LONG, long ago, when the sky stretched to meet the earth on the distant horizon so that the gods could step down from their clouds on to terra firma and rub shoulders with humans; when there was a fairly regular traffic from the celestial to the terrestrial plane; when the creator and the creature classes directly engaged with one another and there was no need for parasitic middleman called godmen between gods and men; when anger, jealousy, love, romance, lust, spite, deceit, greed and forbearance were as much divine as human qualities, there flourished the reign of a king who was dubbed a demon (one suspects the hidden hand of god in that name-calling) only because there was no other way to vilify this paragon of virtue and beneficence. His name, Mahabali, signified the ultimate sacrifice, but he was hereinafter—so went the unsigned contract—to be called the demon king, and the stigma stuck in perpetuity.
Be that as it may, the demon king was good governance personified, and so no one really paid attention to the demonisation. There was no corruption or cheating or hunger or disease or any element of untruth in the land, and the people were well fed, well-clothed, well-looked-after and ever convivial and well disposed to one another and, of course, to their beloved demon king. The human development index and gross national happiness ranking of the kingdom put the very heavens, which was under the direct rule of the gods, to shame. And the gods, as we know, do not take kindly to being shamed. But more than being shamed, what really gets their goat is being ignored. So when people forgot, because they had no need to remember, to ritually invoke the gods—even to send up a silent prayer beseeching a favour or in gratitude for one—and it did not look like the demon king was going to do anything about it, like making mass supplicatory praying, along with some yoga, compulsory at designated times in a day, they decided to intervene and get rid of the guy.
That must have been, as some political scientists will surely have deduced by now, the original inspiration both for imposition of Central rule in a federal state and for the divine right theory of kingship, modified to suit a range of rulers from the kings of England in the 17th century to those of Travancore of yore who always ruled in the name of their tutelary deity Shree Padmanabhaswamy.
Be that as it may again, and to return to our well-known story, the gods went about their plot to deprive the demon king of his rule, and only because he was so good at it, with deceit and chicanery. They had Vishnu take on his fifth avatar of a Brahmin mendicant of stunted growth, as Vamana, and appear before Mahabali with a request for grant of the extent of land he could cover in three dwarfed strides. Once the request was granted, Vamana instantly grew in physical stature to huge proportions. Mahabali must have been particularly galled to see the chest size expand rapidly to 56 inches and way, way beyond. With his first stride, Vamana covered all of the earth, with the second all of the heavens, and there was nowhere left to place the third step; whereupon the demon king, to keep his word, proffered his head, and Vamana, placing his foot on the head, pushed him into exile deep underground. As recompense for his good rule or to mollify the people or to assuage the conscience of the gods themselves, Mahabali is allowed to return once a year to visit his kingdom, and that is the mythological underpinning of Onam in Kerala.
Self-consciousness and discomfiture about being at the receiving end of this morality tale make neophyte Hindutvaists go into overdrive to subvert the long-cherished narrative and make Vamana rather than Mahabali its redeeming protagonist. But the benignly demonly visage of Mahabali is so deeply synonymous with Onam, and so ingrained in the folk subconscious, that the effort to glorify Vamana at the expense of the demon king’s charisma has not worked, at least not yet. They will no doubt keep at it and chip away at the Mahabali persona with dirty tricks of the kind the gods deployed against the king in the fable so that the irreverence that makes this tale so profanely delightful is undone and Vamana is duly sacralised.
Amoral gods with human frailties, vices and other attributes that the common folk can identify with are not peculiar to the Hindu epic-poetic imaginary. We find them in many cultures and classical texts. Homer’s Iliad is peopled by Trojans and Achaeans and a host of anthropomorphised Greek gods. Men and women commingle and empathise and emote with gods and goddesses. Mortal warriors not only fight one another but gutsily take on the gods even though they know it is to no avail. It is this miscegenation of the divine and the human, this casual hybridity that makes such work celebratory, iterative and popular mythos.
Fate and destiny more than anything else drive the plot and the characters in these classics. In Iliad, even the powerful Zeus cannot change what is written for a character, not by the poet but by fate. Achilles has to kill Hector to avenge his friend Patroklos in the sure knowledge that he himself is to be killed shortly after. The Greek gods, much like their counterparts in the Hindu pantheon, take sides in a war, are prejudiced against the one or the other fighter in a battle, are themselves sometimes villains in the plot where the martyrs are the tragic heroes.
In like manner, in the Mahabali myth, Vamana is at best an anti-hero who, by trickery, ousts the hero Mahabali from his legitimate and righteous kingship. The resplendent myth of Mahabali is in striking contrast to the contemporary celluloid myth of Baahubali (parts 1 & 2) which, like the film Troy— which emblazons the Homeric tale on our minds with its sheer enormity of production and action—is a fairy tale concoction of digital kitsch and special-effects-enabled martial sequences. Mahabali, unlike the prince Baahubali, does not mobilise his people to fight to reclaim his kingdom but is content to visit the land he once ruled once a year. And the people, even though they may have fallen on difficult days since his, maybe because of his, departure, await his arrival with all the cheer and appurtenances of a good and prosperous life they can muster.
This self-abnegation of a king who does not seek to avenge his cause by force, no doubt because those he has to fight are the gods themselves (but then some of Homer’s Greek heroes did fight their gods knowing they would fail), and whose golden reign becomes the aspirational yardstick for the governed sets him apart as a durable, if tragic, hero who continues to challenge, and to be a challenge for, the gods even when he is out of power.
Greek and Hindu mythologies may also have similarities for a more material geographical reason. N.V. Krishna Warrier had floated the fascinating idea that the thematic celebration of a Sumerian festival dating back to 2400 BCE was akin to Onam. He further advanced the idea that in the Sumerian kingdom of Assyria or Asur there were rulers with names with the suffix Asura (literally demon). There were also Assyrian names that sounded like Bali or that of his (Mahabali’s) father, Virochana, or his grandfather Prahalada. All this led him to hazard the educated guess that some calamity had forced the Assyrians to leave their home at some point and migrate to Kerala where they continued to celebrate the festival dedicated to their king, Bali. That festival would be Onam. And what is more, Assyria was just a hop, step and jump from Troy. There is a conflation of legends, mythological tropes and geographical incidence that make what is common among these cultures and their chronicled and creative expressions more than coincidence.