Ravana – The Emperor of Lanka and Villain of Ramayana

Ravana Art

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 Art
Art by Molee at DeviantArt

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, as a devout follower of the god Shiva, a great scholar, a capable ruler, and a maestro of a veena (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. When the demon king attempted to lift Mount Kailas, Shiva became furious due to his arrogance. As a result, Shiva pushed the mountain back down and trapped Ravana underneath it.

Ravana had torn off one of his own arms and made a musical instrument, ripping out sinews to form the strings. Using the newly invented Ravanhattha, Ravana sang praises of Shiva with such beautiful music that it touched Shiva’s heart. The divine music moved Shiva to tears, and he forgave Ravana for his previous arrogance and granted him blessings.

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 the first son of Vishrava Muni and his wife, Kaikesi (princess of the Daitya Clan). 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.
  • Kharan
  • Dushana
  • Ahiravan

and, two sisters.

  • Khumbini
  • 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.

Previous life of Ravana

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.

Jaya and Vijaya

In ancient times, there were gatekeepers at Vaikuntha, the heavenly abode of Lord Vishnu. When the Sanata Kumaras, who appeared as young children, approached the gatekeepers, they were rudely denied entry due to the gatekeepers’ arrogance.

Despite the children’s powers and holiness, the gatekeepers did not show them respect. As a result, the Sanata Kumaras cursed the gatekeepers to be expelled from Vaikuntha and to be born on Earth.

Upon witnessing this, Lord Vishnu decided to teach them a lesson and gave them two choices for their redemption. They could either be born seven times as devoted followers of Lord Vishnu or three times as formidable enemies of Lord Vishnu. The gatekeepers were eager to return to Vaikuntha, so they chose the latter option.

The first curse was fulfilled in the Satya Yuga when the gatekeepers were born as Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha. In their lifetimes, they were eventually defeated by two earlier avatars of Lord Vishnu – Hiranyaksha by Varaha, and Hiranyakashipu by Narasimha.

In the second birth, Ravana and his brother Kumbhakarna were born as enemies of Lord Vishnu’s avatar, Lord Rama. They played significant roles in the epic Ramayana of Treta Yuga, and eventually, Ravana was defeated by Lord Rama.

The third curse came to fruition in the Dwapar Yuga when Dantavakra and Shishupala were born as fierce adversaries of Lord Krishna. They were eventually slain by Lord Krishna in various incidents.

Thus, the gatekeepers faced the consequences of their arrogance and insolence but were ultimately redeemed through their births on Earth and their encounters with various avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Penance to Shiva, Brahma, and Boons

Sage Vishrava observed that Ravana, although aggressive and arrogant, was also an exemplary scholar. Guru Vishrava made Ravana proficient in the four Vedas, the holy books, and warcraft techniques. Ravana was also an expert in black magic and Ayurveda.

Ravana was also an excellent Veena player; his flag’s sign had a picture of a Veena on it. Special credit goes to his maternal uncle Sumali for guiding Ravana to retain 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 his weapons, a chariot, and the ability to shapeshift.

It is believed that Ravana chopped off his head 10 times during his intense 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.

The 10-headed king 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 added he wouldn’t be killed by gods, Gandarvas, Kinaars, Apasaras, 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. Ravana usurped Lanka, he was a benevolent and effective ruler and the kingdom 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.

Personal life of Ravana

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 are 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. In a moment of anger, Lord Kubera put a curse on Ravana. He warned Ravana that if he ever tried to force himself on any woman, all of his ten 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.

Ravana used Maricha (golden deer) as the distraction, the appearance of Sage, and fear of curse to kidnap Sita Maa. These cumulative sins were the reasons for his death from the hand of Lord Rama.

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. The epic war is well described in Lanka Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana.

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 at the hands of Lord Ram.

Vibhishana Meet Lord Rama
Vibhishana Meet Lord Rama – Source

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

Pushpaka Vimana

The Chakravarti king of Lanka achieved numerous feats during his reign as the empire. All those blessings from austere penance and Shiva’s blessings in Mount Kailas, he used for the betterment of the Lankesh Kingdom.

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 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 the “Ilangakkara” division to this martial art. It was the last addition to this fighting method.

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.

The demise of Ravana

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.

In Lanka Kanda, 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 Ravana’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 Ravana 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. Ravana 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.

And a quick fact:

In Sri Lanka, some people regard Ravana as the Buddhist King. In the monasteries of Kurgala and Rahalgala, the monks regard him as the creator of the Buddhist foundation in Sri Lanka. If this was true, imagine how would have epic Ramayana took place?