Ravana: The multi-faceted ‘antagonist’

Ravana is regarded as the king of Lanka and the primary antagonist in the Hindu epic poem-Ramayana. In the classic text, Ravana kidnaps Rama’s wife Sita, to claim vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister Surpanakha. His character however has been much debated and thus open to varied interpretations. This is therefore an enquiry into understanding or deciphering the actual character of Ravana who is often pitted as the principle antagonist in the epic poem Ramayana. By introducing the Tetralemma or what is commonly known as Catuskoti (four corners) which was propounded by Nagarjuna into the fray, I hope to use this principle in enabling my investigation in understanding Ravana, whether it is fair and just to characterise him as a villain or fair to acknowledge his actions and see reason in them, thus possibly see him as the ‘fallen hero’ or the whether his character is that which is indistinguishable, in other words, opaque or the ‘middle’ idea.

The ‘Four Extremes or Corners’ is a particular application of the Catuskoti: Being, Non-being, Both being and non-being and Neither being and non-being. Nagarjuna disproves all conceivable statements, which can be reduced to these four:

All things (dharmas) exist: affirmation of being, negation of nonbeing
All things (dharmas) do not exist: affirmation of nonbeing, negation of being
All things (dharmas) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation
All things (dharmas) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation.

With the aid of these four alternatives (catuṣkoṭika: affirmation, negation, double affirmation, double negation), Nagarjuna rejects all firm standpoints and traces a middle path between being and nonbeing.

Moving onto the investigation, I decided to gather various perspectives on the character of Ravana and I realised that there is no one or correct answer to understand the character of Ravana. The common belief is that Ravana was that he was primarily an evil being and that his actions were in fact unpardonable. In the Bhagavata Purana, Ravana and his brother, Kumbhakarna were said to be reincarnations of Jaya and Vijaya, gatekeepers at Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu and were cursed to be born in Earth for their insolence. Accusations of disrespecting women and perhaps even attempting to rape Sita when she was in captivity have often come his way. Moreover, to common folk-lore he was a demonic dictator imposing his rule over his kingdom- Lanka. Others however disagree with this common conception. For example, Ancient Sinhala works like Rajavaliya and Ravanavaliya identify Ravana as a Sinhala king and extol him as a great one. In Sri Lanka today, there has been a movement to revive Ravana as a cult figure, who represents Sinhala or Sri Lankan nationalism because he was among the first to have resisted an alien i.e., Indian invader. The Hela Movement which was started by the Late Mundisa Kumaratunga has been urging the Sinhalese to go back to their roots shunning Indian, common understanding of the Hindu epic i.e., Ravana being the antagonist and other ‘alien’ influences. Sri Lankans believe Ravana’s ten heads represent the ten crowns he wore as a result of his being the sovereign of ten countries. Arisen Ahubudhu, a Sri Lankan scholar trashes the Ramayana story that Rama invaded Sri Lanka because Ravana had kidnapped Sita. According to the author, Ravana’s step brother Vibhishana had invited Rama to invade Sri Lanka because he was wanted to oust Ravana from the kingship of the island. Ahubudhu reportedly said that Sita’s sanctity and the need for its proof was as a result of a story concocted by Vibhishana in order to discredit Ravana. “While Ravana was aggressive and arrogant, he was also an extraordinary scholar. Under his father’s tutelage, he mastered the Vedas, the holy books and also the ways of kshatriyas (warriors). He is even credited with writing a commentary on the Vedas and verses on medicine. An excellent veena player, he was also a great devotee of Shiva and composed the Ravanastuti. But Sumali, his maternal grandfather and Asura king, worked hard in secret to ensure that he inherited a demonic character. After all, no one is born good or bad. One can’t blame Ravana completely for all the wrongdoing he is accused of,” says Satkari Mukhophadhyay, noted Sanskrit scholar, Ramayana expert and consultant with the National Mission of Manuscripts at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Mukhopadhyay also expressed that, “Ravana’s abduction of Sita was not unprovoked. Only after his sister Surpanakha was humiliated and her nose was cut by Lakshmana did Ravana take the extreme step of abducting Sita to teach Rama and Lakshmana a lesson. Contrary to popular belief, however, Ravana never touched Sita during her captivity, which goes to show that he respected her.”

Applying the principle of Catuskoti and from the multi-perspectives on the character of Ravana that people have shed light one, I will now investigate whether it is logically sound to call Ravana an antagonist. Unlike Nagarjuna, who dismisses all four propositions and chooses the middle ground, I will see if any particular statement seems befitting in a logical sense, after which I will rest my case. Therefore, the four propositions are as follows:
a. Ravana was an evil being.
b. Ravana was not an evil being i.e., virtuous being.
c. Ravana was both an evil and a virtuous being.
d. Ravana was neither an evil nor a virtuous being.

From the above mentioned perspectives, I can clearly rule out the first two propositions. The last proposition too seems to be disprovable, because Ravana was not entirely evil nor was entirely virtuous; qualities that cannot be put passed him. The third proposition however seems to be hitting ground. It seems to be in sync with most of the perspectives that people have put on the table and seems to be the best possible outcome. Having said that, one could even negate all four propositions and resort to a middle path, a path similar to what Nagarjuna advocated. It cannot be said for certain whether Ravana’s character is an absolute i.e., by being both virtuous and evil in nature, it does not prove the absoluteness of his character because his character is entirely based on hear-say events. Moreover, on account of having different perspectives, the problems of subjectivity and relativity arise, throwing away the idea of his absoluteness or objectiveness or universality. Thus, one is led to believe that his characterisation is a phenomenal in nature. This concept is quite similar to Nagarjuna’s two truths- the phenomenal and the absolute truths. The middle path therefore is, Ravana not having a character at all. Ravana’s existence therefore in the absolute sense is questionable, in this case, null and void. Who knows, maybe that could be a possibility? We do after all live in a phenomenal world.

– Namrata Kumar 

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