Ravana abducts Sita, the wife of King Rama and the goddess personified. Like the theft of Helen in the Iliad, this transgression sparks off the whole epic. Unlike Helen, the beautiful Sita was a loyal wife and did not go willingly.
Now Ravana assumed the shape of a wandering yogi; carrying a staff and a beggar's bowl, he came towards Sita waiting all alone for Rama to come back.
The forest knew him: the very trees stayed still, the wind dropped, the Godaveri flowed more slowly for fear.
But he came close to Sita, and gazed upon her, and was filled with evil longings; and he addressed her, praising her beauty, and asked her to leave that dangerous forest and go with him to dwell in palaces and gardens. But she, thinking him a Brahman and her guest, gave him food and water, and answered that she was Rama's wife, and told the story of their life; and she asked his name and kin.
Then he named himself Ravana and besought her to be his wife, and offered her palaces and servants and gardens.
She grew angry beyond all measure at that, and answered:
"I am the servant of Rama, lion amongst men, immovable as any mountain, vast as the mighty ocean, radiant as Indra. Wouldst thou draw the teeth from a lion's mouth, or swim the sea with a heavy stone about thy neck?
"As well mightst thou seek the Sun or Moon as me! Little like is Rama unto thee, but different as is a lion from a jackal, an elephant from a cat, the ocean from a tiny stream, or gold from iron. Indra's wife thou mightst carry off, and live; but if thou takest me, the wife of Rama, thy death is certain, and I, too, shall surely die."
And she shook with fear, as a plantain-tree is shaken by the wind.
But Ravana's yellow eyes grew red with anger and the peaceful face changed, and he took his own horrid shape, ten-faced and twenty-armed; he seized that gentle thing by the hair and limbs, and sprang into his golden ass-drawn car, and rose up into the sky.
But she cried aloud to Lakshman and to Rama.
"O thou forest and flowery trees," she cried, "and thou Godaveri, and woodland deities, and deer, and birds, I conjure you to tell my lord that Ravana has stolen me away."
Ravana is a great, sexy villain. There's a way in which - like all characters in the Hindu epics - he's just doing his job.
The epic culminates in a huge battle in which many great heros, demons, and monkeys are slain. This painting shows Ravana in the chariot on the right with his army of demons. King Rama (AKA god) sits on the left with the bow of Shiva, watching his monkeys advance.
Each like a flaming lion fought the other; head after head of the Ten-necked One did Rama cut away with his deadly arrows, but new heads ever rose in place of those cut off, and Ravan's death seemed nowise nearer than before -- the arrows that had slain Maricha and Khara and Vali could not take the king of Lanka's life away.
Then Rama took up the Brahma weapon given to him by Agastya: the Wind lay in its wings, the Sun and Fire in its head, in its mass the weight of Meru and Mandara. Blessing that shaft with Vedic mantras, Rama set it on his bow and loosed it, and it sped to its appointed place and cleft the breast of Ravana, and, bathed in blood, returned and entered Rama's quiver humble.
Thus was the lord of the rakshasas slain, and the gods rained flowers on Rama's car and chanted hymns of praise, for their desired end was now accomplished -- that end for which alone Vishnu had taken human form.
The heavens were at peace, the air grew clear and bright, and the sun shone cloudless on the field of battle.
"O thou great-armed, younger brother of Vaisravana, who could stand before thee?
"Gods and rishis thou hast daunted; not to be borne is it that a man, fighting on foot, hath slain thee now!
"But thy death has come to pass because of Sita, and I am a widow. Thou didst not heed my words, nor didst thou think how many fairer damsels thou hadst than her.
"Alas! how fair thou wert and how kind thy smile: now thou art bathed in blood and pierced with shafts! Thou wert wont to sleep on a couch of gold; but now thou liest in the dust.
"Why dost thou fare away and leave me alone? Why dost thou not welcome me?"
But the other wives of Ravana consoled her and lifted her up, saying: "Life is uncertain for all, and all things change."