Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mahabali- the demon king - an inspiration even for Sri Rama.

Mahabali- the demon king - an inspiration even for Sri Rama.

The black and white style delineation of Devas and Asuras (Gods and demons) can be seen only in the outer shell of Indian scriptural stories.  The behaviours of gods and demons in scriptures have always been portrayed with different grades of grey – some relatively good and some seemingly bad. When the virtues are high, one becomes a Deva and when the vices are high, a demon. For example, Ravana was a great intellectual (equivalent to ten heads working together), a great musician and a devotee of Lord Siva. But his fall was due to ego, lust and arrogance. Many other asuras also have such varying shades of qualities. Even Kamsa, the evil uncle of Sri Krishna turned into a great philosopher when talking to Krishna’s parents Devaki and Vasudeva immediately after their wedding. Mahabali’s own grandfather Prahlada was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, who was instrumental in the Lord appearing as Narasimha.

Mahabali, the asura king who is one of the heroes of Onam celebrations was not just an ordinary demon. He was in fact an inspiration even to Sri Rama according to Yogavasishtham. Sri Rama, the mighty Prince of Ayodhya was a young man with a lot of questions and worries about the futile nature of human endeavours. But Rama got a direction in life as he received knowledge of the highest order from the story of Mahabali. How can a demon king become a role model for the Lord himself? In the ‘modern’ stories of Onam, the Lord Vamana, an Avatar of Vishnu is the villain who banished King Mahabali to the netherworlds depriving him of the kingdom he ruled so well with equality and prosperity! Mind you, Sri Rama is another incarnation of the same ‘ruthless’ Lord Vishnu!

Interestingly, only in Kerala, the story goes like this and it has been popularized by the media and popular literature. Kerala was not even formed until Lord Bhargava Rama’s incarnation. Lord Vamana’s avatar occurred way before the formation of Kerala. So how can Mahabali be the king of Kerala? In other parts of India and in the holy scripture Bhagavatham where the story of Bali appears, the Lord’s incarnation was to bless Bali, leading him to the higher path of knowledge.  King Bali was already a noble soul with lot of great qualities and spiritual power. But he had an air of arrogance in him that prevented him from achieving the greatness he possessed. So the Lord came to his rescue and gave him a lesson to lift him up above the mundane. He was a benevolent king, but fully immersed in the material life and merry making. Obviously, his subjects also followed his philosophy of life. Thus in his kingdom, there were no higher pursuits of life. Material prosperity brought arrogance in him that he wanted to show that he can satisfy all material needs of people. ‘Once I help someone, there should be no need for him to seek help from anyone else.’ He insisted. He did elaborate fire rituals and gave ample gifts to all who came to see him.

As the story goes, Mahabali’s time to rule the three worlds had come to an end. He had been ruling the heaven, hell and the earth for long. But he was too contented with his position and not showing any sign of passing on the kingdom to the next Indra in waiting. So the Devas (enlightened beings) requested Lord Vishnu to intervene.  So, Lord Vishnu took the guise of a young mendicant goes to see King Bali and asks for enough space – just three step measure of land- to sit and meditate. ‘Take as much as you want, I don’t want you to ask others for anything, anymore.’ was the king’s response. The Lord lifted his leg and measured the whole earth in one step and with the second step the heavens. There was no space to put his third step and by then Bali understood the drama (divine Leela) and bowed his head in reverence in front of the Lord. He sacrificed his ego and got ‘paada anugraham – blessings by the touch of Lord’s foot’. This is how the king Bali became Mahabali – the mighty one. He was sent to another place (Suthalam- noble abode) where he was asked to do penance for some time until his turn to rule the worlds again. During this time, the Lord was his personal guardian.

Because of the spiritual strength he already had, Bali was least bothered about the loss of his kingdom as he was not really attached to it.  When the Lord appeared as a dwarf mendicant and took away his kingdom, he didn’t lose his character. Mahabali became even nobler by being detached to the future material prosperity (kingdom) that was offered to him when his turn comes. But when he has to rule the three worlds, he would do it with equanimity and without any attachment. It is this attitude of contentment (sthitha prajna) that was an inspiration to Sri Rama. Sage Vasishtha tells Rama to learn the art of true sacrifice from Mahabali. This sacrifice is not something that he is forcing himself to do. It comes naturally to him. He is contented with whatever comes in his way whether it is comfort or hardship. In fact Bali was already a self-realized soul with no ‘need’ for material comforts of the three worlds. But a smoke of arrogance happened to hover over him in the course of time and that led to his fall and eventual transformation. He wasn’t overly elated when he was ruling in the role of Indra. He wasn’t perturbed when Lord Vamana took away his Kingdom and when he realized that he will have to wait eons before getting his position back. This is how Mahabali became the role model for Sri Rama, the ‘Maryada purushotthaman- the noblest human’. In Sri Rama’s case, when he was offered the kingdom by his father Dasaratha, he wasn’t overly elated. He accepted that as his duty to his country. He wasn’t upset either when the kingdom was taken away for fourteen years by his step mother. He took that as his duty to his father. Mahabali gave up everything that he ‘owned’; but that sacrifice is insignificant compared to the sacrifice of his ego. It is this Mahabali who needs to be remembered in Onam. In the higher pursuit of knowledge he became a role model for Sri Rama.

In fact, in Indian scriptures, you will not see total villains per se – but the characters would express various shades of valour and villainous nature. So let us not belittle the wonderful story of spiritual inspiration depicted through Mahabali and Vamana to a story of deceit and deprivation. Mahabali is not a comical character as portrayed by many a media nowadays. He was an inspiration to all, including Lord Rama.

തിരുവോണ മഹിമ 

the Significance Onam

Thiruvonam, popularly known as Onam, is the national festival of Kerala, celebrated with pomp and splendor by Malayalees all over the world. Onam is celebrated in the Lunar month of Chingam (August - September ), when the star Altair (Thiruvonam) in the constellation of Aquila is on the ascendant. The legendary origin of the festival dates back to the Tretayuga -to the day Vishnu, the sustaining power behind the universe,  incarnated as Vamana.

Mahabali (the one with great strength) was born in the Tretayuga as an Asura, Asura being defined as one reveling solely in the material world. Through severe penance Mahabali acquired stupendous powers and became the invincible king of all worlds. He was a benevolent king and it is said that his subjects enjoyed supreme levels of material comfort and well-being. 

മാവേലി നാടുവാണീടും കാലം 
മാനുഷരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നുപോലെ 
കള്ളവുമില്ല ചതിയുമില്ല 
എള്ളോളമില്ല പൊളി വചനം 

Poverty and hardship were non-existent and people indulged themselves in endless merrymaking, so much so, that any further pursuit in life was neglected. Spiritual and intellectual evolution came to a stand-still, as the humankind blissfully immersed itself in an ocean of material wealth. To jolt them out of this condition, Vishnu, upon requests from the Devas or the Enlightened Beings, incarnated as Vamana, the short and diminutive.

Being the pious king that he was, Mahabali frequently conducted Yagas and Yagnas to sustain himself. It was during one of these Yagas, called the Aswamedha, that Vamana, as a young boy seeking alms, approached Mahabali. Delighted at the prospect of pleasing a brahmachari, thereby getting his blessings, Bali egotistically offered the boy anything he wished for in the universe. In response Vamana asked for only that much land as could be measured in three steps by his tiny feet.  Even though he felt insulted by the simplicity of the request, Bali readily agreed to it. Sukracharya, the Guru of Asuras, realizing the true nature of Vamana, begged Bali to retract his promise. Mahabali, however, refused to dishonor his word and granted Vamana his wish. Upon this, Vamana grew to gigantic proportions and measured the heavens with one step and the earth with the next. There was no room left for the third step. Humbled and overcome with awe, Mahabali offered his head for Vamana’s third step. While his ego slumped, his devotional surrender to the Supreme Self and firm adherence to righteousness even in the face of total annihilation boosted his stature. He was consequently reprieved and graced with an honorable place in Sutala, the world coveted even by the accomplished souls living in heaven. Mahabali was also given the special privilege to visit his subjects once a year. Onam celebrates his annual visit, besides the Lord’s incarnation as Vamana. Thus, Onam reminds us not only of those days, when material wellbeing was at its peak, but also of 
the higher goals in life.

The celebrations start ten days ahead of Onam, and continue, in most places, up to three days after. The courtyard and surroundings are are displayed in every home. Street dances, mock fights and land and water sports are staged, and the whole community takes on an atmosphere of gaiety. The festival reaches a climax on the day of Onam, with a grand reception of Mahabali and the worship of Vamana.

The legend dramatically depicts many tenets of Hindu Philosophy. Mahabali symbolizes the human mind, sporting ego and Rajoguna*. This mind can be overcome by devotion and righteous deeds, thus paving the way for spiritual progress. God’s grace alone can transmute one’s mortal existence to that of eternal bliss. Mahabali, the mind, devoid of ego and surrendered to the will of the Supreme Self, personified as Vamana, was graced with eternal existence and supreme bliss.

*The three gunas (attributes) of human mind are Satva (the calm and virtuous); Rajas (the agitated and egotistical) and Tamas (the idle and ignorant). The evolutionary process is such that the idle mind progressively gets active and then calm and content. Though a benevolent King well liked by everyone, Mahabali’s progress was somewhat stalled at the second stage and the Lord showed him the path to total contentment.

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