Ramayana, the Ambiguity of ‘Evil’
- Rama’s ‘Evil’ Stepmother?
- Rama & Sita behave uncharacteristically?
- Ravana’s unsuccessful attempt to rid himself of desire
- Ravana’s uncontrollable desire for Sita?
The influence of the Ramayana on the peoples and cultures of India and Southeast Asia cannot be overestimated. This classic story reveals some significant undercurrents of Hindu mythology. In Rama & Sita, Soulmates, we explored the transformative power of romantic love. This article focuses upon another significant theme that comes up here and also in the Mahabharata, a companion novel of equal importance — the ambiguity of evil.
The novel can be read on many levels. On the most shallow level it is possible to label certain characters as evil because of the role they play. Ravana, the demon, and Rama’s stepmother are the foremost villains.
Ravana’s ‘evil’ desires led him to abduct Sita, Rama’s soulmate, which resulted in his inevitable doom. Rama’s ‘evil’ stepmother had him exiled into the forest so that her son could become king in his stead. However, in the Ramayana, things are not always as they seem. Indeed appearances in everyday life can also be deceiving. What seems good can be bad; and vice versa. By incorporating ambiguity and paradox in its tale, the Ramayana further expanded its appeal.
Read on to explode misconceptions.
Rama’s ‘Evil’ Stepmother?
Early on in the sacred novel, Rama’s presumably ‘evil stepmother’ has him banished to the forest and then manipulates events so that her own son becomes king in his place. On the surface, this is a blatant power grab that is seen frequently throughout history and in fables. Only concerned with furthering her self-interests, even at the expense of the kingdom, the evil queen places her son on the throne. She might even take extreme measures at times, such as having the rightful heir murdered or imprisoned.
This was probably how the bulk of the population viewed the actions of the queen in the Ramayana. Even her own son refused to become king because of the devious motives that the populace would impute to him. He assumed, rightfully so, that the people would think that he and his mother were involved in a scheme to wrongfully replace Rama as king.
However, things are rarely how they seem on the surface. Rather than objecting to his half-mother’s unreasonable request, Rama embraced it almost joyously. Why? On the immediate level, he was being a dutiful son and obeying his mother. Although she was not his genetic mother, she helped to raise him. Rama consistently calls her his mother, even though others, including her own son, refer to her as a scheming snake.
Another indication that things are not what they seem occurs during his forest exile. After slaying some demons of the forest, Rama exclaims, “Ah!! This is why I am here on this planet.” In other words, he realizes the central purpose at this time in his life was to slay demons, rather than rule the kingdom.
An even more explicit incident occurs when his brother, the new king, comes to beg Rama to return and become the rightful ruler. The two brothers have an involved discussion, almost a comedy routine. Rama’s brother, the current king, abdicates and commands Rama to become king. Rama responds in a like fashion to this command, requesting that his brother remain king.
With no resolution in sight, the gods becomes frustrated. They appear and tell Rama’s brother to remain king. When he objects, they reveal that Rama’s entry into the forest is part of their divine plan. If Rama stayed to rule the kingdom, it would interfere with their well-laid schemes for an ultimate confrontation with Ravana.
In other words, the queen’s seemingly evil actions are necessary for Rama to fulfill his destiny. Rama’s father, the king, was hasty when he made Rama the king. Perhaps his father’s motive for abdication was a premature effort to bind Rama to the kingdom. In actuality, Rama’s Dharma required that he first destroy the demons that ruled this world.
Rama & Sita behave uncharacteristically?
Another incident that challenges our expectations occurred while Rama is in the forest. A Demoness falls in love with Rama, attempts to steal Sita, is mutilated, and goes to her brother Ravana, the demon king, for revenge. She describes Sita so well that Ravana falls in love with the description.
To capture Sita, Ravana sends his brother disguised as a golden deer. Rama’s brother continually warns both Rama and Sita that this could be a trap. Both act uncharacteristically, as if in a trance. Sita craves the deer as a pet and Rama slavishly attempts to retrieve it for her. This scheme eventually enables Ravana to trap Sita and bring her back to his kingdom.
Stated another way, Rama and Sita were meant to make these mistakes. It would be easy for either to think, “What was I thinking? What came over me? Why did I want that deer so much?” “Why didn’t I heed my brother’s warnings? Why was I so obsessed with satisfying Sita’s unreasonable desires?”
However, if they had not made this ‘error’ in judgment, Rama would never have engaged Ravana in battle. He had no reason to attack the demon kingdom. Ravana had never attacked Rama’s kingdom. In fact, due to his counselor’s advice, Ravana regularly steered clear of Rama, as a fearsome demon-slayer. Because of Rama’s ‘mistake in judgment’ regarding Sita’s obsession for the golden deer, he was driven to fulfill his personal Dharma.
The point of these plot elements is that sometimes seemingly negative events are necessary obstacles. They can move us to accomplish our destiny. Sometimes, we also make ‘mistakes’ that keep us on the path. Further, sometimes our greatest enemies are placed there to challenge us to surpass ourselves. In all cases, the conclusion is the same. Don’t be too hasty to judge circumstances, personal behavior or apparent enemies. Each could be part of the divine plan.
Ravana’s unsuccessful attempt to rid himself of desire
We’ve seen that Rama’s stepmother was not really ‘evil’. Instead her seemingly selfish actions were a necessary step driving Rama’s Dharma. Could Ravana’s motives also contain a hidden meaning?
Ravana certainly seemed to embody evil. Due to corrupted bodily desires, i.e. lust, he committed a decidedly immoral act — he abducted Rama’s wife. But, let’s look a little deeper at Ravana’s exceedingly complex character.
Ravana was not always a slave to his desires. In fact, before he became the Demon King, he made a concentrated and excruciating effort to rid himself of his corrupted desires. Indeed his origins provide an example of how sometimes it is necessary to fulfill one’s desires, even if they are questionable.
Originally Ravana was so jealous of the God of Prosperity that he went into a deep meditation to quench his desire. After one thousand years, he cut off one of his 10 heads, presumably because his craving for wealth and power remained unabated. This same process went on for another 8000 years. After each millennium, he cut off another of his heads. Still tortured, he entered into another meditation for 1000 years.
By now, Ravana had only one head left. Despite his deep meditation for millennia, his desire for wealth and power still tormented him. As he was about to cut off his last head, Brahma appeared to him. Impressed by the intensity of his commitment, Brahma granted him a wish. Ravana asked for power and wealth to satisfy his persistent, insatiable desires. To this end, Brahma gave the God of Prosperity’s kingdom to Ravana. Brahman also granted Ravana power over the gods. This is the setting at the beginning of the Ramayana.
In other words, despite 10,000 years of meditation, Ravana was still attached to his desire for wealth and power. Brahma prevents Ravana’s suicide by fulfilling his desires, even though this will lead to great turbulence. The underlying message is that, for better or worse, there are times that it is impossible to ignore our desires. At this point our only choice may be to damn the consequences — full speed ahead.
Let’s see where Ravana’s intense and unquenchable passion led him.
Ravana’s uncontrollable desire for Sita?
Upon simply hearing about Sita from his sister, Ravana lost control of his mind. Even though she was obviously Rama’s wife, Ravana’s desire for Sita overwhelmed his every thought. The motivation driving the plot on this level of the story is clearly Ravana’s unbridled passion.
Following his passions, he consistently ignored good advice from family and friends. For instance when Ravana began scheming to steal Sita away, his advisors issued dire warnings. And again when war was imminent, one of his brothers counseled him to return Sita to Rama in order to avoid the impending conflagration. As the demons were engaged in battle against Rama’s armies, another of Ravana’s brothers as well as his own son gave him the same advice. Despite this counsel from family and friends, Ravana consistently ignored their advice. This reading of the story suggests that Ravana’s desire for Sita led him to his doom.
Did his desires actually lead to him astray? Ravana’s behavior prior to his final battle suggests that his motivations are more complex than they may first appear.
With his army routed and defeat imminent, Ravana finally engaged Rama in battle. Just before their fateful competition, he wrote some words on a stone tablet. He then told his trusted advisor to give the tablet to Rama, once Ravana had met his demise. Although Ravana’s martial prowess was prodigious, Rama, presumably because Dharma was on his side, inevitably slew the Demon King.
After the epic battle, Ravana’s advisor gave Rama the message, which suggested that Ravana had arrived at a very different understanding of the unfolding of Dharma. The first sentence on the tablet accurately identified Rama as Vishnu’s incarnation. Evidently Ravana had come to know Rama’s true identity. Further he also recognized Sita, as the incarnation of Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi.
He then made a poignant statement to Vishnu:
“Except dying by your hand, how else could I make you take me into your own Self? I was only a Rakshasa [a demon] and you were very hard to approach. … How was I careless? I was nowhere careless! Best of men, there are many kinds of Love, and I never hurt her. I kept Lakshmi [Sita] to lure you here. I offered you my life and you accepted it.” (Buck’s Ramayana, pp. 350–1)
While at one level Ravana was motivated to abduct Sita out of pure lust, on another level, Sita was the bait that he used to draw Rama/Vishnu to him. Perhaps his initial passion evolved into a deeper understanding of the motivation that drove him toward union with Vishnu. Evidently, dying in a battle with Rama served this ultimate purpose.
Ravana concludes his brief message by pointing out that Vishnu incorporates both the good and the bad.
“You [Vishnu] are Rama and Sita born out of Earth and Ravana the Demon King; you are Hanuman like the wind; you are Lakshmana [Rama’s brother] like a mirror, you are Indrajit and Indra, you are the Poet and the Players and the Play. And born as a man you forget this, you lose the memory, and take on man’s ignorance again, as you will, every time.” (Buck’s Ramayana, pp. 350–1)
In other words, the plotline of the Ramayana operates on many levels of meaning. The motivations that drive human action are not necessarily as simple as they may seem. Motives can be infused with divine purpose that can only be understood by knowing the whole story. This classic Hindu tale reminds us that an aspect of our human plight is that we are most often ignorant of the overall design. It is very possible that even an apparent enemy may have a truly positive role to play in our lives as well as in the Life of this world. This uplifting perspective regarding the unfolding of Dharma surely contributes to the enduring popularity of the Ramayana.