Taking popular myth, lore and culture as the premise of this writeup, Soorpanakha is the sister of Ravana, belongs to a clan commonly identified as rakshasas, standing for the evil race in the deva- rakshasa binary of Indian mythology. Soorpanakha has always been described as ugly, probably because she took her mother’s rakshasini (demon) gene more than her fair skinned brother Ravana who is also the son of rishi Vishwashrava, the stepbrother of Kubera and therefore has rishi and dev blood in him. But it is also strange, since she was initially called Meenakshi believed to have eyes as beautiful as fish and only later called Soorpanakha because of her sharp nails.
The shift in the focus from one body part of Soorpanakha to the other from eroticising the eyes to weaponising the nails and embedding it in a name which is a kind of permanent labelling, speaks of a politics of its own which the article seeks to analyse.
Soorpanakha is a woman who dares to make advances towards a man. She unabashedly expresses first her attraction for Rama and then for Lakshmana, trying to woo the latter for which she is horribly and brutally punished. Lakshmana slays her nose. This could have several implications: but let’s take the popular lore first: we always imagine Soorpanakha as a defaced woman with a missing nose and a blood smeared face. So this is how a woman is punished if she expresses her infatuation, flaunts her sexuality. She is defaced and on top of it vilified. Because the idea of a woman with agency and will is intimidating.
There is also an indication of how rakshasas could change form so in fact the ugly Soorpanakha comes disguised as a supremely beautiful being but changes to her ugly repulsive self once attacked by Lakshmana. The transformation from seductress to demoness is interesting. What does it indicate? That a hurt woman can be dangerous and reveal her ugly self? But the ugly self is also the unconventional, the unorthodox, the non-hegemonic and the strong self.
On the other hand, if the slaying of the nose is considered to be a euphemism, the whole narrative is turned on its head. It could possibly mean that it is Lakshman and not Soorpanakha who made advances forcing himself on the latter while she resisted his advances. Nose is the symbol of female honour in many cultures and the slaying of it could suggest the losing of female modesty. But going back to the hegemonic narrative, where the nose is actually cut leading to defacement, not only is the punishment justified through popular retelling of the epic but also legitimised which perhaps, internalised over centuries, has become a part of our collective unconscious and is so deeply entrenched that the tradition of defacing women who resist, snub or antagonise men in some way or the other continues to this day even as one woman every day in India becomes the victim of an acid attack.
In both cases, what does Soorpanakha do?
She does not remain quiet, as is expected from an acid attack survivor or someone whose modesty is violated. She goes back to Lanka, to her brother, her family and raises a hue and cry about the injustice done to her, which is perhaps why she is vilified in mythology because vocal women can be dangerous. Her losing face or defacement could have been an immediate trigger for Ravana to abduct Sita, resulting eventually in the great battle which is the epicenter of the Ramayana. Seen thus, she could be even judged for being someone who instigated and started a war but so did Draupadi when she was insulted, which again implies two things.
Mostly mythological battles and wars are always the woman’s fault be it the Battle of Troy or the Battle of Kurukshetra or the Battle in the Ramayana. But here’s a woman, who unlike Draupadi, is demonised because probably Draupadi was passive and a victim and Soorpanakha was vocal and invited trouble.
We are all raised on a Bollywood culture of song and dance where the man chasing the woman and the whole notion of street harassment is naturalised and even glorified with the woman eventually giving in to the man’s persistent chasing. However Soorpanakha is different, because in this case, perhaps it is Lakshman who is the object of street harassment and that creates a dent on hegemonic masculinity, which justifies her punishment. Soorpanakha does not cringe and hide in shame. She does not wallow in self-pity neither does she magnify her physical pain; nor does she decide to end the story by ending her life. She plans an action-oriented approach to teach a lesson to the perpetrator of what is unmistakably a crime, which is obviously presented as otherwise. Perhaps that is why she is a rakshasini.
The hegemonic and popular versions of the Ramayana actually glorify Lakshman and his act of inflicting physical violence on a woman. Not only that, it is the act of violence which works as a catalyst in revealing Soorpanakha’s true rakshasini self. Does it imply that an ugly woman cannot desire a handsome man? Or is the implication of Soorpanakha’s transformation and degeneration into a state of utter physical ugliness deliberate to reinforce the binary of good and evil through a blatant manifestation of it at the level of bodily appearance?
Also read: The Poetry Of Meena Kandasamy: A Tool of Political Dissent
What do we finally learn from Soorpanakha? And what do the myths want us to learn? My takeaway from this myth is certainly very different from what the myth would ideally want me to imbibe. Mythology would probably want us to internalise and normalise the passivity and docility expected of a woman to make her acceptable and desire worthy. But what Soorpanakha teaches me is that if you are a victim of mental, physical or psychological abuse in any form, you cannot recede in a shell and hide in a burrow. You need to holler from the rooftop and tell the world, you need to create a media hype about it even if it means having to undergo humiliation, incessant targeting, character assassination and prolonged and universal vilification and even if it means insinuating a war.
Also read: Revisiting Ramayana And Its Relevance Through A Feminist Lens
Even if it takes a thousand years, someone will get it. Someone out there will know you were wronged and write about it or make a movie or two. Isn’t that exactly what the movie Pink almost does?
I heard the story of an acid attack survivor, which led me to write a poem, which in turn led me to write this article. You could read the poem, Two Attacks, here.
Disclaimer: This article does not intend to hurt anyone’s religious feelings or sentiments. It is written from a purely objective and academic perspective, trying to trace archetypal patterns, actions and interactions which impact society and continue to be relevant in contemporary times.
Hi Dr. Talwar, I enjoyed reading your article but the fact that you say “But here’s a woman, who unlike Draupadi, is demonised because probably Draupadi was passive and a victim and Soorpanakha was vocal and invited trouble.” is quite scandalous. though mythology is a matter of subjective perception but can you really call Draupadi a victim and blame her to be passive? she swears to avenge her insult and that is what unravels a saga of Mahabharat. Can you really paint her as a passive woman?
Thats one of the points i address in the article…how epics which come to us from a patriarchal standpoint always put the blame on women for starting wars. I referred to Draupadi as passive only when juxtaposed with Surpankaha in a specific context of women with considerable social capital being physically assaulted.
You definitely did not read Ramayana properly. Please read it again..
She was an “eve teaser” ( or Adam-teaser), made unnecessary advances against a non-interested person. She deserved this.
But in Indian fiction, when men eve tease and make unwelcome advances, the justice of them getting what they deserve is not always done. On the contrary, it is celebrated. The only way to woo a girl is to nag her into accepting the offer is glorified.
I understand the point that you have made and agree that stalking and harassing women to woo them is completely wrong and SHOULD be condemned, but in the context of this article, isn’t it wrong of the author to conveniently overlook a key detail in the Ramayana, just to paint two men who were acting in defense as the equivalent of acid throwers?
“She unabashedly expresses first her attraction for Rama and then for Lakshmana, trying to woo the latter for which she is horribly and brutally punished.”
Dont get me wrong, but didn’t Soorpanaka try to kill Sita, after both Rama and Lakshmana said no?
The article is literally manipulative showing sexist agenda of the writer… Trying to moralise a lusty woman with questionable character, trying to demean 2 men who are faithful to their wives and even comparing her to Draupadi, a woman with impeccable dignity and honor.
Is this what feminism is all about? It started as equal rights but all I see is ‘give me sex, give me sex’.. bruhh
First of all ,the story is fully demolished here. Shurpanakha and ravana ,both from rakshasha clan were filled with lust.we cannot blame that bcz it is universal even today The problem arises when rama and lakshamana refused to have relations with her ,she returned in her demonic face and attacked sits .It was then when lakshamana attacked on her nose . Though, The new writers like Amish tripathi are rewriting the epics in different style for new generation,we should not transform any story just on the name of feminism .You should better tell about knowledge and skills of sits.
Jesus. What a terrible article! Btw, can we know which version of Ramayana was referred to for writing this article?
Dear Dr ignorant Shyaonti, It is impressive how you gave the whole story a complete spin and demonized the actual feminist Lakshmana! Perhaps you never managed to actually read the entire story before you bothered to go about writing an article destroying the true essence of this situation in Ramayana! Soorpanakha was not mutilated for flaunting her sexuality or her erotic obsession for either Rama or Lakshmana but because she is on the verge of attacking Sita as she realizes Sita is the reason she cannot lay her hands on Rama! So she was punished because of her brutal perception where she did not care for another woman’s life and made advances to kill her so she can satisfy herself sexually n later eat up all three of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. Also to educate you, she had married multiple people before and they all ended up with the same fate. They all died after being exploited sexually! Now all said, she was not killed but punished and precisely so by mutilating her face as a reminder for herself and a warning sign for fellow individuals to not be enamored by her self inflicted, non human looking beauty! Thus this event has nothing to do with feminism, patriarchy but perhaps supports feminism by suggesting we should be in a position to support women when being subjected to brutality by another woman without being held up by the fact to not attack a woman! It teaches you that men/women alike should learn to live with better values and forego of obsessive behavour(which in this case was destructive and could lead to hurting another woman). Kindly educate yourself properly on a subject prior to venturing on an article as such.
P.S: Her name was never Meenakshi! Cite your sources for such nonsensical information and do not stoop to this level of bigotry so you can take in bliss of writing an baseless article!
Very nicely explained to people who consider Ramayana as mythology and misrepresent it.
Lol even people who consider it as mythology would never write this pseudo-woke stuff. This article is just bigoted.
Laxman had to slay her nose because she tried to hurt Sita. Not because she was open about her desires, both Ram and Laxman were polite towards Surpnakha until she got enraged and tried attacking Sita. Post that incident even Sita called laxman out on his mistake.
Another fact that should be considered in this equation is that Lakshman was married. So when we think of her being anything but rebuffed we are perpetuating an injustice towards another woman namely Lakshman’s wife Urmila. Just because she was passive doesn’t mean her husband would have had the right to be unjust towards her. Already she was alone in a castle abandoned by her husband; and we are talking about her husband accepting the advances of another woman because the other woman was vocal. Now if we discuss today’s world how can you justify flirting with a married man. Just because one is vocal doesn’t mean she has the right to break up a marriage.
So it’s alright for a woman to force herself on a man even after he says no!
Interesting article, loved the message that you want to convey. That said, I am not surprised that there is a basic flaw in your interpretation of the story. It’s simple, did she get the ‘punishment’ based on her gender or based on her being a demon(rakshasi)? Taking parallels between demons and humans, male or female is not logical, in any interpretation unless you have a clear explanation of the same, which clearly does not exist in the article.
I could go on, but I retire now. When you take an example, please take care if it actually fits the issue you want to discuss. Otherwise the conclusions, phsyc analysis, and social analysis drawn from it would be simply wrong.
First of all Ramayana is not mythology and you are comparing a demonaic woman with other women it’s uncomparable and you are explaining feminism.
Why not compare Sita Mata with other women.
You people have only academic knowledge, instead you should learn Ramayana as scriptures from the authorised source instead of giving your own interpreted remarks, that too with your imperfect knowledge, because we don’t have perfect senses.
lol you say it is not mythology and then bring in a ‘demonic woman’. I like your sense of humor.
Sadden to see this kind of article who twist and turn facts and bring out a very distorted versions of event in the name of writting this so called intellectuals are a parasite for society.
It was worth reading the sensible replies of many than the original article. Ramayana and Mahabharata convey Dharmic values to the society at large and both have an eternal significance for all – the man, woman, child, King, warrior everyone. If Ramayana is read like reading a Harry Potter book, this is how you would end up interpreting it. I would seriously recommend you read Ramayana with the help of a Guru who would explain the nuances and more importantly the Dharma.
This article lacked basic knowledge and fell flat. Ithihasa and mythology are not the same. More than handy lessons for today’s woman – you would need to learn a lesson or two before writing!
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