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Mythology for the Millennial: Whether Ravana was evil is debatable — his violation of consent is not

I was thinking of Ravana, the rakshasa king, just the other day. Okay, it was Dusshera, the day Ram famously defeated Ravana in battle, good versus evil, light versus dark, you've read the books, you've watched the cartoons, you know Harry beats Voldemort in the end.

But, I was also thinking of Ravana in the context of the #MeToo movement that is blazing across the country at the moment. Ravana is the guy famous for abducting a woman against her will and setting off a war, but he didn't actually touch her. Which is also not okay: Don't abduct people! But later, I began to hear stories about how Ravana wasn't so bad, he never actually touched Sita, he waited for her consent before he ravished her and so on.

However, some texts contradict this popular sentiment — and it's really more popular than you would think. From the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, we learn that Ravana came across the gorgeous apsara Rambha several years before the war went down. She was all dressed in green, her face was like the moon, her legs were like elephant trunks (ancient India had different beauty standards) and her palms were soft. And Ravana was all, “Where are you going and who gets to touch your b**bs?” (No, literally, he said this.) To which Rambha said that Ravana was like her father-in-law, because she was with his nephew, Nalakuvera.

 Mythology for the Millennial: Whether Ravana was evil is debatable — his violation of consent is not

But then Ravana found a loop hole in her arguments, much like some of the sexual harrassers we've been reading about in the last few weeks, and said, “Hey, you're an apsara, and everyone knows apsaras don't have husbands, so you're like, free game.” With that, he rapes her, and manages to blame the rape on her as well. But Nalakuvera was so pissed off at this, he put a curse on his uncle: If he ever touched a woman against her will, his head would split apart into seven pieces. Which, since he had ten heads, means about 70 pieces.

Ravana was a rakshasa. In early Vedic literature, all supernatural beings could be classified into devas and asuras; in fact, they were often one thing, a hybrid, a Deva-Asura. Later, as the mythology evolved, they became distinct, devas for the good guys and asuras for the bad ones. There's also the dancers (apsaras), the dryads (gandharvas) and the forest spirits (yakshas) but those are a whole different story. Asuras aren't always evil, but they are powerful(ish) demigods who can have both good and bad qualities. The rakshasas on the other hand, are pure evil, from the time they're born, from Brahma's breath. Must have been some wicked morning breath that day though. As soon as they sprung to life, they started to eat their dad, who shouted out, “Rakshama!” (Sanskrit for “save me”), and that's how they were named.

Ravana on the other hand, was a bit of a mixed bag, as far as baddies go. He was a great king — no one in Lanka ever had to go hungry, and even poor people ate off gold plates. (Which makes me wonder: Did that change the price of gold in Lanka at all? And if not, did that mean that there were no poor people?) He was a good brother, he loved his sister Shuparnakha, who persuaded him to go to avenge her honour. He loved his brother Kumbhkarna, who was outfoxed by a god, and had to sleep all the time, and Ravana negotiated on his behalf and got the curse amended a bit. He liked music and literature. He worshipped Shiva or Vishnu, depending on who you're asking. All in all, he was a good person, following kingly rules. If he hadn't been a rakshasa, he'd be more of a hero, and not have his figure burnt all around India every year.

But then, he was also a rapist, as we've just seen. You can be a “good person” by which I mean, a “person perceived as good” by society, by your family, by your subjects, and still be a rapist. Those are two distinct things. But once you're a rapist, you're also a rapist as well as everything else. A filmmaker and a rapist. A politician and a rapist. Loving father to your own children, loving husband to your wife and also a rapist. A good king, a good brother, a good scholar and also a rapist.

I wanted to believe better of Ravana. There are communities around India who worship him to this day, who think their god got a bad deal in the whole Ramayana of it all. A lawyer in Mathura tried to petition the president to stop burning Ravana effigies because it hurt his religious sentiments. Kings were kind of rape-y all through the ages after all — how else did you prove your power than by coercing an unwilling woman who couldn't complain about it? But I see nothing to contradict that story about Rambha, just minding her own business, going for a walk, and Ravana forcing himself on her. On the other hand, the Uttara Kanda is a later text of the Ramayana, and could have been bunged in there just for reasons like this, so we don't feel any sympathy for the so-called Demon King. Who knows? I only wish Rambha and Sita and Shuparnakha, when it comes to that, had Twitter accounts, or even someone who cared enough to investigate their sides of the story. Unfortunately, we only know about the men, because it's men who wrote the stories, as I've said before. Not any more.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Nov 02, 2018 16:36:36 IST