From time immemorial, Kerala had only a single hero during Onam — an Asura king called Mahabali, whose land was the ultimate example of a welfare state. No inequality, no cheating, no stealing, no class division, no untouchability, no middlemen…thus goes the legendary ballad that the state has been singing for generations during the festival. Onam celebrates both Mahabali and the imaginary welfare state that once Kerala was.
Onam is not a Hindu festival, but a festival that people from all religions celebrate because Mahabali is not a Hindu god, but a man who, according to legend, sacrificed his life to protect his land and its people. Perhaps it’s the only occasion when consumerists in Kerala ruminate over values such as equality and rights.
According to the legend, Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu tricked Mahabali into giving up everything, including himself, because the celestial world felt threatened by his popularity and idea of welfare and socialism. Vamana banished Mahabali into the abyss and Onam is the latter’s annual right to visit his subjects. People celebrate it for ten days.
But now the RSS wants people to change the legend or the myth, and shift their allegiance from their hero to his vanquisher. RSS’s hidden agenda is obvious: The vanquisher was Vishnu and Mahabali, an asura (demon). How can an asura be the hero and Vishnu, the villain? So, they want to flip the story and invent their own version.
The RSS published an article in their local mouthpiece saying that there was nothing in mythology that validates the popular legend behind Onam and the festival was in fact an occasion to celebrate the birthday of Vamana. The popular myth was an attempt to malign the characters of Hindu texts, the article said. A controversial Hindutva rabble-rouser, KP Shashikala — notorious for her hate-speeches against non-Hindus — the president of an outfit called Hindu Aikya Vedi, tried to fan the controversy by adding her bit of wisdom. She said Vamana was in fact a freedom fighter who liberated the state from an imperialist Mahabali. In the RSS books, the Onam legend stood on its head.
However, the attempts by RSS have made zero impact, and it’s not surprising because timeless myths predate everything, not just religions, but also philosophy and science. And they cannot be changed because they are not manufactured by spin doctors of political leaders or ideologies, but have evolved from the social practices and ideals. It’s the collective cultural conscience of a society that one is born into.
A Malayalee is born into this consciousness. The Onam myth and its lone protagonist, Mahabali, represent the ideal of Kerala, which incidentally is inalienable from its famous history of socio-political reformation of over hundred years.
RSS’ attempt at Vaishnavising or Brahminising (Vamana, the incarnation of Vishnu, was a Brahmin) the festival is sinister because it militates against the social values behind the myth. By playing up the cunning Vamana, against a benevolent Mahabali, its manufactured version clearly tries to impose the Varna principles. When the Brahmin (Vamana) is at the top of the Varna chart, how can a demonic Asura (Mahabali) be the hero? In all the Hindu mythological stories featuring the fight between the asuras and devas, the former are evil and the latter are virtuous. And it’s always the latter who tend to 'win'.
So, changing the story, because it is better late than never, seems to be the RSS ploy.
There has been a considerable body of work by sociologists, historians and philosophers who have analysed myths and legends. While the general impression is that there is nothing rational or historical about myths and that they should be viewed as expressions of cultural and societal values, post-modern philospher-linguist Roland Barthes thought that myths can be changed or destroyed. In fact, Barthes’ views provide a framework to analyse the political design behind the attempt of the RSS to brahminise Onam.
While he agrees that myths are based on human’s history, Barthes says that they also depend on the context where they exist. According to him, by changing the context, one can change the effects of myth. At the same time, myth itself participates in the creation of an ideology. According to him, myth doesn’t seek to show or to hide the truth when creating an ideology, it seeks to deviate from the reality. The major function of myth is to naturalise a concept, a belief. Myth purifies signs and fills them with a new meaning which is relevant to the communicative intentions of those who are creating it.
This is exactly what the RSS is trying to do — change history, cultivate a new belief by manipulating the religious affinity of the Hindus, and strengthen its political ideology. And they don’t care that what they are trying to dismantle is a timeless ideal that’s unique to Kerala. It’s a local myth that doesn’t conform to the RSS’ idea of homogeneity, and hence their effort also shows how Hindutva is inimical to the cultural autonomies of people in different parts of the country.
However, nobody in Kerala bothered to take cognisance of the RSS story. The portly, moustachioed Mahabali, the 'evil' king of equality, and not a devious Brahmin, is Kerala’s eternal icon. Despite all its contradictions, Kerala still treads its stunningly different path of an outlier because of this ideal. And Malayalis still keep a moustache like their icon did.