Sita, and Surpanakha as Alter Egos
Sita and Surpanakha exemplify two types of women who appear almost universally in folklore and mythology: Sita is good, pure, light, auspicious, and subordinate, whereas Surpanakha is evil, impure, dark, inauspicious, and insubordinate. Although male characters also divide into good and bad, the split between women is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality. Similarly, when a woman such as Surpanakha performs a wrong deed, it is typically ascribed to her female nature, whereas Ravana's evil deeds, for example, are never said to spring from his male nature. It is also worth noting that in the bhakti -oriented Ramayanas , in which the evil-doings of the male characters are recast as devotional acts leading to eventual salvation, Surpanakha's salvation is not mentioned.
Sita is the chaste good woman; Surpanakha the "loose" bad woman. The good woman is one who remains controlled, both mentally and physically, by her husband (or, in his absence, her father, brother, or son) and whose sexuality is channeled into childbearing and service to her husband. The scriptures make frequent references to a man's duty to unite himself with such a woman in order to produce sons and thereby fulfill obligations to the ancestors. According to an oft-quoted injunction, a woman must obey and be protected by her father in youth, her husband in married life, and her sons in old age; a woman should never be independent (Manusmrti V.147, IX.3). The good woman, however, is far from weak and powerless. She is a source of power, sakti . In other words, it is her auspiciousness and nurturing that keep things going, but her power must be controlled to suit the purposes of a patriarchal society. Thus Sita comes to the forest as a companion to her husband, and she is watched over and protected every step of the way. Otherwise, she would not be allowed to set foot out of the palace.
The bad woman is one who is not subject to these controls. In contrast to Sita, Surpanakha is unattached and wanders about freely. In Valmiki, she describes herself as a strong woman who goes where she likes under her own
power. It is not surprising that she is said to be a widow, since widows are considered dangerous and inauspicious, circumstances having rendered them unable to bear children. Their chastity is also suspect, since they are no longer under the control of a husband, and women are believed to have insatiable sexual appetites. In Hindi, Panjabi, and other North Indian languages, the word suhagin or sumangali , signifying auspiciousness, is used for a married woman whose husband is alive, while the word randi can mean both a widow and a whore. Surpanakha's unmarried state is thus the major source of her evil nature; being a raksasi is at best a contributing factor. After all, Mandodari, also a raksasi , is praised for her virtue, chastity, and devotion to her husband, Ravana. Accordingly, it is Surpanakha's status as an independent woman which is denounced. But the loose woman, while perceived as dangerous, also holds a certain fascination for the male imagination, which is perhaps why Rama and Laksmana linger a bit, egging her on rather than banishing her immediately.
It is revealing that Rama uses Sita as the excuse for Surpanakha's mutilation: the "bad woman" is punished in order to protect the "good woman," or perhaps to serve as an example of what would happen to the "good woman" if she decided to go "bad"—for the division of women into two types in fact reflects a basic mistrust of all women. One could even argue that if the beautiful and virtuous Sita is Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and auspiciousness, then the ugly and unvirtuous Surpanakha must be her sister Alaksmi, the goddess of misfortune and inauspiciousness. In festivals honoring Laksmi, her sister Alaksmi is often driven away by lighting lamps, but in a Bengali Laksmi festival, an image of Alaksmi is made and ritually disfigured by cutting off its nose and ears, after which an image of Laksmi is installed in order to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year. The structural similarity between this popular ritual and the Surpanakha episode is striking.
The analysis of a single episode as it appears in selected tellings and interpretations can thus provide a telling glimpse into the dynamics of the Ramayana as a whole. The mutilation of Surpanakha is significant to the Rama story from multiple perspectives. From a narrative point of view, it serves as the catalyst for the key events: only after Surpanakha reports her disfigurement to Ravana does he decide to abduct Sita. From an ethical point of view, the episode raises complex questions about Rama's supposedly exemplary character, questions which authors and commentators have attempted to resolve in diverse ways. From a cultural perspective, the episode sheds light on Hindu attitudes toward female sexuality and its relationship to such polarities as good and evil, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious. However, the final word on Surpanakha has not been voiced: her story is sure to fascinate and inspire hearers, tellers, and interpreters for generations to come.