Ravana displayed on a chariot at the Sri Devram Maha Viharaya (Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka)

Ravana: Once a demon, always a demon?

Considering Ravana from a different perspective

12 minutes to read
Academic paper
Deborah de Koning

Ravana is not doomed to remain a demon. What's more, Ravana is nowadays praised by Sinhalese as a great warrior, a capable ruler, and a scholar with extraordinary knowledge of science.


Generally speaking, in stories, movies, and plays, heroes need villains to excel and to win the sympathy of the audience. As a consequence, villains are frequently displayed as personifications of evil, sleaziness, greed and egocentrism. Particularly in epics and (ancient) myths, heroes and villains symbolize good versus evil. The clash between good and evil often culminates in devastating wars of cosmic proportions. An example of an ancient Hindu epic in which good meets evil at the battlefield is the Ramayana. In the Ramayana, Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama, is kidnapped by king Ravana and kept in exile in Lanka, which is nowadays often equated with Sri Lanka. Ravana is frequently warned that kidnapping the wife of someone else, which is only one example of his greedy nature, will lead to his destruction. According to the Ramayana, Ravana’s part of the story ends when he is vanquished by Rama in a battle.

In current post-war Sri Lanka, the story of Ravana is taking new shapes among the ethnic majority of Buddhist Sinhalese.

So far, the vast majority of studies in academia have concentrated on how this story took shape in rewritings, paintings, rituals, dance, TV-series, and plays in new contexts, such as the diaspora communities in London and Trinidad (Richman 2007; Singh 2012). Considerable attention has been paid to the Ramanand Sagar tv-series Ramayana, which ran for seventy-four episodes (Dwyer 2006, 52). In this series from the eighties, Rama is not only displayed as a Hindu god but as the Supreme Being (Shukla 2002, 64). What became of the defeated king Ravana though? At first sight this matter seems somewhat obscure. Interestingly, however, Ravana has long been connected to Sri Lanka to sustain the image of a great civilization.

In current post-war Sri Lanka, the story of Ravana is taking new shapes among the ethnic majority of (Buddhist) Sinhalese (Deegalle 2002, 2). In the subsequent sections I will therefore go into more detail on the ‘hero from the other side’. In the first section, I will briefly give some background information on the Ramayana and its protagonists. The second section will focus on the work of three authors who have gone off the beaten track and argue that the Hindu tradition provides leads for a positive view on Ravana. Building on these insights, I will take the argument one step further in this article. Based on my explorative fieldwork research, I will suggest that we have to look at Ravana from a contemporary Sinhalese Buddhist perspective to discover a real shift regarding his nature. It is the inhabitants of Lanka who turn the villain from the Ramayana into a swashbuckling hero. A study of the multiple (re-)interpretations of the mythological character of Ravana by the Sinhalese will reveal one of many creative ways by which the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka amplifies its self-understanding.

Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana

One's first encounter with the protagonists of the Ramayana normally occurs through reading, hearing, or seeing parts of the ‘Ramkatha’. According to Paula Richman, the term ‘Ramkatha’ is generally used in academic literature to refer to the basic story of Rama, his marriage, exile, and battle with Ravana (Richman 2008, 2). The oldest version of the Ramayana is attributed to the sage Valmiki, who allegedly composed it between 500 BCE and 250 CE. (Richman 2008, 8). This Sanskrit version of the story has been rewritten in numerous dialects and vernaculars. Moreover, it was also enacted in plays and folk songs and in recent times Ramayana series and movies were produced. Despite these adaptations, the core narrative remains the same.

Rama, one of the incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu, was born as the son of King Dasharatha. By the time king Dasharatha considers handing over the kingdom to Rama, one of his wives reminds him of two boons that he once offered to her. She asks Dasharatha to fulfil her wish to crown her son Bharata as king and to send Rama away. Rama agrees to the demand and decides to spend his years of exile in the Indian forests. One day, his wife Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, who takes her to his kingdom Lanka. After some time, Rama figures out that Sita is held captive in Lanka and with the help of monkeys and bears a bridge is constructed between India and Lanka. Rama defeats Ravana at the battlefield and restores the kingdom of righteousness.

Rama’s nature has been the subject of considerable discussion in academic literature. Sheldon Pollock states, for instance, that it is commonly accepted nowadays in Western academia to regard references to the godlike nature of Rama in the Ramayana as later additions. Pollock argues, in contrast, that some references in the Urtext already denote Rama’s godlike character (Pollock, 1984).

Ravana’s nature is less frequently discussed and seems to be less open for (re-)interpretation. He is referred to in the Ramayana as the ‘ruler of the rakṣhasa (demon) kingdom of Lanka’ (Richman 2008, 2). Elsewhere, Paula Richman denotes that “[…] Pollock argues that Valmiki demonizes rakshasas by portraying them as deviant in behavior, with Ravana as a prime example.” (Richman 2008, 175; Pollock 1993, 282-284). Richman demonstrates that in contrast with most of the classical works, modern South Indian texts frequently display sympathy toward rakshasas and Ravana (Richman 2008, 175). In the next section I will pay attention to some of these nuanced perspectives on Ravana from a Hindu point of view.

Nuanced Hindu perspectives on Ravana

A few authors have brought to the fore certain nuances in (Hindu) perspectives on Ravana. Since I will argue here that Ravana is not doomed to remain a demon, I will discuss three articles that show the capability of Ravana's character to change. I will start with an article that deals with the contemporary expulsion of nuanced views on Ravana in India. Secondly, I will discuss the article ‘Ravana in London’ that deals with the depiction of Ravana in various Ramayana plays in a diaspora context. Finally, I will briefly discuss a conference paper that focuses on Ravana in medieval Sri Lankan (Tamil and Sinhala) literature.

By pointing to examples within the Hindu textual tradition and by referring to contemporary religious practices, Anita Shukla (Shukla 2011) clearly demonstrates that the Hindu tradition contains references to commendable character traits of Ravana. She argues that the distinction between Rama and Ravana is not as rigid as is nowadays suggested, since it is common in Hinduism to view good and evil as sharing the same origin.

By referring to passages from the Ram-Charit-Manas (a rewriting of the Ramayana in Awadhi)Shukla shows that the text is open to a more nuanced interpretation of Ravana’s nature. Furthermore, Shukla refers to Baijnat, a place in India where a Ravana statue is enshrined in a temple. It is said that Ravana worshipped the Hindu god Shiva at that particular spot. With those arguments in mind, the title of the article ‘From Evil to Evil: Revisiting Ravana as a Tool for Community Building’ seems to suggest that Ravana could play a role in overcoming differences between different communities. However, as Shukla explains, Hindus (in India) do not elaborate on positive characteristics of the persona of Ravana for community building. Quite to the contrary, Ravana has become a unifying factor in India in the context of Hindu nationalist politics that underscore his evilness. His character has been demonised to reinforce the character of Rama who holds an iconic position in contemporary right wing Hindu nationalism.

As an example of Rama’s iconic status within Hindu nationalist politics, Shukla refers to the Ayodhya dispute and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In 1992, Hindu nationalists demolished the Babari Mosque in Ayodhya, claiming that it was located at the supposed location where Rama was born. Shukla denotes that in this context of increasing Hindu nationalism, new practices and rituals were invented to create a larger notion of the Hindu community which transcends the local, sect, and caste differences. An example of such a ritual is the burning of effigies during the festival of dashera. On the specific day of dashera, Rama has allegedly killed Ravana. To celebrate the triumph of good over evil, effigies of Ravana are burnt during this festival. Thus in this public ritual, Ravana as the imaginary common enemy, unites Hindus from different backgrounds.

The high-secure zone around the supposed birth spot of Rama in Ayodhya. Picture taken on 20-12-2013 at Ayodhya, India.

Ravana has become a unifying factor in India in the context of Hindu nationalist politics.

In ‘Ravana in London: The Theatrical Career of a Demon in the South Asian Diaspora’Paula Richman focuses on the representations of the demonic in three Ramayana plays in the period from 1971 until 2001 (Richman 2007). In order to discover what the demonic represents in various contexts, Richman provides the reader with detailed background information of each play.

The first play that she describes is the Ramayana of the Southall Black Sisters. It was staged in Southall (London) on October 19th 1979, a time of increasing anti-migration legislations and racism. Therefore, the Southall Black Sisters decided to let some of Ravana’s ten heads consist of pictures and drawings of politicians that symbolized the increasing racism of that time. In the second play, the Ramayana that ran for a couple of weeks in the National Theatre in London, Ravana shows a distinctive feature of that time: multiculturalism, or the inclusion of minorities. Ten actors with different ethnic backgrounds played the role of the ten-headed Ravana, who stood symbol for the inclusion of minorities. In the final play A Ramayan Odyssey (2001), the protagonists Rama and Odysseus both harbour false suspicions against the purity of their wives. The play focuses on the internal enemy and the struggle with suspicion instead of the enemy out there. Therefore, Ravana is just another obstacle among others. All three plays show that the persona of Ravana is open to multiple and varying interpretations, hich depends on the context in which it is depicted.

Temple image of the ten-headed Ravana together with Shiva and his consort. Picture taken on 10-04-2016 at Konneshwaram, Sri Lanka.

In ‘The Northern Causeway and the Southern Mountain: Explorations in the Transmission of the Ramayana in Sri Lanka’ (Henry 2016), Justin Henry explores the influence of Sri Lankan Tamils on the increase of favourable references to the Ramayana and its characters in late medieval and early modern Sinhalese literature and imagination. Where references to the Ramayana in early writings of Sinhala literature were quite negative, Henry shows that from the fourteenth century onwards several positive references can be found. According to Henry, it is plausible that the Sri Lankan Tamils contributed to these positive attitudes of the Sinhalese towards the Ramayana and the importance of Lanka and Ravana in the medieval Sinhala Buddhist historical self-understanding. 

The Sri Lankan Tamils, in their turn, were influenced by the Hindu temple text traditions of South India. In these texts it was quite common to refer to Ravana as a fastidious devotee of the Hindu god Shiva. One of the ways in which the Sri Lankan Tamils became familiar with these texts, were the invasions of Hindu powers in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil temple histories elaborated on a positive view on Ravana. In the temple literature of the Koneshwaram temple (East coast of Sri Lanka) for example, Ravana is praised as an ardent devotee of Shiva. His attempt to move mount Kalaish (the abode of Shiva and his consort) is praised as an act of piety instead of antagonism. According to Henry, these positive references, among others, have influenced the rise of positive references to the Ramayana and Ravana in medieval Sinhalese literature and imagination.

Dashera wall painting. Picture taken on 26-03-2016 in the Ravana Temple in Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka

Despite the fact that the Hindu tradition leaves room for multiple interpretations, the general view remains that Ravana is more or less a person with evil character traits. As pointed to earlier, Ravana’s demonized character is even celebrated during the Hindu-festival of dashera (Shukla 2011, 175). Interestingly, however, I encountered dashera for the first time in a wall painting (see picture 1) of a temple that was constructed around 2013 in Sri Lanka. In the next section, I will take a closer look at Ravana from a Sri Lankan perspective.

The real shift: Ravana from a Sri Lankan perspective

Many things have been said and written about the Ramayana and Ravana from a Hindu perspective, but until now hardly anyone has addressed Ravana from the perspective of the inhabitants of his defeated kingdom. My explorative research on the Ramayana in Sri Lanka has made clear that Ravana is an awe-inspiring character for a sizable part of the ethnic majority of Sinhalese. Therefore, I champion a shift of perspective to discover the ‘real hero’. The next illustration is only one example of the processes of reinterpretation, re-appropriation, and re-evaluation of the characters of the Ramayana that takes place in Sri Lanka nowadays.

Illustration: Sita and Sexual Seduction

Statue of Sita undergoing the fire test. Picture taken on 11-03-2016 at Divurumpola, Sri Lanka

Ravana is nowadays praised by Sinhalese as a great warrior, capable ruler, and scholar with extraordinary knowledge of science.

According to the Ramayana, Rama and Sita are reunited after the war. However, what was supposed to be a joyful reunion becomes a turning point in their relationship: Rama starts raising suspicion considering Sita’s fidelity. He requests his brother make arrangements for his wife to undergo a fire test, the so called 'Agni Pariksha'. Since Ravana never touched her, Sita is successful in proving her chastity. The exact spot where the 'Agni Pariksha' allegedly took place, is nowadays marked by a signboard and a small shrine for Sita (see picture 2). The Buddhist monk at Divurumpola, as this spot is called, praised Sita for remaining faithful to her husband. Another informant explained that Rama’s suspicion against his wife is even the proof that Ravana is the hero instead of Rama (interview with Darshana Mapa Pathiranage, 28-02-2016). Rama’s unfounded distrust against his wife - also referred to in the earlier mentioned play the Ramayan Odyssey - seems to leave room for an interchange of hero and villain. Actually, it is Ravana who is nowadays praised by numerous Sinhalese as a great warrior, capable ruler, and scholar with extraordinary knowledge of science. These are only a few examples of the ten skills that are brought to the fore as interpretations of the ten heads of Ravana (in which form he is often displayed in visual culture, see for example the picture of the wall painting included in this article).

To summarize, the figure of Ravana in Sri Lanka frequently transcends the adaptations and positive (re-)interpretations of his character that are, for instance, made in the context of the aforementioned examples of Ramayana performances and in Hindu literature. In Sri Lanka, Ravana is often praised as the ruler of a highly developed civilization. Moreover, in the last decade several statues of Ravana have been enshrined in temples at Buddhist sites and symbols of Ravana play an important role in some contemporary rituals (such as processions). Since the multiple (re-)interpretations of the character of Ravana, and its relevance for the self-understanding of Sinhalese Buddhists in post-war Sri Lanka are not investigated in detail yet, I will devote the next few years to exploring the contemporary rise of Ravana among Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.


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Interview with Darshana Mapa Pathiranage, 28-02-2016.