Dandakaranya, a spiritually significant region of India, (The other is Naimisharanya) derives its name from the word Dandaka. It is formed by joining the two separate words Dandaka and Aranya according to a rule of Sanskrit grammar. Aranya means a forest or a jungle. But Dandaka denotes many things: a person, a king, a demon, a plant, punishment, and the inhabitants of Dandakaranya. Dandakaranya is called ‘the jungle of punishment’. During Treta and Dvapara Yugas, the word carried all the meanings. In modern times, Dandakaranya is roughly equivalent to a region spreading across Bastar-Koraput areas in the central-east part of India and measures about 36,000 square miles. In late 1950s, Dandakaranya became news for a project, by the Central Government, to resettle the refugees from Pakistan.
Mythology of Dandakaranya
Dandaka was a country ruled by a king named Danda or Dandaka near about the beginning of Treta yuga. He was the youngest son of the legendary king Ikshvaku, son of Manu Vaivasvata and founder of the Solar Dynasty of kings. The good king Ikshvaku, finding Danda a great fool and the most useless, banished him to this region because he was highly apprehensive of his actions. Ikshvaku got a capital city built for him from where Danda ruled. But Danda continued to lead a voluptuous life.
Danda’s kulaguru (royal guru) was Shukra Bhargava or Shukracharya who lived in a hermitage located in the jungle surrounding Dandaka kingdom. Once, when sage Bhargava was away, Danda visited the hermitage and violated Shukracharya’s beautiful virgin daughter Araja. Having committed the criminal act, Danda left the ashram, while the good virtuous girl lay in trauma and pain.
As soon as Shukracharya returned, Araja related the entire incident to him. This greatly enraged Shukracharya and he cursed Danda: ‘In 7 days, you and your kingdom, all your people and army, shall die. For a hundred yojanas around your city, all life will be consumed by a rain of dust and death shall rule this sinner’s kingdom.’ With these words, Shukra Bhargava left for a secret place. Things happened as per the curse. All life was extinguished. Danda perished. Dandaka kingdom was laid waste; in consequence the kingdom became Dandakaranya, a region of dense wild forest through which even sunlight did not pass.
Reality vs Myth
In ancient times, Dandakaranya constituted a vast forest region in the Indian sub-continent. It extended from central-east to Vindhya ranges going down to South Indian peninsula up to river Tunga-Bhadra (then Pampa Sarovar) near Hampi. The famous forest kingdom Kishkindha was part of this Dandaka forest. In Treta Yuga, Dandakaranya was a favourite ground for yogis and rishis to do penance and carry on with their activities.
In the epic Ramayana, Rama and his companions Sita and Lakshmana spent 13 years of their total exile period of 14 years in this region. This was the toughest and longest part of the banishment. Rama ventured into and roamed in this dreadfully frightening forest not out of his own choice or pleasure. His mission was to kill the rakshasas and asuras and make the place safe for the sages.
The forest, which was the scene of many of Rama’s adventures, is described as “A wilderness over which separate hermitages are scattered, while wild beasts and Rakshasas everywhere abound.” Lions and tigers lived in the forest then. Encounter of Rama and Lakhsmana with Ravana’s sister Shoorpanakha (also written Surpanakha. It means one having finger nails like winnowing fans) took place in this forest. The forest ‘Panchavati’, where Rama and Sita lived temporarily, and from where Sita was abducted by Ravana was located herein. During Ramayana period, Dandakaranya was a colony in Ravana’s empire and his governor there was Khara who was slain by Rama.
A southern path through the Dandaka forest existed in those days and Rama might have taken that path to reach Deccan. I had always a feeling that Ravana’s Suvarna Lanka was not where we think it was. Lanka was somewhere in the southern, east-central or south-eastern part of India. During his years in the Dandakaranya, Rama visited a number of ashramas, the most prominent of them being that of sage Agastya from whom he received a few powerful weapons. This Agastya muni (sage) is the same person who spread Brahminical Hinduism in South India.
The famous Shavari, a woman belonging to the Bhil tribe of aborigines, lived in rishi Matanga’s hermitage and continued to live there after the rishi’s death. By the time Ramachandra visited Shavari, she was already very old. Even then, she received Sri Rama with great and pure devotion. Ramayana describes Dandakaranya to be home to many deadly creatures like ghouls, goblins and pishachas. Dandakaranya was the abode of a demon by the name Dandaka. Many exiled persons lived there and sages had to cross the forest to reach the Vindhya mountains. Recent research has shown that all the flora and fauna of those ages are still present in these forests. One can conclude from the above descriptions that Dandakaranya was both a dreadful as well as a blessed forest.
There is no way of our knowing whether the incident described above actually occurred or not. But if we take the event as a metaphor, there are many interesting interpretations.
According to the Yuga concept of Hindus, Dharma in Treta age was three-fourth. The story conveys to us that adharma (unrighteous living) has set in and degradation of society begun, though in a small way since Krita yuga had ended and Treta yuga has just started. Danda’s action tells us that rot always starts from the top and then percolates down. Ikshvaku had 100 sons; only 1 out of this 100 was a very bad guy. That means righteousness was the dominant force in Treta yuga. That is why the good king Ikshvaku neither awarded a capital punishment on Danda nor exiled him to a forest. He merely segregated Danda from everyone else in his kingdom- as we do to a patient suffering from a contagious infectious disease- so that the infection does not spread.
In the language of bureaucracy, Danda was given a punishment transfer that was meant to reform him. But it is Danda’s misfortune that he did not improve and instead committed a monumental blunder. The rule of law, however, prevailed. He did not go unpunished and free because he occupied the highest office of the land. The instance of Danda is, however, only a deviation from the normal, not one of common occurrence since it was the age of Treta. Things are very much different now-a-days and that is the reason the present time is called the age of Kali. Danda symbolizes the force and the sower of the seed of darkness in the society. His was a trailor of worse things to come. A large number of decision makers will be aviveki (devoid of the power of discrimination). People of the like of Danda will wield Danda (state power) who will not have much inhibitions or barriers. Even a holy place such as a hermitage will not be a taboo for them.
By Dr. Sachidanand Das