Preferred Citation: Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Four The Mutilation of Surpanakha

The Mutilation of Surpanakha

Kathleen M. Erndl

The Rama story, more than any other sacred story in India, has been interpreted as a blueprint for right human action. Although the Ramayana is a myth that can be approached on many levels, it is the human level that has had the most profound effect on the Indian people.[l] Certainly Rama, much more so than Krsna, Siva, Durga, or other popular Hindu deities, has been held up as the exemplary ethical deity, as dharma personified.

Nonetheless, Western scholars of Indian mythology have until fairly recently neglected to examine the ethical implications even of those texts which cry out for such examination, as Jeffrey Masson has pointed out, chiding them for their detached and impersonal approach to Sanskrit texts.[2] Members of the Indian interpretive tradition—authors of Ramayana texts and commentators on them—have not been nearly so squeamish and have found fault with Rama's behavior in several episodes. Or rather one might say that they have been sufficiently uncomfortable with these episodes as to feel the need to explain them, usually in order to make them fit in with the picture of Rama as a dharmic character. Two frequently cited examples are Rama's killing of the monkey-king Valin in an unchivalrous manner from behind his back (Kiskindhakanda ) and his repudiation of Sita (both in the fire ordeal of the Yuddhakanda and in the banishment of the Uttarakanda ).[3]

A third such episode, the subject of this essay, is the mutilation of Ravana's sister, Surpanakha, in most tellings carried out by Laksmana at Rama's behest, after she has proclaimed her love and made sexual advances to Rama at Pancavati (Aranyakanda ).[4] From a narrative point of view, this episode proves a crucial turning point in the story, the catalyst which sets off a chain of events, notably Ravana's abduction of Sita, around which the remainder of the epic in turn revolves. It is also crucial from an ethical point of view, for it sheds light on Rama's character and on attitudes toward female sexuality


in Indian culture. The authors and commentators of various Ramayanas have handled the episode in various ways, reflecting a deep ambivalence in the tradition concerning the actions of Rama, Laksmana, and Surpanakha herself. On the one hand, there is the desire to show Rama as a fair, chivalrous protector of women and other weak members of society. On the other hand, there is a deep suspicion of women's power and sexuality when unchecked by male control. On the one hand, there is an effort to evade the question of whether Rama's behavior in teasing and goading Surpanakha before having her mutilated was appropriate. On the other, there is in many tellings the not-so-subtle suggestion that Surpanakha, as an immodest would-be adulteress, deserves whatever treatment she receives.

At this point I feel compelled to take up Masson's challenge and state that my approach to the Surpanakha episode does not reflect mere antiquarian curiosity. Nor do I aspire to complete objectivity. I became fascinated with Surpanakha when first reading Valmiki's Ramayana , feeling both sympathy for her plight and admiration for her forthrightness and independence. It seemed to me that she, like Rama's stepmother Kaikeyi, had gotten a raw deal in a world where the rules were made by men.[5] I wondered how other Ramayanas depicted the episode and began to collect various tellings. The more I collected, the more ambiguity I saw, an ambiguity which also surrounds many of the dichotomies critical to Indian culture, such as the opposition of good and evil, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious, divine and human, male and female.

I will discuss the implications of this episode in several versions of the Ramayana , allowing each version to shed light on the others so that common patterns can emerge. I have chosen to focus mainly on selected Hindu Ramayanas from the epic (itihasa ) and devotional (bhakti ) traditions. These are:

Ramayana (Valmiki), in Sanskrit (roughly 2nd C. B.C.E. -2nd

C. C.E. ) Iramavataram (Kampan), in Tamil (12th C.)

AdhyatmaRamayana , in Sanskrit (15th C.)

Ramcaritmanas (Tulsidas), in Avadhi or "Old Hindi" (16th C.)

RadhesyamRamayan , in modern Hindi (20th C.)

Following Lévi-Strauss, I will treat all tellings and interpretations of the story as equally valid; unlike an orthodox structuralist, however, I will take into account not only the structural features of the stories but also their content and the ideological positions explicitly taken by the authors.[6] Although I begin by summarizing the episode as it occurs in the Valmiki Ramayana and use it as a basis for the subsequent discussion, I do so only because it is the earliest complete literary version, one with which the composers of the other versions were surely familiar. My intention is not to privilege it as the normative or Ur -text: authors of the later literary versions, though drawing on the Valmiki Ramayana , also drew on their own local oral traditions, as well as on


their creativity and personal ideologies. As A. K. Ramanujan so delightfully illustrates in chapter 2 of this volume, the Rama story constitutes a universe so vast that it cannot be defined by a single text or even by a group of texts. Because of this, every interpretation is also a telling, and every telling also an interpretation.

The Surpanakha Episode

Valmiki Ramayana (Aranyakanda 16-17)

The Va1miki Ramayana is so famous that it needs no introduction here. Scholars generally concur that the bulk of the text, including the Aranyakanda , portrays Rama as an epic hero with human rather than divine status.

The scene in which Surpanakha is mutilated opens with Rama, Laksmana, and Sita living an idyllic existence in exile at Pancarati, practicing austerities and telling stories. One day a raksasi named Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, happens to pass by. Seeing Rama's beauty, she is instantly infatuated. The poet contrasts her appearance with Rama's:

His face was beautiful; hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-colored. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent. (16.8-9)[7]

Seized with desire, Surpanakha approaches Rama, saying, "Why have you, while in the guise of an ascetic wearing matted locks, accompanied by a wife and bearing bow and arrows, come to this spot which is frequented by raksasas ?" (16.11). In response, Rama introduces himself, his brother, and his wife. He then asks her about herself, adding, in some versions of the text (though not the Critical Edition), "You have such a charming body that you appear to be a raksasi ."[8] She replies that she is a raksasi named Surpanakha, able to change her form at will (kamarupini ), and has been roaming the Dandaka forest alone, frightening all living beings.

This exchange raises many questions. How did Surpanakha really appear to Rama? Was she beautiful or ugly?[9] If, as a raksasi , she was able to take on any form she pleased, why did she appear ugly? Was Valmiki describing her "true" form rather than her "apparent" form? If Rama did in fact comment on her beauty, was his comment serious or sarcastic? As we shall see, other versions have tried to clarify or otherwise interpret this ambiguity, in some cases adding to it.

Surpanakha goes on to describe her brothers, King Ravana, the hibernating Kumbhakarna, the virtuous Vibhisana, and the heroic Khara and his


general, Dusana, saying that she could overcome all of them.[10] She then declares her love to Rama and invites him to become her husband, offering first to devour Sita, that "ugly, unfaithful, hideous, potbellied" woman, and then Laksmana. With those two out of the way, she argues, they could wander the Dandaka forest together forever, taking in all the sights. Rama laughs and says:

I am married, O lady, and cherish my wife. For women like you, the presence of a co-wife would be unbearable. Here is my brother Laksmana, virtuous, good-looking, gentlemanly, and virile. He is unmarried. Not having a wife, he is eager [for marriage], and since he is so handsome, he will make an appropriate match for one of your beauty. So, O wide-eyed, shapely one, attend upon him unencumbered by a co-wife, as the sunlight upon Mount Meru. (17.2-5)

Commentators have debated the significance of these lines at great length. If, as is said, Rama never tells a lie, then why does he say that Laksmana is a bachelor? The simplest explanation would seem to be that what is spoken in jest cannot be considered a lie, but the reading in the Critical Edition indicating that he spoke in jest (svecchaya ) is uncertain.[11] Moreover, given that the word svecchaya can connote self-indulgence, one wonders as to the purpose of such a potentially cruel jest. Was he taunting his brother affectionately, or was he having fun at Surpanakha's expense? In contrast, some text-historical critics have taken Rama's statement seriously, using it as one argument among others to prove that the Balakanda —in which Laksmana is married to Sita's sister, Urmila—is an interpolated book.[12]

A third, and by far the most ingenious, interpretation has been advanced by P. S. Subramanya Sastri in an essay entitled "Telling a Lie or Otherwise by Rama at Panchavati." He argues that the word akrtadara ("unmarried") can also mean "one whose wife is not with him" or "one who is not using his wife." He also says that the verses following that statement are a double entendre (slesa ) which can be read simultaneously to mean that Laksmana has had no opportunity to enjoy conjugal pleasures and thus needs Surpanakha, or that Laksmana has shown unprecedented behavior in leaving his wife to suffer pangs of separation in the prime of youth.[13] If there is indeed a play on words, it is a very strained one. My point, however, in citing this argument is not to quibble over Sanskrit tropes but rather to illustrate another way in which the problematic nature of this and similar verses has spawned attempts at reconciliation.

The story continues with Surpanakha making a similar proposal to Laksmana, who smiles and says that as he is Rama's slave, he cannot be a suitable husband for her, and that she should instead turn to Rama and become his junior wife. Soon, he argues, Rama will abandon that "ugly, unfaithful, hideous, potbellied old" wife and attend upon her alone. Surpanakha takes Laksmana's words at face value, "not being aware of the joke," and says that she will devour Sita on the spot to be rid of her rival.


Note that Laksmana, mockingly engaging in a joke at Surpanakha's expense, uses the same adjectives to describe Sita that Surpanakha herself used earlier. Reading additional meaning into the statement, presumably in an effort to redeem Laksmana's character, a note to the Hindi translation of the Gita Press edition again suggests a double entendre:

The meaning from Surpanakha's point of view has been given above [in the Hindi translation of the Sanskrit text], but from Laksmana's point of view, these adjectives are not critical but laudatory. Thus, virupa (ugly, deformed) means one with a visistarupa (distinguished form); asati (unfaithful, unvirtuous) means one who is unsurpassed in virtue; karala (hideous, horrible) means one whose limbs are high and low with respect to body structure; nirnatodari (potbellied) means thin-waisted; vrddha (old) means advanced in wisdom. Thus, the verse could also read as, "Having gotten rid of you, he will attend upon Sita [who has said qualities]."[14]

The argument here is similar to that of P. S. Subramanya Sastri noted above.

Another scholar, K. Ramaswami Sastri, in an essay entitled "The Riddle of Surpanakha," offers the following commentary:

The Surpanakha episode is one of the many examples of the wonderfully creative inventiveness of Valmiki's imagination. The story of her lasciviousness is a cleverly contrived prelude to the story of the lustful abduction of Sita by Ravana and gives ample scope to the poet to make the best of a situation which could afford him an ample opportunity for comic portrayal. Rama and Laksmana crack jokes at her expense. The poet says there is no humour in her mental composition (parihasavicaksana). He probably suggests that the cruel and egoistic Rakshasas were not capable of humour.[15]

The suggestion here is that Surpanakha had no sense of humor because she was a rsksasi rather than a human female, not because she was a woman blinded by infatuation—although one wonders whether Surpanakha would have found the joke funny in any case. The construction of Surpanakha as "other," as nonhuman, is particularly appropriate, since she really is other than human. Indeed, one purpose for Rama's presence in the forest is to rid it of the raksasas who torment the human ascetics.

To continue with Valmiki's account: Surpanakha, then prepares to pounce on a frightened Sita, whereupon Rama angrily grabs Surpanakha, saying to Laksmana, "One should never joke with cruel, ignoble people. . .. Mutilate this ugly, unvirtuous, extremely ruttish, great-bellied raksasi " (17.19-20). At this, Laksmana cuts off Surpanakha's nose and ears with his sword. Screaming loudly and bleeding profusely, she runs to her brother Khara and tells him what happened. Intending to avenge the insult, Khara, Dusana, and Trisiras wage battle against Rama, who defeats them singlehandedly. Ravana is first informed of these events by his minister, then by Surpanakha herself. Hearing of Sita's beauty, Ravana decides to gain revenge by abducting her.


The immediate reason for Surpanakha's disfigurement thus seems to be her attempt to devour Sita. However, the implied reason is her attempt at adultery, which, as we shall see, is made more explicit in other tellings. Disfigurement of a woman is not unknown elsewhere in Valmiki's text. In the Balakanda (26.18), Rama kills the raksasi Tataka for her crimes against tile sage Visvamitra, after Laksmana first cuts off her hands, nose, and cars as punishment. Similarly, there is a multiform of the Surpanakha episode later in the Aranyakanda . (69.17), in which Laksmana kills the raksasi Ayomukhi for making lustful advances toward him.

Modern Indian students of the Ramayana , like the traditional commentators, have been faced with the problem of reconciling episodes such as the mutilation of Surpanakha with the concept of Rama as the perfect human being or as an incarnation of Visnu. Some argue that the inclusion of such episodes "proves" the historicity of the text, for why would Valmiki report an unflattering deed of the hero if it were not true?[16] Another approach is the apologetic, inspired by pious devotionalism (bhakti ), often in reaction to what is perceived as antireligious criticism. Thus C. Rajagopalachari remarks in a footnote to his retelling of the Valmiki Ramayana :

There are some people who pose as critics of our holy books and traditions, saying "This hero killed a woman. He insulted and injured a woman who offered him her love. He killed Vaali from behind. . . . He unjustly banished Sits...."All such criticisms are based on a mentality of hatred. We have unfortunately plenty of barren, heartless cleverness, devoid of true understanding. Let those who find faults in Rama see faults, and if these critics faultlessly pursue dharma and avoid in their own lives the flaws they discover in Rama, the bhaktas [devotees] of Sri Rama will indeed welcome it with joy.[17]

In the Uttarakanda (23-24), which is considered to be of later composition, more information is given concerning Surpanakha's background. She is said to have been the hideous daughter of Visravas, the grandson of Brahma, and the raksasi Kaikasi. Her brother Ravana is said to have married her to Vidyujjihva, the king of the Kalakas, but Ravana then killed her husband accidentally in Asmanagara while conquering the netherworld. Surpanakha came to him and censured him, whereupon he sent her to live in the Dandaka forest with her brother Khara and his general Dusana. Although Surpanakha's status as a widow does not figure at the forefront of Valmiki's tale, it is prominent in other tellings, as we shall see.

Iramavataram (patalam 5)

Kampan's Ramayana , written in Tamil in the twelfth century, is a poetic work renowned for both its aesthetic and religious merit.[18] That it was greatly influenced by Vaisnava devotional (bhakti ) movements is evident even from its Tamil title, Iramavataram , which means "Rama, the incarnation [of Visnu]." There are a great many differences between Valmiki's and Kampan's


tellings of the Rama story, and not surprisingly the Surpanakha episode is no exception. In fact, Kampan's portrayal of Surpanakha is unique among Hindu Ramayanas . It is so compelling that Rajagopalachari, while largely following Valmiki in his English retelling, chose to append Kampan's version of this particular episode as well. One immediately striking difference between the Sanskrit and Tamil tellings is that while in Valmiki the episode is a single encounter related in 51 slokas , Kampan dwells lovingly upon the scene, which now extends over a two-day period, in 143 verses of various metres. Unlike Valmiki, Kampan not only describes Surpanakha's appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight. I cannot hope to reproduce the beauty of his language here, but will be content to provide a summary with occasional quotations from the excellent translation by George Hart and Hank Heifetz.

The episode begins with a description of Rama, Sita, and Laksmana settling in the beautiful Pancavati grove near the Godavari river. Into this idyllic scene wanders Surpanakha, whom the poet describes immediately as the one fated to bring about Ravana's destruction. Seeing Rama alone, she falls in love with him at once, captivated by his beauty, and wonders how to approach him.

As the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean, as her wisdom disappeared, her purity waned like the fame of a man who hoards up wealth and gives nothing with love as his reward for praise! (26.2854.)[19]

Purity (karpu , also translated "chastity") is a significant quality for the Tamils, for it is believed to provide women with great power.[20] Kampan's introduction of the concept here reinforces the foreshadowing he has already employed: if Surpanakha lacks purity, then all her other powers will ultimately fail.

Knowing her own appearance to be forbidding, Surpanakha visualizes the goddess Sri seated on a lotus, utters a magic spell (mantra ), and becomes a radiantly beautiful woman:

Beautiful as Sri on her flower flowing gold,


like a streak of lightning


fallen, never to vanish, out of the sky,


with her jewelled chariot


fresh as that of a young girl


and softly clothed,


and her shining face, the swords of her eyes,


like a lovely myna bird,


she came as if a peacock were coming,


with eyes like a deer,


of a sweet, abundant beauty, with a perfumed


honey of words



that would draw out desire for her who had taken


a body just like the valli,


glowing vine of heaven, given its life by the tall


and fragrant Wish-Granting Tree.


In this beautiful form she introduces herself to Rama as the virgin Kamavalli, granddaughter of Brahma and sister of Kubera and Ravana, whereupon Rama asks her how she can have such a form even though she is a demoness and why she has come there alone. She replies that her beauty was a result of her good character and penances and that she has spurned the company of unvirtuous raksasas . She then proposes marriage to Rama, who meets her proposal with several objections. First, he argues, a Brahmin woman cannot marry a Ksatriya, to which she replies that she is not really a Brahmin, since her mother is of royal descent. Deciding to have some fun, Rama says that it was not fitting for a human man to marry a raksasi . She replies that she has managed to cast off that unfortunate birth. Rama then says that he will take her only if her brothers will give her to him in marriage, but she insists that they have a gandharva rite, as is prescribed by the Vedas when a man and woman fall in love. Her brother will assent after it has taken place, she tells Rama, adding that with her as his wife, he will no longer need to fear harassment from the raksasas . Rama laughs, saying that would be a blessing indeed.

At that moment Sita returns from her bath. Surpanakha, seeing Sita's beauty and not thinking that Rama, in his ascetic garb, would be accompanied by a wife, wonders who she is and warns Rama that Sita must he a shape-shifting raksasi who has come to deceive him. Rama teasingly agrees. When Sita becomes frightened, Rama senses danger and, sending Surpanakha away, enters the hut with Sita.

Surpanakha spends the night pining for Rama, almost dying with the intensity of her love:

When the water she bathed in began boiling, she was terrified

in fear of the flames burning away her life and


the body that she so cherished and she thought,


"Where can I hide from the roaring ocean


or the cruel arrows of love?"


Wondering how her suffering will ever vanish, she contrasts herself with Sita: "Would he look at me as well, I who am so impure? . . . That woman is all purity, she is beautiful, and she is the mistress of his broad chest" (87.2915-88.2916).[23] In the morning, seeing Sita alone, she approaches her with the idea of snatching her, hiding her away somewhere, and taking on her form, but Laksmana, who did not witness the previous day's exchange, pushes her down and cuts off her nose, cars, and nipples. As Surpanakha lies writhing in pain, crying out to her brothers to take revenge, Rama appears and asks who


she is. She says that she is the same woman who appeared the day before, but "when a woman has lost her nipples, her cars with their earrings, her nose like a vine, . . . . isn't her beauty destroyed?" (119.2947).[24] When Laksmana explains that she was about to attack Sita, Rama orders her to leave.

Surpanakha still does not give up, saying that if she were to tell her brother what had happened he would destroy Rama and his race, but that she will save him from this fate if he accepts her. She argues that a strong woman like herself, who could protect him in battle, is better than the delicate Sita. She also accuses Rama of having her nose cut off to make her undesirable to other suitors, but offers to create it again, if he wishes. Rama replies that he and his brother are capable of slaying the raksasas without her help. He tells her to leave, but she persists until Laksmana asks Rama for permission to kill her. At this point she goes to find Khara.

The attack of Khara and Dusana proceeds as in the Va1miki Ramayana . However, even after their defeat, Surpanakha cannot rid herself of her love for Rama. She goes to Ravana and describes Sita's beauty in such detail that he hallucinates an image of her and falls in love with her. Surpanakha confesses her love for Rama to her brother, saying that when Ravana takes Sita as a wife, she will have Rama to herself.

Besides the differences in tone mentioned above, there are a few details of plot on which Kampan's Ramayana differs from Valmiki's. In this version, although Rama still jokes with Surpanakha, he does so in a gentler and more urbane fashion. He does not crudely suggest that she approach Laksmana, as he does in Valmiki's telling. Furthermore, Laksmana bears full responsibility for her mutilation: Rama only finds out about it afterward. All this is in keeping with Kampan's generally more "chivalrous" approach to Sita's abduction, in which Ravana picks up the earth around her rather than subject her to the indignity of having her body touched. On the other hand, Laksmana cuts off her nipples as well as her nose and ears. In Tamil culture, the breasts are symbolic of a woman's power, so mutilation of them is a harsh indignity.[25] On the whole, then, Surpanakha, like Ravana, is portrayed in a far more sympathetic light than in Valmiki, even though the tactics she employs arc far more devious.

Adhyatma Ramayana ( Aranyakanda 5)

The Adhyatma (or "spiritual") Ramayana , a Sanskrit text dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, is an important document in the development of the Rama cult in North India and is the sacred scripture of the Ramanandi sect.[26] Integrating various Vedantic, Puranic, and Tantric elements, it tends to view the human events and characters of the Rama story as divine allegory. Thus, Rama is an incarnation of Visnu, Laksmana is the cosmic serpent Sesa, and Sita the goddess Laksmi.

The Surpanakha episode follows the basic pattern of the Valmiki telling


but is much briefer and has some differences in emphasis. Surpanakha is not described as ugly, as in the Valmiki version, nor is she said to take on a beautiful form, as in the Kampan version: she is merely said to be capable of assuming diverse forms at will. She falls in love with Rama when she sees his footprints in the earth, which bear the divine marks of the lotus, thunderbolt, and goad. She approaches him but he directs her to Laksmana, saying only that she would not want Sita as a co-wife: he does not say that Laksmana is unmarried. She turns to Laksmana, who argues that as he is Rama's devoted slave, he is not fit to take a wife and that she should turn w Rama, "the Lord of all." Angry at being sent back and forth, Surpanakha says she will eat Sita up. The story proceeds as in the Valmiki Ramayana , with Laksmana cutting off her nose and ears. She appeals to Khara and Dusana, who fight Rama and are defeated. She then goes to Ravana, saying that she was mutilated when she attempted to bring Sita to him to be his wife. Ravana realizes that Rama is not merely a man but decides: "If I am killed by the Supreme Lord, I shall enjoy the kingdom of heaven. Otherwise, I shall enjoy the sovereignty of the raksasas . I shall therefore approach Rama."

Although the narrative is similar to that of the Valmiki Ramayana , the events are given a context very different from that of the heroic epic. Thus the perspective is changed: what was a battle between two opposing forces becomes a search for salvation through death. In the bhakti tradition, any intense emotion directed toward God is a form of devotion, and so, as Ravana understands, being killed in battle by God is a sure way to attain salvation. There is also an aura of playfulness (lila ), events being enacted according to a predetermined divine plan with everything coming out all right in the end. This playful quality allows many of the moral questions to be glossed over. Thus, in this version, it is only a phantom (maya ) Sita who is abducted, not the real Sita, and Rama is aware of the outcome of everything beforehand. [n fact, in the Balakanda portion of the AdhyatmaRamayana , Rama is depicted as a playful and mischievous child, much like the child Krsna. In this context, the Surpanakha episode can be seen as a childish prank, ultimately imbued with grace, as is all divine play.

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.[27] 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).[28]

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.[29]

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).[30] 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).[31] 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).[32] 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.[33]

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.

Radhesyam Ramayan ( sankhya 10)

The RadhesyamRamayan was composed in the mid twentieth century in simple modern Hindi verse.[34] 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."[35] 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 .[36] 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?"[37] 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.[38]

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.

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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] Interestingly, such incidents are often presented in a humorous light.[42] 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.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] 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.

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.[47] 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.[48]

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 .[49] 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.[50] 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.[51] 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.


Four The Mutilation of Surpanakha

Preferred Citation: Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.