“If the Lord himself has incarnated to gladden the hearts of the gods and relieve the earth of her burdens, then must I, with stubbornness, go and fight with him that I may cross the ocean of mundane existence by falling to his arrows. It is not possible to adore and worship the Lord in this tamasik form.”   ( Ravana, in Ramacharitamanasa)

Why is Ravana, the ‘inglorious’ foil to Rama so resolute to heap upon himself such ignominy that would forever become synonymous with his name? 

We, in popular culture, know of Ravana and his brother, Kumbhakarna, as rakshasas—cruel, covetous, wrathful and lustful. But what if this is only a part-picture; effects of a cause that lies hidden in an unseen past? 

Ravana is said to have been a poet of considerable merit. The famous Shivatandava Stotra is attributed to him along with several Sanskrit works such as Arkaprakash, Kumar Tantra, Indrajaal, Prakritakamadhenu, Prakritalankeshwar and Rigveda Bhashya. Interestingly, he also has a compelling backstory that explains his inimical equation with Rama.  In a lecture on Avataras in 1899, British activist and theosophist Dr Annie Besant asks, ‘[Ravana was the] keeper of Vishnu’s heaven, doorkeeper of the mighty Lord… bhakta, absolutely devoted to the Lord… How did he then come to be… the enemy of God…?’

This is explained in ancient texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and Ramacharitamanasa tell us of a series of curses that deliver two colossal characters (Ravana and Kumbhakarna) to our mythology. The one well-recounted is of Jaya and Vijaya, twin parshadas (attendants) who fall from Vaikuntha. On a day, Brahma’s mind-born sons—Sanaka and others—visit Vishnu. They look like little boys but are, in reality, old and spiritually advanced. Unable to discern their true forms, Jaya and Vijaya refuse them passage. While they forcefully enter Vishnu’s abode, the angry sages curse Jaya and Vijaya that they will fall from Vaikuntha into the lower worlds of materiality. ‘The worst punishment, according to the Vedas is coming back to earth,’ Swami Vivekananda has said.

The omniscient Vishnu bows to the curse of Sanaka and the sages, and reveals to his bhaktas the curse behind the curse: the two had been earlier cursed by Lakshmi when they prevented her from seeing the Lord. In another version, Balarama Das, in the Odia Dandi Ramayana, mentions Chanda and Prachanda – doorkeepers of Narayana – as having been cursed by Lakshmi when they refused her entry to the Lord. Reassuring them that they would join with him at the end of their sentence, Narayana suggests they go through the period of punishment as great rakshasas Jaya-Vijaya – conquerors of earth. And the goddess – who allowed her anger to get the better of her- could take birth as Sita.

In the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu explains to Jaya-Vijaya that their salvation lay in taking their earthly journey, full of loathing for him, so they could be delivered from the sages’ curse and return to him. 

Often, a curse comes with an antidote. This came with a choice: Jaya and Vijaya could choose seven incarnations as the devotees of Vishnu or three, in which they would be his bitterest enemies. Because the two were true bhaktas, they chose the latter. If returning to their Lord’s feet at the earliest meant being vilified forever on earth, so be it. ‘Better a short time of utter enmity than a longer remaining away with apparent happiness. It was love, not hatred, which made him choose the form of rakshasa rather than of a rishi,’ explained Besant.  

The two, then, were born first as daityas—Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu. Vishnu incarnated as Varaha and Narasimha, respectively, to kill the two. Next, they came as Ravana and Kumbhakarna, spearheading adharma before falling to the arrows of Rama. 

As with all choices, this one too brings responsibility. Ravana carries out superbly his dharma, one of a rakshasa, rallying all the forces of evil against ‘him’ whom intrinsically he has loved so that Vishnu descends as Rama to destroy and deliver him. In a throwback to Hiranyaksha who steals the earth away, Ravana takes away Sita so that Vishnu can fulfil his mission in the world as an avatara. In the great battle, the ‘curse’ plays out wholly, and promises kept to the last. Vishnu-incarnate Rama kills Ravana, and the devotee joins his Lord in Vaikuntha for a while before (his own) choice must take him back into the third incarnation on earth. Born the third time as Shishupala and Dantavaktra, the two are slain by Vishnu in his manifestation as Krishna.

In Ananda Ramayana, the two Asvinikumaras curse Jaya and Vijaya to be born as rakshasas. In Sarga (Chapter) 1 of Ramalingamrita, Rishi Durvasa curses them when they try restraining the sage from entering Vishnu’s quarters, who is, at the time, with Lakshmi. 

Elsewhere in the tradition of Ramakatha, it is said that ‘a host who is cursed by a Brahman for having been unwittingly served a meal of human flesh was also redeemed by Rama’. As part of this lore, Ramacharitamanasa talks of King Pratapabhanu, who was born as Ravana following a curse by Brahmans.

Several Puranas tell us of daitya Jalandhar who was born as Ravana in a later birth. Vrinda, his chaste wife, was seduced by Vishnu (as Jalandhar) with the help of Jaya-Vijaya to contain her invincible husband. Upon knowing the truth, Vrinda cursed them as well as Vishnu: they would be born as rakshasas and abduct the wife of Vishnu, who would descend in the human form.  Ramacharitamanasa also mentions the story in passing. 

Across these narratives, there are several versions that mention the pronouncer of the curse. However, the redeemer is only one: Vishnu. His devotees may reincarnate even as daityas or rakshasas, following the path of ‘evil’. And, though, it may take much pain from which ensues much learning; when the lesson is learnt they are ready once again to be one with him. 

(This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Bhavana Pankaj is an author, former journalist and mythology enthusiast.)