This character analysis was completed for a literature class at Grove City College. The Ramayana is a massive epic from India, and we read Narayan’s prose translation for class. I chose to focus on the character of Ravana because he interested me the most.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
In Narayan’s prose translation of the Ramayana, Ravana is the epitome of excess, warped desire, and unrivaled ambition. He stands in stark contrast to the figure of Rama, who sets a heroic ideal against which every character is measured and inevitably falls short. As a result, Ravana’s true nature can best be determined by comparing his attributes and actions to the moral perfection represented by Rama. By comparing Rama’s and Ravanna’s response to asceticism, dharmic roles, and power, an accurate picture of the antagonist’s identity can be drawn. Although Narayan provides insight into the more positive aspects of Ravana’s character, he is revealed to have been neither a fiend nor a hero before his fall.
Ravana does not fit the role of the stereotypical antagonist. His pursuit of asceticism and excess are paralleled in conviction and intensity, providing him with a complexity impossible to replicate in a character who is purely evil. His episodes of meditation and self-sacrificing devotion grant him near-complete invulnerability and power. By comparison, Rama’s experience of ascetism lasted a mere fourteen years, nevertheless resulting in more fulfilling and lasting rewards. Based on this discrepancy, it can be assumed that the benefits gained from devotion do not depend on the length of time one meditates, but rather the purpose of the ascetic’s sacrifice. The goals Ravana hopes to achieve through asceticism benefit only himself, while Rama undertakes the burden in obedience to his father’s mandate.
Ravana’s unwavering determination to accomplish his ambitions allow him to reach the peak of morality, while permitting him to fall into the depths of wickedness. While these abrupt changes in values may indicate he once showed heroic tendencies, it comes down to the matter of intention. Rama was driven to the forest by genuine concern for his parent’s reputation. If Ravanna pursued asceticism for the sake of others, or in order to improve himself spiritually, these are the marks of a hero. However, if his reasons were purely selfish, this supports his more fiendish tendencies; the desire to deceive and manipulate.
By placing himself above the gods, Ravana breaches the caste system by which all of Indian society was ordered and neglects his dharmic responsibility to revere and worship the divine. He acquires unnatural and “extraordinary powers through austerities and prayers”, and uses them to disrupt the cosmos (Narayan 4). However, Rama as Vishnu’s incarnation is equally defiant to the natural order, a dramatic change in caste. The difference is primarily one of authority. Vishnu has the divine right to restore order by whatever means necessary, and thus is justified in his transcendence of social rank. Ravana, on the other hand, has no right to usurp the gods’ power to achieve his personal desires. Rama once again shows he is not motivated by external desires when he cedes his kingdom peacefully to his brother and acknowledges Kaikeyi’s rights of inheritance. There were no barriers to prevent him from taking the throne, since the people and even Bharatha were willing to crown him. Rama, however, would not sacrifice dharmic responsibility for comfort or wealth. By comparison, Ravana spares his brother and considers sparing Jatayu only out of concern for his reputation and from disdain. His obedience to dharmic responsibilities stems only from a desire to preserve himself from dishonor and appearing unjust.
Ravana’s unhealthy relationship with power ultimately prevents him from achieving the heroic ideal. At the point when his meditation and devotion grant him nearly unlimited strength, he could be viewed with respect and admiration. However, he uses his newly obtained abilities to enslave the gods and humiliate them. For example, “Yama, the god of death, was employed to sound the gong each hour” and “Vayu, the god of wind, was there to blow away faded flowers and garlands” (Narayan 74). If one was purely devoted to the gods, it would not be possible to subvert them with such blatant disrespect. Were he only to reign uncontested and provide meaningful positions for the gods, that may suggest that his reverence for them had been genuine. Instead, he abuses his benefactors and prevents them from completing their dharmic roles, carelessly wreaking havoc in the divine and mortal realms. His immense desire for power incapacitates his ability to rule rationally and fairly. Rama once again shows that not only do one’s actions matter, so do one’s reasons and intentions. His life demonstrates two major occasions in which he relinquished power. As Vishnu, he chose a mortal form, even though it weakened him, to restore order. As Rama, he willingly offered his kingdom and inheritance to his younger brother so that he could follow his father’s will.
The final encounter of Rama and Ravana reveals a startling insight into the antagonist’s character. While through power he was corrupted, as he lay dying “his personality came through in its pristine form” (Narayan 147). This raises questions about whether this transformation was entirely the work of Rama, or if the presence of Vishnu returned Ravana to a former, more glorious state. Narayan himself seems to paint Ravanna in a heroic light, while Ravana’s actions reveal that there is “evil stirring within him” (Narayan 147). The motives of one who demands protection from the gods after they are trapped by vows cannot be innocent. He would have no reason to fear the gods unless he was planning an immoral act, and after practicing austerities for extended periods of time, he would not ask for a gift and not use it. While the text claims that the “dross” of the fivefold evils was removed, suggesting that beneath the surface a shred of good was retained, it also mentions that Ravana’s face was “aglow with a new quality” (Narayan 146). The tainted nature of Ravana had never before been pure and heroic; he was barred from reaching his potential by his intense desires.
Taken in whole, the evidence suggests that Ravana was never a fallen hero, but was instead an ascetic who was “devout and capable of tremendous attainments” (Narayan 147). Potential does not make one a heroic figure; it must be paired with selflessness and righteous action. By comparing Ravana to the ideal set by Rama, it becomes clear that Ravana’s potential never came to fruition. His devotion never lead to obedience, his endurance never led to patience, and his ambition never led to any positive effect on the world. Yet before attaining his great power, he could not necessarily be called a fiend either. He was a highly talented asura in which the seeds of dissent and evil were just starting to grow, cultivated further by the accumulation of power and wealth. This converts him to the form in which Narayan first introduces him: Ravana, “The Grand Tormentor” (Narayan 74).
Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana, edited by Pankaj Mishra, Penguin Classics, 2006.