Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Unsung Hero- Ravana

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Ravana is one of the most wronged figures in mythology or literature. He is treated as a demon and Rama celebrated as the maryada purushottam who slew the monster. But Ravana was anything but a monster. In fact, he was much more humane than Ram ever was in his lifetime. At the risk of censure, I own up to my deep admiration for this great man who was an epitome of virtue.
Ravana, contrary to popular perception, was not a demon. The word “rakshasa” which has now come to mean “demon” actually has its roots in the word “raksha” or “to protect”. It has no connection whatsoever to any demonic undertones. But it is later mythology that crafted the tale in a way that portrayed the rakshasas in a bad light. Ravana is also referred to as an asura. The “asuras” in the Rig-Veda (earliest text) presided over moral and social phenomena with the “devas” ruling over natural phenomena.
There are alternate layers to The Ramayana, especially in the folklore of south India, where Ravana was considered Sita’s actual father. Ravana was a great king, his kingdom was prosperous and the people were greatly happy with their king. He was a very wise and learned man and was a very fervent Shiva devotee.
The word “Daśagrīva” or “ten-headed” does not literally mean that he actually had ten heads which is a common sight at all Dussehra “Ravana jalao” events. The allusion to “ten heads” is actually a reference to his extensive wisdom and knowledge. He was well-versed in the Vedas and the Shastras and so referred to as Daśagrīva. Basically, he wasn’t a freak of nature or one of the X-Men mutants but a super- intelligent, super smart dude!
I have always seen Ravana as more endearing and likeable as a person than Rama due to the charming fact that he’s as human as the rest of us mortals! His wisdom and greatness though was acknowledged by Mr. Rama himself as well (maybe reluctantly!) as Ravana lay dying when Rama asked him to bless Lakshmana. The cheek by the way! : P
Ravana was a far more honorable man than Rama. He never resorted to underhand tricks to get the upper hand like Rama did by getting Ravana’s brother on-board. Sita was in Ravana’s power completely and if he wanted to he could have violated her as he pleased but he didn’t. In fact he didn’t lay a finger on her and only tried to woo her in honorable Mr. Bingley fashion which is quite interesting when talking about a so-called Demon. Rama on the other hand was a violent fellow who had Surpanakha’s nose chopped off when she hit on him; I mean who in his right mind does that?
Ravana kept his prisoner well and loved her in a way that should have Rama scampering for cover to hide his face in shame. What Rama did in contrast reflects poorly on his character. Rama listened to some gossip doing the rounds in his kingdom about Sita and put his faithful wife though agnipariksha to prove her virtue at a time when he should have stood by her. She had left everything, renounced all pleasures to follow him into the forest and this is what she got in return for her steadfast devotion to her husband. Ravana on the other hand received nothing but scorn from her but continued to treat her with complete respect and love.
Rama got together an army to destroy Ravana’s kingdom instead of just trying to rescue Sita. (Do I smell jealousy here? Was Rama not able to digest his rival’s strength and power?) Now, looking deeper into myths and texts, there is a clear Vaishnava bias overpowering this story. In ancient times, there was a strong rivalry between Saivite and Vaishnavite groups, both trying to outdo each other in every way possible. Now the Ramayana (and Mahabharata too for that matter!) glorifies Vishnu and was clearly composed by Vaishnavas. Is it surprising then that a true and ardent Siva devotee is portrayed as a demon? I mean, try and ask a coffee addict what tea tastes like!
Another deep allusion that I feel lies somewhere in the recesses of this story is a territorial rivalry. The kingdoms to the South of the Indian subcontinent enjoyed longer periods of freedom than their northern counterparts. Lanka was clearly in the South and Ayodhya clearly a northern kingdom. The age was all about territorial expansion and capture. Sita probably became a mere excuse for conquest just like Helen did in the Trojan War as captured in Greek mythology.
I know I might get slammed for my opinion but well, what the heck! What’s writing without a few critics who try to strangle you! : P I think as a character, Ravana was pure awesomeness (as Barney would say). His only flaw (the “tragic flaw” in Literature students’ terms) being his love for a woman who captured his fancy and whirred him out of control.
Many slam Ravana condemning him as lustful and arrogant but I beg to disagree. If he had indeed been lustful then Sita would not have left his palace untouched by him. However, even if it had become lust, he has the sage Vishwamitra for competition in horniness! If arrogance is a crime, hang Durvasa first who was much more arrogant than Ravana and is still considered a maharishi! In conclusion, I would say Ravana is the unsung hero that I would love to sing my praises to. Dude, you rock!
(P.S. - thanks to Arushi for inspiration for this article. Although I have done papers on Ravana’s character in class, it was quite a refreshing change to write whatever I wanted without minding the language! : P)