Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.(Image found on
Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.
(Image found on

(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:

Arshia Sattar on rediscovering Rama, his great love for Sita, and the burden of kingship:

Mallika Sarabhai, ‘Dance to change the world’, on “this feisty feminine feminist”, Draupadi:

Shreyasee Datta on portraits of women from the epics, including Sarabhai’s reworking of Draupadi’s story:

Amit Chaudhuri’s short story, Surpanakha:

Many Surpanakhas–Kathleen M. Erndl’s essay:

(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.)