Radhesyam Ramayan ( sankhya 10)
The RadhesyamRamayan was composed in the mid twentieth century in simple modern Hindi verse. Written in a lively, colloquial tone, it is available in cheap editions and is much easier for the average Hindi speaker to read than the Ramcaritmanas , which is written in a more archaic and flowery language. Interspersed with songs, the RadhesyamRamayan is also a major source for the Ram Lila performances in some towns in North India.
The story begins, as in other tellings, with Surpanakha falling desperately in love with Rama after happening upon the pleasant abode where he dwells with Sita and Laksmana. I translate the rest of the episode as follows:
She said, "In the midst of the world, there is no other woman as beautiful as I, nor is there a beautiful man like you anywhere. Our mutual beauty is as if the Creator had planned it. The maker of the moon has also made the sun. Give me shelter, O Forest-dweller; fulfill the aspiration of the Creator. I command you to marry me in the gandharva fashion."
Sita thought, "Let my heart not be shattered. If the sun and the moon have truly met, then for me there is complete darkness." Smiling to himself, the husband of Sita said, "Forgive me, desirable one, you cannot be with me. I am not a bachelor, but am married and vow to remain faithful to one woman. Forget about me. I consider all other women to be mothers and sisters. Therefore, I can never accede to your request. I am a noble man and can never break the code of honor."
The demoness listened, and when he had stopped talking, she turned from him and cast her eyes on Laksmana. She said to Laksmana, "Why are you looking at me and quietly snickering? He is married, but you seem to be a bachelor. Well then, don't give me a harsh answer as he did. If you are willing, and I am willing, then there is nothing wrong with our union."
Laksmana had always had a somewhat fierce nature. He could not bear the demoness's behavior. He said, "Aren't you ashamed to say these things? You should have died before saying these things, O sinful one! This is the first time in my life I have ever seen such shamelessness! Because I have seen
such shamelessness, this is an inauspicious day. O demoness, O disgracer of your family! If you have not yet been married, then tell your guardian to get you married somewhere. Marriage should be noble, performed according to righteous means. Don't consider it a bargain in the marketplace. Its proper goal is not the fulfillment of pleasure, but rather the fulfillment of duty. If you have already been married, then serve your own husband! He is your god and should be worshiped. Wish only for his happiness. But if you are a widow, then be a renunciant for the sake of your own husband. Become a true ascetic for the purpose of serving your family, caste, and country. Work toward instructing and improving your own sisters; this is your proper course of action. Remain steadfast in this way, in the midst of the world, remembering your own dear husband. Why do you bring shame upon yourself, uselessly going here and there in this way? O adulteress, you are drowning the good name of your father and husband."
Laksmana's tirade in this version makes his moralizing in the Ramcaritmanas seem mild. His message is clear: For a woman, there are three possible statuses, unmarried daughter, wife, or widow—and none of these permit a woman to go about choosing her own sexual partners. A family's honor is invested in the chastity of its women. There is a very modern tone to this passage, reflecting the concern of conservatives in a rapidly changing twentieth century India. The poet seems to be telling his audience that he does not approve of the recent fashion of "love marriages," lest someone think they are permissible as the modern equivalent of the ancient gandharva rite. (His remark about the marketplace is unintentionally ironic, since in fact many modern arranged marriages are driven by pecuniary considerations.) Similarly, he reiterates the traditional ideal that a wife should worship her husband as a god, attaining salvation only through him. His remarks about widows have a modern application, since widow remarriage among the upper castes is still a controversial issue, in spite of a relaxation of the ban in some communities. The references to serving one's country and to the educational uplift of women also have a modern, nationalistic ring to them.
The story continues:
Hearing this teaching of the forest ascetic, she was even more agitated. The pure water slid off her as off a slippery pitcher. Then she thought, "This won't work with him. He's a regular preacher and won't change his ways. Yes, the dark lotus-mouthed one seems comparatively gentle to me. But he has his wife with him. Because of her, he won't accept me. So I will assume my horrible form and eat that lovely one. In that way, I will get rid of that thorn in my path in a moment."
As she assumed a horrible form, her garland, which had been a mass of flowers, immediately became a mass of spears. She approached Sita, but when she opened her mouth wide, Laksmana could no longer bear her antics.
Who has the nerve to torture a mother in front of her son? How can someone harm a mistress in front of her servant? At that moment, the eyes of Laksmana became red. At the same time, the Ksatriya's arms became horrible weapons of death. He thought, "I will twist her neck and rid the earth of her. With my kicks and fists, I will pulverize her in a flash." When Rama realized the fierce sentiment in Laksmana's heart, he signaled to Laksmana, "Don't kill her; mutilate her." Laksmana could not ignore Rama's order, so he immediately cut off the demoness's nose and ears.
When that evil one had left, crying in pain, the Beloved of Sita said to Laksmana: "You were ready to kill her, but I did not think it was right. On this occasion, I considered it appropriate not to kill a weak woman. So I had you mutilate her so that she would become ugly. Never again will she be able to make such an obscene proposition."
Laksmana said, "You have abided by the warrior code. But even killing her would not have been a wrong action. The guru of whom we were disciples [Visvamitra] and who increased our zeal had us kill Tataka in our childhood. He used to say, 'It is not a sin to kill a fallen woman. It is not a sin to rid the earth of heinous things.'"
Laughing, Sita said, "You could have killed her, but your brother is an ocean of mercy and forgiveness!" Hearing the lovely one's irony, Rama became embarrassed. Laksmana also burst out laughing, covering his mouth with his hand.
This version is an interesting combination of black humor and didacticism. Rama and Laksmana do not toy with Surpanakha in quite the same manner as in other versions. For example, Rama does not tell Surpanakha that Laksmana is unmarried; she assumes it herself. Laksmana's lecture is also an innovation, perhaps inspired by the much shorter one in Ramcaritmanas . The Radhesyam Ramayan also makes it clear that the motive for mutilation is not only punishment but deterrence. Much later, in the sequel to this text, Rama's sons Lava and Kusa are reciting the story of Rama. When they get to the Surpanakha episode, they say, "Who would have thought . . . that [Rama] would have Laksmana cut off this woman's nose and ears? But it was really a matter of his duty to punish the wicked. He disfigured Surpanakha in order to keep her away from sin." In other words, Rama is doing her a favor by preventing her from sinning again. After she leaves, the three of them have a good laugh over the whole thing.
The rest of the story is similar to the Ramcaritmanas version. When Surpanakha confronts Ravana with what has happened, she says, "If my nose is gone, it is gone. Now you better look after your nose." In colloquial Hindi, to lose one's nose (nak ) means to lose one's honor. Ravana pretends to become angry, but, as in other devotional versions, he seizes upon this chance to attain salvation.
As a counterpoint to the apologetic tone of the Radhesyam Ramayan , I present here a roughly contemporaneous critique of the mutilation of Surpanakha, that offered by Arvind Kumar in A Study in the Ethics of the Banishment of Sita . It was originally written as a legal defense of his poem, "Ram ka Antardvandva" (Rama's internal conflict), which appeared in 1957 in the popular Hindi magazine Sarita . The poem was banned after a public uproar and could not be published in the book since the ban was still in effect.
In both the poem and the book, Kumar questions Rama's loyalty to Sita, broadly hinting that Rama was attracted to Surpanakha. Kumar describes his poem as a monologue in which Rama looks back over the events in his life while trying to decide whether to banish Sita. It shows Rama doubting Sita's faithfulness and admitting that he too was once tempted by Surpanakha, and even now remembers her beauty. In the essay, Kumar says that Rama has adopted many poses in his life, one of which was his treatment of Surpanakha: "Rama knows that he is telling a lie. Laksmana has been married to Urmila and before going to the jungle has lived with her for twelve years. Is this not a pose to say the least?" He also criticizes the goading of Surpanakha:
The propriety of Rama's joking in a ribald manner has also been questioned. Would an upright man, with nothing otherwise in his mind, ask a woman who has openly come to him with such an invitation, to go to his younger brother? Rama does not refuse Surpanakha directly. He only says, "Of course, you would not like to share me with a rival wife." Then, both Rama and Laksmana join in the game and make Surpanakha fly like a shuttlecock from one end to the other.
The public outrage produced by Kumar's original poem and subsequent essay defending it shows that criticism or satire involving religious figures can be just as inflammatory in Hinduism as in Christianity (the film The Last Temptation of Christ ) or Islam (Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses ). Rama's status as moral exemplar is so central to Indian culture that to impugn his motives has become essentially an act of heresy.