Surpanakha (Shurpanakha) is regarded as one of the most significant characters in the Ramayana. Actually, she was the arrow that started the chain of events leading directly to the destruction of Ravan.
Background of Surpanakha
The youngest child of Rishi Vishrava and his second wife, Kaikesi, Shurpanakha was given the name of “Minakshi” (the fish-eyed one) at birth. She grew up to marry the Asura Dushtabuddhi. In the beginning, Shurpanakha‘s husband enjoyed high favor with her brother Ravan, the King of Lanka, and they were privileged members of Ravan’s court, however the three fell out at some point due to Dushtabuddhi’s scheming for more power. Ravana had Dushtabuddhi killed, an act that earned Ravan his sister’s great displeasure.
The widowed Shurpanakha spent her time between Lanka and the jungles of Southern India, visiting her Asura, forest-dwelling relatives, every now and then.
Based on the Valmiki Ramyana, during one such visit, she saw Ram in the forest of Panchavati and immediately fell in love with him. She wanted to have Ram and masked herself as a beautiful woman utilizing the power of Maya. She came near Ram and bowed low to touch his feet.
Ram enquired about her origin. Shurpanakha answered that she was the daughter of grandson of Brahma and Kubera was her brother. Following that she praised Ram’s masculine beauty and asked him to marry her. Ram said that he is already married and is ‘Ekapatnivrata’ meaning ‘loyal to one wife only’.
Ram requested her to approach his brother Lakshman. But Lakshmana enjoyed teasing her and said that he was his brother’s servant. Hence, it would be better for her to be Ram’s second wife instead of his wife. Surpanakha turned angry and made abusive remark about Sita and threatened to eat her. Lakshmana came to Sita’s defense and cut off Surpanakha’s nose in anger.
To avenge this insult, she first reacted by going to her brother Khar who sent seven Rakshasa warriors to attack Rama, but were easily dispatched. Khar then attacked with 700,000 soldiers including himself, who were all killed.
She then reacted by going straight to Ravan’s court and extolling Sita’s virtues and beauty, praising Sita as a worthy wife for Ravan, and inciting him to abduct her by force and marry her. Ravan, despite advices to the contrary from his brother, Vibhishana, kidnapped Sita causing the war.
There are some versions of the Ramyana which claim that Surpanakha had no real romantic interest in the brothers and that she had orchestrated the war for no reason other than to seek revenge against Ravana for her husband’s murder.
After many years of scheming for his downfall, she discovered that Ravan had more than a match in Ram, the young Prince of Ayodhya. Ram had killed both her grandmother, the ferocious Thataka, and her uncle, Subahu. Surpanakha’s cousins were afraid of the young Prince and Surpanakha decided to pit her brother against Ram, realizing that no one else was powerful enough to slay Ravan.
Accordingly, she orchestrated her encounter with Ram, the kidnapping of Sita by Ravan and the resulting war between Ravan and Ram, all with the sole aim of having her brother killed.