The Surpanakha Episode | RAMAYAN



THE Princes and Sita, following Agastya's instruction, took the way to Panchavati. On the way they met a huge figure perched on a big tree. They took it to be a Rakshasa. 

"Who are you?" asked Rama in an angry tone. The vulture however answered in a voice full of mildness and affection: "My child, I am your father's aged friend." Then he proceeded to tell his story. 

Jatayu was the brother of Sampati, the son of Aruna the dawn-god, who was brother to Garuda the great eagle-vehicle of Vishnu. 

He said: "When you leave Sita alone and go hunting in the forest, I shall be looking after her safety." 

The prince was pleased and accepted the offer of the bird with gratitude. They then proceeded on their journey. 

Rama was thrilled by the beauty of Panchavati and gratefully offered praise in his thoughts to Agastya for recommending the spot to them. He told Lakshmana: "We can build our ashrama and enjoy our stay here for any length of time. Those hills are near and yet not too near. Look at those herds of deer. The trees with their flowers and the sweetly singing birds, the river, the clean sand, everything is beautiful. Choose for us a good site and build a cottage." 

Lakshmana did as he was told. He constructed an ashrama. 

Valmiki pauses here to explain the skill and swiftness of Lakshmana's workmanship. He describes in detail how the mud walls were raised and the thatched roof was made. Rama admires Lakshmana enthusiastically. 

"You are more than a father to me," said the prince shedding tears of love and joy. 

We, too, may pause to think how the noble prince Lakshmana acquired this skill. We may infer that in those days education even of princes included a knowledge of the realities of life and development of manual skill such as could enable one to collect materials in a forest and put a neat cottage for oneself. 

In the ashrama at Panchavati, Rama and Sita lived happily, lovingly served by Lakshmana. 

One morning in early winter the three went as usual to the Godavari for their bath and to offer their morning prayers and fetch water for the day's needs. They walked conversing about the beauty of the season. Lakshmana thought of Bharata and how he would then be busy performing the ceremonies appropriate to the month. 

He said: "Bharata is entitled to live in ease but he has taken on himself a life of hardship because we live a life of hardship in the forest. My heart is full of sorrow for him. Even in this cold weather poor Bharata no doubt eats sparingly and sleeps on the bare floor. This cold morning he too is probably walking towards the Sarayu. How fortunate we are to have such a noble brother! Pure in mind and speech and conduct, renouncing all pleasures, he lives a life of austerity for our sake. He is exactly like our dear father and quite the opposite of his mother. How could so cruel a woman as Kaikeyi bear so good a son?" 

Rama stopped him, saying: "Talk as much as you like of Bharata and our father, but stop condemning Kaikeyi. All that you say of Bharata is true and my thoughts too today go to him in love. How long yet to see him again? When shall we have that pleasure, Lakshmana? When shall we four brothers live together again? Bharata's loving words are still sweetly ringing in my ears."

Thus thinking longingly of home and Bharata they bathed in the Godavari on that early winter morning. 

After offering oblations to their ancestors and prayers to the sun, Rama rose transfigured like the Lord Siva and returned to the ashrama with Sita and Lakshmana. 

Their morning duties over, they sat whiling the hours with wistful talk of old days and tales of long ago. 

While they were thus recapturing the past in sweet companionship suddenly there came a Rakshasa woman who saw them. She was Surpanakha, Ravana's sister who was roaming the forest full of the idle thoughts of well-fed ill-taught youth. She was horribly ugly, but had the magic power to assume any lovely form at will. When she saw the godlike beauty of Rama, she was filled with uncontrollable desire for him and accosted him. 

"Who are you, dressed like an ascetic but accompanied by a woman and carrying warlike weapons and arrows? Why are you here in the forest that belongs to the Rakshasas? Speak the truth." 

On such occasions it was the courtesy of those days for the person accosted to announce himself and recite his name, city and history and inquire of the newcomer concerning his or her family and the purpose of the visit. 

Rama began, "I am the eldest son of the great King Dasaratha. My name is Rama. This is my brother Lakshmana. And this is my wife Sita. Obeying the behests of my father and mother and in fulfilment of dharma, I am now in the forest. And now please announce who you are. What is your family? You look like a woman of the Rakshasa race. What is your purpose in coming here?" 

She answered, "Have you heard of Ravana, the heroic son of Visravas and the king of the Rakshasas? I am his sister. My name is Surpanakha. My brothers Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana are also renowned warriors. The lords of this region, Khara and Dushana, are also my brothers. They too are mighty men at arms and wield great authority in these regions. But I am not subject to their control, but am a free person, free to do what I like and please myself. Everybody in this forest is, as a matter of fact, afraid of me." She said this to strengthen her wooing position. 

"The moment I set eyes on you," she continued, "I fell in love with you. You are now my husband. Why do you wander around with this midget of a woman! I am the mate worthy of you. Come with me. Let us wander at will through the forest. I can take what shape I please. Do not mind this girl of yours. I shall cut her up in a trice and dispose of her. Do not hesitate." 

Under the influence of lust, she thought in the manner of her race and prated thus. All this amazed and amused Rama. He smiled and said: "Oh beautiful one! Your desire for me will end in trouble for you. My wife is here with me. I do not care to live the life of a man with two wives. But my hefty brother here is untrammelled with a wife, and is as good-looking as myself. He is the proper husband for you. Offer your hand to him and leave me alone." 

Rama said this, being confident that Lakshmana would deal with Surpanakha suitably. 

The Rakshasi took Rama's advice seriously and approached Lakshmana saying, "Oh, my hero, come with me. Let us together wander at will in joy through this Dandaka forest." Lakshmana entered into the humor of the situation and said, "Do not be foolish. He is trying to cheat you. What is your status and what is mine? I am here a slave to my brother, while you are a princess. How could you become my wife and accept the position of a slave's slave? Insist on Rama's taking you as his second wife. Do not mind Sita. Soon Rama will prefer you to her and you will be happy with him." 

Some critic might ask whether it was proper thus to torment a woman, especially a woman in love. But if we exercise our imagination and have before us a monster of ugliness we can understand the situation. It is true that she could assume any charming form she chose, but in the intoxication of lust, she seems to have omitted even this allurement. 

"This ugly, corpulent and paunchy Rakshasi, with leering eyes blood-shot with lust, her red hair all dishevelled and her voice hoarse with passion, accosted the handsome, beautifully built and smiling Rama", says Valmiki. The Tamil poet Kamban varies the situation by making Surpanakha assume a lovely shape from the outset. 

Impelled by brute passion, the Rakshasi did as she was told by Lakshmana and went again to Rama. She thought and acted like a Rakshasi for she knew no other way of life. 

The sight of Sita enraged her. "It is this wretched little insect that stands between you and me. How could you love this girl without a waist? Look. I shall finish her off this instant. I cannot live without you. Once I have put her out of the way, you and I shall live together happily." Saying this, she sprang on Sita. 

Rama intervened just in time to save Sita. The farce had gone too far and threatened to become a tragedy. Rama shouted to Lakshmana, "Look, I have just been able to save Sita. Attend to this monster and teach her a lesson." 

Lakshmana at once took up his sword and maimed Surpanakha and drove her out. Disgraced and mutilated, Surpanakha uttered a loud wail and disappeared into the forest. 

Bleeding and mad with pain and rage, she flung herself on the ground before Khara, as he sat in state with his colleagues. Yelling with anguish, she related the story of her wrongs. The scorn and mutilation she had suffered was an insult to the Rakshasa race which only blood could efface. 

She said: "Look at me. Rama and Lakshmana have done this and they are still alive and roaming in your domain. And you sit here doing nothing." 

Khara stood up and said: "My dear sister, what is all this? I understand nothing. Calm yourself and tell me what has happened. Who dared to do this thing to you and is he in this forest? Who is he that wants to become food for crows and vultures? Who has stirred up the black cobra? Who is that fool? Where is he? Tell me, and he shall die at once. The earth is thirsty for his blood. Stand up and tell me everything as it happened." 

"Two handsome young men," said Surpanakha, "have come into the forest, dressed like ascetics and accompanied by a girl. They say they are the sons of Dasaratha. These two together, making an excuse of the girl attacked me and have hurt me thus shamefully. I am thirsting for the blood of these villains. Slay them first. Everything else can wait." 

Khara ordered his generals: "Go at once, slay these men and bring their lifeless bodies. Drag hither the woman also. Delay not." 

Fourteen generals set out to do his bidding. 

In Kamban's Ramayana, Surpanakha is delineated as having come in the shape of a beautiful young woman, entirely human, who tried to tempt Rama. Kamban departs widely from Valmiki in this episode and he makes a beautiful episode of it as will be seen in the next chapter. 

There are some people who pose as critics of our holy books and traditions saying, "This hero killed a woman. He insulted and injured a woman who offered him her love. He killed Vali from behind, rather than face him and accept honorable defeat. He unjustly banished Sita to the forest at the end of all the adventures. If the banishment of Sita was not unjust and if he rightly suspected Sita's fidelity, why then, we too, must suspect her fidelity." 

All such criticism is based on a mentality of hatred. We have unfortunately plenty of barren, heartless cleverness, devoid of true understanding. Let those who find faults in Rama see faults, and if these critics faultlessly pursue dharma and avoid in their own lives the flaws they discover in Rama, the bhaktas of Sri Rama will indeed welcome it with joy. If they exhibit the virtues of Rama and add to these more virtues and greater flawlessness, who can complain? 



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