He plays a major role in the Hindu mythology Ramayana, where he is mainly depicted negatively as a brute, and most infamously as having kidnapped Rama‘s wife Sita and being killed by her husband.
This depiction is, however, open to other interpretations. Ravana is also mentioned as a great scholar, a capable ruler and a devoted follower of Shiva, and he has his apologists and staunch devotees within the Hindu traditions. The actual meaning of “10 headed” shows the positive side of Raavana: he possesses very thorough knowledge in 4 vedas, and 6 upanishadas, which made him as powerful as 10 scholars.
Nationalists in Southern parts of the Indian subcontinent have tried to dipict Ravana as a martyr and betrayed king. Prominent among them is the Tamil nationalistic view that Ravana was an ancient Tamil king and the Sinhalese nationalitic view that he was an ancient ‘Hela’ king. While no historical evidence is known to corroborate these modern myths, there is a significant attempt by nationalists to promote these views as fact for political purposes, illustrating the impact the character has even up to the present day.
Ravana is also said to have authored Ravana Sanhita, a powerful book on the Hindu astrology, also known as Kaali Kitab. Ravana possessed a thorough knowledge of Ayurveda and political science. He is said to have possessed the nectar of immortality, which was stored under His navel, thanks to a celestial boon by Brahma.
Ravana was born to his father Brahmin sage known as Vishrava and his wife, the daitya princess Kaikesi. He was born in the Devagana gotra, as his grandfather, sage Pulastya, was the one of the six human sons of Brahma. Kaikesi’s father, Sumali (or Sumalaya), 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, the father of Kubera. Ravana was thus partly Daitya and partly Brahmin.
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 “winnow-like nails”.
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 a picture of veena on it.Sumali, his grandfather, worked hard in secret to ensure that he retained the ethics of the Daityas.
The Ramayana tells the Ravana had close connections with region of the Yadus, which included Gujarat, parts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan up to Mathura south of Delhi. Ravana is believed to be the related to Lavanasura also regarded as a Rakshasa, of Madhupura (Mathura) in the region of the Surasenas, who was conquered & killed by Shatrughana, youngest brother of Rama.
After worshipping a Shiva Linga on the banks of the Narmada, in the more central Yadu region, Ravana was captured and held under the control of King Kartavirya Arjuna, one of the greatest Yadu kings. It is very clear from the references in the Ramayana, That Ravana was no commoner among the Humans or Asuras, a great chanter of the Sama Veda.
It is mentioned in one of the chapters of the Srimada Bhagvata, that Sita was actually his daughter. During one of the Ceremonial Yagya By Lord Shiva, Ravana was given the Boon Water,which he was told to give to Mandodari. While on way back to his kingdom, both the husband & wife slept in a lonely forest. During the night, Ravana felt thirsty, so he drank that water & was impregnated. While on the way back to his kingdom the next day, he coughed ferociously and Sita is said to have landed in Janakpur, The kingdom of King Janaka, who while ploughing in ceremony after performing the Yagya for the rains in his drought hit kingdom, struck a metal vessel with the lowest blade of the plough called Seet, this is how Sita’s name originated.
Tapas to Brahma
Following 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 to give, but gave him the celestial nectar of immortality. The nectar of immortality, which was stored under his navel, according to which he could never be vanquished till the nectar was dried out.
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 these. Brahma granted him these boons, and additionally great strength by way of knowledge of divine weapons and sorcery.
King of Lanka
After winning these boons, Ravana sought out his grandfather, Sumali, and assumed leadership over his army. He then set his sights on capturing the island city of 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 Ravana and the latter’s siblings, who were Kubera’s half-brothers and half-sister through his stepmother Kaikesi. However, Ravana demanded Lanka wholly from him, threatening to take it by force. Vishrava, their father, advised Kubera to give it up to him, as Ravana was now undefeatable.
Although Ravana usurped Lanka, he was nevertheless regarded as a benevolent and effective ruler. Lanka flourished under his rule, to the extent that 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 god Shiva
Following his conquest of Lanka, Ravana encountered Shiva at his abode in Kailash. Here Ravana attempted to uproot and move the mountain on a whim. Shiva, annoyed by Ravana’s arrogance, pressed his littlest Toe on Kailash, pinning him firmly and painfully under it. 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 years until Shiva released him from his bondage.
Pleased with his resilience and devotion, Shiva gave to him the divine sword Chandrahas (“Moon-blade”). It was during this incident that he acquired 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 and is said to have composed the hymn known as Shiva Tandava Stotra.
After Ravana had been given the Celestial juice of Immortality by Brahma, he went on to please Shiva. He cut his head & put it as sacrifice for pleasing Shiva, but Shiva replaced his head with a new one. This was repeated Nine times, on which Shiva was happy & pleased with Ravana’s resilience & devotion. Thus he also got name Dassa-sheesha.
Emperor of the Three Worlds
His 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’s rising and setting.
Ravana 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, the most beautiful woman described in Indian spiritualism.
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 was known 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 encounter with 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. He propositions her and is rejected. Ravana mocks her austerities and her devotion to Vishnu; finding himself firmly rejected at every turn, he tries to molest Vedavati, pulling her hair. This greatly incensed her, and she forthwith cut off her hair, and said she would enter into the fire before his eyes, adding, “Since I have been insulted in the forest by thee who art wicked-hearted, I shall be born again for thy destruction.” So she entered the blazing fire, and celestial flowers fell all around. It was she who was born again as Sita, and was the moving cause of Ravana’s death, though Rama was the agent.
Vedavati is said to have been reborn as Sita, causing Ravana’s death and winning Vishnu (as Rama) as her husband.
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 if he forced himself upon any woman thereafter. This curse is said to have protected Sita’s chastity while she was Ravana’s captive for nearly a year.
Depiction in other Scriptures, as Vishnu’s cursed doorkeeper
In 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 on Earth.
God Vishnu agreed that they should be punished, but agreed to mitigate their curse. He asked them whether they wanted seven births as devotees of Vishnu or three births as enemies of the Lord. Since they wanted to return as soon as possible, they agreed to be born in three births as evil-doers. As according to the Vishnu Puarana, once Narada wanted to get the Shape & form of Lord Vishnu, so that he could marry a Princess on whom he had developed infatuation (although it was a Vishnu’s mesmerisation. On desperate request of Narada, Lord Vishnu actually made him look like a monkey. Narada straightaway went to the Swayamvara of that Princess. The princess is said to have passed Him three times, when he didn’t still realise why he was rejected(as he believed that he looked Like Lord Vishnu). Other Princesses present there made fun out of his Appearance and told him to just have a look at himself before looking at the Princess. He went to a nearby fountain & looked in the water. He was furious to find that he, in fact, looked like a monkey. Lord Vishnu was also present there. Narada cursed him saying that in ‘Treta Yuga his beloved wife will get kidnapped by a Demon. He will be compelled to seek help from the monkeys. The two Door Keepers of Lord Vishnu, Jai & Vijay, were also present there laughed uncontrollably at Narada’s plight.Enraged he hurled another curse at them as, that they should live on Earth as Demons at that time. Just then when the princess put the Swayamvara Garland on Vishnu’s neck and she came to her real incarnation as Goddess Lakshmi. On this Narada realised his mistake and asked for apology from Lord Vishnu. Upon which Vishnu said that, it was bound to happen. Jai & Vijay pleaded to Lord Narada to forgive them. But a curse could never be taken back, so he limited the Curse to Three Lives. Lord Vishnu came to their rescue & said that he would each time he bring them Mokhsha by Killing them & that they would be back in his service after that.
In the first birth,in kritaYuga 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. In their final birth, they were born as Shishupala and Dantavakra, and killed by Sri Krishna. After the end of three births, they returned to Vaikunta.