Published  in Devlok, Sunday Midday, October 09, 2011

Imagine a man walks into your house, charms you so beautifully that you willingly give him your house, your wife and your children, and feel good about it. That is the kind of villain that the Ramayana presents – Ravan. When positioned against a rather austere and upright Ram, Ravan does look more exciting.

It is amusing to observe, in many recent renderings of the epic Ramayana, people’s fascination with this ten-headed king of the Rakshasas, visualizing him as some kind of a hero and role model. Couples are even considering naming their child Ravan. Clearly, the charm and seduction of this ancient villain still works.

If we oppose Ram and celebrate Ravan there are many benefits. We distance yourself from Right-Wing fundamentalists. We identify yourself as a feminist. We reject North Indian domination of national politics and Bollywood. We mock all your traditional relatives and ancestors, and feel superior to them. We feel subversive and cool. So, this opposition of Ram and celebration of Ravan has nothing to do with the epic story itself but it has a lot to do with our self-image.

Even the appreciation of Ram and opposition of Ravan has a lot of do with our self-image. We identify ourselves as a patron of traditional India and not a neo-Leftist, who is always fighting for justice. We become devotees in our own eyes, noble and upright.

Nobody is actually looking at Ram or Ravan; what we are seeking is our image of ourselves projected through these tales.

This trend is seen in the West too. Suddenly vampires who suck your blood are the most romantic of heroes, as are werewolves who generally would like to disembowel you with their sharp teeth. The idea that someone dangerous loves you, that you have the power to tame the demon, makes you feel special. We want to feel special in a world where everyone has the iPad and a Facebook account. One way is to become the Devil’s concubine, a fan of Ravan, the lover of the undead, since it seems God has abandoned you.

This relationship between man and God has been the subject of much literature. In Vaishanava bhakti literature, one finds analogies made with the animal world. Should the devotee be like a kitten and allow God to pick and place you in safety, like a mother cat? Or should a devotee be like a monkey baby who clings to her mother’s belly? Who should play the active role – the devotee or God?

Of late, we seem to saying, if God cannot behave like a cat-mother and take care of us, we will turn into a baby-monkey and cling to the Devil instead. And both Ram and Ravan chuckle, for the only one who loses in this choice is us.