This Dasara, all the talk about Ravana, and how he has been misunderstood, took me back to the rakshashas I grew up with.
Through stories, films, comics, and books, rakshashas were a part of our growing up. They were the Jokers to the Batman, the necessary evil for the good to prevail over.
Sadly, however, like our Bollywood villains, rakshashas were stereotyped too. They all had to be dark, ugly, and menacing. Compared to the perfect jawlines and photogenic smiles of the gods, the rakshashas had huge eyes, and teeth protruding out of their mouths.
In such a scenario, you had to have some outstanding qualities to stand out as a rakshasa. You couldn’t just be your neighbourhood rakshasha who eats up goats and terrorises villagers. You will die in anonymity, like Taraka, whose death was outsourced to Karthikeya. I mean, Vishnu and Shiva didn’t even find it necessary to stoop down to earth to eliminate him.
Also, finding embodiments of pure evil is difficult since all the rakshasas are shown to be forgiven after their deaths. Your average rakshasha story will involve a god killing the demon, only for his soul to step out of the body and fold hands in prayer to god. We are then told that it was actually a curse that the demon was living. At heart, he was a nice fellow only.
The importance of standing out, thereby, becomes crucial if you are a rakshasa.
I now present my list of top rakshasas. Men of evil who transcended the normal levels of evilness to walk into the corridors of immortality.
Though he was an Asura king, Bali was not your average goat-chewing, big-eyes-making, HOOHOO-HAAHAA laughing rakshasa. A benevolent king, an able administrator, and a generous host, Bali was done in by the scheming Devas, who could not tolerate his success of winning the Earth, Heaven and Underworld.
In one manipulative and shameful stroke of genius, Bali is tricked into death by Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu. So, Bali is organising the Ashwamedha Yagna, and a Brahmin boy visits him and asks for three paces of land. Even though he is warned by Guru Shukracharya, Bali goes ahead with his promise. He loses his life, his kingdom, and everything else.
ILVALA AND VATAPI
In the murky demonic world of rakshasas, Ilvala and Vatapi were masterminds of gastronomic levels. Ilvala had a boon which let him call out to dead people and bring them back to life. The two brothers hated rishis, and would invite them over to lunch.
At lunch, Vatapi would transform into a goat, which Ilvala would cook and serve to the rishis. After the rishis have eaten, Ilvala would call out, “Vatape athragacha” (Come out, Vatapi!). Vatapi would tear open the stomach of the rishi and come out.
Now, I would lay half the blame on the rishis too. I mean, you are supposed to be leading an ascetic life, wouldn’t you know when you are served mutton? Didn’t you smell something fishy when there were bones in your curry?
So this went on for long, till one day Agasthya the great rishi, went to their kingdom. They did the same thing again, inviting Agasthya for lunch. Agasthya, was one of the seven super rishis (saptarishis) and possesses great power. Once, when the devas complained about asuras hiding in the ocean, Agasthya drank the whole sea and brought victory to the devas.
So Agasthya visits their house, consumes the curry, and before Vatapi can call out to his brother, rubs his own stomach and says, “Vatapi Jeerno Bhava” (May Vatapi be digested). Vatapi cannot come out from the stomach, and Ilvala is turned into dust by Agasthya. Even though they had tragic ends, through their sheer innovation and ingenuity, the two brothers win a place on the list. And Agasthya, a possible endorsement campaign.
Again, not your typical asura, Shishupal is on my list for his bravery. I have already posted about him in an earlier blog (read here), so I shall simply paraphrase myself.
Shishupal makes it to the list on the basis of sheer guts. Born as Krishna’s cousin, apparently, this Shishupal fellow was a chronic pain in the ass for everyone around him. Krishna, as the reason for his birth was to get rid of all evil, had made up his mind to kill him. But knowing her son’s track record, Shishupal’s mother asks Krishna to promise that she would forgive him a hundred sins.
Shishupal grows up and on the day of his wedding, Krishna crashes into the wedding and kidnaps Shishupal’s bride to be, Rukmini and leaves. Shishupal is infuriated, and remember, Krishna has promised to pardon hundred of his sins. Think about it. If you were given a chance to commit a hundred sins, what would you do? I would visit a few banks, and then go to some Hollywood studios. But no, our guy Shishupal is the kind of guy about whom it is said, “He has guts in his butts and dum in his bum.” What does he do?
He walks straight into Krishna’s court, and starts abusing him. Krishna being the king, does not react. He keeps his calm and says nothing. Mentally, he is going, “97, 98, 99…100, “ And then, he gets up, and raises the finger.
Not the middle finger, come on, he is god. He raises his index finger, out comes the Sudarshan Chakra, and Shishupal gets beheaded on the spot. Shishupal is among the colourful villanous characters who tried to take on Gods in their own game, and realised it’s of no use.
For most rakshashas, the key to graduating to the big league is by asking for a boon. Vishnu is said to be the hardest to please, so most Rakshasas pray to Brahma and Shiva for boons. Among boons, research has shown that the most coveted wish was for immortality.
Immortality, however, like the 2G spectrum, is given only to selected people. There have seven recipients of immortality – Bali, Parshuram, Vibhishana, Hanuman, Vyasa, Ashwatthama, and Kripacharya.
Since immortality is denied, most rakshasas settled for other powers they thought would help them attain power and greatness. This is where Hiranyakashipu scores for originality.
A clear violent streak ran in his family, as evidenced by his elder brother Hiranyaksha, who was killed by Varaha. Denied immortality, Hiranyakashipu, sought a boon that would make him nearly impossible to kill.
But you can’t act smart with God.
Perhaps my favourite among the entire list is Bhasmasura.
Another rakshasa who did a penance and pleased Shiva, Bhasmasura asked for immortality. Upon being denied immortality, Bhasmasura opted for Option 2.
Armed with the boon, Bhasmasura started chasing Shiva himself.
Jolted out of his senses, Shiva ran for help. And kept running, till he reached Vishnu. When he pleaded for help, Vishnu used magic to trap Bhasmasura.
He transformed into a beautiful young woman, Mohini (enchantress) and caught the attention of Bhasmasura. Smitten by her beauty, Bhasmasura quickly forgot Shiva and started chasing Mohini. When he approached her, and ‘proposed’, Mohini said that she’d only marry the person who can dance like her.
Bhasmasura takes her up on the challenge, and what follows next could be better explained with the following video.
Among all the rakshashas mentioned, Bhasmasura is my favourite. Why? Two reasons.
1. Guts: Most rakshasas took their boons and played havoc with them behind the god’s back. This guy, instantly started chasing Shiva around.
2. Inspiration to most Bollywood villains: Most Hindi films of the 80s and 90s had references to rakshashas. They were all evil looking, or flashy.
While Ravana was depicted by Amrish Puri in Mr. India and many other films (where he has a kingdom of his own which is finally destroyed by the hero), the archetypal Bollywood villain was more the Bhasmasura type.
Every film will have a villain, who is powerful and wealthy. But with that one weakness that ruined many a rakshasha – lust.
So the actress would get him drunk, and then go to his room, bolt the door, and dance in front of him. And right then, in those five minutes, the villain will be duped. All his life’s hard work will be lost in that one moment.