New Meanings for Ravana

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The focus of the fourth paper, ‘Ravana’s Sri Lanka: Redefining the Sinhala Nation?’, by Dileepa Witharana, focuses on the recent widespread surge of interest in Ravana within the Sinhala community. This interest has reached unprecedented levels, to the point of redefining the Sinhala nation in popular public space by discarding the theory of Aryan descent reflected in the Mahavamsa’s myth of Vijaya’s arrival and replacing it with Yakka-Ravana descent.

Five articles in Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol.42, Issue 4, 2019

1.) Lankapura: The Legacy of the Ramayana in Sri Lanka by Justin W. Henry, Loyola U., Chicago & Sree Padma, Bowdoin College, ME, Pages 726-731


2.) Borders Crossed: Vibhishana in the Ramayana and Beyond, by Sri Padma, Bowdoin College, ME, Pages 747-767

This paper aims to study the history and significance of Vibhishana in Sri Lanka, an important character in the Ramayana, one of the two most renowned classical epics originating from India that became popular in South and Southeast Asia. Although the protagonist of the Ramayana, Rama, along with his spouse Sita and ardent ally Hanuman, are venerated throughout Hindu and Buddhist South and Southeast Asia, a Vibhishana cult is only found in Sri Lanka. How this came about is the central question investigated in this paper. Towards this end, historical and cultural factors specific to Sri Lanka are interrogated to tease out the circumstances that have contributed to Vibhishana’s divinity. Representations of Vibhishana in literature, art and temple worship are scrutinised to problematise Vibhishana’s significance within the Buddhist religious cosmos and his continued relevance even during the recent emergence of the cult of Ravana, his mighty older brother in the Ramayana.

By examining the public discourse on Ravana that has been widespread among Sinhalese in the recent past, this paper suggests that the Sinhala nation is perhaps on the verge of being redefined. In comparison to the origin story of the Sinhalese that remained seriously unchallenged till the end of the twentieth century, in which the Sinhalese were considered the descendants of the Aryan prince Vijaya who arrived on the island around 2,500 years ago, this new narrative identifies the yakkha king Ravana as the originator of the Sinhala nation by going further back into the past. The paper also attempts to explain why this surge of interest in Ravana is taking place at this particular moment and not earlier.

5.) Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka: Ravana’s Sinhala Buddhist Apotheosis and Tamil Responses, by Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran, U. of Kentucky, Krishantha Fedricks, U. of TX-Austin, & Justin W. Henry, Loyola U. Chicago

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