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Ravana’s abduction of Seetha and impact on Indo Lanka relations – 300 BC to today

by David Soysa


(November 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many may be surprised to learn that Ravana’s abduction of Seetha many centuries ago saved Sri Lanka from two potential catastrophes. The first was the trans -frontier impact of India’s Sethu canal project on Sri Lanka’s security environment, livelihood of thousands of fishermen’s families and other national interests. The second is the potential unimaginably catastrophic clash between China and India on Sri Lanka’s turf.

Sri Lanka’s ablest foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar explained to Parliament on 07.07.2005 the serious impact of a navigable canal between Sri Lanka and India. Numerous Sri Lankan, Indian and foreign experts on the environment, tsunamis, archaeology and hydro dynamic modelling published a series of articles highlighting the serious adverse consequences of the canal project. Hindu organisations quoting the Ramayana and its importance to Indian culture exerted pressure on the Indian’s government to stop the project since it would destroy the Sethu bridge Rama built to cross over to Sri Lanka and rescue Sita. Even PM Manmohan Singhe expressed serious concerns about the project in a 16 page letter. Yet nothing could stop the project until the Supreme Court of India was moved to issue an injunction on 10 August 2007, ordering the central government not to dredge or cause any damage to Rama’s bridge (or Sethu Bridge or Adam’s Bridge), believed to have been built by Rama to rescue Sita. Thus Ravana’s abduction of Sita, saved Sri Lanka from the potentially catastrophic Sethu canal. The injunction has not yet been lifted.

As the debate in India on the controversial Sethu canal project progressed, Indian Ministers admitted that the canal has a "very important security dimension and hence the project should not be judged on its economic viability". Neither India nor foreign shipping interests showed any support for the project. The US Pentagon however wanted the canal so desperately that it issued an Operational Guideline on 23.06.2005 declaring that the sea between India and Sri Lanka are International waters and not historic waters as stated in an agreement signed by India and Sri Lanka. A number of Pentagon reports described China as the potential enemy. One such is the 2008 report on "Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force". A map in the report showed ports, naval bases, surveillance facilities and airfields built by China in South Asia encircling India. The Pentagon named them as the "String of Pearls". Hambantota Port is shown as one strategic pearl. The report stated that as a potential future military competitor China would represent a most serious threat to the US.

India could no longer hide the real objective of the canal project. It was designed to serve a vital strategic need of the Indian navy - namely to move swiftly between the east and west coasts of India in the event of a war between India and China or Pakistan. To the US Navy the canal was a "must" to be used as a safe haven for its navy, particularly submarines and nuclear fuel carrying tankers.

The increasing rivalry between China and India to dominate in the region, manifests in several forms. India is notoriously prickly about what the Indian PM called recently "China’s increasing assertiveness in the region for which India must be prepared". India strongly opposed the construction of Hambantota Port with Chinese aid. When that failed, she demanded the establishment of a consulate in Hambantota. India is increasingly intervening in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs under the guise of monitoring the welfare of Tamils in the north. The Indian Army Chief was sent recently to check on the IDP’s welfare! India said no to a proposed visit to India by our defence secretary. Instead, the defence secretary went to China and held talks with top Chinese army chiefs on close co-operation between Chinese and Sri Lankan forces. These developments are making the region one of the world’s hotspots of tension.

If the Sethu canal was in place, it would have shifted the balance of maritime power in India’s favour thus increasing India’s resolve to settle the dispute on Sri Lanka’s turf. India’s relations with the US are as strong as Sri Lanka’s ties with China. It is doubtful whether the American presence will act as a critical balance wheel to prevent the India- China rivalry getting out of hand. For the time being at least Ravana’s abduction has prevented a change in the balance of maritime power and the clash of the titans on Sri Lanka’s turf.

The importance of Ravana’s abduction of Sita.

The epic poem Ramayana was written by Valmiki in 300 BC. Briefly the story describes how Ravana’s sister Supurnika (who was the governor of Dandakar in India) was punished by Rama’s brother Lakshman when she ordered Lakshman not to carry weapons of leave her territory. Like Ravana she had banned the killing of animals. Lakshman instead of obeying Supurnika’s order, cut her nose and ears. Rama and Lakshman were encroachers in her territory. Is it not interesting that the US weekly magazine Time of 09.08.2010 carried on its cover a picture of a pretty Afghan girl whose nose and ears had been cut by the Taliban because she ran away from her abusive in laws? So the Taliban has learned from Lakshman how to punish an unarmed innocent girl! Anyhow, the disfigured Supurnika went back to Sri Lanka. When Ravana’s saw his disfigured sister he exploded in fury. To take revenge Ravana left for India by air and arrived at the forest abode of Lakshman, Rama and Sita. At the time Sita, who was alone was abducted and bought to Sri Lanka. For 12 years Ravana kept Sita, moving her from one place to another, such as Sita Guhava, Sita Eliya and Gurupotha.

After 12 years Rama managed to build Rama’s bridge and form an army with Hanuman’s help. Ravana’s strategy was to get Rama to come to Lanka and kill him. Although Ravana was ready to face Rama’s army, Ravana’s brother Vibishana betrayed him by showing Ravana’s secret weapon to Hanuman. He did this because Ravana prevented Vibishana from seducing Sita. According to the Ramayana, Sita was untouched by Ravana who was faithful to his wife. Hanuman using the secret weapon killed Ravana. As it happens in politics today the traitor Vibishana was rewarded by Rama, who installed him as king of Lanka. Vibishana the traitor is worshipped in our devales.

Rama, Sita and Lakshman returned to India. After a few months people noticed that Sita was pregnant. They complained to Rama that Sita was carrying Ravana’s child. Rama immediately chased her away. It is interesting that both Rama and Vijaya were banished by their parents and both chased away their wives. Convicted criminal Vijaya chased away princess Kuveni to import a princess from India. Valmiki gave refuge to Sita and she gave birth to twins named Lava and Kusa. Like a Greek tragedy, the story ends with the suicides of Sita, Lakshman and Rama. That is the story of Ramayana with its additions and interpretations. True, false or legend, the Ramayana is described as the lifeblood of Hinduism. The 24,000 word epic poem links ancient Indian history with mythology. Even Harvard educated Dr S Swamy (former cabinet Minster of Commerce with a Ph.D from Harvard) led the battle against the proposal to dredge Rama’s bridge, and petitioned the Supreme Court of India successfully. Therefore the Ramayana impacting on India –Sri Lanka relations is perhaps inevitable. Ravana’s impudent action in abducting Sita infuriated the Indians so much that even in 2010, effigies of Ravana placed on maps of Sri Lanka are burnt each year during the Ramayana celebrations. Other countries’ demonstrators burn each other’s flags, but Indians burn even maps of Sri Lanka.

On 17th October 2010 Indian TV channel NDTV showed the annual Ramayana celebrations called Dussehra, in cities across India such as Calcutta, Mysore and New Delhi. What was perhaps most disturnbing was the celebrations in New Delhi Presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul. Two big effigies of Ravana and Vibishana were carried by the revellers and placed before the three top leaders of India. A bow and arrow was given to the Prime Minister who shot an arrow at Ravana the iconic king of Sri Lanka. The effigies were then stoned and set on fire. In a country like India one can understand Hindu extremists destroying mosques at Ayodya believed to be the birth place of Rama. But who expected Harvard educated Manmohan Singh to be so insensitive as to shoot Lanka’s king Ravana’s effigy in a medieval witch burning type exorcism. Such official patronage could impact on India/Lanka relations negatively as happened during Indira Gandhi’s terrorist breeding to destroy Sri Lanka. The current revival in Ravana’s story in Sri Lanka and Indian visitors following Ravana’s trail in Sri Lanka should be reminded to the Indian authorities.

Ravana’s abduction even played a role even in our 30 year old war against LTTE terrorism. TamilNet website claimed that Ravana was a Tamil quoting Indian PM’s Jawahrlal Nehru’s ‘Glimpse of World History".

Dr S Swamy "Sri Lanka in crisis" writes that the Ramayana mentions that there were two Naga kingdoms in Lanka, one in Naga Deepa and the other in Kelaniya and that they were conquered by Ravana in Tamil Yakksha king of Lanka (Page 23). Dr Swamy then recommends that Sri Lanka should either be merged with India or adopt a quasi federal constitution like India (page 137).

The story of Ravana’s abduction is so ingrained even among the masses in India that it manifests even in sport. When Sri Lanka played against in India in the 1996 Cricket World Cup Indian cheer leaders carried placards with the words "Rama will beat Ravana".

Indian test cricketers and MP N. Siddhu demonstrated against the Sethu project along with other Ramayana supporters.

Sri Lanka politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who negotiated with Indian counterparts would not have failed to notice very often a hostility or anti Sri Lankan attitude. The issue may be boundary disputes, repatriation of estate Tamils of Indian origin, fishing or the Sethu Project. Some Indians and particularly those in the South are instinctively anti Sri Lankan. Viceroy Dixit is the last example. The animosity is palpable. Whether this is solely or partly due to Ravana’s action I do not know. Yet the fact remains while our historians/archaeologists have pulled down the curtain on pre-Vijayan history, Indian counterparts trace the evolution of Indian history from sources such as the two epics Ramayana and Maha Bharatha and the puranas.

Two Indian historians, Sinha and Bannerjee, in their book ``History of India’’ concludes the kernel of the story of the Ramayana may well be true" (page 47). A western scholar, Winternitz, treats the story of Ramayana as an allegorical description of Aryan colonisation of South India. The famous Indian philosopher Dr. S Radhakrishnan in in his edition of the Bhagawad Gita mentions the Ramayana using a low caste man to ferry him across the Ganges. Ravana story is deeply rooted in Indian culture and psyche. To the Hindus Rama is the living hero and Lanka’s king Ravana is the villain killed by Hanuman. Even today Ramayana verses are sung at weddings and funerals.

The Debate

While the debate in India provoked by the Sethu project has subsided, here in Sri Lanka an interesting debate is developing in academic society. Indian Ramayana followers visiting Sri Lanka to follow the Ravana trail and recent archaeological discoveries in Sri Lanka appear to have added spice to the debate. Those archaeologists who pulled a curtain on Pre Vijayan history are claiming that the Ramayana is a myth. Others like Dr. Gnnasekera and NA Seneviratne in their recent books provide convincing evidence to support their claim that the Ravana- Sita story is true. The two books are Sri Lanka history and Helayugaya by the former and Sri Lanka –Ravana’s Kingdom and Sirigriya by the latter.

Dr. Malini Dias (joint secretary Royal Asiatic Society and former deputy Director Archaeology) in an article titled "Myth of the Ramayana" and published in the Sunday Times of 29.08.2010 clams that there is no archaeological evidence to prove that the Ramayana is historically true. While she has quoted some Sri Lankan to support her thesis, she has failed to quote any Indian historian or archaeologist. After all the Ramayana is a story involving two countries and competent Indians have published numerous books on the subject. Moreover to the Indian Hindu’s "it is the life-blood of Hinduism" and its impact on Sri Lanka is real, even in 2010, even if according to some or all archaeologists that it is a myth.

The debate however is encouraging. Dr Dias has also challenged Mr. M. K. C. Kiriella, Chariman Ramayana Trail Executive Committee, Ministry of Tourism. Mr. Kiriella, in a lecture given at the Indian Cultural centre recently, has apparently mentioned the existence of Brahmin cave inscriptions to support the Ravana dynasty. So now it would appear it is the Royal Asiatic Society vs the Indian Cultural Centre.

A post-graduate student of archaeology in an article published on 19-09-2010 in the Daily Mirror under the title "A trip back to our proto history" has opened the lid on pre-Vijayan history. He has described several recent archaeological discoveries which prove that long before Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka, highly developed civilisations existed in Sri Lanka. The writer is Dr K. Ratnatunga.

A former NASA Deputy Director George Lowe writes that Rama’s bridge is man-made as proved by photographs taken by the camera of "Gemini 9" from space. NASA, unlike some of our archaeologists do not dismiss Buddha’s claim that there is life on other planets. Instead, NASA states that there could be life on other planets.

Munidasa Kumaratunga in his introduction to the epic poem, Vavuluwa by R Tennekoon lamented that Sri Lankans blindly accepted the Ramayana’s description of Ravana as a two-headed cannibal and womanizer rather than respecting Ravana as our iconic King. Vavuluwa was first published in 1939 and is, in my view, the Sinhala Ramayana. According to Tennekoon, Sita eloped with Ravana, rather than live as the common wife of Rama and Lakshman.

During the colonial times, our own "Kolam" producers like John de Silva and Don Bastian, portrayed Ravana as a ten-headed demon who seduced other people’s wives and Supurnika as a prostitute. Such was the impact of the Ramayana on our drama. In India the story that Ravana ruled ten states of India has been erased from Indian mental website and replaced by the Cholas and Pandyan conquests.

The debate on the Ramayana may continue in "high society" with each side cherry picking data and evidence to support their thesis but there is no doubt that Ravana’s ghost is still haunting us in India. Its impact on India-Sri Lanka relations may be both visible and invisible. Will Ravana in Chinese garb come to Sri Lanka’s rescue if Indian parippu rain drops fall again on Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka? Tell a Friend

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