|Rama and Ravana from Sanjay Patel's Ramayana: The Divine Loophole|
Once upon a time, in India, there was a great war between the devas (gods) and the rakshasas (demons). The devas prayed to Vishnu, who answered their prayers and entered the fray. The rakshasas fled Vishnu's wrath and hid in the underworld. All but Sumali. During his wanderings on earth, he saw Kuvera, the god of wealth, flying in Pushpaka, the chariot-city. Sumali became jealous of Kuvera. He felt that Kuvera flaunted his wealth, while the rakshasas lived a life of poverty under the Earth.
Sumali came up with a plan--he sent his daughter, Kaikasi, to seduce Kuvera's father, the sage Visrava, so that there may be a raksasa born with the same wealth as Kuvera.
Kaikasi approached Visrava with her request to become his wife. Visrava granted this request, but since she came to him at an inauspicious time, he proclaimed that the products of their union would be hideous, cruel, flesh-eating night walkers. Kaikasi begged for mercy. Visrava, in his kindness, granted that although still a rakshasa, one of the children would be devoted to Dharma, and uphold religious standards.
Some time later, four children were born: Dasagriva, black as coal with ten heads and twenty arms; Kumbhakarna, who rapidly grew into a giant with a giant appetite for flesh; Surpanakha, lustful, cruel, vengeful; and Vibishana, the good demon, always focused on righteousness.
One day Kaikasi played with Dasagriva and his step-brother Kuvera flew overhead in Pushpaka chariot. Kaikasi said "See your brother, how he shows his wealth? Obtain riches so that you can be like him."
Dasagriva resolved to have more wealth than his brother. He began a life of strict asceticism: praying, doing penance, reciting mantra for hundreds of years.
He resolved to perform harsher penance, cutting off one of his own heads for every 1000 years the gods did not listen to him.
Every 1000 years for 9000 years Dasagriva cut off one of his heads and offered it to the the sacrificial fire. At the end of his 10,000th year of meditation, he prepared to cut off his final head.
Brahma appeared before him and held his sword.
"Your intense single-pointed focus has gained my attention, and I cannot bear the violence you commit against your own body. Ask for a boon and it shall be yours."
Dasagriva needed no time to think. The boon he would ask for occupied his entire focus for 9000 years:
"No god or celestial being shall be able to kill me."
"It is so," declared Brahma. "Your brothers have also earned great merit through their co-penance. Ask me for a boon."
Before Kumbakarna, the giant, could speak, the goddess of speech, Saraswati, entered his mouth and spoke for him: "I hate this wretched world. Let me sleep for 6 months for every day that I am awake."
"It is so," granted Brahma. Kumbakarna immediately fell asleep. Saraswati's trick saved all of the living beings in the world from ending up in Kumbakarna's belly.
Brahma turned to Vibishana, the good demon.
"Grandfather, may I always remember the Lord and uphold Dharma."
"It is so."
With Brahma's book, Dasagriva took himself to be invincible. His ten heads held ten inflated egos, and he went on a rampage subjugating all of the gods who were now powerless against him. The rakshasas, no longer afraid of the gods, returned from the underworld and fought at Dasagriva's side. Fearless, the night-walkers gorged themselves on flesh.
Dasagriva and his demon army attacked Indra and the gods in the heavens. With Brahma's boon as his shield and terrible weapons in his twenty hands, Dasagriva easily defeated the gods. For all of the slaughter and cruelty he committed, Dasagriva earned the name Ravana, "He who makes the universe scream."
Satisfied that he now ruled heaven and Earth, Ravana set out to conquer the realm of Death and even Shiva himself.
But that tale is for another night.
(Adapted with devotion and love from William Buck's, Krishna Dharma's, and Sanjay Patel's retellings of Valmiki's Ramayana)