Speaking Volumes: A woman alone in the forest

Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.(Image found on http://mythologica.fr/hindou/surpanakha.htm)
Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.
(Image found on http://mythologica.fr/hindou/surpanakha.htm)

(Published in the Business Standard, 8th January 2013) 

In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.

Over the centuries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have become India’s default epics, eclipsing the Rajatarangini, the Cilapatikkaram and other equally powerful legends in the mainstream imagination. While this is a loss, both epics offer an insight into the way rape works in India.

Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and running parallel to it, the disfiguring of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana—two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and and the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.

The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman Rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.

Sita, though, is not a passive victim, as Namita Gokhale, Arshia Sattar and others argue. Gokhale points out that Sita is the first single mother. Sattar sees Sita as a woman who exercises complex choices, leaving a man who once loved her above all, and a marriage where she is no longer treated with respect. (This episode, Sita’s rejection of Rama and her building of a life without him, is seldom raised by guardians of the purity of Indian women.)

Draupadi’s story is rarely referenced, though it is powerfully told in the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s reaction, after Krishna rescues her from Dushashana’s assault while her husbands and clan elders sit by in passive silence, is not meek gratitude. She berates the men for their complicity and their refusal to defend her; instead of the shame visited on women who have been sexually assaulted, she expresses a fierce, searing anger.

She will wear her hair loose, she says, as a reminder of the insult; she does not see herself and her body as the property of the clan, least of all as the property of the husband, Yudhisthira, who has gambled her away to the Kauravas. She demands justice, and is prepared to call down a war that destroys the clan in order to receive her due. It is no wonder, perhaps, that those sections of conservative India who will cite Sita’s “transgression”—her crossing of the Lakshman Rekha—as the reason for women’s rape, will not speak of Draupadi. Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.

Amba is again, silenced in popular discussion, and yet her story remains both remarkable and disquieting—the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. There is nothing easy about her story, as anyone who has tried to rewrite the Mahabharata knows; or about the way in which we gloss over the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika, one so afraid of the man who is in her bed that she shuts her eyes so as not to see him.

That leaves Surpanakha, the woman who roams alone, without need of protection or owner, in the forest. Different versions of the Ramayana are uneasy about her looks—in some, she is an ugly rakshashi; in some, she takes on a deceptive, beautiful form; in some, she is beautiful to begin with. But what we know about her is that she is Ravana’s sister, and by extension, probably as learned as her brother; that she feels free enough to express her desire for the brothers Rama and Lakshman; and that she is indeed free, to roam the forests without fear. The story of Surpanakha is filled with tangles and diversions—how much deception does she practice, does she merely terrify Sita or actually attempt to attack the other woman? Do Rama and Lakshmana toy with her, or are they more polite, or are they consistently hostile, before they cut off her nose, her ears, and in some terrible versions, her nipples?

The ending of the story remains the same, and it’s in line with the contemporary warnings handed out to women in India: if you assume that you are free to roam everywhere, even in the forests, you will be hurt by the most ostensibly chivalrous of men.

There is a punchline to that ending, though: if you hurt the wrong woman, prepare for war.

Other readings and retellings of the epics:

Namita Gokhale on the search for Sita, and her strength: http://namitagokhale.com/sita.html

Arshia Sattar on rediscovering Rama, his great love for Sita, and the burden of kingship: http://pratilipi.in/2009/10/lost-loves-arshia-sattar/

Mallika Sarabhai, ‘Dance to change the world’, on “this feisty feminine feminist”, Draupadi: http://www.ted.com/talks/mallika_sarabhai.html

Shreyasee Datta on portraits of women from the epics, including Sarabhai’s reworking of Draupadi’s story: http://www.museindia.com/viewarticle.asp?myr=2010&issid=30&id=1913

Amit Chaudhuri’s short story, Surpanakha: http://www.littlemag.com/mar-apr01/amit.html

Many Surpanakhas–Kathleen M. Erndl’s essay: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3j49n8h7&chunk.id=d0e4061

(Tailpiece: This column drew, as you can see from the comments, strong reactions, many of them actually abusive. Many women identified with the point I was making; most of the vocal critics appeared to fall into two camps, one questioning these readings of the epics, the other asking whether this was all I had to find in these two great books. On the readings: I have read several versions of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and everything in here, including my reading of the sanctioned practice of ‘Niyoga’ as forced sex, is taken from those multiple readings. On whether this was all I had to find in these two great books: of course not. But an article on rape and assaults on women in the Ramayana  and the Mahabharata is just as valid as an article on, say, the battles in the epics, or on the forests and animals represented in the epics, or indeed on any other aspect of the books. I do not feel the need to stand up and declare my love for these books, books that I have been reading all my life, in one fascinating version or another. (The quality of these critics can be assessed by some of the comments they’ve made on the Internet–@SandeepWeb suggested that I was exercising lesbian fantasies about Surpanakha and then went on to make comments about my marriage and my husband. I wondered why he felt it so necessary to comment on my gender, and my presumed sexual orientation/ habits, but then that’s just another common way to cut a woman down to size on the Internet.)

What I find interesting is the unwillingness to grant anyone space to also examine what these two books say about violence against women, as if that was not an acceptable subject, and the unwillingness–which seems to me to go against the spirit of the epics–to grant the Ramayana and the Mahabharata their ambiguity. Women have agency in the epics; they make the storyline as much as they are part of the story, and we must explore all of what they face, not just the parts that suit us. Almost all of my critics missed a key point: the article critiqued not the epics so much as the present Indian tendency to quote with immense selectivity from the epics, taking for granted Sita’s sacrifices and her demure nature, but missing the point of that final meeting with Rama, where instead of submitting herself yet again to an ordeal of purification, she calls upon the earth to swallow herself up, ending their love story.

If we accept the Lakshman Rekha, we must also look at the woman who disappears into the earth, rather than be judged again; if we accept meekly the right of Satyavati to order Ambika and Ambalika to sleep with a man who scares them, for the good of the clan, we must also look at how little meaning “consent” had in the epic. None of my critics have so far had an answer to Surpanakha, who still stands in the imagination of many women, injured in the forest, dripping blood from her scarred face. As much as I love Kunti, Draupadi and yes, also love the many men of the epic, I think we must all, for ourselves, look also at the epic’s more disquieting stories. Not all of them are to do with women: in the Mahabharata, for example, there is the episode of the house of lac, where the Nishada woman who has befriended the Pandavas is burned to ashes along with her sons, their bodies left there to add verisimilitude to the idea that the Pandavas have perished in the fire. The Mahabharata is, famously, uncomfortable about this; a key section records that this was not a good act. If the epics themselves admit of ambiguity, we are free to read and re-read them. As I have done and will continue to do.)

48 thoughts on “Speaking Volumes: A woman alone in the forest”

  1. Conveniently used name of Hindu god / goddess with her own interpretation . Well written blog to learn language. But not agreeing with views.

  2. Brilliant. Thanks for this piece. Very well written. And yes, i hope the punchline is proved right. I hope centuries later when this age is another generation’s mythology, they remember this girl as the one who turned the tide and remember us as the generation that finally demanded and brought about change.

  3. When I was a little kid, I found the fact that they cut off her nose kind of funny. Never thought about it much. It seemed quite normal. That’s how they get you.

    1. And when I was a child, I constantly asked why they cut off her nose. The explanation given in the illustrated version of the Ramayana I was reading made no sense to me, i.e. she expressed her love to Ram…. and my parents maintained a tacit silence on the subject. Some people, though tried to rationalize it, saying that Surpanakha was a bad woman, bad by default because she was Ravana’s sister. And although it stopped me from asking more questions, it was not lost on me that being Ravana’s sister wasn’t her fault, and that wasn’t exactly the reason behind that violence meted out to her. I might have been precocious. However, I do agree with you that young minds are brought up and conditioned to this culture of violence by rationalizing such crimes.

  4. Lovely post. I find the Draupadi story to be a very mixed message, though. She is treated as an object from the beginning (Arjuna’s mother saying, “Whatever you have brought, share IT with all your brothers”). And to get around the possibility of positive promiscuity, she is magically made a virgin in between husbands, so that she can still be “chaste” and each of them could have a pure bride. Ugh.

  5. Reblogged this on abheekgupta and commented:
    Insightful, powerful. Loved reading this. Yes, we need to change ourselves from the roots. We are rotten at the roots in treating women. I read the Ramayan in parts, lately, and specially read the part where Sita has to pass “Agni Pariksha” as a proof of her purity, and then comes the Luv Kush part, where Luv and Kush are brought in front of their father, Ram, and there the courtiers want Sita to go through “Agni Pariksha” once again? Why wasn’t Ram asked to pass an Agni Pariksha?
    Our society is maligned with male chauvinism. We, the youth, need to curb that for our children, for our daughters, for our sisters. But the point is the attack needs to be two pronged, women need to participate in it equally. I say that, because I know girls or ladies who want to be the way society wants them.

  6. I wish I could get my hands on an academic reading of both epics that analyze the roles women play in both epics quite in the way you have….

  7. what are you trying to say in this blog ? Do you mean that something happened in past will happen now … Rape is Delhi is connected with Mahabharata and Ramayana …? How ? Girls plays an imp. role in almost every stories because they are vital part of the society ..current tragedy is connected with tragedy 1000s of years back ..yes it is …because these stories/epics have common thing in each the tragedies but that doesn’t mean it’s connected …Ravan abducted Sita, how do you justify that in current scenario..Civilized society didn’t appreciate Sita’ abduction ..

  8. I wont use such a brutal word as sanctioned rape of Amba and Ambalika, it was done something to continue the royal line and had consent of both of them. Isn’t the movie Chori Chori Chupke about the same thing.

  9. Good piece, as usual, Nilanjana. However, I would contend that saying Ambika and Ambalika were raped is stretching the definition of rape. Yes, they were abducted from their swayamvar but I am not convinced they were unwilling to have children fathered by Ved Vyas – which was the purpose for which both of them were asked, just once each, to “take” Ved Vyas. We might have problems with the tradition of “Niyoga” but that doesn’t necessarily amount to rape. Ambika closed her eyes (hence Dhritarashtra) and so on, but no version of the Mahabharata said Ved Vyas forced himself upon them. Yes, they might not have wanted to have sex, were not ready. But many women in arranged marriages are similarly scared of the act with their husbands, are they not? I am not sure we should be stretching the definition of rape by so much.

    It’s undeniable that there’s a lot of misogyny in our epics. I’m just not sure about whether this qualifies. That said, yes our epics provide much food for thought. I would possibly contend (more than a bit controversially) that Yudhishtir’s appropriation of Draupadi would qualify more as rape than what Vyas did.

    1. The thing is forced sex in a marriage IS marital rape. As the text of the Mahabharata goes, Ambika and Ambalika are distinctly uncomfortable with the prospect of Veda Vyasa impregnating them. One shuts her eyes during the act and the other turns pale, both physical manifestations of fear which, you’ll agree, are from typical of consensual sex. That they have to go through with it (for whatever reasons explained to them by Satyavati, Bhisma and Vyasa) despite their discomfort amounts to sanctioned rape. Contrast this with Kunti’s case. She suggested the Niyoga to her husband. She invoked the partners. Consent can be nothing lesser than this. And while, the point you make with “Yudhishtir’s appropriation of Draupadi” is indeed a powerful one, comparing it with the Vyasa episode with the two sisters is not merited.

    2. Well, When one closes eyes tightly enough for a child to be born blind, another goes pale enough for hers to be born anemic, when it is time to go again, and they send a maid instead… it damn sure ain’t consensual.

  10. The article is factually correct, however the conclusion is still debatable. Rather than a moral indicator of victory of good over evil, the epics are more of a window to explore the ancient Indian society. However many groups (political and literary) are citing it selectively, which defeats the purpose of a comprehensive story.

  11. Your reflections make a very compelling read. Kudos for highlighting well-glossed over parts of texts so well-borrowed-from every time it has been convenient for a certain ideological stance.

  12. Nilanjana, like Draupadi left her hair loose… I think Sita’s refusal to escape with Hanuman when he found her in Lanka, instead insisting that her husband avenge her and rescue her… seems along similar lines. Again a part most prefer to miss.

  13. as a mental model, seeing consciousness as feminine, kundalini as feminine, in the archetypical ways of labeling them, i see all abuse of women as fear of transformation ..

    changing behavior implies transforming fear .. and fear is at the base of our entire concept of human life.

    the tragedy of being misinformed about the nature of reality.

  14. Such selective reading of small parts of huge and voluminous epics amounts to purposeful mischief. How come you missed the part where the entire war of Ramayana is fought for Sita? How come you missed those huge chapters for Ramayana where Rama inconsilably pines for Sita? I doubt if anyone reading the Hindu epics would come away with thinking “rape is ok”. On the other hand, Ravana got killed. Dushashana who attempted to disrobe Draupadi meta gory end. How come you missed all of these?

  15. Nilanjana,

    Are you suggesting that rape in Delhi has something to do with those stories? What is the purpose of this drivel?

  16. Nice way of flogging Hindu epics & interpreting themas per your own convenience to prove your point….the Delhi incident or the views are in no way related to our epics, in fact people both the ones who were in support of the girl as well as the ones against have half baked knowledge about out epics..and that includes you too..

  17. Neat. I had recently done a similar re-reading of myths (not in context of rape) but in terms of how certain love stories are culturally repeated in our lives. And I found Sita to be a powerful character–the way she walks into the forest, the way she holds on her own without being raped in Ravana’s den as deeply supportive for my own extensive sojourn through rural India last year. I also gained from discussions of the article on reddit about Sita having enacted the first divorce in Hindu history–when she refused to go back with Rama. Some great scholars out at Reddit! Your article and your thought process is deeply validating for my own reflections. Thanks for typing them up!

  18. Needed to be retold. Thank you. Just one thought. Sita went to the forest a second time, when society raised question about her integrity Something worth remembering in the context of the street protests these days.

  19. Having been told that their “brother-in-law” (‘devar’) would be coming, Ambika and Ambalika expected “bhishmam anyaamsh cha kurupumgavaan” (‘Bhishma or one of the other Kuru chiefs). They were put off only after, instead of the (presumably) fair-skinned Bhishma, they saw a hermit whose very name (‘Krishna’) speaks to his dark skin. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/mbs/mbs01100.htm, the first line of the second verse and the second line of the third.)

    As suggested by the second line of twenty-second verse, which speaks of his “rupam cha gandham”, Vyasa wasn’t just dark but also both ugly and smelly.

    The one who was truly assaulted was Draupadi, when she was married to all five brothers without as much as a by-your-leave.

  20. Hello Nilanjana. Hats off to you. Excellent coordination of thoughts between the epics and the connection to today’s scenario. This also brings to light that for lesser crimes in the epics (without physical and mental violence breaking down or killing a person) wars have been waged and clans have been killed. So in my opinion whatever happened in Delhi should be looked upon as a much more grave offense than what happened in the epics.

  21. The authors way is very childish to look at events covered in epics, in fact these epics tell volumes and offer answer to all problems too not just refer to problems in society. One has to have a vision to look at the wisdom in the hthese .

  22. Very Nice view on Ramayana and Mahabharata, your literary and creative capabilities are shown here; i have certain things to clarify here, in Ramayana you have put feminist views very well but do a man has right to practice monogamy and live by all means loyal to his wife and sternly act on any body trying to breach their right? what different did Lakshmana did?
    In mahabharata why do you limit your imagination that child birth is possible only by physical relation, the same epic talks of airplanes, and air warfare which is at par with today’s world, much more advanced as in case of ambika and ambilika it could have been mere sperm transplant and test tube baby but the same veda vyasa has created 100 male and one female child for Gandhari from an aborted baby by preserving them in “Sacred jars” that is called external fetus growth which we haven’t achieved in till today using the what we call LATEST TECHNOLOGY OF STEM CELL RESEARCH.
    on the Whole try analyzing situations in toto and not in bits using convoluted logic to achieve your desired motto.

  23. Loved it. Well thought out and brilliantly written. I just think that one crucial point was missed. While the epics are a distant memory that still echo in your actual behaviour, the common and accepted practice of arranged marriages may be the direct cause of this epidemic. As a foreigner who lived 4 years in various parts of India (and having suffered physical harrassment myself in broad day light) and is married to a Punjabi Sikh man and has a 3-year-old daughter, I can’t help thinking that rape is culturally sanctioned in India, because you kind of auction your daughters to the highest bidder (it churns my stomach to think that there are even agencies to find suitable suitors and check up on a prospective bride or groom’s character, their sexual history and finances before marriage) and then marry them off to almost strangers? To me, these young and unexperienced women (who are going to live under the same roof of her in-laws – another bunch of strangers – from the wedding ceremony onwards) are raped night after night until ‘love finally blossoms’ between the newly weds. The abuse that 97% of Indian women (and foreigners alike) suffer really seems to start very early in a their life, when they are taught to obey the parents (and while doing so she proves to be a nice girl), to come to the terms with the fact that they will have an arranged marriage (just like their mothers did before them, and their grandmothers etc) and not to voice their feelings about it. Maybe Indian mothers should tell their sons to be men instead of predators and also that they’re allowed to marry the women they love, and not to rape a stranger by convinience and with families’ blessings.

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