Women First, Rivals Later by Vibha Shetiya


VibahSita, as many know, is the tragic heroine of the Ramayana who gets discarded by her husband Rama because he doubted she had remained chaste while in his arch enemy Ravana’s captivity. Moreover, she is the “ideal Indian woman” in popular imagination because she remains loyal to Rama no matter how unfair his treatment of her. But there is another female character in the epic who meets perhaps a far more violent fate.

Unlike Sita, however, Shurpanakha gets little sympathy from the readers because she does not stick to her socially assigned roles. I would like to talk about Shurpanakha and how she comes to symbolize all women who transgress societal boundaries, while also stressing the fact that although she is often presented as Sita’s opposite, the two share far more in common as women; both Sita and Shurpanakha deserve our compassion and empathy.

In the traditional Sanskrit text, Valmiki describes Shurpanakha as “maddened with desire” when she first beholds Rama’s beauty. The poet then goes into a rather lengthy description of what she is not by comparing her “unsightly” presence with Rama’s exemplary beauty, thereby affirming the fact that she does not deserve to be visible because of the physicality of her body. Upon his enquiring, Shurpanakha tells Rama that she, who roams the forest alone and according to her own will, is the sister of Ravana (who later kidnaps Sita), and she makes it a point to add that she is more powerful than all her brothers. She then declares her undying love for Rama and asks him to be her husband, after which the two of them could seek adventure amid the forest together.

When Rama tells her he is married, but that his brother Lakshmana was still a bachelor (a lie, since Lakshmana is married), Shurpanakha “intoxicated with lust” shifts her attention to him. Lakshmana too declines, and when Shurpanakha decides to take it upon herself to get rid of a co-wife, that is Sita, Rama decides that there was no point in “jesting” with a base and wicked character, and that it was time to deform this “frightful, unchaste rakshasi [demoness] of a huge abdomen, transported with lust,” at which point Lakshmana proceeds to cut off her ears and nose.

Why did Rama and Lakshmana treat Shurpanakha in this manner, mocking her, and making light of her feelings? Why did they feel it necessary to disfigure her, rather than kill her? After all, she did try to attack Sita, the heroine, and killing her would undoubtedly have been justifiable to readers. Does it lie in the reasoning that killing her would be an act of mercy, whereas mutilating her would be an act of punishment, the more appropriate of the two? Shurpanakha has come to symbolize the punishment for women who do not comply with norms that dictate how women ought to behave in public. For one, she does not fit the standards of physical beauty, which makes her laughable and impossible to take seriously. But more significant, she is an independent woman who roams the forest at her will without a male chaperone, and she is not afraid to demonstrate her sexuality, actions which lead to her “punishment.” There are two things going on here – physical violence against women, and then the attempt to literally erase them by cutting off bodily parts.

Sita, on the other hand, has always conformed to heterosexual norms of what a woman ought to be – beautiful, timid, shy, dependent on Rama and Lakshmana even outside the confines of the palace, in other words, her sexuality is firmly under male control. Shurpanakha’s character is in direct contrast to hers – bold, talkative, independent and above all, her sexuality is on full display when she evinces a desire for both brothers. The relationship between the two women serves to highlight a couple of points: it emphasizes the ideal, in the form of Sita, but it also serves as a warning for women who transgress these ideals, necessitating their social obliteration.

In her article, “The Mutilation of Shurpanakha,” Kathleen Erndl states that Sita and Shurpanakha can be regarded “alter-egos”; as “the chaste good woman and Shurpanakha the loose bad woman.”[1]  If one stops to think for a moment, however, it becomes clear that, rather than contradicting each other, Sita and Shurpanakha share far more in common – as women who belong to the category of the “female sex.” Both are wronged women – Sita, insofar as she fulfils the role of the ideal woman is a “law-abiding” member of society. But she loses that status once her female body comes under suspicion. Her abduction by Ravana renders her sullied because her chastity – a defining variable of Indian womanhood – is in question.

It is, however, only Sita who gets sympathy from the audience because she not the agent in the transgression of female norms – she does not choose to be abducted by Ravana. Shurpanakha on the other hand, willfully displays her independence which reaches its climax when she propositions both brothers and is thus doubly punished – by the characters of the story, as well as the readers, who during the course of the epic’s two thousand year history, have rarely felt the need to speak up on her behalf, in the way they have for Sita.

When Rama disowns Sita for the second time, despite her having passed the fire ordeal, she is forced to live on the periphery of society; in the deep recesses of the forest, she becomes invisible to the public. She finally decides she has had enough and she returns to her mother, the Earth, her erasure complete. With Shurpanakha, there is an attempt to literally wipe out her physicality when Rama and Lakshmana mutilate her. Additionally, after serving as catalyst to the entire drama that comes to be known as the Ramayana, she is also erased from the epic entirely when Valmiki never speaks of her again.[2]

The real tragedy, however, lies in the fact that this is not just fiction, but that the Ramayana symbolizes the treatment of women even in modern times. And in twenty-first century India, where violence against women occurs in both forms – physical and emotional, socially sanctioned or not – women need to reclaim not just Sita, but also Shurpanakha.

[1] Kathleen M. Erndl, “The Mutilation of Shurpanakha,” in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Tradition in South India, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 83.
[2] Shurpanakha plays a key role in the epic when she reports the attack to her brother Ravana, who later kidnaps Sita, setting the entire story in motion.

 

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Divine Feminine, Domestic Violence, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General

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15 replies

  1. Moreover, she is the “ideal Indian woman” in popular imagination because she remains loyal to Rama no matter how unfair his treatment of her.

    That says it all, doesn’t it.

    I love your deconstruction of the Hindu myths.

    As I often say, I have rarely found a myth that I can affirm. And no, I am not interested in spiritualizing away the clear political meanings of the myths. No Sita is not the soul and Shurpanakha the body, nor is Sita our higher self and Shurpanakha our lower self. They are pawns in a patriarchal story whose purpose is to serve and uphold patriarchy.

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    • Just recently I had a conversation on FB about whether or not the image of St. George and the Dragon is a re-enactment of the slaying of the Snake who was the guardian of the Shrine of Mother Earth at Delphi byy Apollo–as part of a patriarchal takeover of the Old Religion. I was chastised for reducing all the poetry and higher meaning out of myth to politics and violence.

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      • Why does it have to be one or the other? Jewish interpretive tradition has four modes to process stories, which can all be true:
        – the apparent, surface meaning of the text (peshat)
        – the meaning that is only hinted at by the text (remez)
        – the meaning that has been ferreted out of the text with various interpretive techniques (derash)
        – the hidden mystical meaning(s) encoded in the text (sod)
        (from James S. Diamond, Stringing the Pearls: How to Read the Weekly Torah Portion)
        We are accustomed to multi-tasking; a given story can be at the same time poetic and violent and symbolic and historical analogy etc. Since the overt interpretations have already been popularized, it is up to us to add the less obvious political ones to the mix. Thanks, Vibha, Carol, and the rest of you for doing this.

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      • Exactly, Carol. Myths by definition have something deeper to tell about a society at large.

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      • Thank you, Judith, for enlightening me on the Jewish interpretive tradition. I find it fascinating that ancient tradition also allowed for various interpretations, at least in theory. It sounds so modern!

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  2. I hope someone will write a novel about an alliance between Sita and Shurpanakha!

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    • Elizabeth, there actually is a short story that has them meeting up years later in life. Here, they are sisters who share a bond as women wronged by the man they both loved.

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  3. The Ramayana is one of the texts we discussed in an online course I’m auditing from Harvard. Your telling of the story is the one that finally makes sense to me. Thank you

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  4. I love re-framing old myths.
    What other religions have this bad girl/good girl image, which ends in them both getting punished? I think of Lilith and Eve, for example. Or Vashti/Esther (although we don’t know her final outcome).

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    • That’s a good question, Judith. I’m sure there must be quite a few myths out there considering they often reflect something deeper, especially when it comes to “troublesome” women.

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  5. Wonderful post, Vibha. Myth/story, I’m convinced, is at the heart of our worldview(s). The beauty, of course, is that myth/story can be seen from a variety of perspectives, depending on the experience of whoever is doing the seeing. For that reason, it’s important to allow for many voices. I love your particular voice, though!

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  6. Another enlightening interpretation! I am also learning so much from your posts! I find it fascinating that Shurpanakha is so closely associated with the forest, reminding me of Artemis, another goddess associated with the forest who also lived outside the strict construct of how her society believed women should act. I wonder if there are other forest goddesses who are similar?

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    • Thank you for drawing my attention to Artemis, Carolyn. The Ramayana has a deeper political significance in that some see it as a clash between two races – the Aryan (which Rama and Sita belonged to) and the Dravidian/ Aboriginal (Shurpanakha) or urban/ rural, “civilized”/ “uncivilized.” Shurpanakha thus belonged to a culture that supposedly gave women more freedom, some have argued.

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