Kaikeyi’s confidence that the throne would pass to her son, though unusual, could have two reasons: as she declares above, the dharma that governs kingship in Ayodhya determines that, in time, Bharata too would be king. But the other reason seems more compelling.

When Dasharatha asked for Kaikeyi’s hand in marriage, her father gave his permission on one condition. Seeing that Dasharatha was much older than his daughter and knowing that he had at least one other wife, Ashvapati asked that Kaikeyi’s son succeed Dasharatha as ruler of Kosala. Dasharatha agreed and his marriage to Kaikeyi was solemnised.

With all this behind her, we could argue that Kaikeyi was entirely justified in her demand that Bharata be made king, even without the boons that she had up her sleeve. She could simply have reminded Dasharatha of the promise he had made to her father. But there is a further argument from dharma that justifies Kaikeyi’s behaviour. Kaikeyi was, in fact, fulfilling her dharma as a mother by attempting to secure her son’s future in a royal family that had three other contenders to kingship.

We are used to seeing Kaikeyi as the villain of Rama’s story, persuaded that her greed for power is what led Rama to be exiled, and eventually, to lose his wife. If we see Kaikeyi’s desire to put Bharata on the throne as a mother’s natural instinct to protect her child, then we can acknowledge the possibility that Kaikeyi was acting in consonance with her dharma rather than against the various other constraints placed upon her as one of three queens, a queen whose son was not the eldest, and therefore, not rightfully the heir apparent of Kosala.

Having to choose between conflicting dharmas is not uncommon in the Ramayana. On the contrary, these dilemmas are the narrative spine of the story.

Dasharatha, too, had to choose between his dharma as a husband (honouring the boons that he gave to his wife when she saved him from death), his dharma as a father (honouring primogeniture with Rama as his heir to the throne), and his dharma as a king (honouring the pledge he had made to his people). When he chose to honour the boons that he had given Kaikeyi, Dasharatha chose his private dharma, that of being a good husband.

So, too, when Kaikeyi had to choose between her dharma as a wife (acceding to Dasharatha’s decisions and wishes) and her dharma as a mother (securing her son’s future), she chose to be singularly a mother rather than one of three queens. This, too, was the elevation of a private relationship over a public responsibility.

Kaikeyi’s capacity to execute what she believes to be her dharmic choice stems from her karma, from a single deed in her past. She gains the boons that will allow her to insist on Rama’s banishment and the enthronement of her own son because of her act of extraordinary courage when she saved Dasharatha’s life in the war with the asuras. On the other hand, the act that changed Dasharatha’s future, his accidental (though arrogant) killing of the young ascetic, was elevated into the retributive wheel of karmic justice which he could not escape because of the curse that the ascetic’s parents placed on him.

And so, like the ascetic’s parents, Dasharatha died separated from and burning with grief for his beloved son. Kaikeyi’s past karma that later empowers her remains a single act and does not set the karmic wheel of predestination in motion. Because of that, she is free to choose what she does next, and she chooses to act in favour of her son.

Kaikeyi is not a rudderless ship tossed about on the whims of the winds that circle her. She talks of dharma when she speaks of Rama and is aware that there are rules and mores that must be respected and nurtured. It is within these boundaries that she sees her duty as a mother, once Manthara has alerted her to the fact that she is betraying her own son in her vicarious joy at Rama’s coronation.

Kaushalya, too, takes recourse to the dharma of a mother as she tries to deal with the catastrophe that has befallen her. When Rama comes to tell her the news about his banishment, she is in the process of preparing for her new role as the mother of the king.

“Kaushalya had fasted all night and now that it was morning, she was praying to Vishnu for her son’s welfare. This devout woman, who always kept the prescribed fasts, was dressed in pure white and was pouring oblations into the fire as she recited the auspicious mantras. When she saw Rama, she rose and ran towards him joyfully, as if she had not seen him for a long time, as a mare would run to her foal. Overflowing with love, she spoke sweetly to her resolute son. ‘May you be blessed with a long life and all success, like the other wise rulers of our clan! Your father has kept his word, Rama. Today he shall anoint you his heir.’”

Kaushalya is devastated when Rama tells her what has happened. But her first reaction to the news is not that of a mother but that of a queen who has not been treated well by fate or by the people around her.

“Kaushalya deserved all happiness but now she spoke sorrowfully to her son who was attending to her with concern. ‘Had I never given birth to you, Rama, I would have known the grief of a childless woman. But the sorrow I feel now is far greater. Earlier, too, I had neither the good fortune nor the happiness of being my husband’s favourite. But I waited for the joy that would arise from having a son! ‘Though I am superior to all the king’s other wives, I have had to tolerate many remarks from them that have wounded me deeply. Whose sorrow could be greater than mine? I have been insulted while you were still here. Imagine what will happen when you are gone! Life for me shall be worse than death! Even my loyal retainers shall turn away from me because they fear Kaikeyi’s son Bharata! From the moment you were born seventeen years ago, I have waited anxiously for an end to my sorrows. I have raised you with prayers and fasts and all kinds of austerities but these have brought me nothing but unhappiness.’”

This brings us back to Kaushalya’s position as Dasharatha’s senior wife, and possibly the reason why he is, in fact, ruler of Kosala. As the first queen, Kaushalya had clearly expected status and respect, if not love, from the king. What she got instead was disdain and contempt from the other women at court who threw wounding remarks and insults her way, probably because they knew that the king did not regard her seniority as important.

All the power Kaushalya had expected (and deserved) in her position as the king’s consort has been ignored. Because we have no backstory, as it were, for Kaushalya, we have no way to know where her own understanding of the respect she deserves comes from. Of course, she has our sympathy as a woman ignored, a woman replaced by a younger and more attractive rival. But despite our sympathy, we are unable to see the source of her larger distress that she so fully and completely places before Rama as he surrenders to his father’s decree.

The only possible clue lies in her name which means “woman of Kosala”. As the emotional scene in Kaushalya’s chambers continues, Lakshmana vociferously objects to Rama’s obedience to the king who, Lakshmana thinks, is too befuddled to be taken seriously. Now, Kaushalya changes tack and reminds Rama that he is a son to her as well as to his father.

“‘Ignore the unrighteous words of my husband’s wife. You cannot go away and leave me here tormented by grief! You know dharma and you are devoted to righteousness. Stay here and look after me – that would be the highest dharma of all!...Just as you honour the king and respect his majesty, so, too, should you honour me. I forbid you to go into the forest!’”

Rama has a rather unsympathetic response to his mother’s pleas and then her command. He addresses Lakshmana who was the first to suggest that Rama was not obliged to listen to his father. Rama says:

“‘Dharma is the most important thing in the world, truth is established because of it. And obeying a father’s command is the highest dharma of all, as is conforming to the wishes of a mother and brahmin. I cannot disobey my father simply because Kaikeyi, our mother, asked him to command me thus.’”

Rama dismisses Kaushalya’s pathos about her own life as well as her call that he do his duty by her as a son. At the same time, he acknowledges Kaikeyi as (also) his mother and validates her claim to his obedience, even after Kaushalya has referred to Kaikeyi as “my husband’s wife”. Kaushalya is left with nothing but her bitter tears. She has now been rejected not only by her husband but also, effectively, by the son in whom she had placed all the hopes of her resurrection to power. Could it be that Rama, too, realises that it is Kaikeyi’s will that holds sway, not only with the king, but even with the people of Ayodhya?

The righteous words and exalted moral position by which Rama rejects his mother matter little to her in this moment of her abandonment, both as a mother whose son does not respond to her ultimate plea, and as a queen who has no say in the matters of the kingdom, a kingdom that she might well have brought to her husband.


Maryada: Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana, Arshia Sattar, HarperCollins India.