Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Embarrassed Hindu Upper Caste Male?

Over on kafila.org, (I refuse to give them a link, but do see Sufiya Pathan in Outlook India), we are treated to the idea that Doniger's essential fault was that she embarrassed the Hindu Upper Caste Male, the "Hindu gentleman" described in Jakob de Roover's essay in Outlook India.    Among one of the emerging themes there seems to be that the Soorpanakha episode in the Ramayana (cut off her nose) encompasses the entirety of How The Hindu Male deals with female desire.

Well, I can only speak for myself.  I was not an "Amar Chitra Katha" (the comic book) child.  I grew up on Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan books, in particular those by C.Rajagopalachari and by K.M.Munshi.  I cannot state for sure, but I must have read them between the fourth and ninth grades.   Anyway, I leafed through C. Rajagopalachari's Mahabharata today, a slim 330 page paperback.  I see Devayani proposed to Kacha, who turned her down, on the grounds that he was more like a brother to her.   I see Devayani propositioned Yayati, who tried to turn her down on account of her being of a higher caste.  But Devayani's father cleared the way for that marriage. Sarmishtha propositioned Yayati,  and he had children by her.  Devayani eventually found out, and her anger led her father to curse Yayati  with premature old age.  Amba, who had been kidnapped by Bhishma,  proposed to Salva, who turned her down on account of Bhishma having defeated him in battle when he tried to thwart the kidnapping. Draupadi favored Arjuna at her swayamvara.  Urvasi, the divine apsara,  made amorous advances towards Arjuna, who turned her down on the ground she was more like a mother to him.  A result of that was Arjuna was cursed to live as a eunuch for an year.   Sachidevi pretended to be ready to yield to Nahusha, to bring about his downfall. In explaining Rukma’s position in the Kurukshetra war, Rajagopalachari reminds us that of when his sister, Rukmini “abandoned all maidenly reserve” and sent an emissary to Krishna to ask him to marry her (and rescue her from being married to Sisupala).

And this is in a book for school children.

I don't have K.M. Munshi's romance "Bhagawan Parasuram" around, but I think he had a whole chapter on Lopamudra's seduction of the sage Agastya.  He was not quite following the ancient story.

Anyway,  as the one-eyed man, among the blind, I copy here C. Rajagopalachari's rendering of the Soorpanakha episode from the Ramayana.

{While Raama, his wife Seeta and his brother Lakshmana in exile in the forest, spent a morning on the banks of the Godavari} in sweet companionship, suddenly there came a Raakshasa woman and saw them. She was Soorpanakha, Raavana's sister who was roaming the forest full of the idle thoughts of the well-fed ill-taught youth.   She ws horribly ugly, but had the magic power to assume any lovely form at will.   When she saw the god-like beauty of Raama,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 Raakshasas?  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 enquire of the newcomer concerning his or her family and the purpose of the visit.

Raama began, "I am the eldest son of the great King Dasaratha.   My name is Raama.  This is my brother Lakshmana.  And this, my wife Seeta.  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 Raakshasa race.  What is your purpose in coming here?"

She answered, "Have you heard of Raavana, the heroic son of Visravas and the king of the Raakshasas?  I am his sister.  My name is Soorpanakha.   My brothers Kumbhakarna and Vibheeshana are also renowned warriors.   The lords of this region, Khara and Dooshana, 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 eat 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 Raama.  He smiled and said, "Oh beautiful one!  Your desire for me will end in trouble for me.  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."

Raama said thus, being confident that Lakshmana would deal with Soorpanakha suitably.

The Raakshasi took Raama'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 humour 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 Raama's taking you as his second wife.   Do not mind Seeta.   Soon Raama will prefer you to him 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 a charming form she chose, but in the intoxication of lust, she seems to have omitted even this allurement.

"This ugly, corpulent and paunchy Raakshasi, 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 Raama", says Vaalmeeki.   The Tamil poet Kamban varies the situation by making Soorpanakha assume a lovely shape from the outset.

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

The sight of Seeta enraged here.  "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 Seeta.

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

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

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

Kamban's Soorpanakha

Raama and Lakshmana drove out Soorpanakha, as one takes a stick and drives out a donkey straying into a garden.   Such is the brief and simple treatment of this episode by Vaalmeeki.

Kamban, the Tamil poet, however, deals with it more elaborately and has made a number of changes in the story.

Setting on the river bank, Raama watched a swan walking and then looked at Seeta, also walking.   Noting the similarity in gait,  Raama was pleased and smiled.  Seeta, for her part, observed an elephant returning from the river and, reminded of Raama's gait, smiled.

Thus, in Panchavati, beside the river Godaavari, love flowed smoothly between the banks of dharma.  Just then Fate conspired with Lust to drag Soorpanakha to the presence of Raama.

The Lord Vishnu had left the Ocean of Milk and taken birth as Dasaratha's son, to rid the earth of the enemies of the gods.   But how as Soorpanakha to know this?

Beholding the beauty of his person, she wondered: "Is this Manmatha or Indra or Siva or Vishnu?  But Manmatha has no body.  Indra has a thousand eyes and Siva has third eye in the forehead, and Vishnu has four arms; so he cannot be Indra, Siva or Vishnu."

"Perhaps, after all, this is Manmatha, who has recovered his body, through penance, after it had been reduced to ashes by Siva's wrath."

"If it be Manmatha, why should this handsome hero still perform penance?  Why should this lotus-eyed youth waste his time in tapas?

So she stood there wondering, watching, unable to turn her eyes away.  She thought, "My own form would fill him with disgust.   I shall change my appearance and then approach him."

She transformed herself into a beautiful young woman and appeared before him like the full moon.   Her slender frame was like a golden creeper climbing up the Kalpaka tree in Heaven.   Her lovely lips and teeth were matched by her fawn-like eyes.

Her gait was that of a peacock.   Her anklets made music as she came near.  Raama looked up and his eyes beheld this creature of ravishing beauty.   She bowed low and touched his feet.  Then she withdrew a little with modesty shading her eyes.

Raama welcomed her, imagining that she was a visitor from some distant place and enquired: "Which is your place? What is your name?  Who are your kinsfolk?"

She answered:  "I am the daughter of the grandson of Brahma.  Kubera is a brother of mine.   Another is Raavana, conqueror of Kailaasa.  I am a maiden and my name is Kaamavalli."

"And what is your purpose in coming here?"

"It is not proper for a woman to speak the trouble in her mind.   And yet I suppose I must speak it out.  The God of Love has invaded my heart.   You can and should save me."

She paused.  Raama remained silent.   And she went on.

"You may wed me with Gandharva rites.  You know it is permitted for lovers to come together in this manner.   Once are are joined in this way, not only will happiness be ours, but friendship between you and my brother, the great Raavana, will follow.   You are alone in this forest and the Raakshasas will molest you.   Even if you do not provoke them, they will give you trouble because you are dressed as an ascetic.  If you marry me, you will be free from all this danger.   Not only that, my powerful people will be ready to serve you in all ways.  Consider this well."

Thus she pleaded for the fulfilment of her desire, citing authority and appealing to Raama's self-interest also.

Raama laughed revealing his beautiful pearly teeth.  Just then, Seeta was coming towards them through the plants and creepers, herself looking like another creeper.   Soorpanakah saw and marvelled at her loveliness.

Not knowing who she was, Soorpanakha, angered by lust, told Raama: "This girl is a Raakshasi in human form.  She has come to deceive you.  Beware of her.  This is not her real form.  She is a Raakshasi that eats raw meat.   Throw her out.   Have nothing to do with her."

Raama laughed again.   "You are indeed wise," said he.  "You have found out the truth about her."

Meanwhile, Seeta had come and stood by Raama.  Soorpanakha could not understand what Raama was laughing for.  In her lust, she had quite lost her wits.   She hissed at Seeta: "Why do you approach this hero of mine, oh Raakshasi?   Go away from here." 

Seeta, bewildered and afraid, hung on the prince's shoulder, and she then seemed like a lightning flash hugging a rain-bearing cloud.

Raama now saw that the joke had gone too far and said: "Dear lady, please stop, lest my brother should hear you.  He is quick-tempered and terrible when angry.   I advise you to go back quickly the way you came."  Saying this, Raama took Seeta with him and went into the hermitage.

The fire of her desire unquenched,  the Raakshasi spent the night somewhere, somehow.   In the morning, she thought: "I shall die if I do not get this man.   So long as this girl is with him, he will never come near me.  I must contrive to carry her off and put her away somewhere and then I may secure his love."   Thus resolved, she came again to the aashrama.

Raama had gone to the river for his morning ablutions and prayer and Seeta was alone in the aashrama.  Soorpanakha reckoned this was her chance to carry her off.   She did not notice that Lakshmana was in the wood nearby.  She rushed toward Seeta.  Lakshmana shouted and sprang on the Raakshasi.  Catching hold of her hair, he kicked her and drew his sword.

Soorpanakha when attacked resumed her own shape and attacked Lakshmana.  Lakshmana easily caught hold of her and mutilated her and drove her off.

This is Kamban's version of the episode.  Soorpanakha approaches and tries to attract Raama, hiding her true form and appearing like a beautiful human girl.   This variation is supported in a way by Valmeeki's description of Soorpanakha as "Kaamaroopini", that is, one able to assume what form she liked.

The Tamil poet appears to have felt something wrong or wanting in Valmeeki's story and has woven an episode showing how bestial passion works.