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Tall, dark and 10-headed

There is more to Ravan than being the usurper of another man’s wife. Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal trace how various texts have portrayed the epic anti-hero.

art and culture Updated: Jun 19, 2010 23:03 IST

Ravan is not the conventional maha-baddie of popular imagination but a deeply ambivalent figure — part-Daitya (demon), part-Brahmin, whose strength, power and intellectual hubris were karmically fated to be subdued by Ram.

His ten heads, the subject of exaggeration and ridicule during Dussehra festivities, symbolised his deep knowledge of the four Vedas and six Upanishads. He is ascribed as the author of the Ravan Samhita, one of the most powerful tools of astrological investigation. He also composed the hypnotic ‘Shiv Tandava Stotra’ to appease the angered Shiv and win his grace.

Even as the crowds gather to watch the fireworks, and the imperious opponent of ‘maryada purushottam’ Ram goes up in flames, his shraddh is conducted with reverence at the Ravan temples in Kanpur and Jodhpur .

The Ramayana traditions do not portray Ravan in terms of a simplistic good/evil conflict. Valmiki and others draw a distinction between the human species guided by a moral code of marital bonding and temperance, and the rakshas jati, the race of demons and illusionists, who are permitted multiple partners and profligate living. When Ravan pleads with Sita to become his ‘wife’, he elaborates upon the realm of ‘propriety’ within which he is placing his offer. While Mandodari, his senior-most consort, is jealous of Sita, she never questions Ravan’s right to maintain a harem.

In versions like the Krittivas Ramayana and the Bichitra Ramayana, as well as the Thai version, it is the simian vanara sena (monkey army) that uses force and subterfuge to rob Mandodari of her chastity, the source of divine protection to her rakshas husband.

At another level, while the Mahabharata depicts a polygamous, sexually open society, the Ramayana is the first, prescriptive, monogamous epic. Ravan had ‘sexually harassed’ the virtuous Vedvati, who was then reborn as Sita to avenge that transgression. Yet, as Wikipedia charmingly phrases it, “there was not a single instance when Ravan misbehaved with Sita….He plays the role of a gentleman to the hilt”.

During the final moments of battle, Ram is prompted by Indra’s charioteer Maatali to use the ultimate weapon, the Brahmaastra, to combat Ravan’s immortality. Ultimately, it is the gods who decide on the winner, and the human race defeats the rakshas jati to avenge Ravan’s abduction of Ram’s wife.

History is famously written by the victors. But the moral ambiguity that defines the Hindu universe informs the lessons of the Ramayana. While individual sin is punished, there is clear tolerance of ‘difference’. The rakshas forces, represented in Vibhisana, have joined Ram’s council. Ram, ever the virtuous warrior, presides over the last rites of his worthy opponent. Mandodari is left mourning the death of her ‘noble and handsome’ husband.

Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal are the editors of In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology