Surpanakha was Ravan’s sister and some say, the second woman, (after Kaikeyi) who was responsible for the entire epic of Ramayan. Without these women and their actions, the whole chain of events might not have taken place. Before we go into what Surpanakha did and why, let us first know who she was, besides being Ravan’s sister.
Surpanakha (Sharp nails, in Sanskrit), was the one of the key women characters of the epic. Surpanakha was named Meenakshi (fish-eyed) at birth and like her mother was extremely beautiful. She was married to Asura Dushtabuddhi and enjoyed great favours from Ravan at his court. But Dushtabuddhi’s greed for more power saw him soon lose favour of Ravan, and in due course of time, Ravan had him killed.
The widow Surpanakha, was filled with anger and spent her time in Lanka and with her in-laws who used to reside in the Southern parts of
. When she saw Ram and Lakshaman in the forest, she proposed first to Ram and then on Ram’s recommendation, to Lakshaman. To cut this part of the story, she is supposed to have tried to attack Sita, as she was the reason, behind Ram’s denial, and Lakshaman ended up severing her nose. Needless to say, that both Ram and Lakshaman did have a bit of fun at her expense, tossing her proposition from one to the other, which was the main reason of her anger. India
It was this act that provoked Ravan to kidnap Sita as an act of revenge. But let us look at the matter from a different angle too. According to some versions of this episode, Surpanakha had no actual interest in both Ram and Lakshaman. She had been trying to avenge her husband’s death, but was unable to do so as Ravan was very powerful and quite invincible. It needed someone with divine powers, to kill Ravan. She knew about Ram and felt that Ram could be a perfect match for the might of Ravan and it was her idea of pitching the two in a battle, which she did succeed at the end of it, thru her designs.
Though Valmiki has described Surpanakha, as an ugly woman, some versions of the South have described her as a beautiful woman, worthy of her name Meenakshi, however, she could have been middle-aged and definitely not of Sita’s age and looks. Though we do not hear about Surpanakha, in the epic after the particular episode, but scholars feel that she lived a life of a recluse in the court of Vibhishana, who took over the reins of Lanka after the death of Ravan.
Many scholars feel that Surpanakha was one of the most misunderstood characters of Ramayan and had Ram and Lakshaman not made fun of her and reasoned with her, the whole matter could have been resolved well. Also, severing the nose of a beautiful woman for a proposal (even if we are to believe that it was an indecent proposal!) is quite a non-chivalrous thing to be done by a warrior (who then was in the garb of an ascetic). But then there are numerous incidents where Lakshaman has displayed his hot-headed nature.
I also believe that the only mistake of Surpanakha was that she was not beautiful as per the Aryan standards and that she expressed her amorous desire openly and was aggressive. Acts of expressing one’s mind openly and asking for something directly was not seen as good standards for women in those days, and that could have made Lakshaman react the way he did, thereby also setting a norm of public behaviour. Let’s not forget that it was the same Lakshaman who had drawn a Lakshaman rekha (which was a limiting line) for Sita too later in the epic, which definitely had different connotations.
To conclude, so who was Surpanakha – an anti-establishment individual or was she a liberated feminist of her times? Or simply put, was she a victim of differing standards of courtship by a different culture?