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Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Surpanakha violently punished for acting on her sexual desire?

Wrapped in the sweet simplicity of white lungi and an airy banyan,  heaving hundreds of sighs as the heat wave of Rohini karthi’s —traditionally, the hottest fortnight of the year—morning with Hindu in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, managed to drop myself into the chair at the threshold. Weaving the towel across the face peeped into the main pages of Hindu… Once finished it, picked up Friday review…and as I lazily turned the pages my eyes, caught by the caption: ‘Feminine Mythique: Of Sexual Desires and Women Scorned”, suddenly brightened… Fancied by the author’s name, Arshia Sattar and her academic status, I ran through the column with interest.
As I reached the fifth para, all that languor of the summer morning vanquished by the lines:
“In the Ramayana, Surpanakha declares that she is attracted to Rama, a man who is not her husband. This is something that rakshasa women are allowed to do (as are apsaras), but Surpanakha is horribly and violently mutilated as a consequence of her candour. She is punished for acting on the sexual desire that she feels.”  
Stirred by this ‘oversimplification’ I ran to the shelf and pulled out the Gorakhpurwala’s Valmiki Ramayana and rushed to the Aranyakanda, particularly that Sarga where this episode is narrated. It reads as under:
As the long-armed Rama, appearing like the Moon in conjunction with constellation Chitra, seated with Sita in the cottage deeply engrossed in conversation, there appears a demoness. The ogress, known as Surpanakha, with an ugly face, large belly, deformed eyes and coppery hair, looking monstrous and overridden by passion, asks Rama in a frightful voice: “Who are you to be here in our region? This is the jurisdiction of my brother. What is the objective of your visit? Tell me the truth” (3.17. 5-13).  
Being a straightforward man, Rama reveals thus his identity unhesitatingly and truthfully: “There is a king named Dasaratha. I am his eldest son known among the people by the name of Rama. He is my younger brother, Laksmana. She is my wife, the princess of Videha, known by the name of Sita. Bound by the command of my father, the king, and my mother and seeking to discharge my sacred obligation to them I have come to stay in this forest. I now want to know of you: Whose daughter are you? What is your name and whose wife are you? Tell me truly what for you have come here” (3.17.16 - 20).
Surpanakha then replies: “I am an ogress. Surpanakha by name, and capable of assuming any form at will. I haunt this forest alone. I have a brother called Ravana, the valiant son of Visrava. The very mighty Kumbhakarna too is my brother. Vibhisana is my third brother. He has of course none of the activities of an ogre. My other two brothers, Khara and Dushana, are well-known for their valor on the battlefield. I definitely surpass them all in point of valor.” She concludes her immodest speech by making horrid advances: “O Rama! Ever since I saw you, I am struck with your beauty and wish to have you as my husband. I am richly endowed with power. What can you accomplish with Sita? Being frail and ugly too, she is not worthy of you. I alone stand as a match for you. I will gobble up your brother along with this ugly, vile, hideous human lady with a sunken belly, Sita. Freed from these impediments, you and I can wander forth in the forest—beholding the peaks of mountains—and enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content.” (3.17. 22-29)
Rama, of course surprisingly, much against his known value system, perhaps, to have a little fun out of this stupid lady, Surpanakha, says something which is quite against his known character: “O lady, I am already married. Here is my beloved wife. For ladies like you, the presence of a co-wife is most painful. Of course, here is Laksmana, my younger brother. He is anuja tu ea me bhrātā śīlavān priya darśana / śrīmān akta dāra ca lakmao nāma vīryavān (3-18:3).  He is seelavan—man of good conduct. He is priya darśanagood-looking. He is akrutdaar—unmarried. He will prove to be a anurūpa bhartā (3-18:4)husband worthy of your beauty. He will be a fitting husband for such a one as you. Take to him. Don’t bother me” (3.18.2-5).

Hearing what Rama said, Surpanakha—deluded as she was with lust—suddenly turns to Laksmana and says: “Possessing as I do an excellent complexion, I shall be a wife worthy of this comely form of yours. You will happily wander through the entire range of the Dandaka forest with me.” Then Laksmana smilingly replies to Surpanakha: “That gentleman is my master. I am his servant. So, if you marry me, you will have to be the servant of a servant and also be the servant of Sita too. So, O large-eyed lady, be a happy younger wife of my elder brother, who is fully endowed with all riches. enām virūpām asatīm karālām nirata udarīm / bhāryām vddhām parityajya tvām eva ea bhajiyati (3-18:11)—Why should he be tied down to a deformed, vile, hideous and aged wife with a sunken belly? He will abandon her and take you.” This is again unusual for Laksmana to speak thus.
The hideous woman, however, not being able to understand that they are making fun of her and in her infatuation, goes to Rama saying, “Now look here. I am going to marry you. If you think this vile, hideous and aged wife is an obstacle, I shall devour her right now while you are looking on”(3.18.16).
Saying so, as she with eyes flaming amber ran to the fawn-eyed Sita in great anger like a giant meteor (3.18.17),Rama, restraining Surpanakha, who was falling upon Sita like the noose of death (3.18.18), angrily tells Laksmana: “You should in no case jest with cruel and unworthy people. See how Sita narrowly escaped from being devoured by the ogress” (3.18.19), and commands Laksmana “to deform the ugly, vile, highly wanton and big-bellied woman” (3.18.20).
Hearing Rama, the angry Laksmana drawing his sword, chops off her ears and nose (3.18.21) while Rama looks on. Roaring in a hoarse voice, Surpanakha runs away into the forest (3.18.22).
Having read the original, I felt all the more difficult to put up with this ‘over-simplification’. At the same time it is hard to believe that this hard core academician could ever be erring in drawing conclusions! This dilemma reminds me of Flaubert’s advice to a fellow writer: “Everything which one desires to express must be looked at with sufficient attention, and during sufficiently long time…” And this need is perhaps, all the more high when writing about epics that stood the test of time!


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