Was Rama a democrat or a despot?

by sudarshan madabushi (Source: oppiliappan@yahoogroups d. 17-May-2004)

It was an intriguing question indeed: "Was Rama a democrat or a despot?"
I  immediately proceeded to delve into the Valmiki Ramayana to try and cull out an answer for myself.

The history of mankind, if one looks at it from a certain angle, is really nothing but a series of periods of despotism and democracy succeeding one another. Sometimes democrats have ruled, at other times despots have ruled. Democratic despots and despotic democrats have ruled too. History remembers them today as either "benevolent dictators" or democrats who ruled with their "iron fist inside velvet gloves"...  

Now, what about Lord Rama of the Valmiki Ramayana? Was he a benevolent, democratic despot? Or was he a despotic democrat? The answer can be found, if at all, only in the pages of the Ramayana. Many are the scenes in the Valmiki Ramayana where we come across the will of the people directly clashing with the will of Lord Rama belying thereby the age-old dictum of "vox populi, vox Dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God) which democracies all over the world today have come to regard as sacred cow.

The first instance of conflict between Rama and the popular will we can find in the Ayodhya "kAnda". Rama leaves Ayodhya to go into exile in deference to his father, King Dasaratha's will. But the people of Ayodhya at large are very much against the idea. Rama however is firm in his resolve and takes leave of them and rides away in a chariot driven by the courtier Sumantara.

But the people of Ayodhya will not give up so easily. They follow Rama's chariot all the way out of Ayodhya and beyond the city's outskirts even. They keep trailing Sumanthara's chariot, and entreating Rama not to leave the kingdom. We see that they simply would not let their Prince go...

So persistent thus was the general populace of Ayodhya that the Ramayana records they kept following Rama's chariot in a long procession the whole day until dusk finally fell. There were a number of Brahmanas even of great sanctity following him obstinately. They went as far as the River Tamasa, where Rama and Sumantara crossed over to the other bank and ostensibly set up camp. The people watched Rama from a distance, on the other side, as he pretended to retire for the night.

After a while the people, tired after the long journey of the day, they too lay down and went to sleep on the other bank of the river. As they were asleep, Rama said to Sumantara: "Now you had better quietly take this chariot and drive northward as if you were trying to return to Ayodhya. And when the people are off their guard as it were, come back from that side by another way. I'll come and join you and then we can steal away in the night without their knowing anything".

Sumantara did as he was told and that was exactly how Rama, by stealth and ruse, threw the people of Ayodhya off his trail -- the people whom it was truly difficult to shake off since, in their loyalty and adoration, they were determined to follow him until he yielded to their request to return to their kingdom. 

The second instance in the Valmiki Ramayana in which Rama chose to go against the express wishes of the larger public is again later in the Ayodhya "kAnda". This time it is when the whole population of Ayodhya goes along with Bharatha to the forest-abode of Chitrakoota where Rama has set up camp. The people meet Rama there and along with Bharatha entreat him to return to the throne at Ayodhya and take up his duty as King now that the old king Dasaratha is dead.

Bharata tells Rama, "How can I take up the burden of governance when you are here in exile? What will the people say? I have brought everyone and everything from the capital. I have brought here all the women of the land; I have brought all the gurus; Vasishta is here; I have brought all the 'sasmagris' necessary for your anointment as king; the army is here; ministers are here; musicians are here. It is my intention, and the intention of all assembled here now that you must be crowned! Let us proceed, O Rama!" (II.106.22-34)

"rakshitUm sumaha-drAjya-aham-ekastu nOth-sahE I  powra-jAnapadAms-chApi rakthAn ranjayitUm tathA II

"tvAmEva hi pratIshantE parjanyamiva karshakAh:"I       (II.112.12)

"Brother, I cannot go and govern Ayodhya! Who will obey me? All the people say, "We want Rama, we want Rama!" What can I do? I cannot govern. I have no capacity. What shall I do?" laments Bharatha to Rama. "As in a dry season when the rains are late, the peasants lift uo their hands and ask Indra to shower rain upon them, so are all the people, our relations, friends, poor subjects, ministers and all -- they all want you and you alone to be king."

In spite of all the entreaties and lamentations of the people of Ayodhya that day, Rama remained firm in his resolve not to return to Ayodhya. Once again the will of the people was defeated by the Will of God.

The third instance in the Valmiki Ramayana appears in the "yuddha-kAnda" where we see that Rama's action directly conflicted with democratic norms such as "rule by majority", "collective responsibility" and "governance by consensus".

The scene in the "yuddha-kAnda" is from the 18th 'sarga'. Visbheeshana has come to Rama seeking asylum and protection. He surrenders to Rama. Rama then orders Vibheeshana to wait and immediately thereafter convenes a Council of War. The Council of War includes Sugriva, Jambavan, Angada, Hanuman and all other important generals and chieftains in Rama's camp. Rama then puts forth the case of Visbheeshana's asylum to the Council members and asks for their advice.

The Council, with the notable exception of Hanuman, unanimously advises against accepting Vibheeshana into their camp. The chief objection is put forth by Sugriva himself:

"Idrisham vyasanam prAptam BrAtaram yah parityajEth I kO nAma sa bhavEthasya yamEsha na parityajEth II"     (VI.18.5-6)

"A brother who deserts his brother's side in the midst of such calamity and crisis, as Visbheeshana has done -- who may hope to find faith in him? Whom indeed will he not traitorously forsake?"

The Council of War thus gave its unequivocal verdict. It was the general consensus. In having convened the Council to decide on the matter, Rama did act in the highest traditions of democratic conduct. But what was the final outcome? Did he abide by the decision of the Council?

Despite the Council's verdict, Rama took exactly the opposite course of action.  He decided to grant asylum to Vibheeshana under the 'minority' advice given by Hanuman who said, "O Rama, Vibheeshana has seen how able you are and how effectively you helped Sugriva get rid of his evil brother, Vali.  Vibheeshan too similarly desires to be king of Lanka and knows he can do it with your help. It is a natural ambition of the younger brother to over-throw an evil elder brother. This is why he has come here to you. I think it is therefore advisable to have him on our side in this war".

That was Hanuman's minority and dissenting view which Rama adopted and thereby ignored completely the majority view of the Council of War. This is another instance in the Ramayana where we learn an important lesson: God may choose to observe democratic norms and niceties but may not always feel obliged to adhere wholly to them. In other words, God does not always "walk the talk".

The only instance in the Valmiki Ramayana where we do see Rama bowing fully to the dictates of democratic will, when he did bow to the so-called 'Will of the People', was alas, the time when it also had the most disastrous outcome. That scene is in the "uttara-kAndam", the 7th and final Book of the Ramayana.

After the Lanka War, Rama returned to rule Ayodhya. He lived happily with Sita for many years. But one day, Rama's state intelligence agency came to him and faithfully reported that the common people of Ayodhya were beginning to say downright slanderous things about his queen:

"yathA hi kurutE rAjA prajA tamanuvartatE" II   (VII.43.19)

"Evam bahuvidhA vAchO vadanti puravAsinah:" I nagarEshu cha sarvEshu rAjanjana-padEshu cha II   (VII.43.20)

"Whether you go into the streets of the city or whether you walk into the rural parts, the people everywhere are saying slanderous things about Queen Sita and you, Your majesty", said the agents.

"The common people's tongues are wagging -- they say, "What sort of happiness can our King Rama be having sleeping with that woman who has lived for a time in Ravana's house? How can he enjoy? How does our King not shrink away from such a woman who has been taken to Lanka by a rakshasa?"

Valmiki further adds a cruel twist to the tale here. The people on the streets, he writes, were also wondering aloud:

"asmAkamapi dArEshu sahaneeyam bhavishyati" I    (VII.43.18)

"Tomorrow or the day after, when our own women in the household misbehave, we must also like our King put up with it, is it not?".          In this scene of the "uttara-kAnda", we hear the real voice of the common man of Ayodhya -- not for a moment hesitating to stoop to casting a heinous, disgraceful slur on the fair name of Queen Sita! Sita! The same lady who everyone knew had come through pure and unsullied from the test of the "agni-pravEsa! 'Vox Populi' had spoken... and spoken loudly and most cruelly...

This was the moment when Rama, deciding to bow to the Will of the People, and in the larger interest of the state of Ayodhya, chose to carry out the most tragic, the most painful act of his life -- he banished the beautiful, pure and innocent Sita from Ayodhya.forever to the forests...

In this one instance in the Ramayana, we see how the Almighty Will of God chose to let the petty will of common humanity prevail.                                                 

Having examined all the above instances from the Ramayana what are we to make of Rama's character? Was he by temperament and outlook a democratic (benevolent) despot or a despotic democrat (with velvet-gloved iron fists)? It is a very baffling question indeed. In the first two instances in the Ayodhya "kAnda", when it would have really behooved Rama to act in accordance with the will of the people i.e. in a democratic way, we see that he chose to act like a self-willed despot and went against their wishes. In the other two incidents, however, where none could have faulted Rama if he had acted indeed like a dictatorial despot, he however went on to act in the true spirit of a democrat. IN the "yuddha-kAnda", Rama was Commander-in-Chief waging a great war. There is no place and no need whatsoever for democratic niceties in War and yet Rama chose to observe the courtesy of democracy in the Vibheeshana episode. And again in the "uttara-kAnda", Rama would have indeed been within his rights to have acted like a stubborn despot unmindful of what people said about the character of Queen Sita. "As far as I am concerned", he could have easily said, "as far as I am concerned she has been long ago acquitted and vindicated by the verdict of the "agni-pravEsam". To hell with the people's stance on this matter". No one could have faulted Rama if he had taken a stand such as this in the true mould of a despotic ruler. And yet Rama chose to act the other way -- in the highest syle of a true democrat.  

So the question still remains to perplex us: Was Rama a Despot or a Democrat?

What can I say except this: It is better we leave the question unanswered. He who claims to know the answer can only do so if he can claim too to know the Will of God, the designs and workings of the Divine Mind. And who in the world can ever dare make such a claim? None indeed, not the greatest of Dictators, nor the greatest of Democrats of all the three worlds!