Happy Onam! - Looking at Mahabali from a different angle?
- Another year and another Onam. The most reassuring thing about Onam is that it is one festival that is common to all. Nobody has tried to hijack it. Well, no religious fundamentalist has taken to it, for or against. Ashtami Rohini and Vinayaka Chaturthi were observed by us without branding them exclusive. However people started projecting these festivals to foster religious sentiments. So too Christmas and Good Friday being taken to streets. And Ramadan is no exception. These are seen as occasions to assert identity. Onam fortunately is free from such religious identities despite the Thrikkakkara concept. Yet Onam has been hijacked too. By commercial interests. They try to convert this as the great shopping season of Kerala. Newspapers vie with one another to produce two dailies daily (which means two front pages but for advertisements two full back pages too!) and special pull-outs and marketing supplements extra. The net result is that the village familiarity has been replaced by the commercial and selfish tones of the marketplace. When I was young we in the village moved from one house to the next, collecting whatever flowers were available, and then laid out a pookalam sometimes in the village square (big boys a.k.a. chettans), sometimes in some tharawad (mainly chechis), and occasionally as mobile ones, today in Ramu�s courtyard and tomorrow in John�s. What mattered was the sense of camaraderie and oneness. I do not know whether back in my village in Ernakulam district the ambience still lives on. I cannot find any sign of such continuity in the rural areas surrounding the capital here.
Onam is celebrated as a Kerala festival. If it is commemorating an event in Kerala Vamanan is an anachronism unless you rule out the Parasurama legend. Legend has it that Kerala was reclaimed by Lord Parasurama, one of the ten incarnations of Mahavishnu. If we accept that we must also concede that a king who ruled Kerala could not have been vanquished by another earlier incarnation called Vamanan. My own guess is that Mahabali was never King of Kerala. According to Bhagavatam Mahabali conducted his yajna on the banks of Narmada when he was accosted by Vamanan. It is well known that there were Brahmin migrations from the north to Kerala. These were perhaps Gowda Saraswats or other Saraswats or Nampoothiries. These migrants would have carried the story with them and over many generations the story may have got embellished and edited to its present form. This argument would at least take care of the problem of anachronism!
Who was Mahabali? Mahabali was an Asura King who conquered our earth, Bhoolokam, and the heavens, Devalokam. And Vamanan staged a bloodless anti-imperialist coup by which he sent away the king of the netherworld to rule there while at the same time generously granting a multiple entry visitor�s visa to come back once a year for a few days. If you analyse Mahabali�s career and character you will find no reason to be apologetic about the role of Vamanan who like Mahatmaji much later forced a peaceful exit of a conqueror.
Mahabali was not merely an ambitious conqueror. He was an arrogant and presumptuous personality too. He was so full of pride that he invited a curse from his own grandfather, and later at the critical encounter with Vamanan, from his guru, Sukracharyar. Sukracharyar had seen the evil intention of the dwarfish Brahmin even as he approached the site of the yajna. Mahabali having won the sovereignty of the three worlds was now keen to ensure his reputation as a philanthropist. In this ambition he was blinded and could not see what the guru saw. When the guru finally tried to stop the jaladanam before Vamanan could begin measuring by posing himself as a mole to block the water from flowing out of the vessel into Vamanan�s palm he was pierced by a sharp grass and lost his eye thus becoming ekanetran. There the guru also cursed Mahabali. Cursed by the grandfather, and the guru, Mahabali went down a tragic figure.
The moral of the Mahabali story is two-fold. On the one hand it teaches that over ambition does not pay ultimately. On the other it teaches that God does not tolerate human pride.
Having said that I must also say that Onam is a beautiful nostalgia we all enjoy. It is a dream about utopia. Utopia is not a concept that began with Sir Thomas More. Plato indulged in it and called it republic. Moore�s title was added to the vocabulary of course. In Greek OU means none and TOPAS means place. So Utopia means �no place�. Campanella called it City of the Sun and Harrington called it Oceana. Spensonia, Pala and Shangri-La are other names which hold a similar concept. And then we have Eldorado. El Dorado is the name of a tribal chief in Columbia, Latin America. He was covered with gold dust on festive occasions, according to the story that the Spaniards heard, and he cared so little for all that gold that at the end of the festivity he would take a dip in running water and clean himself of the gold dust. This gave rise to the idea that there was a country in Columbian jungles which was rich, full of gold and precious tones and jewelry. And El Dorado the chieftain became Eldorado the mysterious country. In the Mahabali legend we are in search of our own utopias and Shangri-La�s and Eldorados. That is understandable especially in the modern context where we need our dreams to keep ourselves sane! I am reminded of a visit to Trivandrum made by the former autocrat-Diwan of Travancore, Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer in 1960s as Chairman of India�s Law Commission. People of Trivandrum forgot for a day that he was banished wounded in 1948. After more than twelve years what remained was the nostalgia for an able administrator. As we welcome the Asura King Mahabali who conquered the world of the humans and ruled over us we are also overcome by nostalgia for a distant past. Distance lends charm just as familiarity breeds contempt. No harm in taking refuge in nostalgia in a world where anyway we have little refuge available.
D. Babu Paul