kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Ten years later

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Both Katherine Erndl and Sally Sutherland demonstrate that the major opposition between Sita and Surpanakha is in terms of sexuality. Sita’s is a domesticated, conjugal love while Surpanakha represents untamed, aggressive and, therefore, potentially threatening desire. Sutherland suggests that the encounter between Sita and Surpanakha carries the potential of them becoming co-wives, and therefore they are set up as rivals for the same man’s affections. She also interprets the mutilation of the rakshasi as necessary to curb her dangerous sexuality because Rama cannot make the same mistake as his father: he cannot be ensnared by a woman’s charms. The Ramayana implicitly argues that it is not wrong for Rama and Lakshmana to assault and disfigure Surpanakha, just as it was not wrong for them to have killed Taraka the yakshini, because they are in the forest where different rules apply and because Rama cannot afford to commit the same mistakes as his father.

The same sexual opposition between rival wives is played out between Kaushalya and Kaikeyi, the mothers of Rama and Bharata.  While Kaushalya is the respected senior wife of Dasharatha, it is clearly Kaikeyi, the junior wife, who has enthralled the king with her beauty and charm. Kaushalya does everything right, including producing the perfect son, but she has little hold on the king’s affections even though she is the ideal wife and mother. Kaikeyi, on the other hand, is wilful and stubborn and gets her way all the time. She conspires to obtain the kingdom for her son and earns the contempt of everyone, including Bharata himself.

Similarly, good and righteous wives recur in the multiple stories of kingship. Vali, the monkey king, has a virtuous and wise wife name Tara, who first urges him not to destroy Sugriva and then cautions him against fighting Rama. Vali does not heed her words and goes out to meet his fate. When Vali dies, Sugriva inherits Tara along with the kingdom. As his senior wife, she remains the voice of righteousness and sanity in his court, whereas Ruma, Sugriva’s other wife, becomes the focus of his sexual attentions. The parallels in this case with the Kaushalya-Kaikeyi situation are very clear: Kaushalya and Tara are the wise, older wives who have the king’s attention because of their virtues, while Kaikeyi and Ruma are the younger wives whose sexual charms have a hold on the king. Similarly, Ravana’s chief queen, Mandodari, tries her best to dissuade him from taking on the might of Rama because she knows that Ravana is acting wrongly. But to no avail. While he holds Mandodari in great respect, Ravana satisfies his sensual and sexual desires with the thousands of other women that fill his palace.

Along with dangerous, demonic women, female ascetics (like Svyamprabha) and the virtuous wives of sages (like Ahalya and Anasuya) also live in the forests. Their rigorous austerities have given them magical powers and a high spiritual status. But once again (as with Sita), because their sexuality has been sublimated, they pose no threat to anyone. In Lanka, the good rakshasis Sarama and Trijata, both of whom help Sita during her imprisonment, mirror the characters of female ascetics in the forest. The female ascetics and the good rakshasis are safe havens in regions where dangerous, demonic women abound.

These variations on particular themes in the Ramayana are expressed through replication, shadowing, and mirror images. Within the text, they explore multiple possibilities in terms of relationships, characters and storylines. The tight normative roles prescribed for Rama, Bharata, Sita and Lakshmana are, in fact, heightened by the more realistic paths taken by the non-human and liminal characters in the text. Apart from presenting a contrast between the prescriptive behaviour of the human characters and the morally ambiguous actions of their non-human shadows, replications also serve to generate the narrative trope of foreshadowing. As in the case when Viradha snatches Sita away, events, emotions and even behaviours are hinted at and suggested in smaller incidents and side tales well before the critical moment actually occurs. Thereby, foreshadowing acts as a powerful tool in the building and maintenance of a mood for the epic. It also provides a narrative rhythm as it lays out the primary concern of the text.

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