Rāvanā, one of the principal characters in the Rāmāyana, emerges as a villain in the mainstream (Hindu) understandings of the text. Given the important position that Rama (Rāvanā’s opponent) who is believed to be a manifestation of Viśnu occupies in the Hindu religious tradition, Rāvanā becomes a symbol of evil in those readings of the text. Nevertheless, the conceptualizations of Rāvanā within the context of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism point to alternative perspectives on the character. One such perspective that has emerged in the post-2009 Sri Lankan context shows a tendency to idealize Rāvanā as a national hero. The present paper argues that the relationship between Rāvanā and Sinhala Buddhism that this conceptualization suggests is ridden with certain contradictions that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism fails to address successfully.
In the Rāmāyana, Rāvanā’s kingdom is called ‘Lankā,’ and this Lankā has widely been identified as present-day Sri Lanka. Due to this reason, Sri Lanka features prominently in the existing discourse on the text. Various places within Sri Lanka, mainly in the central and northern parts of the country, have been identified as key locations mentioned in the Rāmāyana narrative. There have, however, been scholarly attempts to problematize this perceived relationship between Rāvanā’s Lankā and present-day Sri Lanka and argue that the former was within what comes under the present-day Indian territory; nevertheless, these attempts have not been able to successfully refute the established understanding, particularly in the mainstream Hindu readings of the epic, that Rāvanā’s Lankā was Sri Lanka.
This association of Rāvanā’s Lankā with present-day Sri Lanka establishes Rāvanā as a past king of Sri Lanka. The main historical chronicles on the basis of which Sri Lanka’s history is understood/constructed do not mention a king by the name of Rāvanā, or, to say the least, these chronicles do not cover the ancient past in which Rāvanā is claimed to have ruled the country. Nevertheless, the idea of Rāvanā as an ancient king of the country is generally perceived as a historical truth. Certain publications on Rāvanā that have emerged over the past couple of years in Sri Lanka indicate an attempt at historicizing him. They conceptualize Rāvanā not only as a ruler of the island whose power extended beyond the limits of the island but also as a leader of a highly advanced civilization with an advanced form of technology. For this reason, Rāvanā has mainly functioned as a cultural icon and a symbol of pride for the most part of Sri Lankan history.
The post-war Sri Lankan context has seen the transformation of the concept of Rāvanā from a largely cultural icon to a political icon with specific meanings. In a context where the war had primarily been conceptualized as a civil war between the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic communities, the conclusion of the war in 2009 that saw the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces was largely represented as a victory of the Sinhala ethnic community over the Tamil ethnic community. The Dutugemunu-Elara analogy in terms of which the outcome of the war was commonly conceptualized contributed to solidifying the polarization of the said ethnic communities in the country. The Sinhala-versus-Tamil division, which the conclusion of the war had resulted in highlighting quickly developed into a division between Sinhala-Buddhists and Non-Sinhala-Buddhists. Along with this schematization, Rāvanā began to emerge as a key political icon in the Sinhala Buddhist camp. This “Sinhala-Buddhisization” of Rāvanā is most evident in the emergence of the pro-Sinhala Buddhist organization named Rāvanā Balaya, which literary means the Rāvanā Force.
The Sinhala-Buddhist spin that Rāvanā, like many other cultural icons and symbols, has acquired in the post-war context, however, embodies a fundamental contradiction. The association of Rāvanā with Sinhala Buddhism is problematic for the simple reason that Rāvanā predates both Buddhism and the Sinhala ethnicity as we know them today. Prince Vijaya who arrived in what is today known as Sri Lanka with a group of companions in the sixth century BC is widely seen as the founder of the Sinhala ethnic identity. The Mahāvamsa, which is the main historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, associates Vijaya with the Sinhala ethnic identity in such a way that he and his companions become the first generation of the Sinhala ethnic community. Although this particular understanding of the origin of the Sinhala ethnic identity has been challenged and attempts have been made to place this point of origin centuries, if not millennia, back in time, in a context where the authority of the Mahāvamsa largely remains unchallenged, especially in the eyes of the mainstream elements of the Sinhala community, the argument that Vijaya was the founder of the Sinhala identity continues to remain valid. At the same time, Buddhism, as we know it today, begins with the Gautama Buddha who is believed to have lived in the sixth century BC. Although, according to Theravada Buddhism, there have been twenty-seven Buddhas with their own traditions of Buddhism prior to the Gautama Buddha, the present tradition(s) of Buddhism, especially that found in Sri Lanka, is attributed solely to the Gautama Buddha. Accordingly, the furthest that the origins of the Sinhala ethnic identity and Buddhism, as we understand them, could be traced to is the sixth century BC, which is millennia away from the time of Rāvanā. In a context where the mainstream understandings regarding the two largely remain unchallenged, or at least, a discourse on the problematic nature of those understandings is absent, the proclaimed association between Rāvanā and Sinhala Buddhism is fundamentally contradictory.
Any attempt at giving this association an air of credibility would necessarily have to go beyond the established understandings about Buddhism and the Sinhala ethnicity. Such an attempt would have to find a way to somehow tie them to Rāvanā’s time and Rāvanā as a historical figure. The Buddhist discourse titled the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra [hereafter referred to as the LS] which is a key text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, enables one to draw a clear connection between Rāvanā and the idea of Buddhism. The LS is believed to have been preached by the Buddha to Rāvanā who is described, in the text, as the “Overlord of the Yakshas” who ruled “Laṅkā on Mount Malaya.” It claims that its subject matter is “the Truth realisable by noble wisdom in one’s inmost self, which is beyond the reasoning knowledge of the philosophers as well as the state of consciousness of the Śrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas,” and it recognizes Rāvanā as one capable of understanding that Truth. The apparent confirmation found in the LS that Rāvanā was the ruler of “Lanka” and the depiction of Rāvanā as an advanced individual whose mental capacities even surpassed those of philosophers and who was deemed by the Buddha himself as capable of grasping the ultimate Truth, one would argue, create a space in which Rāvanā could easily be associated with the idea of Buddhism.
Nevertheless, this potential of the LS remains virtually unexploited by those elements of the post-war Sri Lankan society that attempt to make a case for Rāvanā as one associated with Buddhism. Given that the LS is part of the Mahayana tradition, one could argue that this absence of attention is due to a lack of widespread awareness about the sūtra among Sri Lankan Buddhists. While this may be true to a certain extent, it is hard to believe that the concerned elements in the community have been unaware of the text to such an extent for this excellent piece of “evidence” to have remained unnoticed. The fact that this Mahayana discourse has been discussed by Ven. Walpola Rahula in his seminal work What the Buddha Taught (and its Sinhala version), which is widely seen as an authoritative text on Theravada Buddhism, shows that the LS has been part of the Sri Lankan discourse on Buddhism. Also, Pabalu Wijegoonewardane’s claim that his ballet titled Maha Ravana (2008) is based on the LS indicates that the text has been known even outside of strictly scholarly circles. Therefore, one could safely conclude that this absence of attention to the LS on the part of the concerned mainstream elements of the Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist community is intentional.
This prevailing silence on the piece of “evidence” found in the LS could be understood in two ways. First, the LS is a fundamental text in the Mahayana tradition, and excessive attention to such a text and any claims made on the basis of such a text entail a certain endorsement of that tradition. Given Sri Lanka’s position as a Theravada stronghold, such an endorsement of the Mahayana tradition invariably translates into compromising the country’s unique identity in the broader Buddhist world. Second, the idea that Buddhism had existed in Sri Lanka before it was “properly” introduced to the country complicates the established historical narrative of the Sinhala community. This idea problematizes the importance that the mainstream historical narrative assigns to Vijaya, as the founder of the Sinhala civilization in the country, by blurring the established gap between the pre- and post-Vijaya eras of the country’s history. Given that the distinction between the two eras is central to the mainstream conceptualization of the Sinhala ethnic identity, any claim that downplays the importance assigned to Vijaya’s arrival in the island could have serious implications for the established understanding of that ethnic identity.
At the same time, certain established understandings regarding Viśnu, whom Rāma is primarily a manifestation of, also raise certain questions about the association of Rāvanā with Sinhala Buddhism. The Mahāvamsa points to an inextricable link between Viśnu and Sinhala Buddhism. According to the chronicle, Prince Vijaya, having been banished and deported by his father King Sinhabahu for his misconduct, arrives in Lanka on the same day that the Gautama Buddha prepares himself to enter into the state of nirvana. Having foreseen Lanka as the land where his dharma will be protected in the future, he requests Sakka, the king of gods, to protect Vijaya and his followers, saying “In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers.” The god whom Sakka entrusts this task to is Viśnu. Since that moment, Viśnu has been seen as a protector god of Lanka, the Sinhala ethnic community, and Buddhism in the island. His position as one of the four protector gods of the island’s (Sinhala) nation to date indicates the sense of importance that he enjoys within the Sinhala Buddhist culture.
Another factor that problematizes the association between Rāvanā and Sinhala Buddhism is the established recognition, particularly in the South Indian (re)imaginings of the Rāmāyana, that Rāvanā is a Tamil king. Not only do the South Indian (re)imaginings of the text present Rāvanā as a Tamil king, they also depict him as a great tragic hero, a depiction that contrasts with the Hindu-centric depictions of him primarily as a villain. M. S. Purnalingam Pillai advances this South Indian approach to Rāvanā when he claims, “The ten-faced and twenty-armed Ravana was apparently a very intelligent and valiant hero, a cultured and highly civilized ruler, knew the Vedas and was an expert musician. He took away Sita according to the Tamilian mode of warfare, had her in the Asoka woods companioned by his own niece, and would not touch her unless she consented.” This conceptualization establishes Rāvanā first and foremost as a Tamil. The thesis, propagated by P. Sundaram Pillai, that “the Rāmāyana story [the mainstream North Indian version] was a travesty of truth, belittling Dravidian culture typified by Rāvana as well as proof of Aryan penetration and dominance in South India” emphasizes the fundamentally Tamilian character of Rāvanā’s identity. Given the predominance of this understanding of Rāvanā, any serious attempt to associate him with the Sinhala ethnic identity would necessarily have to assume a close relationship between the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic identities. The fact that the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka do not even acknowledge this South Indian understanding of Rāvanā, in my view, points to their unwillingness to even consider the possibility of such a close relationship.
Accordingly, it is evident that the current conceptualizations of Rāvanā within the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse are ridden with multiple contradictions. Any serious attempt at building a connection between Rāvanā and Sinhala Buddhism, in my view, invites a radical reevaluation of the established understandings regarding both Buddhism and the Sinhala ethnicity.
*Nandaka Maduranga Kalugampitiya is a Lecturer attached to the Department of English at the University of Peradeniya, and currently reading for his PhD at Ohio University, USA.
 See U. P. Shah, “The Sālakaṭaṅkaṭas and Laṅkā,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 96, no. 1 (1976), 109-113; Malti Nagar and S. C. Nanda, “Ethnographic Evidence for the Location of Ravana’s Lanka,” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 45 (1986): 71-77.
 The resistance that the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project has faced from certain Hindu groups in India since the project was proposed in the late 1990’s could be seen as an affirmation of the important position that Sri Lanka occupies as Rāvanā’s kingdom in the mainstream Hindu understanding of the epic. These groups claimed that the project was going to damage what is called ‘Rama’s bridge’ or ‘Rama setu,’ which, according to the legend, was created by Rāma’s vānara (ape) army to enable Rāma to cross the sea into Rāvanā’s kingdom in order to liberate Sita.
 The books published by Mirando Obeysekera, such as Ravana – King of Lanka and Ravanawatha (2013), and a series of newspaper articles published in the Mawbima newspaper (late 2012 and early 2013) could be cited as certain key attempts at historicizing Rāvanā.
 One of the key technological advancements that is attributed to Rāvanā is his dandumonarayantraya or flying-machine.
 “But the king Sīhabāhu [Vijaya’s father, the king of the Vanga kingdom in India] since he had slain the lion (was called) Sīhala and, by reason of the ties between him and them, all those (followers of Vijaya) were also (called) Sīhala” [The Mahāvamsa, or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon, trans. Wilhelm Geiger (London: Pali Text Society, 1964), 58].
 Such attempts are mostly found in articles published in Sri Lankan newspapers from time to time.
 It is not clear who this Buddha was. While some sources attribute the LS to the Gautama Buddha, some others associate it with an earlier Buddha.
 Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, trans., The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: A Mahāyāna Text (London: George Routledge and Sons and the Eastern Buddhist Society, 1932), 4.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.
 Quoting Wijegoonewardane, Thiruni Kelegama writes, “The root of the Maha Ravana ballet, Pabalu says, can be found in the Lankavatara suthra, said to be preached to Ravana by Konagama Buddha (the Third Buddha in the Maha Bhadra Kalpa Era)” (“Ravana Regained,” The Sunday Times, May 25, 2008, accessed April 10, 2015, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/080525/Plus/plus000015.html).
 The Mahāvamsa 55.
 These (re)imaginings echo the conceptualization of Rāvanā in the Kamba Ramayana, which is a Tamil version of the epic composed in the twelfth century.
 Quoted in K. V. Zvelebil, “Rāvana the Great in Modern Tamil Fiction,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1 (1988): 126-134 (emphasis mine).
 Zvelebil 128.