Rama: Why Did he Murder a Shudra?
If Ram Chandra were living in a modern secular democracy, or even in a religious state, he would languish in prison for the murder attributed to him by Ramayana. This Hindu sacred scripture tells his story and is the only source of his life.
Written between the third and seventh century by Maharishi Balmiki, the epic is about the fourteen-year exile of Rama of the Kosala Kingdom to the forest by his father on request of his step=mother Kaikey. It describes his travels across forests in India with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, the kidnapping of his wife and the war with her abductor Ravana, the king of Lanka.
The Ramayana narrates a disturbing passage in Book 7, chapter 73-76.
During his reign as a king, an aged Brahman (an upper caste) approached Ram with his dead son's body in his arms. He told him that the king must have committed sins, or else his son would be alive. A holy sage, Narada told him that the Brahman's son died because a lower caste untouchable (Shudra) was practicing Penance. He blamed Shambuka, the Shudra, for his death. Rama found the Shudra ascetic, whose head was still hanging downward as part of rituals. He explained to Rama: "O Rama, I was born of a Shudra and I am performing this rigorous Penance to acquire the status of a deity in this body. I am not telling a lie, O Rama, I wish to attain the Celestial Region. Know that I am a Shudra, and my name is Shambuka." Upon hearing this, Rama drew his stainless sword and cut off his head.
"The Shudra slain, all the Gods and their leaders with Agni's followers, cried out, 'Well done! Well done!' overwhelming Rama with praise, and a rain of celestial flowers of divine fragrance fell on all sides, scattered by Vayu. 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!'" (583-84)"
Hinduism believes in a cycle of four ages. They are Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali Yuga. The first is the golden age, and the last is the dark age.
The Hinduism rules that only Brahmins can perform Penance the Krita Yuga. Brahmans and Kshatriyas can do it in Treta Yuga. In the third Dvapara Yuga Vaishyas, in addition to two upper castes, perform the Penance. Only in the four Kali Yuga, the Shudra can observe it.
This Ramayana narration highlights the social conditions of the time. Inequality was an accepted norm, and Shudra made the lowest of the lowest castes. Religious clergy was instrumental in dictating the decisions to rulers, and killing was the primary method of punishment of deviants.
It is troubling for an average human being. It raises many issues. Are human beings equal? Is there a superior caste that alone has the right to understand and explain God. Does God punish the upper castes when a person of lower ranks tries to connect with his message? Is the punishment of reading divine scriptures death?
These are severe issues in all ages and all societies. As described, the story makes one view God as a violent one who does not believe in the equality of his creation and who provokes religious clergy to dictate the king to kill the deviants on sacred ground. It also establishes inequality and violence as the norm of a society. Additionally, it makes a distinction between gods and Rama.
Rama is also accused of putting lead in the ears of a Shudra who was attempting to listen to the holy scripture recited by upper castes. He followed the Vedic law described In Gautama Dharmasūtra (12:4–6) "And if he (Shudra) listens in on a Vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac; if he repeats it, his tongue shall be cut off; if he commits it to memory, his body shall be split asunder.” (Translation Patrick Olivelle, Dharmasūtras: The law codes of ancient India, OUP, 1999, p.98)
The Projection of Ram as an ideal ruler and the efforts to create a state on his governance style create serious problems, especially at a time when in modern India, a political group wants to recreate his reign. They rightfully fear that a people based on their notion of caste superiority would determine the status of others, deny equality to people, and use violence to silence those who are different than them. Humanity is a witness to the fact that whenever a religious clergy has assumed political power, people, in general, have suffered.
In this context, many people who are not Rama fans view the rise of the Ram Temple movement. The Hindutva supports have not yet convinced them that Shambukas can read scriptures and live peacefully without anyone claiming to follow Ram will kill them