Sheldon Pollock views the Rama of the Ayodhya Kanda as a totally heteronomous being, with less agency than the dasi Manthara. Indeed, he believes the Ramayana to be the principal source of a 'hieratic' Hindu conception of monarchy as something worse than absolute despotism in that the subject is absolutely infantilzed and has no means of reaching Kantian autonomy..
Comparing Valmiki's epic to the Iliad, Pollock remarks the powerlessness of the Indians, their bondage to a fate they can neither contest nor comprehend and whose blighting effect proceeds from causes that are ethically heteronomous- i.e. punishment does not follow intention or action except in the sense of it being a 'treading the weird'- i.e. some karmic krapolla.
Thus Pollock says 'the characters of the Ramayana believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice.' and 'Choice is replaced by Chance, and action is nothing more than reaction.'
Is he correct?
Let us start with Kaikeyi. Did she think she had no freedom of choice? It appears, on the contrary, that she had received two boons from the King and chooses to use them in a manner that was not predetermined or fated in any way. Her maidservant, Manthara, persuaded her that Rama, once King, might mistrust or mistreat her son Bharata. Rather than bewailing her fate, Kaikeyi takes action. What of King Dasharatha? When Kaikeyi demands Ram's exile and Bharata's enthronement, does he exclaim 'Woe is me, all this was fated! I am powerless!'. No he gets angry, curses both Kaikeyi and her son and pointedly remains silent when Rama arrives before him..
Why is the King silent? The answer is that he had already promised the Crown to Rama. The point was moot as to whether Kaikeyi's boons were time-barred, already treasonous, or involved an impossible act.
Even if Lord Rama considered himself bound to obey the King, Kaikeyi had no locus standi to demand his departure. The King's silence gave Lord Rama a choice. It raised him from the abject heteronomous state that Pollock imagines him to occupy. What's more, Lord Rama was not a muscle-bound meat-head, he understood the defeasible nature of the Queen's demand very well. He pointedly states that it is not his Father but his (step) Mother he is obeying. Lord Rama acts with alacrity. He makes a momentous choice- one whose tragic consequences for his beloved father he fully realizes- and, as befitting a King and leader of Men, he makes it quickly, without wasted words. It is this supererogatory quality, this ethical surplus, which defines not Kantian autonomy (worthless shite fit only for Professors) but vatsalya as a Universal principle.
One might argue that after his father's death and his brother's renunciation of the throne, Lord Rama should, as duty bound, find some way of keeping his vow while still discharging his Kingly duties- for example, by residing in a forest, but regularly meeting Ministers and other officials. However, Bharata is fit to discharge this duty himself. So, it is only in order to keep faith with himself, to honor his own commitment, that Lord Ram chooses the more arduous path. This is the opposite of heteronomy. To bind oneself to what one believes to be the right course, absent any other inducement or coercion, is the hall mark of moral autonomy.
Interestingly, Rama only so bound himself, by his own choice, so that the choice made by his (step) mother might be validated and take effect. That choice too- i.e. Kaikeyi's choice of boons from her husband- arose from a free and unrestrained choice made by his father. Rama does not say to Bharata- you must be King because that was Kaikeyi's wish. After all, Bharata too gets a choice. Only he can decide whether or not to take the throne. Rama does not seek to coerce or intimidate him into going against his own choice. In other words, Rama's ethical autonomy arises and expresses itself in the context of affirming the free choice of other people- one elder to him, his (step) mother, and the other younger to him, his brother Bharata. Notice that Kaikeyi's choice was not unethical as such. She was genuinely concerned about her own flesh and blood. She had a 'veto' if you like and was entitled to use it by reason of a not unnatural apprehension. Choice becomes meaningless unless its free exercise in one's own rational self-interest is accorded moral legitimacy. Otherwise, Choice becomes meaningless pi-jaw.
Pollock considers Lord Rama to represent a sort of inhuman ideal of perfection and thus devoid of all real-life human complexity. Unfortunately, real-life humans, to emerge from heteronomy, to lead families and Nations from moral heteronomy to ethical autonomy, HAVE to pay a great deal of attention to CHOICES. Lord Ram's own choices become mere caprices, or ethical grandstanding, or perhaps some shite to do with karma, UNLESS he uses his choices to affirm and valorize the choices of others. Pollock uses the word heteronomy readily enough. Is he really ignorant of the vast literature on this topic? Perhaps, because he's writing about India- a poor and backward nations inhabited by nig-nogs- it is a mark of his greatness that he makes this graceful gesture of dissimulation.
Still, the question remains, why does Pollock think it okay to say 'the characters of the Ramayana conceive of themselves as being denied all freedom of choice?" Does he not understand that the readers of his translation will immediately be forced to the conclusion that the Ramayana can have no ethical value at all? If Rama had no choice but to go into exile, what moral greatness attaches to him? Why would Hindus revere him?
Pollock's bizarre thesis soon yields perhaps the most foolish sentence ever written about the Ramayana- viz. 'Rama's 'true feelings' will remain secret, properly so, for they are quite irrelevant to the poem's purposes.'
Wow! You couldn't make it up if you tried! Do we really not know Rama's true feelings for his Mum, his Dad, his wife, his brothers and so on? Even if we hadn't read Valmiki's poem, is it at all rational or reasonable to think that a poem about a man called Rama would consider the true feelings of that same Rama to be 'quite irrelevant to its purpose?'
Pollock is not ignorant. Just stupid. If, as he claims, philology of his sort is really dying out in India, let us get down on our knees and thank God for it.