Indian mythology is quite fair, so to speak - as in, it doesn't delineate good from bad so starkly, as it is made to believe. The most righteous of beings, like Guru Dronacharya, Sri Krishna, Arjun or Lord Rama, are demonstrated to commit sins or taking biased decisions. While on the other hand, characters pictured as disgraceful throughout the course of their lives, are written as dying with honor. Just like Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, even our scriptures have emphasized that good and bad lie within us.
This Dussehra, as the whole of India gathers to burn effigies of Ravana, it might do us an ounce of good, if we introspect exactly what kind of a man was Ravana, and burn not the man himself, but the evil qualities that took the better of him.
"The heroism of the hero is directly proportional to the greatness of the villain." In that sense, it is fair to say that Ravana was no ordinary villain. In fact, it is wrong to categorically certify him a villain. In Hindusim and its epic stories, the protagonists and antagonists have never been unidimensional. They have multiple shades to their personality. Periyar, the Tamil political leader of the 20th century, called him the ultimate Dravidian hero. Here are 5 things we can learn from this utterly misunderstood character in the Ramayana:
Ravana performed an intense penance (or tapasya) to appease Shiva, lasting several years. During his penance, Ravana chopped off his head 10 times as a sacrifice made in the name of Shiva. Each time he sliced his head off, a new head arose, thus enabling him to continue his penance. At last, Shiva, pleased with his austerity, appeared after his 10th decapitation and offered him a boon. Ravana asked for immortality, which Shiva refused to give, but gave him the celestial nectar of immortality. Ravana also asked for absolute supremacy over gods, heavenly spirits, other rakshas, serpents, and wild beasts. Contemptuous of mortal men, he did not ask for protection from these. Shiva granted him these boons in addition to his 10 severed heads and great strength by way of knowledge of divine weapons and magic. Faith, it seems, can move mountains!
Ravana belonged to an august lineage, having been born as the grandson of Brahma, the creator of the universe, and the son of the sage Vishrava and younger brother of Kubera, the deity of wealth. Ravana was a scholar and connoisseur of arts. Ravana possessed a thorough knowledge of Ayurveda and political science. His ten heads represent that his knowledge of the six Shastras and the four Vedas. "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 also composed the Ravanstuti," said Satkari Mukhophadhyay, noted Sanskrit scholar, Ramayana expert and consultant with the National Mission of Manuscripts at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Thus, even Ravana's life story tells us that knowledge can win you praise, even from your staunchest enemies.
Ram once addressed Ravana as a "Maha Brahman". Ravana was a villain, but that notwithstanding, he was a man of honour. In Kampan's version of Ramayana, Ravana was praised for his talent, knowledge, and strength. In the words of Kampan himself, "Ravana had been an invincible hero in many a battle." Ravana was also the only Brahman in the whole wide world who had the strength to lift Shiva's Mt. Kailash on his shoulders - a power bestowed to him by Shiva himself.
In another tale that shows Ravana's myriad personality, Rama was wanting to please the Gods with a Yagna before going to battle with Ravana, so as they may bless him for the war. As an elder was needed to bless the proceedings, he asked one of the Vanaras to request Ravana himself. Ravana agreed and, ironically, blessed the offerings of his enemy-knowing full well the ramifications of this pooja. This shows a more magnanimous side of the character whom all Hindus love to hate.
The beauty of Hinduism, to me, is that it presents its characters in shades of black and white. Thus, honoring the true spirit of this religion, we must uphold the belief that no one can be typified as 'good' or 'bad'. All people are a complex mechanism of emotions and characteristics, and it is best to see the good in everyone, and ignore the negatives.
Ravana was a very efficient and just ruler, acknowledged even in Valmiki's Ramayana. In his rule, Lanka was called Sone ki Lanka, and entered the golden and most prosperous period in its history. He assumed leadership over the army of demon king Sumali and established a golden rule over Lanka. According to Hindu mythology, Lanka was built by Vishwakarma, the best of all architects. Ravana was also a caring ruler, who looked after his subjects well.
An insatiable, all-consuming ego turned out to be Ravana's Achilles'Heel that negated all his otherwise divine qualities. In this respect, he is, and will forever, serve as a lesson to illustrate that even though one is well endowed with good qualities, a single frailty in character is enough to drag you to your end.