THE KING AND THE SUDRA-SAINT.
[Dash the dagger at the Sudra-saint, O right hand, in order that the dead child of the Brahman may be restored to life. Thou art a limb of that Rama who cunningly banished Sita, though she was advanced in pregnancy; how, then, could aught of compassion move thee?]
- Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacharita.
There are moments even in the obscure lives of individuals that are unknown to power and fame, when the mind is inextricably caught in the horns of a moral or religious dilemma. No perplexity, however, presents itself to the irresponsible wanderer in life’s desert, whose principles change with the changing hour, and to whom the dictates of conscience and the unwritten laws of duty and righteousness are, and have always been, a dead letter. Only those whose ideals are pure and sublime and whose aspirations point heavenward are in a position to feel the pang inflicted by many a thorn in the pathway of a well-regulated and godly life.
The verse quoted at the beginning of this article is one of the finest combinations of poetry and art that can be selected from the dramas of Bhavabhuti. We should transport ourselves to that period of Rama’s career when; fresh from his triumph over Ravana, he was wielding the sceptre as king of the Kosalas on the throne that had remained vacant ever since the demise of his venerable father, Dasaratha. Rama was an ideal king of old, who had his own notions of a model government, being, as he was, utterly ignorant of the latest politics of the twentieth century. He hit upon a plan of sending out spies into the very midst of his subjects, and learning through them the criticisms, if any, passed from time to time on his conduct both as sovereign and as citizen by every class of his people. Praises, real or formal, of his actions and of his valour, were of no avail to him. To one who occupies the first rank among men, commendation from all quarters is a matter of daily occurrence and must needs dwindle very soon into meaningless flattery. Rama was not lured by any such bauble. He wanted to know his defects, wherein he fell short of the standard to which kings are expected to conform, and what were the cures suggested as to how best the evil may be removed or counteracted. One day, - the unhappiest day in his life, perhaps, - one of his spies came to him with the news that the people expressed grave doubts as to Sita’s chastity while in Ravana’s custody and as to the advisability of retaining her in the royal palace. Sita, of no human origin, the darling daughter of mother earth, the foster-child of the foremost of royal sages, she, whose chastity, after the sore trial of a prolonged stay in the demon-chief’s realm, was tested and found to be in tact by the god of Fire himself, was now the object of censure at the hands of the ignorant mob. Was he to banish his long-lost partner in life but recently restored to him by fortune? Or was he pass by, with haughty disdain, the unpleasant opinions that his subjects thought fir to publish? It was only a minute ago that she went to sleep, reclining her head on his arm, after having wrung out from him a promise that he will revisit with her the forests of Dandaka where their happy life in exile was unexpectedly broken off by the carefully planned stratagem of Ravana. Here was a hard nut to crack. He thought, he wept, and finally came to a conclusion, in pursuance of which the chariot was ordered, and Lakshmana, under confidential instructions from his brother, had to take her to the forest and leave her there to herself. And this was done. But poor Sita knew not why Rama did not carry out his promise to accompany her, nor even that she was banished, nor the reason why such a treatment should be meted out to her. Rama’s conduct in this matter stands in need of no justification, for, none but the inconsiderate would think of blaming him for adopting such a course. He knew, far better than any of us, the relative importance of family affection and kingly duty. All considerations that were purely personal had to be forgotten when the imperial voice of duty called him forth to action. What other duty has a Kshatriya to discharge than to protect and please his subjects by all that lies in his power and to see that they are happy in every way? Let us not, therefore, mistake Rama to be a hard-hearted husband, cruel even to his lawfully wedded wife.
For a short time after this sad event, the wheel of kingdom rolled on smoothly till there was cause for another friction. This time it was the premature death of a Brahman infant. The corpse was laid at the palace door, and Rama’s misgovernment was hinted at as giving rise to such abnormal occurrence. Rama was again in a fix. He was confronted with a vague accusation whose particulars he could not ascertain. He was not conscious, to the very best of his recollection, of a single instance of voluntary misrule on his own part. If people are superstitious now, they were still more so in those by-gone days, and he too believed with others that failure of rain and frequency of pestilence and famine and premature deaths could result only from the misbehaviour of the king in the management of the state. An unknown voice in the air gave him the required clue. It declared that a Sudra whose name was Sambuka was performing a penance with as much sincerity and zeal as any Brahmin sage of ancient times was ever capable of, and that the dead child would come back to life if that Sudra-saint was discovered and slain. In this case, however, Rama was scarcely at a loss as to what he ought to do. He left his palace without any delay, with sword drawn, in search of Sambuka. And the irony of fate was such that Rama did not find him out until he came to the very forest of Dandaka, a joint visit to which was the subject of that last ill-fated and unfulfilled wish of Sita. But Rama knew not at first sight that he was in that forest. He was now face to face with the Sudra sage, ready to fling his sword at him. The poet gives us a glimpse into the complexity of feelings and emotions that, at that critical instant, bewildered the mind of that half-human, half-divine being. Rama apostrophises his right hand and commands it to deal the fatal blow. But why should it? Because the Brahmin infant should be revivified. But pity melts his heart, a stronger pity than that which overpowered Arjuna at the sight of his relations, dear and near, on the battle-field of Kurukshetra. Moreover, there was no Krishna here to rouse him to do his duty. But Rama was the Lord Himself and He was his own Teacher and guide. The human had to be merged in the divine, the purely personal in the universal good, and Rama the tender-hearted had to become the hard-hearted slayer of an innocent victim in the discharge of the stern duty incumbent on his caste. Why should compassion stop his right hand from fulfilling its mission now, thought it was unable to do so when the self-same hand signed the order of banishment of his beloved sweetheart in spite of the advanced state of her pregnancy? This bold thought gave him the necessary strength and inspiration, and the bloody deed was done. The Sudra suffered, however, no harm from it, but, on the other hand, received the benefit of freedom form a long-endured curse, and, in his heavenly form, now required, extolled Rama as his divine benefactor. The Brahmin child too opened its eyes and became, once more, the pride and joy of its parents.
But why should Rama kill a saint? Is not a Sudra as much entitled to final emancipation as any of the twice-born classes? Rapid progress in the evolution of the soul must be appreciated and rewarded, and not punished or impeded. It is true. But religion and society were not antagonistic to each other in those times. People did not then dream of a universal religion irrespective of the nationality, the caste, the family, and the thousand other circumstances that surround the life on earth of each individual. Education then did not lead men to aspire to become one with Brahman in a day or two after a cursory perusal of a ‘Sacred Book of the East.’ The stability of society was thought to depend on a proper division of labour, and none strove to occupy a place to which the rules of society did not appoint him. It was not that the twice-born was different in the least from the Sudra in the eye of God. For God was in every phase of social life and not confined, like the ‘Christian God’ to men of a particular persuasion. Religious principles might very well adorn the nature of the humblest menial, though they might be missed in the unbridled luxury of a kingly career. Cannot a petty trader, for instance, be honest in his profession and useful to his fellow-mortals, and count for a saint before the highest tribunal, while the so-called Brahmin, besmeared with ashes and muttering prayers with his mind full of the world, deserves no better fate than being condemned by God and by his own conscience as a downright impostor? What is the Kshatriya for; if not to protect his subjects against their enemies? Otherwise he would be indirectly oppressing his own people by withholding the exercise of his valour against their oppressors. It may be remembered that when Arjuna preferred the life of a mendicant to the slaughter of his elders and preceptors assembled in battle array (Gita, II.5), Krishna exerted his utmost to dissuade him from any such tendency. He also exclaims later on (Gita, III. 35), that ill-luck in the carrying out of one’s ordained duty is far better than success in the domain of a different profession in life; for, ignorant and unaccustomed, one will have to stumble on dangers and obstacles at every step.