Another tale from Myths & Legends of India:
Kaikeyi and Manthara from Ramayana Info
The Crookedness of Manthara
Pages: 76 – 80
With the inheritance of his kingdom secure, and his four sons happily married, the aged King Dasaratha decided to step down from active rule and install his eldest son Rama as regent. There was general joy and approval when he announced this, and Kaikeyi and Sumitra – mothers of Bharata, Lakshmana and Satrughna – were as delighted as Rama’s mother Kausalya, for they all loved and revered Rama for his courage and compassion.
Under the direction once again of the sage Vasishtha, a spectacular ceremony was prepared, at which Rama would be formally installed. An auspicious day was chosen, and all seemed to bode well; but Dasaratha felt somehow ill at ease, and his fitful sleep was disturbed by frightening dreams. Yet there seemed no reason not to go ahead, and Rama and Sita were instructed by Vasishtha to fast and meditate for the whole night before. The night was nearly over, and Rama had risen, bathed and put on his finest silken garment, when there was an unexpected and tragic turn in the course of events.
Kaikeyi, mother of Bharata, had a maid called Manthara, who was hunchbacked in body, but – worse than that – was crooked and spiteful in mind. When she saw the preparations for the ceremony, and heard from Rama’s ayah what the purpose of it was, she was filled with anger and disgust – for she hated Rama and Kausalya, and had a warped and passionate loyalty to Bharata and Kaikeyi.
So she rushed to her mistress, and cried, ‘Wake up! Wake up! The future of your son and your won comfort and security are in jeopardy. The senile king has decided to install Rama as regent; Bharata will be sent away, and you will soon find that Kausalya will have complete dominance over you.’
Kaikeyi’s heart was not inherently twisted like her maid’s. Indeed, such was her respect and affection for Rama, and her trust in his fairness and loyalty to his brothers, that at first the news that he would be regent dismayed her not at all. ‘What nonsense are you talking,” she said to Manthara. ‘The king is right to install Rama. He is the eldest, and I love him as I do my own son. I see no threat to Bharata or to me. I thank you for bringing me this news, and give you this jewel as a token of my happiness.’
But Manthara was not pacified. She hurled the jewel to the ground, and said with even greater vehemence, ‘I never thought to hear such foolish words from my queen and mistress! Surely, as a mother, you should place your own son’s interests first. I tell you, as soon as Rama is ruling the kingdom and Kausalay is preening herself as queen-mother, there will be no future for you and Bharata.’
Again Kaikeyi was unmoved, and insisted that Rama was too noble and kind to do anything to their detriment; but Manthara continued relentlessly, pouring poisonous malice into Kaikeyi’s ear, until jealousy and suspicion were planted in her heart at last. Her trust in Rama fell away, and she began to persuade that the only solution was to find a way of banishing Rama from the kingdom, before he did the same to Bharata and herself.
Glumly, and with none of the tenderness and affection that had been in her heart and voice when she first heard the news, she said to Manthara, ‘if you are right, then how can we ensure Rama’s banishment? You know how the king and courtiers and townspeople all love him.’
‘You have a lever’, said Manthara, ‘that you have forgotten. Remember how, years ago, when Dasaratha fought a war against demons and was wounded, and how with your skill and ministration you healed his wounds? At that time, he was so grateful to you that he promised with a solemn oath to grant you a boon. You did not claim it then, but you can claim it now. Remind him of his oath, and ask him to send Rama into exile in the forest for fourteen years. That will give Bharata time to establish himself as heir and regent in his stead, and he will become so popular and successful that no one will want Rama when he returns. Use your feminine wiles! Threaten to starve yourself to death if Dasaratha fails to keep his promise and grant your request.’
Thoroughly corrupted now by her maid, Kaikeyi stripped herself of all her ornaments and went to lie down in the gloomy room in the palace that was used by women when in a state of mourning. ‘Tell the king to come and find me there,’ she said to Manthara.
The day had dawned, and Dasaratha had woken, bathed and dressed for the great royal ceremony. Wishing to first see his queen Kaikeyi – whom he loved no less than his other two queens – he walked to her apartment. But found her absent from it, and instead her maid Manthara was waiting, who told him with false anxiety and dread that her mistress had gone to the mourning-chamber, and that she was refusing to eat.
Dasaratha quickly made his way to the chamber. ‘What is the matter?’ he said in alarm when he saw Kaikey in so dismal a state. Groaning and weeping, she said that she would not tell him the cause of her despair unless he kept the promise he had years ago made her to grant her a boon – to give her whatever she desired.
Full of love and concern for her, Dasaratha told her he certainly remembered his promise, and he would certainly meet her desire, even if she asked him to tear out his heart.
Immediately Kaikeyi rose from her couch, stood up confidently and said with triumph in her voice, ‘This is the boon I ask of you: that you banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years, and install my son Bharata as regent and heir in his stead.’
Words cannot convey the horror and shock that this demand inflicted on the noble, aged king. He lost all self-control; he fell to the ground; he implored Kaikeyi to take back her demand; he begged her not to trample on the justice of Rama’s claim, to insult the love that everyone had for him by asking something so cruel and unjust he was baffled, appalled, astonished that she could as such a thing. Had she gone mad?
But Kaikey was adamant, and said she would drink poison before his eyes if he defied her. He, in turn, though fainting and staggering with despair, rebuked her with all the anger that his ageing body could muster, and told her that she was no longer his true wife.
The time for ceremony was near, and Rama and Lakshmana were in a two-horse chariot, ready for the procession to the place where it was to be performed. But when they looked for Dasaratha, they found him in a stunned state in Kaikeyi’s mourning-chamber, and all the old man could say was ‘Rama, Rama’.
‘I will tell you what has happened,’ said Kaikeyi coldly, ‘so long as you promise to carry out your father’s command, which he must deliver to you to keep a vow that he made to me, though now he regrets it.’
‘How can you doubt that I would do so?’ said Rama. ‘My father’s word is law, and my devotion to him has no limit.’
Then Kaikey told Rama that his father had committed himself to banishing him to the forest for fourteen years. ‘If that is his wish and command,’ said Rama, with the calmness and nobility that already made him the prince of all men, ‘I accept it without demure or question.’ At this, Dasaratha sank to the ground again, speechless with shame and grief; while Kaikeyi – and her maid lurking in the background – smiled at all those present with proud, callous triumph.
Lakshmana was incensed, and Rama’s mother Kausalya was wild with outrage and grief, but Rama argued calmly that the king’s command should be accepted dutifully and serenely. When his mother threatened to kill herself if he was banished, he told her that her first duty was to her husband: that if she died, Dasaratha too would surely die of grief at her loss. Reluctantly and tearfully, she agreed that he was right, and blessed her son for his courage and nobility. Lakshmana remained rebellious, but in the end he too bowed to his elder brother’s wisdom, though he insisted that if Rama was to be exiled, he would accompany him.
As for Sita, Rama first tried to persuade her to stay behind, to comfort his mother and pray for his welfare. The harsh life of an exile in the forest was not for her! But Sita, with the devotion to him that was her entire reason for living, said that she was prepared to share any hardship, and that she could not contemplate life without him, and would be force to take her own life if he left her behind.
Thus did Rama, Sita and Lakshmana go into exile, leaving their beloved city of Ayodhya amidst laminations from all, except for the wicked and victorious Manthara, and her corrupted mistress Queen Kaikeyi. And within a week of their departure, King Dasaratha died, the pain and grief of their banishment being too much for his old heart to bear.