Ramcaritmanas (Aranyakanda 16-18 )
The Ramcaritmanas , which means "The Lake of the Acts of Rama," was written by Tulsidas in the old Hindi dialect of Avadhi in the sixteenth century. It is the most popular form of the Ramayana in North India, to the point that in Hindi-speaking regions the term Ramayana is synonymous with the Tulsidas version. It is first and foremost a bhakti text, full of discourses on devotion to Lord Rama.
The Surpanakha episode more or less follows that of the Valmiki and AdhyatmaRamayanas , but the rhythm of the narrative emphasizes certain points and the extensive interpretive comments give it a flavor of pious didac-
ticism that is absent in other versions. This portion of the story is narrated by Kak Bhusundi, the devotee crow, to Garuda, the giant bird who is Visnu's mount. I summarize it as follows:
Rama spends his days at Pancavati preaching discourses to Laksmana on the nature of disinterested devotion. One day Ravana's sister Surpanakha, "foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent," happens by and falls in love with both Rama and Laksmana. At this point the narrator interjects, "At the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son, O Garuda, a woman gets excited and cannot restrain her passion, even as the sun-stone emits fire when it is brought before the sun" (16.3).
This interjection sets the tone for the rest of the episode, in which the emphasis is placed not so much on Surpanakha's raksasa nature as on her female nature. She has fallen in love with both brothers, since they are both handsome, not just Rama: like all women, she lacks self-control.
As the story continues, she assumes a charming form and proposes to Rama, saying that there is no other man like him and no other woman like her, that theirs is a match made in heaven, and that she has remained a virgin just for him. The Lord casts a glance at Sita and says only, "My brother is a bachelor" (16.6). Surpanakha then goes to Laksmana, who, knowing her to be their enemy's sister, says that he is Rama's slave and sends her back to Rama. Rama sends her again to Laksmana, who remarks, "He alone will wed you who deliberately casts all shame to the winds" (16.9). She then reveals her true form, frightening Sita. Laksmana cuts off her nose and ears, "thereby inviting Ravana to a contest through her as it were" (17.0). She flees to Khara and Dusana, who challenge Rama and are defeated, attaining eternal bliss by crying out his name at death. Surpanakha then goes to Ravana, scolds him for allowing this to happen, and describes Sita's beauty. Deciding that the easiest way to "cross the ocean of mundane existence" is to be killed by Rama, Ravana abducts Sita—actually a phantom, the real Sita waiting in a sacrificial fire.
The comments made about the allegorical aspects of the AdhyatmaRamayana apply here as well, where the devotional overtones are even more pronounced. Rama and Laksmana do not even go through the motions of asking Surpanakha who she is, for, being divine, they already know. Thus, although the goading of Surpanakha is retained as the essential catalyst of the story, it is less extravagant and, as is implied by Rama's glance at Sita, who is present the whole time, Sita is let in on the joke. While an atmosphere of divine play again pervades the episode, Tulsidas has also attempted to justify the brothers' actions on ethical grounds, Laksmana's moralizing reaching a degree unprecedented in any of the previously mentioned versions. However, not all commentators on the Ramcaritmanas are convinced by such moral justifications. Hindi literary scholar Mataprasad Gupta, for example, resorts to an aesthetic interpretation of Rama's actions:
There are two episodes that do not fit with the greatness of this character: (1) disfiguring Surpanakha and (2) killing Bali with deceit. But some people try to justify both actions completely. However, it is perhaps necessary to point out that the objections raised in these connections are from the point of view of morality, while we are concerned with these actions from a literary point of view, too, that is how far do these blemishes prove helpful in enhancing the beauty of this poem.
Two additional points: Surpanakha, as in Kampan but not the other versions, states that she is a virgin. Also, she is sent back and forth between the brothers an extra time.