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.
Aditi, the mother of gods, then approached Lord Vishnu and asked him to put an end to Mahabali’s rule. Initially, Vishnu was reluctant as Mahabali was his ardent devotee. At the same time, he could not say no to the gods. So, he hatched a plan.
Mahabali was known for his generosity. No one who asked the king for anything was ever turned down. To test his devotee, Vishnu disguised himself as Vamana, a poor Brahmin dwarf, and visited the king’s abode. The king had just finished his morning prayers and was preparing to offer alms to the needy. Vamana asked Mahabali for a piece of land. The generous king told Vamana that he could have as much land as he wished. But Vamana said he just wanted land that could cover three of his footsteps. The king, without realising the ploy, readily agreed.
Soon, Vamana grew to the size of cosmic proportions. His first step covered the earth and his second step covered the sky. When Vamana asked the king where he should place his third step. Mahabali, who then realised whose presence he was in, bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his feet on his head. Thus, Mahabali was pushed to the nether world. Impressed by Mahabali’s generosity, Vamana turned into Vishnu and offered him a boon, wherein he could come back to his kingdom once every year in the Malayalam month of Chingam. This homecoming of the benevolent king is celebrated as Onam in Kerala.
Demons might be portrayed as evil, in mythology. But King Mahabali was anything but evil. His legend reinforces us to rethink our beliefs regarding demons and the darkness associated with them. Perhaps, we should not base our definition of good and bad on pre-conceived notions. So, let us make Mahabali’s homecoming a day to celebrate the innate goodness in us all.