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Manipulating Dasaratha in the Ramayana

There are two salient facts with regard to King Dasaratha,  but before we get to them, a brief round up of: who is Dasaratha? King D was the father of Rama, of Ramayana fame. He had three wives, and one, Kaikeyi, sort of allegedly saved his life in battle. Yes, in battle. She was his charioteer, the wheel broke, old Rama-daddy had an arrow sticking out of his chest, so she got out, fixed the broken wheel, and sped him out of the battlefield to have that nasty arrow wound taken care of. This was long before Manu his smriti turned women into chattel; so sure, this Kaikeyi was no demure second-class citizen, knew how to drive, and how to change a punctured tyre (that’s “fix a flat” if you’re in the US). If someone saved your life what would you do? Show your gratitude, of course. King D says – Hey missus, ask for anything, heck, ask for two things, anything, and it’s yours. Wifey says – yo pops, can I get back to you on that? And Rama-daddy says sure.

Some years later, Kaikeyi decides to cash the two IOUs. She accosts King D and says: yo papi, let my kid have yo crib and that Rama dude, he gotta go, papi. 

So Dasaratha was expected to (a) banish his oldest son Rama, and (b) hand over his kingdom to another of his sons, make him crown-prince. The alternative was to break his word. His word to one of his wives, no less.

A lot of people may have trouble with this – why not break your word if the alternative is pain and suffering for King D? And maybe to Rama & Co. To a person of accomplishment and commitment to principles, somethings are not an option. Regardless of your level of accomplishment, if you were offered a sum of money to kill a person, would you? Murder-for-hire is just not in most people’s toolkit, it violates their sense of (a) who they are and (b) how they wish to see themselves and (c) how they wish to be seen by others. “How they wish to see themselves” is crucially important here. The fear of getting caught is not the only thing that motivates people. Conduct the same thought experiment again: would you kill someone if you were assured of not being caught? The answer is probably no. Public discovery is one part of it, but “how they see themselves” is just as important. Few people want to think of themselves as killers. A solider who kills an enemy soldier is not a killer but having done the killing in the line fo duty, is often a hero. The same soldier cannot expect, in modern societies, to systematically kill innocent civilians and expected the status of hero as reward, Religious texts, notably the Old Testament, call for the slaughter of all and sundry for no good reason than total annihilation of the “enemy”, but modern societies are rightly horrified by mass killings.

So this is a king, we are told a righteous king, and kings of all stripes have an interest in keeping their word. The paper currency in your wallet is backed by the full faith and trust of your issuing government. If your issuing government’s “word” becomes less reliable and trustable, what is the currency worth? Less and less, and pretty soon, probably not much. In the same reasons-of-statecraft vein, a king has more incentive than the average person to honor their “word.” And we have King D faced with the dilemma of being true to himself, living up to his own ideals and values, topmost ideal or value first, versus emotional/psychological pain and suffering that comes with turning his values upside down. Honoring tradition, something kings are expected to do, and letting his eldest son remain crown prince and ascend the throne in due course, or keep his word (to one of his wives) which ends up trashing an important tradition.

So what happened here? Kaikeyi had many choices in the universe of choices. Half-a-kingdom, a generous annuity for her son, her son is second-in-command for life, a cute dog, a stuffed toy, a zillion gold coins to fund a school for women chariot-drivers like herself…. the potential list is endless. The choice she made, though, pitted Dasaratha against himself. A good father is not supposed to throw his eldest son out of the house, a good king is also not supposed to break his word. A no-win situation which causes him much grief no matter what. Worth noting:  Kaikeyi’s son, the intended beneficiary himself, disapproved pretty strongly of the whole thing. Refused to call her “mother” again. But that’s another story.

That’s emotional / psychological abuse at work.She had other choices and the one she chose is the one that satisfies her, and her alone. Her son is pissed off at her choice and her choice breaks the king. An abuser, in this instance, Kaikeyi, manipulates and backs the victim, Dasaratha into untenable damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t corners where he suffers emotional and/or psychological pain.