In fact, to our modern eyes, this Ravana is a tragic figure; we are moved to admiration and pity for Ravana when the Jains tell the story. I should mention one more motif: according to the Jain way of thinking, a pair of antagonists, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva – a hero and an anti-hero, almost like self and Other – are destined to fight in life after life. Laksmana and Ravana are the eighth incarnations of this pair. They are born in age after age, meet each other in battle after many vicissitudes and in every encounter Vasudeva inevitably kills his counterpart, his prati. Ravana learns at the end that Laksmana is such a Vasudeva come to take his life. Still, overcoming his despair after a last unsuccessful attempt at peace, he faces his destined enemy in battle with his most powerful magic weapons. When finally he hurls his discus (cakra), it doesn’t work for him. Recognising Laksmana as a Vasudeva, it does not behead him but gives itself over to his hand. Thus Laksmana slays Ravana with his own cherished weapon.
Here Rama does not even kill Ravana, as he does in the Hindu Ramayanas. For Rama is an evolved Jain soul who has conquered his passions; this is his last birth so he is loath to kill anything. It is left to Laksmana, who goes to hell while Rama finds release (kaivalya).
One hardly need add that the Paumacariya is filled with references to Jain places of pilgrimage, stories about Jain monks and Jain homilies and legends. Furthermore, since the Jains consider themselves rationalists – unlike the Hindus who, according to them, are given to exorbitant and often bloodthirsty fancies and rituals – they systematically avoid episodes involving miraculous births (Rama and his brothers are born in the normal way), blood sacrifices and the like. They even rationalise the conception of Ravana as the Ten-headed Demon. When he was born, his mother was given a necklace of nine gems which she put around his neck. She saw his face reflected in them ninefold and so called him Dasamukha or the Ten-faced One. The monkeys too are not monkeys but a clan of celestials (vidyadharas) actually related to Ravana and his family through their great-grandfathers. They have monkeys as emblems on their flags: hence the name Vanaras or ‘monkeys’.
From written to oral
Let’s look at one of the South Indian folk Ramayanas. In these, the story usually occurs in bits and pieces. For instance, in Kannada, we are given separate narrative poems on Sita’s birth, her wedding, her chastity test, her exile, the birth of Lava and Kusa, their war with their father Rama and so on. But we do have one complete telling of the Rama story by traditional bards (tamburi dasayyas), sung with a refrain repeated every two lines by a chorus. For the following discussion, I am indebted to the transcription by Rame Gowda, P.K. Rajasekara and S. Basavaiah (1973).
This folk narrative, sung by an Untouchable bard, opens with Ravana (here called Ravula) and his queen Mandodari. They are unhappy and childless. So Ravana or Ravula goes to the forest, performs all sorts of self-mortifications like rolling on the ground till blood runs from his back and meets a jogi or holy mendicant who is none other than Siva. Siva gives him a magic mango and asks him how he would share it with his wife. Ravula says, ‘Of course, I’ll give her the sweet flesh of the fruit and I’ll lick the mango seed.’ The jogi is sceptical. He says to Ravula, ‘You say one thing to me. You have poison in your belly. You’re giving me butter to eat but you mean something else. If you lie to me, you’ll eat the fruit of your actions yourself.’ Ravula has one thing in his dreams and another in his waking world, says the poet. When he brings the mango home, with all sorts of flowers and incense for the ceremonial puja, Mandodari is very happy. After a ritual puja and prayers to Siva, Ravula is ready to share the mango. But he thinks, ‘If I give her the fruit, I’ll be hungry, she’ll be full,’ and quickly gobbles up the flesh of the fruit, giving her only the seed to lick. When she throws it in the yard, it sprouts and grows into a tall mango tree. Meanwhile, Ravula himself becomes pregnant, his pregnancy advancing a month each day.
In one day, it was a month, O Siva.
In the second, it was the second month,
and cravings began for him, O Siva.
How shall I show my face to the world of men, O Siva.
On the third day, it was the third month,
How shall I show my face to the world, O Siva.
On the fourth day, it was the fourth month.
How can I bear this, O Siva.
Five days, and it was five months,
O lord, you’ve given me trouble, O Siva
I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, O Siva
How will I live, cries Ravula in misery.
Six days, and he is six months gone, O mother,
in seven days it was seven months.
O what shame, Ravula in his seventh month,
and soon came the eighth, O Siva
Ravula was in his ninth full month.
When he was round and ready, she’s born, the dear,
Sita is born through his nose.
When he sneezes, Sitamma is born,
And Ravula names her Sitamma.
(Gowda et al. 1973, 150-1; my translation)
In Kannada, the word sita means ‘he sneezed’: he calls her Sita because she is born from a sneeze. Her name is thus given a Kannada folk etymology, as in the Sanskrit texts it has a Sanskrit one: there she is named Sita because King Janaka finds her in a furrow (sita). Then Ravula goes to astrologers who tell him he is being punished for not keeping his word to Siva and for eating the flesh of the fruit instead of giving it to his wife. They advise him to feed and dress the child and leave her some place where she will be found and brought up by some couple. He puts her in a box and leaves her in Janaka’s field.