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The Rama Epic Characters: Ravana

Shadow puppet of the demon king Ravana, approx. 1875–1925. India; Andhra Pradesh state. Hide with pigments. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Joyce Roy, 2013.40. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Shadow puppet of the demon king Ravana, approx. 1875–1925. India; Andhra Pradesh state. Hide with pigments. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Joyce Roy, 2013.40. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Mandodari admonishes her husband, the demon king Ravana, while Prince Rama and his allies convene outside the palace, from a manuscript of the Ramayana (Epic of Rama), approx. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Connoisseurs' Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003.4. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Mandodari admonishes her husband, the demon king Ravana, while Prince Rama and his allies convene outside the palace, from a manuscript of the Ramayana (Epic of Rama), approx. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Connoisseurs' Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003.4. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

The demon king Ravana riding a mythical bird, approx. 1800–1900. Indonesia; North Bali. Colors and gold on wood. Asian Art Museum, Acquisition made possible by the Connoisseurs’ Council and the estate of K. Hart Smith, 2010.18.2. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

The demon king Ravana riding a mythical bird, approx. 1800–1900. Indonesia; North Bali. Colors and gold on wood. Asian Art Museum, Acquisition made possible by the Connoisseurs’ Council and the estate of K. Hart Smith, 2010.18.2. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Shadow puppet of the demon king Ravana, approx. 1875–1925. India; Andhra Pradesh state. Hide with pigments. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Joyce Roy, 2013.40. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.
Mandodari admonishes her husband, the demon king Ravana, while Prince Rama and his allies convene outside the palace, from a manuscript of the Ramayana (Epic of Rama), approx. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Connoisseurs' Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003.4. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.
The demon king Ravana riding a mythical bird, approx. 1800–1900. Indonesia; North Bali. Colors and gold on wood. Asian Art Museum, Acquisition made possible by the Connoisseurs’ Council and the estate of K. Hart Smith, 2010.18.2. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.

Ravana, the Foe

Mighty king of the demons who abducts Sita

Ravana, king of the demons, is Rama’s chief enemy. His vast ambition and lust drive  him to abduct Sita and engage in a devastating war against Rama. He has immense  power and a compelling personality, and uses them to crush anyone who stands  in the way of his drive for domination. Some people find Ravana to be the most interesting character in the epic. We may be fascinated by—and may even secretly envy—a figure with so much charisma and power, and such willingness to exercise  them with no thought of disapproval or consequences.

HIS AUTHORITY:

To be a worthy antagonist to Rama Ravana must be complex and larger than life in many respects. His demon kingdom is well ordered and prosperous (Ravana might claim that  its trains run on time), so he is clearly an effective ruler. His erudition, including knowledge of ancient scriptures, is impressive. His sons and generals are loyal, though maybe sometimes as much out of fear as respect. His many wives seem contented and loving, and are drawn to his celebrated good looks and magnetism.

HIS VILLANY:

In most versions of the epic Ravana is always ready to resort to anger, viciousness, and violence to reach his ends. He forcibly abducts—and in some stories rapes—numerous women, sometimes slaughtering their menfolk in the process. He wipes out adversaries without a thought, and ultimately threatens to plunge the universe into the chaos of selfishness and evil.

VARIED READINGS OF HIS NATURE:

People of different backgrounds and regions have long disagreed on exactly how to evaluate Ravana’s character. For example, at the end of annual North Indian festival performances of the Rama epic a huge effigy of a rather cartoon-like Ravana is set afire by Rama’s arrows and everyone cheers. In South India, though, some writers and artists have seen Rama as an enforcer of traditional North Indian cultural norms, and Ravana as a misunderstood representation or misrepresented emblem of South Indian resistance.

 

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