Thursday, 22 March 2018

Why did Valmiki portray Ravana so poorly?

My Answer:
I have seen many Hindus assert that Valmiki was unbiased and portrayed Ravana in a correct manner because Valmiki Ramayana says that Valmiki was given a boon by Narada, that he would be able to see all the inner feelings of all the characters, without any bias. I, personally, don't consider that, even remotely, as evidence that Valmiki was unbiased, because any author can write that he had such a boon in order to raise the authenticity of the work he is composing.
I mean… I may write a Ramayana tomorrow, and say that Shiva gave me a boon to see all the events of the past in an unbiased manner. Does that mean that my Ramayana would be an authentic, unbiased version?
Furthermore, the first section of the Bala Kanda, which starts off the epic, goes as follows (Critical Edition, translation by Bibek Debroy):
It should be evident from this passage of the first section of the first Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana that it was written to praise Rama, and extol his qualities and greatness. Can such a text, which was written to praise a single character, be said to be unbiased?
An unbiased version would refrain from making any subjective judgements and would therefore, absolutely refrain from branding one character as virtuous, dharmic, etc, and the opposite as devoid of the aforementioned. But that is clearly not the case here. Valmiki makes it quite a habit to criticize Ravana by calling him adharmic and praise Rama by calling him dharmic, even though some instances in the epic would make the rational reader believe otherwise… So, just as all historical records have some degree of bias, so does Valmiki Ramayana. In fact, Valmiki Ramayana should be looked at with greater suspicion because its sole purpose of being composed was to praise its hero (as I have shown above). This does not mean that Valmiki Ramayana is unauthentic. It simply means that whatever is written in the epic should be critically analyzed and examined, to remove the author’s bias and the later insertions into the text by later poets.
When I read any historical record, I don’t take its claims at face value. I like to dissect the text, see the bias in the author, and ascertain whether he is speaking the truth, or has ulterior motives behind what he is saying. When reading the Valmiki Ramayana, I use the same approach…
I will narrate a couple of instances where Valmiki (and/or later poets that tampered with the epic) had introduced bias into the epic.
Instance 1: Depicting the Rakshasas in a Negative Manner
Valmiki depicts the Rakshasas as ugly, cannibalistic creatures due to his distaste for them. There are some exceptions, where he depicts Rakshasas as handsome (as in the case of Ravana), but these are rare exceptions… One classic example of Valmiki’s bias is with Shurpanakha. In the direct narrative, when Shurpanakha approaches Rama, this is how she is described (Critical Edition, Aranya Kanda Section 16, translation by Bibek Debroy):
While Rama was seated and attentively speaking in this way, a rakshasi roamed around as she willed and arrived at the spot. Her name was Shurpanakha and she was the rakshasa Dashagriva’s sister. She approached Rama and saw someone who resembled a god. The mighty-armed one’s chest was like that of a lion and his eyes were like the petals of a lotus. He was delicate and great in spirit, with all the signs of being a king. Rama was dark, like a blue lotus. His radiance was like Kandarpa. On seeing someone who was like Indra, the rakshasi was flooded with desire. The one with the disagreeable face faced Rama, the one with the agreeable face. The one with a giant stomach faced the slender-waisted one, the one with malformed eyes faced the one with large eyes, the one with copper-coloured hair faced the one with excellent hair, the one with an ugly form faced the one with a handsome form, the one with a horrible voice faced the one with a pleasant voice, the hideous and ugly one faced the young one, the one who was harsh in speech faced the one who was sweet in speech, the one who was extremely wicked in conduct faced the one who was good in conduct, the ugly one faced the handsome one.
It is quite clear that Shurpanakha is not presented in a very pleasant manner. But was she really old and ugly? Cross references to her would suggest otherwise… Let us first have a look at the manner in which Rama asks Lakshmana to deface Shurpanakha (my translation)[1]:
इमां विरूपामसतीमतिमत्तां महोदरीम्।
राक्षसीं पुरुषव्याघ्र विरूपयितुमर्हसि।।3.18.20।।
She is without form (ugly), and an overtly ruttish whore, oh, tigerly man, it will be apt of you to make this big bellied Rakshasii without form.
Here, Rama comments on Shurpanakha’s sexuality that it seems he is uncomfortable with, by calling her an overtly ruttish whore. In this context, when Rama says that Shurpanakha is without form (विरूपा) and big bellied (महोदरीम्), it only reflects Rama’s sexual frustration at Shurpanakha’s sexuality. It is very common for men, when sexually frustrated cum charged, to say that a woman is ugly when she is actually not. Same is the case here, for Rama. Furthermore, Rama asks Lakshmana to make Shurpanakha without form (विरूपयितुम). Now it logically follows that one cannot make someone without form who already has no form. Rama’s behavior of asking Lakshmana to destroy Shurpanakha’s form suggests that Shurpanakha was not ugly, and that by destroying her form, it would ensure she stops her “slutty” behavior.
We are given hints outside of this direct narrative that Shurpanakha was neither ugly, nor old. For example, when Shurpanakha approaches Ravana, she is described in the following manner (Critical Edition, Aranya Kanda Section 30, translation by Bibek Debroy):
Senseless with fear and delusion, the large-eyed one displayed these to the blazing one and spoke to him. Fearless in action, Shurpanakha, who had been disfigured by the great-souled one, spoke these extremely terrible words.
Shurpanakha is described here Debroy’s translation as being “large-eyed”. The sanskrit word used here is “दीप्तविशाललोचनम्”, which means glittering (दीप्त) large (विशाल) eyes (लोचनम्). So Debroy made a slight mistake in his translation by leaving out the adjective glittering. Anyways, the verse suggests that Shurpanakha had large, glittering eyes. Such a description alludes at a beautiful woman.
Furthermore, when Hanumana recites all that happened in the exile period to Bharatha, he addresses Shurpanakha as बाला, which means a young girl (Critical Edition, Yuddha Kanda Section 114):
After this, Shurpanakha arrived in Rama’s presence. Commanded by Rama, Lakshmana suddenly arose. The immensely strong one seized his sword and sliced off her nose and ears. The suffering child approached Ravana.
Bibek Debroy translates बाला as “child”. The word simply means a young girl. Hence, from analyzing cross references, we can see that Shurpanakha was not ugly, but rather a beautiful girl. Portraying Shurpanakha as ugly, due to her “vice” of unrestrained sexuality displays the bias of Valmiki…
Instance 2: Depicting the Vanaras in a Negative Manner
Valmiki also depicts the Vanaras in a negative manner. I have shown in a previous answer how these Vanaras were a tribe of humans with an unrestrained sexuality, and that Valmiki depicted these Vanaras as monkeys because their sexuality was unrestrained and therefore animal-like, in his perspective[2]. Judging a tribe’s sexuality by your own standards and calling them animals displays a lot of bias… and Valmiki did exactly that…
Needless to say, one of the justifications that Valmiki’s hero Rama had given for killing Vali through deceit is that since he is a monkey, he is an inferior animal, and humans like Rama have the right to hunt animals using snares and traps (i.e. deceit):
शृणु चाप्यपरं भूयः कारणं हरिपुङ्गव।
यच्छ्रुत्वा हेतुमद्वीर न मन्युं कर्तुमर्हसि4.18.37।।
'O hero O best of monkeys listen to me. I will give you one more reason. On hearing it, I hope you would not be angry with me.
न मे तत्र मनस्तापो न मन्युर्हरिपुङ्गव।
वागुराभिश्च पाशैश्च कूटैश्च विविधैर्नराः4.18.38।।
प्रतिच्छन्नाश्च दृश्याश्च गृह्णन्ति सुबहून्मृगान्।
'O best of monkeys I have no mental agony nor do I regret in this case. Hidden from
view or out in the open, people catch animals by means of snares or ropes or through other tricks.
प्रधावितान्वा वित्रस्तान्विस्रब्धांश्चापि निष्ठितान्4.18.39।।
प्रमत्तानप्रमत्तान्वा नरा मांसार्थिनो भृशम्।
विध्यन्ति विमुखांश्चापि न च दोषोऽत्र विद्यते4.18.40।।
'People seeking animal flesh for food kill animals alarmed or unalarmed, animals that run away or animals that stand still. They kill animals whether they are alert or not and no blemish is attached.
यान्ति राजर्षयश्चात्र मृगयां धर्मकोविदाः।
तस्मात्त्वं निहतो युद्धे मया बाणेन वानर4.18.41।।
अयुध्यन्प्रतियुध्यन्वा यस्माच्छाखामृगो ह्यसि।
'O monkey even royal saints wellversed in dharma go for hunting. I struck you down with an arrow whether you were fighting with Sugriva or not, since you are a monkey. (You can be hit whether you are fighting face to face or not).
Such a justification by Rama, Valmiki’s hero, shows the utmost hatred Valmiki had for such tribes. This behavior of turning humans into monkeys/animals just because you do not like their sexuality or some other aspect of their behavior reeks of not only biasedness, but also bigotry…
Instance 3: Trying to Hide the Defeat of Rama in war, by Ravana
In Yuddha Kanda Section 59, a defeat of Rama at the hands of Ravana is present. However, as is evident from a close examination of the text, it seems that Valmiki or later poets had tampered with the epic and removed some verses in an attempt to hide this defeat. Through subtle, indirect evidence, we can see through this manipulation, and realize that in the original version of the epic, Ravana had defeated Rama in battle. In Yuddha Kanda Section 59, Ravana enters the battlefield and Ravana wreaks havoc everywhere. He defeats Hanumana, Nila, Sugriva, and many more Vanaras. Seeing this destruction, Rama also gets shocked and says[3]:
रावणो हि महा वीर्यो रणे अद्भुत पराक्रमह् |
त्रैलोक्येन अपि सम्क्रुद्धो दुष्प्रसह्यो न संशयह् || ६-५९-४९
"Ravana is endowed with great strength and possesses an outstanding prowess during a war. The Three Worlds themselves could not withstand his fury. There is no doubt about it."
Then, Lakshmana takes Rama’s permission to fight Ravana, and after a fight, gets hit by Ravana’s spear and falls unconscious[4]:
विसम्ज्नम् वानरम् दृष्ट्वा दशग्रीवो रण उत्सुकह् |
रथेन अम्बुद नादेन सौमित्रिम् अभिदुद्रुवे || ६-५९-९२
Seeing Nila unconscious, Ravana, eager for fight, in his chariot whose rattling sounded like thunder-clouds, rushed on Lakshmana.
आसाद्य रणमध्ये तं वारैत्वा स्थितो ज्वलन् |
धनुर्विष्फारयामास राक्षसेन्द्रः प्रतापवान् || ६-५९-९३
Coming to the centre of the battle-field, the powerful Ravana the King of Demons prevented Lakshmana to go forward, halted, standing there in his glory and lifted up his bow.
तम् आह सौमित्रिर् अदीन सत्त्वो |
विस्फारयन्तम् धनुर् अप्रमेयम् |
अभेहि माम् एव निशा चर इन्द्र |
न वानरांस् त्वम् प्रति योद्धुम् अर्हसि || ६-५९-९४
Lakshmana of indomitable courage spoke to that Ravana who was lifting up his unfathomable bow (as follows): "O, King of Demons! Now enter into combat with me; cease from fighting with the monkeys!"
स तस्य वाक्यम् परिपूर्ण घोषम् |
ज्या शब्दम् उग्रम् च निशम्य राजा |
आसाद्य सौमित्रिम् अवस्थितम् तम् |
कोप अन्वितम् वाक्यम् उवाच रक्षह् || ६-५९-९५
Hearing that marvellously modulated voice that resounded like the twanging of a bow-string, Ravana drawing near his adversary, who stood close to his chariot, answered in anger:
दिष्ट्या असि मे राघव दृष्टि मार्गम् |
प्राप्तो अन्त गामी विपरीत बुद्धिह् |
अस्मिन् क्षणे यास्यसि मृत्यु देशम् |
संसाद्यमानो मम बाण जालैह् || ६-५९-९६
"O, Lakshmana! By my good fortune, you in your perverted mind, reached within my range of sight so as to meet your death. This very instant, you will go to the region of Death, after having collapsed by the bang of my rain of arrows."
तम् आह सौमित्रिर् अविस्मयानो |
गर्जन्तम् उद्वृत्त सित अग्र दम्ष्ट्रम् |
राजन् न गर्जन्ति महा प्रभावा |
विकत्थसे पापकृताम् वरिष्ठ || ६-५९-९७
Then, Lakshmana, unmoved spoke to that Ravana who was roaring with his sharp and protruding teeth (as follows): "Greatly dignified ones eschew bragging! O, the foremost of evil-doers! You are sounding your own praises!"
जानामि वीर्यम् तव राक्षस इन्द्र |
बलम् प्रतापम् च पराक्रमम् च |
अवस्थितो अहम् शर चाप पाणिर् |
आगच्च किम् मोघ विकत्थनेन || ६-५९-९८
"O, King of Demons! I know your valour, strength, energy and courage! Come! I now stand here, with my bow and arrows in hand. O what use are vain boasts."
स;एवम् उक्तह् कुपितह् ससर्ज |
रक्षो अधिपह् सप्त शरान् सुपुन्खान् |
ताम्ल् लक्ष्मणह् कान्चन चित्र पुन्खैश् |
चिच्चेद बाणैर् निशित अग्र धारैह् || ६-५९-९९
Thus accosted, the King of Demons, infuriated, loosened seven marvellously plumed arrows which Lakshmana shattered with his beautiful golden-shafted arrows of sharp ends and edges.
तान् प्रेक्षमाणह् सहसा निकृत्तान् |
निकृत्त भोगान् इव पन्नग इन्द्रान् |
लन्का ईश्वरह् क्रोध वशम् जगाम |
ससर्ज च अन्यान् निशितान् पृषत्कान् || ६-५९-१००
Beholding those arrows shattered like great cobras with their hoods shattered, Ravana got angry and loosened other sharp arrows.
स बाण वर्षम् तु ववर्ष तीव्रम् |
राम अनुजह् कार्मुक सम्प्रयुक्तम् |
क्षुर अर्ध चन्द्र उत्तम कर्णि भल्लैह् |
शरांश् च चिच्चेद न चुक्षुभे च || ६-५९-१०१
Lakshmana, however, caused a well-aimed rain of missiles from his bow to fall on Ravana and nay, even broke Ravana's arrows with his arrows called Khura, Ardhachandra, the excellent Karni and Bhalla. He did not feel perturbed.
स बाणजालान्यपि तानि तानि |
मोघानि पश्यांस्त्रिदशारिराजः |
विसिस्मिये लक्ष्मणलाघवेन |
पुनश्च बाणान्निशितान्मुमोच || ६-५९-१०२
Seeing his successive arrows proving in vain, Ravana the King of those hostile to Gods was astonished at Lakshmana's skill and released more whetted shafts upon him.
स लक्ष्मणश् च आशु शरान् शित अग्रान् |
महा इन्द्र वज्र अशनि तुल्य वेगान् |
संधाय चापे ज्वलन प्रकाशान् |
ससर्ज रक्षो अधिपतेर् वधाय || ६-५९-१०३
Lakshmana, the equal of Mahendra the Lord of celestials, fixing some sharpened arrows, swift as lightning and of blazing effulgence on his bow-string, discharged them on Ravana in order to strike him down.
स तान् प्रचिच्चेद हि राक्षस इन्द्रश् |
चित्त्वा च ताम्ल् लक्ष्मणम् आजघान |
शरेण काल अग्नि सम प्रभेण |
स्वयम्भु दत्तेन ललाट देशे || ६-५९-१०४
Whereupon, Ravana the King of Demons shattered those pointed arrows and struck Lakshmana in the forehead with a struck Lakshmana in the forehead with a shaft as bright as the Fire of Time, which had been bestowed on him by Brahma the Lord of Creation.
स लक्ष्मणो रावण सायक आर्तश् |
चचाल चापम् शिथिलम् प्रगृह्य |
पुनश् च सम्ज्नाम् प्रतिलभ्य कृच्च्राच् |
चिच्चेद चापम् त्रिदश इन्द्र शत्रोह् || ६-५९-१०५
Struck by Ravana's arrow, Lakshmana reeled a little and was scarcely able to retain his bow. But, coming to his consciousness with difficulty, he shattered that weapon belonging to Ravana, Indra's enemy.
निकृत्त चापम् त्रिभिर् आजघान |
बाणैस् तदा दाशरथिह् शित अग्रैह् |
स सायक आर्तो विचचाल राजा |
कृच्च्राच् च सम्ज्नाम् पुनर् आससाद || ६-५९-१०६
Then, Lakshmana the son of Dasaratha struck Ravana, whose bow was broken, with three pointed darts. The king, pierced by those arrows, swooned and regained his senses with difficulty.
स कृत्त चापह् शर ताडितश् च |
स्वेद आर्द्र गात्रो रुधिर अवसिक्तह् |
जग्राह शक्तिम् समुदग्र शक्तिह् |
स्वयम्भु दत्ताम् युधि देव शत्रुह् || ६-५९-१०७
Ravana, the enemy of celestials, whose bow was broken, struck by the arrows, his limbs spattered with flesh, and streaming with blood, himself of formidable energy, seized in the battle a spear gifted to him by Brahma the Lord of Creation.
स ताम् विधूम अनल सम्निकाशाम् |
वित्रासनीम् वानर वाहिनीनाम् |
चिक्षेप शक्तिम् तरसा ज्वलन्तीम् |
सौमित्रये राक्षस राष्ट्र नाथह् || ६-५९-१०८
Ravana the Lord of the country of demons hurled with strength on Lakshmana, that blazing spear, emitting smoke and as bright as fire, frightening the monkeys in the fray.
ताम् आपतन्तीम् भरत अनुजो अस्त्रैर् |
जघान बाणैश् च हुत अग्नि कल्पैह् |
तथा अपि सा तस्य विवेश शक्तिर् |
भुज अन्तरम् दाशरथेर् विशालम् || ६-५९-१०९
Lakshmana the younger brother of Bharata struck that weapon falling upon him with arrows and darts, as if it were a sacrificial fire. Nevertheless, that spear entered Lakshmana's broad chest.
स शक्तिमान् शक्तिसमाहतः सन् |
जज्वाल भूमौ स रघुप्रवीरः |
तं विह्वलन्तं सहसाभुपेत्य |
जग्राह राजा तरसा भुजाभ्याम् || ६-५९-११०
The mighty Lakshmana, struck by the spear, lay on the earth, breathing fire. The king, rushing suddenly on him who was yet insensible, seized him brutally in his hands.
Following this, Rama waits for Lakshmana to regain consciousness, and proceeds against Ravana. Upon reaching the vicinity of Ravana, he angrily tells Ravana the following[5]:
यश्चैष शक्त्या निहतस्त्वयाद्य |
गच्छन्विषादं सहसाभ्युपेत्य |
स एष रक्षोगणराज मृत्युः |
सपुत्रपौत्रस्य तवाद्य युद्धे || ६-५९-१३१
"O, Ravana the King of Demons! The one who was struck by the spear, obtaining distress this day only to recover consciousness quickly, will now, assuming the form of death, claim you, your sons and grandsons in battle.
एतेन चात्यद्भुतदर्शनानि |
शरैर्जनस्थानकृतालयानि |
चतुर्दशान्यात्तवरायुधानि |
रक्षः सहस्राणि निषूदितानि || ६-५९-१३२
"Here is he, under whose blows of arrows, fourteen thousand demons of terrible form perished, who had established themselves in Janasthana and were furnished with excellent weapons."
Now, obviously, Rama is referring to himself in this speech (as he killed the 14 000 Rakshasas in Janasthana, not Lakshmana), thus suggesting that it was he who was struck by Ravana’s spear, obtained distress, and fell unconscious, not Lakshmana. Hence, it would seem that either Valmiki or later poets tried to manipulate the defeat of Rama in the direct narrative, to show that it was instead Lakshmana who was defeated and made unconscious by Ravana.
The attempt of Valmiki to hide the defeat of Rama in war, yet again shows his bias. An unbiased author would portray war as it is, instead of hiding and doing away with what he does not like…
Modern scholarship dates the Valmiki Ramayana text to 400 BCE at earliest, whereas the latest dates for the Lankan war are around 1200 BCE. There is therefore an 800 year gap between the earliest Valmiki Ramayana and the actual Ramayana events. The epic was likely composed shortly after the Ramayana war, and transmitted orally, as bardic tales, from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE, until the epic was finally penned down by a poet (let us call him Valmiki). Of course, during this 800 year period, it would likely be modified and re-shaped by the poets, to whom the epic was transmitted to. During this period, Rama was transformed into a cult figure and hailed as the ideal man. Of course, such idolization of an individual would mean vilifying his antagonists (i.e. Ravana et al…).
Even after over 400 years since the death of Emeror Akbar and Rana Pratap, we get to see a group of Akbar fans vilifying Pratap, and a bunch of Pratap fans vilifying Akbar… This happens even when we have written, tangible evidence about the two personalities. Likewise, I nowadays see many Muslims trying to pass off the pre-Islamic Pagans as absolute villains and Prophet Muhammad as an absolute hero, even though scholars opine that the Prophet introduced many regressive, misogynist practices to the pre-Islamic society…
So, it is human nature to demonize your hero’s rivals, and praise your hero to the skies. That being said… Why is it really surprising to you that Valmiki and his predecessors manipulated the bardic tales regarding the Lankan war, ever since their inception, to present Ravana so poorly?


  1. milin after reading this my respect for ram has increased considering he defeated a mighty king with 10 head ,who had boon of immortality , i do have doubt that if vibihisan hadn't revealed weakness to ram then would ram still win the war? you mentioned that is Ram not lakshman who fainted was it during indrajeet battle episode? then what about hanuman bringing sanjeevini to lakshman . do you think there is any alternate ramayan where ravan wins the war.

    1. gavrav, as far as I know, there is no Ramayana version where Ravana won. Had there been such a version, we all would be worshiping Ravana today, instead of Rama... As for the battle sequences... In the first Indrajit-Rama/Lakshmana battle, Indrajit becomes invisible and uses serpent arrows to defeat and make the brothers unconscious. In the second battle, Ravana makes Lakshmana unconscious (which I have shown in this article was actually Rama, not Lakshmana). Then, in the third article, Indrajit uses his brahmastra to make Lakshmana and Rama unconscious. In the fourth battle, Ravana uses a powerful spear that pierces the body of Lakshmana and makes him unconscious. In the third and fourth battles, Hanumana goes to the Himavanta to get the Sanjeevani. However, in my opinion, that is a later addition to the epic.

      If Vibhishana did not support Rama, Rama would not have been able to infiltrate Ravana's spy network and gather information about Ravana's preparations for the war (Vibhishana sends his own spies to Lanka to do that). Vibhishana also gave Rama some background on some of Ravana's major warriors, like Kumbhakarna et al... Without all this information, it would have been difficult to defeat Ravana.

  2. another thing milin why do you have to consider ram a villain since everything is fair in war right , we have to get advantage over enemy to win the war, i know people will root for the underdog but in this ravan had more advantage over ram at some point.

    1. gavrav, I don't consider anybody the villain. Both Rama and Ravana were grey characters. They had their plus and minus points... They were both good leaders and were invaders, par excellence. However, if I were to evaluate their personalities, I find Ravana's personality more appealing, as Rama comes across as quite a misogynistic character...

      Ravana had an advantage over Rama till Rama entered the Dandaka. Ravana was not getting information from spies as to what is going on in the Dandaka, and Rama took advantage of this and eliminated the Rakshasas there before Ravana could send back up forces there. By the time of the Lankan war, Rama's army was much stronger in terms of numerical value and he had practically the entire Southern India supporting him. Ravana's allies had abandoned him, his treasury was depleted, spy network was infiltrated, etc... Ravana was not an underdog at the time of the Lankan war, and hence Rama had most chances of winning that war. Rama also had 13 yrs of experience in the Dandaka fighting Rakshasas, so he likely had learned their style of fighting...

      That being said, I consider Ravana, Indrajit, etc far better warriors than Rama and there were some points in the war where they could have turned the tables... But they failed to capitalize on these points. For example, Indrajit had knocked Rama and Lakshmana unconscious twice. He could have capitalized on this by massacring the demotivated Vanara army and/or capturing Rama/Lakshmana and taking them to Ravana. But Indrajit just returned to Lanka, full of joy, thinking that Rama and Lakshmana had already died on the battlefield.

  3. Milin - the last 2 Sanskrit verses in the article are interesting, I had never analyzed them. I find it very surprising and very true that it was indeed Ram who was struck by Ravan, not Lakshman.

    You have done good studying of the Ramayan.