In the book “Wilderness”, the wilderness of Dandaka starts of a seemingly innocent and pleasant place. It seems like a serene place untouched by man – “trees in the forest had been enveloped by enormous creepers and vines and none of its ponds and lakes had been looked after” (pp. 229). By this description, it would suggest that the Dandaka wilderness is a far cry from civilisation.
Yet, a scholar once called the forest “a shadow of civilization.” I can only guess at his meaning. The Dandaka forest, although allowing nature to grow and flourish untamed, has it own set of rules. For example, there is a great sense of ritual and structure at the settlement of the great rsi Agastya. Laksmana formally announces their arrival and their wish to seek out the sage. The student enters the ritual chamber to announce Rama’s arrival to the sage where the sage then allows Rama, Laksmana and Sita entrance to the settlement. Agastya and Rama converse with much formality, asking each other of their welfare and Agastya treats Rama, Laksmana and Sita as “honoured guests, plying them with food that was appropriate for ascetics” (pp.238). After the meeting with Agastya, the three head for Pancavati where “served by Laksmana and Sita, [Rama] lived there for some time, like a god in heaven”. (pp. 241) This mirrors the treatment that Rama received in the great city of Ayodhya. Therefore, the forest seems more like civilisation than the reader would initially think.
However, the scholar states it is a “shadow” of civilisation. It imitates civilisation but is not quite the same. The word “shadow” also has an element of ominousness. Only in the wilderness of the Dandaka forest do the readers catch glimpse of ugly creatures. The raksasas are described gruesomely with words like “sunken”, “twisted” and “deformed” (pp.229). The raksasas seem unnatural, removed from the natural world and inherently evil. They are like “Death incarnate” (pp.246). Unlike Ayodhya where civilisation is perfect, ugly, evil creatures such as the raksasas exist in the Dandaka forest. Additionally, not only physical manifestations of evil prevail in this forest, the characters in the forest are also capable of malicious emotions, as shown by Surpanakha who was “brimming with lust” (pp.243). Rama and Laksmana, who “resembled the great sages in their conduct and behaviour” (pp.17), also have a shift in character when they mocked and ridiculed Surpanakha before mutilating her by cutting off her nose and ears.
In the Dandaka forest, the values of the characters become looser and they start to behave more primitively while acting on their baser emotions. Sita’s words reinforce this idea when she says: “Our journey into the Dandaka forest makes me anxious and I am not comfortable” (pp. 233). She tells Rama that she sees weakness present in him. The weakness being “inflict[ion] of violence and cruelty upon other beings without reason or enmity” (pp. 233). Sita continues to warn Rama that there are dangers when he is in close “proximity to a weapon” (pp. 234). She fears that innocents will be killed when Rama is tempted to use his weapons because the baser emotions of ksatriyas are rising to the surface as they spend time in the wilderness “like dry fuel bursts into flame when it is near a fire” (pp. 234).