By N Sathiya Moorthy
Reports in the Indian media that the “Sri Lankan government is convinced that demon-king Ravana was the first person in the world to fly an aircraft but needs more documented evidence to prove it” needs to be taken with a bag full of salt.
It is not about the new research that was opened with great conviction last year but about the claim if the effort has the direct blessings of the Sri Lankan Government.
That the project is a serious concept for its initiators, namely, the Tourism Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority, became clear when they went on to hold a conference on the subject at Kattanyake last year. The Colombo suburb of Kattanayake is also central to Sri Lanka’s aviation industry, it being the largest and busy international airport in the country.
The Tourism Ministry has also now gone to town with newspaper advertisements, seeking information from the public on whatever inputs and literature they have on Ravana, to help with the research. They can be sure of getting bundles of different copies of all existing literature – mostly of the religious kind than anything scientific.
Current media reports, repeating what was done a year earlier, have said that the Civil Aviation Authority now wants to understand how Ravana could employ such advanced technologies thousands of years ago, and what method he may have used. For this, supporting documents and research material will be required and it would not be possible for the island nation to reinstate itself as the pioneer of aviation without the help of its citizens.
“King Ravana was a genius. He was the first person to fly. He was an aviator. This is not mythology; it is a fact. There needs to be detailed research on this. In the next five years, we will prove this,” the reports quoted Shashi Danatunge, ex-Vice Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority, as explaining the purpose of the research.
The current claims flow from the depiction of Ravana in the Indian-Hindu mythology, Ramayana. While asserting that Ravana was the world’s first aviator, those in Sri Lanka who want to prove it have dismissed the accompanying theory that the erstwhile Lanka king had abducted Sita, the wife of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, both of whom Hinduism revere as avatars of Lord Maha Vishnu and his consort Goddess Lakshmi.
Incidentally, the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community worships Lord Vishnu and have also given Him a pride of place in Buddhist temples. There is a contrasting claim which says that at least some of the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic problems owe it to the former worshipping Lord Vishnu while Hindu-Tamils in the North of the country are Saiviite, or worshippers of Lord Siva, following the Saiva Siddhantha school.
This is also one reason why the Indian Ramayana story and the worship of Rama or Vishnu is not prevalent among the Hindu-Tamils. For the Sinhala-Buddhists, too, the Rama story did not happen, but Lord Vishnu and Ravana, too, are there in their mythologies and beliefs – one religious, the other historical (?).
The question arises if the Ravana story is to be treated as a part of neighbourhood mythology or taken forward seriously, as a scientific project worth Government or global funding of whatever kind. The question arises what if research disproves the current claims based on solid scientific evidence? Are the promoters of the research now then disown King Ravana and all his perceived links with the country?
Ramayanam, the Hindu mythological epic, also depicts Ravana as a ten-headed demon, and praises his multiple masteries in arts and warfare. Throughout the Ramanayam, till Ravana’s very end, he is shown as ten-headed. If it can be proved, then Ravana may be the one to have been born as such. Jokes and satire apart, the question thus arises if such a research too would be in order.
If Ravana was the world’s first aviator as per the Ramayanam, the epic also says that Hindu’s monkey-god, Hanuman, could fly on his own steam, no ‘pushpaka vimanam’, or an aircraft of the Ravana kind. The further question arises if there is a need for comparative research, even if to prove one as real and the other as mythology?
Interestingly, there are supposed to be temples for Sita and Rama in Sri Lanka, named Sita Eliya and Rama Eliya, but there is no place of worship for Ravana. It’s possible, contemporary Sri Lankans considered Ravana as a human being like them, with great prowess and knowledge who ruled them in his time. However, history does not seem to have fixed a time-period for his reign.
The Mahavansa chronicles the Sri Lanka story from the arrival of King Vijaya from India and his marrying an yakshini ruler, Kuveni. The age is put at fifth century before Christ, coinciding with the era of the Buddha. The Mahavansa also goes on to say that Lord Buddha had entrusted the safety of Vijaya and his men to God Sumana Saman.
According to the Mahavansa, Kuveni cursed Vijaya and his tribe for all time to come after he deserted her with their two children. Rather, she refuses to part with their children, when he asks her to go away. There are those who even now want ot believe that most of Sri Lanka’s current problems can be traced to Kuveni’s curse. There is what is believed to be the Kuveni palace ruins inside Wilpattu National Park.
Be it as it may, Rama’s birth in the Ramayana is attributed to the Treta-yuga or eon. The Hindu mythological calendar puts the Treta-yuga at 869,000 years ago. Granting that King Ravana lived in the period of Rama and was a yaksha, and not a rakshashan, or demon, as the Ramayanam depicts him, then the huge time-lag between Ravana and the Vijaya-Kuveni story, fixed in 5th century BCE, could open up a Pandora’s Box that many in contemporary Sri Lanka may want to open in any serious way.Granted that Kuveni is a descendant of King Ravana, as some believe, it still throws up many questions.
The alternative is to accept that Ravana lived closer to our times and he became the first aviator in the world, and lived say, around 5,000 years ago, then historians in any research team would have to determine where did he use his aviator’s skills, for the scientific team to take forward their part of the research. The only known reference to Ravana, the aviator, is in the Ramayanam. Granting that the Stia abduction story is a myth, but the Ravana story is not, then the question arises as to how and where exactly to place him in the Sri Lankan scheme of the nation’s early history. It is both fascinating and challenging.
It is not as if all Sri Lankans deny the Ramayana story. Those who accept this version, dismiss the Sita part of the Ramayanam involving Ravana. To them, Ravana was a powerful older brother who sought to avenge Lakshmana, brother of Rama, chopping off the nose of his own dear sister, Surpanaka. The Sri Lankan version says that his brothers deserted Ravana when he was out to avenge his sister.
This version also acknowledges that Ravana had acquired aviation skills and built his own aerial vehicle. Be it as it may, at least the Hindu mythology talks about gods in the heavens using pushpaka vimanams, for their travels across the skies. It’s again a debate that can be ended either by leaving them all there, or by proving at least one part of it. The Tourism Ministry has taken up the latter challenge, it seems.
Sri Lanka, or sub-continent India is not the only part of the world where mythologies have had flying horses like Pegaus in Greece. Across ancient civilisations, proven by archaeology or claimed by mythology, Pegaus like characters have existed. Across civilisations and periods, and without possible knowledge about the existence of one another, ancient civilisations have had their own versions of gods, goddesses, demons and all. It is amazing to see how many of them are similar to one another – alluding to the fertility or the limitations of human imagination in that age and circumstances.
If Greeks had their Centaurs, or half man, half lion, the mythology of India, to which Sri Lankans acknowledge their early history, has its Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu – again half man (nara) and half lion (simha). From geographically-distanced civilisations of the Mayans, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans and the Indus people, the tales of their multiple gods with assigned duties and responsibilities is also near-universal.
After all, Sri Lanka’s story, if rolled back to the birth of Vijaya, more so to the birth of his father Singaraja and his kingdom Singapura, now in Bihar (?), Singaraja himself was born to a Lion and a human, Princess Suppa of Lala. The Romans have had their Remus and Romulus and the she-wolf that brought them up? Not all of them need to be Tarzan-like fiction.
After all, the Darwinian theory provides for human evolution having multiple layers, including the stages before Homo Sapiens, as the present-day humans claim to be. It is at times argued that the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, as depicted in Hindu mythology, is only a depiction of Darwin’s evolution theory in its time, from water-borne Fish (Matsya) through amphibian Tortoise (Kurma), land-based Pig (Varaha) to Narasimha (half-man, half-animal), it’s all there…
In east of India, to which region, Sri Lankans attribute the birth of the Vijaya dynasty and also their Buddhist origins, Lord Buddha is considered an avatar of Lord Vishnu, replacing the Hindu god Balarama and elevating Lord Krishna to an earlier avatar where the latter is located otherwise. It is another matter that Buddhism in India preaches ahimsa or non-violence, including in food habits. It does not apply to Sri Lanka and the whole of South-East Asia. Ditto with Saiva Siddhantha, as known in Sri Lanka and the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu.
Granted that one was a fully evolved man, the rest of them could still have been in various earlier stages of evolutions, and described as rakshashas or monkey-men or monkey-god. Whether or not rakshashas and rakshashis, yakshas and yakshinis belonged there, or were of another kind altogether, will still remain…
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])