Mutilation as A Punishment for Women
Three interrelated themes or motifs thus seem to emerge from the Surpanakha episode, all of which figure significantly in the broader context of Hindu mythology and culture. The first of these, mutilation as a punishment for women, is a standard feature of the Surpanakha story. In the majority of Ramayana tellings, it is Surpanakha's nose and cars that are cut off. In some versions, it is her nose alone, whereas others add her breasts, hands, feet, or even hair. As we have seen, in South India, especially Tamilnadu, the breasts are seen as a symbol of female power; thus, cutting them off is a
humiliating punishment which deprives a woman of her power. The nose is a symbol of honor; in all versions of the story its removal signifies the loss of honor. In the Radhesyam Ramayan , as we have seen, this is made explicit when Surpanakha warns Ravana that he had better watch out for his nose— meaning, of course, that his honor is at stake. Since honor is especially associated with the sexual purity of women, the cutting off of the nose has traditionally been a punishment reserved for women.
Most Indian legal texts forbid killing a woman, even as punishment for a serious crime, though the practice is not unheard of. For example, in tile Balakanda of Valmiki's Ramayana , Rama kills the demoness Tataka at the behest of the sage Visvamitra, after Laksmana first disfigures her. Generally, however, women and men receive different punishments for the same crime. Disfigurement of the woman is the most common punishment for crimes of a sexual nature, such as adultery—or even attempting to poison one's husband—and Indian mythology and folklore abound with examples of the motif. Interestingly, such incidents are often presented in a humorous light. Thus, in many North Indian Ram Lilaq performances the Surpanakha episode is a kind of burlesque, to which the (predominantly male) audience responds with ribald jokes and laughter, perhaps again betraying a certain male anxiety about female sexuality.