Birth and familyRavana is depicted in art with up to ten heads, signifying his study of the Vedas and Shastras. His ten heads earned him the names Dashamukha (दशमुख, The Ten-faced), Dashagriva (दशग्रीव, The Ten-necked) and Dashakantha (दशकण्ठ, Ten Throats). He is portrated as having twenty hands, signifying greed and never-ending want. Ravana was born to the Brahmin sage known as Vishrava. His mother was the Daitya princess Kaikesi. Kaikesi's father, Sumali, king of the Daityas, wished her to marry the most powerful being in the mortal world, so as to produce an exceptional heir. He rejected the kings of the world, as they were less powerful than him. Kaikesi searched among the sages, and finally chose Vishrava. Vishrava warned her that as she approached him at an inappropriate time, their children would tend towards evil, but accepted her nevertheless. As such, Ravana was partly Daitya, and partly Brahmin.
Ravana was the second eldest of Vishrava's children, Kubera - the god of wealth and Ravana's step-brother - being the eldest. Ravana was given the name Dashanana or Dasagriva at birth - he was born with ten heads. Some say the ten heads were due to the reflections of a crystal necklace gifted to him by his father at the time of his birth or he knew a lot of information about the world and for this he needed ten heads.
His brothers were Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna. Through his mother, he was related to the daityas Maricha and Subahu. Kaikesi also produced a daughter, Meenakshi ("girl with fish like eyes"), although later she was dubbed the infamous Shoorpanakha ("the one with a beautiful nose").
His father Vishrava noted that while Ravana was aggressive and arrogant, he was also an exemplary scholar. Under Vishrava's tutelage, Ravana mastered the Vedas and the holy books and also the arts and ways of Kshatriyas (warriors). Ravana was also an excellent veena player and the sign of his flag had picture of veena on it. Sumali, his grandfather, worked hard in secret to ensure that he retained the ethics of the Daityas.
Tapas to BrahmaFollowing his initial training, Ravana performed an intense penance to Brahma (the creator god), lasting several years. Pleased with his austerity, Brahma offered him a boon. Ravana asked for immortality, which Brahma refused. Ravana then asked for absolute invulnerability and supremacy before gods and heavenly spirits, other demons, serpents and wild beasts. Contemptuous of mortal men, he did not ask for protection from them. Brahma granted him these boons, and additionally great strength by way of knowledge of divine weapons and sorcery.
King of LankaAfter winning these boons, Ravana sought out his grandfather, Sumali, and assumed leadership over his army. He then set his sights on Lanka.
Lanka was an idyllic city, created by the celestial architect Vishwakarma for Kubera, the treasurer of the gods. Kubera had generously shared all that he owned with Kaikesi's children - his step-brothers and sister. However, Ravana demanded Lanka wholly from him, threatening to take it by force. Vishrava advised Kubera to give it up to him, as Ravana was now undefeatable.
While Ravana usurped Lanka to begin with, he was nevertheless regarded as a benevolent and effective ruler. Lanka flourished under his rule - it is said the poorest of houses had vessels of gold to eat and drink off, and hunger was unknown in the kingdom.
Devotee of Lord Shiva
Following his conquest of Lanka, Ravana encountered Lord Shiva at his abode in Kailash. Unknowingly, Ravana attempted to uproot and move the mountain on a whim. Shiva, annoyed by Ravana's arrogance, pressed his little toe on Kailash, pinning him firmly and painfully under the same. His ganas informed Ravana of whom he had crossed, upon which Ravana became penitent. He composed and sang songs praising Shiva, and is said to have done so for thousands of years, till Shiva released him from his bondage. Pleased with his bravery and devotion, Shiva gave to him the divine sword Chandrahas ("Moon-blade"). It is during this incident that he acquires the name 'Ravana', meaning "(He) Of the terrifying roar", given to him by Shiva - the earth is said to have quaked at Ravana's cry of pain when the mountain was pinned on him. Ravana in turn became a lifelong devotee of Lord Shiva. Ravana is said to compose Shiva Tandava Stotra, a hymn to Lord Shiva...
Emperor of the Three WorldsHis abilities now truly awe-inspiring, Ravana proceeded on a series of campaigns, conquering humans, celestials and other demons. Conquering the netherworld completely, he left his brother Ahiravana as king. He became supreme overlord of all asuras in the three worlds, making an alliance with the Nivatakavachas and Kalakeyas, two clans he was unable to subdue. Conquering several kingdoms of the human world, he performed the suitable sacrifices and was crowned Emperor.
Kubera at one point chastised Ravana for his cruelty and greed, greatly angering him. Proceeding to the heavens, Ravana fought and defeated the devas, singling out his brother for particular humiliation. By force he gained command over the gods, celestials and the serpent races.
At the time of the Ramayana, set several hundred years later, Ravana is shown as dominating all human and divine races - so much so that he can command the Sun as to his rising and setting.
WomenRavana was known for his virility and his aggressive conquests of women. Ravana had several wives, foremost of whom was Mandodari - daughter of Mayasura and an apsara named Hema. Mandodari was renowned for her wisdom and grace as well as beauty and chastity. She is often compared to Sita, one of the most beautiful woman described in Indian mythology, for her beauty. In addition to his wives, Ravana maintained a harem of incredible size, populated with women whom he captured in his many conquests, many of them accepted and lived happily in his harem for his great manhood, power and knowledge of different subjects. Ravana originally used to force himself upon any woman who rejected his advances. Two significant encounters occurred that would shape the course of the Ramayana.
The first was the molestation of the sage-woman Vedavati. Vedavati had been performing penance with the intention of winning Lord Vishnu as her husband. Ravana met her at her hermitage, her beauty enhanced by the austerities she had performed. She, however, rejected his advances. Ravana proceeded to forcibly take her, upon which she prophesied that she would return to the mortal world as the cause of his death. She then created a pyre and let herself be consumed in it.
The second was his encounter with the apsara Rambha, upon whom he forced himself. Rambha was betrothed to Kubera's son, but her plea that she was like a daughter to him did not deter Ravana. Angered at this, Kubera's son cursed Ravana, stating that his ten heads would fall off his head if he forced himself upon any woman from that point. This curse is said to have protected Sita's chastity while she was Ravana's captive for nearly a year.
AssessmentRavana serves mainly as an antagonist and villain in the Ramayana, though sometimes he was shown as a great noble man. Nevertheless, he is considered to have possessed several virtues, the foremost being his knowledge of the sacred books, medicines and sorcery. Ravana was a great devotee of Shiva and is supposed to have composed the Shiva Tandava Stotra.
Legend says that being a Brahmin, Ravana performed the necessary vedic rituals (pujas) for Rama a Kshatriya before the war between himself and Rama. This was done as no other Brahmin was available at that time in Lanka.
There were occasions where Ravana has been humbled. For example, the encounter with Lord Shiva Himself as mentioned earlier. Once, Ravana is also said to have got himself tied into the tail of the mighty Vanara king (Vanara has two meanings in Sanskrit - a black faced monkey, and a person (Nara, meaning man) living in forest(Vana)) Vali (while he was meditating), and Vali flew in all four directions performing his meditation, completely unaware that Ravana was stuck in his tail. When he reached his palace, he realized that Ravana was stuck there and released him. Another incident was when the king Kartavirya Arjuna (who had 1000 arms) was bathing in the river Narmada (where Ravana was also bathing). Arjuna's wives challenged him if he could hold the waters of Narmada, and he did it. Hence, the flow of water stopped at the place where Ravana was bathing and this made him angry. So he challenged Arjuna to battle and lost it. Arjuna then took him prisoner, until Ravana's grandfather came and asked Arjuna to release him. It is to Ravana's luck's credit, though, that he came out of all these three incidents much richer in alliances and friendship. Ravana also met his match when he encountered Vali. Once Ravana called Vali for a fight when Vali was doing his regular Shiva puja. He took Ravana in his tail and took around all worlds. Another version holds that since Vali derived half the power of the enemy, he accepted the offer from Ravana in spite of Ravana being the enemy of his father Indra.
Ravana, having known that Vali had the boon which said anyone who came before him lost half his/her strength to Vali, caught hold of Vali from behind. At this time, Vali was performing his sacred ablution. Such was the might of Vali that he clasped his arms around Ravana's. Vali, holding Ravana, completed his sacred bath in all the seven oceans.
Other ScripturesIn the Bhagavata Purana, Ravana and his brother, Kumbakarna were said to be reincarnations of Jaya and Vijaya, gatekeepers at Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu and were cursed to be born in Earth for their insolence.
These gatekeepers refused entry to the Sanatha Kumara monks, who, because of their powers and austerity appeared as young children. For their insolence, the monks cursed them to be expelled from Vaikunta and to be born in Earth. The all-merciful Vishnu agreed that they should be punished but agreed to mitigate their curse. He asked them whether they would want to be undergo seven births as devotees of Vishnu or three births as enemies of the Lord. Since they wanted to get back as soon as possible, they agreed to be born in three births as enemies of God.
In the first birth, Jaya and Vijaya were born as Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha. Vishnu incarnated as Varaha and Narasimha and killed them both. In Treta Yuga they were born as Ravana and Kumbhakarna and were killed by Rama. Then in Dwapara yuga, and in their final birth, Jaya and Vijaya they were born as Shishupala and Dantavakra and killed by Sri Krishna. After the end of three births, they returned to Vaikunta.
Ravana's familyThis section deals with many members of Ravana's family. Since they are hardly mentioned outside the Ramayana, not much can be said about them. They are presented here as they are in the Ramayana, which is viewed by some as being only the point of view of Rama devotees, but is the most complete account of the story that is known.
Ravana was married to Mandodari, the daughter of the celestial architect Maya. He had seven sons from his three wives:
Ravana's paternal grandfather was Pulastya, son of Brahma. Ravana's maternal grandfather was Malyavan, who was against the war with Rama, and his maternal grandmother was Tataki. Ravana also had a maternal uncle, Maricha.
Ravana had six brothers and two sisters:
1. Kubera - the King of North direction and the Guardian of Heavenly Wealth. He was an older step-brother of Ravana: they were born to the same father by different mothers.
2. Vibhishana - A great follower of Sri Rama and one of the most important characters in the Ramayana. As a minister and brother of Ravana, he spoke the Truth without fear and advised Ravana to return Kidnapped Sita and uphold Dharma. Ravana not only rejected this sane advice, but also, banished him from his kingdom. Vibhishana, sought protection from Sri Rama, which was granted without hesitation. He is known as a great devotee of Sri Rama.
3. Kumbhakarna - One of the most jovial demons in Hindu mythology. When offered a boon by Brahma, he was tricked into asking for unending sleep! A horrified Ravana, out of brotherly love, persuaded Brahma to amend the boon. Brahma mitigated the power of the boon by making Kumbhakarna sleep for six months and being awake for rest six months of a year (in some versions, he is awake for one day out of the year). During the war with Sri Rama, Kumbhakarna was awakened from his sleep. He tried to persuade Ravana to follow Dharmic path and return Sita; seek mercy of Sri Rama. But he too failed to mend the ways of Ravana. However, he fought on the side of Ravana and was killed in the battlefield. Before dying he met Vibhishana and blessed him for following path of righteousness.
4. Khara - King of Janasthan. He protected the northern kingdom of Lanka in the mainland and his kingdom bordered with the Kosala Kingdom, the kingdom of Rama. He was well-known for his superior skills in warfare.
5. Dushana - Viceroy of Janasthan.
6. Mahiravan - King of the Underworld ruled by the rakshasas by Ravana and Demon King Maya.
7. Kumbhini - sister of Ravana and the wife of the demon Madhu, King of Mathura, she was the mother of Lavanasura. She was renowned for her beauty and later retired to the sea for penance.
8. Surpanakha - the evil sister of Ravana. She was the ultimate root of the kidnapping of Sita Devi. She was the one who instigated her brothers to wage a war against Rama.
Ravana - Vishnu's cursed doorkeeperRavan, the 10-headed infamous demon, was a greater scholar of the Vedas. Not many people know that the true meaning why ravan had 10 heads. The heads are the symbolic way to show the world about his knowledge. He was fully aware of the contents of the six shastras. His knowledge of the six shastras and his knowledge of the four vedas (together ten) is the inner meaning of the belief that Ravana had ten heads. He even knew that Ram was Narayana himself, who had come in human form. However, since there was no other way for him to reach to Narayana, he had to cultivate wanton wickedness, violence and hatred, and invite Ram to kill him. Of course, this might be called a type of devotion that is stupid and infamous. But his inner aim was to cross the ocean of birth and death, through that act of self abnegation and surrender to Narayana. Scriptures also justify this argument: In the Bhagavata Purana, Ravana and his brother, Kumbakarna were said to be reincarnations of Jaya and Vijaya, gatekeepers at Vaikunth, the abode of Vishnu and were cursed to be born in Earth for their insolence. These gatekeepers refused entry to the Sanatha Kumara monks, who, because of their powers and austerity appeared as young children. For their insolence, the monks cursed them to be expelled from Vaikunta and to be born in Earth. The all-merciful Vishnu agreed that they should be punished but agreed to mitigate their curse. He asked them whether they would want to be undergo seven births as devotees of Vishnu or three births as enemies of the Lord. Since they wanted to get back as soon as possible, they agreed to be born in three births as enemies of God. In the first birth, Jaya and Vijaya were born as Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha. Vishnu incarnated as Varaha and Narasimha and killed them both. In Treta Yuga they were born as Ravana and Kumbhakarna and were killed by Rama. Then in Dwapara yuga, and in their final birth, Jaya and Vijaya they were born as Shishupala and Kansa and killed by Sri Krishna.
Counter PointEven though Ravan is portrayed as a vile villain in Ramayan, this view is being vastly questioned due to lack of any overt instances. Ravan's abduction of Sita was not driven by his lust for her, but instead it was done to punish Ram for attacking his sister "Shoorpanaka".
While Ram and Laxman were living in the woods, Shoorpanaka saw Ram and fell in love with him. Smitten by Ram's beauty, Shoorpanaka proposed to Ram who in turn turned her away saying he is married. Shoorpanaka then approached Laxman (Ram's brother). But Laxman too turned her away. Enraged Shoorpanaka tried to attack Sita as she was convinced that Ram discouraged her proposal because of Sita. At this point Laxman cut off Shoorpanaka's nose and ears. Though Laxman did this for fear of Sita's safety, the extremity of the act upon his unarmed sister enraged Ravan and he abducted Sita to avenge the insult.
Nevertheless Ravan never even touches Sita while she is being held as his hostage. He visits her regularly and asks her consent to marry him. But every time Sita declines. But there is not a single instance when Ravan misbehaves with Sita. He plays the role of a gentleman to the hilt.