The King of the Dark Chamber, by Rabindranath Tagore: a book review

It was during my undergraduate years that I was first introduced to The King of the Dark Chamber, a play written by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengalese Nobel Laureate. Like many profound pieces of fiction, I was perhaps too young at that time to fully appreciate and grasp its great wisdom beyond a mere intellectual level—that is until now. The play is an allegory of an individual’s spiritual and personal awakening in their quest for beauty and truth. For some of those living or interested in male-led committed, monogamous relationships many of the themes yield useful insights that can be understood and applied within the Taken In Hand framework.

Among many of the play’s themes, the relationship between Sudarshana, the Queen and the King is symbolic for the relationship between man and the Divine; and for some, a romantic relationship between two equally powerful individuals. The King of the title is unseen by his subjects, some of whom question his existence, while others such as the maidservant Surangama are so loyal and worshipful to him that they do not even request to see him. The subjects have no need for proof of the King’s existence; they believe him to be real and great. Only those who have disarmed their own pride in subjection to their King know him. They have a sense of when the King is nearing and when he is present.

Act II
SUDARSHANA. How can you perceive when he comes?

SURANGAMA. I cannot say: I seem to hear his footsteps in my own heart. Being his servant of this dark chamber, I have developed a sense-I can know and feel without seeing.

SUDARSHANA. Would that I had this sense too, Surangama!

SURANGAMA. You will have it, O Queen ... this sense will awaken in you one day. Your longing to have a sight of him makes you restless, and therefore all your mind is strained and warped in that direction. When you are past this state of feverish restlessness, everything will become quite easy.

SUDARSHANA. How is it that it is easy to you, who are a servant, and so difficult to me, the Queen?

SURANGAMA. It is because I am a mere servant that no difficulty baulks me… As soon as I bent all my mind to my task, a power woke and grew within me, and mastered every part of me unopposed.

It is through a process of the humbling and subjugation (consensual) of the King’s wife, Sudarshana, that the play describes her journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening. Sudarshana is initially depicted as a proud, yet immature queen, bemoaning the cruelty of her husband, whom she can only meet in a room that is kept forever dark. She desperately aches to see and know him, and out of that yearning falls in love with another king, whom she meets in the world outside and mistakes for her husband. It is only when she has been humbled through a series of mistakes to complete despair and has cast away her pride, that she can be reconciled with her real husband, before whom she now bows with servility. Only when Sudarshana is brought down to the level of the servant can she become the Enlightened Queen. In an expression of perfect paradox, it is through her decision to serve her husband, that she becomes powerful and beautiful. Viewed within the context of a Taken In Hand relationship, these insights may be evident and applicable for some couples. According to some perspectives, a woman’s granted submission to serve her husband empowers him to step into the light with her, serve her, and lead himself, his family, work, and community with wisdom, strength and magnanimity.

Act XX
SUDARSHANA. …. You are not beautiful, my lord—you stand beyond all comparisons!

KING. That which can be comparable with me lies within yourself.

SUDARSHANA. If this be so, then that too is beyond comparison. Your love lives in me—you are mirrored in that love, and you see your face reflected in me: nothing of this mine, it is all yours, O lord!

KING. I open the doors of this dark room to-day-the game is finished here! Come, come with me now, come outside into the light!

Additionally, the play reveals a subtle, powerful phenomenological discourse between the act of seeing and not seeing. Are the invisible and unseen qualities of the King a powerful manifestation of his divinity; or is the act of seeing a curse from which one must first be blind in order to genuinely see? Must the Queen first be humbled to serve in order for her to recognize and see the divine qualities within herself? Was this not what the King had to first endure before he himself was elevated to his majestic status?

Act II

SUDARSHANA. What do you see?

KING. I see that the darkness of the infinite heavens, whirled into life and being by the power of my love, has drawn the light of a myriad stars into itself, and incarnated itself in a form of flesh and blood. And in that form, what aeons of thought and striving, untold yearnings of limitless skies, the countless gifts of unnumbered seasons!

SUDARSHANA. Am I so wonderful, so beautiful? When I hear you speak so, my heart swells with gladness and pride. But how can I believe the wonderful things you tell me? I cannot find them in myself!

KING. Your own mirror will not reflect them—it lessens you, limits you, makes you look small and insignificant. But could you see yourself mirrored in my own mind, how grand would you appear! In my own heart you are no longer the daily individual which you think you are—you are verily my second self.

And so the reader is left asking the question is that which is beyond all comparison within us or not? What do we need to do in order to see it? Do we find someone to mirror us OR peer into ourselves with eyes wide open and see it reflected within ourselves? Perhaps the answer is not “either/or” but both. Those qualities which are “beyond divinely comparison” already exist within us. To find and achieve that wholeness, one must search for and recognize that which is great and divine within ourselves and acknowledge our need for others to mirror it back to us. Taken a step further, one might also conclude that in recognizing our dependence on others to mirror us, one must understand the magnitude of power it confers upon the other individual. In the words of John Donne, “No man is an island unto himself.” Some women will assert that many dominant men (particularly those who are wise and self-reflective) living in Taken In Hand relationships understand this truth on some emotional and spiritual level. His Queen can make and even hurt him on some level, admitted or not. For some men, it may be imperative for him to first discern the nature of a woman’s heart before committing. For others, it is a non sequitur. For some women, a demonstration of the man’s worthiness and trust is necessary before embarking on a momentous relationship. For others, a moot point. Whatever the case may be, human beings are unique, fallible (this includes wise, strong men and women) and ultimately self-responsible. In sum, strive to know yourself and in the process choose wisely from among the individuals available to mirror you.

1)Tagore, Rabindranth, The King of the Dark Chamber: (trans. by Drama League of America): published by Asia Book Corp of America, September 1914.
2)Donne, John:, Meditation XVII

[EDITOR'S NOTE TO THE WRITER OF THIS REVIEW: If you give me a name I will attribute this article accordingly.]

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Diary of a Savage

Here is the subject of many profound discussions. Here is a paradigm that I rarely witness in the modern culture of NYC and also a paradigm that is now alien to most of western culture.

I find myself standing with one foot in the culture that is described in this play, and the other in a modern world. Establishing the principals of the old culture in the new culture is as difficult as folding time. Hence I believe that such discussions will be considered obscure.

The old culture that was mine, that is described in this review, was a culture that was not so much location specific as it was time specific; most importantly it was class specific. I belonged to the class of outcasts, of lepers, to a class that would be known as the ‘children of cockroaches,’ the children of the disposable people and certainly the children that should be restricted from the company of the people of the white picket fence. We were the children of doom and all dreams, even simple dreams appeared impossible. (At least statistically, but statistics are unscientific I am told)

So, as the children of nothing we approached each other in innocence. There would be no applause, no reward, there would be no tittles, no badges, and we would not be giving lofty speeches. None of us would stand in graduation gowns smiling proudly and holding our pedigree papers in hand. We had never heard of ‘self empowerment, self fulfillment, strong alpha female or dominant alpha male’ but we were easily accused of having no self-esteem. We could not be part of the chorus that championed self-reliability. We came to each other wretched and week, and we continued into adulthood wretched and week.

Those of us that survived only survived because we surrendered and submitted to each other unconditionally with humility and compassion. This meant that we held no judgments, made no recriminations or castigation and we were weary of any demands put on each other since we knew each other to be heavily manacled with all forms of villainy. The food of the people of the white picket fence was a poison to us, an arrogance that was deadly, which we could not afford to sport.

Our daily question was: what can I give to my brothers and sisters? We wept secretly because we did not have commodities to give to each other.

I remember my friend, who I call my little sister as I call all of my people my brothers and sisters. I remember my despair as I watched her tread through the snow with her sandals. I would walk behind her and see that her heels were red like little potatoes. Year after year, I watched her and a rage grew in me, a rage that was so powerful that it consumed me because I could not acquire winter boots for my sister.

My sister was ignorant by most people’s standards but my sister saw the rage in me and saw that it was a poison for me, as rage has murdered many of my people. So my sister found small bells and attached them to her sandals. She would walk swiftly over the snow and everyone could hear her coming. The people laughed at my sister. She would smile at me as she strode swiftly and made great merriment of the din from the ‘bells on my toes” as if she were always on a festive stroll. With this act she washed my rage away. Today I see the sparrows in the snow with their tiny feet hopping joyously and I think of my sister and I see the face of grace. This is how we survived.

If I gleaned there was a need from my brother or my sister I did not walk to them to fulfill it, I ran and not only did I run but I delivered it immediately and without question, without thought of personal consequences

This was our form of dissent: a pledge of complete service to each other without condition. This resolute dissent was our deliverance. This was our path to power. This was the announcement of the ‘I am’ and with this we were equal to kings and we became kings. Everything would be taken form us; our homes, our children and even our flesh, but the ‘I am’ could not be taken and the will of the ‘I am’ could never be taken. We were sovereign; we were free.

As we grew to adulthood many of my brothers and sisters capitulated to the rage and were lost to us all. A brother or a sister infected with the ‘rage’ could cause great destruction and death. When we lost a brother or a sister we suffered deeply but we never learned hate for them, no matter what they had done. We remembered them as the angels that they once were.

Did I surrender to my lovers? Did I show complete obedience and submission to my mighty and brave brothers, my lovers who fought and laid down their lives to space a hair on the head of my mighty and brave sisters? Of course!!!!!

We savages were untutored so we knew no boundaries; we were not forsworn to alien rules. What did I gain from sexual submission? I became delicious prey and most importantly I became a fierce predator.

We abandoned ourselves to lust and love and only knew it as a delicious respite. When the opportunity presented itself we devoured this fruit like famished beasts. We would gallop full speed and leap unabashedly into the well of dark lust for sport if for nothing else. It was our aim to multiply our pleasure and we did this rapaciously, since we had nothing to lose, which is a luxury in love.

Devouring and being devoured was a dark appetite and we all smacked our lips like famished rogues. Why would we fear this desire when we did not know weather we would survive the month or the year? We had already been accused of every malfeasance so we were divested quite happily.

When I loved a man, our loved survived beyond the hollow terrors of a common day. I loved him beyond the borders of the world and our pledge to each other was placed on the edge of the sempiternal sanctuary that could not be trespassed.


Dear Empress:

I would like to add something profound, but find myself rendered speechless. Such is your power at communicating deep emotion and knowledge of other ways of being.

At the beginning you said above, "Hence I believe that such discussions will be considered obscure." No, not at all! Your discussion is not obscure. It is valuable. It is in fact priceless. Thank you for sending this letter.

Speechless also, and fascinated

Empress, what you have written here is extraordinary and fascinating. I am a student of anthropology, which for me means an endless interest in people and how they react to the circumstances of their lives.

Is there any other source out there that discusses this topic in this way? If not, would you consider writing more, or sharing it with the world community in some other way?

(I don't just mean here on this website, although that would be great. There is a unique depth and wisdom in what you have written here, and a perspective that would benefit the world at large.)

In any case, thank you for writing what you have here. (And I ordered the book!)