The tall trees and the dense foliage of the Dandaka forest provided me with the perfect camouflage. The mating call of a lovelorn bird could be heard in the distance, and the bushes were alive with chirping crickets. The sunbeams bounced off the canopy, casting intricate patterns on the forest floor. I crouched and remained hidden.
In the clearing up ahead was a hut. In front of it stood two young men wearing ascetic robes, their bodies toughened by life in the forest. Behind them was a woman.
I couldn’t see her clearly, but it had to be her.
This was the spot where my sister was mercilessly mutilated, many days ago. My blood boiled, thinking of how dear Shurpanaka had come running to me, face gory, disfigured, and eyes filled with tears.
“Who did this to you? Speak, and he shall die by my sword!”
“Brother, I was roaming around the Dandaka forest, when my eyes fell on a handsome youth. He bore the radiance of a thousand suns. Bewitched by his celestial looks, I fell in love with him. I walked up to him to profess my passion, but he mocked me and turned me away.
I noticed a woman with him; she was the cause of my misery. I charged at her to put an end to her existence, but before I could do anything, the man’s brother attacked me and sliced off my nose. No one will ever want me again! Brother, you vowed to protect me. Avenge me, now.”
I had a whole army at my disposal, an arsenal of divine weapons, and demons that would give up their lives at my bidding. Yet, I took it upon myself to seek justice for my sister. The things we do for love.
My spies provided me with details. A pair of exiled Princes from Ayodhya. The elder one was Rama, and the younger one Lakshmana. They were known to possess extraordinary prowess in combat. I decided to attack Rama where it would hurt him the most. I would target Sita, for that was his wife’s name.
Excited squeals could be heard from up ahead; a golden deer had appeared in front of the hut. This was part of my plan; the deer was no ordinary animal. It was my accomplice, Mareecha, who was an expert in shapeshifting. He had assumed this exotic animal’s form to lure the men away from the hut.
Rama chased after the deer and disappeared into the forest. Mareecha must have been extremely nimble because they didn’t return for a long time. Sita began to panic and instructed Lakshmana to search for her husband. He left reluctantly.
This was my opportunity. I would seize this moment to attack the source of my sister’s sorrow and snuff her life out. I knew the art of magic and could change my form as effortlessly as Mareecha. I transformed into a hermit decked with robes and beads, and approached the hut, begging for alms.
“Devi! Give me something to eat, please.”
I caught a glimpse of Sita’s face. She had doe-like eyes, an aquiline nose, lips like soft petals, and alabaster skin. A rose blooming in the thick of the forest? What a rare sight!
Something shifted within me, like the unfurling of lotus-petals, like the lighting of a thousand lamps, like the mellifluous notes of the Veena, something immensely profound yet incomprehensible.
“Pranam! Let me get you some fruits and water. My husband has stepped out. He will be back soon.”
Hearing her voice, my body shuddered as though I had been hit by lightning. This was not a damsel to be destroyed; she was someone to be revered. Her place was beside me, on the throne. I the Lord of Lanka, and she, my Goddess.
She returned, her hands laden with fruits and a pot of water. As she approached me, I lost all control. I transformed into my actual form; regal and fierce, towering, and statuesque.
She screamed and trembled.
“Who are you? Go away, you demon!”
She tried running back into the hut. I was quicker. I grabbed her by her lustrous mane, as she resisted and screamed for her husband and her brother-in-law, both of whom were far away, thanks to Mareecha. Her form was minuscule in contrast to mine, yet she put up the fight of her life, her furious gaze scorching me.
I dragged her to my flying chariot, the Pushpakavimana. I had usurped this vehicle from my half-brother. Come to think of it, everything that I owned had to be procured by force, including this lovely woman. I flung Sita into the Pushpak, as it roared to life and took to the skies. As we soared high up into the clouds, the hut below became smaller and smaller. I turned to my captive.
“Sita! Like the forest below, your past life is insignificant. You are mine.”
I relished the sound of her name on my tongue, while she wailed in anguish.
“Rama! Where are you, beloved? Protect me from this tyrant.”
We were interrupted by a giant vulture that had materialized out of nowhere. His hideous body impeded the Pushpak. He flapped his wings and tried attacking me with his sharp claws. I seized my sword and hacked the offender to pieces. Sita fainted at the sight. At least this way, she would be easier to handle.
I looked at her collapsed form with lust-filled eyes. Alas! I could not touch her; I had to resist the temptation. No, my intentions were hardly noble. Where women were concerned, I took what I wanted. My Queen Mandodari, my chief consort, had made peace with this. She ignored my transgressions, and it worked well for both of us.
The reason for my hesitation was the imprecation of a woman I had ravished forcefully in the past. She cursed me that I could no longer touch any woman against her will, else I would be reduced to ashes. That curse had not been a problem till now; no woman dared refuse me. After all, I was Ravana; feared and revered. Every woman longed to become one with me.
It would only be a matter of time before Sita would forget her Rama. After all, the splendour of Lanka was seductive. Who could resist the allure of power and grandeur?
As the clouds parted, I could see the outline of Lanka from a distance against the shimmering ocean. My heart filled with pride. My Lanka! I had paved her streets with gold and filled her coffers. My subjects loved me, and I genuinely cared for them.
The Pushpak prepared for its descent. The weather had turned, and the skies were filled with dark clouds. There was a storm brewing on the horizon.
Queen Mandodari stood with a plate of camphor and vermillion to welcome me. The royal entourage accompanied her, and musicians heralded my arrival.
“My Lord, Lanka has been empty without you.”
I embraced her. She stared at Sita’s slumped form and arched her eyebrows quizzically at me.
“A prisoner. I have instructed the guards to house her at the royal palace.”
Truth be told, my explanation rang hollow. Mandodari’s expression revealed that she did not believe me either. Her misgivings weren’t unfounded; my past exploits had destroyed any trust she may have had left.
Bewildered by the depth of my feelings for a woman I had just set my eyes on, I sought refuge in the one place where I felt peace. I headed to the temple inside my palace that was dedicated to my favourite deity, Lord Shiva.
I closed my eyes and meditated in front of the giant marble Shiva. The Lord looked serene and austere, wearing the crescent moon on his head, and the snake around his neck like a garland.
I chanted the Shiva Tandava Stothram, my own composition, that sang praises of Shiva and his cosmic dance. What would usually be a tranquil session proved to be largely unfruitful. My mind was as unstable as the waves of the ocean.
That’s when I heard a faint voice.
Remember who you are.
I looked around to see where the sound came from, but only the calm countenance of Lord Shiva stared back at me. Before I could ruminate on these words, a palace guard came in, his head bowed down.
“My Lord, your prisoner refused to stay inside the palace. She said that Lanka’s riches are like a thorn in her flesh. We took her to the Ashoka grove, where she found a place under the trees. She said she would wait for her husband there.”
I suppressed the urge to scream profanities out aloud.
By now the news had spread like wildfire. I was ambushed at the royal council’s meeting.
“Oh, King! You are hailed as the ten-headed one; in just one head you combine the intelligence of ten. Do you not know that it is a sin to covet the wife of another man? Return her with dignity, before it is too late.”
“Silence! How dare you speak to me like this? Sita is mine. Anyone who feels otherwise will face the wrath of my sword.”
My threats silenced the court, at least for now. I could see the misgivings in the eyes of my courtiers.
I wanted Sita. I had to have Sita. She would give in, and the dust would settle.
Mandodari begged me.
“The omens are all wrong. This woman’s footsteps spell doom for Lanka. I beseech you to be rid of her.”
I dismissed her fears, for I was invincible. The Gods themselves had given me a boon, that I would not be killed by any immortal. Mortals didn’t stand a chance anyway. What was there to fear?
Towards Mandodari I felt affection. But that was all there was to it. What I felt for Sita could not be replicated for any other woman, not even for the mother of my children.
Mandodari persisted, her insecurities peaking.
“Sita is not as beautiful as I am. She doesn’t hail from a distinguished lineage. As an infant, she was found discarded in a field before King Janaka adopted her. What do you see in her? How has she bewitched you thus?”
“Silence! I will not hear a word against Sita,” I roared, and she cowered.
I was delirious with a fever that burned my body, an ardour that coursed through my veins. Was this love? How could I explain it to others when I barely understood it myself?
I visited Sita every day and tried every trick in the book. Neither threat nor sweet nothings worked. She refused to sample the delicacies or adorn the ornate jewels and silks I sent. While my court shivered under my gaze, she stood tall and defiant.
The demonesses who guarded the grove sang praises of me to brainwash her into loving me. I could provide her all the comfort and riches in the world, yet she chose not to budge. I looked at her countenance with hope and longing, even content with the slightest reversal of animosity, but alas; always returned disappointed. Her thoughts plagued me and threatened my sanity.
She had only one name on her lips. A name that I had come to detest. Rama. Several months had elapsed since the abduction, yet Sita remained steadfast in her devotion; her Rama would come. Her defiance only intensified my infatuation. I was attracted to her like a moth to a flame. The flame burned me alive, yet I couldn’t distance myself.
Why could she not love me the way I loved her?
There was chaos in my court that day.
“It’s a monkey! It has ransacked the Ashoka grove and destroyed it.”
“Was Sita…I mean, was anyone hurt?’ I asked with a thundering heart.
“No, but we have the culprit here.”
The overgrown monkey was the size of a man and looked at me jeeringly.
“Tie it up, set its tail on fire, and parade it through Lanka!” I ordered.
The monkey began to titter, much to my chagrin. The arrogance of that creature! My men would teach it a lesson. I ordered it to be taken away to serve its sentence.
Upon hearing screams and noise, I rushed to the balcony, where I had an unobstructed view of Lanka. The city was shrouded in scarlet flames and the air was heavy with smoke. My subjects were running helter-skelter in panic. That mischievous monkey had escaped my incompetent guards and set Lanka on fire!
“Imbeciles! Can you not control one monkey?” I thundered, as I watched the hungry flames devour whatever was in their path. I was told that the monkey had escaped by then, but not before leaving a message.
“I’m Hanuman, messenger of Lord Rama. He is coming.”
As I watched my men struggle to control the carnage, Mandodari walked up to me, quietly.
“These are the flames of your deliria,” she whispered sadly.
“No. This is the colour of my passion!”
The smoky breeze seemed to whisper. Remember who you are.
Who was I?
“Sita, I give you an ultimatum. Marry me, else I will kill you.” I lowered my voice menacingly.
I knew this was not true. I couldn’t let her die, not without her acknowledging my love. No woman had denied me till now, and she wouldn’t be the first. I wouldn’t let her.
“Rama will rescue me! I’m his and his alone,” she insisted stubbornly.
“If you must know, Rama has reached the shores of Lanka. He has come to face me with an army of monkeys and wild beasts. They will die one by one at my hands.”
“I wait for the day Rama chops your head off, you monster!”
I stormed out in frustration, but returned the next day, carrying a basket for Sita. If I could convince her that her husband had died, perhaps she would change her mind. I showed her the two severed heads.
“Here lies your saviour!” I mocked, the blood dripping from my illusion. My magic was handy at times like these.
Sita watched in terror and wailed in agony, glancing at the severed heads in shock. Suddenly, realization dawned on her.
“No. This is not my Lord. Be gone, you devil!”
The heads I was holding vanished from my hands. A fierce radiance emanated from Sita’s visage.
I rushed out of the grove, deeply troubled.
The war commenced. I was confident that I would squash the enemy. I had the might of Lanka and the backing of the fiercest warriors known in history.
Fortune favours the brave, not the over-confident.
We lost battle after battle. As the days elapsed, I realized that I had underestimated Rama and his monkey army. They had an answer to everything-our arrows, our magic, our poisons, and our illusions. One by one the mighty fell; first my indomitable brother Kumbhakarna, then my generals.
It appeared that Rama was indeed deserving of the pedestal Sita had placed him on.
If I won this battle, wouldn’t she look at me in the same way?
As a last resort, I sent out the crown princes of Lanka to the battlefield.
Mandodari’s teary eyes blazed.
“You, the guardian of Lanka, have failed your people. Your lust for a woman has filled your kingdom with widows. You have snatched away from me my prized possessions, my sons.”
I hung my head. I had no rebuttal to her accusations. Our sons were dead, killed by Rama and his troops. No father should have to perform the last rites of his children, and yet here I was. Kumbhakarna and my Princes had sacrificed their lives for me. After their selfless acts, I couldn’t abandon my goal. The only thing left to salvage was my pride.
I had to attain Sita, else everything else was meaningless. My losses stung, but my love for her encompassed every fibre of my being and possessed me.
What name should I give this forbidden love? Lust? Mania? Why did the world sully it by labelling it a mere obsession?
The next day, I rode out into the final battle. My army had been decimated. It was either him or me. Rama or Ravana. Mandodari did not send me off with victory prayers. For her, the battle was lost the day our sons died.
I stood alone on the battlefield, surrounded by corpses. I was severely wounded, my charioteer slain. Ahead of me, stood my nemesis, Rama. Sita’s Rama.
The man I envied. The man I longed to destroy, but in the process ended up destroying myself.
Rama raised the Brahmastra and strung his bow. It had my death written on it.
Remember who you are.
This time, I remembered.
I heard the sound of the ocean and the susurration of the waves. I saw my Lord reclining on his serpent bed, his beautiful consort Goddess Lakshmi next to him.
I am Jaya, one of the guardians of the gates of Vaikunta, the Lord’s abode. Gatekeeper to Him who is gatekeeper of the entire world. Lord Vishnu is my father, my mother, my teacher, my light, and my life. I have known no other love other than his, and in it I am complete.
How did we get separated? I recall that fateful day.
My brother Vijaya and I kept guard at the gates as our Lord slumbered on. Four cherubic children sauntered by; they looked like pranksters. I raised a wary brow at my brother. Who knew what mischief these young ones were up to?
“We wish to see Lord Vishnu,” one squeaked.
“Run along you imps, he is not to be disturbed.”
“Why, do you have a monopoly over him?” asked another precocious child.
“Such impudence at such a young age!” I admonished.
There was a clap of thunder. We realized our folly, a tad too late. These were no ordinary children. They were Lord Brahma’s sons, sages of immense knowledge, who had assumed the form of little children.
“Who are you to stop us from meeting our Lord? For your arrogance, we curse you! You will be separated from him!”
The gates swung open, and who should we see, but Lord Vishnu himself. Our ruckus had awakened him. We fell at his feet and begged him to redeem us of the terrible curse. We couldn’t bear to be parted from him, for even a second.
“I can offer you two options to alleviate the curse. Choose to live on earth as my devotees and be reunited with me, after seven births. Else chose to be my mortal enemy and meet your end at my hands, for three births.”
I looked at Vijaya. We knew which option we would choose. We chose to be reunited with the Lord as soon as possible, even if it meant becoming his foe.
In my previous birth, I met my end at Lord Narasimha’s hands. My Vishnu had come for me in that form and released me. And in this birth, as Ravana, I would attain my deliverance, at the hands of Rama.
I had remembered, at last!
The arrow made its way towards my neck.
I closed my eyes.
I was at Vaikunta. The purpose of my existence, the centre of my universe, my Lord Vishnu, smiled at me. I wept.
“Lord! I cannot bear this. Which birth is this?”
“This is the second one, Jaya. You were Ravana, and Vijaya was Kumbhakarna. One more birth to go.”
I folded my palms together and prostrated before Goddess Lakshmi seated beside her husband.
“Mother, forgive me for my cowardly acts in your avatar as Sita. I didn’t seek your consent and held you against your will.”
I sobbed uncontrollably, but she replied with a smile.
“Jaya! Do not forget this is part of a larger plan. Your death will be celebrated to mark the victory of good over evil. It will not be in vain, for It will reaffirm faith and hope. Your effigies will be burnt, sending a warning to everyone to treat women with respect. For every crime against a woman, a Rama will rise.”
Lord Vishnu continued, “Go Jaya, the time has come to put an end to this birth. Your mortal life will serve as a testament to the fact that however scholarly a man may be, his ego will be the end of him. We will be reunited soon.”
The arrow severed my head. The last sight to meet my eyes before they closed forever, was the lotus-eyed Rama’s face. My Vishnu’s face.
I finally realized what love meant.
Love is not obsession or deliria. Love does not drive you to madness, it imparts everlasting contentment. Love is pure and unconditional. It only gives, expecting nothing in return.
Love for me is my Lord.
And in that moment, lay my victory, my Jaya.
- This story is based on the Valmiki Ramayana. It is told through Ravana’s eyes, though I have exercised creative liberty/over-simplified in some places.
- Reference to Jaya and Vijaya’s story can be found in the Bhagavata Puranam.
- Shiva Thandava Sthothram: This beautiful composition can be found here.
- Ravana is referred to as Dashanan, or the one with ten heads. It is implied that he was very intelligent.
- Ravana’s effigies are burnt during Dusshera, celebrating the victory of good over evil.
- Devi: Goddess, Addressing a woman
- Pranams: Greetings
- Jaya: Victory
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