Onam, for all its festive mood, is entwined with the rather dismal tale of King Mahabali’s exile into netherworld. As the day’s merrymaking fades out, we sigh at the knowledge of the noble King’s inevitable return to the dark world. But maybe, we should revisit the legends for there is a more cheerful tale about the origins of Onam.
As we know it, the story behind Onam is that the demon king Mahabali was sent to netherworld by Lord Vishnu in his reincarnation as the dwarf brahmin Vamana. In most re-tellings of the tale we are told that Bali was sent to ‘Pathalam’, the lowest of the worlds, as punishment for his ego. But the story as it is told in the Srimad Bhagavatam is somewhat different, say some Sanskrit scholars.
“Bali was not sent to Pathalam as punishment but sent to Sutalam after he was liberated from his ego,” says K Unnikrishnan, Bhagavatam exponent and professor at the Government Sanskrit College, Thiruvananthapuram.
Sounds a bit confusing? Explaining the matter, Easwar E N, a professor of Government Sanskrit College says, “According to Vedic texts, there are 14 worlds in the universe - seven upper worlds and seven subterranean ones. Atalam, Vitalam, Sutalam, Tala-Talam, Rasa-Talam, Maha-Talam, and Pathalam are the seven lower worlds, all of which have been described in detail in the Puranas.
Of these, Pathalam is the lowest world inhabited by Nagas, the serpent people and is said to be a dreaded place. Sutalam, on the other hand, is considered by the asuras as equivalent to or even more desirable than ‘swargaloka’.”
So this is how the legend goes as mentioned in the Bhagavatam.
Aditi, mother of Lord Indra and the other devas, unable to bear her son’s defeat at the hands of Mahabali had undertaken a fast and prayed to Lord Vishnu to defeat King Bali and return Indra to his post as ruler of the heavens.
The lord told her it would be a difficult thing to do because Mahabali, the grandson of Prahlada, was an ardent devotee of Vishnu and a righteous king. Nevertheless, he agreed to grant her wish as nobody who sought his help must be turned away.
“Shronayam shravan dwadasyam” quotes Unnikrishnan from the Srimad Bhagvatam (8.18.5). “In the month of Shravan (Chingam according to the Malayalam calendar), on Dwadasi day (the twelfth bright lunar day) and under the Thiruvonam star, Lord Vishnu took his fifth incarnation of Vamana and was born to Aditi and Kashyapa, who are the parents of the devas.”
Vamana approached Mahabali, who was performing the Ashwamedha Yagna on the banks of River Narmada to celebrate his victory. Seeing the small figure, who seemed to be bathed with light, the king declared at once that any demand of Vamana would be met. And Vamana asked for three steps of land, measured by his own feet, where he could meditate in peace. Mahabali laughs and says, ‘You are a fool to be asking so little of me. Are you not ashamed to ask this to the overlord of all the worlds?’
“It is this one line said by Bali that prompts the lord to take everything from Bali,” says Unnikrishnan. “Bali was an ardent devotee, he was a righteous and just king but he had succumbed in that moment to his ego or ‘ahankara’. And that is the moral of Onam, if we become egoistic of our wealth or beauty or intelligence, it will be taken away from us.”
There was one very important factor which helped Lord Vishnu in his quest to conquer Bali’s ego - the king had defied his teacher Shukracharya, who had recognised Vamana for who he was and warned Bali not to fall for the lord’s tricks. Bali, who worshiped Satya or Truth, refused to go back on his word. Enraged, Shukracharya cursed the King that he would lose everything.
“Bali had earned his teacher’s curse (guru shapam) and that was what sealed his fate,” said Unnikrishnan.
“But once Bali realised his mistake, he was able to completely surrender himself and he was sent to Sutalam where Lord Vishnu himself became his guardian of the gates. Not only that, Mahabali was given a boon that he would be King Indra in the next Manvantara (age of Manu).
The present is the seventh Manvantara. And Bali is still waiting,” concludes Unnikrishnan.