Praan jaye par vachan na jaye. I will give up my life, but never break my vow! An idea which is the bedrock of our epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
When King Dashratha’s young wife Kaikeyi saves his life, he grants her two wishes and promises to fulfil them whenever she wants. She decides to avail them at the time of Rama’s coronation – she wants her son Bharata to be the King and the deserving Rama to go in exile for 14 years. And thus begins the epic Ramayana.
In Mahabharata, the deserving heir to the throne, Devavrata takes terrible, self-imposed oaths, and becomes Bhishma. He vows to lifelong celibacy and to obey the command of the King of Hastinapura. His oaths unleash a set of events to which he himself becomes a helpless victim.
The pressure of oaths sometimes suffocates the person, but also makes him a noble figure. Rama upholds the promise given by his father and accepts it with absolute submission and self-control. Devavrata becomes Bhishma and causes grave turmoil to the land yet he is known for his righteousness. The story goes in different directions for them. Promises, which require great personal sacrifice by its characters, becomes the bedrock for both the epics.
In Ramayana, the vow though is given by Rama’s father to his stepmother. Yet, Rama calmly follows it. In those times, a son can never go against his father's orders. It was a moral obligation and a message to the reader. This pledge leads to a story that teaches us great lessons. This promise changes Rama's destiny and also affects the fate of his wife Sita, brother Laxman and the entire kingdom. And everyone forgets the fate of Urmila, Laxman’s wife, who does not get to accompany her husband for 14 years. Rama refuses to break the promise even after Dashratha's death and turns down the request by Bharata and Kaikeyi to return to Ayodhya. Rama's ancestor Harishchandra gives away his kingdom, sells his family and agrees to be a slave – all to fulfill a promise he had made to the sage Vishwamitra. So much for keeping a promise.
Bhishma, too, never wavers. He never considers going back on his self-imposed oath when Amba commits suicide, and even when the entire Hastinapur is in turmoil due to the death of his step-brothers. The oath eventually becomes a curse for him and his family. And still, he never breaks it. Though Rama becomes a King on his return, Bhishma never has this fortune. Yet, in his misery, lies his glory. He is given high respect and is praised by all for being true to his word. His silence to injustice has been questioned, but never his righteousness. Rama and Bhishma can be considered as extreme examples of the same paradigm.
There are instances when oaths/promises have led to extreme bloodshed and death for other people. Amba is the biggest victim of Bhishma’s oath and swears vengeance before jumping into a pyre. Draupadi’s oath causes gruesome bloodshed. After her humiliation in court, she promises to tie her hair only when Dushasan and Duryodhana are killed in the war. Bhima goes further and promises her that he will braid her hair with the blood of Dushasan. Arjuna vows to kill Jayadratha to avenge the death of his son. Ashwatthama gives promise to a dying Duryodhana that he will kill the Pandava clan. He ends up killing Draupadi’s five sons mistaking them to be sleeping Pandavas.
There are even vows that have altered the epics but they have been about personal sacrifice only. After Rama leaves for the forest, Bharata takes personal oath of ruling the kingdom on behalf of Rama. He places Rama’s slippers on the throne. Urmila promises to never shed a tear in Laxman's absence for 14 years. Yudhisthira keeps his word and goes to vanvas. Karna promises Kunti that he would not kill the Pandavas except Arjuna. Karna dies during the battle at the hands of Arjuna but he doesn’t break his promise. Karna gives away his kavacha to Indra to honour his word and, thus, he earns the title of daanveer.
In the epics, the story moves forward due to the resolutions. The scale, magnitude, and place of the vow might differ but they all have one thing in common – the oath is to be kept at all cost. The epics keep the idea of sticking to your oaths/promises at a very high pedestal, even ahead of one’s own life and welfare. So yes, it is the highest duty. Honouring your word is the foundation on which our society rests. Perhaps for this reason, such importance is given for being true to your promise.
It raises a question – whether upholding your word is absolutely the highest duty? Can a promise be broken under some circumstances?
It is difficult to give a definite answer. However, there is hint in the epic Mahabharata. Krishna had vowed not to raise a weapon in the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna is reluctant in defeating Bhishma in the war. Angered, Krishna lifts a chariot wheel and is ready to break his oath. But Krishna is stopped in time by Arjuna. So, we'll never know whether Krishna would have actually broken his oath? It is smartly left to the readers to seek their own answers.
Bhishma doesn't side with Pandavas in the war which would have required him to break his promise. Yet, he doesn't kill any Pandava. Bhishma eventually ends up on a bed of arrows. In a nutshell, dharma lies in keeping your promise unless dharma itself is in jeopardy. The distinction is subtle.
Without the promise given by Dashratha to Kaikeyi, what would Ramayana be? And had Bhishma not taken the oath of celibacy and not given up his right to the throne, what would have Mahabharata been?
I have taken liberty of borrowing some of the famous characters from these epics and explored them under different situations in my book "The Wielder of the Trishul" - Deva-Asura Katha - Book I. The book is available at https://www.amazon.in/dp/9390463416.
Image Credits: Wikipedia, Artwork courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. http://www.krishna.com.
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