Hero to some, scoundrel, demon or villain to others...all that can be said about the King of Lanka is that he was most certainly a tortured and enigmatic soul...and one I can most certainly relate to.
Ravana was born as the human incarnation of the gatekeeper to heaven (Vaikuntha) called "Jaya" after being cursed to take human birth by the four Kumaras for refusing them an audience with Lord Vishnu.
Jaya was given the choice of taking seven births as a devotee of Lord Vishnu or just one birth as an enemy of Lord Vishnu...of course, Jaya chose the latter because he loved Lord Vishnu SO much, he wanted to spend as least time as possible away from Him...away from Vaikuntha on the planet of the humans.
So, Ravana was born as an Asura...as a demon who also happened to be a great devotee of Lord Shiva.
Now, Lord Shiva does not have any rules or regulations when it comes to worshiping Him..you don't need to be a Brahmin...you don't need to be "holy" or "good" or even a "creature of the Light"..in fact, all that is required to receive blessings from Lord Shiva is patience, determination, dedication and unwavering focus.
Ravana is often pictured as having ten heads..this means that he was extremely intelligent.. intelligent enough to realise that he was born AS a demon and will thus always BE a demon! Yes, he deeply and dearly wanted to be spiritual, be a being of light and love so as to know and understand the peace and bliss of the Divine, but that is not who Ravana WAS! and no matter how much he tried, he could never be nor even TRY to be something other than a Demon. All his attempts at being a "good person" was like a cat trying to be a dog by pretending that his "meows" were actually "woofs". After many years of trying to make good, he realized the futility of it and embraced his demonic nature totally and completely because that is what he WAS.
King Ravana actually had great admiration and respect for Lord Shiva, but was also not above testing out his boons on the Lord either! After Lord Shiva granted Ravana the boon of unlimited strength, Ravana wanted to test it out by lifting up Mount Kailash while Shiva and Parvati were sitting on top of it.
What followed was Lord Shiva laughing and responding to Ravana's display of strength with Lord Shiva's display of incredible weight, which pushed King Ravana down into the netherworlds.
What followed, was Ravana composing the most amazing hymn to Lord Shiva EVER called the "Shiva Tandava Stotram". This Stotram goes to highlight Ravana's brilliant intellect, because the mathematical structure and meter of the Sanskrit prose is just beyond astounding:
However, even through his devotion to Lord Shiva, Ravana realised that he was still an Asura....still a demon and that was all he could EVER be. Even though Ravana was a tyrant of a king, his subjects loved him because Ravana was pretty much consistent in his tyranny in that he never played favourites and treated everyone the same, no matter how unfair or unjust that was...one could even say that he was fair in his unfairness and he was also a great, fierce and noble warrior, which were very admirable traits in prehistoric times.
Still, Ravana had absolutely no idea of his previous incarnation as Jaya, the Gatekeeper of heaven. He didn't know that his brother, Kumbhkarna was also his brother in heaven called Vijaya who was cursed along with him.
All that Ravana knew was because he was of the Asura lineage, it would take him many, many births and lifetimes before he could attain to Moksha and he just didn't have the patience to wait that long...so what better way to enter heaven than to be an affront to Lord Vishnu directly and what better way to achieve this than to kidnap Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, who many were claiming to be the Earthly avatar OF Lord Vishnu. He had no intention of ever harming Sita and tarnishing her chastity...she was actually treated very well whilst in captivity.
The means eventually justified the end however and the demon gained entry back into heaven through being slain by God himself...with Lord Shiva's blessings of course. This is why Lord Rama prayed to Lord Shiva at Rameshwaram to get the "okay" from Lord Shiva to go ahead and slay one of his greatest devotees, so as not to incur the wrath of Lord Shiva for doing so.
Meanwhile, Ravana was in the process of sacrificing all of his ten heads to Lord Shiva... sacrificing his great intellect to the greatest intellect of all.
So, that is the story.
Ravana is still respected and admired by those who understand the full story..even though those of emotion will still see him as a tyrant...a demon...the one who kidnapped Sita and effigies of him are burnt every year at Diwali time to commemorate the victory of the forces of good over the forces of evil, but what they are truly commemorating is just the Divine Leela of the Lord playing itself out.
Meanwhile, others compose tributes to King Ravana like this one I found the other day:
Aum Namah Shivaya