In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.
Over the centuries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have become India's default epics, eclipsing the Rajatarangini, the Silappadikaaram and other equally powerful legends in the mainstream imagination. While this is a loss, both epics offer an insight into the way rape works in India.
Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and, running parallel to it, the disfiguration of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana -- two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and the sanctioned rapes of Amba and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.
The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita's abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman Rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.
Sita, though, is not a passive victim, as Namita Gokhale, Arshia Sattar and others argue. Gokhale points out that Sita is the first single mother. Sattar sees Sita as a woman who exercises complex choices, leaving a marriage where she is no longer treated with respect. (This episode, Sita's rejection of Rama and her building of a life without him, is seldom raised by guardians of the purity of Indian women.)
Draupadi's story is rarely referenced, though it is powerfully told in the Mahabharata. Draupadi's reaction, after Krishna rescues her from Dushasana's assault while her husbands and clan elders sit by in passive silence, is not meek gratitude. She berates the men for their complicity and their refusal to defend her; instead of the shame visited on women who have been sexually assaulted, she expresses a fierce, searing anger.
She will wear her hair loose, she says, as a reminder of the insult; she does not see herself and her body as the property of the clan, least of all as the property of the husband, Yudhisthira, who has gambled her away to the Kauravas. She demands justice and is prepared to call down a war that destroys the clan in order to receive her due.
It is no wonder, perhaps, that those sections of conservative India who will cite Sita's "transgression" -- her crossing of the Lakshman Rekha -- as the reason for women's rape will not speak of Draupadi. Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.
Amba is, again, silenced in popular discussion, and yet her story remains both remarkable and disquieting -- the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. There is nothing easy about her story, as anyone who has tried to rewrite the Mahabharata knows; or about the way in which we gloss over the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika, one so afraid of the man who is in her bed that she shuts her eyes so as not to see him.
That leaves Surpanakha, the woman in the forest; like the rakshasi Hidimbi, she sees herself as a free agent. Different versions of the Ramayana are uneasy about her looks -- in some, she is an ugly rakshasi; in some, she takes on a deceptive, beautiful form; in some, she is beautiful to begin with. But what we know about her is that she is Ravana's sister and, by extension, probably as learned as her brother; that she is free enough to express her desire for the brothers Rama and Lakshmana; and that she is indeed free to roam the forests without protection.
The story of Surpanakha is filled with tangles and diversions -- how much deception does she practise; does she merely terrify Sita or actually attempt to attack her; do Rama and Lakshmana toy with her, or are they more polite, or are they consistently hostile, before they cut off her nose, her ears, and, in some terrible versions, her nipples?
The ending of the story remains the same, and it's in line with the contemporary warnings handed out to women in India: if you assume that you are free to roam everywhere, even in the forests, you will be hurt by the most ostensibly chivalrous of men. There is a punchline to that ending, though: if you hurt the wrong woman, prepare for war.