King Dasaratha is an important figure in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Dasaratha’s parents, Aja and Indumati have an unusual story; Indumati was a reborn apsara. Apsaras are beautiful nymphs produced during the creation of the Milky Ocean. They are unable to marry gods or demons, so they often visit Earth. Indumati faces rebirth due to a curse placed upon her by the sage, Trnabindu, however, he takes pity upon her and allows her to be born as the princess of Bhoja country. Trnabindu chose Aja to be Indumati’s husband as Aja was pronounced to be a man of the appropriate stature and wealth. Soon after Dasaratha’s birth, Indumati passes away and leaves Aja a widower (Devaky 141-143). Aja’s character is displayed in the manner in which he treats Indumati; he treats her with respect by acknowledging her mind as well as her beauty. Once Dasaratha matures and is able to act as king, Aja abandons an extravagant life and eventually passes away from a disease (Devaky 143). Some individuals say Aja was unable to perform his royal duties due to the sorrow he faced after Indumati’s death, and that he voluntarily starved himself in order to join her (Madan 190).
King Dasaratha of Kosala has three wives, all of whom are unable to conceive (Sivaraman 107). His first and oldest wife, Kausalya, has rights to the throne for her son unlike his second and third wives, Sumitra, and Kaikeyi. The love King Dasaratha has for Kaikeyi is comparable to the love his father, Aja had for his mother, Indumati (Madan 191). King Dasaratha’s first two wives are unable to have children, so they are unable to provide a successor to the throne. King Dasaratha believes Kaikeyi is able to conceive and thus promises her father, Aswapati, that her son would be the kingdom’s next king. However, eventually all of King Dasaratha’s wives have sons and due to the seniority of Kausalya as first wife, her son is announced as King Dasaratha’s successor. When Kaikeyi learnt of King Dasaratha’s promise to her father, she asked King Dasaratha to grant her two boons (promises) she had earned when she saved his life.
King Dasaratha had been accompanied by Kaikeyi into battle in the Dandaka forest against Shumbar, the king of Vijayanta and the brother-in-law of a demon, Ravana. When Shumbar killed the chariot driver and broke a chariot wheel, Kaikeyi was forced to drive the chariot in order to save King Dasaratha’s life. When King Dasaratha granted Kaikeyi two boons in reward, she initially refused them until, at his persistence, she asked to save them for later (Mittal: 206-207).
As King Dasaratha was originally unable to have children, he reached out to the gods by performing an Asvamedha, the horse sacrifice, asking them to bestow a child upon him. Collectively, many gods pressured Lord Visnu into manifesting himself into the sons of King Dasaratha in order to defeat the demon, Ravana. However, there is a disagreement over how King Dasaratha received the potion that would ultimately lead to the birth of his sons. Some say Visnu himself presented the potion to King Dasaratha during the sacrifice (Sivaraman 107), while others argue that Agni, the god of fire, presented King Dasaratha with Caru, a sacrificial food (Madan 191). Despite the disagreement on how King Dasaratha gained this magical substance, all three of his wives received portions of it. Instructed to divide the potion between his wives; King Dasaratha gave half to Kausalya due to her seniority and the other half to Kaikeyi due to his fondness for her. Unfortunately, this did not leave any for Sumitra which caused Kausalya and Kaikeyi to each give her half of their portions. Since Sumitra technically received two servings, she bore two sons (Madan 191). Kausalya bore Rama, Sumitra bore twins, Laksmana, and Satrughna, and Kaikeyi bore Bharata.
The story of the Ramayana is heavily influenced by King Dasaratha and his relationships with Kaikeyi, Aswapati, and Rama. When Dasaratha must choose a successor, he chooses Rama but, Kaikeyi soon intervenes. She learns of Rama’s appointment through her maid who convinces her that Bharata should be heir to the throne. Rama happens to be Dasaratha’s favorite son, so it is difficult for her to convince him to change his decision. Kaikeyi is only able to secure Bharata’s position on the throne by reminding King Dasaratha of the two boons promised to her. Kaikeyi uses these boons to remove Rama from the kingdom by banishing him to exile for fourteen years, placing Bharata as successor to the kingdom. Upon hearing this request, Dasaratha becomes highly distraught, yet is unable to break his promise to Kaikeyi. When Rama learns about the exile, he goes to King Dasaratha and agrees to leave the kingdom in order to minimize the guilt his father feels. Despite Rama’s brother, Laksmana’s, and Kausalya’s pleas for him to stay in the kingdom, Rama declares that his dharma or highest duty, is to help his father. Rama informs his wife, Sita, of his departure and asks her to cooperate with Bharata and the rest of his family. Sita, however, believes that her duty as a pati-vrata, (devoted wife), is to follow Rama into the woods for the duration of his exile. Although Rama informs Sita of any and all possible dangers, she is persistent on accompanying him (Winternitz 3). Although Sita’s father, King Janaka of Videha, insisted that Rama compete for her hand in marriage, they were destined to be together. This is shown by Sita’s devotion to Rama despite the fact that they did not know each other before marriage.
Sita did not have a normal birth, as King Janaka had discovered her arising from the Earth while he plowed a field which led him to name her “Sita” which means “furrow”. In order to choose Sita’s husband, King Janaka held a contest containing one task, drawing a special bow designed for the gods. Although many men attempt to draw the bow, they all failed and Rama became the first man able to affect the bow’s structure, he broke it in half. This action made Rama worthy of Sita and led to a happy marriage between them until they both were obliged to leave the kingdom (Winternitz 2).
When Rama and Sita prepare for exile, Laksmana decides to join them and does not sway from this decision, despite his family pleading him to stay. A few nights after their departure, King Dasaratha is unable to sleep and recounts a curse placed upon him in his youth. This curse was placed by the father of a blind child who was mistakenly killed by Dasaratha during a hunting trip. It indicated the manner in which Dasaratha would die, namely, due to the grief of a lost son. A few days after Rama’s departure, this prophecy comes true and Dasaratha passes away. After his death, Bharata is offered the throne but he declines due to the value he places on tradition; Bharata believes Rama should be the next king as he was originally appointed by Dasaratha. Although Rama mourns his father’s death and performs a funeral for him, he refuses to return to the kingdom until he has completed the terms of his exile (Winternitz 4), eventually returning and becoming king (Winternitz 10).
King Dasaratha’s devotion to Kaikeyi ultimately leads to his own demise as well as many of the events in the Ramayana epic. Many scholars believe that Dasaratha’s love for Kaikeyi is relatable to Aja’s love for Indumati. Some refer to Kaikeyi as Dasaratha’s kama (sensory pleasure) (Madan 192). King Dasaratha was easily able to overlook any of Kaikeyi’s flaws and assumes that Kaikeyi’s anger is justified either by being provoked by someone or as a rouse in order to excite him. This love for Kaikeyi had the power to change the fate of the kingdom drastically, however, Bharata and Rama are able to prevent this from occurring. When Kaikeyi asks for her two boons, Dasaratha must grant them in accordance to the promise he made, as well as his love for her. Although Rama decides to leave the kingdom for his exile, Bharata defies his mother and willingly gives up the throne, recognizing that Rama’s seniority as well as superiority makes him a better choice for king (Madan 193-194). Dasaratha’s relationship with Aswapati plays a crucial role in Rama’s exile, because Dasaratha is unable to break his previous promise to Aswapati. If Dasaratha had been able to break this promise, Rama would not have left the kingdom, and a father would not have been separated from his son. This exile ends the close relationship between father and son, resulting in a copious amount of guilt for Dasaratha which coupled with his sorrow, eventually led to his death.
King Dasaratha’s respect for the actions of others, such as the bravery of Kaikeyi in the battle in the Dandaka forest, results in him having a verbal commitment to fulfill any request placed upon him. Those requests coupled with the admiration and love King Dasaratha has for both his wife, Kaikeyi, and his son, Rama, leads to the events in the Ramayana epic as well as his death.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING RECOMMENDATIONS
Devaky, E.S. (2006) “Major Female Characters of Kalidasa.” Feminist Readings in Kalidasa’s works. India: University of Calicut.
Madan, T. N. (1988) Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honor of Louis Dumont. India: Motilal Banarsidass.
McLeish, Kenneth (1996) Myth: Myths and Legends of the World Explored. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Mittal, J.P (2006) History of Ancient India (a New Version): From 7300 Bb to 4250 Bc. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers.
Raman, V. Varadaraja (1998) Balakanda: Ramayana as Literature and Cultural History. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.
Rodrigues, Hillary Peter (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. United States of America: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.
Sankalia, Hasmukhlal Dhirajlal (1982) The Ramayana in the Historical Perspective. Delhi: Macmillan.
Sivarama Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New Delhi: Motilal Banasidass.
Winternitz, Maurice (1927) A History of Indian Literature. New York: Russell & Russell.
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Article written by: Crystal Mulik (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.