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The Crime of Shambooka

Srimad Valmiki Ramayana is an epic poem of India which narrates the story of its hero, Rama and his journey in life - aayana. This epic poem Ramayana is a smriti which is translated as "from memory", Devout Hindus worship Sri Rama as a God incarnate, He is our revered ancestor who is mentioned in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures, and Indian philosophers make him Maryada Purushottam, the "Perfect Man of Social Virtue", While at the same time, rationalists condemn the legacy of Rama on how women and people of lower caste were treated during his reign.

 I came across this interesting story of Shambooka in Valmiki's Ramayana and I would like to share it with you with my dismay on how our ancestors treated fellow Indians belonging to the so called lower caste of the society. This story is described in Uttara-kanda, the last book of Valmiki Ramayana which depicts the period of his reign and demise by suicide.

Death of a Brahmin Boy

The story starts with the arrival at the court of Lord Rama.of a Brahmin carrying the dead body of his infant boy, a virtuous pure-bred boy who has never deviated from his 'Dharma' since he is an infant. He announces in the court that his young son has died due to the misrule of Rama. Lord Rama took pride in his rule and immediately calls a meeting with all his ministers and learned sages. 

Brahmin in Rama's Court

The sages tell him that this has happened due to violation of a rule of Tapa (meditation). The father declares that undeserved death of a Brahmin should never occur in a kingdom where a just ruler ensures that each citizen performs Varnasharam-Dharma, the duties enjoined according the social ranking of castes.

The Violation of Vranasharama Dharma

 This violation happened because Shambooka, a shudra was performing Tapa or meditation which was prohibited for the people of lower castes. Tapa is a form of disciplined meditation reserved only for the "twice-born" Brahmins. This, the Brahmin felt, was in violation of the code of Varnasharama Dharma, which has led to the death of his son. If Shambooka was successful in completing his meditation - Tapa, the Brahmins and Gods will have to share the heaven with a shudra. The Brahmin in his prayer to Lord Rama seeks punishment to Shambooka according to Rajya dharma for violation of the code of Varnasharama Dharma.

The Protector of the Order

Lord Rama, who is both the king and protector of the social order, has to carry out his Rajya dharma , the duty of a King to fulfill the wishes of his people.

So Rama mounts his chariot and goes in search of the offending shudra. After searching the countryside, Rama arrives at the place where Shambuka was performing penance. He orders the arrest of Shambooka and hangs him upside down from a tree for interrogation. 

Interrogation of shambooka

 The Punishment

Rama asks Shambooka what his caste is? Shambooka confirms that he is a Shudra. Rama then asks if he was performing "Tapa"? After confirming that Shambuka is indeed a shudra and he was attempting to meditate, Rama draws his gleaming swords and beheads him. 

Execution of Shambooka

 Shambooka, the Shudra being slain, all the Gods and their sages, cried out, “Well done! Well done!” overwhelming Rama with praise, and a rain of celestial flowers of divine fragrance fell on all sides.. In their supreme satisfaction, the Gods said to that hero, Rama:

“You have protected the interests of the Gods, O Highly Intelligent Prince, now ask a boon, O Beloved Offspring of Raghu, Destroyer of Your Foes. By your grace, this Shudra will not be able to attain heaven!”

Hearing the words of the Gods, Rama, the hero of the region of truth, with joined palms, addressed the Gods, saying:

“Since the Gods are gratified with me, let the son of that brahmin be resuscitated! Accord me this, the greatest of all favors! It is on account of my negligence that this child, the only son of that brahmin, has died before his time. Give him back his life! May prosperity be yours! I have promised that I would restore his son to this Twice-born, do not let my words prove false!”

 The Gods respond positively to Rama's prayer, and Sage Agastya declares:

O Foremost of Men, be you welcome! O Rama, you are worthy of the highest respect for slaying the Shudra and, by this act of justice you have restored the son of a brahmin to life! Pass the night here with me, O Raghava, for you are Narayana, the Blessed Lord and all is to be found in You! You are the divine Purusha! To-morrow at dawn you cant return to the city of Ayodhya."

My Observations

It appears as if this story was added to Valmiki Ramayana as an interpolation at a later time. Its hard to imagine how Valmiki, who himself was a Shudra would castiesize his own community for meditating. This story is designed to validate the caste bias of Varnasharam-Dharma and justify the mistreatment of Shudra, the lower castes.

The modern Indian authors treat the story of Shambukha as an interpolation. The celebrated Kannada poet Kuvempu, in his play Shudra Tapasvi tries to justify Rama's action. According to these authors, Rama had to both carry out his duty by punishing Shambuka for violating the social order, and simultaneously protect Shambuka, as a pious and devout sage by killing him thus liberating him from the life of a Shudra ... hmmm.



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