Sexuality and Austerity in the Forest
The mythologies of Siva and of Krsna allow a free interplay between eroticism and asceticism: though the two are in tension, full expression is given to both. In the character of Rama, however, sexuality appears to be almost completely suppressed. There is some tension between the ascetic and the householder way of life, but the conflict is always presented in terms of dharma, that is, in terms of which duty he should fulfill, rather than in terms of the indulgence or suppression of erotic desires. According to the traditional interpretation, during his exile Rama is a vanaprastha , a forest-dwelling ascetic accompanied by his wife. This stage of life is rife with complications, as it is an "unsatisfactory compromise" between two mutually exclusive modes of existence, the householder and the ascetic. According to tradition, Rama and Sita refrained from sexual activity for the fourteen years of their exile, although Valmiki, at least, is ambiguous on this point.
In the Sanskrit aesthetic tradition represented by Abhinavagupta, the major theme of the Ramayana is summed up by the story, recounted early in Valmiki, of a hunter sinfully killing a bird, thereby interrupting its lovemaking with its mate. In the Rama narrative proper, a somewhat similar interruption of marital bliss is created first by Surpanakha and then, more disruptively, by Ravana. This is a common motif in Hindu mythology: when Siva
and Parvati were interrupted in their lovemaking, for example, disastrous consequences ensued. At the same time, in keeping with the ambiguous character of the vanaprastha mode, the Surpanakha episode resembles the myth of Kama's interruption of Siva's austerities. The Ahalya story follows a similar pattern: Indra disrupts the marital bliss of the forest-dwelling couple Gautama and Ahalya, but at the same time interrupts their austerities, for which both he and Ahalya are cursed. The narration of the Surpanakha episode generally begins with a twofold description of idyllic domesticity and the performance of austerities. Surpanakha is punished for her display of unrepressed sexuality, which is harmful to both domesticity and asceticism.