India has two great epic poems, comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both are tied into Avatars of Vishnu; Rama has the starring role in the Ramayana; Krishna is also a major player in the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata should be noted for its progressive attitude towards woman:
Draupadi, the central female character, is married to five brothers.
One woman, five guys. Pretty modern, for 3rd century B.C.E.
It doesn’t stop there: one of its central characters, Arjuna, spends a year as a woman, after rebuking the advances of a celestial being.
Never piss off a Goddess.
Unfortunately, the other epic, the Ramayana, isn’t so kind to women in its early formulations.
Historically, things do get tricky here: many academics think the ending was tacked on later….
Either way, it’s not a Bollywood Ending.
Sita, Rama’s kidnapped wife, and the whole driving force of the narrative, is exiled.
Because Rama overheard some gossip.
Yep, that’s how sensitive that god was.
But tacked on or not, it makes sense given an earlier story, one which is pivotal in the tale of Rama: Lakshmana and Shurpanakha:
The story presents us with Lakshmana as a completely loyal brother. Therefore, when Rama is unfairly exiled to the forest, Lakshmana follows without question.
So far, so good. Right?
The problem is the forests are filled with scary things. Some of these are known as Rakshasa(s), or Rakshashi(s) for all the ladies.
So we have three people int this forest: Rama, Sita and Lakshmana.
And something lurking in the woods…..
That something in the woods looked at the three children in the forest, and realized it was….
People sometimes get Rakshashas and Asuras mixed up, and this story might be part of the reason why.
Ravana, the ten headed king of Sri Lanka, is an Asura. An Asura is a demi-god, perhaps a half-fallen angel.
His sister, however, is presented as a force of nature; a Rakshashi, a wilder-being.
So, apparently, they can be related…
But they are two, very distinct beasties…
As the story goes, Shurpanakha approached Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the forest, and found herself strangely attracted to the incarnate-god.
He rebuked her advances.
She was, by all accounts, a beautiful woman.
She was, by all accounts, upset.
Having been spurned off by Rama, the Rakshashi turned to his brother, Lakshmana.
Now, there are many ways to interpret what happened next.
No matter what, Shurpanakha was present.
How fierce was her manifestation? Was she a savable child, or a remorseless monster?
No matter what, as the story goes, she made a move on Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother.
How did he respond?
By mauling her.
Lakshmana responded to Shurpanakha’s advances by slicing her nose off.
This isn’t funny, and it isn’t meant to be taken figuratively.
It’s just one more way that gender based violence has become normalized through narrative, passed off as culture…
Shurpanakha, maimed and wounded, returned to her brother.
Ravana took revenge in the name of his sister, an act that would lead to disaster for his kingdom…
And that’s where this story actually begins…
Until next time….