Ravana is the primary villain in the Indian epic The Ramayana. He is described colorfully as a “ten-headed, twenty armed demon god-king” who rules on the island of Lanka. Ravana gained his immortality against gods and demons by praying to Lord Shiva for ten thousand years. Unfortunately (for him, at least), he forgot to ask immunity against “men and monkeys”, presumably because he felt no fear of these creatures.
Once he received his immortality from Shiva, Ravana proceeded to try and subjugate all of the gods and the earth to his will, making slaves and servants of the gods. He also used his great powers to prevent the gods and holy men from performing sacred rituals. Of course, this did not sit well with the gods, but he had been granted that immunity to gods and demons, so they were not sure how to defeat him.
It was then that Vishnu, the protector of the universe, decided that Ravana must be stopped at all costs. Therefore, he decided to be reborn as a human, and from there, to defeat Ravana on his own. He was born to one of the three wives of the King Dasaratha, and was the king’s favorite son. The son was named Rama, and was chosen at an early age to succeed King Dasaratha on the throne.
The king’s youngest wife, Kaikeyi, reminding the king of a long ago promise to grant her two boons for saving his life, forced him to place her son on the throne instead, and to banish Rama from the kingdom for no less than fourteen years. The king, being a man of his word, had no choice but to consent.
Now, Ravana also boasted a great charm and passion, therefore many women gathered around him. Of course, the only wife he would choose was already married to the exiled king of Kosala, Rama. Sita was her name, and she was reputed to be the most beautiful and most perfect of wives.
Ravana vows to make Sita his own, and in the process, to destroy Rama once and for all. He sneaks into the woods, and projects the image of a perfect deer, which Rama decides to capture for Sita. While he is hunting, he commands his half-brother to remain with her, and not to leave her side.
While he is hunting the deer, Rama hears his own voice call to his brother, “Help me! Come and rescue me!” Sita commands her brother-in-law to go and save her husband. When he reminds her that he is not to leave her side, she begs and cries that he must help his brother, or that she will kill herself. So, reluctantly, he draws a magical circle around their campsite, instructs her to not move beyond the circle for any reason, and charges into the forest after Rama.
Sita, being the typical woman (sorry, digression), does not particularly heed his advice. When a beggar man come to her, asking for food, she reminds herself of her duty to feed the poor. She offers the man fruit, but he tells her, “I am a sanyasi. I cannot enter your home. To accept your gracious offering you must come outside.” So, of course, she does.
As soon as she steps beyond the protection of the circle, the man blurs into the shape of Ravana, grabs her up, and carries her off in his magic chariot. They face some opposition from minor deities and magical birds on the way, but eventually, he brings her back to his castle, and informs her that she now belongs to him. He asks her to remain there, as his Queen. She refuses to submit to him, even when he shows her Rama's gold ring, which is supposed to signify to her that Rama is dead, or that he no longer wants her. She continues to hold to the hope that Rama will rescue her, and remains faithful to him, despite Ravana’s charms.
In the meantime, Rama has amassed an army, along with another exiled king. The army is made up of men and monkies. They try subterfuge, spying, and even trickery to get Ravana to give up Sita, but all to no avail. Ravana shows Sita the severed head of Rama, (which he conjured out of air) and informed her that she was now a widow. She prayed for the soul of her lost husband, but still refused to submit to Ravana.
During this time, Rama’s armies were decimated, and he, himself, apparently mortally wounded by a shower of poisoned arrows from Ravana’s defending army. A wise man informed Rama that there was an herb in the mountains that could restore his poisoned men, if only someone were to gather it. A soldier was sent to fetch the herb, and in due time, all of the men were restored. However, Rama felt weary in his limbs, and his spirit was all but crushed with the defeat he was facing.
Then the sage told Rama, “Listen carefully to this secret. It is the heart of the sun that will bring you victory and the auspiciousness to destroy Ravana. Worship the sun, O Rama. He alone protects all beings. Pray to him."
Rama knelt and prayed to the sun. Then the sage said, "Rama, you will this very moment conquer Ravana."
After looking at the sun, Rama felt his strength return. His heart was filled with joy. Ravana attacked again. Both armies stood by and watched.
Rama reached for his most powerful weapon, the Brahma-missile, to be used only when all else had failed. When he lifted it, the earth shook, and the warriors fell down and hid their faces. Rama aimed the weapon at Ravana, who was running forward to attack Rama with his hands and teeth.
Rama fired the missile, which struck Ravana in the chest and exploded. Ravana fell dead at Rama’s feet.
This is the story of the beginnings of Ravana’s life, and his death. There are other tales of him, but as with all mythical creatures, stories abound and none can be confirmed or denied. A folk song that accompanies the Ramayana in South India sings of the death of Ravana this way:
Sita looked at Ravana
Rama had picked up hill bow,
But Sita took the bow from Rama,
She hid behind Rama and shot the arrow.
Like a mountain falling, so Ravana fell.
Like a pumpkin falling, so Ravana fell.
So, you see, even in this most important fact, we are not sure what happened. Could Sita, not Rama, have obliterated Ravana? The only way to know, is to wait and ask Vishnu yourself.
If you can.
Spotlight on the Ramayana Project: http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/maxpages/special/ramayana/Spot01.htm
The Ramayana, R.K. Narayan, c. 1972
For Rischi, who is happy, and loves India.