Ravana, the main villain of the Ramayana, represents the selfish, harmful desires that plague our hearts.

By Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Ravana’s strength – and his main problem – originated not in his conspicuous multiple heads but in his less conspicuous heart.

The Ramayana culminates in a massive war between the vicious Ravana and the virtuous Rama, the Supreme descended in human form. The confrontation between them is triggered by Ravana’s abduction of Rama’s wife, Sita. But its seeds were sowed much earlier, by the demon’s atrocities that had extended for a long time.

Ravana is traditionally seen as the embodiment of lust. Herein, embodiment refers not to the fictional concretization of a human attribute, but to a paradigmatic individual in whom that attribute is strikingly manifested.

Ravana’s Rampage Repelled

As the Ramayana war neared its finale, Ravana had dispatched all of his foremost warriors to the battlefield, and Rama’s forces had dispatched them from the battlefield and the world. Realizing that the fate of the war now depended on him alone, Ravana came out to fight with the last of his forces. The demon fought furiously, tearing through the ranks of the vanaras (monkeys), trying to reverse the odds that he had thought were overwhelmingly in his favor at the start of the war, but were now overwhelmingly against him. His initial derisive dismissal – “What can a motley band of humans and monkeys do?” – had changed to disbelieving despair: “What have these humans and monkeys done?”

Unable to tolerate the thought of his defeat or demise, Ravana fought remorselessly, felling opponents wherever he went. Seeing him devastating the vanaras, Rama confronted him. The two great warriors fought intensely. Despite his many boons, Ravana just couldn’t match Rama’s speed and skill in archery. Slowly but unstoppably, he started losing ground. One by one, his bow was cut, his charioteer killed, his chariot wrecked, and his armor destroyed. He was rendered weaponless, defenseless, motionless – an easy target for Rama’s final fatal arrows.

But Rama graciously spared the demon. He desired victory through a fair fight between the two of them at their best. As Ravana had already fought many great vanara warriors that day, he would now be tired. So Rama let him go, telling him to retreat, rest, and return the next day,.

Though spared, Ravana felt humiliated. Yet he had no alternative except to run back to his palace while Rama still remained benevolently disposed.

The Final Battle

The next morning, Ravana marched out of the city of Lanka, determined to avenge his humiliation. Soon, both Ravana and Rama, who had been fighting other opponents, came face to face. Just as their fight was about to begin, a magnificent chariot descended in front of Rama. The charioteer bowed to Rama and explained that Indra had sent his chariot and charioteer to assist Rama, who had till then been fighting from Hanuman’s shoulder.

The arrival of a celestial chariot was another reminder to Ravana that he wasn’t fighting an ordinary human being. Of course, had he been in a mood to learn, he could have already learned that lesson by seeing how Rama had felled his colossal and near-invincible brother, Kumbhakarna, and how Rama’s warriors had felled all his foremost warriors, who had bested even the gods. In fact, he could have learned that lesson even before the war had begun. How? By contemplating Rama’s feat of single-handedly overpowering the fourteen thousand demons Ravana had stationed at his outpost in Janasthana. Such a feat was far beyond the ken of any human being. Yet the same obstinacy that had blinded Ravana lifelong kept him blind when death stared him in the face.

Incensed to see Indra helping his opponent, Ravana launched a ferocious attack. After a fearsome battle that left both warriors bloodied, Rama slowly gained the upper hand with His peerless archery. Overwhelming Ravana with His unrelenting fusillade of arrows, Rama used divine arrows to cut off the demon’s ten heads. To Rama’s consternation, however, the heads soon reappeared. He cut them off again, and they appeared again.

Seeing Rama perplexed, Ravana laughed malevolently, convinced of his invulnerability. With blinding speed, he redoubled his attack, trying to turn the tables on Rama. Ravana had got benedictions from the gods that if his heads or limbs were cut off, they would reappear. He had frequently used that benediction to baffle his opponents and then overpower them. That was how he had overcome the aged vulture Jatayu, who had become exhausted after the stupendous effort of ripping off several of Ravana’s heads and arms.

But unlike the aged Jatayu, Rama was young. And He had another decisive advantage: an ally who knew Ravana’s weakness. The demon’s younger brother, Vibhishana, had joined Rama, being appalled by Ravana’s remorseless viciousness. On seeing Rama stymied by Ravana’s seeming invincibility, Vibhishana rushed to Rama’s side and informed him that Ravana’s life force was kept hidden in his heart. Destroying that life force by attacking his heart was the only way to fell the wicked demon.

Inferring that his secret was being revealed, Ravana rebuked Vibhishana and increased the ferocity of his attack on Rama. Wanting to finish the demon, Rama uttered a mantra given by the sage Agastya known as the Aditya Hrdaya. That mantra’s mystic energy rejuvenated and empowered Rama. Invoking one of the most powerful celestial arrows at His command, He aimed it at Ravana’s heart and fired it with breathtaking speed. Despite the demon’s frantic efforts to ward off that missile, it unrelentingly pierced his heart. With a howl that shook the earth, the demon fell, never to rise again.

The Significance of Ravana’s Reappearing Heads

The Ramayana is an Itihasa, a genre of spiritual literature based on historical accounts. Yet its significance extends far beyond mere historical reporting. It depicts timeless values that can guide people through all times in history to attain the world beyond history – the timeless spiritual arena of existence.

Seen from this value-centered perspective, Ravana’s reappearing heads might represent our lower desires. Even if we reject one such desire, others keep appearing, as did Ravana’s heads. Just as Rama succeeded only when He directed His arrow not towards the heads but towards the heart, similarly we can succeed when we direct our purificatory effort not towards specific desires but towards our heart, towards the misdirection of our love away from the Lord to the world.

Ravana’s ten heads were conspicuous. Yet his strength lay not there, but in a less conspicuous part: his heart. Similarly, gross wrongdoings are conspicuous. But what corrupts us most is not such specific wrongdoings, but our fundamental wrongdoing of being disconnected from divinity. Wrongdoing refers not just to the wrong we do, but also the right we don’t do. As long as we don’t do the right of connecting devotionally with our Lord, we will keep succumbing to one wrong desire or another – the heads will keep reappearing. When we make our heart right by practicing bhakti-yoga diligently, our lower desires soon get exiled from our heart, fully and forever.

The fall of Ravana is commemorated in the festival of Dussehra, wherein a huge effigy of the demon king is set ablaze. Often, a flaming arrow is shot at the wooden effigy, reenacting Rama’s fatal attack on Ravana. Just as Ravana’s fall was celebrated with cheers by the many gods and sages assembled to watch the battle, so too is the fall of Ravana’s effigy cheered by onlookers assembled for Dussehra.

The imagery centered on fire is significant. Fire sacrifices are time-honored means for sanctification. Additionally, fire is used for cremation after death. The body’s cremation releases the soul from any lingering attachment to its physical shell, freeing it to travel to its next destination.

The incineration of Ravana’s effigy can be said to signify the incineration of our lower desires and the sanctification of our consciousness, which becomes detached and free to rise to higher levels of reality. While cheering the razing of Ravana’s effigy, we can pray that our lower desires be similarly razed by the purifying fire of devotion.

Gender Depictions

Some people feel that Indian traditions portray women negatively as agents of illusion. In fact, Maya, who embodies the illusory energy of the Lord, is a female. However, the foremost force of illusion is lust, and it is embodied as Ravana, a male.

Philosophically speaking, lust in particular and illusion in general are gender neutral. The same Ramayana that depicts the masculine Ravana as an embodiment of lust also depicts his sister, Surpanakha, as a female embodiment of lust. In fact, it was her lust for Rama and her subsequent assault on Sita, whom she saw as her competitor in gaining Rama’s attention, that escalated tensions between Rama and Ravana. Worse still, when Ravana had become circumspect on learning of Rama’s formidable power, it was Surpanakha who inflamed his lusty imagination by fueling it with provocative descriptions of Sita’s beauty.

The Bhagavad-gita section that analyzes lust (3.36–43) – how it deludes and how it can be defeated – doesn’t use any gender-specific language or imagery. To the contrary, the Gita (3.40) states that lust is present in all living beings – in their senses, mind, and intelligence. Lust deludes and degrades everyone it controls; it makes men into monsters and women into witches. Captivated by lust, men perpetrate barbaric atrocities to gratify their desires, and women bewitch and befool others with their feminine charms.

In contemporary culture, sexual violence is often strongly condemned, and rightly so. Ironically, however, the same culture also condones sexually explicit images – and rationalizes such depictions as the right to free expression. In a culture that features both moral perversity and moral ambiguity, the Ramayana’s gender-neutral narrative of the universal consequences of uncontrolled lust sounds an essential cautionary note.

The DUST Acronym

The phrase “bite the dust” signifies defeat, often an ignominious defeat. This usage derives from sports such as wrestling wherein the winner holds the loser down, metaphorically making the latter bite the dust. It could be said that Rama’s fatal arrow made Ravana bite the dust. His fall represents the fate of those who give themselves to lust.  

Additionally, dust in a devotional context refers to the sacred dust of the lotus feet of the Lord and of those devoted to Him. Such dust is considered immensely pure, capable of purging us of our worldly desires. Indeed, becoming blessed by sacred dust is considered an essential purpose of practicing bhakti-yoga. [See the sidebar “The Dust of the Lotus Feet.”]

And how that process of bhakti-yoga can help us overcome lust can be explicated using the acronym DUST: Determination, Understanding, Submission, Training.

Determination: Suppose we are infected with a lethal but curable disease. When the gravity of the disease registers within us, we become determined to take the treatment, even if it is demanding. Similarly, when the grave consequences of infection by lust register within us, we muster determination to curb and cure it, even if doing so is difficult. The Gita (2.41) underscores the need for single-pointed determination. We may have resolved to curb our lower desires in the past and failed. Such failures may dishearten us into thinking we just don’t have the necessary determination.

However, we all have determination; it’s just misdirected. In our conditioned stage we use our determination to gratify our lower desires. We need to redirect that same determination in the opposite direction – to fight those desires.

Understanding: Gita wisdom helps us understand the deceptive nature of licentious desires: they promise huge pleasure, but deliver only meager pleasure, which too soon gives way to massive trouble. More importantly, bhakti literature help us understand where lust comes from. Love for the Lord is central to our spiritual nature. When it becomes misdirected to worldly objects, it transmogrifies into lust. And when lust is indulged in indiscriminately, it becomes insatiable.

When we lead a life of dharma and practice bhakti-yoga for redirecting our love to the Lord, our desires become slowly but surely purified.

This understanding of how lust originates and how it can be redirected complements our determination.

Submission: Our fundamental malaise is the desire to seek pleasure separate from God, whose name “Rama” conveys that He is the reservoir of all pleasure. The Gita (15.7) states that we are eternal parts of the Lord; when we act apart from Him, we end up enticed and enslaved by the lower desires in our mind and senses. If we want to end our subordination to our lower desires, we need to cultivate submission to our Lord.

Lest the notion of submission cause some visceral aversion, it’s important to stress that devotional submission to the Lord is not at all like worldly submission. Whereas worldly submission is sometimes demeaning, submission to Him who is our greatest benefactor is uplifting and empowering. This submission is out of love, just as those in love may say to their beloved, “Your wish is my command.” When we submit ourselves to the Lord, His omnipotence empowers us to overpower our lower desires. By our diligent practice of bhakti-yoga, devotional submission blossoms into devotional absorption, and we transcend our lower desires.

Training: A patient who has been immobilized needs training to walk again. We are spiritually immobilized, being afflicted by our lower desires, which ground our consciousness at the material level. We need training to walk spiritually, that is, to raise our consciousness to the spiritual level. Bhakti-yoga offers this training. Devotional processes – such as chanting the holy names, studying scriptures, and associating with spiritual people – train us, through both precept and example, to keep our consciousness spiritual even amidst life’s temptations and tribulations. The more we practice bhakti-yoga, the more we become trained to keep our consciousness safe and spiritual. We learn to purposefully focus our consciousness on the constructive things we need to do, instead of letting our lower desires drag it to our default attachments. 

When lust is thus treated with dust, what results is liberation – liberation both in this world and beyond it, liberation from shortsighted desires during our stay in this world, and eventually liberation from this material world itself to our Lord’s eternal abode for a life of unending pure love.

Extra Content

The Dust of the Lotus Feet

What does “lotus feet” mean? Are the Lord’s feet dusty? Why should we take that dust?

The lotus symbolizes transcendence. Even though a lotus may grow in dirty water, it is unaffected by its environment – its beauty shines forth in contrast to whatever is nearby. Similarly, when the Lord descends to this world, He is unaffected by its impurities; His purity shines forth in contrast to the world’s many contaminations. In temples, the Lord’s deity is often placed atop a carved lotus to convey that though He may be in this world, He is not of it.

The usage “lotus feet” is not just symbolic, however; the Lord’s feet are also said to be soft like lotuses and marked with lotuses. Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.8.22) is a lotus-centered prayer to Krishna: “My respectful obeisances are unto You, O Lord, whose abdomen is marked with a depression like a lotus flower, who are always decorated with garlands of lotus flowers, whose glance is as cool as the lotus, and whose feet are engraved with lotuses.”

Take the Dust

The act of “taking the dust of the Lord’s lotus feet” is a way of expressing humility by touching the feet of the Lord either with our head or our hands. If we were to literally take the dust from someone’s feet, we would bow before that person. Such bowing down bespeaks humility. Thus, taking the dust of the Lord’s feet means humbling ourselves before Him. If we touch our head at or near His lotus feet, we place the highest part of our body at or near the lowest part of His body, thus conveying the complete subordination of our entire being to Him. 

The dust in the phrase has both nonliteral and literal dimensions. The nonliteral dimension needs to be stressed to contrast with the normal usage of dusty as dirty. If we touch a table and find layers of dust on it, we consider the place unclean and uncared for. In marked contrast, the dust in “taking the dust of the lotus feet” doesn’t convey dirt, for the Lord’s feet are never dirty. If we touched His feet, we wouldn’t be left with dirt on our hands. Every part of His transcendental body is fully pure – so pure that contact with it can purify us. While touching any part of His body can purify us, the stress on the feet highlights His transcendence. Our feet are likely to get dirty and have dust on them. Yet for the Lord, even the bodily part most likely to be dirty remains pure and transcendental. Whereas touching dirty feet would normally contaminate us, touching the dust on the Lord’s lotus feet cleanses us.

The usage is not just about touching His feet, however, but specifically about taking the dust from His feet. This refers to submission to the Lord, which is not just a fleeting one-time event. It means living according to His teachings, or taking shelter of Him.

Additionally, the phrase “taking the dust” has acquired a literal dimension. Places such as Vrindavan where the Lord descended and performed His pastimes are supremely sacred. Devotees on holy pilgrimages who visit the places where the Lord walked often take some dust as mementos.

The foregoing analysis also applies to the Lord’s great devotees, who are constantly absorbed in the Lord’s remembrance and dedicated to His service. By dint of their constant connection with Him, they are considered so pure that they too are treated as objects of this phrase, as in “The dust of the feet of a devotee is permeated with spiritual potency” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 16.60)

In fact, the clay that devotees use to make sacred marks on their foreheads and eleven other parts of their body is made of the soil from a sacred place where Krishna’s topmost devotees, the gopis of Vrindavan, are said to have searched repeatedly for Him, thus mixing the soil there with the dust from their feet.

Thus, to “take the dust from the Lord’s lotus feet” is to bring ourselves in contact with His purity and be thereby transformed, being elevated to a higher level of purity.