Burning Evil

How interesting evil is. It makes all else look good in comparison. Without evil, there would be no concept of good. But can evil exist without good? It is like this: evil does not need something to compare itself with. You can see a wrong as an independent entity, as intent too. The right comes with an inbuilt halo, and there is a tendency to assume that a right thing is also the ultimate truth.

Today, on Dussehra, as the effigy of Ravana is burned, it is seen as a triumph of good over evil. I have attended one Ramlila at Mumbai's Chowpatty beach where the story of Lord Rama's battle with the king of demons is enacted. The costumes are garish, the swords covered with shiny foil. The actors are usually from the villages, and the audience is made up of a largely immigrant population from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. After casting curious glances our way, they were totally focused on what was so obviously over-the-top performances and looked fake, including crowns falling from heads, silky dhotis causing a few falls.

They guffawed not at this, but at the loud monologues, designed to produce just such an effect. For them, it was all believable. Even though the seats were plastic and so were the emotions. Even though they were munching peanuts and hollering out to old acquaintances from their hometowns. Even though they would return to the one-room tenements they shared with ten others and would report next morning to work in houses, from palatial to modest, or drive cars that cost a fortune or were bought on easy monthly installments.

They did not even want to think about how Ravana was quite a scholar, had the strength to move mountains, and that in some ways by kidnapping Sita he was only avenging the honour of his sister Surpanakha whose nose was cut by Rama's brother Lakshmana.

All this was inconsequential to this audience, as it is to most devotees. For those few hours, they believed what they had been brought up to believe. My understanding is that these people would not be communal. They were happy in their pragmatic devotion, their idols, their calendar with a photo of a deity on a peeling wall. They would not feel the compulsion to compare. They had seen the good and the evil within what was theirs. They owned and owned up to it.

I do not think the burning of the Ravana effigy is imperative for them. As a finalé, yes. Nothing more. As a sidelight, I might add that fire is a cleanser, and is used in certain cultures as such. Therefore, would it not amount to purifying evil? But that does not seem to be the purpose. It is an aggressive act. If we do it year after year, does it not reveal that evil does not die...it does not even get burned to toast? What we do is to beat an assumed-to-be-dead horse.

It is a cosmetic moral victory. The evil within, and the struggle to overcome our shortcomings, is sorely lacking. It is a vicarious thrill to watch a gargantuan ten-headed monster, a caricature of all that is bad, afire and turning to ash. Then we return to other caricatures and stereotypes in our heads.

Our walls have no mirrors. Nothing will burn. There will be no flame. No light.

© Farzana Versey


Image: Painting of Ravana's abduction of Sita, and the bird Jatayu coming to the rescue.



  1. I am guessing that for most people the personal interpretations of these stories will change over their life time. The same characters that seemed evil at one time may no longer seem so evil at another time and then may be a deeper understanding of good and evil within ourselves would develop and we can see that the stories are telling us something about ourselves.
    I remember reading an interesting argument that Judas is not really evil but merely a pawn in God's plan who made the ultimate sacrifice of his good name to enable the events that resulted in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Could we say the same thing about Ravana? Would people be able to see this?

  2. Other parts of India has other views too. Similar to Ravan avenging injury to sister, being a judicial king, captured a princess but did not come near her.
    and, but the otherside saw too many otherwise,
    an ambush kill from behind a tree, a marauding by a diplomat, and much more.
    Well, then various interpretations - justified in its own way
    Thanks. Bye

  3. According to me, there's no God. So Ravana being part of 'Gods plan' is out of question.
    It would be a lot better if we look at these events as political ones, as a war between two kingdoms, not between Ram and Ravana.
    Ram however was the more intelligent one. He didn't use his own army for this war, using instead the armies of the king he dethroned, Vali.

  4. Sai:

    While people do interpret certain aspects of behavioral good and evil according to several immediate factors, the larger concept, in some ways what constitutes a value system, tends to remain static. The epics, for example, are beyond human, so it is not incumbent for mere mortals to emulate them, although much is made of being inspired by them. 

    Regarding Judas, he works as apposite to Christ, and is a powerful figure. Much like Ravana. Ravana is revered in some parts of India with temples dedicated to him. 

    In that sense, it is an interpretation, but again only of a mythology and not of life. 

  5. Bee:

    Yes, Ravana was not evil in some ways just as Lord Rama was not good in every way. However, for believers it is important to see things as complete in themselves and in black and white.



    {It would be a lot better if we look at these events as political ones, as a war between two kingdoms, not between Ram and Ravana.}

    Makes sense. But, then, as it is an epic and works as a scripture, it would be impossible to remove the religious aspect. Interestingly, many contemporary politicians are given a halo for such god-like qualities, even if they have not demonstrated any such. 

    This is the larger political scheme, to turn a blind eye. Some call it blind belief. 


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.