Legends of Onam

Kashyapa had two wives, Diti and Aditi, who were the parents of demons and demigods (Asuras and Devas) respectively. Indra, the king of demigods, went to war with the king of Asuras. Mahabali, the King of Asuras, defeated Indra and proceeded to occupy Indra’s territory. Kashyapa, who had gone to the Himalayas to do penance, on his return found Aditi weeping over the defeat of her son, Indra. By divine insight, Kashyapa recognised the cause of grief. Kashyapa tried to console Aditi who was wailing in grief, saying that nothing happens in the world without God’s will and people should go on doing their duties. Kashyapa asked Aditi to pray to Lord Narayana and taught her Payovrata, a ritual that has to be observed from the 12th day of the bright half of Karthika (Sukla-paksha Dvadasi). Since Aditi carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Lord Narayana appeared before her and informed her that he would himself place a child in her womb and help Indra. Later, on the 12th day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada, Aditi gave birth to a son of uncommon effulgence. That child, “Vamana-murti”, demonstrated his divine powers by doing marvellous deeds even when he was a child.

Balichakravarthi (Bali, The Emperor) or Mahabali, was the grandson of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu who met Vishnu in his Narasimha Avatar. Prahalad, despite being an Asura, had great faith in Vishnu. One cannot miss the series of warfare between Vishnu and the Asuras – those born of the breath of God. Bali Maharaj, sat in Prahlad’s lap as a child and learnt love and devotion of Lord Vishnu from Prahlad.

Mahabali’s rule were considered as the golden era of Kerala. The celebration of Onam resounds and chants the following song all over Kerala:
“     When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,

All the people had equality.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Death of the children was never even heard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbor.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race.

The gods were very annoyed as Bali became the ruler of all the three worlds having defeated the Devas. Violence was inflicted upon the Devas.[1] The gods approached Vishnu and asked for his help them. Mahabali, who was performing the sacrificial rite of Viswajith Yagna or Aswamedha Yagna[2] on the banks of Narmada River, declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagna. He Vishnu, incarnated in the form of Vamana, a dwarf to defeat the Daityas.

Vamana came to the Yaga-shala. As he was approaching them, the sages assembled there perceived the extraordinary effulgence form of the young lad. Mahabali went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. Bali with the usual courtesy given to the people who come to ask for help told him Master! It is my good fortune that you have chosen to honour me with your presence. Whatever you desire, I am here ready to fulfill the same. Vamana smiled and said: “You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine”.

On hearing him, Bali’s preceptor, the Brahmin Shukracharya (a Daitya priest) who had vision of the future told Bali that the one, who had come to take alms from Bali was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king who would never go back on his word. He told his Guru that he would never break his promise as it was a sin. Shukracharya insisted that he should not fulfill the demand of Vamana as he had come to deprive Bali of all his possessions.

Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana, begged pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice. Earlier, while Bali was embarking on the war with Indra, he had prostrated at the feet of his preceptor, Shukracharya, and on his advice he performed the Vishwajit Yagna from which he secured very powerful weapons. It was only because of Shukracharya’s help that he was able to conquer Indra. On this occasion, Bali was not prepared to heed the advice of the same preceptor. Shukracharya cursed Bali, saying: ‘As you have not heeded your Guru’s words, you will be reduced to ashes’. Bali was firm and replied: ‘I am prepared to face any consequence but will not go back on my word’.

Saying so, he asked Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. All attempts of Shukracharya to dissuade Bali from offering the land desired by Vamana proved futile. Bali considered everyone who came to him as god himself and never refused anyone anything that they have asked. Bali told his Guru: “Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are like the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Knowing that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me.” Bali boasted that even in Vishnu himself were to come to his sacrifice and ask for anything, Bali would deliver it.[3] Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. With one foot, he measured all of the earth. With the other, he claimed all of the heaven. There was still one foot of territory that Bali owed him. Bali asked to place the final step on his head as the third step of land which Lord Vamana had asked for as alms. Vamana placed the third step on the head of Bali and suppressed him to Patala, the underworld. For the devotion of this Daitya Mahabali, Lord Vishnu (Vamana) granted him rule over Patala. Vamana aka Vishnu granted Bali the boon that he would hold the position of Indra for one Manvantara , thus fulfilling his devotee’s desire ( the office of Indra being a rotating position , changing every Manvantara ) .

As a last wish Mahabali was granted the permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate Onam festival to commemorate the memory of a Great King Mahabali who would keep his promise. Mahabali fulfilled his name as the great martyr for the sake of Truth (“Satya”). The name “Mahabali” itself means Great Sacrifice.

During Onam, the feast and festive mood of the people, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during Bali’s flawless reign. People wear new clothes (Vastra) during Onam. The ‘Vastra’ also stands for heart. Thus the significance of wearing new clothes is about making the heart new by removing all bad thoughts and feelings. People forgetting their sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome the auspicious ‘Thiruvonam’ day.

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