Onam is beyond Amit Shah-RSS narrative: Vaman Jayanti outrage will only fuel divisive agenda

To begin with, BJP president Amit Shah’s tweet and a Facebook post describing Onam, Kerala’s most famous harvest festival, as 'Vaman Jayanti' is a self goal for the party’s attempts in the state where it has been struggling for a while to shed its ‘Hinduvta’ character and make inroads to a wider vote base.

Such steps would backfire badly even among the Hindus on the fringe, who is beginning to have a leniency towards the BJP movement in the state, buying its development plank; and even among the traditional vote bank of elite Hindus. No one would want to be seen as part of the religious, divisive agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP to own a festival that belongs to people of all religions in the state.

BJP president Amit Shah. Reuters

BJP president Amit Shah. Reuters

It is only logical that there is an outrage against Shah. People do see a design to give a saffron colour to Onam by the BJP and RSS since Shah’s 'Vaman Jayanti’ wish with the image of Vaman (an avtar of Mahavishnu) pushing Mahabali (a mythical king of a bygone golden period in Kerala) to the netherworld, came on the heels of a cover story in RSS’ Kerala mouthpiece, Kesari that said Onam marks Vaman’s birth, not the return of Mahabali.

Onam is probably the only ancient festival in India, which is not attached to any caste, religion or God. Unlike Diwali, Christmas and Eid, Onam always carried the true secular character with the tag of festival of ‘Malayalees’ and not of Hindus alone. Shah and the RSS, thus, risk the displeasure of liberal middle class, which would be counterproductive to the party’s slow political progress in the state. That’s the political side of the Shah-RSS Onam narrative.

Now, if one takes a closer look at Shah’s version of Onam, the BJP president hasn’t really said anything that is technically wrong. The BJP’s state unit has duly defended the party president’s version.

‘Vaman Jayanti’ is celebrated across the country at this point of time, especially among the Vaishnavites to mark the incarnation of the fifth avtar of Lord Mahavishnu. Even during the Onam festival and associated ceremonies, Vaman is the main deity and object of devotion. Most households in the state will have idols made of clay or wood called Thrikkakkarayappan (The Lord of Thrikkakkara, probably the only temple in the state where Vaman is the main temple deity), which is worshiped on the eve of the Onam festival.

Thrikkakkarayappan (also known as mathevar in some parts of the state), figures prominently in Onam poojas and various offerings. Thus, Vaman is the main part of Onam ceremonies. Also, Vamanan is not really seen as the villain in the Onam story, but an incarnation of the kind, benevolent Lord Vishnu who agreed to end the growing fear psychosis among the Gods following an exponential growth in the popularity and image of Kerala’s Asura King, whose rule is associated with virtues of equality, prosperity, righteousness and mutual respect. Vaman agreed to resolve the issue amicably and used some tricks to exploit the generosity of the king and ultimately pushed him down to pathalam (netherworld). When Mahabali realised who Vaman was in reality, he prayed for permission to return to his kingdom once a year from pathalam to enquire about the welfare of his subjects. Thus, goes the story.

The point here is Vaman is not a hated figure in Kerala in the context of Onam, but the incarnation of one of the members of the Hindu holy trinity and in a mythical context, a supporting character who adds colour to the Mahabali’s legacy. By wishing 'Vaman Jayanti', Shah did no wrong and would not have even invited a controversy had he avoided linking it to the context Onam just after RSS mouthpiece carried an article on similar lines.

But, the larger point here is that even though Shah is technically right in attaching bigger importance to Vaman, the fact is that the larger idea of Onam itself is not predominantly relied on any God, including Vaman or the Asura King himself. It is the remembrance of an egalitarian society — the true acche din —prevailed in the kingdom during Mahabali’s rule — equality, transparency, justice, sympathy, mutual respect and fairness in society.

Onam celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday. PTI

Onam celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday. PTI

In many ways, Mahabali was the first true socialist in Kerala and his small kingdom stood for all that is known as a Ramarajya. Onam is predominantly about revisiting the memories of that golden, bygone socialist era. The 10 days, beginning from Atham to Thiruvonam, is a period of escape, mentally, to those good old days from the current social set up that is diagonally opposite to everything Mahabali’s time symbolised. In the old days, this was the only time for the poor workers in the predominantly agrarian society of Kerala to enjoy the luxury of eating and dressing up properly (as the harvest of crops left some money in their hands at the time of the year).

Often, even Mahabali appeared as a character only to enrich the spirit and ecstasy of those days, to give some colour. No one really cared Mahabali’s visit happened or not. The concept was more important. The mythical king was never prayed or worshiped during Onam as one does in other religious festivals such as Eid, Christmas or Ganesh Chathurthi. The point here is, for Malayalis, Onam is not about Vaman, or for that matter, not really even about Mahabali. It’s about memories. A time when the poor makes an attempt to dream of a society that treats everyone equally.

By aggressively overreacting to Shah’s tweets and Kesari story, such as the #PoMoneShaji campaign, the social media Malayalees are only helping to damage the secular, sacred character of Onam. Instead, it would create division in public opinion on what really Onam is and what should it be called henceforth. One need not be surprised if we see 'Vamana Jayanti' yatras, Mahabali murdabad slogans or a petition in court seeking to rename Onam as 'Vaman Jayanti' by self-proclaimed Hinduvta saviours. The best response from Malayalees to Shah and Kesari would be to ignore their views and celebrate Onam as they always do. Overreaction to such statements only helps to open up Pandora’s box.

Consider this question: If another leader from other religion tweets one fine morning that Onam is Christ Jayanti or Prophet’s Day or Budhhist Jayanti, we wouldn’t once again start another campaign using a punch line from another Mohanlal movie. Would we?

Updated Date: Sep 14, 2016 17:17 PM

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