"Oh son, oh beloved Raghava, difficult is the task you are going to perform, for compassing my good in the next world, you are ready to repair to the very woods." (Maharaja Dashratha speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 34)
Lord Rama had just been requested by His father, Maharaja Dashratha, to spend fourteen years in the forest as an exile. Dashratha was the king of Ayodhya and Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, was his eldest son and next in line for succession to the throne. Rama was to be installed as the new king, but events took a dramatic turn in the opposite direction.
Dashratha had three wives, something not uncommon for kshatriya kings. In previous times, kings were very pious, and were thus allowed to have multiple wives. According to Vedic philosophy, one should only have sex with one wife’s during the time of the month when the wife is fertile. Sex is intended only for procuring progeny and any other type of sex is categorized as illicit. Since the sex drive is so strong in males, kshatriya kings were allowed to marry multiple times so that they could satisfy their sexual urges and not commit sin at the same time. Dashratha’s youngest wife was named Kaikeyi; she was the mother of Rama’s younger brother Bharata. Kaikeyi was initially very happy upon hearing the news that Rama would be installed as the new king. The Lord was very much loved and adored in Ayodhya, and all three of His mothers viewed Him as their own son. However, due to the influence of her servant Manthara, Kaikeyi fell prey to jealousy and resentment. She requested the king to instead install Bharata and at the same time send Rama to live in the forest as an exile for fourteen years. On a previous occasion, Kaikeyi had saved Dashratha during a battle he was contesting with the asuras, or demons. Being very pleased, Dashratha offered her any two boons of her choosing. Kaikeyi wisely took a rain check on those boons, waiting until the time was right to use them.
King Dashratha didn’t want Rama to leave His kingdom since he was very attached to the Lord. Rama was his favorite son, and he couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from Him. Yet Dashratha had made the promise to Kaikeyi, so he couldn’t go back on his word. In the Vedic system, a kshatriya, one in the warrior/administrator class, must always stand by his word. Since he is the leader of the people, the king must be honest and stand by his word, for the citizens will follow his lead. If a leader is a habitual liar, it is only natural that the citizens will follow his lead. Untruthfulness also makes it more difficult to administer justice since people can always point to the king’s impious behavior as an excuse for their own actions.
In the above referenced statement, Dashratha refers to the fact that Rama’s going to the forest will compass his own good in the next life. The laws of karma are absolute and apply to everyone engaged in material activities. Karma means fruitive activity, or work performed which has a material effect attached to it, be it positive or negative. If one is pious, they are rewarded with elevation to the heavenly planets, and similarly one must suffer in the hellish planets if they are sinful. Either way, residence in heaven or hell is temporary, and once one’s merits or demerits expire, the soul is again given a material body in the material world. By Lord Rama acceding to the king’s requests, He was ensuring that His father’s word would remain intact.
Lord Rama very easily could have ignored or rejected His father’s order. It is very customary for children to be rebellious from time to time and go against the wishes of their parents. Parents ask us to take out the garbage or do our homework or clean our room, and we often scoff at them. No one likes being told what to do by their parents, but the instructions are usually for their own good. Lord Rama never went against His father’s wishes. In the Vedic system, the mother and father are the first objects of worship for a person, followed by the guru or spiritual master. Our parents are our first teachers, and they provide us complete protection in our childhood. They are worthy of our respect and adoration simply based on that fact. Honoring our parents also teaches us how to respect others and not be so selfish. The first tenet of spiritual realization is referred to in Sanskrit as aham brahmasmi, meaning “I am a spirit soul.” Everyone naturally associates their identity with their material bodies. A person is thinking “I am Indian, I am American, I am a man”, etc. In actuality, we are none of these things since this body is only temporary and gets discarded at the time of death. The soul is eternal and never dies, thus it represents our real identity. Human life is the opportunity to realize this fact, though it is not very easy to realize. Therefore the Vedas give us the guidelines on how to break free of the material mentality so we can reach the stage where we identify with the soul within. These guidelines are collectively known as dharma, and they include the worship of one’s parents and their instructions. Since honoring the mother and father is in line with dharma, there is no sin in following their instructions. Lord Rama is God Himself, so by definition everything He does is above sin.
The Lord appeared to be following the orders of His father, but in reality He was showing us His grace. If one is a surrendered soul, as was Dashratha, God immediately takes responsibility for that person’s fate. This was the last instruction given by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita:
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Bg. 18.66)
One who becomes a pure devotee of Krishna is at once freed from all the reactions of their sins. They are guaranteed to return home after this life, back to Godhead. Dashratha would not survive Rama’s exile, for he gave up his body shortly after the Lord’s departure for the forest. He quit his body while thinking about the Lord, which is the best way to die. One’s consciousness at the time of death determines their fate in the next life.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Bg 8.6)
“Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail…” (Bg 18.65)
The lesson here is that we should all become devotees of God. That is the highest dharma. Dashratha was a very pious king, part of a long line of kshatriyas rulers known as the Ikshvakus. In the Kali Yuga, it may not be possible to become as pious as he was. However, if we follow the great king’s example and love God with all our heart, then the Lord will dedicate Himself to compassing our good, just as He did with Dashratha.