The tragedy of Dasharatha8

There was once a great King named Dasharatha. He was the father of the great Ramachandra, one of India’s Avatars. King Dasharatha was an expert in the art of archery and his teacher, Bhargava, was extremely pleased with his student. There was only one particular knowledge which Bhargava did not impart to his student. It was a special type of archery in which it is not necessary to even see the prey. By just hearing the sound of the animal, no matter where it is, the archer can shoot it. This secret knowledge Bhargava did not want to give Dasharatha because he was a Kshatriya. Although Kshatriyas are very spirited, courageous and determined, they have one weakness: they lack a disciplined life and sometimes they become a victim of restlessness. Therefore, Bhargava was unwilling to give Dasharatha the necessary skill.

But Dasharatha begged and begged his teacher. Repeatedly he declared, “I will not misuse it, I will not misuse it. I promise you.”

Finally, Bhargava acceded to the King’s entreaty. “All right,” he said, “I will give it to you, since you are begging me. But I am afraid that one day you will bring a serious calamity to yourself and to the members of your family and also to some innocent victims through your unfortunate use of this knowledge. However, as you are begging me so earnestly, how can I displease you, my son?” So Bhargava gave the secret knowledge and secret capacity to his dearest student, Dasharatha.

Dasharatha was now extremely happy and delighted, for he knew that he had mastered all the strategies of archery.

A few years passed and one day a strong desire entered into Dasharatha’s mind. He said, “Let me go into the deep forest and test the secret capacity that Bhargava has given me. Then I shall be able to discover whether I actually have learnt how to aim at animals without seeing them.”

So Dasharatha went into the forest. When evening came, a sound reached his ears, which he was sure was the trumpeting of an elephant. Dasharatha immediately pulled back his bow and let the arrow fly. Then lo and behold, this time a human sound came back to him in the night: “Mother, Mother, I am finished.”

Dasharatha followed the sound to its source and what did he see? He saw a little boy of nine who had come to fetch water from a pond. The little boy’s father, a great sage, was blind. His mother was all affection and love for her only child, her darling son. Because his parents were old, the son helped them in many ways, even at this early age. This particular evening his parents had been thirsty, so he had come to draw water from a pond near their cottage. As he was approaching the pond, the arrow came flying towards his heart and struck him down.

When Dasharatha came and saw the scene, he felt intensely miserable at what he had done. He cried out piteously, “Oh, Guru Bhargava, you were right, you were right! I was not meant for this sacred, sacred knowledge, these extraordinary capacities.”

The little boy turned his eyes to Dasharatha and said to him, “I am dying. No harm, I shall die. But do me a favour, will you? Will you go and carry this pitcher to my parents? My parents are thirsty and they are expecting me at any moment. Please, please do me this last favour. Don’t you worry about me. This is my fate, but please go and give water to my parents. They are thirsty, extremely thirsty.” Then the little boy, Sindhu, turned his face to Heaven and died.

Dasharatha burst into tears. With one hand he took up the dead body of the little boy and with the other he carried the pitcher, full to the brim. Slowly, and with a heavy heart, he made his way to the cottage of Sindhu’s parents.

When Sindhu’s father heard the sound of footsteps he said, “Sindhu, Sindhu, my Sindhu, you have come! We are waiting for you. What happened to make you so late today, my child? Both your mother and I are pinched with thirst, and you have come to quench our thirst. You are our dearest child, our only darling. Please, please, always try to be on time. Do not waste any time when you go on errands that take you away from us. We need you badly at every moment.”

Dasharatha could remain silent no longer. He said, “Oh sage, I am the wretched Dasharatha. Forgive me, forgive me. Your dearest, sweetest child, Sindhu, is no more. I have come and brought your son. But, alas, he is without life. Now, although I am the King, I am at your mercy entirely. Do anything you want with my life.”

The father and mother could not believe their ears. As soon as the mother saw her son lying dead in Dasharatha’s arms, she fainted and immediately her husband followed her. In an hour’s time, when they had both recovered, they said to Dasharatha, “O King, please do us the kindness of arranging for a pyre to be made straight away. Our last request of you is this: As soon as the pyre is lit, we wish to join our son on it. As soon as the fire starts blazing, we shall place our son on it first and then we shall also enter into the climbing flames.”

In great distress, the King said, “No, no, no! That cannot be done. One soul has died. Already I am responsible for one human being’s losing his life, and at such a tender age! Now must I be responsible for two more? Oh no, no! Please forgive me, I am the King. I will do everything that is within my limited human capacity to console you, but this thing I cannot do.”

With one voice the parents answered him. “No, King, stay we cannot. We cannot be dissuaded from joining our son. He was dearer than the dearest to us. Without him our life is meaningless and will always remain meaningless. Therefore, let us go with him.”

“Then,” Dasharatha said, “what will be my punishment?”

“No punishment,” the mother replied. “Why should we blame you? This is our fate. We forgive you. Our son forgave you and we also forgive you.”

Her husband, the sage, said, “Wait! My son has forgiven him, you can forgive him, but I cannot. Although I have done yoga and practised austerities all my life — infinitely more than my son and you — I cannot forgive him. I simply cannot!

“Dasharatha, you are responsible, totally responsible, for our son’s death and I am compelled to curse you. You too, will one day miss your son the way I am missing mine. You will be obliged to send your son into the forest because of your foolish fondness for one of your wives and, through this unthinkable behaviour, you will lose your dearest, eldest son.”

At the time of these events, Dasharatha didn’t have a son. But when he heard the curse he cried out, “O God, O God, don’t give me a son, don’t give me a son. I don’t need one, I don’t need one. It is better not to have a son and not to miss the son than to send the son into the forest to be killed. But I cannot conceive how this death could take place. How could it happen? Why would it happen? Who among my wives would be so unkind as to compel me to send my son into the forest? Impossible, impossible! Yet the curse of the sage may come true. O God, I beg You either to give me a son who will escape this curse or to give me no son at all. For to lose a son and enjoy the kingdom would be simply impossible for me. O Lord Supreme, forgive me, forgive my misdeed. Let this curse remain unfulfilled, I pray.”

But, alas, how can the curse of a great sage pass unfulfilled? There came a time when Dasharatha was indeed compelled by his second wife, Kaikeyi, to send his son, who was dearer than the dearest to him, into the forest and there the inevitable happened. It was simply impossible for Dasharatha to bear the shock of his son’s death and, lamenting the loss, he died.

GIM 88. 23 January 1979