“The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.” (Bhagavad-gita, 3.37)
Lust is so strong that it devours all good judgment. An outgrowth of the mode of passion, lust can lead to anger, which can then lead to bewilderment and loss of rationale. This was the case with the Rakshasa demon Ravana many thousands of years ago. His lusty desire to enjoy another man’s wife cost him dearly in the end.
During the Treta Yuga, one particular Rakshasa was ascending to power. Known by the name of Ravana, this demon had ten heads and invincibility in battle. He had achieved this strength and fame through the performance of great austerities. He underwent severe penances, or tapasya, and pleased various demigods. They gifted him with several boons, one of which was that no celestial, animal, or other elevated living entity could defeat him in battle. In his haste, Ravana forgot to ask for immunity from ordinary human beings. The demigods used this loophole to put the pieces into place for his demise.
Ravana was granted all these boons and he in turn used them against the same class of people whom he had worshiped. Ravana took on and defeated his own brother, Kuvera, the treasurer of the demigods. Fearing worldwide domination by the Rakshasas, the demigods petitioned Lord Vishnu to come to earth and kill Ravana. Lord Vishnu is God’s personal expansion. There are actually several different forms of Lord Vishnu, with each one of having a specific purpose. The Vedas tell us that God’s original form is that of Lord Krishna, but that Krishna then personally expands into several forms to carry out various functions. Lord Vishnu incarnated on earth as a human being by the name of Rama. When Vishnu comes to earth, his closest associates from the spiritual world usually come with him. Lord Vishnu’s eternal consort in the spiritual world is Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune.
Aside from being exquisitely beautiful and extremely pious, Lakshmi’s trademark characteristic is her devotion to Narayana, or Vishnu. When she came to earth, she played the same role as God’s pleasure potency. Lakshmi incarnated as Sita Devi, the daughter of the pious king of Mithila, Maharaja Janaka. When They reached an appropriate age, Sita and Rama were united through the bonds of holy matrimony. In order to compass Ravana’s death, Rama needed an excuse to attack Ravana. To this end, the Lord accepted a fourteen year exile punishment to the forest handed out by His father. Sita and Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother, insisted on accompanying Rama on His journey. On one occasion while the group was in the forest of Janasthana, Rama was visited by Ravana’s sister, Shurpanakha. An argument ensued which resulted in Shurpanakha being disfigured by Lakshmana. She immediately went to Ravana and explained what had happened. Ravana then sent 14,000 Rakshasas to attack Rama, but the Lord easily killed all of them.
“I am your dear friend and ask you again to desist from this plan. If you should aggressively take Sita away by force, you and your relatives will lose your life and be taken to the abode of Yamaraja, being destroyed by Rama's arrows.” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.33)
One of the Rakshasas, Akampana, managed to escape and relayed to Ravana what had happened. He advised Ravana not to attack Rama, but to devise a plan to kidnap Sita. He believed that since Rama loved Sita so much, He wouldn’t be able to live without her. Ravana was greatly intrigued by this idea. Just by hearing about Sita’s beauty, he had to have her. He immediately went to his advisor, Maricha, and proposed the idea to him. In the above referenced quote, Maricha is strongly advising Ravana against such a plan. Maricha was no fool. On a previous occasion, he had tried to attack the venerable Vishvamitra Muni while in Rama’s presence. The Lord punished Maricha so badly that he was lucky to still be alive afterwards. Maricha warned Ravana not to mess with Rama, for that would lead to his destruction.
At the time, Ravana was living in a sinner’s paradise. The Sundara-kanda of the Ramayana gives us a vivid description of Ravana’s city of Lanka, and all the beautiful palaces contained within. Lord Hanuman, Rama’s eternal servant, later travelled to Lanka in search of Sita after she was kidnapped. He saw first-hand what life was like for Ravana. Ravana and the other Rakshasas were always drunk. They would stay up late into the night and enjoy drinking wine and having sex. Ravana had many beautiful wives and they used to drink with him too. When Hanuman travelled through the palaces, he saw the women were all passed out from drinking and that some had fallen asleep on each other. Meat eating was also very common, for Rakshasas even ate human flesh.
With all this opulence, what need did Ravana have for Sita? His desire to steal another man’s wife shows the illusory nature of material sense gratification. Our material senses can actually never be satisfied. Our body is a deceiver in a sense, and we are hooked into this deceiver, thinking that the more we satisfy it, the happier we will be. The Vedas tell us that true happiness can only be found in the spiritual world. To this end, they recommend that we strictly control our sense gratification through the practice of tapasya.
“And that sacrifice performed in defiance of scriptural injunctions, in which no spiritual food is distributed, no hymns are chanted and no remunerations are made to the priests, and which is faithless—that sacrifice is of the nature of ignorance.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 17.13)
Yet we see that Ravana performed many great austerities in his early life and still ended up being extremely addicted to sinful activity. What happened? The Vedas tell us that the material world is governed by three gunas, or modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Every activity we perform can be categorized into one of these three modes. This applies to religious activity as well. Ravana’s austerities were performed in the mode of ignorance, meaning they were detrimental to his future well-being. He only performed religious activities so that he could engage in sinful life. This is not the purpose of religion. Sacrifice and austerity are meant for bringing one closer to God. By regulating the senses, our minds remain at ease and thus it becomes easier to learn about God.
Trying to steal Lakshmi is one of the most grievous sins. Lakshmiji is meant to be enjoyed only by God Himself. Yet since she is the goddess of fortune, she is still kind enough to send material opulence our way from time to time. In fact, Ravana even had a fountain of Goddess Lakshmi in his kingdom. This illustrates another folly on his part. Though technically considered a demigod, Lakshmi is God’s pleasure potency expansion, hladini-shakti. She is actually a great devotee and an example of how to achieve perfection in life. God is the master and we are His servants. Those who realize this fact will be happy, and those who don’t will be forever miserable. As part of her duties, Lakshmi bestows wealth and fortune to those who please her. She is often depicted seated on a lotus flower and distributing gold coins from her hands. But this wealth must be used for the right purposes, otherwise it will lead to our downfall.
Lakshmiji provides us good fortune so that we may use it for serving God. If we use money for nefarious purposes, we are essentially stealing Lakshmi. This is exactly what Ravana did. He kidnapped Sita and tried to keep her for himself, but this can never happen. Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and the rest of the Vanara army would eventually march to Lanka and rescue Sita.
Maricha’s warning would serve as a foreshadowing of events to come. As a spiritual guide to Ravana, Maricha gave him sound advice on what to do. He had seen God’s power firsthand, so he was relaying that information to Ravana. Not only did he describe Rama’s glories to Ravana, but he also advised his ten-headed friend to use that information to avoid acting sinfully. In a similar manner, the great Vaishnava acharyas and saints have written many books about Krishna and devotion to Him. They too have seen the Lord’s opulences firsthand. These saints advise us to give up sinful life and to take up devotional service to the Lord. If we follow their advice, we can be assured of not ending up like Ravana.