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Monday, August 27, 2007

Happy Onam

Today is the day that the great demon King, Mahabali,or Maveli as he is known in Kerala, is supposed to roam the Earth for a period of 10 days to visit his subjects and get a glimpse of the state of affairs of the world that he left behind. It is a time of getting together with family members and indulging in a wide array of delectable, vegetarian fare ranging from the aviyal to the pachadi and kootu curry. The other major attractions of this festival are the snake boat races (vallum-kalli) and the beautiful flower arrangements that are the pride of each household (pookalam). For those of you wondering why the first few Malayalam terms are not in brackets, well, I don't believe that there is an equivalent in English, and the last thing I wanted to do was attempt a feeble translation, the likes of "pepper water" for mulligatawny. All in all, this is a time of plenty and people celebrate without any hesitation; the joys of life are to be celebrated wholeheartedly.

There was an article in The Hindu yesterday titled "Festival of Onam, from legend to mirage" by retired Supreme Court Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer denouncing the manner in which this holiday, like most holidays around the world, has gone from enjoying what life has to offer, to enjoying what the shops have on offer. It pains me to have to agree with the esteemed Mr. Krishna Iyer, but such is the case. However, in his article, he briefly recollects the legend of
the great king and why he rises up from the netherworld to walk the face of the Earth every year. It was interesting to me to hear this story told this way. I hadn't thought about it, but the version that I was familiar with had an exactly opposite interpretation. What do I mean? Well, stick around to find out.

As the legend goes, Mahabali, supremely magnanimous ruler of the world, was a most generous and self-less king. His generosity knew no bounds and according to the article news of his magnanimity eventually reached the heavens, and Vishnu decided to come down to Earth and test the great ruler. Taking the form of a diminutive Brahmin, Vamanan, he requested Mahabali that he be allowed to own anything that he trod on, but that he would only take three steps to do it. Mahabali did not quite understand this almost negligent request and so he accepted it readily. Once the King had agreed, the Brahmin grew to his great, heavenly size. With his first step, he traversed the Earth, with his second step, the heavens, and his last step he placed on the head of King Mahabali, pushing him down to the netherworld from where he would never return. The King made a humble request to Lord Vishnu, having realized that this was indeed the lord who stood before him, that he be allowed to return to the surface to see his subjects as he remembered them; happy in their equality and prosperity. Lord Vishnu granted King Mahabali this wish, and since then, all his loyal subjects prepare to receive him during his fleeting visit of their land; a land that was once rich and beautiful under the rule of this great leader.

Here's the version of the legend that I remember coming across as a child. I'm not going to hazard a guess about the source, lest I invite the wrath of some publication or some such. In the version that I was previously familiar with, Mahabali was a great but not-so-friendly king. In fact, he was known to be cruel, as demons usually are, and so it was up to Lord Vishnu to do something about it. As one of his nine avatars, Lord Vishnu came down to Earth as a poor Brahmin and made a seemingly ridiculous request to the King. Upon hearing the Brahmin's request, the great Mahabali laughed his most hearty laugh and granted the diminutive Vamanan, a dwarf of a man, his request. This version seemed to make sense because it seemed somehow right, or even just, for an evil ruler to be banished to the depths of Hell...especially a demon. But how strange an act it is to banish a kind ruler to this kind of fate, right? I mean, that's like impeaching a world leader for finally achieving the never-before-realized dream of "world peace". How strange is that?

I'm not going to offer any answers at this point, not even an opinion, because I would like to know what people think about this. Perhaps, I've even gotten the facts slightly wrong and someone would like to correct me. If this is the case, please feel free to do so. I would, however, like to end by saying that regardless of how we interpret the story, celebrating life and what we have been given goes beyond any legend or religion, perhaps even any other human construct or idea that has and will ever exist. Just be. And make sure you cause no pain to any other living thing.

Happy Onam everyone! :-D
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