Mythology for the Millennial: On Mahabali's fate, and the politics at play behind the story on the origins of Onam

  • Mahabali was a great king by all accounts. Lots of harvests, peace and prosperity in Kerala where he ruled. But up in heaven, Indra, king of the devas, was getting a little jealous.

  • He rallied together some of his deva pals and they went to Vishnu, and asked him to stop Mahabali from getting too powerful. Which Vishnu did, granting Mahabali immortality in the process.

  • But there were a lot more politics at play then just a pretty children's story on the origins of a festival.

As I write this, Dusshera is getting ready to come in and Onam is long gone, but I can't stop thinking about the king Mahabali. I also can't stop calling him Mahabelly, after my favourite Malayali restaurant in Delhi, but that is a different problem entirely.

The gods in Indian mythology frequently show up as more human than human. This is true of a lot of pantheistic religions — Greeks or Romans for example — where one or the other of the gods, meant to be these great divine noble creatures, were always stirring up trouble. In the case of King Mahabali, son of Virochana, grandson of Prahlad, yes, that Prahlad, the same one who invented Holi basically, he was, unfortch, also an asura.

Now I've said this before about asuras. They're related to the devas, so they're not quite demons, but since time has smoothed over the gods and removed every not-god, they've sort of taken over a Bad Guy narrative. They had some good asuras and some bad asuras, as did the devas. In fact, back in the day, Agni and Indra and some of your favourite pre-historic deities were also asuras in the way that was understood: powerful rulers of their domains. Later, as Hinduism evolved, the asuras became more and more “the enemy of the devas,” consistently associated with being evil. But they could easily be the gods as well, to get philosophical for a second; all that distinguishes them is their choices. Which is why the earliest myths don't cast them as good versus evil, it's just this lot of divine beings vs that lot of divine beings.

 Mythology for the Millennial: On Mahabalis fate, and the politics at play behind the story on the origins of Onam

Vamana and Mahabali. Image via WikimediaCommons

Anyhow. Back to Mahabali. Great king by all accounts. Lots of harvests, peace and prosperity in Kerala where he ruled. But up in heaven, Indra, king of the devas, was getting a little jealous. Some stories say that Mahabali actually took over heaven as well in his conquests, and the devas, fearing his influence decided to stop him. But mostly, it boils down to Indra, moping on his throne, thinking about why Mahabali got everything and although he was the king, people still preferred that Mahabali. (You have to put on a sulky tone when you're reading this bit, for full effect.) So he rallied together some of his deva pals and they went to Vishnu, and asked him to stop Mahabali from getting too powerful, which is what the oppressors have been worried about since the first power imbalance was born in this world.

Vishnu decided to go down to earth as a dwarf, a vamana, and a wandering mendicant, who went to Mahabali during one of the king's annual Giving Things Away drive. Because he was a good king and wanted people to be happy, he regularly passed around wealth and food and whatnot. So, when Vishnu as Vamana goes up to Mahabali, the king's like, “Totally just take anything” but the Vamana's all, “Eh, I don't see anything that interests me” and Mahabali's like, “Seriously? Just take anything you want.” So then the Vamana asks for three paces of land, what he can cover with his legs, and remember he's a midget, so Mahabali is damn amused and smirks under his mustache (all good Malayali men in my story have mustaches) and tells the Vamana to go ahead. (I'm saying the Vamana because it literally means “dwarf” in Sanskrit.) Mistake, though. Immediately the Vamana begins to grow and grow till he's an outsize giant and with one step he covers all of the earth, the next covers all of the sky and then he looks down at Mahabali and booms, “And where should I put my third step, o King?” and Mahabali looks around at the land and the people he loves so much, at his wife, his family, and he smiles at them bravely, because this is his god, it's Vishnu, and if Vishnu has done this to him, then it must be right. So he says, “Put your next step on my head.” And because he didn't fight his death, Vishnu grants him immortality.

But meanwhile, what of the people he left behind? The whole kingdom was in an uproar. The son of Mahabali while very nice was totally not at all like the ruler the devas had taken from them. The devas, not wanting a revolt on their hands, agreed that Mahabali could go back every year to be celebrated and feted by his people. Which is when they celebrate Onam, and which is where our story should end, as a happy ending for everyone.

Not so fast though. When I read an excerpt from Antigod's Own Country: A Short History of Brahminical Colonisation of Kerala by AV Sakthidharan, I realised there were a lot more politics at play then just a pretty children's story on the origins of a festival. Sakthidharan argues that the people's rejection of Mahabali's exile indicates that they were “refusing to accept the hegemony of the ruler.” To go on: “The arrival of Brahminism reversed all mechanisms of cultural production of the original inhabitants: those parts of their mythology which held pride of place were made into the antagonistic principle in the Hindu landscape. This robbed subaltern castes of their accumulated cultural capital, immediately relegating them to the bottom of the new hierarchy.” (In fact, since it's nearing Durga Puja time, don't forget that the Santhals celebrate the asura that Durga killed.)

Also from the excerpt: “The glorification of the asura ruler Mahabali disrupts the decades-long attempt of the Sangh Parivar — the cluster of Hindutva organisations that are affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — to imprison Kerala within the walls of a fictional Hindu monolith[...].” I'm thinking of the fuss that was made at the Indian consulate in Germany recently when the Kerala stall served beef fry, I'm thinking of some Hinduism looking different from others, I'm thinking that this is a gigantic country and we can't all believe the same things, no matter how much certain groups would like us all to conform. Instead, there's Mahabali, cut down because the gods thought he was getting too powerful, and what is “too powerful” except code for “we are uncomfortable by how successful you are.”

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2019 09:38:31 IST