Ramayana 3: Latent and Not So Latent

The meat of the story of the Ramayana is Rama’s quest to rescue Sita from the rakshasa Ravana, but this begins when Rama and Lakshmana mock and then maim a rakshasi named Shurpanakha. (Glossary of terms and names at the bottom.) Shurpanakha turns out to be Ravana’s brother, and he vows revenge. He and his uncle trick Rama and Lakshmana into leaving Sita alone for a moment, and Ravana kidnaps her.

I have always been ambivalent about trigger warnings, but the Ramayana includes some graphic depictions of violence against women. I will discuss a particular moment of brutality that, while not literally female genital mutilation, is similarly horrible. You deserve not to be surprised when it appears, though I hope this will not stop you reading on.

Events begin when Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita are relaxing pleasantly at their ashrama. Shurpanakha, who is wandering by, notices Rama and immediately falls in love with him. She enters the ashrama and declares her love and her clear superiority to Sita. Unable to take the demon seriously, Rama decides to “make a sport of it and get rid of her easily.”

“He smiled and said: ‘I am a married man. I also happen to love this woman who is my wife. For one like you, it will not be easy to be the second wife to a man. Sharing a husband with another woman will not be possible for the likes of you. This Lakshmana who is my younger brother is handsome and he is valiant like me. He is not married and he is the ideal mate for you. Accept him as your husband and you will have him all for yourself.’

“Shurpanakha, obsessed as she was with lust, thought that he spoke the truth and she went to Lakshmana. She said: ‘I am good-looking enough to be your wife. You are very handsome and so am I. Marry me and we will be happy here in the Dandaka forest.’

“Lakshmana decided to play up to Rama’s joke. He smiled too and said: ‘I am the servant of this Rama. How will it be possible for you to be the wife of a servant? I have no independence. I am but his vassal. Able as you are to assume any form you please, you should press your love-suit more vehemently and be the second wife of my brother. He will be so charmed by your looks that he will give up this ugly ill-looking wife of his and live with you. Which sensible man will let go of this chance to marry a beautiful woman like you and be attached to a human being?’

“Shurpanakha could not perceive that the brothers were making fun of her. She went near Rama and said: ‘Because you have this woman by your side you refuse to look at me. I will, this very moment, eat her up even as you are looking and then I will have you as my husband.’

“Her eyes were red like embers and she rushed towards Sita whose eyes were wide with fear. Rama could not bear to see Sita frightened of the dreadful rakshasi. He held her back and said: ‘Child, Lakshmana, I realise that it is wrong to sport with wicked people. Take care that Sita is not harmed. This rakshasi has got to be punished. Maim her and send her away.’

“Lakshmana promptly took his sword and he snipped off the tips of the nose and ears of Shurpanakha. Screaming with pain Shurpanakha ran into the forest. To them her screams sounded like the rumblings of the rain clouds.”

The scene goes from light to dark in an instant. There is something sinister about their taunting even before it turns to mutilation. Sure, rakshasis are man-eating demons, and Rama and Lakshmana have before been tasked by the rishis to rid the forest of them. But does that justify—there is no better word—torture? There is another even more gruesome meeting with a rakshasi sometime later:

“They came upon a cave which was dark and seemed to be very deep since it appeared black to the eye. Near the mouth of the cave they saw a rakshasi.

“She was immense in size and fearful to look at. Even as Shurpanakha approached Rama, this rakshasi approached Lakshmana and said: ‘Come, let us be together. My name is Ayomukhi and I have fallen in love with you. You must be fortunate indeed since I have chosen you as my lord. Come with me and we will haunt the slopes of the mountains and this dark and fearful forest together.’

“Lakshmana’s patience was sorely tried. Racked as he was by the feeling that he had been careless about the safety of Sita, overcome with fear when he saw the anger of Rama [referring not to this moment but to a prior one], and distressed beyond measure by the death of Jatayu, the prince Lakshmana did not even stop to talk to her. He took his sword and severed her nose, her ears and also her breasts. The dreadful rakshasi, making the forest resound with her cries, ran away from there and they walked on.”

These are our two great heroes. How can they be so vicious? But it is the nonchalance, particularly in this second moment, that seems so inexplicable. At the very least the story of Shurpanakha has narrative function: she will report her mistreatment to Ravana, who will then kidnap Sita. I have not finished the book, but I don’t think Ayomukhi comes back. So why does Valmiki include this moment?

There might be something helpful in the story’s treatment of Manthara, the wicked housemaid whose ambition caused Rama’s banishment in the first place. Manthara is similar to the rakshasis in two ways. First are their mutual physical deformities. The housemaid is so hunchbacked and deformed that Subramaniam has rendered “decorating” in quotation marks: Manthara is undecoratable. Similarly, both the rakshasis are described as having large hips and bodies in contrast to, for example, Sita’s slender waist. So as Manthara is an archetype for wicked feminine ambition, the rakshasis seem archetypal for foul female sexuality. Lust drives the demons in both cases, and it is for this lust that they suffer.

The critical difference between these is the princes’ treatment of them. They mutilate the rakshasis but (mostly) leave Manthara be. Just after Rama leaves for Dandaka forest, his younger brother Bharata is talking to Shatrughna, the fourth princely brother and Bharata’s right hand. Manthara appears and Valmiki himself almost sneers at her: “She was wearing costly silks and several golden and gem-set ornaments were ‘decorating’ her figure. A girdle of gold was set with many precious stones and it was strapped round her crooked waist.” Enraged at her arrogance, Shatrughna grabs her and tosses her around the floor like a doll.

Bharata intervenes on her behalf with an admonition both merciful and terrifying (emphasis added). “My dear brother, women should not be punished even if they deserve to be. They should be forgiven. If you would like me to tell you the truth, the only reason why I have not killed this Kaikeyi yet is because I am afraid of Rama. He is noble and he will be displeased with me if he knows that I have killed a woman and a mother, at that… Even so with this sinful creature… we should do what Rama would have done: forgive her and not punish her.”

In my last post I suggested that the Ramayana can seem oddly feminist at times. Perhaps this frightening display of misogyny is a testament to Valmiki’s versatility. But for fear of Rama, Bharata would have killed his own mother. Bharata clearly recognizes the obvious, that matricide violates dharma, but he would otherwise like to commit it. The princes must labor under great tension. They know they must suppress their impulses to violence against women, but they do also carry them.

Not only does this tension seem to vex the princes, it seems also to pervade the work itself. There is as much misogyny in Valmiki’s editorializing as there is in the mouths of many of the characters. Valmiki tells us that the rakshasis are big and ugly, that Manthara is a hunchback. When Kaikeyi knows she will successfully have Rama banished, she rises from her crocodile tears “like a king cobra uncoiling itself.”

If the princes, and indeed the work itself, struggle with impossible violent impulses, might the rakshasis be an outlet? They represent the various forms of feminine wickedness, so they make compelling targets for misogynistic rage. Because they are not human women, they exist outside the protections of dharma. If this is true, when Lakshmana mutilates Ayomukhi he is acting out the violence he cannot against human women he considers to be evil. In this way it would not be an accident that Lakshmana cuts off Ayomukhi’s breasts in addition to her nose and ears. His pent-up frustration is peculiarly anti-feminine, so he targets the most availably female part of her body.

I am not sure. It is not wrong to be skeptical of interpretations with a foot in the underlying psychology of a character or, in this case, a work itself. It is also possible I have been misled by the translation. In addition, the princes’ violent urges are not always directed at women: Lakshmana’s temper flares when he first hears that Rama is to be banished, but he does not immediately wish to kill Kaikeyi. Instead, he will kill their father. His later suggestion that they kill Kaikeyi is basically an afterthought.

Again, my only knowledge of the Ramayana is only what I have read. I know nothing of Sanskrit, of course, and nothing of the millennia of criticism written on the text. I think I have identified something genuinely at play, but I may be wrong. And, to be clear, I am not denouncing the book. The Ramayana is a wonderful story. To be honest with it, even when it is upsetting, is simply to do it justice.

ashrama: a hermitage for rishis, typically in the wilderness
Ayomukhi: the rakshasi who approaches Lakshmana in the forest
Dandaka: the forest where Rama spends most of his exile
Dasaratha: Rama's father and king of Ayodhya
dharma: religious precepts, codes of moral behavior, righteousness
Jatayu: an eagle, friend of Rama and Lakshmana
Kaikeyi: stepmother of Rama who orchestrates his banishment
Lakshmana: Rama's brother
rakshasa: demon
rakshasi: feminine form of rakshasa
Rama: Prince of Ayodhya and hero of the Ramayana
Ravana: Sita's abductor and the story's main villain
rishi: an ascetic holy man
Shurpanakha: Ravana's brother
Sita: Rama's wife
Valmiki: poet of the Ramayana

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