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King Mahabali belongs to the Daitya clan of Asuras. Like his grandfather, the famous Prahlada, son of Hiranyakashyapu, Mahabali too holds a special place in Hindu mythology. The word ‘asura’ evokes a mental picture of a rakshasa – evil and cruel. In fact, the most famous Asuras – be it Ravana, or even Hiranyakashyapu for that matter, were all men of stupendous qualities. Their intelligence, ability to govern, prowess in warfare are all legendry. The name ‘asura’ is really a play on the word ‘sura’. It is said that during the Samudra manthan – or the churning of the primordial ocean – all kinds of celestial things emerged from the ocean. These were distributed among the two parties – the devas and asuras. It so happened that Varuni, daughter of Varuna and goddess of wine, emerged carrying the ‘sura’ or the intoxicant. She appeared dishevelled and shabby, and to top it, she was quarrelsome. The asuras were quite naturally reluctant to accept the sura from her – hence the name a-sura.
However, the asuras and the devas are all brothers. Half-brothers to be precise. Their father is the sage Kashyapa, who is considered the father of all humanity – he fathered the asuras, devas, nagas – who in turn founded the most important dynasties – the suryavansh, raghuvansh and so on. King Mahabali belongs to the Daitya clan of the Asuras. The daitya clan is a line born of a union between Kashyapa and Diti.
The asuras and the devas represent a symbolic balance in the universe. Not a good vs evil – but some kind of a power balance. Like a perfectly balanced weighing scale. One cannot become more powerful than the other. These are represented by the Deva-Asura conflicts, and each time, it has been resolved by an avatar of Vishnu.
King Mahabali’s story is exceptional in its peaceful resolution. There was no war, no bloodshed when it came to ‘conquering’ this particular Asura. Indeed, his story is very different from that of Ravana or Hiranyakashapu. Under the guidance of the great Prahlada, King Mahabali was a just and benevolent king. His kingdom was very rich and prosperous; peace prevailed and indeed his subjects looked upon their king as God himself. His wisdom, intellect and sense of justice made him famous throughout the world. But, as with every honourable warrior, King Bali too sought to expand his kingdom. He ruled over the earth, and the netherworld (patala), all that was left was the heavens: the abode of the devas including Indra. With a huge army, King Bali routed out the devas from Indraloka in a war that lasted thousand years.
Now, the asuras and the devas, as I said, are step brothers. While the asuras were born to Diti, the devas were born to Aditi – both wives of Kashyapa. When Aditi saw her sons routed out, she performed a severe penance invoking Lord Vishnu. Pleased with her devotion, the Lord appeared before her and wished to grant her a boon. She asked Vishnu to restore the devas to their rightful place, but since the asuras too were her sons, she said, ‘do so without bloodshed’. Lord Vishnu acquiesces, and was born to her as Vamana, in the form of a dwarf Brahmin.
Meanwhile, the great King Mahabali performed the powerful Ashwamedha Yagna, after which surely he would become the undisputed emperor of all the worlds. Benevolent and generous as he was, King Mahabali swore to donate whatever one asked on the day of the yagna.
Vamana, the young brahmachari, turned up during the yagna. Now all the rishis and sages gathered for the yagna recognised the Lord in the brahmachari. So did Shukracharya, the guru of the asuras and a rival of Vishnu. He sternly warned Mahabali not to give any daana to this cunning brahmachari. If Bali dared to disobey his own guru, then he would have to face dire consequences. But Bali, the just king who would rather give up his life than his word, disobeyed his guru. He asked the young brahmachari what he wanted as daana.
Vamana innocently said, ‘Give me land, as covered by three steps of my gait.’
The King, thinking the little brahmachari has asked for too less, goaded him to ask for something more substantial. He offered riches in the form of jewels and gems. The young Brahmin refused and stayed adamant about his request. ‘So be it,’ said the generous King. This has to be sealed by a vow, so the king had to accept holy water given by the Brahmin. The cunning Shukracharya wanted to prevent the king from taking this vow. So he reduced himself to the size of a fly and blocked the snout of the brahmachari’s kamandalu. Thus, no water could fall into the palm of the King, and he’d be unable to take the vow.
But the brahmachari pulled out a blade of grass and poked the snout of the kamandalu thus forcing out the ‘fly’. And that is how Shukracharya became blind in one eye. The King partook the holy water and sealed the vow. He now had to give whatever the Brahmin has asked for.
The dwarf Vamana suddenly grew in size to gigantic proportions. He took his first step and that spanned all of the heavens. With his second step, He covered all of Bhooloka. Now where should he take his third step? There is no place left! By then, the truthful King Bali realized it is the Supreme One in front of him. He knelt down and bowed his head in all humility – and asked the Lord to place his third step on his head.
The minute the Lord’s foot touched King Bali, the latter becomes immortal. Because he was under the Lord’s foot, he went down to the Patalaloka. Before leaving Bhooloka, he asked the Lord for a boon. He said he very much loved his kingdom and his subjects. He asked the Lord to grant him permission to return to Bhooloka once in a year, so that he may see his subjects. Greatly pleased with his humility and honesty, the Lord readily granted his wish.
The vaishnavas celebrate this day as Vamana Jayanthi. I wonder why it is not as grandly celebrated as the victories of Rama or Krishna. Perhaps we are not so enchanted with victories that came about peacefully. Or perhaps because this day is more about an asura; a holy one at that. It is believed that he ruled from the present-day Kerala – Malabar coast, and even parts of Karnataka known as Tulunaadu – which would probably include Mangalore and Coorg. When I travelled to these places, and I saw their lush mountains, roaring seas, dense forests, hidden waterfalls, and when I heard their lilting language – I thought, indeed, this is the beautiful, blessed land of King Mahabali. And thus, hundreds of thousands of years later, on this day, we still decorate our doorsteps with flower – rangolis, we prepare feasts (sadhya) fit for a king. For on this day, we celebrate the return of the mighty King Mahabali to the earth: we celebrate Onam.
King Bali was no ordinary king, and we yearn for a day when we are governed by one like him. Having been touched by the Supreme Vishnu Himself, and having becoming immortal, welcoming King Mahabali into our homes and hearts can only lead to peace and prosperity.
Wishing everyone a very Happy Onam.
© Sumana Khan - 2013