The most beloved villain among Indian epics

Why is Ravana still admired by some? It has a lot to do with his being an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. This is an inner story: we could, with perfect validity, call the Ramayana ‘The Tale of Two Devotees’
The most beloved villain among Indian epics

The Ramayana, as I discovered when living in Southeast Asia, is very much the ‘Epic of Asia’. Years ago, I gave an illustrated talk to that effect at the National Museum in Bangkok during the International Ramayana Festival. Back home, I, like many others, was intrigued by how Ravana is perceived differently in different regions. But there are nuances. For instance, Ravana is not ‘worshipped’ in Sri Lanka as some say, but he is certainly held in great esteem. There seems to be  a statue of him carved on the wall of Koneswaram Temple, an important historical Shaiva temple at Trincomalee. There are two factors at play here concerning why he is so important.

One is that the anti-hero of the Ramayana had to be a big enough figure to be a worthy opponent of an avatar, namely Vishnu’s seventh avatar, Sri Rama. So obviously, Ravana had to be a mighty warrior, a fabulously rich king, a gifted musician and poet, and a very attractive man. His ‘ten heads’ were symbolic of his multi-talented personality.

A sub-fact here is that while Rama was a mighty Kshatriya, Ravana was a Brahmin born of great rishis in North India, in Bisrakh, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. His father was Vaishrava Rishi and grandfather was Pulastya Rishi, one of the old order of Saptarishi or Seven Sages who constitute the Saptarishi Mandala, the constellation otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear or the Big Dipper.

For someone of such a learned lineage to kidnap another man’s wife was wholly unworthy and a disgrace both to his ancestry and his own achievements. The old rule was the higher your rank, the greater your punishment, should you err. So, story-wise, the logic is perfectly clear: Ravana and his helpers deserved everything they got from the Prince of Ayodhya. Secondly, Ravana’s track record with women was terrible. He forced himself on the apsara Rambha when she was on her way to meet her fiancé. This disturbing episode is still enacted in Kudiyattam and Kathakali.

Further, it is said Ravana accosted a saintly woman called Vedavati who would not tolerate his advances and burnt herself to death to escape. It is further said she cursed Ravana that if he ever assaulted a woman, his head would burst. Some even say Sita was Vedavati reborn as Ravana’s daughter while others say he collected her ashes and had them planted far away from Lanka in Mithila. Those ashes turned into the baby King Janaka found during the royal ploughing ceremony, which is why he called her ‘Sita’ or furrow.

Like Ravana, his sister Surpanakha was an entitled and spoiled character who tried to kill Sita to get Sita’s men for herself. ‘Empathetic’ modern explorations on Surpanakha can say what they like (because poking around the epics is the pastime of millennia) but the common people completely get the Ramayana’s issues of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and who behaved with restraint and who did not. There is no getting away from the fact that the King of Lanka and his sister were not good people.

So why is Ravana still admired by some? It has a lot to do with his being an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. This is an inner story: we could, with perfect validity, call the Ramayana ‘The Tale of Two Devotees’ because, ironically, both Rama and Ravana adored Lord Shiva. He was their aradhya or ishta devta, their personal deity to whom they prayed and dedicated their deeds.

Ravana loved Shiva so much he tried to uproot Shiva’s earthly home, Mount Kailash itself, to bear away to Lanka. When Lord Shiva punished him for his temerity, he sang his way to forgiveness with the incomparable Shiva Tandava Stotram or Ravan Stuti that many declare is their favourite composition on Shiva for its power and beauty. It is sung and danced to even today, and some jokingly refer to it as ‘Ravan Rap’. It is set in the Pancha Chamara chhand, a metre employed by none less than Adi Shankara in his Narmada Ashtakam, a paean to the holy river. This took me some effort to discover. Lord Shiva was so charmed by Ravana’s sincerity that he gifted him the magic sword Chandrahaas.

There is another, poignant story about Ravana, in Shaiva Siddhanta lore. It goes that when Sri Rama wished to perform a puja to Lord Shiva to ask for success in his conquest of Lanka, he could not find a priest nearby on the seashore where he was camped, on the coast of present-day Tamil Nadu. That place is now known as Rameswaram—the Place of ‘Rama’s Ishvar’ or Rama’s Lord, meaning Shiva.

Ravana got to know of this through his spies who could change form or become invisible. When it was gleefully reported that Rama was helpless because he could not start his campaign without worshipping Shiva, Ravana was not happy, as expected. Instead, he was distraught that a puja to Shiva could not be performed. Being a learned priest himself and a magician, it took him no time to appear before Rama disguised as a priest and offer to conduct the puja. He conducted the puja for his own destruction; such was his love for Shiva.

Such tales have kept Ravana from being wholly vilified as he is in the Vaishnava North and earned him a soft spot in the South and Sri Lanka—that he was a worthy opponent for Rama; a person of great refinement, learning and prowess who committed that one blunder that led to his doom. So, the Tale of Two Devotees is really a cautionary tale where both the protagonist and antagonist have a number of virtues and qualities but the arrogant one without restraint loses.

(Views are personal)

(shebaba09@gmail.com)

 Renuka Narayanan

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