Ravan is the epitome of evil — his effigy is burnt ritualistically every year during Dusara, in every street corner in north India. He lives in the collective memory of a nation as a rakshasa — the very embodiment of malevolence.
As a child, I used to hate Ravan because he prompted Lord Vishnu to descend from his heavenly abode and be born as a man. The life of Lord Ram was full of suffering.
As a child, it made me uncomfortable to hear that Ram remained a mute spectator, when his brother Lakshman cut off the nose of Ravan’s sister Soorpa-nakha. Of course, Laksh-man was acting in defence of his sister-in-law Sita, whom the rakshasi was trying to attack. But mauling a woman, even though she is a rakshasi, is not what we expected from the prince of Ayodhya. Ram’s silence condoned Lakshman’s crime. That was the first instance when confusion arose in my mind about the difference between dharma and adharma.
Ram’s act of shooting the unsuspecting Bali, who was duelling with his estranged brother Sugreev, was another chapter in the Ramayan that made me cringe. My ignorant mind couldn’t comprehend the nuances of dharma in this episode. People justified Ram’s conduct on two accounts: First, Bali was just a monkey and Ram, as kshatriya, had the right to hunt. And in hunting, stealth is the norm. Secondly, Ram was punishing Bali for taking his younger brother’s wife as his own. Both arguments only confused me further.
I wondered why the evil Ravan did not force himself on Sita. Ravan had always lived his life with passion. Before Sita, he had no qualms about grabbing his stepbrother’s palace or forcing himself on women whom he fancied. Yet, he did not harm Sita, even though he could have easily justified it as revenge for what Lakshman did to his sister. Or perhaps it was the curse of Nalakubera, his stepbrother’s son — that if he touched any women without her willingness his head would burst into flames — that made him act nobly.
I used to wonder what prevented Sita from touching Ravan’s fingers and see him burst into flames, thus preventing a costly war. I was also intrigued by how Ravan managed to kidnap Sita without touching her. I was told that as per some Ramayans, Ravan carried a chunk of earth with Sita and her ashram in his Pushpaka vimana (chariot vehicle).
But Raja Ravi Varma’s painting shows Ravan fighting Jatayu with his chandrahasa in one hand and Sita firmly grasped in the other. While it was said that artists take liberties with the “original” scriptures, I found it difficult to imagine Varma as more ignorant than my village temple priest.
Angad, son of Bali, entered Ravan’s anthapura and dragged Mandodari by her hair. This was done to prevent Ravan from completing a yajna that would have granted him immortality. This prompted Mandodari to cry out that while Ram was fighting a war for his wife’s honour, her own husband Ravan did not bother to save her. At this, Ravan chose protecting his wife’s honour over attaining immortality. Nor did this rakshas order an agnipareeksha for his wife to prove her chastity. Maybe rakshasas had a degraded sense of morality and did not mind having a tainted wife whose hair was touched without her permission by another man. But then, why did Ram not punish Angad for such a dishonourable act?
Every time I heard the story, the one character that I loved to hate was Vibhishan. But why did Ram take advantage of this traitor to kill the evil Ravan? I could understand it if it was Krishna who did such things in similar circumstances.
Ram is the epitome of maryada. He is purushottama. Surely, he could have done better than seeking Vibhishan’s help. That is raj dharm, I was told. When I argued that Ram was no ordinary raja, but a Vishnu avatar, I was glared back into submission. Over the last three decades, I have read many explanations for all the questions that plagued my mind as a child. Though I am convinced by most answers, it just shows the power of perspective. Though there is no doubt in anyone’s mind when reading the original Ramayan about who the hero is or who the villain is, sage Valmiki never shied away from showing the shades of grey in all his characters.
The Bhakti tradition that came later, painted Ram as the epitome of a perfect man who could do no wrong and made Ravan a characterless villain, thus sucking the life out of a beautiful epic poem. Same is the case with the Mahabharat, where Krishna grew into a cult god from a minor character, as Jay grew into the Mahabharat.
My writings are an attempt to bring back the original shades, as I believe them to be what sages Valmiki and Vyas intended in their epics. It will not stop the burning of Ravan’s effigy every year, but we can take solace in the fact that they are only burning him and not each other in his name. For once, Ravan has something to feel noble for.
Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura, Tale of the Vanquished and the two-book Ajaya series