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In Pursuit of the Golden Deer

Narratives, Symbols and Society in Early India

Kumkum Roy ( is with the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The trope of the golden deer is used as an entry point into exploring the ways in which alternative understandings of gender, varna–jati, the relationship between the forest and the settled world, and kingship were visualised in ancient India.

I would like to thank the organisers and audience of two conferences/workshops held in Kolkata in 2018, where I had the opportunity to present earlier versions of this article. The first was organised by the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, and the second by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, History for Peace initiative. I am especially grateful to Chandrabhan Pratap Yadav for alerting me to the identity and significance of the nishada in the Rohantamiga Jataka, discussed in this article.

The trope of the golden deer appears and disappears in early Indian narratives in a number of contexts. Here, I would like to discuss two of these, to raise issues with which those interested in social history often grapple. These include gender relations, notions of kingship and power, relations between the forest and the settled worlds, and between the householder and the renouncer. I see these narratives as possibly coexisting and circulating simultaneously. What does this then tell us about the understanding of the social world in ancient India? I will return to this question at the end, even as I may not have the answers.

I will begin by recalling one of the many illuminating essays by A K Ramanujan, which acquired bestseller status when it was dropped from the syllabus of Delhi University several years ago: “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.”1

One of the insights Ramanujan provided us was to conceptualise these narratives as tellings rather than versions, arguing that the notion of tellings prevents us from privileging any one version as more authentic than the others, even as any one of these tellings may have chronological priority. A second insight concerns the complex relationship between written and oral renditions, alerting us to the plausibility that even after narratives are textualised, they continue to inform and be transformed in the course of oral renditions.

At another level, Ramanujan elucidates categories to understand and classify intertextuality. He suggests that where the relationship is markedly similar in terms of structure, we can envisage it as an iconic one. Yet, iconicity is not conceived mechanically. He alerts us to the possibility that we can have degrees of iconicity—exploring a range of more or less close resemblances, as exemplified by Kampan’s Tamil text, the Ramavataram, which both draws on and develops from Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana in a variety of ways. The second relationship between texts that he envisages is the indexical, where local/regional customs provide an indelible context and flavour to the narrative. We may wish to add to this possibility in terms of variations in historical space. He cites the Bengali Krttibashi Ramayana as exemplifying this relationship. The third possible relationship that he suggests is one that he refers to as symbolic—where connections exist, but may result in the production of a counter-text. And, with typical sensitivity, he alerts us to the possibility that all tellings/translations can display all of these elements to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, even as he emphasises a structural analysis, he creates space for moving beyond it.

It is with these preliminary remarks that I will embark on my pursuit of the golden deer, drawing on two narratives, one perhaps far better known than the other. The first is from the “Aranya Kanda” of the Valmiki Ramayana, best known as the adi kavya or the first poetic composition of its kind in Sanskrit, and the second is the Rohantamiga Jataka, part of the Pali Buddhist canon. Both narratives are likely to have been in circulation, in performative, oral and written modes, by the mid-first millennium CE. Here, I draw attention to how these envisage gender relations, the construction of kingship, varna–jati hierarchies, and the relationship between the forest and the settled worlds. Inevitably, these are intersecting relationships. Finally, I reflect briefly on what the coexistence and co-circulation of these narratives would imply. In all of these, I try to keep the deer, as indeed it is often, centre stage. The deer is a fascinating animal, one of the few herbivores that has successfully resisted domestication for millennia, and its deployment in the narratives as a node around which complex social and political relations revolve can provide an entry point into our understanding of these representations and the worlds that produced them.

The Deer of Destruction

Let us begin with the “Aranya Kanda.” The deer in the narrative is located within a longer story, one that begins in Ayodhya with the birth and youth of Rama, and his banishment into the forest, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita. The starting point I identify for convenience is the moment when Shurpanakha, a rakshasi, sets her eyes on Rama and is instantly in love (III.16.5–7).2 Shurpanakha’s first question is interesting (III.16.11): Rama bears the matted hair of an ascetic, yet he has a wife, and is carrying bows and arrows. Who is he? Note that the question is posed in terms of the markers of varnashrama-based identities, and that Rama seems to be violating these.3 He is Kshatriya-like, seems to be in a domestic environment, and yet appears as an ascetic.

Rama’s first response is to identify himself in terms of his father, raja Dasharatha (III.16.13). Later in the narrative, this is reiterated in his conversation with the entourage of Khara, Shurpanakha’s brother, where, additionally, he describes himself (and his companions) as ascetics who adhere to dharma (III.19.8–9).

Shurpanakha, by contrast, introduces herself in terms of her brothers—Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Vibhishana, Khara and Dushana (III.16.19–20), suggesting an alternative vision of social relations. That it has resonances and dissonances with the narrative of Hidimba in the Mahabharata is an issue we will simply note for the present. As is well known, Shurpanakha’s expression of desire is met with contempt, and culminates in her humiliation and disfigurement by cutting off her nose and ears (III.17.21). Outraged, she turns to her brother Khara (III.17.25). A grim and gory account of how he and his entourage die in their effort to wreak revenge on the man who has humiliated his sister follows (III.18–29). It is after this attempt fails that Shurpanakha approaches Ravana (III.30), who is described as, amongst other things, the abductor of wives of other men and the destroyer of sacrifices (III.30.12), in other words, as a man/being who explicitly and consistently disregards the varnashrama dharma. Interestingly, Shurpanakha launches into a speech that resonates with at least some of the ideals of kingship outlined in the Arthashastra: Ravana is so immersed in the world of pleasures that he has forgotten to deploy spies to find out what has happened in his realm (III.31). And again, she does not ask him for help to obtain Rama: instead, she asks her brother to kill him and take Sita as his wife (III.32).

After spending some time in contemplation, Ravana embarks on a journey and arrives at the rakshasa Maricha’s door (III.33), commanding him to turn himself into a golden deer, attract and distract Sita, to enable Ravana to abduct her and deal with Rama later (III.34.17–18). Maricha, like Shurpanakha, draws on Arthashastric and Dharmashastric models of kingship to advise restraint in the face of an enemy who is both more powerful and deemed to be righteous (III.35). As we will see, this is a significant set of ideas placed in the mouth of the deer-to-be. He goes on to describe how fearsome and futile his earlier encounters with Rama have been (III.36, 37), highlighting pragmatic grounds for restraint.

Ravana, however, posits a far more aggressive model of kingship—comparing the ideal king to several deities such as Agni, the god of fire, Indra, the king of the gods, Chandra, the moon, Yama, the god of death, and Varuna, in charge of administering justice, amongst other things (III.38.12). He also points out that he had not asked for advice—simply for the mplementation of his commands (III.38.14).

A reluctant Maricha ultimately complies and turns himself into a creature of magic, wonder and awe. His horns glow with gems, his face has the texture of lotuses, his ears and belly appear to be studded with jewels, as do his hooves, and his tail takes on the colours of the rainbow (III.40.13.16). A poetic description of the deer grazing, frolicking, repeatedly appearing and disappearing in an idyllic sylvan setting in an attempt to attract Sita culminates in the moment when she sets her eyes on him and is instantly captivated (III.40.32). In a sense, this moment mirrors the encounter between Shurpanakha and Rama, except that Rama, unlike Maricha, makes no deliberate attempt to draw Shurpanakha’s attention to him.

While Sita is captivated by the deer (III.41.1–2) at first sight, Lakshmana is not deceived: even at first glance he is sure that this is none other than Maricha in disguise (III.41.4). Yet, the gullible woman is intent on persuading her companions to capture the unique deer (III.41.9 ff). She is prepared to sport with it, and, if it dies or is killed, sit on its exquisite hide (III.41.19), a desire that Rama reiterates (III.41.33).

Rama’s pursuit of the deer resonates with other representations of the royal hunt. We can think of Pandu, and Dushyanta from the Mahabharata, for instance. Yet, each hunt is distinct—and this one ends in the killing of Maricha, who, in his death throes, imitates Rama’s voice in agony and cries out for Sita and Lakshmana (III.42.14). Although Rama is troubled by this ploy, this does not prevent him from attending to what are perceived to be more immediate needs; he kills another deer for meat before tracing his steps back to Janasthana (III.43.21), their temporary abode in the forest.

Maricha’s dying cry, however, has the desired effect—Sita urges Lakshmana to go to the rescue of his brother in distress (III.43.3–4), but Lakshmana refuses to disobey his brother’s command (III.43. 16). After a somewhat heated conversation, ultimately, a reluctant Lakshmana agrees to go in search of Rama, but only after commenting on the folly and the perverse nature of women at large (III.43.27). The way is now clear for the entry of Ravana, and, what follows is, one might say, history.

Let me summarise the key elements of this dramatic narrative, well known as they are. We have two sets of kinsfolk—Rama, Lakshmana and Sita, who, in Buddhist texts such as the Dasharatha Jataka, are represented as siblings. In the Ramayana, Rama seems to be in distress, and Sita tries, unsuccessfully, to ensure his rescue, and is captured instead. This culminates in a cataclysmic war.

The other set of kinsfolk are, explicitly, siblings—Shurpanakha, who in distress turns to her brothers for support, and, inadvertently, opens up the path for their ultimate and perhaps inevitable destruction.

Mediating the relationship between the naras or men, who are represented as practising dharma, and the rakshasas, who are portrayed as evil, is the deer, at once aware of the hazards of the task assigned to it, yet bound to perform it. His actions lead to his own death, and, eventually, to the annihilation of the rakshasas with whom he is intimately connected. But, immediately, it causes immense distress to the naras. Gender relations in particular, and relations between the normative ideal and what is construed as the other are thus mediated through the deer. Ironically, in all the dreadful, dramatic action, we lose sight of Shurpanakha.

The Deer of Redemption

Let us turn from this narrative to the perhaps less well-known Jataka story, the Rohantamiga Jataka (No 501).4 I focus on the atita-vatthu, or the story of the past, the longest and richest section of the text. While there are no explicit references to the story of the Ramayana, the common symbols and their reworking are striking, once we start looking for them.

Here, Khema, the agga mahesi or chief queen of the mythical king Brahmadatta, takes the place of Sita, and, to some extent, Kaikeyi. Khema dreams of a golden deer, who sits on a golden seat, and preaches the dhamma in a voice like the tinkling of golden bells. As she wakes up, she shouts, asking her attendants to catch the fleeing deer. This causes some amusement. Yet, Khema is determined to realise her dream. She pretends to be pregnant, is petulant, and when the king comes to pacify her, all she wants is an impossible animal—a golden deer.

As luck would have it, a nishada had spotted just such a deer, long ago, hidden in the depths of the Himalayas, in a herd that regularly drank water from a particular lake. And he had imparted this secret to his son. When the king, on the advice of his brahmanas and amaccas (ministers or advisers), announced the search for this mythical animal, the young man was ready to embark on the quest, even while others considered it hopeless. And sure enough, he followed his father’s instructions, and discovered the deer, drinking water, with Rohanta, the chief deer (identified as the Bodhisattva), at their head.

The next day, the hunter decided to lay a trap to ensnare Rohanta. Rohanta fell for it, but, as he was the leader of a herd of 80,000 deer, he decided to bear the pain silently, till the rest of the herd had quenched their thirst. It was only then that he let out a cry to warn them of danger, and the herd broke apart and fled. He then tried to cut through the trap, but the ropes cut deeper through skin, flesh and sinews. Meanwhile, his brother, Chitta, and sister, Sutanu, realised he was missing, and returned in search of him. They found him trapped, but, instead of leaving him behind, they stayed by his side. Inserted in this narrative is a conversation, as well as the thoughts that run through the minds of these three animals; what triumphs is their care and concern for one another, and their disregard for personal safety. There are both resonances and dissonances with the narrative of the Ramayana; concern seems to be a common strand, but there are no angry accusations in the Rohantamiga Jataka; instead, a common, and somewhat unique resolution in terms of solidarity in the face of impending doom is arrived at. When the hunter returned, he was taken aback at this sight—one animal trapped, and two free animals waiting sadly and patiently by his side.

This marks the beginning of the transformation of the nishada. He hears why they are together, and not only decides to set Rohanta free, but heals his wounds tenderly and efficaciously. However, Rohanta wants to know why the nishada had come to this remote area in the first place. The nishada told him all about the task set for him by the king. Rohanta then wants to go to the king, to ensure that the hunter’s task is duly fulfilled. But the nishada warns: “Kings are often cruel and unpredictable.” Ultimately, Rohanta advises the nishada to stroke his back—immediately his palm is covered with the golden hair of the deer. This is proof that they have actually met. Rohanta also instructs him on the dhamma to be communicated to the king.

The nishada makes his way back to the court. With the proof of his having met the golden deer, he is duly honoured, made to sit on a golden seat, and preaches the dhamma to the assembled court. This dhamma resonates with what we know from the Ashokan inscriptions—caring for one’s parents, looking after one’s wife and children, caring for friends and neighbours, embarking on what seem to be the equivalent of dhamma yatas or pilgrimages or tours to propagate the dhamma, protecting the praja or subjects, as well as the paura-janapada, the people of the town and the countryside, the sramana-brahmana (wandering ascetics and householders) and all living beings.

The king decides to reward the nishada for this wisdom—offering nishkas (possibly coins or jewellery), jewels, beds, wives and cattle, and suggests that he adopt an alternative livelihood—which resonates with Brahminical prescriptions for the Vaishya—agriculture, trade and moneylending. However, the nishada spurns these lucrative and tempting offers, and opts for pravrajya or renunciation instead, and returns to the Himalayas.

Before turning to the ways in which the dominant narrative of the Ramayana is reworked, and their implications, let us briefly consider the samodhana of the Rohantamiga Jataka—the conclusion where past and present births are reconciled and equated, providing us with a fresh layer of identities.

While the deer, Rohanta, is identified as the Buddha, his sister Sutana is identified with a bhikkhuni named Uppalavanna, the Buddha’s beloved disciple Ananda is equated with Chitta, and an unnamed bhikkuni with Khemadevi, while Sariputta, also a renowned disciple of the Buddha, is equated with the raja. The nishada is identified with Channa, the attendant who faithfully accompanied the Buddha when he set out on his quest for enlightenment, till he was sent back.

Implications of Co-circulation

Finally, let us consider the implications of the co-circulation of these two narratives, with their resonances and dissonances. To start with, while the Valmiki Ramayana envisages a relationship of unmitigated opposition between the naras and the rakshasas, and, perhaps by extension, between the settled and the wild, the Brahminical and non-Brahminical worlds, with their inbuilt hierarchies, the Rohantamiga Jataka visualises the relationship in far more complex ways. The court is dependent on the forest, and what is more, can be finally redeemed only after a relationship of respect and trust is established, rather than one of conquest and domination. This is an interesting vision that contests what we have come to accept as the dominant narrative, even as it works within the framework of kingship.

This brings me to the second point. In the “Aranya Kanda” of the Ramayana, we see Rama as a fierce, if not bloodthirsty warrior, slaughtering thousands of rakshasas. The king of the Rohantamiga Jataka, by contrast, is far more pacific. While he is prepared to think in terms of capturing the animal his wife longs for, killing is only envisaged as a strategy of the last resort. And Rohanta, as the king of the herd of deer, has their well-being as his primary if not sole concern. In other words, we are presented with an alternative vision of kingship.

What is also significant is the way in which the nishada mediates between the court and the forest. His initial location, both spatially and socially, is on the outskirts of the city and the realm. Yet, it is he who has the knowledge that can lead to the fulfilment of the queen’s craving. And it is he who acquires a different kind of knowledge from Rohanta, conveys this to a spellbound audience in the court, and ultimately asserts his independence from royal authority by politely but firmly rejecting the material wealth that is offered, in favour of a life of renunciation. While the Buddhist underpinnings are too obvious to require reiteration, the movement of the nishada from the margins to centre stage, and then decentring royal authority by opting for an alternative, is, to say the least, striking. An implicit critique of the limitations of royal power thus runs through the narrative, removing us from the constraints of the Dharmashastric/Arthashastric discourse that is central to the Ramayana.

Let us next consider the deer. Both animals are at once mythical, of surpassing beauty, and endowed with intelligence and insight. And both are, in their own ways, concerned about others. Maricha attempts, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Ravana from a course that will lead to doom and destruction, while Rohanta cares about his ageing parents, as well as about the large herd for which he is responsible, and takes it on himself to suffer silently in order to ensure their safety. And yet, beyond that, their paths diverge. Maricha is destined to die even as he sets in motion a trail of destruction. Rohanta not only survives, but elucidates a path that can lead through reconciliation to a more humane social order. In both instances, the distinction between the animal and human worlds is blurred, but with diametrically different consequences.

Also, representations of gender relations run through both narratives, but in very diverse ways. While Shurpanakha turns to her brothers for support, Sutana, the sister of Rohanta, stands quietly by his side when he is in distress, her very presence ensuring that he will survive. But perhaps far more significant is the contrast between Sita and Khema. Both want the impossible, a mythical creature, the golden deer that exists only in the imagination. Yet Sita’s craving is to possess the animal, in all its external beauty, and even to kill and convert its hide into a seat she can share with her husband. Contrast this with Khema’s dream—of the deer who will expound the dhamma in a golden voice. Yet, this dream evokes laughter and ridicule. It is only when it is couched within the frame of legitimate female desire, as that of a pregnant woman, that it is entertained and acted on. What is also remarkable, of course, is that while Sita’s persistent demands lead to at least temporary disaster, Khema’s request culminates in enlightenment. The frivolous, foolish female is proved to be wise, after all, and not taken in by mere externals. Interestingly, Khema remains unidentified in the samodhana—she is merely an unknown bhikkhuni. At the same time, the Rohantamiga Jataka creates space for a reversal of gender stereotypes—of demanding wives and sisters, who are part of the dominant narrative.

In Conclusion

Let us conclude by returning to Ramanujan’s categories. The Rohantamiga Jataka does not stand in iconic relationship to Valmiki’s Ramayana, nor is it indexical in any more than a limited sense. And yet, it plays on the symbolism of the Sanskrit epic in critical and crucial ways, gnawing at and undermining its core values and concepts at a number of levels. It provides us with alternative visions of kingship, kinship, gender relations, and varna–jati identities, and enables us to revision the forest, not as a domain of terror and tribulation, but as a realm from which the fruits of wisdom and survival may be acquired, provided we have the patience and perceptiveness to do so.

If, as is likely, these narratives circulated simultaneously and perhaps amongst more or less similar audiences, we can visualise spaces for comment and contestation opening up. Whether these would have involved transformation or not is another matter. However, the existence of these spaces is a reminder that the social worlds of the past were not monolithic.

Finally, the strategy of communication envisaged in the Rohantamiga Jataka, while, at one level, deceptively simple, is at once sophisticated and complex. We do not find here a frontal critique of Brahminical beliefs or practices, or, except tangentially, of kingship and state structures. Yet, in envisioning worlds in which gender stereotypes are interrogated through the narrative rather than through slogans, and where the nishada and the deer play pivotal and positive roles, it opens up possibilities of communication beyond confrontation. While perhaps less formulaic and spectacular than the much-cited invention of the zero, the development of such strategies of communication is perhaps an indication of the richness of early Indian traditions that we need to recover and cherish. Emulation, however, is perhaps both impossible and unnecessary.


1Originally published in 1987, the essay is anthologised in Vinay Dharwadker (ed), The Collected Essays of A K Ramanujan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

2 All references to the Ramayana are from Sheldon I Pollock, The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Vol III; Aranyakanda, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 2007.

3 This overlap of varnashrama markers finds mention in later descriptions as well. See for instance, III.18.11–12, where Shurpanakha describes the group of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita to Khara—as men who dress in bark and black skins and bear the marks of royalty.

4 Available in V Fausboll (ed), The Jataka Together with Its Commentary, Trubner & Co, London, pp 1877–96.

Updated On : 18th Jun, 2019


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