The Ramayana recounts an irresistible story. For thousands of years it has held the people of the Indian sub-continent spell bound. The epic offers valuable lessons on dharma and good governance. However, it’s not entirely free of patriarchal attitudes and misogynistic thoughts. Surpanakha's disfigurement and Ahalya's forced frigidity are the most glaring examples.
The Wages of Adultery
Ahalya, wife of the sage Gautama, had a fling with Lord Indra, who came to her in the guise of her husband. Ahalya saw through the disguise, but didn’t hesitate to accept the indecent proposal. Indra said, “Slim-waisted lady, the passionate man does not wait for the right season. I want to make love to you now!” Ahalya was eager to savour a few stolen moments with the king of the gods. Mission fulfilled she announced, “I am completely fulfilled, Indra! Now go from here quickly and protect yourself and me from my husband!”
But alas! Gautama returned too soon and cursed both of them. Indra lost his manhood and Ahalya was frozen in time. The only consolation was that Ahalya would be liberated from the curse when Rama, the son of Dasaratha, came along. Indra, however, got his equipment restored by substituting that of a gelded ram. So at the end of the day, the lady got the harsher punishment and lived virtuously ever after, while Indra no doubt continued his amorous antics elsewhere. In some accounts Ahalya was turned into stone, in others she was rendered invisible. Indra was cursed to be castrated or covered by a thousand vulvae that ultimately turned into a thousand eyes by a convenient (and discriminatory) dilution of the curse.
The Ahalya story has been told and retold over the centuries, and every narrative mentions the illicit affair and the rishi's curse. While Valmiki’s version suggests that Ahalya willingly committed adultery, there are other texts that absolve her of guilt and squarely blame Indra. In the 12th century Kamban Ramayanam, Ahalya recognises Indra’s disguise but welcomes him because she is attention-deprived and sex-starved. For too long she had been craving attention from her ageing, ascetic husband but he had been blissfully unaware of her needs. This worked to Indra’s advantage.
What’s unusual in this story is the severity of the punishment for transgressing moral boundaries. The tragic heroine has to wait aeons for the Vishnu avatar to make an appearance. One single roll in the hay and Ahalya was condemned to freeze all her emotions and urges until kingdom come. Indra, who initiated the encounter, was shamed, but otherwise unharmed. No lifestyle changes for him!
Unequal punishment for equal culpability — that’s what gender discrimination is all about. The stamp of patriarchy is most glaringly evident in Ahalya’s sad story. Even her deliverance at the hands of Rama brings no hope or joy because all she can look forward to is a lifetime of religious austerities.
The Fate of the Liberated Woman
Surpanakha encountered Rama in the forest and was attracted by his good looks. Unabashedly she professed her love, only to be spurned. Rama advised her to approach his brother Lakshmana, which she did without hesitation. The noble kshatriya brothers taunted and berated Surpanakha and finally cut off her nose and ears. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Named Meenakshi at birth, Surpanakha was the beautiful daughter of a beautiful mother. She married an asura who was later killed by her brother Ravana. The widowed rakshasi moved to the Dandaka forest and lived the carefree life of a truly liberated woman. Surpanakha rated herself as an ideal partner for either of Ayodhya brothers.
She told Rama she was a perfect match for him, whereas Sita was definitely inferior. “I am your equal,” she confidently proclaimed. When Rama rejected her proposition, she turned to Lakshmana, “You are as beautiful as I am and so you are a worthy match for me. Come with me and roam happily through the Dandakas!”
Describing her brothers, she said Ravana was the king of Lanka, Kumbhakarna slept all the time, Vibhishana was unlike a rakshasa, and Khara and Dusana were renowned warriors. “But none of them have any control over me,” she added.
After Lakshmana mutilated Surpanakha, a battle between the rakshasas and the Ram-Lakshman duo ensued. Khara and Dusana were slain, along with their fourteen thousand strong rakshasa army.
The gods, gandharvas, siddas and sages, who had gathered to witness the spectacle, whispered among themselves, “May all go well with the cows and the brahamanas, and those who wish for the welfare of the worlds. May Rama defeat the rakshasas..." There were no brahmanas involved in this battle, yet it was their welfare that the gods were worried about. Not to mention the cows!
None of the supernatural beings expressed any sympathy for the abused woman. Not a single individual said it was unchivalrous for a warrior to disfigure a woman. Obviously, the rules of dharma did not forbid the mutilation of women.
Incidentally, Rama had earlier killed Surpanakha’s grandmother, Thataka. Then Viswamitra had advised him, “Rama, for the welfare of the brahmins and the cows, you must kill this wicked yakshi.... Have no hesitation about killing a woman, for you must do what is best for the four castes. A king must do what will benefit his subjects, even if it is unrighteous...”
The Valmiki Ramayana vividly contrasts Surpanakha with Rama. He’s incredibly handsome, strong and powerful. She’s ugly, dark, pot-bellied, cross-eyed. His voice is sweet and gentle, while hers is loud and raucous. He’s honourable and good, she’s cruel and wicked. He’s charming and refined, she’s crude and uncouth. In every imaginable way Surpanakha is inferior to Rama. Yet she dares to proposition him. She expresses her unbridled desire for a man — and she does not respect the sanctity of marriage. That is her unpardonable crime.
Why was Surpanakha’s proposal indecent and improper? Was it because she wasn’t as good looking as the sons of Dasaratha? Assuming she was really ugly, aren’t ugly women supposed to have any desires? When it’s perfectly fine for ugly men to desire beautiful women, why is it improper for an ugly woman to desire a handsome man?
Surpanakha simply doesn’t fit into the patriarchal mould. She’s neither dependent nor demure, neither self-effacing nor altruistic, neither meek nor soft-spoken. On the contrary, she’s independent, self-willed, bold, fearless and demanding. She sees even the best of men as her equals. Such qualities simply cannot be tolerated, even in a beautiful woman. If a plain or ugly woman shows such audacity she must be cut down to size. That's why even today people tend to laugh at Surpanakha’s plight instead of empathising with her.
Tara and Ruma
Tara was the wife of Vali, the monkey king of Kishkinda. When Vali went off to fight the sorcerer-demon Mayavi, his brother Sugriva, thinking he was dead, ventured to marry Tara and rule Kishkinda. Vali soon returned, accused Sugriva of treachery, and exiled him from the country, regaining Tara in the process, and simultaneously seizing Sugriva’s wife, Ruma.
Sugriva soon befriends Rama, who kills Vali and instals Sugriva on the throne. Tara once again becomes the queen consort.
Interestingly, both Tara and Ruma change hands many times. Tara changes partners thrice — first when Vali disappears, next when Vali reappears and finally when Vali dies. Ruma is appropriated by Vali when he exiles his brother from Kishkinda, and she reverts to Sugriva on Vali’s death. In this narrative the women are mere commodities to be passed on from man to man (or monkey to monkey) — and they seem to be perfectly comfortable with the arrangement.
Rejoicing at the good news of Rama’s imminent coronation, Dasaratha’s favourite queen Kaikeyi gifted Manthara, her hunch-backed handmaiden, a gem-studded necklace. But Manthara flung it across the room in a fit of rage. She warned Kaikeyi that once Rama is crowned he would have her son Bharata banished or killed. Soon Kaikeyi’s heart was clouded by doubt and suspicion.
The two women then hatched a plan to banish Rama to the forest and anoint Bharata in his place.Manthara’s stratagem had some undesired consequences. The king died of a broken heart. Bharata and Shatrugna hurriedly returned from their sojourn in Kekaya and quickly realised what had happened.
As Manthara strolled around the palace decked up in girdles and necklaces gifted to her by a jubilant Kaikeyi, Shatrugna violently seized her and dragged her across the floor, causing her jewels to be scattered ‘like stars in the night sky’. Her frightened shrieks echoed through the palace.
As Shatrugna threatened to kill Manthara, Bharata intervened with a request to spare her life. The reasons he put forth are interesting. The first reason was that kshatriyas were not supposed to kill women. The second was that Rama was sure to disapprove. Bharata remarked that even Kaikeyi deserved to be killed, but Rama would be horrified by such a murder.
Fair enough, but in any case Manthara was beaten black and blue. Apparently, women could be beaten or disfigured but not killed.
Tailpiece: Please don't stop reading the Ramayana. You'll find more examples.
(The author is an IT professional)...