. Just as we have begun to comprehend how much fiction enters into the writing of
history, so we are beginning to understand how much reality comes to be represented in fiction. The Rāmāyaṇa appears to derive much of its meaning from its intense engagement with the conditions of social and political existence.
A work of fiction it no doubt is, but fiction that in both its genesis and its reference is historically constituted, that
issues from and, in a complicated way, describes, interprets, and evaluates reality. From this perspective it is reasonable
to see in the poem’s preoccupation with kingship responses to unfamiliar and serious political questions. But, though this
is a major concern of the poem, it is not its exclusive concern. Such problems (particularly the “laws” of political succession)
are finally subordinated to and made a pretext for the epic’s larger interests. On this higher level, attention is directed
to broader patterns and expectations of behavior in the social hierarchy that are likewise constituted by historical conditions.
Thus, although these patterns are elaborated on the basis of political problems, they are by no means restricted to that narrow
focus of the narrative.
By its nature, epic seeks to embrace the totality of a society — as Hegel put it, both its “world-outlook” and its “concrete existence.”[Note 20] It is the most social, the most public of literary genres. We should not lose sight of the broader concerns and larger audience
of this poetry, even when, as in India, its selection of “concrete existence” has been conditioned by special factors. The most important of these factors in the
case of the Sanskrit epic is that it was a literature composed by more or less professional poets for the politically dominant
group, the kshatriyas.[Note 21] Although the Rāmāyaṇa was also performed “on the streets and royal highways” of Ayodhyā (Uttarakāṇḍa 84.4), a popular function it has preserved to the present day, its primary and determinate audience, the one that authenticated
and validated the work, was composed of kshatriyas; let us recall that Rāma, the hero of the poem, was also the original auditor (Bālakāṇḍa 4). It is natural that the issues addressed by the epic were those central to the lives of the kshatriyas who patronized
Thus, the genre itself and its primary social context restricted Vālmīki, like his predecessors and contemporaries, to a particular set of themes. But when we compare the Rāmāyaṇa with other examples of epic literature, it seems evident that Vālmīki found the previous treatments deficient not only aesthetically but ethically, as well.
As the Mahābhārata (and Harivaṃśa) makes clear, the early epic tradition had acknowledged, if sometimes reluctantly, only one means for the resolution of political
and dynastic conflict: armed combat. For Vālmīki violence becomes, quite literally, the strategy of the inhuman. Although the position of the monkey prince Sugrīva resembles Rāma’s own in many ways (4.4.19), he forcibly seizes the throne of the monkeys when, with Rāma’s aid, he kills his elder brother, Vālin, who has “abandoned the path of kings” (4.18.12) through “sexual” excess (4.18.18ff.).[Note 22] Here, in Kiṣkindhā, force is explicitly promoted as the only correct means of dealing with infringements of righteousness (4.18.21), and Rāma resolves to employ force as soon as he learns of the circumstances of Sugrīva’s exile (4.4.19). No attempt at peaceful reconciliation is made. In the sixth book, when the banished Vibhīṣaṇa, the younger brother of the demon king Rāvaṇa, takes refuge with Rāma, it is not — or not primarily — an act of disinterested altruism.[Note 23] As Hanumān perceives (6.11.18) — and as Vibhīṣaṇa, in fact, later admits (6.40.18–19) — his defection is prompted in the first instance by his ambition to secure the kingship
of the rākṣasas for himself. Rāma crowns him at once,[Note 24] and repeats the ceremony after he kills Rāvaṇa (100.9ff.), another king who has erred, again through “sexual” immoderation. In Lankā, once more, the struggle for political power among brothers is settled by the sword.
These incidents establish instructive parallels with the events of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. Bharata, too, has the chance to displace his elder brother in dynastic succession, while Rāma himself is dispossessed and driven from his country through a tyrant’s unrighteous conduct (resulting from “sexual” excess).
But the naked violence and unscrupulous political opportunism we encounter in Kiṣkindhā and Lankā are rigorously excluded from the city of Ayodhyā. For civilized society the poet inculcates, by positive precept and negative example, and with a sometimes numbing insistence,
a powerful new code of conduct: hierarchically ordered, unqualified submission.
As we saw at the beginning of the poem, Vālmīki is shown to have developed a new form for his epic,[Note 25] the śloka meter — itself an emotional response to violence and unrighteousness (1.2.13) — as the formal prerequisite for the communication
of his new criticism of social life. In the context of the epic tradition, the ethics he advocates would have been thought
an equally pronounced innovation.
Everyone in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa expects Bharata to mount a struggle for power: Daśaratha (sarga 4), Kausalyā (69), Guha (78), Bharadvāja (84–85), and, of course, Lakṣmaṇa (90). This was the established pattern of behavior. “There is no brotherly love among heroes,” Rāvaṇa is told when urged to take up arms and drive his elder brother Vaiśravaṇa from the throne of Lankā (7.11.12). The Mahābhārata narrates in full the tragic consequences of this principle, which historical kings throughout the period — the young Aśoka, for example — tried to forestall by the summary execution of virtually all possible claimants, elder brothers among them.
For Vālmīki such struggle must be averted at all costs. Bharata himself is the first to agree:
It has always been the custom of our House that the kingship passes to the eldest son. … Rāma, our elder brother, shall be the lord of earth. (73.7–8)
The kingship belongs to that wise prince. … How would a person like me dare seize it from him? How could a son born of Daśaratha usurp the kingship? The kingship, and I myself, belong to Rāma. … Righteous Kākutstha, the eldest son and the best … must obtain the kingship just as Daśaratha did. The other course is an evil one, followed only by ignoble men, and leading to hell.[Note 26] Were I to take it I should become a blot on the House of the Ikṣvākus in the eyes of all the world. (76.10–13)
And the way to obviate this deadly antagonism is by the doctrine of unqualified submission of the younger to the elder brother:
The way of righteousness good people follow in the world is just this: submission to the will of one’s elders [here, elder
Analogously, Rāma is urged to seize the throne of Kosala. Lakṣmaṇa (sargas 18 and 20; cf. Śatrughna’s words in 72.3–4) and Daśaratha himself (31.23) exhort him to do so, with the kinds of arguments that might have been adduced in the many actual instances
of usurpation occurring in this epoch and afterwards — as in the case of Ajātaśatru (himself both a parricide and a victim of parricide), or, in the ruling house of Kosala itself, Viḍūḍubha. For Vālmīki, the forceful seizure of power and the bloodshed that, as the Harivaṃśa shows, it inevitably brings in its train, must likewise be prohibited. And again the means is unqualified submission, now
to one’s father:
And righteousness is this … : submission to one’s mother and father. … My father keeps to the path of righteousness and truth,
and I wish to act just as he instructs me. This is the eternal way of righteousness. (27.29–30)
The Mahābhārata is no doubt sensitive to the desperate dilemma of living made possible only through killing. But its interrogations are indecisive;
it can conceive of no solution except the final one in heaven. Political violence is no less necessary for its impossibility.
That the fratricidal doctrine is so often and positively enunciated and defended in the Mahābhārata suggests that for this and other epic stories, as for the historical kings of ancient India, the acquisition and retention of political power ultimately if tragically superceded all other concerns. We shall later
have an opportunity to appreciate how starkly the Rāmāyaṇa differs in this regard from the Mahābhārata when we juxtapose Rāma’s attitudes to those of Kṛṣṇa.[Note 27] Here it is enough to remark that Vālmīki altogether inverts the priorities both literature and history had valorized, asking incredulously,
How, after all, could a son kill his father, whatever the extremity, or a brother his brother, Saumitri, his very own breath of life? (91.6)
The question contains less rhetoric than admonition and instruction; and “just as you do not legislate against things nobody
does,” as one recent writer puts it, “so also no one needs to teach what everybody knows.”[Note 28]
Viewing the poem against such a literary and historical background, and keeping in mind its primary audience, we can appreciate
more fully the significance and urgency of its contribution: the moral injunctions it seeks to place at the center of political
life. The code of behavior Vālmīki prescribes in this context has a practical as well as an ethical dimension. If hereditary power could not be transferred
smoothly, the consequences could be disastrous: the fragmentation of the state among rival claimants, or a dangerous interregnum
entailing pressures for redistribution of power and liability to external attack.[Note 29] The Ayodhyākāṇḍa seeks to solve this dilemma (one that may, in fact, be insoluble) by prescribing a pattern of behavior consonant with the
demands of political order. Whatever the rival claims among the heirs themselves or of a single heir against the king, submission
to the hierarchy — younger to elder prince, eldest prince to king — is essential, for only in this way is it possible to arrest
the tendency in hereditary kingship toward ruinous fragmentation.
In addition to this practical vocation, the ethics represents a new and hopeful humanism in the realm of political behavior.
Violence is brutality in the radical sense of the word, and belongs to the subhuman world of monkeys and demons; it is no
longer to be regarded as a way of resolving social conflict. In this regard we may agree that the Rāmāyaṇa constitutes the first literary attempt in India to “moralize” the exercise of political power.[Note 30]
Yet much of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa will remain unaccounted for if we restrict our analysis to this level of practical and ethical instruction designed for a
kshatriya audience. Indeed, the larger audience of the epic might naturally be expected to extrapolate the narrative beyond
the princely relationships and what is, after all, a remote struggle for dynastic control. The poem itself, however, urges
us to penetrate the surface discourse to another set of references embedded in it. By both its explicit injunctions and the
implications of its structure, the Ayodhyākāṇḍa invites and, in fact, has always been subject to wide social extension. “One must behave like Rāma” is the later proverbial formulation (one that was to receive encouragement from the kings of medieval India, who endowed public recitations of the epic).[Note 31] For Rāma represents a comprehensive model of behavior, enacting in particular two roles that encompass communal life in its totality.
After Rāma’s banishment Kausalyā exclaims to Daśaratha:
If only Rāma could have lived at home though it meant his begging in the city streets! You had the freedom to grant such a boon, which
at the worst had made my son a slave. (38.4)
The verse directs our attention to an important aspect of Rāma’s status: his absolute heteronomy. The status of junior members of the Indian household was, historically, not very dissimilar
to that of slaves (as was also the case in ancient Rome), both with respect to the father and, again, hierarchically among themselves. The image of Rāma’s bondage is enhanced by the fact that he is obliged to pay a debt that devolves upon him with the death of his father (104.6).
More generally, like the slave, Rāma is “not his own master, he is subordinate to others and cannot go where he wishes,” as an early Buddhist text defines the
condition of slavery.[Note 32]
On this level of signification, where Rāma’s position is one of unqualified subservience to the will of his master, the relations that had come to characterize the
social formation in general can be understood. As Lakṣmaṇa and Bharata submit to Rāma (“I am your servant,” says Lakṣmaṇa to Rāma, 20.35; “I am your slave;” says Bharata, 97.12), and as Rāma himself submits and suffers (“the king [my] master is exercising his authority over … me,” 21.17), so all the orders of society
are to recognize and observe the strict boundaries of hierarchical existence. This is not something the poet is content merely
to suggest. It is explicitly enunciated: “as I myself have shown you,” Rāma tells the people of Ayodhyā, explaining the example he is setting, “you must obey your master’s order” (40.9). Rāma’s behavior is a paradigm to which all subordinates must conform. Where his status might seem to be different is in his apparent
freedom to choose to obey. But this freedom is illusory, conjured by the poet only to dismiss it; it is precisely such freedom
that Rāma himself denies: “It is not within my power to defy my father’s bidding” (18.26); “I cannot disobey my father’s injunction”
(18.35). He acts, in fact, as if he had no choice, without deliberation, “without questioning my father’s word” (16.37).[Note 33] His obedience as unreflective action holds as much interest for the poet as its justification — indeed more, for the latter
is consistently minimized.
On another socially symbolic level, where Rāma’s filial relationship with the king is brought into prominence, the relations obtaining in the political organization at
large are grasped. According to the paternalistic formulation of the text, the people are the prajāḥ, the “children,” of the king. The institutionalization of dependency and loyalty would appear to be a major precondition
for the centralization of power;[Note 34] a basic problem, especially in the period of consolidation, is how to incorporate and manage the more traditional local allegiances.
The mediating expression of a higher yet recognizable unity, the broadly integrating and richly allusive image of the state
as family and the king as father would do this effectively — perhaps even more effectively than the ascription of divine status
to the king (which, as we shall see in Book Three, likewise plays a significant role in the ideology of the poem). For the
king comes to represent a superior kinship bond, drawing on and incorporating the symbolic power of those that had previously
been dominant. The deeper resonances of “father” in the following verses would have been perceptible to any Indian audience
“on the streets and highways of Ayodhyā”:
There is no greater act of righteousness than this: obedience to one’s father and doing as he bids. (16.48)
It is this that is my duty on earth, and I cannot shirk it. Besides, no one who does his father’s bidding ever comes to grief.
Thus the ideological dimension of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa comprises two principal components. Actual relations of subordination, on the one hand, and the identification of “state”
and more localized political interests, on the other, can no longer be recognized as having a determinate and historical character;
the one is now in every sense natural and inevitable; the other, an inextricable genetic bond. Social subordination and political
domination now become “the eternal way of righteousness” and the ultimate horizon of possibility for human life. They thus
acquire a heightened value, which in turn promotes their continuous reproduction.
It should come as no surprise to the reader of Spenser or Milton to find, as we do on our first level of signification, an extension of a private ethics into a public context,[Note 35] a grounding of political success on moral success, and an embodiment of these concerns, with self-conscious didactic purpose,
in epic poetry. In Vālmīki, however, no screen of allegory or allusion is interposed between the literary text and the political “subtext.” The latter
has a less ambiguous presence and is permitted a greater degree of transparency than most Western literature has prepared
us to expect.[Note 36] Similarly and more importantly, on the second level, the actual formulations of the larger social and political reality and
its fictional representation — the literary and “general” ideological discourses — are more simply and directly related than
we are accustomed to finding.[Note 37] They seem, in fact, to be fused into virtually total congruence, and they are enunciated with all the force and authority
of a commandment of śāstra— precisely what the Rāmāyaṇa came later to be considered.
What external evidence substantiates the claim that the Ayodhyākāṇḍa incorporates such a “general ideological discourse”? Here we find ourselves in a more favorable position than that of students
of many other oral epic traditions. The inscriptions of Aśoka (mid-third century b.c.) furnish an instructive historical analogue for the Rāmāyaṇa. The perspectives and attitudes, almost the very formulations that we find in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, were also those of the king who consolidated and ruled the first great Indian empire:
How might the people be made to advance in dharma? … This thought occurred to me: I shall have messages about dharma proclaimed.
It is the supreme duty of the king to instruct people in dharma.
Vālmīki’s chronological relationship with the Mauryan king is problematical. But this should not conceal the essential and intriguing
fact that so similar a discourse should come to be intimately shared. Whether it permits us to draw conclusions about the
poem’s “genetic” history, or restricts us to its “effective” history, in either case this fact invites us all the more readily
to situate the ideological dimension of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa in the world of actual social experience.
4. A Problem of Narrative and Its Significance
When we speak of “Vālmīki,” we are using the name as a convenient, shorthand way of referring to the composer of the monumental Rāmāyaṇa, which we have before us in the critically edited text. But we should bear in mind that this text is only the middle point
of a poem in progress: we know that it continued to be amplified even after Vālmīki fixed the essential contours of the work; similarly, the monumental poem was itself not the beginning of the tradition, but
a major synthesis of antecedent elements.[Note 38] We would not expect such a synthesis to be seamless, but rather to show traces of elaboration or re-working.
The Rāmāyaṇa does contain such traces, which reveal themselves in the occasional discrepancies and inconsistencies of the narrative. We
are surprised, for example, to find that the hero has such a superfluity of magical weapons — in fact, four different sets;[Note 39] that now Sumitrā, now Kaikeyī, is the “middle mother” among the three (note on 18.22); that Sītā at one point is said to be wearing jewelry, then not wearing it, then again wearing it (34.17, 54.16, 82.13); that Rāma is shown to be crushed with grief at the news of his father’s death (95.8ff.), and then described as one who is never “affected
by sorrow, however insufferable” (99.45; see note to 99.15 and, more generally, note to 28.12-13). But, like the constitution
of the embassy to Achilles or the death and later reappearance of the warrior Pylaimenes in the “Iliad”, such lapses are really trivial. There are, however, more instructive remnants of a premonumental version of the Rāmāyaṇa that do not appear to derive, like those, from poorly conflated traditions, imperfect transmission, the “inconsultability”
of an oral text, or a faulty memory. Nor are they simple matters of formulaic amplification or thematic accretion. They may
be seen, though with some caution, as revisions. They affect certain structural features of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, and stand out as knots in the otherwise closely woven narrative of the book.
By analyzing some of these remnants, we can try both to clarify a troublesome obscurity in the story and, in a more speculative
way, to suggest how the narrative could have been adjusted by the monumental poet to serve his larger objectives.
Bharata’s claim to the throne of Kosala, as the early chapters of our Ayodhyākāṇḍa present it, has an unsteady foundation. His mother Kaikeyī, we are told, once received two boons — the fulfilment of two wishes — from Daśaratha in gratitude for her somehow having saved him at a battle “when the gods and asuras were at war” (9.9-13). On the eve of Rāma’s consecration as prince regent she claims her boons, demanding with one that her own son be made king, and with the other
that Rāma be exiled (sarga 10).
There is no question that the theme of the two boons belongs to the monumental poem of “Vālmīki.” The textual evidence for 9.9ff. is sufficient to guarantee its authenticity. Yet, on the face of it, the story Mantharā tells Kaikeyī has an unusually contrived appearance:
When the gods and asuras were at war, your husband went with the royal seers to lend assistance to the king of the gods, and he took you along. …
In the great battle that followed, King Daśaratha was struck unconscious, and you, my lady, conveyed him out of battle. But there, too, your husband was wounded by weapons,
and once again you saved him, my lovely. And so in his gratitude he granted you two boons. (9.9-13)
The presence of a queen at a battle is extraordinary and virtually unparalleled in Sanskrit literature. The later manuscript
tradition of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa evidently felt further explanation to be in order. It attempts to supply this by attributing some “magical knowledge” to
Kaikeyī (see notes to 9.27 and 10.25), though that hardly suffices. Later adaptations of the Rāmāyaṇa are similarly troubled, but can do no more than replace the story with one still more improbable: Kaikeyī’s service was to have held together the broken axle of Daśaratha’s chariot.[Note 40] All of this points to the adventitious, secondary character of the incident. It is like a makeshift part with no integral
position in the structure of the story, which the tradition felt free or obliged to tinker with until it could be made to
A close reading of sargas 9-10 reinforces this impression and strongly suggests that originally the two boons played no part in the scene. Kaikeyī has oddly forgotten about the boons, and even when reminded (9.14) she does not simply claim them as her clue. Instead she
is told, “recognize the power of your beauty” (9.19), and “when the great king Rāghava… offers you a boon, then you must ask him for this one, first making sure he swears to it” (9.22). In sarga 10, Daśaratha tries to mollify his angry wife: “I will do what will make you happy, I swear to you” (10.19), to which Kaikeyī directly replies. “Let the … gods … hear how you in due order swear an oath and grant me a boon. This mighty king … in full
awareness grants me a boon — let the deities give ear to this for me” (10.21, 24). The queen thus “ensnared” the king, “who
in his mad passion had granted her a boon” (10.25). With a quite casual indifference to the logic of the narrative, the text
here continues, “I will now claim the two boons you once granted me” (10.26). Vālmīki clearly wanted to preserve the scene that originally, one would infer, must have shown Kaikeyī trick Daśaratha into offering, now for the first time, a single boon, to be used to exile Rāma.[Note 41] For the poet can thus impugn her claim to the kingship for her son, transforming it into a deception when in truth it had
been nothing of the sort.
Early in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa we are shown how Daśaratha fears the presence of Bharata and insists on holding the royal consecration while the prince is absent front the city (4.25-27). His motive is not merely
to avoid the dispute which, given the problematic character of succession, a younger brother might be expected to raise. As
Daśaratha knew, Bharata had a legitimate title to the throne, for near the end of the book we learn how the aged king, in order to gain the hand
of the beautiful princess of Kekaya, had agreed to pay the highest brideprice. This was the rājyaśulka, a promise to the woman’s male kin that her son shall succeed to the throne — a decision of major political significance.
“Long ago, dear brother,” Rāma explains to Bharata, “when our father was about to marry your mother, he made a brideprice pledge to your grandfather — the ultimate price, the
kingship” (99.3). In the premonumental version, the armature of which is still visible here, it would have been on the basis
of this pledge that Kaikeyī raised the legitimate demand that her son be crowned. This inference is corroborated by testimony from outside the Rāmāyaṇa tradition, namely, in the work of the first-century Buddhist poet, Aśvaghoṣa.[Note 42]
Why, we must now ask, did Vālmīki revise the story, introducing the two boons and attempting to minimize, if not eliminate altogether, the rājyaśulka, at some cost in narrative coherence? Several answers suggest themselves.
First, the revision enables the poet to preserve the honesty and integrity of Daśaratha. The king is no longer endeavoring to repudiate his marriage pledge by a calculated and opportunistic political maneuver.
On the contrary, he is now keeping his word to fulfill two promises given as a noble gesture of gratitude, however deceitfully
and cruelly the terms of both of them were formulated by Kaikeyī. This would then be yet another in a series of attempts at idealizing the story that we find in the Rāmāyaṇa tradition. Just as, for instance, the later tradition will exculpate Kaikeyī by turning her slave Mantharā into an agent of the gods and making a divine virtue of her vicious ambition; just as it will maintain the chastity of Sītā by having Rāvaṇa abduct not the real princess but a magically enlivened simulacrum of her,[Note 43] so already in the monumental version Daśaratha is to a large extent freed from guilt. He is transformed from an object of reproach into one worthy if not of admiration
at least of commiseration. The necessity of this idealization from the political and ethical point of view is suggested in
the Ayodhyākāṇḍa itself:
Subjects will behave just like their king. The actions of a king must always be truthful and benevolent. The kingdom will
thereby be true, the world firmly established on truth. (101.9-10)
And more pointedly by a verse in the Mahābhārata:
A king must be an example to his people. If he lie let him be destroyed. In whatever the plight he finds himself, a king must
never deceive. (1.77.18)
Second, a considerable intensification in the dramatic action has been achieved by the alteration. Like Shakespeare in adapting his sources for, say, “Macbeth” or “Othello”, Vālmīki may have chosen for aesthetic reasons to redirect the emphasis of his plot, diminishing such external factors as had hitherto
been prominent (the marriage agreement) while magnifying the more personal motivation of the hero. How different the book
would have been, to paraphrase the words of the Shakespearean critic, had the poet dwelt more on the reasons for Rāma’s going into exile than on the reasons for his not going.[Note 44]
Another explanation, similar to but more consequential than the last, is that, by amalgamating into a single act of Kaikeyī’s perversity Rāma’s dethronement and exile, the revision allows the poet to reinforce the principal didactic thrust of the book. For Rāma no longer abdicates the kingship and submits to his elders merely in recognition of the just claims of a contractual agreement
(as in the version alluded to by Aśvaghoṣa, and like Bhīṣma in the Mahābhārata, whose father had made the identical pledge), nor does a deus ex machina demand compliance by asserting the validity of the agreement (as in the not dissimilar circumstances of the Śakuntalā story). He submits, instead, in the face of what is presented as a grave injustice — the unfounded, capricious, and selfish
demand, indeed the deception (as Rāma sees, 21.8) of a junior wife. He submits in the face of repeated protestations of its injustice by all his loved ones, including
his father and spiritual preceptor. The moral code exemplified in Bharata’s self-abnegation before his elder brother, an innovation in political ethics already present, presumably, from the beginning
of the Rāma legend, is effectively recapitulated by the hero’s obedience to the word of his parents, regardless of the mendacity, unjustness,
and avarice underlying it.
One wonders, then, why the later passage about the marriage pledge was retained, despite the serious inconsistency it presses
upon our attention. Is it a simple question of the natural conservatism of oral poetry, or a function of its “inconsultability”?
I think not. A closer scrutiny here discovers a basic and unresolvable problem in the argument of the poem. Later in the book
Rāma must know of and reveal the agreement in order to justify his obdurate refusal to acquiesce in the pleas of his brother,
his spiritual preceptor, and his people, and to fortify a position that appears increasingly untenable (for the argument is
finally and forcefully made that what Daśaratha did was mad, “done in delusion”; it was “sinful, contrary to all that is right and good,” he did it “just to please a woman,”
and thus Rāma is urged to save his father “from sin,” 98.50-55, 66). Yet he cannot have known of the pledge if he is to have a tenable
position at all: had he been aware of it in the early chapters of the book, he would then have been directly implicated in
precisely the fraud he is so determined to avoid.[Note 45] In much the same way, Rāma will later repeatedly justify his behavior by asserting that he must “obey his father’s order.” But nowhere in the book does
Daśaratha issue any such order, nor even explicitly grant Kaikeyī’s demands. At every crucial juncture where he might do so, he faints or remains speechless; at times we see the poet struggling
to eliminate any suggestion of Daśaratha’s involvement.[Note 46]
We may have some reason to conclude that what Vālmīki found essential to underscore later in the story (the brideprice, the order) he found equally essential to bracket provisionally
in the earlier portion. A direct royal order for banishment, which is a judicial punishment exacted only for the gravest offenses
(cf. 66.37-38), would unavoidably have called into question the righteousness of the king and so the ultimate basis of his
authority — a question now only rhetorically put, when not altogether suppressed. The same holds true, as we saw, if the brideprice
had earlier been accorded the prominence it merits in the narrative. We are left to infer that these loose ends had to remain
loose if the foundation of Rāma’s obedience was to be secure. It is, once again, the necessity of obedience that the poem desires to emphasize, rather than
the quality of the authority demanding it.
It may still be objected that this interpretation of the dramatic and didactic reasons behind the revision of the boon-motif
shows an insensitivity to certain tensions and nuances within the poem. Doesn’t Vālmīki himself actually demur before his hero’s sacrifice? Indeed, the price of that sacrifice is deliberately shown to be high
— maybe, by that very fact, too high for us to believe it to have been justified in the eyes of the poet. What are its consequences?
Rāma’s mother is left in a state of abject misery. His young wife and brother are to be exposed to the harshest trials. The city,
whose protection should be Rāma’s chief concern, is left without a king, as he would have anticipated, knowing that Bharata would never acquiesce in the fraud. The people are overpowered by their grief and desert Ayodhyā en masse to live out the period of his exile in the village of Nandigrāma. Last, and crucially, it is in part his very compliance that kills the man whose word he set out to make good. What results
from Rāma’s submission is despair, sorrow, and death. Can it be claimed that the poet means to endorse this, and not suggest by the
crescendo of misery the need for reason to temper an obedience that might, in the end, destroy its own object?
These are considerable tensions, more easily exposed than resolved, which raise some delicate problems of the historical relativity
of cultural meaning. They may exist for us, but have we sufficient reason to believe they existed for the poet and his audience?
The suffering brought about by the hero’s sacrifice may be meant precisely to enhance its grandeur, not call it into question.
Friction, severe friction, is necessary if heroic resolution is to keep its radiance and not fade into a common dullness.
Rāma is aware of the suffering (47.19ff., for example, or 95.13), but he is never swayed from his purpose. He knows the price
and is willing to pay it; the more he must pay the more precious the act becomes. And who is to gauge, for a work like an
ancient Indian epic, the degree of suffering beyond which the value of a heroic act begins to depreciate? Finally, and most
important, we must bear in mind that there was thought to exist no integral or causal relation between the sacrifice and the
suffering. As the poem itself so often stresses, to have suffered was ineluctable.
5. The Philosophy
Obedience and the suppression of the individual will are not self-validating moral imperatives. On the contrary, the individual
resists his abnegation, and empirical arguments to justify his sacrifice will necessarily fall short. The surest philosophical
foundation would be provided by some transcendent authority that obviates the possibility of verification: a metaphysical
category, a nontestable axiom. One function of the profound fatalism in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, it would seem, is to supply this authority.
It has long been recognized that fate plays a central role in much epic poetry, but considerable variation in the role can
be discerned among the different traditions.[Note 47] Achilles may be doomed to choose between a short life of heroic glory and a long but obscure existence; nevertheless, the choice is
his and he knows it. The characters of the Rāmāyaṇa believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; what happens to them may be the result of “their” own doing, but they
do not understand how this is so and consequently can exercise no control. This essential difference implies another, equally
weighty. Since the Greek hero in large measure makes and is aware of making his own fate, fate carries with it a substantial
element of justice.[Note 48] The fate of Rāma and the others is prepared for them, at some plane beyond their intervention or even comprehension. “Justice” never enters
the picture in any demonstrable or even cognizable way. Further, since in the archaic Greek world fate has both a cosmic dimension
and an aspect of justice, the gods can guarantee the whole process as guardians of a just and moral order. Significantly,
the gods play no role whatever in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. There is a mechanical quality to the course of human affairs, regulated only by some “dark, dumb force that turns the handle
of this world.” (The component of theodicy would, however, be affixed to the story at this point by the later Rāmāyaṇa tradition and elaborated in the medieval scholiastic allegories.)
In the Ayodhyākāṇḍa man is prohibited from making his destiny, and cannot truly comprehend the cause of his suffering. His predicament results
from and is perpetuated by something entirely beyond his control. Fate — daiva, “what comes from the gods”; kāla, “time”; adṛṣṭa, “the unforeseeable”; kṛtānta, “doom” or “destiny” — is something one cannot understand and against which one cannot struggle:
It is nothing but destiny, Saumitri, that we must see at work in my exile. … For why should Kaikeyī be so determined to harm me, were this intention of hers not fated and ordained by destiny? (19.13-14)
What cannot be explained must surely be fate, which clearly no creature can resist; for how complete the reversal that has
befallen her and me. What man has the power to contest his fate, Saumitri, when one cannot perceive it at all except from its effect? Happiness and sadness, fear and anger, gain and loss, birth and
death — all things such as these must surely be the effect of fate. (19.18-20)
Rāma has no choice, as we saw; no one does. Choice is replaced by chance, and action is nothing more than reaction.
If the possibility of verification is obviated, the need for it cannot be denied. The doubts and hesitations in the face of
so paralyzing an axiom are not suppressed; Lakṣmaṇa throughout much of the epic and the minister Jābāli in sarga 100 of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa are permitted to express them. They urge the antithetical position: reliance on puruṣakāra, “human effort,” “free will”:[Note 49]
For it is only the weak and cowardly who submit to fate; heroic men, strong of heart, do not humble themselves before fate.
A man able to counter fate with manly effort does not give up for all that fate may frustrate his purposes. (20.11-12)
But these characters are only foils, supplying a pretext for Rāma to advance his uncompromising position. His own convictions are never affected.[Note 50]
Besides generally underpinning the action of the story, this fatalism takes on, in the recurrent appeal to karma, a more specific shape. Though the word karma seems not to be used in so technical a sense in the Rāmāyaṇa,[Note 51] the belief is clearly present that there exists a latent and unfailing mechanism of retributive justice for transgressions
committed in the past, usually in a former life.[Note 52] No other explanation is ever available to the characters in the midst of their suffering. Without this, their suffering must
It must be, I guess, that in the past I injured many living things or made many childless; that must he why such a thing has
happened to me. (Daśaratha, 34.4)
I guess, my mighty husband, yes, it must no doubt be that once upon a time, when calves were thirsting to drink, I ruthlessly
hacked off the udders of the cows, their mothers. And so now … I who love my child so have been made childless by Kaikeyī. (Kausalyā, 38.16-17)
The cause of sorrow is hidden in a vast obscurity that effectively renders hopeless any attempt to remedy it — or to have
prevented it. Only once is the connection ever perceived (by Daśaratha, sargas 57-58) between a specific deed and its grievous consequences, which might serve to clarify the mechanism, to explain or
justify suffering. But as we shall see, Daśaratha’s deed was accidental; the inscrutability of retribution is only intensified.
6. Aesthetic and Literary-Historical Considerations
Although the Rāmāyaṇa, in the form we have it, must represent the culmination of a long bardic tradition of heroic song, the poem is more easily
considered as the first chapter in a new volume of Indian literary history than as the last of an old one. As the Ayodhyākāṇḍa well illustrates, little in antecedent literature can be brought to bear to situate the Rāmāyaṇa in a literary-historical continuum, and even less that prefigures its formal character.
The Ayodhyākāṇḍa does not in any consistent way presuppose the earlier sacred literary tradition. Though many stray allusions can be found
(at one point a yajurmantra is quoted, at another a well-known ṛkśloka),[Note 53] these are by and large oblique and sparse. One intriguing, if minor, exception is the poet’s use of the Taittirīya corpus.[Note 54] The Taittirīya Saṃhitā is virtually cited once (85.42), and it is probable that the Brāhmaṇa and later texts of the school are alluded to in at least four other places, which lends credence to the tradition associating
Vālmīki with this branch of vedic learning.[Note 55] With respect to the law-books, the situation is similar. Although parallels with many extant dharmaśāstras are not uncommon, no particular one appears to inform the Ayodhyākāṇḍa; the Manusmṛti tradition seems, however, to have particular affinities with it.[Note 56]
I do not think it can be questioned that the monumental pout adopted certain motifs from folk literature as we find it represented
in the Buddhist jātakas. The Sāma Jātaka (#540), for example. is closely related to sargas 57-58 and represents, as I shall argue, the prototype for that apparently rather late stratum of the text. Similarly, the
tradition of Rāmapaṇḍita, “The Wise Rāma,” which is preserved in the gāthās of the Dasaratha Jātaka (#461), seems to have been adapted in Ayodhyākāṇḍa 98.15ff., where it is tacked onto the narrative.[Note 57] By contrast, several jātakas presuppose the Rāma legend in broad outline, and perhaps even the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa itself.[Note 58] The Jayadissa Jātaka (#513) is a case in point. One gāthā found in it refers explicitly to the events — minor events after all — narrated in sarga 22 of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa:
As Rāma’s mother made her prayers for him when he was about to leave for Daṇḍaka wilderness, so I make my prayers for you …[Note 59]
The vast body of early Indian legend and myth is only occasionally narrated or adumbrated, and then only in two contexts.[Note 60] One is the rhetorical figure, where mythical allusions are quite common, but serve only to elevate the tenor of the figure
by supplying a point of paradigmatic and nonspecific reference.[Note 61] The second is the appeal to mytho-historical precedent, as when Kaikeyī cites the stories of King Śibi and others to show that Daśaratha must keep his promise, whatever the cost (sarga 12). Several of the stories contain archaic features, testifying to an origin antedating the rise of Vaishnava syncretism.[Note 62] There are also a few rather obscure tales that, as Vālmīki’s passing references imply, must have been well known. But they remain obscure, for there are apparently no surviving versions
elsewhere in Indian literature.[Note 63]
The complicated issue of the relationship between the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, sketched in the General Introduction (in Volume 1), will not be simplified by a detailed analysis of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. The evidence of the present book obliges us to regard the two epics as more or less co-extensive and to a high degree interactive
traditions. We have already seen that the intractable problem of dynastic power lies at the heart of both. But there is a
deeper structural affinity between them, and it emerges nowhere more dramatically than in their second books.
The Ayodhyākāṇḍa and the Sabhāparvan[Note 64] follow an almost identical narrative pattern; their congruence is astonishing and quite involved. Both constitute the true
commencement of their respective stories. All the action that follows depends directly on what happens here, just as everything
that precedes serves no other function than to prepare this site. The problem of royal power is brought abruptly into sharp
focus. Yudhiṣṭhira’s claim to sovereignty, though ostensibly vaster than Rāma’s, rests on a similar legitimacy of primogenitural succession,[Note 65] and is asserted, as in the case of Rāma, by the decision to perform the royal consecration. This decision is likewise a provocation that evokes immediate and open
opposition in the party of a rival claimant (a “brother”). It is the rival’s maternal kin that promotes the opposition, and
the means resorted to is comparable: the deception on the part of Bharata’s mother finds its parallel in the trickery (at dicing) of Duryodhana’s maternal uncle Śakuni. Like Kaikeyī, Śakuni aims at securing a long exile for his opponent so that in the interval Duryodhana can “sink deep roots” in the kingdom (MBh 2.66.22; cf. Rām 2.9.25). As in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, the only voice of authority able to check the course of the tragic events, that of the aged king, is silenced by a weakness
born of reckless affection (Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s for his son Duryodhana parallels Daśaratha’s for Kaikeyī; both kings, incidentally, justify themselves on the grounds of fatalism, MBh 2.45.57, 51.15, etc.; cf. Rām 2.34.4, 53.17). Like Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira acts out of obedience to his “father’s” order (MBh 2.52.15, 18); like Lakṣmaṇa, the prince’s brothers exhort him to armed resistance (MBh 3.28-34), only to receive a response similar to Rāma’s: Yudhiṣṭhira gave his word (at the time of the dicing, MBh 2.35.11, 14, 21); and so on.[Note 66]
Although this isomorphism is remarkable and merits more detailed exploration, the disagreements are equally significant and
instructive. A difference of vision, first, seems to be inscribed in the very names of the books, as it is in the texts throughout.
There is a keen awareness of the broad social impact of political behavior, and consequently an exemplary figuration to it,
in the “City of Ayodhyā,” which is missing in the story of the idiosyncratic, at times erratic, conduct of the leaders who sit in closed session
in the “Assembly Hall.” Like Rāma, Yudhiṣṭhira is a victim of treachery and deceit, but he is in large measure also a victim of his own moral vacillation, lack of judgment,
and ambition — characteristics that adhere to him throughout the poem, and that he himself recognizes.[Note 67] He feverishly gambles for the crown that Rāma abandons with indifference; to put it another way, he confronts (and will be ruined by) the insoluble dilemma of the political
problem transcended and so annulled by Rāma.
Bharata’s temperamental distance from any participation in the political struggle finds an objective correlative in his removal from
Ayodhyā to the land of the Kekaya s. Duryodhana, by contrast, remains present all the while; his “humiliation” at the hands of the Pāṇḍavas (MBh 2.43) is the correlative of his clear recognition of, and sharp emotional response to their political challenge. Bharata’s horror at learning of his mother’s intrigues and his frantic attempt to conciliate and reinstate his brother stand in irreducible
opposition to Duryodhana’s collusion at every step of the plot and his final exultation.
Finally, although the injustice surrounding the hero’s exile is similar in the two books, in the Mahābhārata it is no pretext for brotherly submission. On the contrary, injustice is magnified into atrocity, which can only be cleansed
in the blood of kinsmen. The symbolic focus of fratricidal conflict is the heroes’ wife, Draupaḍī. The sexual outrages Duryodhana and the others commit against her in the Sabhāparvan call forth vengeful threats on the part of the Pāṇḍavas, and it is toward the fulfillment of these threats in the extermination of their “brothers” that all the remaining action
of the poem inexorably moves. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Sītā functions as a comparable symbolic focal point, but its location is shifted. A sexual outrage is similarly perpetrated (Rāvaṇa’s rape), but this will occur outside the assembly hall: it is, so to speak, strategically isolated in the forest, whereby
its political charge is defused.[Note 68]
The structural congruence of the two books thus seems to point to a more fundamental relationship between the epics than generic
affiliation. Equally interesting, however, are their divergences. Their basic uniformity only illuminates the more distinctly
the ways in which the Ayodhyākāṇḍa has sought to reformulate the terms of their common problem. This image of formative interaction remains if we examine the
two poems on a more superficial level.
It is true that the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, like the rest of the poem, betrays no knowledge of the main narrative of the Mahābhārata, but it is reticent about much other early literature, as well. The Rāmāyaṇa has a single-minded purpose, with none of the encyclopedic interests of the Mahābhārata in its final form. Nor was it ever subjected to a literate, comprehensive redaction of the sort the Mahābhārata underwent. The Rāmāyaṇa has no interest in, and actually appears hostile to placing itself in history, as reference to the Mahābhārata— history for the Indian audience — would place it. It exploits only those features of the Mahābhārata narrative that can furnish a mythic paradigm: the story of Yayāti, for example (which the Rāmāyaṇa knows in detail and whose earliest known source is probably the Mahābhārata).[Note 69] Its silence about the Mahābhārata may come not from ignorance but from wilful disregard. As if it were attempting to supersede the second epic, the Rāmāyaṇa incorporates the great personages of the lunar dynasty into Rāma’s solar lineage: Bharata, Nahuṣa, Yayāti, and perhaps even Janamejaya.[Note 70]
By contrast, those specific themes that the Ayodhyākāṇḍa shares with the Mahābhārata by and large fit more appositely in Vālmīki’s poem — if we are prepared to ascribe any cogency to the idea of narrative propriety. A good example is furnished by the
kaccitparvan, sarga 94, where Rāma interrogates Bharata about his administration of the kingship. Many scholars, including the editor of this volume, Vaidya, have asserted the priority of the Mahābhārata version (2.5).[Note 71] However, the scene plays a vital narrative function in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. It serves in part to testify to Rāma’s profound knowledge of righteousness and statecraft, and so to make his refusal to assume the kingship all the more poignant
— and unarguable. No such integrating purpose can be discerned for Mahābhārata 2.5, where a divine sage puts the questions to a prince who, in fact, is not yet fully a sovereign. But, on the other hand,
the very aptness of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa’s handling of the motif might lead one to conclude that it adapted and enlivened a stale, extraneous didactic catalogue with
the careful attention to narrative functionality that is one of Vālmīki’s talents.[Note 72]
Problems like this, coupled with the numerous features of the folk tradition of storytelling in the Rāmāyaṇa, suggest that the question of priority with respect to preliterate epic or popular texts is in general misleading. The oral
traditions of all the various genres and particular works must have been continuously interactive and cross-fertilizing. Even
more clearly than the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata has roots that stretch back into the late vedic age. This fact, coupled with the structural similarity of the poems, forces
us to think of the two epic traditions as coextensive processes that were underway throughout the second half of the first
millennium b.c., until the monumental poet of the Rāmāyaṇa and the redactors of the Mahābhārata authoritatively synthesized their respective materials and thereby in effect terminated the creative oral process.
The impress of Vālmīki has been left particularly deeply on the formal aspects of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. The reader who comes to it with an awareness of the literary character of late vedic myth and legend, the jātakas, or other early Pāli or Sanskrit Buddhist narratives, or of the central portions of the Mahābhārata, must be struck by the sophisticated artistry of the book, which nothing in the antecedent or contemporary literature had
prepared him to expect.
We have already noted that the poet represents himself as developing a new formal vehicle for his work. Nothing of the sort
really occurred, of course; the elements of the metric revert to vedic times (and were in great measure an Indo-European heritage).
But Vālmīki’s versification does unquestionably possess a polish and grace, a quiet elegance, that markedly differentiate it from anything
known before.[Note 73] We should also note the function of the “lyric” verses at the sarga ends. They are designed to mark closure, either by recapitulating the action (such as 76.27-30), or by providing a synoptic
preview of what is to come (such as 21.25). There is no analogy for this device that I know of in early Indian literature.
If the balladlike refrain style to which Vālmīki is especially partial in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa has antecedents in the folk tradition,[Note 74] nowhere else do we find it used with the same degree of skill. It is employed here with a fine sense of proportion and restraint,
and is used only when there is compelling contextual motivation for the tone of pathos that it contributes. This kind of mature
execution holds true for the poetic style of the book in general.
Unlike much early Sanskrit epic poetry, indeed, unlike oral epic in general, with its natural impulse to subordinate the line
to the paragraph, the paragraph to the book, and the book to the whole,[Note 75] Vālmīki is particularly (though by no means exclusively) interested in sculpting the memorable individual line, often by the use
of almost classical rhetorical devices. Consider the moving figure in the following verse, which concludes Sītā’s supplication of Rāma to take her to the forest. Speaking of the pain of fourteen years of separation she says,
I could not bear the grief of it even for a moment, much less ten years of sorrow, and three, and one. (27.20)
Or the very effective anaphora (in Sanskrit rhetorical terminology, an ekāntarapādayamaka) when Daśaratha is making ready to shoot the arrow that is to have such disastrous consequences for him:
I drew out a shaft that glared like a poisonous snake, and I shot the keen-edged arrow, and it darted like a poisonous snake.
Or the “poetic fancy” (utpreksā) in Daśaratha’s lament before his wife at the departure of Rāma:
I cannot see you, Kausalyā! Oh please touch me with your hand. My sight has followed after Rāma and has not yet returned. (37.27)
In all these cases, which one could easily multiply, the listener or reader is asked to pause and relish, as he had not often
been asked before.
Perhaps the most impressive formal feature, and the most sophisticated aesthetic advance, is to be found in the construction
of the book. Besides its overall architectonic design and cohesion, it exhibits at times a complex narrative technique, quite
unlike either the simple episodic or the emboxing procedures that are the norm in Sanskrit literature. This not only achieves
a dramatic intensity of a very high order, but serves, on occasion, obliquely and for that reason the more effectively, to
concretize certain aspects of the basic problematic of the story.
The Ayodhyākāṇḍa is probably the most skillfully structured of the seven sections of the poem; the links of the plot are securely and tightly
concatenated. Our sight is never allowed to wander as the story progresses toward the final conflict and resolution (or provisional
resolution, for the story does continue). And the progress has an implacable quality to it, marked by stirring and at times
vehement and bitter encounters between the principal characters, by sudden and compelling reversals, and the stimulation and
frustration of our expectations. This kind of artistry will be perceptible to even the casual reader, who will immediately
appreciate how the narrative is propelled by the intensely dramatic series of confrontations: between Mantharā and Kaikeyī (sargas 7-9), Kaikeyī and Daśaratha (10-12), Rāma and Sītā (23-27), Bharata and Kausalyā (69), Rāma and Bharata (97-99, 103-104), to mention only the most prominent.
Beyond the mere linear development of the action, we can discern two other narrative modes that function as formal correlatives
to the major problematic of the story. The first is distinguished by its spatial discontinuity, the second by its temporal
The narrative time span for approximately the first two-thirds of the book is extremely brief. The action of sargas 1-40 (1-4 and 7-12 excepted) occurs in a single day: 1-63 all together occupy only ten days.[Note 76] The feeling we get about Rāma’s departure is a long ache rather than a single sharp pain. Moreover, if so much of the story occupies so limited a temporal
framework, we would naturally expect a lingering, minute examination of what action there is from multiple perspectives —
which, in fact, we do find. Whereas the narrative in the first mode proceeds directly forward, here we constantly find the
scene shifting to register individual responses to the action. Diachronic narration starts in sarga 13, where for the first time the separate strands of the narrative are fully interwoven, but soon a spatial discontinuity
sets in. With Rāma’s departure from the city in sarga 35, the narrative focus begins to alternate frequently: to Ayodhyā (36-39), to Rāma (40-41), to Ayodhyā (42), back to Rāma (43-50), to Ayodhyā (51-87; on 51-58 in particular see below), to Rāma (88-91), to Bharata (92), when finally the action is again unified (93-104), only to disconnect once more into separate strands (105-107 concern
Bharata, 108-11 Rāma).
Rāma’s fate is not his alone; his family as well as the entire community are involved in it. From the hero’s banishment result
dilemmas of every sort — social, political, ethical. This kind of narrative presentation (which is not in any way a “natural”
consequence of the story, as a comparison with the end of Mahābhārata 2 shows) permits us to witness each successive predicament as it is individually addressed. At the same time, it continually
underscores the central importance of Rāma, and, by juxtaposing his response to those of the other characters, allows us to distinguish its uniqueness. Additionally,
in a way less easily analyzed or demonstrated, the form of dyadic progression itself seems to incarnate the spirit of dilemma
that so pervades the book.
A rather more subtle narrative procedure is discernible in the synchronous mode. Here the narrative does not move directly
forward but retraces itself to examine the same narrative time frame front two different vantage points. A telling example
is provided early in the book.[Note 77] Sargas 7-9 backtrack to show us the previous day’s conversation between Mantharā and Kaikeyī, which is taking place at the same moment as the one between Daśaratha and Rāma (sarga 4). The simultaneity of plot and counterplot produces the expectation of explosive fusion.
Less transparent but more elegant and expressive is the instance that occurs in sargas 50-58. In sarga 50 Rāma reaches the grove of asceticism and settles down, with a feeling almost of contentment, to his life in exile. It is the sixth
evening of his banishment, as we can discover by following the poet’s careful chronological indications.[Note 78] At that very hour, back in Ayodhyā, Daśaratha lies plunged in sorrow and recovers at last the memory of the evil deed of his youth: he remembers that long ago he had slain
a young ascetic and had been cursed by the boy’s father. Now blind and feeble and as good as childless, Daśaratha is reduced to a condition identical to that of the seer he had bereaved, while Rāma, the son whom Kausalyā accuses her husband of having destroyed (55.20), has at the same moment been transformed into an ascetic of the sort Daśaratha had murdered.[Note 79]
The synchronicity of the narrative here helps to make manifest a complex and richly suggestive set of latent correspondences.
One further effect it has is to reinforce a dominant theme that we have already noticed: the role of fate, which blends together
in an often violently interactive synthesis separate and perhaps otherwise benign destinies, and whose operations are as mysterious
as they are inexorable.[Note 80]
7. The Characters
If the style and narrative organization of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa often show great and easily accessible artistry, it may perhaps be more difficult for the modern reader to evaluate and gauge
the quality of characterization. Since the characters are first fully introduced to us in this book, it is appropriate here
to consider how they are depicted and to enquire whether there is any reason for us to temper our response, which initially
may be unfavorable.
I think we can observe definite and important differences in the methods of characterization. Two distinct groups of characters
seem to present themselves: those, on the one hand, who possess the natural uneven contours of imperfect human beings, depths
where we can hear the cacophonous resonances of familiar emotions — hate no less than love, and ambition, remorse, fear, envy,
rancor — and the many tones of moral uncertainty, of doubts, compunctions, scruples; and those, on the other, who seem to
lack all this, who are more regular and flat, with almost emblematic features.
Daśaratha, Kaikeyī, and Kausalyā have a natural unevenness. They command full and complex emotional and moral registers, and a wide range of their modulations
can be clearly heard throughout much of the book. Choices confront them with which they must grapple; they suffer and in their
suffering engage in a painful and very human process of self-recognition. They thereby learn some fundamental truths about
themselves and come to understand the consequences of reckless desire, or the hollowness of success achieved at the cost of
one’s integrity, or the futility of naive hope.
Yet we perceive all this only if we search for it; the culmination of these processes is rarely allowed into the foreground
of the narrative. In the case of Daśaratha, the impact of recognition is deflected and appreciably diminished: it is turned into a useless if exonerating discovery
of an act done long ago, over which he no longer has control — if, indeed, he ever had. With respect to Kaikeyī, although we see the groundwork prepared for her realization, we are never given the opportunity to witness it. After her
principal narrative function is completed (sarga 33), she is given only several silent entrances (37.4, 60.1ff., 72.19ff., 86.16). What appears to be reconciliation (77.6)
or contrition (86.16) is never developed or explained.
The treatment of Kausalyā is similar, and the many hints about her personal tragedy scattered throughout the book make the absence of some final resolution
more conspicuous. Much of her story is only vaguely suggested, and we are left to reconstruct it inferentially. Her husband
never loved her, and she set her hopes on finding in a son the joy and comfort denied her in her marriage (17.22, cf. 10.17
and note on 40). With the arrival of Kaikeyī she was “superseded” (see 28.7 and note), and from then on she sought retribution for her wrongs by her son’s succession
to the throne (4.38-39), living a life of religious austerity with the aim of securing her goals. But her realization is a
What a sorrowful thing that my vows, my gifts of alms, and acts of self-denial have all been to no avail, that the austerities
I practiced for my child’s sake have proved to be as barren as seed sown in a desert. (17.31)
But this limited discovery is all we are shown. The more important resolution of her relationship with Daśaratha is never provided. We get some sense of a final reconciliation through shared suffering (sarga 56; note on 57.7), but the poet does not take the trouble to substantiate it.
Vālmīki, rather clearly, is uninterested in these contingent characters. This whole rich ensemble of substantial and comprehensible
human emotion is left incomplete, reduced to an epiphenomenon taking place on the periphery of Rāma’s world. The poet’s indifference is, of course, partly a result of the fact that Rāma and those who directly participate in his sacrifice — Lakṣmaṇa, Sītā, and Bharata— are the principal focus of his attention. But Vālmīki’s unconcern has some other origin, which will become apparent if we examine his characterization of the second set.
The reader will probably be struck, despite the driving momentum of the action, by a feeling of stasis in these four characters.
In contrast to those just discussed, they do not grow or change in the course of the narrative, or develop through inner struggle
in the presence of moral choice.[Note 81] They answer without hesitation the social and moral questions with which they are presented. for the most part secure in
their particular patterns of behavior. Unlike Kaikeyī or Daśaratha, they define themselves in relation to others with an immutable and unnatural consistency. Their actions, consequently, have
an emblematic regularity about them.
This, I believe, is exactly what the poet wishes us to perceive in them. He was not restricted in his characterization by
some metaphysical concepts peculiar to India about time, causality, or reality, which predisposed him to see the transcendent and enduring in the local and transient.
We have just viewed in the first set of characters the full range and clarity of his vision. Rāma and the others are evidently designed to be monovalent paradigms of conduct.
Vālmīki has not only an aesthetic intention but a didactic purpose, as well. And he has created these four great moral figures to
achieve that purpose. The specific moral dimension of each is encapsulated in a formulaic, often alliterative, epithet, which
augments the impression of stasis; no such tags are, or could have been, provided for Daśaratha, Kaikeyī, or Kausalyā. Rāma is the “champion of righteousness” (rāmo dharmabhṛtāṃ varaḥ); Bharata“a man of brotherly love” (bharato bhrātṛvatsalaḥ); Lakṣmaṇa“marked with goodness” (lakṣmaṇaḥ śubhalakṣaṇaḥ) in devotedly serving his eldest brother; Sītā is “like the daughter of the gods” (sītā surasutopamā), by reason of both her beauty and the virtue (that is, unwavering fidelity to her husband) that in Indian culture beauty
is so often said to reflect.[Note 82]
The two sets of characters thus serve very different literary functions. The four central ones embody permanent moral values
in a society marked by generalized contingency.[Note 83] The others (and this is the only sort known to the poets of the central portions of the Mahābhārata) typify precisely that uncertainty, hesitancy, and vacillation; it is for this reason that their personal fates are not pertinent.
We may find it hard to respond to the former, since they will necessarily lack moral variety, although they retain a certain
“freedom of sentiment” that often saves the work from lapsing into melodrama.[Note 84] But we must remember that if they do not manifest a recognizable human complexity it is because they were never intended
to do so; Rāma’s “true feelings” will remain secret, and properly so, for they are quite irrelevant to the poem’s purposes. These characters
must be ideal because they are imaginary solutions to problems that do not admit of real solutions. The didactic exigencies
of the work required perfect moral types, and perfection, by definition, does not alter.[Note 85]
With all that said, it will still be useful to consider more closely several of the main characters of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa: the female figures as a group, Daśaratha, and Rāma. In the first case, we must investigate an apparent disjuncture between precept and practice; in the second, we have to examine
further the poet’s idealizing treatment of a problematic character; and in the third our attention is commanded by a figure
who represents a new attitude in the history of Indian thought.
8. The Women of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa
Like the Rāmāyaṇa as a whole, the Ayodhyākāṇḍa is as interested in the domain of sexual relations as in socio-political life in general. The structure of relationships
in the one sphere is fundamentally congruent with that of the other, not surprisingly, given their constitutive (if complex)
interaction.[Note 86] We have already seen that the poet is reluctant to let the message of the story emerge on its own, that he intervenes to
explain what the fictional events are supposed to mean to the social formation at large. The same thing happens with respect
to sexual relations, and to a much greater degree.
“A woman’s first recourse is her husband,” Kausalyā says to Daśaratha, “her second is her son, her third her kinsmen. She has no fourth in this world” (55.18). Here we have, possibly for the
first time in Indian literature, a formulation of what was to become the normative view, strictly enforced in practice, on
the status of women. The locus classicus is found in the “Lawbook of Manu”,[Note 87] which recasts the idea and unambiguously appends the logical conclusion:
In childhood a woman must bow to the will of her father, in adulthood, to the will of the man who marries her, and when her
husband is dead, to the will of her sons. She must never have independence. (5.148)
Inasmuch as the Ayodhyākāṇḍa deals chiefly with marital relationships, it is the woman’s position vis-à-vis her husband that is the principal subject
of explicit didactic intervention, and the poet seems never to tire of repeating the categorical imperative:
So long as she lives, a woman’s one deity and master is her husband. (Rāma to Kausalyā, 21.17)
You must not feel disdain for my son in his banishment. He is your deity, whether he be rich or poor. (Kausalyā to Sītā, 34.21)
There is a close congruence between these precepts and the broader social interpretation offered by the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. Although the poet portrays some expression of resistance to this interpretation (Lakṣmaṇa, Jābāli), this seems to be little more than artifice, enabling the hero to argue out his position; no one enacts opposition. In the
case of the female characters, however, we find some essential contradictions between the ideal and the actual, between the
accepted norms and the specific behavior. For the women of the story do seem to be strong, self-willed, in fact independent.
Whatever the real purpose behind Rāma’s initial reluctance to take her with him to the forest,[Note 88] Sītā is by no means ready to submit to his command. She argues vigorously, at one point insulting her husband:
What could my father Vaideha, the lord of Mithilā, have had in mind when he took you for son-in-law, Rāma, a woman with the body of a man? … like a procurer, Rāma, you are willing of your own accord to hand me over to others. (27.3, 8)
Her declared position is that “Even if my husband were wholly lacking in good behavior, … still I would always obey him wholeheartedly”
(110.3). Yet here we see her caustically disputing and engaging with her husband as an equal.
Kausalyā similarly opposes her husband, with equal spirit and even greater frequency (38.1-7; 51.24-27; 55). If she can say that a
woman has but three recourses in her life, she can also tell her husband, “And you are no recourse for me.” When Rāma informs her of his banishment, she insists that she shall desert her husband and go with her son. Rāma must remind her that
For a woman to desert her husband is wickedness pure and simple. You must not do so despicable a thing, not even think it.
In the same way, later in the story, during Kausalyā’s harshest attack against her husband, Daśaratha himself must reacquaint her with the imperative:
And as you know, my lady, a woman who has regard for righteousness should hold her husband, whether he is virtuous or not,
to be a deity incarnate. (56.5)
The contradiction between precept and practice that surfaces in these episodes is concretely realized in the character of
Kaikeyī. There are substantial ambiguities in Kaikeyī’s character. If, by formula, Sītā is beautiful and therefore good (as the servant Mantharā is ugly and therefore wicked), Kaikeyī occupies some ambivalent middle zone. “The golden Kaikeyī,” Vālmīki calls her — fair as gold and just as malleable, as one commentator explains.[Note 89] And indeed the impression is unavoidable, for the modern reader at least, that here is a good and trusting woman who is being
slowly corrupted (sargas 7-9). But for nearly everyone in the story — Lakṣmaṇa (90.20-21), Kausalyā (60.3ff.), Bharata (sarga 67), and the people at large (42.18-21) — she is simply an evil woman, blinded by her ambition to the cruelty of her acts.
Her inclination to do wrong was natural and was only activated by her servant:
A greedy person is oblivious to risks; he will eat even fruit that makes one sick. And thus, at the instigation of the hunchback,
Kaikeyī has destroyed the House of the Rāghavas. (60.6)
One branch of the Rāmāyaṇa tradition, in fact, adds an illustrative story to prove that her evil nature was inherited,[Note 90] and Daśaratha discerns inimical scheming in her family as well as in the woman herself (53.15).
The poet cannot refrain from judging Kaikeyī. He calls her guileful (10.3), unscrupulous (12.8), ignoble (16.54), artful (66.14), and so on. More effectively, he illustrates
these traits through her behavior in the skillfully crafted scene of her reunion with Bharata (sarga 66), where the calculated nonchalance of her horrific disclosures evinces a brutality that has numbed her to all normal emotional
response. As we have seen, Vālmīki also goes out of his way to eliminate the one factor that can extenuate her guilt, the legitimacy of her claim to the kingship.
Only Rāma affirms the propriety of her behavior (103.29),[Note 91] or excuses it on the grounds that she was compelled by fate (19.16-22). And only the seer Bharadvāja is vouchsafed the larger view:
Bharata, you must not impute any fault to Kaikeyī. The banishment of Rāma will turn out to be a great blessing. (86.28)
Vālmīki, it appears, meant Kaikeyī to serve largely as a negative exemplar. The scene, for example, where the impudent queen forces her husband to grovel before
her (sarga 10.40- sarga 11) is hard to forget, and not only because of its drama. The poet will not let us forget, for he later shows how a good
wife is to behave in such circumstances (55.7-13). Kaikeyī, then, would be intended as an illustration of what happens when a woman seeks to act autonomously: she destroys the foundation
of her life, her husband:
Without strings a lute cannot be played, without wheels a chariot cannot move, without her husband a woman finds no happiness,
though she have a hundred sons. (34.25)
And it is no doubt this aspect of her portrait that makes the greatest impact on the reader.
But if, like both Bharadvāja and the later Rāmāyaṇa tradition, we are disposed or even supposed to see her primarily as an instrument, a catalyst, a “dramatic mechanism,” we
may be approaching a vantage point where the contradictions between the poet’s stubbornly reiterated homilies and the behavior
of the other female characters can be transcended and so resolved. From such a perspective we see that these characters actually
function on the whole either to enact the emotional content of the narrative, or as sounding-boards by means of which the
proper role of women may be clearly articulated. They are merely instruments of the narrative, passively acted upon but not
significant agents of the action. If superficially they deviate from the pattern, structurally, in their fully subservient
functionality, they conform to it. In this sense, then, there is no conflict: in their “real” practice they are permitted
no independence and exercise none.
I have already argued that in the course of the development of the Rāma story, alterations appear to have been made in order to secure a more idealized action and characterization. The effects
of this revision are particularly noticeable in the case of the portrait of Daśaratha.
Initially Daśaratha is presented to us as the venerable, dignified, self-disciplined, and virtuous monarch. He tells us that as king he has “always
kept to the path my ancestors followed” (2.4). We are invited to infer his integrity when he says, “I have grown weary bearing
the burden of righteousness for the world. For it is heavy, one must have self-discipline to bear it” (2.7). Early in the
story he advises Rāma, “exercise constant self-control, and avoid all the vices that spring from desire and anger” (3.26), giving us every reason
to suppose that he practices what he preaches.
In the development of the story, however, the conflict between these professions and his behavior becomes irreconcilable.
For other traits, elements of the structure of the narrative, slowly but with unmistakable clarity emerge: Daśaratha is weak, tyrannical, and reckless.
If these traits can be subsumed under any single character flaw, it is the king’s unmastered sexual desire.[Note 92] In the magnificent scene in sarga 10, under the pressure exerted by this desire, the king’s whole personality begins to disintegrate. The unspeakable deeds
of which it makes him capable now come out into the open. Pathetically attempting to ingratiate himself with his capricious
young wife, the king asks her,
Is there some guilty man who should be freed, or some innocent man I should execute? What poor man should I enrich, what rich
man impoverish? (10.10)[Note 93]
If the reader should overlook the enormity of this offer, the text itself, once again, is there to remind and instruct him.
When Bharata is told that Rāma has been banished, he fears it might have been as the result of some heinous crime:
Concerned for the greatness of his dynasty, he began questioning her further: “Rāma did not seize the wealth of any brahman, did he? He did not harm some innocent man, whether rich or poor?” (66.36-37)
Later on we learn from Rāma that what Daśaratha has proposed to Kaikeyī is the kind of conduct a king must avoid at all costs:
No noble, honest man is ever charged with theft, I hope, without being interrogated by men learned in the sacred texts; and
if innocent, is never imprisoned out of greed. And when a thief … has been seized and interrogated, I hope he is never set
free … out of greed for money … . For the tears people shed when falsely accused come to slay the livestock and children of
the king who rules for personal gain. (94.47-48, 50)
Daśaratha, in fact, should be viewed as one of several studies in calamitous passion, along with Vālin and Rāvaṇa himself,[Note 94] and like them a figure designed as a foil to Rāma. He conspicuously lacks the emotional control of his son, the self-discipline, equanimity, and dignity. Rāma’s strictly monogamous sexuality likewise stands in sharp contrast to the habits of his father. And whereas Daśaratha offers the kingship as brideprice for Kaikeyī (the rājyaśulka), Rāma wins Sītā by a “feat of heroic strength” (the vīryaśulka, sarga 110; Bālakāṇḍa 66ff.). Daśaratha’s own character is distinctly projected when at one point he imagines Rāma’s banishment as a kind of holiday outing: in the forest “there will be deer and elephants to kill, forest liquor to drink”
(32.5). Rāma conceives of his sacrifice in considerably different terms:
But it is righteousness … that I am set on following today. (27.28)
I will … live a life of purity in the forest, restricting my food to holy things, roots, fruit, and flowers … . My five senses
will have contentment enough, and I shall be maintaining the world on its course. (101.26-27)
As Daśaratha’s transgression was committed, in Bharata’s words, “out of anger [v.l., greed], delusion, and recklessness” (98.52), so Rāma says to Jābāli that “not out of greed, delusion, or ignorance” would he himself ever act untruthfully (101.17). Although Rāma seems clearly to recognize the failings of his father, the latter is not once shown to possess any awareness of the need
to uphold righteousness. At one point Rāma makes him the object of an important — perhaps the most important — gnomic utterance of the book:
Whoever forsakes righteousness [dharma] and statecraft [artha] and follows the urgings of desire [kāma], will soon come to grief, just like King Daśaratha. (47.13)
The portrait, then, is constructed with careful, effective, and tragic irony — we suppose. But standing against the whole
spirit and much of the letter of the story are many disavowals. The “truthful Rāma” himself assures us that the king is “noble and self-controlled” (46.20), “a truthful man, true to his word, ever striving
for truth” (19.7). Is this wilful blindness, one wonders, a son’s attempt to reassert his father’s rectitude in the face of
so much evidence to the contrary? Yet when the poet begins to describe the king as “the truthful and righteous lord of men,
like the ocean in profundity and as free from taint as the sky” (31.6), our suspicions are aroused, and they focus on Vālmīki himself.
We might conclude that there is a fundamental ambiguity in Vālmīki’s conception of Daśaratha. But it is even more probable that he was reluctant to reproduce unchanged the received characterization of the king.’ It
was too fundamental to discard, but it could be transfigured by some extenuating incident.
The earlier tale, as we saw, must have turned on the brideprice offer Daśaratha attempted to reverse and the one boon the reckless king was seduced into bestowing during his interview with Kaikeyī. This Vālmīki revised into the present story: two boons granted as a noble gesture of gratitude at a war of gods and demons, Kaikeyī’s claim to the throne being now complete deception. A further trans-mutation, in the same spirit of exoneration, seems to
have been effected elsewhere.
Epic bards participated in a world of social relations like anyone else. Open criticism of legitimate kings is rare, and if
weakness and tyranny are represented, an attempt is usually made to palliate this representation. An instructive example is
MBh 15.15, especially verses 15ff., where this mechanism leads the poet to an encomium on Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Duryodhana that is irreconcilable with the description of their actions in the first fourteen books of the epic.
The text suggests that originally the tale recounted the tragedy of an old king overmastered by his passion for a beautiful
young woman, who then had to face the disastrous consequences of the grave commitments he rashly made and later found impossible
to keep. Daśaratha himself at one point is shown to perceive and admit his guilt. He fell into the trap set for him by Kaikeyī and her family, and abdicated the responsibility incumbent upon him as king to make rational political and moral judgments:
Kaikeyī, a woman of evil family and evil designs, forced me, and I failed to seek the advice of elders skilled in counsel. I failed
to take counsel with my friends, my ministers, and wise brahmans. It was on my own, in delusion, for a woman’s sake that I
did the rash thing I have done. (53.15-16)
But then there follows the defense that the poet will shortly expand into the only[Note 95] fully developed subnarrative of the book:
Or perhaps — yes, surely charioteer, this great calamity was some-thing destined to be, that had somehow to happen, to bring
ruin upon this House. (53.17)
Under the impact of Kausalyā’s harsh criticism of him (sarga 55), Daśaratha plumbs “the very depths of his grief, and there a memory was revived of something evil he once did” (55.21). Later, as he
continues to brood, the recollection of an evil deed of his youth again flashes momentarily across his mind (56.2). Finally,
in the dark night of his soul, there emerges into full consciousness the remembrance of the event that made Rāma’s exile inevitable, and doomed Daśaratha (57.3).
Sargas 57-58 constitute a brilliantly composed and moving section with considerable poetic power.[Note 96] But at present its narrative function is of principal interest. Daśaratha here still recognizes the weakness and imprudence that led him to spurn Kausalyā and come under Kaikeyī’s power (57.6-7), traits that he seems to recognize as part of his own character even in youth. As a young man he was proud
of the reputation he had earned as an archer who could strike a target without looking, merely by hearing it move. And with
this pride was coupled a natural intemperance (57.8-9,15). But perhaps we should believe that it is less Daśaratha’s weakness that opens the door to doom than the compulsion of doom that causes the weakness to begin with.[Note 97] Out hunting, Daśaratha shoots blindly in the night at a sound coming from the deserted riverbank. What he had thought to be an elephant was a young
ascetic who had renounced all violence, and whose murder will entail the death of his two blind parents. The fact that the
crime was wholly unintentional only secures for Daśaratha a temporary reprieve (58.20-21); it cannot avert the curse of the boy’s father that ultimately the king, like the sage, “will
end his days grieving for a son” (58.45-46).
Vālmīki appears to have reworked and inserted a narrative derived from the folk tradition (preserved for us in the form of the Sāmajātaka), one that could be adapted to harmonize with the pervasive fatalism of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa.[Note 98] By means of this, the poet was able to effect yet another alteration in his idealization of Daśaratha, and to relieve him of any direct responsibility for what happened to his son.[Note 99]“How unlike me it was … to do what I did to Rāghava!” the king protests one last time before he dies. It was not an act, we now are told, that was in any way characteristic
of him, or for which he is to be held accountable, but the doing of some hidden power, as inexplicable and uncontrollable
as the force that guided an arrow shot in the dark to the heart of an ascetic boy. The king is no longer a victim of his own
choices, as all the previous narrative would seem to have us believe; he is instead a victim of chance. And thereby, again,
his probity is preserved intact.[Note 100]
In some respects it may be erroneous for us to think of the protagonist of the Rāmāyaṇa as a hero. Properly understood, heroes are those who do great things in the face of certain defeat, such as Achilles, Siegfried, Roland, Cuchulain.[Note 101] They far transcend us and are not figures we are supposed to emulate. Rāma emphatically is; and the various types of behavior that he exemplifies — filial devotion, for example, or obedience — we
have already observed.
Moreover, as has often been remarked, heroes generally set themselves apart from their community, and it is the latter that
asserts the true values of the society, to which the hero as an outsider is unable to accommodate himself. In the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, just the reverse is true: the community itself is shown to be in the wrong. At every step of the way, Rāma must instruct each in his proper role: his mother (18.26-31, 21.9-22), his father (31.25, 32), his brothers Lakṣmaṇa (18.32-36, 20.36, 91.2-6) and Bharata (97.17-24, 98.37-39, 99.8-14), his ministers (101). The appeal to Rāma that is sounded throughout the book ends, finally, in the choruslike supplication made by his own spiritual teacher, Vasiṣṭha:
I was your father’s teacher and am yours, too, slayer of foes; in doing my bidding you will not stray from the path of the
good. Here are the men of your assembly and the guildsmen gathered together; in practicing righteousness on their behalf,
my son, you will not stray from the path of the good. Your mother is aged and righteous, and you must not disobey her; in
doing as she bids you will not stray from the path of the good. If you do as Bharata bade when supplicating you, Rāghava, you will not go astray in your pursuit of truth and righteousness. (103.4-7)
But Rāma is uncompromising, secure in the conviction that the imperatives he is honoring must take precedence, since they are fundamental.
This feature of his character is intimately related to another model role he plays in the poem, that of the ideal king.
Two primary considerations that underpin Rāma’s behavior are his concern for public opinion and for “righteousness” (dharma). The former has its parallels elsewhere in Indian epic poetry, but nowhere else is it so conditioned by a sense of “righteousness,”
and nowhere is “righteousness” itself invested with the special significance it possesses in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa.
A keen sense of honor and shame — an overriding emphasis on the opinion of other men — is characteristic of most protagonists
in heroic epics. And this is no less the case with Rāma. Consider his statement to Lakṣmaṇa:
In my rage, Lakṣmaṇa, all by myself I could overpower Ayodhyā or the world with my arrows. But truly force is useless. I fear the danger of unrighteousness [adharma], blameless Lakṣmaṇa, and I fear what other people might say. That is why I do not have myself consecrated at once. (47.25-26)
It is from this fear of what “other people” might say that Rāma wishes to free the king:
Let my father … be freed from the fears he has of what other people might say. For if this rite were not called off, he too
would suffer mental torment to hear his truthfulness impugned. (19.7-8)[Note 102]
Lakṣmaṇa realizes that here Rāma is indirectly speaking of himself, and responds accordingly:
Now is not the time for panic, the source of this sheer folly. Could a man like you talk this way were he not panicked, fearful
of losing people’s respect on account of some infraction of righteousness [dharmadoṣa-]? (20.5-6)
In the sixth and particularly the seventh books of the poem, this motivating factor in Rāma’s character will be dramatically highlighted. For fear of public opinion (about the chastity of his queen), he will demand
that Sītā undergo an ordeal, and for the same reason he will ultimately repudiate her, the wife for whom he suffered so deeply, just
as here in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa he renounces his claim to the kingship.
It is not so much concern for the “world to come” that conditions Rāma’s behavior[Note 103] as concern for this world and the opinion of the men who inhabit it. His desire for yaśaḥ, “glory,” a good name that will outlive him, weighs heavily when he prepares to go into banishment:
I cannot for the sake of mere kingship turn my back on glory [yaśaḥ], whose reward is great; nor, since life is so short, my lady, would I choose today this paltry land against all that is
right [adharmataḥ]. (18.39)
That Rāma’s abdication was meant to confer glory on him is reiterated in Sumitrā’s address to Rāma’s mother:
What gain has your son failed to reap, who is waving the banner of his fame throughout the world by his self-restraint and
devotion to truth? (39.7)
A thirst for glory is a quality everywhere associated with the heroic, and many analogies are to be found in Indian epic literature;
a good example is Karṇa in the Mahābhārata. Normally it is prompted by fear of cowardice and ignominious behavior on the field of battle, and is quenched in suicidal
struggle. In Rāma’s case, however, the desire for fame is coupled with and qualified by his understanding of “righteousness.” And for Rama’s valuation of righteousness the other epics provide no precise antecedents; it is virtually a new attitude.
Rāma is a kshatriya, and we are well informed by other epic texts about the conventional understanding of the dharma— the proper conduct, the duties, the “righteous” behavior — of a kshatriya. The Mahābhārata takes pains to set it out with special clarity:
I shall explain to you the dharma of the kshatriya: He must give and not demand … He must always be ready to slaughter the enemy, he must show bravery in battle
… The kshatriya who conquers in battle most effectively wins the [higher] worlds. Killing is the chief dharma of one who is a kshatriya. There is no higher duty for him than to destroy enemies … [A kshatriya] who would satisfy the
claims of his dharma, a king in particular, must fight. (MBh 12.60.13-18)
The dharma of a kshatriya, as we have been told, includes great savagery. He lives by the sword and in due course dies by the sword
in battle … . One’s heart, a kshatriya’s heart in particular, must be hard as adamant … Indra was born the son of Brahmā, but he became a kshatriya by his actions: he slew his evil kinsmen, all ninety-nine of them, an act worthy of esteem and
praise, and one that made him king of all gods. (MBh 12.22.5-12)[Note 104]
Perhaps the most celebrated formulation occurs in the Bhagavadgītā, where Kṛṣṇa exhorts Arjuna before the cataclysmic battle:
You must take regard for your proper code of conduct [svadharma] and not waver. There is no better thing for a kshatriya than to wage righteous war … Fortunate the kshatriyas who are granted
such a war as this … Better to die in the adherence to one’s own code of righteousness: to adopt another’s is a greater peril.
The injustice of Rāma’s banishment, the unrighteousness of everyone implicated in it, is repeatedly emphasized by the text. We have already seen
how Rāma acts in response to the arguments in favor of resistance that Lakṣmaṇa and others offer (sargas 18, 20, 90, 100, etc.), arguments very like those made by Kṛṣṇa.[Note 105] But how does Rāma answer the charge that he is acting contrarily in preferring the wilderness to the kshatriya order, “matted hair” to the
government of men (98.56), that he is neglecting “the code of righteousness appropriate” for him, the “code of kings” and
the “traditional code of his House” (98.61, 104.10), that, in essence, he is failing in his proper duty, his dharma? He answers by altogether reinterpreting what that proper duty is. He replies to Lakṣmaṇa:
So give up this ignoble notion that is based on the code of the kshatriyas [kṣatradharma]; be of like mind with me and base your actions on righteousness [dharma], not violence. (18.36)
Similarly, in his response to the Realpolitik of the minister Jābāli, Rāma asserts that he has a “personal code of righteousness” (pratyagātma dharma), one that he knows to be correct — a code that good men have always observed. He rejects out of hand
the kshatriya’s code [ksātraṃ dharmam], where unrighteousness and righteousness go hand in hand [adharmaṃ dharmasaṃhitam], a code that only debased, vicious, covetous, and evil men observe. (101.20)
The glory at which Rāma aims, then, is not the martial fame his own guru Vasiṣṭha urges on him (102.31), but the fame of dharma in its new valuation (18.39) on behalf of which “force is useless.” Rāma is unequivocal: it is not for the sake of political power (artha) that he suffers living in the world; he is only concerned with dharma, “like a seer” (16.46); he is like the sage “who has passed beyond all things of this world” (16.59), he has “given up attachment
to everything” (33.2). And it is the seer alone whom Rāma considers to be deserving of esteem and emulation:
Those men who are earnest in righteousness and keep company with the wise, who are supremely generous, nonviolent, and free
from taint, those supreme and mighty sages are the ones truly worthy of reverence in this world. (101.31)
The path to the highest heaven for Rāma is not “conquest in battle,” as in the Mahābhārata[Note 106] but “truth, righteousness, and strenuous effort, compassion for creatures and kindly words, reverence for brahmans, gods,
and guests” (101.30).
We must not, however, leap from this to the conclusion that Rāma represents a renouncer (though he is that in a special, restricted sense); he will come back to rule his kingdom. Here he
is not so much rejecting the obligations of his social order as redefining them, transvaluating them. By subsuming his caste-specific
dharma under a larger, superordinate dharma, he loosens the claims of the former by the same power that had given them their strength.
What is the significance of this reformulation? It has long been observed that there existed a fundamental dichotomy in the
structure of power in ancient India. Although real power lay in the hands of the kshatriyas, its legitimation was in the hands of the brahmans. Hierarchy of
status conferred supremacy on the brahman; the differentiation of actual power (“mere force”) conferred supremacy on the kshatriya.
There was a mutual dependence, the brahman depending for his material welfare (artha) on the kshatriya, the kshatriya for his spiritual welfare (dharma) on the brahman. The two domains remained separate:
The supremacy of dharma is beyond question … Artha is recognized only in second place, we may say in matters indifferent to dharma; artha remains finally contained within the all-embracing dharma, confined within dharma-prescribed limits … Being negation of dharma in a society which continues to be ruled by dharma, the political sphere is severed from the realm of values.[Note 107]
Or as another scholar has more pertinently formulated it:
Kingship as an institution has no authority and legitimacy of its own. It is dependent on the uneasy relationship between
king and brahmin … [The brahmin’s] monopoly of the source of authority and legitimation leaves the king with mere power and
effectively bars kingship from developing its full potential as the central regulating force.[Note 108]
The characterization of Rāma seems to be a response to this politically incapacitating bifurcation.
We find this dichotomy manifested in a number of brahmanical and epic narratives. It is certainly no coincidence that several
of the more striking examples are in one way or another intimately associated with the Rāmāyaṇa tradition — in particular the biography of the Buddha, for which the Rāmāyaṇa may well have served as a prototype, and the legend of Viśvāmitra, absorbed into Vālmīki’s work itself. But in these accounts the dilemma is resolved in quite different ways. On the one hand (in the case of the
kshatriya prince Śākyamuni), the problem is repudiated and a new dharma altogether extrinsic to society is introduced, the śramaṇadharma: communal asceticism as a self-sufficient and fully integrated way of life receives new valorization. On the other hand (in
the kshatriya king Viśvāmitra),[Note 109] we meet an isolated, unrepeatable, in effect a fantasy transcendence of the actual: by means of asceticism a kshatriya king
is literally transformed into a brahman. Rāma, by contrast, resolves the contradiction through a new definition of the dharma incumbent on him as a kshatriya. By the increment of a hieratic component, not derived from but only enriched by his temporary
ascetic vocation,[Note 110] his code is enlarged to become simply “righteousness.” It is made to intersect with and so absorb brahmanical dharma and its legitimizing ethics, nonviolence, and spirituality.[Note 111] In this way the kshatriya becomes self-legitimizing, and the “full potential” of kingship as an integrating power can at
last be activated. The political and spiritual spheres may now converge in a single locus: the king.[Note 112]
By the resolution of the dichotomy through the character of Rāma, the conditions are provided for the poem’s conclusion, with its utopian vision of peace and abundance on earth, of an enduring
empire based on righteousness. This hopeful image at once cancels and justifies all the misery and suffering that had gone
before and prepared the way. It carries us beyond the more or less negative functionality of the text’s broad social prescriptions
and beyond its positive political and ethical mission, standing as the ultimate incentive to both. And it is made possible,
it appears, only by the presence of a moral or spiritualized king, for whom violence is inhuman and is to be exercised only
against the bestial (Vālin) or demonic (Rāvaṇa).
The Mahābhārata ends in anomie, ascetic suicide, and apocalypse. Individual life on earth can have no meaning for those who fail to understand
the true “syntax” of social existence: it becomes instead a “living death.”[Note 113] The Mahābhārata heroes failed to understand this syntax precisely because it was incomprehensible as such, in that its constituent elements,
the political and the spiritual, could never be construed. In sharp contrast, the righteousness of Rāma, not only as exemplar for the collective sense of duty but also as the integrating force of these two realms of human life,
restores a universal Golden Age, the perfectly harmonious existence of man with nature and man with man (6.116.80ff.).[Note 114]
Although the compensatory aspect of Rāmarājya is in part responsible for the undiminishing vitality of the poem and its enshrinement in Indian culture, as well as for
the ready acknowledgement of its often proscriptive admonitions, it may be less significant in itself than for its latent
foundations. If, in his course of action, Rāma explicitly affirms hierarchical subordination, the spiritual commitment that allows for his utopian rule seems implicitly
to oppose it. If we are prepared to accept that the separation of domains was an actual model for social behavior, one broadly
sanctioned in historical India; if we agree that
status and power, and consequently spiritual authority and temporal authority, are absolutely distinguished … . The supremacy
of the spiritual was never expressed politically … [and] only once this differentiation has been made [can] hierarchy manifest
then we are obliged to see the characterization of Rāma as a judgment on that model. Rāma expressly seeks to cancel the dichotomy by integrating the two “forces” — a resolution that inaugurates the Golden Age. Hierarchical
life and the separation of “powers” that underpins it, which the poem elsewhere unambiguously attempts to validate, appears
at the highest and critical level to be questioned, and a reformulation is offered in its place. And it is this that makes
it possible for real political stability and social harmony finally to be secured.[Note 116]
Whatever the validity of these speculations, much of the meaning and significance of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa does seem to lie in its vigorous, sustained, and searching interpretation of the conditions of social existence. A great
culture’s exploration of such central issues as the nature and function of political power and of a hierarchical social order
is preserved for us in this poem. The formulation, on the one hand, of hopeful solutions to what may be insoluble political
problems, and on the other, of a code of conduct that appears to call that social order into doubt, supplies the particular
answers of India’s first poem to the question of what makes life possible.
11. The Text, Annotations, and Translation
The General Introduction (Volume 1) discusses the nature of the critical edition upon which this translation is based, with
regard to both its merits and its limitations. A careful and prolonged scrutiny of all the published manuscript evidence for
the Ayodhyākāṇḍa has validated the general principles adopted for the critical edition. The manuscripts for the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, however, make it clear that in some places the original form of the poem cannot be confidently recovered. The annotations
here often suggest alternative approaches (such as the note to 12.16), but only in a hypothetical way. For such passages,
certainty is unattainable with the evidence available to us.
The critical edition is, furthermore, occasionally subject to question. Both the unavoidable subjectivity of text-editing,
even upon the most scientific principles, and the natural limits to every editor’s knowledge force us to recognize that any
such edition can secure only a provisional status. Thus, when I found myself in serious disagreement with the editor, I emended
and translated as I thought necessary. All departures from the constituted text are listed in an appendix to the translation
and explained in the notes. No large segments of the text have been affected. I did not find it necessary to remove anything
from the critical edition, though had I been editing the work I would probably have made some different decisions.[Note 117] There was only one occasion when it proved necessary to add something that had been discarded — a short passage of two verses.[Note 118] At this higher level of the work, my disagreements with the critical text were rarely serious. I usually concur with the
editor about the secondary character of the additional material. But because the Rāmāyaṇa is not only a discrete poem but a tradition as well, every insertion that holds interest for the general reader or scholar
has been translated or summarized in the notes.
At the level of the phrase, the word, the syllable, however, I have introduced some seventy changes in the text. Sometimes
this was required when the editor preferred the hazardous procedure of ignoring the absolute unanimity of the manuscripts
(e.g., 23.30) or the principles upon which the critical edition is based (e.g., 43.14); when a good variant was apparently
mistaken by the editor as a corruption (e.g., 12.22, 63.4), or when the text as printed seemed to be nonsense (e.g., 106.9,
111.5). In all these cases I emend on the basis of manuscript testimony, evaluated on the grounds I discuss in the General
Introduction. In a few instances I have conjectured readings, but only when I had good reason to believe in their inherent
probability (e.g., 20.5. 30.10, 101.22; contrast the notes on 45.24 and 87.13).
The annotations have been prepared in accordance with the guidelines collectively decided upon for this translation: to serve
as expeditiously as possible the needs of both the general reader and the scholar. They are intended in the main to explain
the translation where necessary and to indicate how and why I arrived at such an interpretation. While I have sought to keep
my attention focused on the Ayodhyākāṇḍa text itself and to refrain from enlarging on cultural matters beyond what was essential for the immediate comprehension of
the translation, the work presents a multitude of textual and philological problems that required more detailed investigation.
I have kept before me all the medieval commentaries on the Ayodhyākāṇḍa that are available in print.[Note 119] My admiration for the learning and perspicacity of the commentators is as great as my indebtedness to them. Many of the verses
owe their English shape directly to the exegetical labors of these scholiasts, although, as will be obvious on virtually any
page of the annotations, I have never followed them uncritically. But even when I disagree with them, I often record their
remarks if some interesting observation is offered. Their responses are the closest approximation we have to those of an original
audience. In addition, since in their eyes the Rāmāyaṇa is a dharmaśāstra or manual of proper conduct as well as a work of theological significance, I have translated or summarized many of their
comments of a more general sort (ritual, legal, allegorical), though these may have no direct bearing on our understanding
of the text.
All translators acutely feel the obligation of not disappointing their author, well aware, at the same time, that there is
always someone to charge them, as Blake put it, with being “hired to run down men of genius under the guise of translator.” Vālmīki has substantial elements of genius, and I have striven to discharge the duty his genius imposes. But he is uneven, and the
temptation to improve — supposing I had been able to do so — had to be resisted. The Ayodhyākāṇḍa is roughly two-thirds the size of the “Odyssey”, and there is bound to be a certain amount of chaff in it. It is in large part an oral composition; the repetitions of formula
and epithet are as essential to it as any other literary or narrative feature, and for this and other reasons, these can no
longer simply be thrown overboard at the whim of the translator. It is a heroic epic, too, and for that sort of literature
a truly appropriate diction is no longer available. The only serviceable medium is, predictably, the “idiomatic, living language,”
but, besides its clear limitations in the present case, it seems sometimes a disappearing target. There is a certain indeterminateness,
a certain evanescence about it, and in those moments when it disappears bombast usually finds a way in.
Finally, the problem of tradition. The contemporary translator of the Greek epic, to take the most celebrated parallel, has
behind him some four hundred years of attempts at producing an English Homer, in which solutions have been reached that he can accept, blind alleys followed that he can now safely ignore. The Sanskritist
works in a tradition both much more recent and less useful, and cannot safely assume that a single problem, whether philological
or literary, has already been solved. He must start from the ground up — in fact from the very word dharma— and the only reasonable hope he may entertain is to have cleared some of this ground satisfactorily.