Vows, Promises & Resolutions In Indian Mythology
What would Ramayan be without the vow given to Kaikeyi by King Dashrath? Or would the course of events and the internecine bloodshed have been averted had Bhishma not taken his monstrous oath of lifelong celibacy and relinquishing his rights?
The premise of both the epics, interestingly, hinges on promises, resolutions and oaths. While Bhishma’s is a self-imposed vow, the one by King Dashrath becomes an enforced plea, an anguished order, and eventually a burden to be borne by his own death and the travails of his son Ram, who is exiled for fourteen years. But in both cases, the resolutions are the trigger points; they change the narrative quickly and drastically.
That brings us to the importance and impact of such heavy, humongous resolutions in the epics. Why are resolutions taken? However varied may be the answers, they were definitely not meant to be broken.
A resolution was for keeps: breaking it was akin to dishonour, a sin, an irrefutable measure of self-failure.
The vow starts as an act of gratitude by King Dashrath who gives his young wife two boons when she saves his life in the battlefield. She dismisses it but the king promises to grant them whenever she wants. She takes it at the opportune time of Ram’s coronation: she wants the throne for her son, Bharat and Ram to go in exile for 14 years.
A son does not go against his father’s orders, especially when he had given his word to his wife.
Although the vow in the form of two boons, is given by his father to his stepmother, it is Ram who has to bear the brunt of it – as intended by Kaikeyi. Breaking it is inconceivable. The resolution hardens thereby into a command, which Ram, unhesitatingly obeys, considering it his filial duty. A son does not go against his father’s orders, especially when he had given his word to his wife. Carrying out the resolution is a moral obligation, not just appeasement of it.
On this single pledge, the entire Ramayan is weaved and woven with its threads of politics and promises, devotion and disappointments, acceptance and rejection. It is this vow which makes Ram for what he is, taking with him in the tide, the fate and future of his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman. It is Dashrath’s grateful vow to his wife that takes a turn for the worst to usher in the drama and disillusionment in the royal family.
However dramatic or tragic the events unfold, it does not undermine the importance or the sanctity of that resolution.
Price Devavrat, the heir apparent to the throne of Hastinapur takes up a self-imposed oath and becomes Bhishma, the man with the terrible oath. This pledge of his paves way events to come, on which he has no control. His resolution unleashes a series of occurrences and circumstances, he himself becomes helpless victim to them. But he never ever thinks of reverting his resolution, even when it culminates in the violent suicide of Amba and the future of the Hastinapur throne, when both his brothers die an untimely death. The oath eventually becomes a curse for him and his family, yet breaking it would have been a violation of duty.
The weight of such resolutions crush the people carrying it yet lifting them to nobler heights. From Devavrat, an ordinary prince becomes Bhishma to dominate the Mahabharata for his righteousness, however misplaced. Ram takes on his father’s promise as an act of duty and a personal challenge to brave into the forest and rid it of the evil rakshasas. A vow triggers a mission in both cases. A vow entails enormous personal sacrifice, taking on hues of nobleness and virtue.
Urmila promises her departing husband, Lakshman that she will never shed a tear in his fourteen-year absence. So, does his mother Sumitra. Both choose their own private expatriation, and a worse form of exiles for themselves.
There are instances of vows being broken:
King Dushyant breaks his promise to the young, impressionable Shakuntala and never returns to make her his queen. Krishna breaks his pledge of raising weapons during the Kurukshetra war when, in amount of frustration, he decides to kill the invanquishable Bhishma on Arjun’s reluctance to take arms against his gurus and relatives. But he stops himself on time and instead gives birth to the Bhagwat Gita.
There are resolutions and there are bloodier resolutions:
If Bhisma’s oath is self-destructive, his biggest victim Amba, before jumping into a pyre, takes on a more terrible vow of vengeance – that she will be responsible for his death even if it means taking on another birth. Draupadi’s self-imposed, self-declared oath is the bloodiest of them all. Suffering her humiliation in rage and revenge, she declares her resolution in open court – that she will tie her hair only when Dushasan and Duryodhan are killed in war. Her pledge takes a gorier turn when Bhim echoes her sentiments of vengeance by promising her that he will braid her hair with the blood of the Dushasan whom he will tear apart with his bare hands on the battlefield. And he keeps his resolution as does Draupadi, her loose mane a constant taunt to her five husbands to seek revenge for her humiliation.
The narrative of both the epics are interspersed with a variety of small and big resolutions, each have its scale of importance and impact: but they all serve a purpose and moves the plot forward.
Arjun takes a vow that he will kill Jayadrath, who murdered his son Abhimanyu through subterfuge, before the sun sets the next day. Ashwattham gives a vow to a dying Duryodhan that he will annihilate the Pandav clan, and in the deathly stillness of the night, kills the two brothers of Draupadi – Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumn – the killers of his father Dronacharya by stamping them and her five sons (Upapandavas) to death, assuming them to be the sleeping Pandavas. Karna promises Kunti that he would not kill the Pandavas – except Arjun – and that she will remain a mother of five sons. And it is he who dies in the battlefield, keeping his promise till his last breath.
On Ram’s exile to the forest, Bharat takes his own resolution – that he will not rule his brother’s kingdom but will guard it, placing Ram’s slippers on the throne. Likewise, Lakshman and the brothers follow a pledge of celibacy during those fourteen years in support of Ram’s exile.
And while numerous stories unfold for such promises to keep, without these resolutions the epics would not be what they are.
Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views are author’s own.