Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XVIII: Rākṣasa and their clan

Bijoy Misra

April 18, 2017


Vālmīki lived in an animated world. His sky spoke, his air ran, his water sang. Ocean, mountain, forest and trees showed compassion. Animals, birds and beasts became friends. It could appear as a modern- day fairy tale. But for Valmiki it was all real. His poetry is a narration of the scene. He examined the mental processes of his characters. A distressed Rāma wandering in the forest had a right to think if the tree knew where Sītā might have gone!


Animation was possibly the nature of the cosmological thinking in early India. If all objects had their origin from a source, they have the same creative force as the first created object. The creative force is life, and its organization. How life organizes itself to create myriads of objects in the observed universe is unknown to man, but what can be assumed is that all objects breathe the same air. “Breathing” is not a property of the nostrils, it is the signature of existence. If it breathes, it also has expression; we just don’t hear it!


In the older belief systems of the continuity of life, the human life itself existed in several threads. Many of the manifestations would not have visible physical bodies, but they would operate, witness and take rebirth as humans. The forms map different hierarchy of skills and attributes that are assumed necessary to supplement the human events on earth. Some of the imagined invisible objects were imagined as the after-life incarnation for the righteous actions performed by the individual during his/her mortal life. As the Vedas declared, the liberation of man is possible bypassing a rebirth.


In this system, the darkness and the destruction in the universe are associated with the unrighteous actions of the humans leading to ghosts and goblins who operate in the dark. Terrorizing others is their signature. In the older beliefs, the night itself was assumed as the destruction of the day and a solar eclipse was assumed as the sun being “eaten up” by a “monster”. In this logic, a disease is caused by a monster and the death is caused by a more powerful monster. The smooth functioning and peace in life would need that one may keep the monsters at bay. Many of such logic is bundled as “evil” in the western philosophy.


In the traditional Indian faith cosmology, the “good” and the “evil” are considered brothers, born to two different mothers from a common ancestral father. The progenies of the “evil” are equally smart as their “good” cousins, except their way of functioning would appear inconsiderate from the “good” point of view. They are material-oriented and they abhor meekness and humility. They are impulsive and temperamental. In the eyes of the “good”, they could be considered “uncivilized”. We should note that the latter term is subjectively applied through a different moral standard.


Tradition and culture define what a community may accept as “human” values. The values that might negate them are called “inhuman”. While these are locally defined terms, certain ethical values like non-injury or non-violence can be termed as “righteous”, since injuring others or violence against others could lead to eventual self-destruction. People or groups resorting to violence for their survival most often forget that the same violence could eventually destroy them. In short time scales, the violence might look like winning, so there could be confusion and fallacy in the overall perception.


Vālmīki enunciates a society of his liking where he would champion the attributes of Rāma as the ideal. These would include sincerity, truthfulness, patience, compassion and restraint. The reverse part of these could be manipulation, trickery, impulsiveness, cruelty and haughtiness. The living objects who exhibit these latter characteristics are labeled as rākṣasa in Vālmīki’s terminology. They would have the taste in drinking human blood and some of them would be cannibals. They could be fierce-looking and ugly in their personality with anger and arrogance as their defining traits. They would live by exploiting others and reign through violence and bloodshed. At the same time, they could be industrious, opulent and powerful.


In a genealogical story, Vālmīki defines the rakṣa group of humans to have been assigned the task of the guarding the extended oceans. It was possibly created to make a binary classification of humans, a group called yakṣa, who would protect the forests and the food on the land, and the rakṣa, who would live on the islands in the oceans subsisting on the resources there. Being in the islands, they can develop their secure lifestyle as would befit their harsher environment. Their food would consist of flesh which would become part of their lifestyle. The legend has it that both these groups accumulated earth’s resources and developed wealthy and resourceful lifestyles. In the Indian cosmological view, the two groups are cousins. This rakṣa group is the forerunner of the rākṣasa clan.


The rakṣa group was also active in learning, industry and discovery. They knew the intricacies of nature and how to cope with the calamities. They had discovered the technique of transforming themselves into different shapes and could assume different forms for protection and aggression. These would be called survival skills to operate in their harsher environment, but they could use those skills in exploiting the land resources at will. The rākṣasa king Rāvaṇa was known to have amassed all good products from everywhere procuring them through wars and through manipulation.


In time, some of the rākṣasa women did solicit relationship with the wise men on the land in pursuit of producing talented and studious children. Rāvaṇa was such an offshoot; his mother was a rākṣasa, but the father was a ṛṣi. Thus, Rāvaṇa had the sharpness of mind of a ṛṣi and the cruelty and arrogance of a rākṣasa. He had a brother Bibhīṣaṇa, who however did not develop the rākṣasa-like attributes. The latter was calm and collected. He turned out to be the eventual key for the defeat of Rāvaṇa in his battle with Rāma.


Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa is set in a time when the modern habitation was in the northern parts and the southern areas were gradually being explored. Rṣi Agastya is credited to be the first who braved to proceed into the south from the north and tried to create order in the oceanic lands. He studied the ocean tracks, currents and the geography. The current day population in Indonesia revere Rṣi Agastya as the original discoverer of the islands. In the Rāmāyaṇa story, Rṣi Agastya did coach Rāma how to win over Rāvaṇa in the duel telling him that he must gain the energy of the sun to overcome the strength of the rākṣasa Rāvaṇa. The latter was seasoned to withstand all obstacles.


The original cousins of “negative” attributes in Indian legends are called dānava “demons”, the progenies of danu, as against the cousins of “good” attributes who are called deva “divine”. Both the words are marked by a starting letter da, which can stand for dayā – “kindness”, or dama “arrogance”. The pun in the story is that both these characteristics are co-born and we exhibit different degrees depending on our pedigree and upbringing. There are legends about the tussle between the deva and dānava to win over the elixir of life that was “hidden” in the ocean. dānava(s) did overpower the deva(s) but the latter won by outsmarting the former. The lesson of the story is that the righteous person may have to resort to high intelligence for his/her survival. The dānava “demonic” forces are always strong.

The Vedas talk about a group called asura which are considered in the same negative category. Through language analysis, the word is explained as someone who is addicted to the “sense pleasures”. This is another classification of living objects – the first group sura who are reflective and noble, and the second group asura who are short-sighted and local. The asura manifests itself as destructive forces and as demonic qualities in human beings.

Because of the “magic”-like maneuvers and toughness in encounters, the rākṣasa concept is considered “mythological” by the interpreters. Once we accept them as the struggle of various forces inside the body, the logic would look natural. When we say Rāmāyaṇa is a story of the victory of “good” against the “evil”, we are not talking physical objects, but we are analyzing our own life to appraise our own endowed humanity “good” against the conveniently cultivated selfishness “evil”.

 Let Sai bless all.