One character that I felt was deeply misunderstood and much maligned in the Ramayana was Surpanakha. Surpanakha is the turning point in the Aranya Kanda (The Book of the Forest). The sister of a powerful King, she isn’t what you call conventionally beautiful. She must transform herself into an object of beauty. Lakshmana who she is attracted to, and Rama who must make decisions instead play a game of ping-pong with. They make fun of her, insult her feelings, and to add injury to the insult – chop off her nose and ears.
They tell you Ramayana is about Dharma. I feel the story centers around extreme jealousy. Rivalry. Misunderstanding. Conflict of cultures and values. I suppose when you colour it with hues of gods and godesses, things become more black and white, and leave out all the other shades. Ravana was bad. Rama was great. Sita was a pawn. And Surpanakha? She was a bad woman, consumed by lust, and left noseless for interfering in the affairs of Gods. Bad? Really?
She proposed, and instead of refusing, two people decided to laugh at her desperation? And then, fearing that she would scratch Sita’s skin, Rama indicates to his brother in sign language that her senses be chopped. This is the best they could do with all their powers of divine intervention?? (To read more on this entire episode go here), Or is this reflective of a larger obsession with the Ugly less deserving of justice. That somehow not being the conventional vedic image of beauty meant that a person’s actions were more deserving of punishment.
Surpanakha’s biggest mistake (if one can call it that) was that she wasn’t as beautiful as Sita. She wasn’t submissive enough. If you think about it, an amorous relationship between the gods and demons in the other epics isn’t exactly frowned upon. This woman, she wasn’t coy, she had powers, and she didn’t like being made a fool of. I feel sorry for her sometimes, she was a bit ahead of her times.
The ironic thing is, we’re still caught up in the swirls of salon beauty and coyness. Someday… maybe we’ll give her a fair trial.