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Onam: The festival that celebrates Vamana Avatara and the homecoming of the King Mahabali

By Nithin Sridhar

Onam is one of the most important Hindu festivals of Kerala. The ten-day festival celebrates Vamana incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the homecoming of King Mahabali to review the welfare of his people in Kerala..
Onam is one of the most important Hindu festivals of Kerala. The ten-day festival celebrates Vamana incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the homecoming of King Mahabali to review the welfare of his people in Kerala.

Onam, one of the most important Hindu festivals of Kerala, ends today. The ten-day festival celebrates Vamana incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the homecoming of King Mahabali to review the welfare of his people in Kerala.

Therefore, the events of Vamana incarnation and his subsequent interactions with Asura (demon) King Mahabali are very central to the Onam festival. Let us look into this divine play of Vamana incarnation to have a deeper understanding.
Onam, Vamana, and Srimad Bhagavata Purana:

The Vamana incarnation is spoken about in Srimad Bhagavata Puranam in the Canto 8, Chapters-15-23.

The Bhagavatham informs us that, when King Bali had lost the war with Devas (gods) and died, Guru Sukracharya revived him and with the help from descendants of Rishi Brighu, King Mahabali performed Vishvajit Yajna (Sacrifice to win all the worlds). Bali received chariot and weapons as a result of this Yajna and he conquered all the realms including the Devaloka (realm of gods headed by Indra). After conquering all the three realms, King Mahabali began to perform one hundred Ashwamedha Yajnas.

Meanwhile, the gods including Indra had gone into hiding. Their absence caused great pain and sorrow to their mother Aditi. In order to relieve her of her pain, Aditi’s husband Muni Kashyapa told her to worship Lord Vishnu using a special method called- “Payo-Vrata” (a kind of worship where milk alone is offered to Lord as well as consumed for a specific duration of time).

As a result of this austerity by Aditi, Lord Vishnu agreed to be born as her son and help her other sons, the Devas to regain their position. Thus was born Vamana, the dwarf-incarnation of Lord Vishnu, as the son of Aditi and Kashyapa.

Dwarf Form of Lord Vishnu
Dwarf form of Lord Vishnu

Lord Vamana went into the place where King Mahabali was conducting the Ashwamedha Yajna. Mahabali served Lord Vamana and washed his feet. Mahabali requested Lord Vamana, whom he perceived as a dwarf son of a Brahmana, to ask for any gift. Lord Vamana requested the King to grant him just three paces of land in charity. Guru Sukracharya who recognized Vamana as an avatar of God, tried to persuade King Mahabali to go back on his promise to Vamana.

But, Mahabali refused to take back his promise. Enraged Sukracharya cursed him that he would soon lose all his position as he disobeyed his advice. By the first and second steps, the Lord occupied the entire three worlds as well as realms which were beyond them.

Lord Vamana then asked Garuda to arrest King Mahabali and ordered him to be sent to hellish regions (narakam/nirayam) for failing to fulfill his promise. As Lord Vamana had occupied all the Universe by his two steps. King Mahabali owed him one more step.

Realizing his mistake, Lord Bali surrendered himself to Lord and decided to give his head in charity for the third step. Lord Vamana was pleased with his devotion and blessed him that he would attain the position of Indra in the next manvantara (A long Hindu duration of time) and that he would rule over “Sutala”, one of the lower worlds, but one which is protected by Lord Vishnu and is free from all miseries. Lord further promised Mahabali that he would always remain with him.

Thus ends the story of King Mahabali and Lord Vamana in Bhagavata Purana.

It is believed in Kerala that, during the ten days of Onam, King Mahabali returns to earthly realm to review the welfare of his erstwhile citizens.

The events of Vamana incarnation imparts many valuable lessons that must be contemplated and implemented in daily life. Some of the lessons one can learn are:

  1. Lord Vishnu assures Aditi that worship of God never goes in vain and such a worship will surely give desirable result according to what one deserves. Hence, no practice of devotion ever goes waste. One may feel that one is not getting instant result or a result desired by them. But that does not mean the worship has become fruitless. It will give proper results that one deserves at the right time. Hence, one must have faith in God and surrender to him.
  2. The instruction of Lord Vamana to Mahabali about begging for only that much which fulfills one’s necessity is very illuminating. Lord Vamana says that, if one were not satisfied with three paces of land, he would not be satisfied even with seven islands. That is, there is no end to uncontrolled desires. Therefore, a person must always restrain his senses and mind especially in matters of acquiring wealth. Without contentment and satisfaction, no amount of wealth will lead to happiness. Hence, any attempts at gaining wealth should be accompanied by contentment and self-restraint.
  3. Sukracharya’s advice to Mahabali about when a promise can be broken is another important lesson. He says that charity, sacrifice, or austerity are only for those who are competent to earn his livelihood properly and it is not praised when it endangers one’s own livelihood. Therefore, Sukracharya advises Mahabali to go back on promise to Vamana, as such a promise will bring destruction to Mahabali. This is an important lesson. Mahabali had to deal with Lord Vamana, hence he was saved. Otherwise, keeping of his promise would have ruined him completely. For example, Bhishma’s refusal to break his promise brought upon Mahabharata war. Therefore, one should make and keep only those promises which are not harmful to one’s own peaceful existence.
  4. Another lesson is, disobeying one’s Guru will lead to sorrow and suffering. Hence, one must follow one’s Guru’s directions for welfare and happiness.
  5. Bali promised Vamana, the three paces of land with a pride that he owns the entire three world. But his ego was deeply hurt when Vamana occupied all his realms in just two steps and punished him to be sent to hellish realms for not fulfilling promise of three steps. But, when Mahabali surrenders at the feet of Lord and his surrender becomes complete, then Lord Vamana saves him and sends him instead to Sutala realm. This shows that, inspite of all our weakness, we can get redeemed by taking refuge in God. He will test us, he may make us go through sufferings, but they are all for our own good. God will finally give us spiritual emancipation, as Vamana did to Mahabali by granting him the boon that God will always be with him.
  6. Sukracharya while addressing Lord Vamana, says that whatever may be the faults in doing any spiritual effort, all of them are wiped out by chanting the holy name of God. In other words, the intricacies of rituals are important, but any faults in them are rectified through genuine devotion and chanting of the God’s name.

These are some of the lessons that the Vamana incarnation teaches people. On this auspicious Onam day, people should contemplate on these and try to practice them in their lives.

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