Our mythology is everywhere. Every day you run across instances of words, names, even city names (did you know Jabalpur is named after Jabaali the great seer?) and names of companies, literary allusions, art, music – and of course the planets and constellations – that take their name or borrow their theme from our mythology.
Even our daily conversations recall tales of metamorphoses and draw analogies between athletic and martyrial feats – ‘as strong as Hanuman’ or as ‘big as ‘Bheem’ or ‘as hungry as a Bakasura!’ are common comments. We are literally surrounded by mythology, whether we realize it or not, unknowingly peppering our language with colourful mythological similes like ‘sleeping like a Kumbhakarna!’ or ‘her nails are as long as Surpanakhas!’
But recently, it was Surpanakha’s chopped nose came brutally into focus, and not her hard talons, when the Karni Sena picked up a reference from the Ramayana and equated actor, Deepika Padukone with Surpanakha, threatening to cut off her nose, intimidating her that she would meet the same fate as Ravan’s sister if she persisted on the demand of releasing the film Padmavati.
Using mythological references to illustrate an argument is inventive but employing them to vindicate violence against women is horrifyingly medieval in its sheer barbarity and a matter of urgent concern.
How ironic is it that a group of men while fighting to protect the honour of the memory of a woman, are brutally vilifying a living woman in the name of that same honour.
Such violent interpretation of Hindu mythology is not just problematic but dangerous, manifestly taking opportune lessons from them to chastise women for transgressing norms.
If Surpanakha brings us a quick image of the leering, darkly wicked demon with long nails, (an image I have tried to humanize in my book on her – Lanka’s Princess); she was also the woman who was punished for her transgressions by having her nose cut off. When Lakshman did it, he did it to save a helpless Sita – whom the enraged Surpanakha -after being scorned by Rama – was going to attack and kill. Lakshman would have willingly killed her as he would any adversary who dared attack Sita, but for Rama’s orders and Sita’s pleadings, he was told to spare her life. He sliced off her nose instead and that remained her cruel punishment.
This episode – one of the most violent ones in the Ramayana, probably much more than the war itself between Ram and Ravan itself – has underlying subtexts of gender roles and women sexuality besides violence especially on women as leitmotif. Mythology is much more complex and subtle when it comes to such topics.
Using such a reference so brazenly as a weapon that is identified by members of a culture as representative and deemed to be a ‘punishment’ is outrageous, irrespective of the argument that the process of identification is subjective, and is judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic proxy of that culture.
Some of the popular (mis)interpretations of mythology, conditioned severely by patriarchy, have very narrow interpretations on how women should behave; resulting in expedient archetypes like the good, obedient wife or the doting mother and extolling the virtues of womanhood and their role in society. It puts women on a worshipping pedestal, while ironically relating Nature and Earth as a goddess – the Shakti and Bhumi Mata, equating even the nation as Bharat Mata. In the Ramayan, Ram is the ‘purshottam’ for how men should act and Sita is the model for women and the viciousness of the ‘dhobhi’ is rarely recognized in its myopic understanding.
Unfortunately, these texts in the wrong hands and wrong intent, play a part in perpetuating chauvinism and violence against women. These representations get inappropriately twisted to validate an endemic violence of today’s times.
When such misinterpreted references take violent overtones, such blatant public display of ferocity are disturbing in their comprehensibility. Firstly, both the epics continue to be ideas of reference for moral, spiritual and philosophical instruction for the society as a larger culture, right down to the level of family. Also, instances of individual and collective violence represented in the narratives; be it fratricide, murder, molestation, war, kidnapping – can be deliberately misinterpreted and morphed as terrorizations rather than moral reminders, emerging incorrectly as the swivels on which the epics hinge, classifying them as exemplary tales spawning more violence and viciousness. These depictions of violence through the narrative of the epics get manipulated as exaggerated images amplifying the impact of the situation in question.
The Padmavati-Surpanakha controversy is a case in point. But, unlike in the epics, the violence is dissonantly real, without owning up to the moral valences of that focus.
Pic Credit: India Today
Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views are author’s own.