Kingship in the Ramayana
Since the dominant set of replication in the Ramayana explores the theme of brothers and disputed thrones, one could argue that the central issue which the Ramayana tackles is that of rightful and righteous kingship. Through the multiple variations on the theme of disputed kingship, we see that Rama is clearly both the rightful and the righteous king, while Ravana is not. Ravana is the righteous king of Lanka because he is the eldest of the brothers, but he is by no means the righteous king. After Ravana is killed, Vibhishana becomes the righteous and rightful king of Lanka.
It is the relationship between the monkey brothers, Vali and Sugriva, and the throne of Kishkindha that is the most complicated. Vali is the elder brother and from all that we know about him, seems to be a good and righteous king. Sugriva, on the other hand, takes over his brother’s throne claiming that he is probably dead. He also takes over his brother’s wife, a woman he should have treated as a mother. Sugriva makes Rama kill Vali by saying that he was cruel and unrighteous. Once his elder brother is dead, Sugriva becomes the rightful king of Kishkindha. But once again, he takes Tara, Vali’s wife, as his own. Ironically, taking another’s wife is one of the unrighteous deeds for which Vali is killed. Thus Sugriva’s righteousness would appear to devolve from the fact that he makes an alliance with the righteous Rama, and not from any of his own actions.
It is when he acts as the righteous king that Rama commits the two deeds that appear incomprehensible for a man such as him — the killing of Vali and the rejection of Sita. Rama forms an alliance with Sugriva and takes his word that Vali has wronged him and deserves to die. This expediency is compounded by the fact that Rama kills Vali while Vali is fighting Sugriva, and Rama himself is hidden behind a tree. As we learn more and more about Vali, it would appear that he was a wise and just ruler, compassionate even towards his brother whom he could have killed on several occasions.
As Vali is dying, he excoriates Rama for his unrighteous act and Rama offers a series of arguments in his own defence. These include the fact that since Vali was a low creature, a mere monkey, Rama could kill him in any way he pleased because the ethics of battle did not apply in this case. At the same time, Rama says that Vali deserves to die because he has violated dharma by taking his brother’s wife. The sophistry in this argument is clear: if Vali belongs to a lower order of being and the ethics of battle do not apply to him, why, then, should he be judged by the stringent rules of human dharma in his personal life?
The matter becomes somewhat clearer when Rama states that he is acting on behalf of Bharata and the righteous Ishvaku kings who hold dominion over the earth. There can be no violation of dharma under their jurisdiction. The functions of a king include the meting out of punishments (danda), the nurturing of dharma and the righteous organisation of society. Rama is attempting to fulfil those functions in this case. He is compelled to act as a righteous king, no matter how specious his arguments may be for doing so.
Rama’s unjustified rejection of the chaste and virtuous Sita, not once, but twice, is as problematic as the episode with Vali. Through no fault of her own, Sita is abducted and imprisoned by Ravana. When the war to reclaim her is over, Rama humiliates Sita, first by calling her out in public, and then by saying that he has no use for her any more, that the war was fought to salvage the honour of his clan. Sita walks into the fire but is rescued by the fire god who vouches for her innocence and chastity. At this point, all the gods appear and tell Rama who he really is. Rama takes Sita back because the gods tell him to and also, he says, because he had always believed in her innocence but wanted it to be proved to the common people. Later, after they have lived happily in Ayodhya for many years, Rama hears that the people still doubt Sita. He decides that he must banish her from the kingdom because he cannot allow gossip and scandal to tarnish his reputation.