It has been at least three millennia since Valmiki composed his seminal Sanskrit epic Ramayana, yet the thief-turned-sage’s one-sided portrayal of Ravana in his adi-kavya continues to cast a long shadow over the lord of Lanka. Ashok Banker, the author of the bestselling Ramayana series, managed to track down the now-aging yet still fiery asura at an undisclosed location and get up close and personal with him.
AKB: It was really hard tracking you down. Once upon a time you were the most high-profile personality in Indian mythology. Why so media shy now?
RAVAN: Every god has his day. I’ve done my time, paid for my crimes. I’m retired now. Let me chill. What do you expect me to do? Go on We the People and bicker? Try to out-shout Rajdeep Sardesai on CNN-IBN? Take primetime abuse from Prabhu Chawla or Arnab Goswami? Besides, last time I agreed to a photo-shoot it took three days for the idiot from Getty Images just to get all ten head-shots of me! I was so fed up at the end, I fed him to my pet pisacas. On a tv shoot for a news channel in Delhi, the cameraman had to move back so far to get me in the frame, that he ended up in Noida. And then there was this pinko Malayali reporter who tried to blame the whole Hindutva right-wing fundamentalist problem on me. I told him to go find a Ram Mandir to hide in…fast!
AKB: Nevertheless, your effigy is burned every Dusshera across India. You’re demonized in countless TV shows, movies, books, comics, and there are pop culture references about you from Buffy to sitcoms to Bollywood films. Your name stands for pure evil. How does it feel to be the most notorious Indian villain of all time?
RAVAN: Thank you, thank you. It’s always good to be appreciated. It feels great of course. I’m finally getting my due. Wish the dharmanator were here to see it though… that would be the icing on the cake.
AKB: Did you say dharmanator? As in…?
RAVAN: The terminator who slaughtered and committed atrocities in the name of dharma! Massacred rakshasas left, right, and center. Basically committed a Rwanda-style genocide on our asses. And yet Rama is a god while I’m a villain. I ask you, is that fair?
AKB: So you do feel you were unfairly represented in literature and popular culture?
RAVAN: I’m proud of being a villain. But why does Rama get to be worshipped as a hero after all the lives he took, the asuras he slaughtered by the millions, the invasion of my country, the murder of Vali? And let’s not forget how he treated his own wife in the end, the woman he did all those things for allegedly!
AKB: Well, as you yourself put it, he was a dharmanator in a sense. All that he did, he did because his dharma required it of him. It was justified.
RAVAN: Yeah? Well, that’s BS. And you can quote me on that. Did you know that for almost two and a half millennia Rama and his great exploits were virtually unknown in our itihasa? It was only after the Europeans began invading the subcontinent and trying to convert the natives to Christianity that a brahmin revivalist movement rose up – that was the start of modern Hindutva, by the way – and Valmiki’s poem was dusted off and rescued from obscurity? And who do you think was responsible for that?
AKB: Sant Tulsidas, of course. His commentary on the original Valmiki poem in the popular North Indian idiom of the 16th century was the reason for the mass popularization of the epic – in fact, most people even today regard Tulsidas’ commentary as the real Ramayana, rather than the revisionist commentary which it actually is. But what does that have to do with…
RAVAN: Tulsidas? Like hell! It was me, you fool! Damn idiot novelist! So you have only one brain – you can’t help that, I know – but at least you can use the one brain you have! I was the one responsible for the popularization of the Ramayana, I!
AKB: What you just said about me, was offensive by the way. But I’m going to ignore it in the larger interests of journalism. Besides, you’re the one who’s physically challenged, not me.
RAVAN: You want to get it on? Come on outside then. Face me, man to rakshasa!
AKB: I’m a writer, not a fighter. Besides, if I wanted to get back at you, I’d just portray you as the dick-turd you really are, instead of giving you a fleshed-out, well-rounded portrayal as I did in my Ramayana Series. I doubt you have ever been portrayed as fairly and completely as in my retelling…
RAVAN: Okay, okay. It’s true. My right head (R8) apologizes for what my left head (R4) said about you. But I meant what I said. I was the reason for the revival of interest in the Ramayana, for Tulsidas writing his religious commentary on the original adi-kavya. And for the entire Hindutva revival going on right now. Why, if you look at the pictures of the Babri Masjid demolition, you can see me right there, standing on the top of the dome before it comes down, hammering it with my bare fists.
AKB: I don’t recall seeing that. Or seeing you in any of those pictures
RAVAN: Obviously. They airbrushed me out. Damn politicians. If they threw out Jaswant Singh just for writing a book and making a couple of comments, obviously they wouldn’t acknowledge the main force behind their popularity today. It’s always the same, middle ages or modern ages!
AKB: You do realize how contentious this is. What’s your proof?
RAVAN: Proof? (Makes obscene gesture using all twenty hands.) All right, how about this? Look at me. What colour is my skin?
AKB: Well. You’re extremely fair-skinned, as Valmiki described you in the Ramayana.
RAVAN: Exactly. I’m fair-skinned. A foreigner – at least to the Hindu majority population of the Indian subcontinent. I’m aggressive in my approach, I’ve done my share of invade-and-conquer in my time. So if you were around the late 16th century, who would I remind you of?
AKB: Well, I suppose there would be some superficial resemblance to the European traders who were seeking a foothold here at the time…
RAVAN: Exactly. The white foreigner. The rakshasa who takes entire nations and continents by force. Raping. Pillaging. Conquering. Subjugating. In short, I’m the living embodiment of the British Empire around that time! So obviously it was just a step away logically for the brahmins of the time to rouse up the rabble by telling them that the rakshasas had returned to India, and it was time to turn to dharma once more.
AKB: A fascinating theory. Yet modern critics claim the opposite. They say that the entire Ramayana story was a form of racism, with the ‘Aryan’ north Indians attacking the darker south Indians and calling them rakshasas.
RAVAN: Next you’ll be telling me that it was superior castes versus tribals and lower castes?
AKB: Well yes, that is one theory too…
RAVAN: When you say the word ‘Aryan’ which by the way is a Western mispronunciation – the correct word is ‘Arya’ without an ‘n’ at the end – who would you say were the most famous Aryas in ancient Indian itihasa or mythology?
AKB: I suppose…Rama Chandra, Krishna…
RAVAN: Stop right there. What do you think the name Rama means. And Krishna too?
RAVAN: I’ll tell you, since your one brain is obviously on a permanent coffee break. They both mean the same thing, black!
AKB: That’s true. The Puranas clearly describe both Rama and Krishna as dark-skinned. The colour of a crow’s feather in fact, is the exact phrase used by Valmiki, and Vyasa too.
RAVAN: There you go. The term Arya is never used with reference to race in a single Purana – and in fact the whole race argument is negated with regard to the people of the Indian sub-continent because despite our darker skins, we are Caucasian too, just like Europeans and Americans! Do your research, you cut-rate Valmiki!
AKB: So you’re saying that there’s no merit in the racism or Aryans, sorry Aryas, versus South Indians or tribals theory?
RAVAN: That theory is as stupid as the German people who now claim that the Holocaust never occurred at all! It’s revisionism of the worst sort. I repeat: Arya is not a racial description. It is an adjective meaning noble or pure! All this hindsight, it’s all political. Kamban’s translation placed Ayodhya in south India, and all the tribes and castes mentioned were entirely south Indian, as were the food items, clothes, customs, jewellery, etc. What happened to this north-south argument then? Some legitimate historians in Europe now insist that Ayodhya was in Kazakhstan or some nearby place! I am as Arya as Rama or Krishna or any other person of noble spirit and character. You don’t qualify because you’re just a turd in the shape of a human being…
AKB: Hey I am on your side here, you don’t need to get all aggressive. Now, let’s move to something else. Some scholars believe that your name actually refers to your knowledge of ten scriptures – the four Vedas and six Upanishads – rather than meaning that you physically possessed ten heads. There is literary precedence in Atharva Veda where the terms dasagva and navagva (ten-headed) have been used before Ramayana too, all presumed to be symbolic terms referring to heads as in areas of knowledge possessed by the persons rather than literal physical descriptions.
RAVANA: Look at these ten noggins waving like balloons on my neck. Do they look like literary references? They’re very real, you bankrupt Banker! Besides, all those references in Atharva Veda, what kind of people were they referring to? Scholars? Pole dancers? Montessori schoolteachers?
AKB: No. They were actually referring to rakshasas and asuras, like yourself.
RAVAN: Case rests.
AKB:I want to return to the idea that I began with, that you’ve been treated unfairly by history – in particular in north India – as a demonic villain. Yet you were the wronged one – the great scholar and brahmin, worshipper of Shiva, grandson of the great sage Pulastya, great-grandson of Brahma himself, son of Kaikesi, princess of the Daityas, and the great Vishrava himself. You’re an accomplished veena player, in fact your sigil flag bore the veena icon. And your maternal grandfather Sumali ensured that you upheld the Daitya reputation for ethical kingship and governance. Your long penance to Brahma, your devotion to Shiva for whom you composed the Shiva Tandava Stotra, your benevolent rule of Lanka…there is overwhelming evidence of your good qualities.
RAVAN: Things aren’t always black and white. That’s what I liked about Valmiki’s original poem – he told it like it was. I did some bad stuff. Rama did what he did. I didn’t claim dharma as justification, he did. But we each did our thing, and to hell with the consequences. It’s only when you start taking sides – north versus south India (what does that even mean, next we’ll be having left-handed people versus right-handed people), or Aryas versus tribals, and so on, that you start looking at everything upside down. Stop putting a spin on the facts. Yes, I was all those great things, but I did a lot of bad things too. Deal with it. Now, can I enjoy my retirement in peace?
AKB: Actually, I was hoping to delve a bit more into your family history and the positive side of your character, to try and set the record straight once and for all.
RAVAN: My dear fool, I appreciate your gesture but you don’t need to rescue me. The record is round. And it’ll keep going round. Trying to straighten it is like trying to teach a vanar to wear a suit of armour. S***w the record. I’m pretty frakking okay with it, you should be too.
AKB: So you aren’t upset with people burning your effigy around this time of year, using your name to frighten little kids into sleeping at bedtime, that kind of thing?
RAVAN: Banker, Banker, it really upsets you doesn’t it, to see me as a villain? ( For the first time, Ravan’s face softens, almost as if in pity). But don’t you see I don’t really care? Rama is not the only one with his dharma you know. You’ve spent all this time obsessing about me, don’t you see that? I am who I am, I did what I did. Now get out of here and let an old rakshasha retire in peace.
Ashok K. Banker is the author of the bestselling Ramayana Series. His new book Gods of War has just been published. His next book, The Valmiki Syndrome, will be published by Random House India in 2010.