Journey from Dashgriv to Ravan

Sometime a smirk can cost you dearly. It was a royal wedding. The charming princess was leaving the ornate awning with the tall, dark and handsome young man she had chosen for her husband. An elderly man wearing a monkey-like scowl on his face looked very unhappy. At some distance from him stood two Brahmin youths, smirking at him. Noticing them thus, the old man burst out at them in anger….
We are talking of the amusing episode of Rishi Narad’s illusion in the Ramcharitmanas (Balkand, 124-135). The eternally celibate sage got it into his head to marry the alluring daughter of Raja Shilnidhi. To ensure that she chose none other than him at the svayamvar, he begged Hari to give him His own looks for the ceremony. The Lord smiled cryptically at him as if in assent. To fast-forward the story, the two youths at the wedding were Lord Shiv’s attendants in disguise. They smirked at Rishi Narad because Lord Vishnu had temporarily given him the face of ‘Hari’ (some word-play here: in Sanskrit, ‘Hari’ also means monkey!) The sage put a curse on them – they would be born as rakshasas. Verily, the two celestial beings took birth as Ravan and his brother Kumbhakaran in the Tretayug.
Sant Tulsidas says (ibid, 122-123) that Ravan and Kumbhkaran were rakshasas in their previous births as well, known by the names of Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksh. It was to eliminate them – and their likes – that Lord Vishnu had to appear in this mortal world in ‘Vrah’, ‘Narsingh’ and then ‘Ram’ avatars.
Odd origins and a stiff ascent to power
‘Ravan’ was a monicker that the anti-protagonist of Ramayan came to acquire later in his life. His birth-name was Dashgriv – the one with ten heads. His birth could be called peculiar. His father, Maharishi Vishrava, was a learned Brahmin, while his mother, Kaikasi, was born to a rakshas family. The oddity of Vishrava-Kaikasi marriage lay in the acrimony then prevailing between the devs and the rakshasas. In fact, Lord Vishnu had driven rakshasas from their stronghold in Lanka to the netherworld, where they lived at that time. But, Kaikasi’s father, Sumali, who was the chief of his race, desired to have a foothold in the mortal world. So, he asked his beautiful daughter to persuade Rishi Pulastya’s erudite son, Vishrava, to take her as his wife. Vishrava, was already married to Rishi Bhardwaj’s daughter and the couple had a son, named Vaishravan, popularly known as Kuber, the deity of wealth. Even so, Vishrava accepted Kaikasi’s hand. They had four children – Dashgriv, the eldest, Kumbhkaran, younger to him, a daughter Surpnakha and Vibhishan, the youngest son.
Dashgriv with his ten heads, twenty arms, dreadful features and a coal-black complexion did not make altogether a cuddlesome baby. Yet he had inherited the grit from his maternal side, and the wits from his paternal side, to make something of his life. Assuring his mother that one day he would outmatch his step-brother, Kuber, in power, pelf and glory, young Dashgriv went along with his two brothers to Gokaran Ashram to perform tapa.
The two-syllable word ‘tapa’ means a lot of things. The British scholar, M. Monier-Williams, defines it thus: “to torment one’s self, undergo self-mortification; practise austerity….to be purified by austerities….; to suffer or feel pain…” and so forth (p.436 – A Sanskrit English Dictionary). Tapa, done assiduously over a long period of time, is said to be a sure-shot way to approach any one of the Sanatan Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu or Mahesh – for divine favours. Brahma and Mahesh (that is, Lord Shiv) seem to have been more readily available and generous to their devotees, than was Lord Vishnu. Brahma, in particular, represented in paintings and sculptures as a kindly, bearded grandpa, appears so munificent that His beneficiaries often posed a threat to the cosmic peace and order.
Resolute on their intent, the three brothers embarked on their tapa. Kumbhkaran, the proverbial glutton and hypersomniac, mastered his senses to meditate in ‘panchagni’ -five fires and remaining submerged in water during the rainy season and the winters for ten thousand years. Vibhishan stood on one foot for five thousand years, observing purification of thought and intent. When the period of such austerities was completed, apsaras danced for him and gods felicitated him with a shower of flowers. He then spent another five thousand years in paying obeisance to the sun-god with uplifted head and arms. The eldest, Dashgriv, fasted continuously all of ten thousand years. After completion of every thousand of years, he would cut off one of his heads to offer it to the fire-god. On completion of nine thousand years of self-mortification, Dashgriv was left with just one head. Another thousand years passed and as he was about to cut off the sole head left on his shoulders, Lord Brahma appeared before the trio. Other deities were also in attendance.
“I am immensely pleased with your unparalleled devotion, son,” Lord Brahma said to Dashgriv, “The nine heads that you sacrificed to Agnidev shall be restored to you forthwith. Besides, I wish that you shall be able to take any form you may desire….”
The Creator of the Universe had not even finished talking when Dashgriv noticed nine heads appear on his shoulders in their pristine form.
“Now, let me know what you desire the most,” continued Lord Brahma.
“Lord!” Dashgriv voiced his urge from his ten mouths, “Living beings are in constant fear of nothing else than death. I want to be immortal.”
“You cannot have absolute immortality; ask me for some other boon.”
“Then I want to be inexterminable before Garud, Naag, Yaksh, monsters, demons, rakshasas, and gods. I am not bothered at all about the rest of living beings. Man, and other creatures I regard as harmless as straw.”
“Your words shall come true!” Lord Brahma concluded.
Vibhishan asked for steadfast righteousness. The Creator, pleased with his piety, granted him his wish and immortality as well.
When it was the turn of Kumbhkaran, he, poor fellow, befuddled by the devas, prayed to the Lord, “God of gods! I may continue to sleep year after year.”
“So be it!” declared Lord Brahma.
Journey from Dashgriv to Ravan
Having fortified himself with Lord Brahma’s boons, Dashgriv set out to win the world. He began with easing out elder brother Kuber from Lanka and establishing a powerful realm. Then there were family matters for him to attend to. He married Maiy Danav’s daughter, Mandodiri. Being the eldest among the siblings, Dashgriv found a husband for his sister, Shrupnakha. He also got brothers Kumbhkaran and Vibhishan married. When Kumbhkaran complained to him of perpetual drowsiness, he employed the divine architect Vishwakarma to build a suitable house in which Kumbhakaran could have sleep undisturbed for as long as he wished. Having taken care of his domestic affairs, Dashgriv began to show his might. He let loose a reign of terror on gods, rishis, yakshas and gandharvas, kidnapping women earthly and celestial. He demolished beautiful gardens such as the Nandan Van, diverted rivers and streams whimsically and razed mountains.
Dashgriv’s cruelty could not go unnoticed for long. Kuber, out of fraternal concern, sent to him an envoy, advising him to temper down his excesses. But this sensible mission had an adverse effect. Dashgriv slayed the envoy in his court-room itself and then embarked on conquering the three worlds – heaven, earth and the netherworld. But, first, he would deal with elder brother, Kuber, himself.For that he took along eight of his fiercest ministers and invaded the Mount Kailash where Kuber lived under the protection of Gandharvas. In the battle that ensued, Gandharva warriors fought bravely, but could not withstand Dashgriv’s onslaught. As a trophy of his victory, he snatched away the Pushpak Viman from Kuber. This indestructible flying vehicle was unique. It travelled to its destination at the speed of mind and became small or large according to the master’s requirement.
Swollen with pride, Dashgriv willed Pushpak Viman to land on the peak of a particularly sylvan mountain. But, to his dismay, the divine vehicle stopped advancing beyond a certain point. At that point, Nandishwar, a councillor of Lord Shiv-Shankar, appeared before him. This god was diminutive of body, with tiny arms and legs and an ugly, monkey-like face. He advised him to go back since Lord Shiv used the mountain as a resort and the place was barred to all the creatures, divine or terrestrial. Dashgriv laughed rollickingly in Nandishwar’s face. The latter, in turn, put a curse on him. He had laughed at a money-face, then monkeys would put an end of his clan of rakshasas!
Dashgriv proved too arrogant to pay heed to Nandishwar’s words. “Who is Shankar?” he roared, “I will topple this mountain!” He applied his arms below the base to give it a forceful push. At that, Lord Shiv thrust the peak back with His big toe. Dashgriv screamed in pain with his arms being crushed under the divine pressure. His cries were so loud that the three worlds went into a shock. Seeing him in excessive pain, Dashgriv’s ministers advised him to pray for Lord Shiv’s forgiveness. It is said that the Rakshas-king prayed weepingly for a thousand years before the Lord deigned to appear before him. Freeing his arms from under the mountain, Lord Shiv said that he had been crying in distress so much that all the creatures of the universe had started to cry in fear. Hence, he would be now known as ‘Ravan’. (In Sanskrit, ‘Raav’ means ‘to cry in distress’).
Absolute power – beginning of an end
Lord Shiv, ‘Bhola Shankar’, is known for His generosity and an easy-to-please nature. After giving him a new name, the Lord not only bestowed on the rakshas-chief a divine weapon, but also gave him a blessing that he would live to the full life that Lord Brahma had granted him. That meant the portion of age Ravan had already spent was added again to his life. Thus rejuvenated, Ravan vigorously took up his mission to achieve absolute power.
He invaded heaven, and the frightened gods changed themselves into lowly creatures of earth to escape him. Indra became a peacock, Dharmraj, a crow, Varun, a swan, and Ravan’s own brother, Kuber, a chameleon; though, of course, when Ravan left their abode in conquest, these deities reappeared in their proper form.
He invaded Yamaloka and the God of Death had to concede him victory. Disrupting the cosmic law of punishment to sinners, Ravan set free the spirits which were receiving diverse chastisements. When Yamdoots – minions of Lord Yama – came after him, he killed them all. Daityas and demons, he exterminated without compunction, mindless of the fact that his sister Shrupnakha’s husband,Vidyujjiveh, was also a demon. On the earth, Ravan gave the option to the mighty Kshatriya rulers – either to accept defeat or face him in the battlefield and suffer dire consequences. Most of the rulers willingly accepted his overlordship. If the Ikshvaku king Anranya of Ayodhya had the courage to defy him, Ravan injured him fatally in a duel. Before dying, Raja Anranya foretold that Ravan would be killed one day by one of his descendants, Ram, son of Dashrath.
Unbridled power had gone to Ravan’s head. Lust and arrogance, like two powerful beasts yoked to his carriage, were relentlessly pushing him towards his end. Ravan abducted any woman -divine or mortal – that caught his fancy. He molested Vedvati – an ascetic virgin – and she, while immolating herself, told him that she would be reborn to cause his end. Sita was Vedvati reborn. He killed his brother-in-law, the demon Vidyujjiveh, and to appease his sister Shrupnakha, he relocated her to Dandakaranya where Ram would be staying with Sita and Lakshman during his vanvas. It would be in Dandakaranya that a lustful Shrupnakha would try to seduce Ram and then Lakshman -leading to her disfigurement that, in turn, would eventually ignite the fuse of Ravan’s extermination.
Ravan was born ugly, to a mother who hailed from the netherworld. By dint of his single-minded purpose to become immortal,he acquired more powers than he could handle. Yet, this universal villain evinced warmth for his kin and – significantly – a sense of propriety, that was all his own. Being the eldest brother, he first found a husband for Shrupnakha before getting married himself. He found matches for his brothers too. For the sleepy Kumbhkaran, he built a special bed-room. Kuber annoyed him. Ravan killed his envoy in his court, but spared Kuber’s life. As for lust, Sita was in his custody for no less than a year. Yet, Ravannever let himself go beyond asking for her consent, which she steadfastly refused.
Ravan emerges before us as an archetypal arrogant man, who, for all his power and pelf,has to cry eventually at his fate: he defeated Death and yet was killed by a putative mortal.