Recently, my friend, Shri Navin, an IIM graduate, asked me “Why did Rāma kill Śambūka?” To this I had no answer as I could neither recollect the name of Rāma’s victim nor the incident where Rāma may have ended the life of any non-rākṣasa other than Vāli. Curious as always, I took it upon myself to dig up whatever worthy information I could. Here’s my preliminary report.
Śambūka – the meaning
Defining Śambūka might seem farfetched to some. It is believed by Samskṛta scholars that the names of characters in Samskṛta sāhitya (Sanskrit literature), especially the itihāsas (epics), are significant. The names provide a different dimension to the personality or behavior of the character.
The Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit (1) gives the following results:
Table 1: List of word meanings
A snail, its shell, or an insect seem to be very likely meanings of Śambūka. There are possibly two different ways to approach the correct meaning of Śambūka:  It was (and is still) probably not very uncommon for people living in rural or forested areas in India to be named after observable living or non-living entities in nature. Śambūka is an apple snail that belongs to the genus Pila and has been known to have a range throughout most of Africa and South Asia. (2) Śambūka was, perhaps, named after a snail, a common occurrence in the dense moist forests of India.  The Śambūka snail has been known to be a good source of calcium and has been used in some drug preparations in Āyurveda. This has been validated by modern medical research as well. (3) (4) It is not far fetched to guess that Śambūka was perhaps named after something to do with the medicinal preparation or something to do with Āyurveda.  Many characters in the Rāmāyaṇa are named after their physical features. For instance, Hanumān (for his large/inflamed jaws), Sugrīva (for his beautiful neck), and Maṇḍodari (for her frog like abdomen) Mandodari (for her soft abdomen) [corrected with inputs from Smt. Jayanthi, my Sanskrit teacher]. Others are named after their personality/behavior. For instance, Rāvaṇa (for his sonorous yells) and Rāma (for his charming looks and behavior). Based on this, we may guess that Śambūka was named so for his slow physical or mental movement, much like the namesake snail.
Śambūka in the Rāmāyaṇa and allied literature
Śambūka appears as an unexpected villain in the uttarakāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. The episode can be found described in sargas 76 – 79 in Shri Vishva-bandhu Shastri’s edition of the North Western Recension of the original Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (5) and chapters 73 – 76 in Shri Hari Prasad Shastri’s translation of the original Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (6). This difference in chapter numbering is due to pāṭhabheda (difference in recensions/versions) used by the respective editors/translators. Shri Vettam Mani adds that the Śambūka episode finds place in the Kamba Rāmāyaṇam, the oldest Tamil version of the Rāmāyaṇa, as well. (7) There is a claim that the Śambūka episode was removed from Tulasīdās’ Rāmacaritamānas. (8) Kuvempu, the Kannada poet and writer, based one of his works, “Śūdra tapasvī ” (1944), on the Śambūka episode. (9) The Śambūka episode is given very little space in Bhavabhūti’s Uttararāmacaritam which is completely based on the uttarakāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. (10)
The Śambūka episode in brief
The episode has been dealt with in detail in the first two books (i.e. (5) and (6)) and in short in the third book (i.e. (7)) mentioned above. However, let’s look at this episode in brief.
A lamenting brāhmaṇa carrying his fifteen year old son’s corpse reaches the palace gates of Rāma’s capital, Ayodhya. Rāma, in a hurried meeting with knowledgeable seers, listens to sage Nārada explain how brāhmaṇas alone in satya yuga; brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas in the tretā yuga; brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, and vaiśyas in the dvāpara yuga; and brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras in the kali yuga are allowed to perform penance in the form of asceticism. Śambūka, a śūdra, performing penance in the tretā yuga is cited by sage Nārada as the singular cause of the unexpected death of the teenager boy.
After instructing for the boy’s corpse to be carefully preserved, Rāma mounts the puṣpaka vimāna to search for the transgressor of dharma. Not finding any such instances in the West, North, and East, Rāma finds a tapasvī near a lake on the Northern side of the Vindhyās. The tapasvī, performing tapas hanging upside down, is questioned by Rāma regarding the goal of his tapas. He also asks this question:
Shri Hari Prasad Shastri (6) translates this to:
[It is important to note here that both Nārada (during his long speech to Rāma) and Rāma (while questioning Śambūka) do not directly refer to either jāti or varṇa. Scholars equate the current reference to varṇa and not jāti. It is only the new age grossly misled self-proclaimed “Leftists” who equate these instances to jāti and hence, mislead gullible illiterates. Their ”interpretation” clearly indicates their lack of sound understanding of bhāratīya saṃskṛti (Indian culture).]
Śambūka replies thus:
Shri Hari Prasad Shastri (6) translates this to:
Hearing this, Rāma immediately slays Śambūka and eventually the dead brāhmaṇa teenager is brought back to life.
Clearly, it is Śambūka who is confused while answering the question. He replies that he is (literally) “born of the womb of a śūdra (woman)”. Bhavabhūti adds that he was performing penance upside down hanging down from a tree while inhaling the smoke of a fire below his head. We may dare claim that the severe tapas performed may have muddled his brain. But this is not all. Of all the possible goals, Śambūka clearly wants to acquire divine status in his mortal body. Let me quote important excerpts from a certain AGMK’s article on Sulekha blogs where (s) he attempted answering the same question (11):
“One can do penance for the good of the world: that is satvik. On the other hand, one can do it for the well being of the self: that is rajasik. Worst is when the penance is aimed at the destruction of the world. Now, that is definitely tamasik.”
“One who understands the Vedas, a wise one who follows the path of spirituality, is a brahmin. One who has lost his way, and is immersed in misery, is a shudra. These are the etymological meaning of the words.”
“Actually, Shambuka was not even a shudra. He was an asura by the name of Jambha. True to his name, he was extremely arrogant. In the past, in his original form, he had meditated upon Parvati and obtained a boon to live the whole Kalpa. He became even more arrogant after getting this boon. And then, he was born as a shudra on earth. And here, he started a penance to surpass Shiva and become Shiva himself and get Parvati.” [Read update on this below]
“So, in the midst of confusion, Shambuka too plays a part in the portrayal of the greatness of Rama’s character.”
AGMK answers beautifully in simple language. I urge readers to read AGMK’s original article (11).
Moreover, the only other instance of wanting to reach devaloka with the mortal body is that of Triśaṅku. It is clear that this kind of desire cannot be fulfilled. Death and subsequent decomposition of the moral remains is mandatory for any living being. Trying to breach this law is in itself an impossibility and , perhaps, the performance of tapas for success in this direction may warrant a need of someone to put a stop to this venture as it may wreak havoc over the worlds regulated by dharma.
Uttarakāṇḍa – a pretender kāṇḍa?
The uttarakāṇḍa has been deemed by traditional scholars as a later interpolation to the original Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. This is precisely why most traditional renderings of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa do not include the uttarakāṇḍa.
Shri M. R. Parameswaran (12) devotes a separate section titled “Uttarakāṇḍa the pretender kāṇḍa” in the appendix section of his book. The Śambūka episode is in fact one of the key evidence that Shri Parameswaran uses to refute the attribution of the authorship of uttarakāṇḍa to Vālmīki. Shri Parameswaran writes thus (12 pp. 169-170):
Shri Nadkarni (13) further clarifies this thus:
Several still add fuel to the fire of debate stating that the killing of Śambūka by Rāma is due to “caste” based hatred. Most of these “pundits” know not the difference between jāti and varṇa. While leftists throw fists and kicks at those who praise Rāmacandra, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar himself remained neutral regarding the Śambūka episode.
Śambūka may have been a dullard, based on his name. His tapas was not meant for the spiritual upliftment of the society nor himself. His desire to ascend with his mortal body intact indicates his inability to cross the hurdle of abhiniveśa (attachment to the body). His goal as mentioned by AGMK makes any person’s opinion on Śambūka nowhere close to being good.
The Śambūka episode and the uttarakāṇḍa may have been interpolations and need not represent the actual views of those who lived during Rāma’s or Vālmīki’s time.
The pseudo-leftist’s use of the Śambūka episode as a weapon against “Brahminism” is weak and holds no scholarly ground.
03/08/2017: Here’s what Shri Ravilochanan Iyengar, a friend, has to say about this: “Shambuka aiming to be parvati’s husband is mentioned by Sri Madhvacharya in his tatparya nirnaya. And this episode stated that all four varnas can do tapasya in Kali Yuga. So, the leftist claim that shudras are denied that right is invalid in every way (even if we accept their interpretation of events). Uttara Kanda is indeed later text but all literature accepts it as valid in the past two millennia. Kamba ramayanam’s uttara kandam was written by Ottakutthar (not Kambar himself). But Kulasekhara Azhwar refers to shambuka. Azhwar lived centuries before Kambar. So, going by tradition, Uttara Kanda cannot be called as completely outside canon. So, we cannot easily wash it away as later portion (which is true in a way!!). But the reason given there (supported by acharya’s interpretation) clears the story as it was meant to be understood.”]
- Sanskrit Dictionary of Spoken Sanskrit. [Online] [Cited: August 02, 2017.] http://spokensanskrit.de/index.php?beginning=0+&tinput=+shambUka&trans=Translate.
- Pila. The Apple Snail Website. [Online] [Cited: August 02, 2017.] http://applesnail.net/content/pila.htm.
- Batra Sanjay, P., and S. Batra Nitu. “International Journal of Applied Ayurved Research ISSN: 2347-6362 A COMPARATIVE STUDY AND PHARMACOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF CALCIUM COMPOUNDS VIS-À-VIS SHUKLA VARGA.”.
- Pandey, Shruti. “Chelation therapy and chelating agents of Ayurveda.” International Journal of Green Pharmacy (IJGP) 10.03 (2016).
- Valmiki. Ramayana of Valmiki- Uttara Kanda. [ed.] Vishva-bandhu Shastri. Lahore : D.A.V. College Research Department, 1947. pp. 264-278.
- —. The Ramayana Of Valmiki. [trans.] Hari Prasad Shastri. London : Shanti Sadan, 1959. pp. 579-586. Vol. 3.
- Mani, Vettam. Puranic Encyclopaedia. 1st Edition. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1975. pp. 678-679.
- Kumar, P. Pratap. “Religious sentiment and politics of defining Hindu texts.” Nidan: International Journal for Indian Studies 25.1 (2013): 21-33.
- Raghava, M. The king and the protector of the devout. The Hindu. Life Bangalore, October 26, 2004.
- Bhavabhuti. Rama’s later history. [trans.] Shripad Krishna Belvalkar. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1915. p. 35.
- AGMK. Death Of Shambuka : Shambuka Should Die. Sulekha. [Online] 2011. [Cited: August 02, 2017.] http://creative.sulekha.com/death-of-shambuka-shambuka-should-die_513430_blog.
- Parameswaran, M. R. Critical Essays On Valmiki Ramayana. Manipal : Manipal University Press, 2014. 978-93-82460-18-3.
- Nadkarni, M. V. “Is caste system intrinsic to Hinduism? Demolishing a myth.” Economic and political weekly (2003): 4783-4793.