“…Lord Rama was so saintly that people were anxious to live in His kingdom, (Rama-rajya), but Lord Rama never showed any cowardice. Ravana was an aggressor against Rama because he kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita, but Lord Rama gave him sufficient lessons, unparalleled in the history of the world.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 1.36 Purport)
Ravana is one of the more intriguing figures in history, especially for those who live in India. While most people who grow up in the Western world have certainly heard about Lord Jesus Christ, not every person is aware of the details surrounding his birth, life’s activities, or teachings. In India, however, almost every person is acutely aware of the heroic and villainous figures of the Vedic tradition. Amongst all the heroes, probably the most celebrated is Lord Rama, an incarnation of Godhead who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Where there is a hero, naturally there will also be a villain, so this part was played by a Rakshasa named Ravana. The interactions between Rama and Ravana are chronicled in full detail in the famous Ramayana poem penned by Maharishi Valmiki. While most sober people realize that Rama is a divine figure and that Ravana is an enemy of God, there are still many who take to worshiping Ravana instead of Rama.
The first point that must be stressed is that when God comes to earth, He doesn’t just fight with anyone. According to Vedic doctrine, there is only one God for all of humanity, but He takes many different forms, each tailored to attract a certain kind of person. Everyone is the same spiritually, but their bodily makeup can vary. Some are pious, some are mixed in piety and passion, and some live completely in ignorance. God is for everyone, so for this definition to be valid, He must have an attractive feature for every type of person. Therefore the Lord expands Himself into direct copies and sometimes partially direct copies in order to attract the wayward souls. On special occasions, however, the Lord personally comes in an original form, a body which is completely spiritual and existing eternally. This was the case with Lord Rama, considered one of the most prominent avataras of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Godhead and expansion of Lord Krishna.
Aside from giving pleasure to the saintly class, God’s incarnations also serve to annihilate miscreants. On the highest level of understanding, there is no difference between good and bad people. A good person is usually equated with one who takes to acts of piety. Piety is really any activity which leads to a relative or temporary return of one’s consciousness to its original position. Originally, every spirit soul, including one in the body of an animal, plant, or aquatic, is God conscious. This means that their primary thoughts and ideas are focused around God and loving service to Him. In this world, however, that consciousness becomes perverted. Instead of God conscious, we become body conscious, so we take the demands of our senses to be of utmost importance. This consciousness then drives us to different activities. Pious activities are those which bring about a temporary return to the original consciousness; activities that allow us to remember God for a short period of time. The duration of this consciousness eventually expires, thus a return to our former state of body consciousness is inevitable. The same holds true with sinful activities, i.e. they cause a temporary diversion from body consciousness to total ignorance. Eventually one returns to their previous state.
Since there is really no good or bad in a material sense, God doesn’t take any direct interest in the day to day affairs of the material creation. So why do the avataras come to earth then? There are special occasions where certain demoniac elements rise to power. If there is no such thing as bad, how can anyone be a demon? We can think of it in this way: While there is no good or bad, there is hot and cold. The aim of human life is to rekindle one’s God consciousness, an achievement which allows the wayward spirit soul to return to its original constitutional position permanently. Upon assuming this God consciousness, the soul returns to the spiritual world, where it always thinks about, serves, and associates with the Supreme Lord. Therefore all activities conducted in the conditioned state can be thought of as either getting us closer towards the ultimate destination [warmer], or further away [colder]. Under this paradigm, the demons are those people who thwart the activities of those who are trying to get warmer. Krishna, or God, is the ultimate energetic, the source of all heat and light, so those who are trying to get closer and closer to this powerhouse of energy are certainly on the warmer path. These people are known as devotees. The demons, while certainly remaining on the colder path by taking to sinful activity, sink to an even lower level by trying to thwart the activities of the devotees.
God doesn’t stand for this. It is one thing if a person wants to ruin their own lives. That is all well and good, for every living entity is granted a small amount of freedom. This independence manifests through acts of sense gratification and choices as far as which direction to take in life. But the Lord objects when this freedom is misused to infringe on the rights of others, especially as it relates to spiritual life. In this regard, there was one demon in particular many thousands of years ago who had taken to harassing the saintly class of men. At the time, many sages had taken to forest life since it was peaceful and thus conducive towards the practice of austerity and sacrifice. These two practices, austerity and sacrifice, or tapasya and yajna, are two critical components of a potent spiritual discipline. When practiced correctly, these two techniques can deliver quick results in one’s pursuit towards God consciousness.
The sages had no problem living in the forests because even the animals residing there didn’t bother them. A certain race of demons known as Rakshasas didn’t play as nicely. Since every material body is composed of so many varying elements, there are actually 8,400,000 different life forms. The Rakshasas are one of them, and their bodies are mostly made up of the mode of ignorance. Nevertheless, they closely resemble humans, but due to their ignorance, they live almost completely in sin. As mentioned before, this sin only causes a temporary deviation from body consciousness, but due to their demoniac nature, these Rakshasas took to harassing the sages living in the forest. What was the nature of this harassment? The Rakshasas could assume any shape at will. Taking advantage of this ability, they would first approach the sages in a non-threatening form. Then, when the sages had their guard down, the Rakshasas would reassume their original form and attack the innocent saints. Killing the sages wasn’t enough, for the Rakshasas would eat their flesh afterwards. This was all done right at the time of a sacrifice, meaning that they waited until the sages were engaged in the most important part of their duties.
The leader of these Rakshasas was a demon named Ravana. He had set up a beautiful kingdom on the island of Lanka. On the strength of boons given to him by Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, Ravana was invincible against almost anyone in battle except ordinary human beings. Brahma and Shiva are suras, or devotees, so it may seem strange that they would grant Ravana boons. While Krishna, or God, is not required to give anything to anyone, this is not the case with the demigods. As mentioned before, the Lord has no interest in material advancement or regression, so if someone desperately wants to acquire material powers, the Lord doesn’t stand in their way. In order to encourage religious practice, the Lord put in place several heads of state, elevated living entities known as demigods who are in charge of giving rewards to anyone who pleases them properly. In this regard, Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva were bound by duty to give Ravana whatever he wanted, up to the reward of immortality. Lord Brahma himself isn’t immortal, so he surely can’t grant this boon to anyone else.
The Ramayana is quite lengthy, so describing Ravana’s entire life would certainly require pages and pages of discussion and descriptions. Long story short, God appeared on earth as Rama to kill Ravana. Rama was born as a prince belonging to a very famous family of warriors. While residing in the forest of Dandaka, Ravana would come and steal Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, while the Lord was temporarily away from her side. This set the wheels in motion for Ravana’s demise. Eventually Rama would march to Lanka, and aided by an army of monkeys, He would defeat Ravana and his army, killing the demon and rescuing Sita.
This wonderful historical event has been celebrated ever since. For the suras, the event reminds them of God’s triumph over the demons. Ravana was harassing the saints, so God stepped in to save them. For the philosophers and impersonalist mental speculators, the event represented the victory of good over evil. For the non-devotees, however, the event represented the slaying of a great king, a powerful materialist who had to be taken down by Rama for no justifiable reason. One would be surprised to know that Ravana is still worshiped to this day by many in India. Some view him as a great king, while others conjure up crackpot theories such as that Ravana was so powerful that Rama became jealous of him. Then there are others who adore Ravana since he was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. So what do we make of all this?
As mentioned before, when God comes to fight in this world, His adversaries are no ordinary people. From Vedic information, we understand that God’s enemies all receive the salvation of merging into His transcendental body. This type of mukti, or liberation, is considered inferior to the liberation of associating with God in His eternal body. Nevertheless, it is still a type of liberation, or an end to the repeated cycle of birth and death. God grants this liberation because these demons think of the Lord at the time of death. One’s consciousness while quitting their body determines the type of body they will receive in the next life. Ravana was thinking of Rama, or God, at the time of death, so naturally He was able to merge into the Lord’s body.
From the Uttara-kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and also from the Ramacharitamanasa of Tulsidas, we see that Ravana wasn’t actually so evil. Since the events of the Ramayana occur over and over again in each creation, sometimes the events unfold in different ways, though the general sequence remains the same. In some kalpas [creations], Ravana is a great king in his previous life, a pious soul who gets tricked by a former adversary into feeding flesh to brahmanas. The brahmanas then curse the king to take birth as a hideous Rakshasa in his next life. In another kalpa, we see that Ravana one day approaches the great sage Sanatkumara and asks him what happens to people who die while fighting human beings and demigods. The sage answers that the fighter would go to heaven for a period of time, and then return back to earth. Ravana then asks what would happen to those who die while fighting Vishnu. The sage answers that the fighter would attain Vishnu’s nature. Upon learning of this, Ravana decides to take away Sita in order to be killed by Vishnu in battle.
In the Ramacharitamanasa, we see that Ravana eagerly awaited defeat from Rama, though outwardly he continued to play the part of the demon to perfection. This is an interesting point that shouldn’t be overlooked. Every single living entity is part and parcel of God, so at their core, they are perfect beings. They are gold that is currently covered up by material elements. Even the most vile person, be they a killer, a thief, a rapist, etc., is part and parcel of God and a devotee at heart. So does this mean that we should worship everyone? While everyone may be a devotee originally, they can’t be considered pure until they exhibit the proper qualities. When we criticize Ravana for his actions, we aren’t saying that he isn’t a devotee. Rather, we know that he only played the role of God’s enemy in order to teach future generations a lesson. So when we criticize him, we are finding fault with his activities and reminding people of what happens when one takes to the path of the demons.
As far as Ravana’s devotion to Lord Shiva goes, it should be noted that this devotion was not offered out of any type of love. Ravana first tried to battle Lord Shiva, and only after being soundly defeated did he take to worshiping him. In fact, this was how all of Ravana’s friendships were formed. There was a great monkey king by the name of Vali who Ravana tried to once fight. At the time of their meeting, Vali was on a beach involved in meditation. Instead of waiting for him to finish his meditation, Ravana decided to do a sneak attack from behind. Vali of course could sense the demon coming, so he waited until the opportune moment and then put Ravana in a headlock. Vali was extremely powerful, so Ravana was unable to free himself from the monkey’s grip. Vali then paraded Ravana in the sky for all to see. After being defeated in this way, Ravana decided to forge a friendship with Vali, with their alliance ratified in the presence of fire.
The lesson here is that there is no need to imitate Ravana’s activities or even to worship him. Demons and other materialists may acquire great powers, but there is no need to be enamored by this. Though fictional villains such as Darth Vader and the Joker are adored and loved by many, imitating their nefarious behavior certainly isn’t recommended. While we are thankful to Ravana for acting as a sparring partner for Lord Rama, our devotional efforts should be directed at the Supreme Lord. He is the only person who can grant us the highest type of liberation, a permanent return to our original constitutional position. One who thinks of God in a loving way at the time of death ultimately attains the Lord’s nature of bliss and knowledge. This nature is acquired not through merging into the Lord’s body, but rather through constant association with God and His devotees in the spiritual world. Krishna is the only deva for all of mankind, for even Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma worship Him on a daily basis.