Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Forgive us, Mahabali

The Hindu mythology I grew up with was the old version rooted in the lands south of  the Vindhyas. In these stories, there were the three levels of  people- the gods  in their heaven, the people on earth, and the Asuras in the netherworld- just as in the Gangetic Plain version of the stories.

But the North Indian version is strictly in black and white, and the South Indian version is in a glorious mix of greys. And this brings us to Mahabali, whose story is my favourite Diwali legend. Mahabali, the Great Bali, was a good and great King. So good, in fact, that his subjects no longer sang the praises of the gods or propitiate them with sacrifices. Angered by this,the gods sent Vishnu to kill him, which Vishnu managed by using Bali's goodness against him. At the end, Bali knew what Vishnu was upto. But rather than go back on his word, Bali allowed Vishnu to send him to the underworld. He requested only one boon- that he be allowed to return for one night every year and check on the wellbeing of those he loved.

And so on one night, for the last few thousand years, a loving king walks across his land visiting his people. And his people? Well, they know that while Bali is concerned about them, he also cannot help them trapped as he is. Rather than sadden him, they want to make his one night here a happy one. And so, no matter how financially worried or sad we might be for the rest of the year, on Narak Chaturdashi we put a happy face on matters. Every family, no matter how poor,has something sweet in the house. The houses are lit up with even those in mourning keeping a lamp lit that night. And i have always loved this concept, of the whole country conspiring across centuries to hide their unhappiness to reassure someone they love.

However in recent years, the mythology of the Gangetic plains has become the dominant one and we are losing all the regional festival stories. I was grieved two years ago when my mother told me, with tears in her eyes, that the people of Sawantwadi has begun to follow the North Indian custom of burning an effigy of Narak Raja (as Bali is known there) and abusing him as an Asura.I was sad too, but there was at least the reassurance that my mother and I welcomed Bali with love.

And today, when my mother and I were talking, she began to insist that Bali was an oppressive king, that he laid waste to farms and forests, that Vishnu did a good thing by killing him. At an intellectual level, I am angry about the rise of a dominant narrative that is overruling the many complex stories that the Hinduism I grew up with. But I have realised  that a part of me always believed  in Bali,and that part is deeply grieved at what he must feel when he visits us these days.

So sorry, Mahabali, forgive us.

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