More of a cultural phenomenon than a festival restricted to Hindus, Onam is celebrated by people of all faiths in Kerala. Every year on Onam day, people of Kerala welcome their beloved king into their homes. He was a king who was known for his generosity. He was the one who built a kingdom of peace. He was a demon king who was extraordinarily kind.
In Hindu mythology, asura (demons) are considered evil dark forces of the universe. They are always in conflict with the deva (gods) who strive to bring light to the universe. The demons are embodiments of terror and violence. They try to destroy peace and happiness that the gods try to maintain.
However, Mahabali–the benevolent demon king who ruled the state of Kerala–was an exception. Legend has it that during his period, the people of the land lived in peace and prosperity. Justice and happiness prevailed in his kingdom. It was indeed the golden period in Kerala, and the king was celebrated as a hero. Unfortunately, Mahabali’s reign ended with self-sacrifice to protect his land and the welfare of his subjects. And even today, his sacrifice is remembered by the people of Kerala.
According to legend, Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlad, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. Following his grandfather’s footsteps, Mahabali also began to worship Vishnu early in life. His devotion to the deity earned him a boon, wherein upon the completion of 100 yajnas (ritual sacrifice), he would become the ruler of all three worlds–the nether, the earth and the heaven. He did penance for several years and became the ruler of earth and the nether world. Had Mahabali continued with his yajnas, he would have ruled the heavens too.
Obviously, this did not go well with the gods. Mahabali’s increasing popularity made the gods insecure. They had witnessed how Mahabali’s goodness and generosity towards his subjects had made him a great ruler on earth. There was no sorrow, disease or poverty in his kingdom. His subjects loved their king dearly. Naturally, the gods were afraid they too would be ruled by Mahabali, the demon king.
Mahabali’s legend reinforces us to rethink our beliefs regarding demons and the darkness associated with them.