Diwali, Bali and Onam

Their esoteric connections

Diwali is around the corner. But what is it really about? Which legend started the celebration? Why is it that Malayalis do not celebrate Diwali? What are the stories associated with this grand festival? How did the stories evolve? So many questions, I guess…but if you start at the very beginning, you can make some sense of it all. Let’s try.

Navarathri poojas had been underway in most parts of India, including Kerala. Out there in Pallavur, the seven day festival has just concluded, the furious drum beats have subsided to the sporadic taps during the sheeveli, Sridharan has perhaps settled into his well-earned vacation (nowadays he is a busy man, with a yearly sojourn to America conducting, teaching and performing with the Chenda in USA) and making sure his understudy’s were hard at work practicing on their own. The 10 day festivities after nine nights will culminate with Dussera and the next celebration to follow (some 21 days later) is the festival of lights or Deepavali (shortened or anglicized to Diwali) when chirags arrayed all around the house will be filled with oil, and the wicks lit by the children of the family. Sweets will be eaten, games will be played, bright dresses will be worn, songs will be sung, firecrackers will be burst and gods will be venerated. Very popular, Diwali is by now recognized as some kind of a national festival of India. Usually considered a joyous harvest festival, and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, it is most commonly linked in the North of India with the return of the victorious Rama from Lanka, having defeated Ravana and rescued his beloved Sita.

But eons ago, it had nothing to do with Ramayana or Durga or such well accepted legends followed today. And to check it out one has to go way back, to the most original verses of Rig Veda which can variously be dated to as early as 2000BC or more commonly to 1500BC, well before the advent of Mahabharata, Ramayana and so on, which are relatively modern epics with many new gods and characters. Like everything else, as time elapsed, a number of new concepts merged with the practices of the ancient to create what we consider as Hinduism today. Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and Saivism made their impact and the advent of each resulted in insertion of bits and pieces to the epics and works we peruse today. This complex process took over 3,000 years and it is virtually difficult to trace out the details, a task left to such researchers specializing in theology. An orally passed on set of verses lost their sync (as the ancient version spoken Sanskrit used for these verses gave way to new languages, new script and new words and phrases) and was to some extent modified over time by changing conditions, was committed to text down sometime in the 3rd or 4th Century AD and since then repeatedly commented upon and analyzed.

A number of academics (during British rule) doing their studies on these puranas in India did mess things up a bit with their western concepts intruding into the analysis of something they found very difficult to comprehend, leaving behind inadequate translations which have lost some of the original meaning during what was otherwise painstaking work. Later researchers were either nationalistic or were guided primarily by current religious notions when reworking on these scriptures. But that is not what we started out to discuss, so let me not digress and let us get back to unraveling something of a mystery.

From various sources such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhavishya Purana we can gather that in the initial accounts where Indra was the main god, Bali was a great king, much revered. Indra is termed as Vasava in those pages. Bali is a wise sage of unwavering intellect and a teacher, a model man who had attained his goals according to Bhishma, was one who remained serene and not sad and was one who understood reality.

Brahma advises Vasava who was setting out in search of Bali - He remains unseen by us, like the sun that has set. He brightens all the directions. He faithfully sends the rains in due season. That Bali ... He is the Wind, He is the Ocean, He is the Sun, He is the Moon, He is the Fire giving warmth to all creatures. He is the Earth. That is Bali ...

Later on, a serious dialog takes place between the two and it is said that the gist of some of those gets replicated later in the Bhagavad Gita too. Indra states to Bali when they meet: You have understood the reality of existence. You are indeed a wise man, full of wisdom and penance. You see the meaning of the present moment as clearly as you would see a gooseberry in your hand. You have understood thoroughly the working of time. You have mastered all the sciences. You have full control over yourself and thus winning the admiration of all discerning people. By your intellect you have penetrated [the mystery of] this whole universe. Though you move about everywhere you remain free from everything, not getting attached to anything. The lower instincts rajas and tamas do not soil you as you have fully disciplined your senses. You find joy within yourself, free from all unbecoming attachment, free from all resentment. Finding in you a friend of all, free from enmity, possessing a serene mind, my mind is drawn towards you.

But it also becomes apparent that Bali is not quite prepared for negative events and deceit, for in an instruction, Prahlada his grandfather advises him that it is good to practice forbearance (khsama), but there is a limit to this since a king who is always good can be exploited even by his own servants (This may well be one explanation of how Bali lost his kingdom!).What we can also note is Bali’s association with the sun or Virochana, his father and the fact that during his reign there were no classes or castes. It was after his defeat that the Chaturvarna Vyavastha was instituted according to the Mahabharata.
Bali fighting Indra
A version (Taittriya Sanhita) explains a related event but sans Bali, as follows -This earth formerly belonged to the Asuras, while the gods only had as much as a man can see while sitting. When the gods asked for a share in the earth, the Asuras said, ' How much shall we give you?  The gods replied, ' As much as this she-jackal can go round in three steps.' So Indra, assuming the form of a she-jackal, stepped round the earth in three strides. Thus the gods obtained the earth.

We note from Fr Anand’s studies that while the original meeting between Indra and Bali resulted in an extensive dialogue, later texts point of a war which was won by Indra with support from Vishnu, his good friend. While Bali is mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Bhavishya Purana, and there are accounts of his wars with Indra and the next recounting refers to Bali’s encounters with Narayana. So we see that epics now start to drop Indra out totally and mention only his misdeeds against Brahmins, encounters between Vishnu directly with Bali and in later texts through his Vamana avatar with Bali.

In the present version of the extended story, Indra meets and defeats Bali, but Bali obtains additional powers from his teacher Shukracharya and attacks Indra. Defeating Indra, he rules over devaloka. Indira’s mother pleads to Vishnu and he agrees to take birth as her son, the dwarf Vamana. Vamana comes to Bali and requests a boon asking for the three steps as we all know. With the first step he possesses the earth, with the second he takes the heavens and with the third he pushes Bali down into the netherworld.

Thus, as time went Indra gets replaced by Vishnu, Vamana appears as an avatar and the Bali story takes the form which is popular today, depicting Bali as an Asura king. All texts end the story or event with Bali getting exiled to the netherworld but for some strange reason allows his visitation rights annually to visit his subjects. There are other sub plots and stories as well, with the entrance of Yama or Narakasura the lord of death and so on, but let us not get into too many complexities in this study.

In fact the discussions between Vasava and Bali are profound and experts even discern many similarities of text between these and the Bhagavad Gita which was written much later, so also the characters of Arjuna, Krishna and so on. While I can go on to provide a gist of these studies, I prefer not to because I do not understand them fully, not having read the original texts myself and since I do not trust any translation to be an honest one. So let us conclude that according to the scriptures or epics, there once lived a great and honest king, who fell afoul of the gods and was punished. He was kicked down into the dark corners of the universe, but his good deeds resulted in his being allowed to come and visit earth once a year. A great feast (maha-utsava) was also ordained to Bali by Vishņu who was pleased with the gift of the earth. Lord Vishnu makes a proclamation to his people - On the afternoon of the 15th of the Krishņa-paksha of Kārttika, Today is the Rule of Bali, enjoy yourselves. Later in the day we have the solemn worship of Bali and his wife, and alms given in memory of Bali.
Vamana with Bali and Shukracharya

This day of visitation was originally termed the dipa-utsava or Kaumudi and was instituted by Lord Vishnu in honor of the king Mahabali as a maha utsava (mega festival), to be celebrated over just one day, commemorating the great reign of this king. Bali per the accepted tradition was the king of the asuras, and thus the festival become an asura mahotsava. This feast is known as Kaumudi because on this day kumuda flowers are offered to Bali. Hence the first day of the bright half of Karttika is also known as Bali- pratipada.

How did this festival originally meant in commemoration of Bali’s rule get connected to the return of Rama? Perhaps Rama over time replaced Bali as a great king. Note here the similarity between Bali’s return from exile and Rama’s return after an exile. The western parts starting with Maharashtra and down to Kerala celebrate the return of Bali. This perhaps indicates that Bali (and consequently his wife Vindhyavati – Vindya southern mountain range) was a major king in the South West area. Other parts of today’s Bharat celebrate Rama’s return to Ayodhya. Or was it just that the celebration is meant to give the devotee a foretaste of good tidings around the corner (return of Bali) and to serve as an ideal for life here on earth? Bali could thus be the leader of the world to come.

Then again, what if Bali was not a king at all and was just a representation of the sun? His father was Virochana and so that is a pointer. The sun as you know rises and sets daily, and perhaps in the past was seen as going into or setting into a netherworld. What if the three steps were simply meant to signify sunrise, its visible period on an earth hemisphere and the sunset? The movement of the sun annually may also be observed in this connection, as it moves down to the southern hemisphere. The Diwali celebration comes after the autumn equinox. Days become smaller and the sun is seen lesser and lesser. Is that the significance of the departure of Bali into the netherworld, but for a longer duration? Is that why lamps are lit to bring in artificial light? Is the festival of lights thus an offering of lit lamps to the setting Sun-god in the month of Karttika? Is it a way of telling the Sun-god that we need his light, and that we look forward to his return to our hemisphere? Perhaps a practical way to look at it, I suppose.

Tragically nobody remembers the very core of Diwali or the Bali anymore, as prescribed in the many scriptures. The entire celebration has new concepts and stories attached to them. As we now see, the one day celebration ordained by Vishnu in the honor of Bali, an earthly king went on to become a 5 day affair. Today it is an event honoring a number of gods instead. It stretches between the 13th and 15th of the dark half of Kartika and the 1st and 2nd of the bright half (The three days incidentally, is accounted to a request by Bali for a compensatory three days against the three steps). The first set of 3 days is more connected with the world of the dead and the next two or 2½ days a celebration of life in the present world. The first day deals with prayers to please Yama and ward off untimely death, the second relating to worship of wealth (Dhanteras), birthday of Dhanvantari and later the third day is Naraka Chathurdasi, freeing man from the grip of Yama. Then comes the day of honoring ancestors and heralding the arrival of Bali, Lakshmi, much merrymaking and so on. With lamps lit through the Kaumudi festival, it took the practical name Deepavali. Other regional stories connect Diwali to the slaying of Yama Dwitya, slaying of Narakasura, Mahavira’s attainment of Samadhi, Durga or kali etc.
Now let us observe the accounts of the very same story as attached to Kerala. We have studied earlier that Onam follows the dark days of the monsoon, honoring the arrival of Bali. Malayalis are emphatic that Bali is their king, and it has been a time honored event since ancient times (That it was also observed in Madurai and some other Tamil areas is a point to be noted). People who have noticed these events and their connection to Bali in passing, have stopped and wondered about the time gap of approximately a couple of months between these two celebrations (Onam for those who do not know, comes a couple of months ahead of Diwali). Why do we have this gap? We will get to this by studying some regional calendars.

Vamana's 3rd step
The sacred month of Karthika (of the lunar calendar), the 7th or 8th month, typically falls somewhere between the end of October and the beginning of December corresponds to the Tulam month in the Kerala Kollam calendar or the Libra of Gregorain. The Onam festival lasting 3 days occurs in the first month of the Kerala New Year (Chingam) or Malayalam Kollavarsham, which is a solar calendar. In Kerala the official New Year (the Zodiac New Year by the way, is on the day of Vishu, the first day of spring) follows the dark monsoons and the harvest, per the Kollavarsham. Up in the Gujarat regions, looking at the Amanta Calendar (the one used in India for festivals), Kartika is considered to be the first month, the best month and the month of a New Year. It could be a bit mind boggling for the uninitiated, but that is how it is. So to put it all in a nut shell, the arrival of Bali heralds a new year, which for Malayalis is in Chingam and for others up North it is Karthika.

Now would that mean that Bali comes twice to his old kingdom? First in August-Sept to Kerala and later during Diwali? Take your pick, and if you believe in Bali, leave him to the people of Kerala and Maharashtra, since the others have forgotten him. You can also observe that Rama followers are not seen aplenty in Kerala and there is perhaps just one or two Rama temples in Kerala. Siva and Vishnu temples are quite common, but interestingly there is no Vamana temple anywhere! Anyway I guess we should let them celebrate Rama’s victorious return or any other event from the lot above. As you can conclude, we are quite flexible and democratic.

But one aspect is evident, Diwali is or never has been celebrated with gusto in Kerala and now I guess you know the reason. Others explain that Bali is a metaphor for a thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon and the Onam season, while Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. Then again, you can choose a more practical explanation provided by some who term themselves pragmatic. The Malayalis spend a lot of effort, time and money on Onam and being a practical lot, they will not spend it again on Diwali. That is all it is, according to them. Whatever said and done, leaving aside the myths, lore and legends, most people celebrate Diwali these days. You can see and feel the warm golden glow of the festival season, and many a person gets together, like we all did during the last weekend.

There are some who are a bit curious and one such may ask “so where does Bali reside during the rest of the year”? Well, he was consigned to the netherworld or Patala and that will be the topic of an article presently in progress.

According to Narada who was a rare visitor to Patala - What," exclaimed the sage, "can be compared to Patala, where the Nagas are decorated with brilliant, and beautiful, and pleasure shedding jewels? Who will not delight in Patala, where the lovely daughters of the Daityas and Danavas wander about, fascinating even the most austere; where the rays of the sun diffuse light, and not heat, by day; and where the moon shines, by night, for illumination, not for cold; where the sons of Danu, happy in the enjoyment of delicious viands and strong wines, know not how time passes? There are beautiful groves, and streams, and lakes where the lotus blows; and the skies are resonant with the Kokila's song. Splendid ornaments, fragrant perfumes, rich unguents, the blended music of the lute, and pipe, and tabor; these and many other enjoyments are the common portion of the Danavas, Daityas, and snake-gods, who inhabit the regions of Patala.

That will be our next study destination.

Bali-Life bestowing Offering - Subhash Anand (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 74, No. 1/4 (1993), pp.63-84)
Major Hindu festivals, A Christian appreciation (pp 103-132) – Subhash Anand

Pics – Vamana pics from Wikimedia, Indra Bali battle (courtesy Bonhams auction exhibit


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