The epic Ramayana was written by the great sage Valmiki and told us the tale of Good over bad, the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, the multi-headed asura king. Yet there is more to the emperor of Lanka than meets the eye. A complex character who was a devout king is often epitomized as the villain unparalleled.
Ravana is the perfect example of two sides of the coin. In most countries, he is tainted as the villain who kidnapped Sita and started the war, a cruel, oppressive ruler who misused his knowledge and boons. Yet, in Sri Lanka, Ravana has an image of a different king. He is described as a devout follower of the god Shiva, a great scholar, a capable ruler, and a maestro of a veena, known as the Ravanhattha.
The story goes that Ravana went to visit Lord Shiva and to impress his mother by moving the Kailash Parvat (Mount Kailash) to Lanka. Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva, refused to let Ravana in. He got annoyed and started teasing Nandi. Nandi, in turn, got annoyed and cursed Ravana that Lanka would be destroyed by a monkey.
Ravana attempted to uproot and move the mountain on a whim to show Nandi his love for Shiva. As he lifted up the mountain, Shiva was angered by his arrogance and pushed it back down, trapping Ravana under the mighty mountain.
Ravana had torn off one of his own arms and made a musical instrument, ripping out sinews to form the strings. He used the newly invented Ravanhattha to sing the praises of Shiva, creating music of such beauty that Shiva wept and forgave him. Such was his faith and respect for his mother as well as Shiva.
Birth Of Ravana
Ravana had a remarkable pedigree. His grandfather, the sage Pulastya, was one of Brahma’s ten mind-born sons and one of the Saptarishi (Seven Great Sages) in the first Manvantara. Ravana was born to a great sage, Vishrava muni, and his wife, the daitya princess Kaikesi. Kaikesi’s father, in turn, was the king of Rakhesha Sumala. Kaikesi searched among the sages and finally chose Vishrava.
Ravana had six brothers.
- Kubera – The King of North direction and the Guardian of Heavenly Wealth.
- Vibhishana – Follower of Rama
- Kumbhakarna – one who was awake for six months a year and asleep for the other six.
and, two sisters.
- Surpanakha – One who instigated her brothers to wage war against Rama.
Ravana later usurped Lanka from his half-brother Kubera (the Father of Ravana and Kubera was Sage Vishrava) and became the King of Lanka. He appointed Shukracharya as his priest and learned the Shastras from him.
According to Hindu Puranas, Ravana and his brother, Kumbhakarna, were reincarnations of Jaya and Vijaya, gatekeepers at Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu. Both were cursed to be born on Earth for their insolence. These gatekeepers refused entry to the Sanata Kumaras, who appeared as young children because of their powers and austerity. For their insolence, the Kumaras cursed them to be expelled from Vaikuntha and born on Earth.
After the curse, Lord Vishnu agreed that they should be punished. They were given two choices, either they could be born Seven times as normal mortals and devotees of Vishnu, or three times as powerful and strong people but as enemies of Vishnu. Eager to be back with the Lord, they choose the latter one.
The curse of first birth was fulfilled by Hiranyakashipu and his brother Hiranyaksha in Satya Yuga when they were both vanquished by earlier avatars of Vishnu (Hiranyaksha by Varaha and Hiranyakashipu by Narasimha).
Ravana and his brother Kumbhakarna were born to fulfill the curse on the second birth as enemies of Vishnu in the Treta Yuga. And finally, the curse of third birth was fulfilled by Dantavakra and Shishupala in the Dwapar Yuga when they both were killed by Lord Krishna.
Penance to Shiva, Brahma, and Boons
Sage Vishrava observed that Ravana, although aggressive and arrogant, was also an exemplary scholar. Under Vishrava’s guidance, Ravana became proficient in the Vedas, the holy books, and the arts and techniques of warriors.
Ravana was also an excellent veena player; his flag’s sign had a picture of veena on it. Sumali, his maternal grandfather, worked hard in secret to ensure that Ravana retained the ethics of the Daityas. The brothers performed penances on Mt Gokarna for 11,000 years and won boons from Brahma. Ravana was blessed with a boon that would make him invincible to the creation of Brahma, except for humans. Brahma also gifted him weapons, a chariot, and the ability to shapeshift.
It is believed that Ravana chopped off his head 10 times during his penance as a sacrifice to please Lord Brahma. Each time he cut his head off, a new head would appear, thus allowing him to continue his penance. Finally, Shiva, pleased with his austerity, appeared after his 10th decapitation and offered him a boon.
Ravana asked for immortality, which Shiva refused to give. However, he gave Ravana a celestial nectar drink that would make him immortal. The nectar was stored under Ravana’s navel, and he could not be defeated 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 knowledge of divine weapons and magic. Thus Ravana is known as ‘Dasamukha’ or ‘Dashaanan’ (Dasa = ten, mukha/anan = face).
His ten heads represent Kama (lust), Krodha (anger), Moha (delusion), Lobha (greed), Mada (pride), Maatsyasya (envy), Manas (mind), Buddhi (intellect), Chitta (will) and Ahamkara ( the ego) – all these constitute the ten heads. And so Ravana had all these ten qualities.
Lanka and Ravana
Lanka was an idyllic city, created by the celestial architect Vishwakarma himself. It was the home of Kuber, the treasurer of the gods, when Ravana demanded Lanka wholly from him, threatening to take it by force. Although Ravana usurped Lanka, he was a benevolent and effective ruler. Lanka flourished under his rule.
Under the scholarly Ravana, Lanka saw great advancements in science and medicine. The Pushpaka Vimana or the airplane which he flew, is held as an example of great scientific achievements made during his regime. At the same time, Ravana also holds a high position as a physician, and there exist, to this day, seven books on Ayurveda in his name. He is also believed to have authored Ravana Sanhita, an anthology of Hindu astrology.
During his immature attempt to seize Kailash, he became a lifelong disciple of Lord Shiva. Then, pleased with his resilience and devotion, Shiva gave him the divine sword Chandrahas (Chandra-Moon, Has-laugh, literally ‘the laughter of the moon but referring to the shape formed by a crescent moon which resembles a smile). During this incident, he acquired the name ‘Ravana,’ meaning “(He) of the terrifying roar,” given to him by Shiva.
The earth is said to have quaked at Ravana’s cry of pain when the mountain was pinned on him. Ravana, in turn, became a lifelong devotee of Shiva and is said to have composed the hymn known as Shiva Tandava stotram.
Shiva had given his sword Chandrahasa, warning that if it were used for unjust causes, it would return to the three-eyed one, and Ravana’s days would be numbered.
Ravana had two wives. He had seven sons from his two wives. Mandodari, the daughter of the celestial architect Maya and divine Apsara Hema (Hema is a daughter of Maharshi Kashyapa & Muni, daughter of Daksha Prajapati) and Dhyanmalini.
There is a school of thought that paints Ravana as a womanizer. There is a mention of Vedavati, the daughter of Brahmarishi Kusadhvaja, the son of Brihaspati, Lord-Guru of the Devas, the Gods. Having spent his life chanting and studying the sacred Vedas, he names his daughter Vedavati, or Embodiment of the Vedas, born as the fruit of his bhakti and Tapasya.
Ravana, the emperor of Lanka, and the rakshasa race find Vedavati sitting in meditation and is captivated by her incredible beauty. He proposes to her and is rejected. Ravana mocks her austerities and devotion to Vishnu; finding himself firmly rejected at every turn, he grabs her hair and assaults her. This greatly incensed her, and she forthwith cut off her hair and said she would enter into the fire before his eyes, adding, “Since I have been insulted in the forest by you, I shall be born again for your destruction.” So she entered the blazing fire, and celestial flowers fell all around. She was born again as Sita and was the cause of Ravana’s death, though Lord Rama was the agent.
In another instance, Ravana is also said to have tried to abuse Rambha, an apsara engaged to Lord Kubera’s (the god of wealth) son. After learning Ravana’s advances, Kubera cursed him that if he tried to force himself upon any woman, all his heads would fall off. This is one of the reasons why he did not touch Sita when she was abducted.
Ravana and Rama
The 29th Raghuvanshi king Anaranya was killed by Ravana. Anaranya cursed Ravana that one day one king of the Ikshvaku lineage would kill Ravana and Sri Rama killed Ravana. After the abduction of Sita and repeated attempts to seek her release in the most peaceful manner, which were rejected by Ravana, the war took place which resulted in the demise of Ravana and his sons.
Cause of Ravana’s death
Many believe that it was Vibhishana who betrayed his own brother Ravana and became the reason for the latter’s death. However, as per legends, it was Mandodari who was unaware of how indirectly she became a part of the treachery that led to her husband’s death by the hands of Lord Ram.
It became obvious that killing Ravana was turning next to impossible, so Vibhashana disclosed the secret about Ravana’s navel, where his soul was kept hidden due to a boon. He also informed Lord Rama that no mortal weapon could ever diminish Ravan’s soul, only a magical arrow, which was kept in the safety of Mandodari.
On Lord Rama’s nod, Hanuman flies back to Ravana’s castle in the middle of battle, disguised as a Brahmin saint. He secretly enters Mandodari’s room and tricks her into revealing the location where she hid the magical bow. Just when he was about to fly away after obtaining it, Mandodari realized how she was tricked into disclosing the weapon of her husband’s death. After she saw Ravana’s lifeless body, she cursed Hanuman saying, “For whom you tricked me shall be taken away from you one day. Like today, I have to live in grief; you too shall live forever in grief.”
The advancements during Ravana’s reign
Ravana and Air Craft or Dandumonaraya
The Pushpikaya, or Dandumonaraya was the official vehicle of the King. This was made of wood, and the fuel was a kind of mercury. The starting of the Dandumonaraya was done by heating mercury with the help of a diamond. Another special feature of the Chiththakuta or Sigiriya was that a lift made out of wood operated from up to down, and this was the only Fort in Sri Lanka with this nature. It was stated that a lift shaft was drilled at the edge of the lion mouth towards the up, and the wooden lift had been installed.
Ravana – the healer
Ravana had written various classical Ayurveda in the Sanskrit Language.
- Kumara Thanthraya (Kumara Therapy) – Over a thousand Powerful medical prescriptions for leprosy and other diseases.
- Udissa Thanthraya (Uddeeya Thahtharaya) – About hypnotism treatments and occult sciences.
- Treatments through pulses – Diagnoses of diseases through pluses.
- Explanation of meaning – This book ends with the following sentence: This is the end of this book prepared for the purpose of curing a hundred diseases written by Ravana, the king of Lanka.
- Vatika Prakaranaya – Decoction dissertation
- Kumara Thanthraya – It was stated in these books that an Ayurveda Seminar had been held in the Himalayas under the leadership of The King. Accordingly, Ravana can be treated as a bright doctor, psychologist, and the Medical Council’s Chairman.
Ravana and Angam Shastraya
During the period of Ravana, this particular fighting system had seven divisions. It was a fighting system practiced by the Tribe of Yakka. Ravana had been able to add another one division to this fighting method. Even today, this fighting method that had been developed by King Ravana is practiced by some people. Adding another division to this angampora game can be seen when King Rajasinghe the First alias Prince Tikiri added “Ilangakkara” division to this martial art. It was the last adding to this fighting method.
To say that Ravana was killed in the great war by Lord Rama would be an understatement. His death was brought on by events, his pride, and his lust. So in a literal sense, Ravana was killed by the person who shot the Astra (Brahmastra) that killed Ravana – Lord Rama. The person who told Rama how to kill Ravana – Matali, the charioteer of Indra, gives the idea of firing the Brahmastra to Ram to kill Ravana at his weakest part, the umbilicus. The person who triggered the event chain – Shurpanakha, when she tried to kill Sita after Rama / Lakshmana declined to marry her.
Life Lessons by Ravana
Lord Rama was very impressed with Ravana’s knowledge and wisdom—which is why after defeating him, he praised Ravana and deputed his brother Lakshmana to seek the blessings of the dying Ravana.
Lord Rama asked his brother Lakshman to go to him and learn something about the world, which no other person except for such a learned Brahmin like Raavan could ever teach him.
Lakshman obeyed his brother’s order and stood near dying Raavan’s head. But Raavan did not say anything, and Lakshman returned to Rama. Rama then told Lakshman that whenever one wants to learn something from a person, you should never stand near his head but his feet.
Lakshman again went to Raavan, and this time he stood near his feet. Raavan seeing Lakshman standing near his feet, told him Three main secrets that would make anyone’s life successful.
- The first thing Raavan told Lakshman was that one should complete any auspicious work as soon as possible and keep delaying the inauspicious work as much as possible. He supported this teaching by saying, “शुभस्य शीघ्रम्” (Shubhasya Shighram). He told Lakshman that he could not recognize Rama and therefore delayed arrival at the shelter. Hence this is his condition.
- The second thing he taught Lakshman was never to underestimate one’s enemy. He said that he made the mistake of understanding the monkeys and bears as lesser or incompetent and lost the battle against them. When he asked Lord Brahma to make him immortal, he said no one except for monkeys and humans could kill him. This is because he believed that both these living beings could not kill him.
- The third and final thing Ravana told Lakshman is that one should not reveal one’s life secret to anyone in the world. Here also, Raavan made a mistake as Vibhishana knew the secret of his death. Ravana knew this was his biggest mistake in life.
So whether we see him as a villain or an intellectual personality, he remains a powerful figure in Hinduism.