Every story needs an antagonist. And in the Ramayana, it was Kaikeyi, who threw the biggest sulk of them all, setting in motion the events that led to Rama’s exile, Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the demon king’s defeat and the return of the trio — Rama, Laxmana and Sita — to their kingdom Ayodhya, which we celebrate as Diwali, the festival of lights.
But, was Kaikeyi really the meanest of them all or did she take the fall for the greater good? A revisting of the epic tells us that the latter may be the case. According to one version, when king Dasharatha dreamt that the ruler of Ayodhya was dead, he decided to coronate his eldest son, but Kaikeyi took it as tidings for the future king and decided to remove Rama from harm’s way, sending him to exile in the forest.
Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik writes that in the Mahabharata, when the story of Rama is told to the Pandavas by sage Markandeya, “Brahma tells a Gandharvi, Dundhubi, to be born as Manthara, ‘poison the mind of Kaikeyi so that Rama goes to the forest and kills Ravana’.”
Kavita Kane, author of the novel Sita’s Sister, is firm in her belief that Kaikeyi was anything but a wicked stepmother. Instead, she was responsible for instilling key values in the brothers, such as not marrying more than once. She states, “She was the third wife and she knew what it was to be the favourite queen, the chief queen, a position she had usurped from Kausalya. There were these soft, revealing moments which make her the kind of person she was, seeing her beyond the usual. She was not a political person at all, though she is seen as the ambitious mother who destroyed her family for the throne.”
Kane adds, “Scratch the surface and what is she? Not just the most powerful antagonist in the epic who evokes anger and loathing, but a woman who lost all to gain nothing but notoriety.”
In Sita’s Sister, an emotional Urmila asks Kaikeyi, “Why did you not let us know that you had planned and acted out this entire drama of Ram’s exile? You knew his exile was preordained and yet you willed it to happen and orchestrated it to look like you had banished him for your greed and for preserving your son’s rights. But it was just the opposite. You were actually protecting Ram. And in this masquerade, all you earned was not the goodwill but the wrath and hatred of everyone — even your husband and son!”
There are numerous threads from the original Valmiki Ramayana, where Kaikeyi is shown as part of a cosmic plan, Kane tells us. It’s also a part of folklore. She adds, “There is a thread where Ram himself requests Kaikeyi to do the needful as she is the boldest in the family to have the courage and conviction to carry the deed. For this, she received the highest reward, a place in Vaikunth, releasing her from the cycle of birth and rebirth.”
In his short story Shanta: The Story of Rama’s Sister, Anand Neelakantan talks about how she grew up in the shadows as her father yearned for a son. The only support during these desolate years was Queen Kaikeyi, a warrior princess, who encouraged her to learn the art of weaponry and horse-riding. Neelakantan writes, “Kaikeyi argued that there was no point in waiting for the birth of a son, as none of the wives had been successful in giving an heir to the king. She had even brushed away the objection raised by the revered saint, Vashista, who proffered that women were barred from holding court.” However, none of this cut any ice with King Dasharatha who decided to give her up in adoption to Raja of Anga, Romapada. Kaikeyi is quoted as exclaiming in vain, “Tell your father that you do not want to be adopted. You are heir to the Ikshvaku vamsa. The throne belongs to you.”
However, despite all this, Kaikeyi is perhaps destined to be relegated to the dark side of our consciousness. Isn’t it time she got her redemption and we accept the feisty Kaikeyi with all her shades of grey?