This August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, capping the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement that began in the late 1980s, saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2019 decreeing that the disputed site belonged to Ram Lalla. In 2020, Diwali was observed in an India that’s seemingly more polarised than ever, which raises the question: how do we view the Ramayana?
Several communities in India believe in different tellings of the Ramayana that are distinct from the ones narrated by Valmiki and Tulsidas. Among them are communities that worship or revere the figure of Ravana, the 10-headed demon king of Lanka, and the chief villain from Valmiki’s Ramayana. These traditions stem from the different oral versions of the epic that developed outside Brahminical Hinduism, as well as the differences that emerged within Brahminical interpretations of the epic over the years, perhaps as a response to the diverse oral versions.
AK Ramanujan, for instance, points out that the Jain interpretation (Paumacariya) expresses that Brahmins maligned the character of Ravana and turned him into a villain, when instead he was one of the 63 salakpurusas or worthy men of the Jain tradition. In this version, Ravana is considered a noble and learned devotee of Jain masters who takes a vow to never touch an unwilling woman, but his unrelenting love for Sita leads to his tragic end on the battlefield.
In another Jain interpretation of the Ramayana, Sita is Ravana’s daughter although he does not know it; his tragedy is doubled by this Oedipal narrative. In both these versions, Ravana is characterised as a tragic figure who struggles to control his passions, and for whom listeners feel both pity and admiration. Furthermore, in the Jain interpretations, it is not Rama but Lakshmana who kills Ravana and goes to hell, while Rama, who is an evolved Jain in the story (therefore in control of his passions), finds release.
Noted historian Romila Thapar suggests in her work that the paradoxical image of Ravana, as both a learned Brahmin as well as an egotistical king, in the Brahmanical versions of the epic could have been a way of incorporating the feelings of those who were sympathetic to Ravana because of the Jain versions of the epic.
Each interpretation of the Ramayana emerged in a unique socio-economic context to serve certain political interests. For instance, Thapar has argued that one can look at Valmiki’s Ramayana as a text that is interested in promoting Vishnu worship, as well as in legitimising monarchy as the ideal form of government. By deliberately suppressing or dismissing the diverse interpretations as less superior versions of Valmiki’s Ramayana, we threaten to lose evidence of historical change and contestation.
Several communities in India are resisting, both knowingly and unknowingly, the imposition of a universal telling of the epic that seeks to deny their particular histories.
Statues across Chhattisgarh
Across the great plains of Chhattisgarh, colourful cement statues of Ravana can be found, standing tall and greeting visitors who are not familiar with the state’s ambiguous relationship with the mythological figure. A prominent professor of religion, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, discovered that several dominant caste individuals in Chhattisgarh view Ravana as a learned, wise Brahmin who was a devout follower of Shiva. While he is not worshipped as a god by these groups, permanent cement statues of Ravana were built to honour him as a wise ascetic. These statues remain standing even while effigies of him are burnt during Dussehra every year.
A complicated legacy in an Uttar Pradesh village
Similarly, a few kilometres away from the national capital lies the quiet village of Bisrakh. According to popular folklore, this village is the birthplace of the legendary king. Every year, around Diwali or Dussehra, Bisrakh gains popularity in the mainstream media for its one-of-a-kind temple dedicated to Ravana. The famous temple — with its tall, grey entrance — makes for an imposing view amid Bisrakh’s sparse landscape. Interestingly, the temple which is named after Ravana, does not house his idol.
“Ravana is revered in the village as a learned Brahmin, but he is not worshipped here. We worship his father Vishrava. The temple is named after Ravana because it houses the shiva ling that he used to offer prayers to,” says Prince Misra, one of the priests at the temple, in an interview to Firstpost. He adds, “We don’t burn Ravana’s effigy during Dussehra or celebrate Ramleela as it leads to anhoni (mysterious tragedies) in the village.”
Another resident of Bisrakh confirmed this fear pertaining to celebrating Dussehra in the village. The temple houses several Hindu gods and goddesses except for the idols of Rama and Sita – an interesting omission given the temple’s background.
During our conversation, Misra also hesitantly added, “We are trying to get an idol of Ravana but we are waiting for funds. Many families in Bisrakh have idols of Ravana in their homes, whom they pay their respects to.”
In 2016, a group of men, identified by locals as right-wing activists, vandalised an idol of Ravana placed in the Radha Krishna temple of the village. According to a report published in The New Indian Express, a case against 30 individuals was registered.
Through these instances, one can infer that Bisrakh shares a conflicted relationship with the figure of Ravana. It seems as if the villagers lie on a spectrum of Ravana-dominant ideologies and beliefs, as the struggle between those who revere him and those who vilify him continues in diverse forms.
The venerable Ravana as a Gond king
Similarly, spread across central India, the Gond Community — who identify as non-Hindus — worship Ravana as the disciple of Pari Kupar Lingo, an ancestral figure of the Gond community who also organised the Gond (or Koitur) clan system and religion. According to Devaravan, a member of Gond Sanskruti Gotul Samaj Kalyan Samiti (GSGSKS), Ravan was one of Kopar Lingo’s 33 disciples who were entrusted with the responsibility of carrying forward his legacy. Later, ‘Ravana’ as a title was also conferred upon 20 to 25 people. As a result, Devaravan asks, “Since Hindus claim that Rama existed, which one of these 25 Ravanas did he kill?”
According to members of the Gond community, Ravana was a Gond king whose image has been maligned by Brahminical Hinduism. Rahul Kannake, a prominent Gond YouTuber (‘Alive Breath’) shared in one of his videos, “Ravana was a Gond ancestor who predated the Ramayana.”
Devaravan, who added ‘ravan’ to his name as an act of cultural assertion, also shared, “The image of several Adivasi ancestors and cultural figures has been tainted by turning them into mythical characters. No other religion other than Hinduism has appropriated our ancestors and festivals by grossly misrepresenting them.” He further added, “The Adivasi community does not believe in mythical gods with supernatural powers like people do in Hinduism; our way of life is scientific and natural – all our gods were our ancestors. But our history and our ancestors are not mentioned in school textbooks; we are erased from popular memory. That is why we formed GSGSKS to reclaim our culture and history; we are not against any religious community, we just want that members of the Adivasi community can celebrate their festivals in their own way.”
According to a report published in The Hindu, several Ravana Maha-utsavs are celebrated across Maharashtra’s Gondia, Chandrapur, Bhandara, Gadchiroli and Amravati districts as a way of countering the imposition of Hinduism on Gond adivasis by the RSS. Several members from the Gond community view the burning of Ravana effigies during Dussehra as an affront to their religious sentiments and have demanded that such practices be banned.
Contesting the ‘national status’ conferred on Valmiki’s Ramayana
In the Tamil interpretations of the Ramayana too, Ravana has seldom been perceived negatively — he has consistently been understood as a just king and a war hero. In the 1970s, shortly after Periyar’s death, Periyarists conducted Ravanleelas in the country, in which they burned effigies of Ram — out of their belief that Valmiki’s Ramayana was not a story about the triumph of good over evil, but the conquest of Dravidians by Aryans.
The above instances tell us that the national status conferred upon Valmiki’s Ramayana is done at the cost of ignoring countless other versions and interpretations of the epic. This trend has aggressively been making inroads into our psyches through the medium of education and television for decades. Several indigenous communities today are resisting the erasure of their history by re-claiming many of their cultural figures, wrongly appropriated by Brahminical Hinduism, Ravana being just one of them.