Story of Ravan
Most people think when the hear the word Ravana, the terrible Asura who slaughtered thousands of innocent beings and usurped his righteous brother Kubera’s throne. While it is true that he was an Asura who did commit various acts of injustice, he is still seen as an Aryan by Hanuman when he visits Lanka in the Sundarakhanda of Valmiki Ramayana. An Arya is a being of great nobility, it was a title reserved for great kings and mighty sages. Then does he, Ravana deserve this title?
Who was he?
Son of Vaishrava, the grandson of Pulastaya Rishi and princess Kaikesi. Pulastaya was the son of Brahma, and thus he (Raavana) is considered Brahmin. The central antagonist in the Hindu epic Ramayana, he was the great demon king of Sri Lanka. He was called a dashagriva. A dashagriva is one who has 10 heads. He is described to have 10 heads and 20 arms, and when running into the battle he would terrify even ghosts and demons, as such he became known as the demon king of Lanka. Despite his horrific appearance, Ravana had a peaceful form, which was that of a scholar who had learned and mastered the four Vedas and devout follower of Lord Shiva. Legend has it, that because he was such a devout Shaivite (follower of Lord Shiva), the lord gave him divine weapons. He was thus indestructible to the Devas. He was considered a maestro of the Veena, an ancient India musical instrument who contested the great Rishi Agastya on the Veena.
Tapas to Brahma
Inspired by his demonic maternal uncles and mother (who was a daitya, a clan of demons) he began to perform ascetic penances to please his grandfather who was known as the creator of man. Through rigorous Tapas, Brahma, the creator god was much pleased and asked what he desired. Ravana instantly requested immortality, to which Brahma refused, as all beings have an ultimate end, including him. However, Brahma pleased with his great grandsons penances made him near invincible to almost any weapon and gave him Amritham (the nectar of immortality) to wear around his waist. Which can only be defeated by a weapon forged by brahma himself the legendary brahmaastra.
Having obtained the celestial boons, Raavana defeated his older half brother in battle and took Lanka built by the celestial architect Visvakarman. Having obtained a massive kingdom, he became an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He performed many austerities to please him. However, he did not get the attention he sought. Having failed at pleasing Shiva, Ravana decided to end his life, and cut of his only head. When Lord Shiva graced him with his divine presence and bestowed upon him 10 heads and 20 arms for the one he lost. Thus making Raavana practically invincible.
The mighty Shiv Bhakt
Every morning Ravana would worship Shiva with ardent devotion. It is said that when made a Shiva Lingam out of sand it would stay put for the entire worship. Ravana’s bhakti to Shiva grew greater and greater to point where Raavana was maddened by his bhakti to the Lord. This ultimately made him near invincible, as Shiva was the God of War and Death, Raavana became the unquestionable emperor of the three worlds. Unfortunately, often with great power comes great pride. As expected, the demon king grew tremendously proud but his pride was often checked by even more devout and sincere beings such as Valli the Monkey king of Kishkinda or Kartaveerya Arjuna. Even the Shiva Tandava Stotram written by Ravana.
The Wisdom of Ravan
Ravan abducted Ram’s wife, a crime for which he was killed by Ram himself. So says the Ramayan. The epic makes Ravan the archetypical villain. And since Ram is God for most Hindus, Ravan’s actions make him the Devil incarnate. This justifies the annual burning of his effigy on the Gangetic plains during the festival of Dushera.
But on the hills of Rishikesh or in the temple of Rameshwaram, one hears the tale of how Ram atoned for the sin of killing Ravan. Why should God atone for killing a villain? One realizes that, like most things Hindu, the Ramayan is not as simplistic and pedestrian an epic as some are eager to believe.
Ravan was a Brahmin, the son of Rishi Vaishrava, grandson of Pulatsya. Ram, though God incarnate, was born in a family of Kshatriyas. In the caste hierarchy, Ram was of lower rank. As a Brahmin, Ravan was custodian of Brahma-gyan (the knowledge of God). Killing him meant Brahma-hatya-paap, the sin of Brahminicide, that Ram had to wash away through penance and prayer. Another reason why this atonement was important was because Ravan was Ram’s guru.
The story goes that after firing the fatal arrow on the battlefield of Lanka, Ram told his brother, Lakshman, Go to Ravan quickly before he dies and request him to share whatever knowledge he can. A brute he may be, but he is also a great scholar. The obedient Lakshman rushed across the battlefield to Ravan’s side and whispered in his ears, Demon-king, do not let your knowledge die with you. Share it with us and wash away your sins.Ravan responded by simply turning away. An angry Lakshman went back to Ram, He is as arrogant as he always was, too proud to share anything. Ram comforted his brother and asked him softly, Where did you stand while asking Ravan for knowledge?Next to his head so that I hear what he had to say clearly.Ram smiled, placed his bow on the ground and walked to where Ravan lay. Lakshman watched in astonishment as his divine brother knelt at Ravan’s feet. With palms joined, with extreme humility, Ram said, Lord of Lanka, you abducted my wife, a terrible crime for which I have been forced to punish you. Now, you are no more my enemy. I bow to you and request you to share your wisdom with me. Please do that for if you die without doing so, all your wisdom will be lost forever to the world. To Lakshman’s surprise, Ravan opened his eyes and raised his arms to salute Ram, If only I had more time as your teacher than as your enemy. Standing at my feet as a student should, unlike your rude younger brother, you are a worthy recipient of my knowledge. I have very little time so I cannot share much but let me tell you one important lesson I have learnt in my life. Things that are bad for you seduce you easily; you run towards them impatiently. But things that are actually good for you, fail to attract you; you shun them creatively, finding powerful excuses to justify your procrastination. That is why I was impatient to abduct Sita but avoided meeting you. This is the wisdom of my life, Ram. My last words. I give it to you. With these words, Ravan died.
Raavana’s thirst for knowledge, his desire to please Shiva and his austerities earned him the various yogic abilities. As he was an ardent devotee of the Lord his wisdom grew. He is worshipped as a god amongst many cults and is considered the master of astrology, ayurveda and saama veda. However, with unquestionable power comes absolute corruption. It was Raavanas lust and pride that destroyed him and his beautiful city. He gave into such a menial desire on the becoming of his sister and ultimately dug his own grave.