Ravana: Why Not Necessarily A Pure Evil!

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Ravana ("one of terrifying roar"), according to Hindu lore, was once the king of Lanka, faithful to his god, and ruler of a prosperous kingdom. He was said to be brave, courageous, smart, and knew how to use every type of weapon with a degree of skill. It was said that only Shiva himself could kill him.

He was further blessed with the ability of flight and invisibility, and could make it rain water, fire, or thousands of arrows. Despite all of this, in his heart Ravana was a pleasure seeker who sought to use his abilities and gifts for his own personal satisfaction, which in turn caused him to become lustful, proud, quick to anger, and filled with jealousy.

Open to corruption, he succumbed and fell from his status as human and devolved into a ten-headed and twenty-armed demon that became the king of the rakshasas. As a demon, he is now driven by his compulsion to drink human blood. A highly skilled shape-shifter, he is also strong enough to split a mountain with his bare hands. Ravana can rip a man's soul right from his body.

Ravana is depicted and described as having ten heads and two ears in total. He is described as a believer of the god Shiva the Destroyer, a great scholar, a capable ruler and a maestro of the Veena, but someone who wished to overpower the gods. Ten Heads of Ravan represents that he had knowledge of Six Shastra and Four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda).

In the great epic Ramayana, he is the antagonist. Being a polygamist, kidnapping Rama's wife Sita, to exact vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister Surpanakha. In other contemporary smaller texts (Meghnad Bodh Kavya) from later periods, his qualities as a responsible king full of all royal qualities are explained.

According to Sinhalese nationalists, the name Ravana (or Ravaṇ) means "Sun race", as Ra signifies the Sun and vana signifies generation. According to the HindustanTimes, in modern Sri Lanka, there has been a movement to revive Ravana as a cult figure, who represents Sinhala or Sri Lankan nationalism because he was among the first in the island's history to have resisted an alien/Indian invader. A third explanation emphasises a Tamil-background.

According to Pargiter, "Ravana" may originally have been a Sanskritisation of iraivan, the Tamil or Dravidian for a lord or king. According to Udayakumar, Periyar E.V. Ramaswami ... used the Ramayana to radicalise the Tamils in southern India against Brahminical supremacy and the domination of North Indian Sanskritic culture. For him, Rama, Sita, and all the rest of them were northerners without "aniota of Tamil culture", but Ravana, the king of Lanka or southern Tamil Nadu, was a Tamil. Ravana had many other popular names such as Dasis Ravana, Dasis Sakvithi Maha Ravana, Dashaanan, Raavan, Ravula, Lankeshwar, Lankeshwaran, Ravanaeshwaran all signifying the qualities of his life.

The Ramayana tells that Ravana had close connections with region of the Yadus, which included Gujarat, parts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan up to Mathura south of Delhi. Ravana is believed to be related to Lavanasura, also regarded as a Rakshasa, of Madhupura (Mathura) in the region of the Surasenas, who was conquered & killed by Shatrughna, youngest brother of Rama.

After worshiping Shiva on the banks of the Narmada, in the more central Yadu region, Ravana was captured and held under the control of King Kartavirya Arjuna, one of the greatest Yadu kings. It is very clear from the references in the Ramayana that Ravana was no commoner among the Humans or Asuras, a great chanter of the Sama Veda.

Tapasya to Shiva

Following his initial training, Ravana performed an intense penance (or tapasya) to Shiva, lasting several years. During his penance, Ravana chopped off his head 10 times as a sacrifice to appease him. Each time he sliced his head off a new head arose, thus enabling him to continue his penance. At last, Shiva, pleased with his austerity, appeared after his 10th decapitation and offered him a boon. Ravana asked for immortality, which Shiva refused to give, but gave him the celestial nectar of immortality. The nectar of immortality, stored under his navel, dictated that he could not be vanquished for as long as it lasted.

Ravana also asked for absolute invulnerability from and supremacy over gods, heavenly spirits, other rakshas, serpents, and wild beasts. Contemptuous of mortal men, he did not ask for protection from these. Shiva granted him these boons in addition to his 10 severed heads and great strength by way of knowledge of divine weapons and magic.

Thus, Ravana known as 'Dasamukha' or 'Dashaanan' (Dasa = ten, mukha/anan = face).

King of Lanka

After winning these boons, Ravana sought out his grandfather, Sumali, and assumed leadership over his army. He then set his sights on capturing the island city of Lanka.

Lanka was an idyllic city, created by the celestial architect Vishwakarma for Shiva and acquired by Kubera, the treasurer of the gods upon advice of his father Visravas. Visrava had asked sone ki lanka from shiv as 'dakshina'(It is the gift Brahmin gets for his services) for his against the housewarming ceremony he has conducted for Lanka. Kubera had generously shared all that he owned with Ravana and the latter's siblings, who were Kubera's half-brothers and half-sister through his stepmother Kaikesi. However, Ravana demanded Lanka wholly from him, threatening to take it by force. Vishrava, their father, advised Kubera to give it up to him, as Ravana was now undefeatable.

Although Ravana usurped Lanka, he was nevertheless regarded as a benevolent and effective ruler. Lanka flourished under his rule, to the extent that it is said the poorest of houses had vessels of gold to eat and drink off, and hunger was unknown in the kingdom.

Worshipping Ravana

There are several temples where Ravana is worshipped. Ravana is considered most revered devotee of Shiva. The images of Ravana are seen associated with Shiva at some places.

There is a huge Shivalinga in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, supposedly installed by Ravana himself, with a statue of Ravana nearby. Both Shivalinga and Ravana are worshiped by the fishermen community there.

Thousands of Kanyakubja Brahmins of the village Ravangram of Netaran, in the Vidisha District of Madhya Pradesh, perform daily puja (worship) in the Ravan temple and offer naivedyam / bhog (a ritual of sacrifice to the Gods). Centuries ago, King Shiv Shankar built a Ravana temple at Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. The Ravana temple is opened once in a year, on Dussehra Day, to perform puja for the welfare of Ravana.

A Jain temple in Alwar, Rajasthan is called the Ravan Parsvanath Temple. The legend says that Ravana used to worship Parsvanath daily. While Ravana was on tour to Alwar he realised that he forgot to bring the image of Parsvanath. Mandodari, Ravana's wife, is said to have made an image of Parsvanath immediately. And hence the Ravan Parsvanath temple at Alwar.

Ravana is said to have married Princess Mandodari at a place about 8 kilometres away from Jodhpur, which is now called Mandor. There is a mandap (altar or pavilion) where Ravana is said to have married Mandodari, and which the local people call Ravan Ki Chanwari.

At the altar can also be found the images of Saptamatri (Seven Mothers) flanked by Ganesha and Veerabhadra. The Saptamatri images are said to precede the time of the Pratihara Dynasty (founded in the 6th century AD) and are in fact reminiscent of the images of seven female deities of Harappa – the oldest civilisation in India. In the nearby stepwell, a stone bears a script that resembles the Harappan script.

The Dave Brahmins of Mudgal Gotra, Jodhpur/Mandor who were originally from Gujarat, claim to be the descendants of Ravana. The say that since time immemorial they are performing the shraddh (death anniversary) of Ravana on Dussehra Day every year. They offer pind daan and take a bath after that ritual. They recently erected a Ravan temple in Jodhpur, where daily puja is performed.

There is a theory proposed by Sinhalese nationalists that points to the southern part of Sri Lanka as the capital of Ravana, hence the name Ruhuna came to existence. ‘Ruhuna’ is claimed to be derived from the word's Ravana Pura or Rohana Pura, despite the linguistic improbability of 'va' becoming 'ha' in Prakrit. This is probably an attempt to tie Ravana with the history of that other national hero: Duttagamini, who was a king from that region.

Murudeshwara temple, dedicated to Shiva, lies in the holy beach town in the Bhatkal Taluk of Uttara Kannada district in the state of Karnataka, India. It is situated between the Honnavar and Bhatkal town (about 12 km) and it lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea.

The significance of this holy town dates to the time of Ramayana. Ravana wanted to attain immortality by penance dedicated to the Atmalinga (the divine Lingam of Shiva procures invincibility and immortality to the Hindu Gods). Shiva appeared before Ravana and asked him what he wanted. Ravana requests the Atmalinga as his boon. Shiva agreed to give him the boon with a condition that it should never be placed on the ground.

It is believed that the Atmalinga was ever placed on the ground, all the powers would return to Shiva again. Having obtained his boon, Ravana started back on his journey to Lanka. Sage Narada realised that with the Atmalinga, Ravana may obtain immortality and create havoc on earth, approached Ganesh to help him.

As Ravana was nearing Gokarna, Vishnu blocked the sun to make it appear as dusk. Ravana had to perform his evening rituals but was worried because with the Atmalinga in his hands, he would not be able to do his rituals. Ganesh disguised as a Brahmin boy approached Ravana. He requested him to hold the Atmalinga until he performed his pooja and told him not to place it on the ground. Ganesh struck a deal with him saying that he would call Ravana thrice, and if Ravana did not return within that time, he would place the Atmalinga on the ground. As predicted, before Ravana could return after completing his rituals, Ganesh had already placed the Atmalinga on the ground. Vishnu then removed his illusion and it was daylight again.

Ravana got angry that he was tricked again and tried to uproot the Atmalinga and destroy it but could not. In a fit of rage, he threw the case covering it to a place called Sajjeshwara, 23 miles away. Then he threw the lid of the case to a place called Guneshwara (now Gunavanthe) and Dhareshwara, 10–12 miles away. Finally, he threw the cloth covering the Atmalinga to a place called Mrideshwara in Kanduka-Giri (Kanduka Hill). Mrideshwara has been renamed to Murudeshwara.

The beauty of Hindu religion is that nobody is painted as truly good or fully evil. Everyone has some bad qualities as well as some good ones. Every god, asura or goddess is painted as only evil or only pious. Hindu gods are relatable, and the mythological stories associated with them always offer some learnings and lessons that can be emulated in our daily lives.

The Ramayana is a literature beyond the modern simplistic understanding of the text.

It is important to know why certain regions in the country sing Ravana’s praise, idolize him and object to his insult!

Ravana was a just and able king. He had the knowledge of all the Vedas and Shastras. He was a great Shiva devotee and an expert of the Veena, a musical instrument. It is said that he invented the Rudra Veena. He was the son of a great Bhramin sage Vishrava (or Vesamuni), and his wife, the daitya princess Kaikeshi. People of Bisrakh village in Uttar Pradesh claim that Bisrakh was named after Vishrava, and Ravana was born there. He is still considered a maha-Bhrahman in this village and every Navratri, people here perform yagnas and peace prayers for Ravana’s departed soul.

 There are stories in Rishikesh and temples in Rameshwaram that Lord Ram had to atone for and wash away his sin for killing Ravan. But why would a God atone for killing a villain? Because Ravan was not your street-side pedestrian villain you can easily dismiss. He was also a God.

“Ram, though God incarnates, was born in a family of Kshatriyas. In the caste hierarchy, Ram was of lower rank. As a Brahmin, Ravan was custodian of Brahma-gyan (the knowledge of God). Killing him meant Brahma-hatya-paap, the sin of Brahminicide, that Ram had to wash away through penance and prayer. Another reason why this atonement was important was that Ravan was Ram’s guru,” wrote Devdutt Pattanaik, mythologist, author, and columnist.

 Tribals and Bhramins in praise of Ravan

Ravan signifies everything that is a part of the human life experience. But rarely do you find Mythological villains/Brahman gods which are included as icons in modern DBA (Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi) experience. He is a representation of their struggles.

“The Gond Tribals of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra worship Dashanan - Ravana and his son Meghnada as Gods. The tribals extend adulations to Ravana during a tribal festival – Falgun. As per Gond Tribals, Ravana was never demonized in the Valmiki Ramayana and Sage Valmiki clearly mentioned that Ravana did not do anything wrong or maligned Sita. It was in Tulsidas Ramayana that Ravana was considered a cruel king and devilish,” reported News18.

In Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, people worship him and respect his unparalleled knowledge and devotion for Lord Shiva. They even mourn his death.

Besides Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, some regions in Karnataka also pray to Ravan. “During the harvest festival, Lankadipathi (The King of Lanka) is worshipped by people of Kolar District in Karnataka. In a procession, along with Lord Shiva’s idol, a ten-headed (Dashanan) and twenty-armed idol of Ravana is also worshipped by locals. Similarly, at Malavalli Taluka in the Mandya District of Karnataka, a temple of Ravana is visited by Hindu devotees to honour his dedication for Lord Shiva,” the report said.

The report added that in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, The Maudgil Bhramins conduct Shraadh and Pind Daan for Ravan, according to Hindu rituals, as they are his descendants.

In Mathura, Saraswat Bhramins sings hymns in praise of Ravan and Lord Shiva. There exists a ‘Lankesh Bhakta Mandal.’ They are collecting funds to build a Ravan Temple on the banks of the Yamuna river. Omveer Saraswat, the founder of the Mandal said that Ravan was a charitable man with divine quality. He found the effigy burning ritual an insult to such a divine figure.

 “Saraswat had petitioned the president and the prime minister seeking a ban on the burning of Ravana effigies on Dussehra, claiming Ravan, the king of Lanka in the epic Ramayana, was a Saraswat Brahmin, and the burning of his effigies (Ravana Dahan) was an "insult" to Saraswat Brahmins and many others who worshipped him,” reported Business Standard.

“Kanpur has its share of Ravana worshippers who revel in glorifying the demon-king on Dussehra every year. The temple, which is believed to be 120-plus years old, can be found in the Shivala locality of Kanpur, where the devout open the portals of the shrine once annually. Believe it or not, the chants of “Ravan Baba Namah” reverberating inside the temple, attract both the faithful and the curious onlookers alike; and the queues on a day like Dussehra could be as long as a kilometer,” reported Times Of India.

The majority of the Indian populace believes in the villainy of Ravan. It signifies the fight of good over evil. What constitutes good or evil in this modern global village is a grey area. There are lessons far more complex in the literature than the simple retelling of Ramayan. Devdutt Pattanaik explains how Ravan cannot just be painted in one hue and how his life is a lesson for us all, no matter our caste or background.

“Shiva is God embodying the principle of vairagya, absolute detachment. He demonstrates his disdain for all things material by smearing his body with ash and living in crematoriums. The material world does not matter to him. Ravan maybe his great devotee; he may sing Shiva’s praise, and worship Shiva every day, but he does not follow the path of Shiva,” he wrote.

“In reality, Ravan stands for everything that Shiva rejects. Ravan is fully attached to worldly things. He always wants what others have. He never built the city of gold – he drove out his brother, Kuber, and took over the kingdom of Lanka. Why did he abduct Sita? Avenging his sister’s mutilation was but an excuse; it was the desire to conquer the heart of a faithful wife. And during the war, he let his sons die and his brothers die before entering the battlefield himself,” he wrote.

“Ravan has ten pairs of eyes, which means he can see more. Ravan has ten sets of arms, which means he can do more. Ravan has ten heads, which means he can think more. And yet, this man with a superior body and superior mind submits to the basest of passions. Despite knowing the Vedas and worshipping Shiva, he remains a slave of his senses and a victim of his own ego. He arrogantly shows off his knowledge of detachment but is not wise enough to practice detachment. Deluded, he gives only lip-service to Shiva. This pretender is therefore killed by Ram, who like Shiva, is another form of God,” he concludes.

Ravana was a great king and had many good qualities but he got carried away because of them. He became egoistic and stubborn thinking himself to be the best and better than everybody due to which his destruction was necessary.

To establish the essence of Dussehra once again, it is celebrated not only because Lord Rama killed Ravana but it signifies the fact that every individual is a mixture of good and bad qualities but your good qualities can become redundant if you become too egoistic, boastful, and ambitious. Dussehra is a festival that celebrates kindness, compassion, control, and love.

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