Sunday, April 12, 2009

Indian Mythology, how much ever objectively written in the form of tales and fascinating stories, always has something for the intellectual and the debating kind. Whether it is about the fairness of the treatment meted out to Karna or the unfairness of Rama’s act of killing Vali, these tales have given way to varied opinion and long drawn discussions and even arguments which can only be classified as never-ending!
But as some may say, it is only for the Good. For, had it not been for these apparent incongruencies, we may not have had an opportunity to debate about the complex dealings of life which were commonplace in the myth tales (and are maybe even today). One such chapter in the Indian Mythology which at least has me interested is about Ravana; the so-called ten headed villain of the epic tale, Ramayana. Don’t mistake the usage of the term ‘so-called’ as my attempt to opine on the contrary. I am quoting so because that is what the general perception has been and what is apparent on the surface. And maybe that is what is meant to be too. However, we will, in these discussions, refrain from referring to Ravana as the Villain; for that is something which may be concluded but certainly not assumed. So let us embark on a journey (in an attempt) to establish some details, beyond the regular grounds, about this erstwhile King of Lanka.

The first thing one must be clear about Ravana is that he was not exactly a Rakshasa. He was born to Vishrava, a Brahmin Sage and Kaikesi, a Daitya Princess. His paternal grandfather was the sage Pulastya and his great grandfather was none other than Lord Brahma himself. His parents’ alliance was brought about by his maternal grandfather, Sumali who wished to have an exceptional heir for his race. Ravana had six brothers and two sisters.

Ø Kubera (half brother), guardian of the heavenly wealth and Ravana’s predecessor as King of Lanka
Ø Vibhishana, devotee of Lord Rama and Ravana’s successor as King of Lanka.
Ø Kumbhakarna, victim of a boon turned curse by Brahma and less disillusioned than Ravana in matters of Dharma.
Ø Mahiravana, King of the Netherworld; famous from the episode of the Ayodhya princes’ rescue by Hanuman with the help of Goddess Kali.
Ø Surpanakha, christened as Meenakshi at birth (one with eyes like that of a fish); famous for provoking her brother to not only seek revenge for her humiliation but also capture Sita Devi for his own self.
Ø Kumbhini, wife of Demon Madhu (after whose name Mathura is christened) and mother of Lavanasura (killed by Shatrughna in his quest of Mathura); she and Surpanakha are known to have retired to the sea for penance after their brother’s demise
Ø Khara and Dushana, King and Viceroy of Janashtana (Kingdom bordering Kosala, Lord Rama’s Kingdom)

An oft debated issue about Ravana is his clan’s geographical origin. That he ruled in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent has led many to believe that he is a Dravidian; natives of the land prior to the arrival of the Aryans. Alternate theory suggests that his ancestors migrated to the southern lands from the western parts of India, had close connections with the Yadavas (that Ravana’s nephew ruled Mathura is used as powerful testimony to prove this point) and were actually Aryans by origin. It is thus debated that Lord Rama was not the first Aryan to venture south and that the Vanaras were symbolic of the Dravidians of the south. It is theorized that Lord Rama taught these natives to live by the Social codes than by the Jungle laws (Matsya Nyaya).

Allow me to diverge here a little to mention about certain interesting lineages. Sage Shukracharya, the one eyed preceptor of the Daityas had a daughter, Devyani. Though a Brahmin, through a twist of fate she happened to marry a Kshatriya Prince of the Bharata race, Yayati. Yayati also secretly married Devyani’s hand maid, Sharmishtha, the daughter of Vrishaparva, the King of the Daityas. Through the first union was born Yadu and through the latter was born Puru. Having earned a curse and a boon respectively, Yadu’s descendants, the Yadavas, were never to become the Kings of any land and Puru’s descedants, the Kauravas and the Pandavas among others, were to rule the earth till the horizon. It is interesting to note that the accursed, indulgent and careless (having caused their own demise) Yadavas partially had the Brahmin blood, whereas the noble, heroic and proud Pandavas had Daitya blood running in their veins. The ways of the world and beyond sure were complex as per these tales.

More than anything else, Ravana is known for his Ten Heads; many depictions portray him so. Television and theatre version of the Ramayana describe Ravana to grow into the ten headed state especially when angered. It is said that in an attempt to invoke Lord Shiva, Ravana sacrificed his head. Each time he did so, the Lord reinstated him back to normalcy. However on the 10th such occasion, the Lord finally heeded to Ravana’s calls and blessed him with ten heads. A more philosophical version states that the ‘ten headed’ state of Ravana is symbolic of his thorough knowledge of the 4 Vedas and the 6 Upanishads making him as powerful as 10 scholars.
On this note, let us attempt to enlist the various firsts and greats attributed to Ravana:

Ø A half Brahmin-half Daitya that he was, Ravana was an exemplary scholar and a master of the arts and ways of Kshatriyas
Ø Ravana was an artist par excellence. He is attributed with the creation of the Kamboji Raga (Carnatic Music) and is said to be able to play the Veena with his veins for strings. His contest with Agastya to melt a mountain by playing Veena stands testimony to his skill. His flag is said to have had a picture of Veena on it. He is also said to be an extraordinary painter. This in conjunction with his deep insight in philosophy are said to have been common features in his courts and even beyond.
Ø He is said to have authored Ravana Sanhita – also known as Kali Kitab – a powerful book on Hindu Astrology. He possessed thorough knowledge of Ayurveda and Arthashastra.
Ø Upon his severe penance towards Brahma, Ravana, though denied the boon of immortality, was gifted with the celestial nectar of immortality, which he stored under his navel. After gaining powers and boons, Ravana assumed leadership of the Rakshasa Army and usurped Lanka, created by Vishwakarma (celestial architect) for Kubera. Ravana ruled Lanka the way neither anybody had nor did. It is said that even the poorest of the houses had gold vessels to eat from.
Ø By the time Lord Vishnu incarnated as Rama on Earth, Ravana was virtually the emperor of the three worlds, dominating all human and divine races; so much so that he could command the rising and setting of the Sun.
Ø He was one of the most earnest devotees of Lord Shiva. He is supposed to have composed the hymn dedicated to Lord Shiva, Shiva Tandava Stotra. Once Ravana, in vain, had attempted to lift the Mount Kailash; Lord Shiva upon realizing some disturbance, pinned the mountain with Ravana underneath it with his little toe finger. Ravana, who roared so loud that the mountains quaked, upon realizing whom he had offended, composed and sang songs of the Lord for years until he was released. Pleased, Lord Shiva presented Ravana the divine sword ‘Chandrahasa’. It is after this incident that Ravana was named so; Ravana literally means the one with a terrifying roar.
Ø Ravana sought the friendship of Vali, after having been subdued by him. Ravana had heard of Vali and had challenged him to a duel. Vali, who was meditating towards Lord Shiva then, asked Ravana to wait until he was done with the meditation. Though Ravana agreed to this, through trickery, tried to tie Vali up. Vali having sensed Ravana’s movements, bundled him in his tail, tucked him under his armpits and bathed in the three oceans and eventually returned to Kishkindha. Convinced of his opponent’s might, Ravana sang to Vali’s glory.

It is often said that Mother Sita was Ravana’s nemesis; in the sense that Ravana’s ill behavior towards Sita resulted in his destruction. But maybe there was more towards it. Along his way to glory, Ravana managed to accumulate some curses which, as usually is the case, formed the basis of his eventual doom. And as it happens, they are related to women.
Ø First was the daughter of a sage - Vedavati. She was a devout follower of Lord Vishnu and was performing penances to win Lord Vishnu as her husband. One day as Ravana passed by the forest where Vedavati resided, he was smitten by her beauty, which was further enhanced by her austerities. Ravana, known for his aggressive conquests of women, molested Vedavati. Anguished by this, she jumped into a pyre, proclaiming that she, born as his own daughter, will be the reason for his death.
Ø Second though not a death curse, greatly limited Ravana’s potential to cause harm to Mother Sita. The divine Apsara, Rambha was the daughter-in-law of Kubera. Ravana forced himself upon Rambha, who pleaded him to spare her, as she, by extension, was like his daughter. She eventually cursed him to lose all his heads if he were ever to force himself upon a woman. It is this that caused Ravana to grant Mother Sita a maximum of one year to agree to his terms. As he could not force upon her, her consensus was a must. Alternate theory suggests that, it was Mother Sita who asked for this extension; she wanted to buy time within which she was sure that Lord Rama would rescue her.
Ø On this note, let us also remember who Ravana possibly was. One version, as we’ve discussed, speaks about the Door Keepers of Lord Vishnu being cursed by the Sanath Kumars (alternately by Sage Narada) to be born on earth (as enemies of the Lord) and that they would earn salvation only by death at hands of the lord. Ravana and Kumbhakarna were one such avatars of the door keepers.

One of the most pivotal points of Ramayana is the abduction of Mother Sita by Ravana and her struggle in his captivity. There are however other factors common to them; each more disbelieving than the other. But before this, a word about Ravana’s wife Mandodari is a must.

Mandodari was the daughter of the celestial architect Maya. Her beauty is held in parallel with that of Mother Sita herself. She is one among the Panch Kanyas alongside Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti and Tara. Panch Kanyas are supposed to signify the five elements of nature and the utterance of their names can wash away all ones sins.

Ø Suitor – Ravana, a polygamist and lord of an incredibly sized harem, is said to have attended Sita’s Swayamvara. He attempted to lift the Rudra (Lord Shiva’s bow) but failed to do so.
Ø Mother (!) – Post a Yagya, Ravana was given celestial water, drinking which his wife Mandodari was to become pregnant. During their night stay at a forest, a thirsty Ravana was compelled to drink this water and was thus impregnated. He coughed ferociously and a child is said to have landed in Janakpura, the Kingdom of King Janaka. It is this child whom King Janaka finds in his fields during the ploughing-in ceremony after a Yagya to invoke rains in his drought hit kingdom. The lowest blade of the plough to have struck the vessel holding the child is called Seet; thus the name Seeta for the girl child.
Ø Father – After Ravana was cursed by Vedavati, Mandodari became extremely vary, as she has just become pregnant then. She feared that Vedavati’s curse may come true and wanted to keep this child as far away from Ravana as possible. Under the pretence of going to her parent’s place, Mandodari was able to keep this fact a secret from Ravana. Upon delivery, Mandodari abandoned the child in a field; only for the child to be later found by King Janaka in his kingdom. Wonder how Mandodari ended up placing the child near Janakpur (Supposedly in Central India)? Well because Maya ruled a place, which is in modern day Rajasthan!

No mythological biography (well, this almost is one) can be complete without a mention about the descendants. It is interesting to note that Ravana outlived all his sons. Essentially in the war against Rama, all of Ravana’s sons died before he did.
Ø Indrajit / Meghanad – He is famously known for his attempted execution of Lakshmana and his Magical powers. Meghanad literally means the one with the voice of thunder. He gained the near immortality boon from Brahma when he agreed to free Indra, whom he had conquered during the Devasur Sangram (battle between the Devas and the Asuras) and was christened as Indrajit by Brahma. Lakshmana killed him after destroying his Yagya towards Goddess Nikumbila.
Ø Akshya Kumara – A warrior of mere sixteen, he was pitched in a battle against Hanuman and was eventually killed, when the latter was destroying the Ashok Vatika (After meeting Mother Sita and before burning Lanka with his tail-on-fire).
Ø Prahasta – Described as a ruthless warrior by Valmiki, Prahasta was killed by Lakshamana, when he had wreaked havoc in Sugreeva’s Army on the first day of the battle. He was the first Chief General of Ravana’s army.
Ø Atikaya – He was the son of Ravana and his second wife, Dhanyamalini. He is said to have held the Trishul in mid air, which was hurled by Lord Shiva towards him. A pleased Shiva blessed him with knowledge of Archery and Divine weapons. A bearer of the invincible armor gifted by Brahma, Atikaya was killed by Lakshmana by a Brahmastra (the only weapon to be able to pierce such a defense).
Ø Narantaka & Devantaka – Killed in their previous avatar (In Satya Yuga) by Lord Ganesha, these sons of Ravana were killed by Hanuman and Angada respectively in the battle.
Ø Trishira – He personally engaged Lord Rama in a battle only to be killed in the duel that ensued

So, here we are, having discussed Ravana in some 2000 words. Certain information may have come as a surprise; and some even downright ridiculous. But we are not done yet. Don’t we usually leave the dessert for the end? So, I think it is high time I mentioned that Ravana is also…Worshipped. Well you may have heard of it. But in case you didn’t know the where and the who, here we go.

Ø Alvar, Rajasthan: Both Parsvanath and Ravana are worshipped in a Jain temple here. Ravana was a devotee of Parsvanath. This temple was built by Mandodari for Ravana.
Ø Mandor, Rajasthan: This place, very close to Jodhpur has a mandap where Ravana is supposed to have married Mandodari; known as Ravana ji ki Chanwari.
Ø Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh: A huge Shivalinga installed by Ravana and his own idol are worshipped by the locals
Ø Jodhpur, Rajasthan: Recently, a Ravana temple was erected here. Dave Brahmins of Jodhpur are said to have descended from Ravana’s clan are said to perform Shraddh (Death Anniversary) on every Dusshera.

These are to name a few. Quite surely, Sri Lanka would have a fair few temples dedicated to Ravana. But being a great Shiva devotee that he was, it is not so surprising that Ravana found a place in the Indian religious context. You may note that Ravana finds a place in Jainism too. In Jainism, one era is divided into 12 Aaras, 6 for glory and 6 for downfall of mankind. Every group of 6 Aaras has 24 Tirthankars. Parsvanath is the 23rd Tirthankar and Mahavira is the 24th in the current downfall phase. Ravana, along with Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Mother Sita, is supposed to be one among the 24 Tirthankars in the next phase (of glory) of 6 Aaras.

Finally, we are near the conclusion; at least with regards this abridged biography. As for the other things about Ravana (such topics can never be exhaustive), especially his evil deeds, well those are common knowledge. His vanity, ego, ill treatment of women in general, path of Adharma etc. are just the various attributes which we can draw from a general read of the Ramayana.
Now with this, I think we can happily go about forming conclusive opinion about Ravana. But I leave the choice to you; Good, Bad or Ugly is not for me to tell surely!

P.S. – Behold! We’re not done yet with this story. Well, maybe for now, yes. But you may notice some emboldened text in the midst of many lines. These points deserved further mention and explanation. I will continue on these the next time. And of course once those are attended to, there will be lots more. After all, can we ever be done with Mythology?

This time it was not only word of mouth but also several web pages and books which helped me compile all that we’ve read above. Find the sources enlisted below.
Ø Good Ol’ Wikipedia - and more...
Ø Rediff, Yahoo and similar such sites
Ø Ramanaya by C. Rajagopala Chari
Ø Scores of Amar Chitra Katha books
Ø Dear Mataji for her discourses through years
Ø All those Aunts, Uncles and Friends who chipped in with little tales now and then
Ø All those un-named sources whom / which I can acknowledge but not enlist

1 comment:

ManoeuveRishi said...

Ravana-To people it may be a character depicting malice.But,to many it is also a persona replicating an enigmatic scholar,ruler & above a person who did the things on his own terms & conditions with equally knowing the consequences he shall be facing.
How can we forget the Ravana Sanhita, a powerful book on the Hindu astrology, also known as Kaali Kitab. Ravana possessed a thorough knowledge of Ayurveda and political science.Not to forget his finishing epilogue to Lord Rama is still considered to be a benchmark for "Political Science" on ruling the nation as a whole.
The knowledge stored in form of the epics "Ramayana" & "Mahabharata" is myriad.So much to unravel the mystery though......!