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Story and history

Onam is here again. It's time for feasts, fun and new clothes. The festival is also a celebration of one's roots, writes A. V. VARGHESE


Onam, they say, is the post-monsoon spring-harvest festival. It is a season of rejoicing and feasting, new clothes and food, the tourist season in God's Own Country. It is time for children to step away from burdensome syllabi and schools. Families and friends spend time with each other. It is the holiday season.

Yet, going beyond the festivities, Onam is the celebration of the Asura. The Asura is perhaps one's authentic source and past.

It is the season for the reversal or, as the interpretation might go, the reinforcement of a certain `demonisation' of a race and the rewriting of its history.

The story, as we know it, emerges from a line in the Rig Veda: "Vishnu strode over this universe: in three places, he planted his step".

The virtuous Asura, King Mahabali, ruled the land. It was a golden age. Everyone was happy. But, as is inevitable, Envy raised its head in the form of the Devas who wanted to put an end to the Golden Age and King Mahabali; more so, because he was more virtuous than the Devas themselves. The job was left to the second person of the Aryan trinity -- Vishnu, the Preserver.

Incarnating/disguising himself as Vamana, a dwarf, Vishnu arrived at the festivities being conducted by Asura King Mahabali, who had declared that he would fulfil the desires of anyone in the land. The dwarf impressed Mahabali with his learning and then sought as a gift all the space he could cover in three steps.

Mahabali granted the dwarf's request; he was unwilling to heed the warnings from his guru, Shukracharya, that the Brahmin might be resorting to subterfuge. In two steps, the dwarf turned into a giant and everything was swallowed up; where was the space for the third step? Mahabali offered the dwarf his head to be trodden upon and he was pushed into Pathala, the nether world. He won a reprieve though; he could visit his beloved land and people once a year -- during Onam.

It is a strange tale.

In the Rig-Veda, the Asuras are shown as spiritual, divine beings; their etymology is derived from asu (breath), the "Breath of God," and they mean the same as the Supreme Spirit. It is later on, for purposes of theology and dogma, that they are shown issuing from Brahma's thigh, and that their name began to be derived from a, privative, and sura, god (solar deities), or not-a-god, and that they became the enemies of the "gods" (Madame H. P. Blavatsky in `The Secret Doctrine', II, 59)

Mahabali ruled the Daityas (or Asuras) and had an illustrious lineage. He represented a race in constant conflict with the Devas or gods, a race that kept suffering defeats because of the machinations of the Devas. Mahabali is thought to have been the grandson of Prahlada, who was helped by Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu, against his Asura father-king, Hiranyakashyapu. The earlier Varaha (boar) avatar of Vishnu had also terminated the reign of Hiranyakashyapu's elder brother, the Asura King Hiranyaksha.

What is the meaning of this `history'? Is it a spiritual analogy? Was Mahabali a loser because he kept his word? Was his determination, despite the warning of his preceptor, to keep his pledge to the dwarf a mask for his overweening pride that deserved punishment from above? Or is the story a reassertion of the right of the upper class as representative of the gods to usurp power?

Then again, is the story, a signifier of how the original inhabitants of the land were subdued by another race -- the Dravidians by the Aryans? One can try to excavate and reconstruct lost histories Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the book, `Slavery', written by Mahatma Jotirao Govindrao Phule. The chapter, titled `Baliraja', consisting of a conversation between Mahatma Phule and Dhondiba (Namdev Khumbar), is of particular interest.

Mahatma Phule speaks of Baliraja's kingdom, which stretched from Maharashtra all the way down south to erstwhile Ceylon and northwards to Ayodhya and Benares. It was attacked by the Dwija (Aryan), Vamana. Dalit kings such as Hiranyakashyapu had also been attacked by Dwija kings as a racial battle for power zigzagged across the subcontinent. The story of Prahlada is then interpreted as that of the son of the royal Hiranyakashayapu dynasty being subtly influenced by the Machiavellian Dwija, Narasimha, to become a collaborator of an `invasive' hegemonic discourse.

Dhondiba: "So then (we are told that) Adi-narayan incarnated himself as Waman to banish Baliraja in the form of a pygmy beggar and hoodwinked him by asking him the gift of only three steps (of the earth). He then abandoned his pygmy form, assumed a gargantuan form, and having occupied the entire earth and the sky with his two steps, posed a problem before Baliraja as to where he should now put his third step. The ever-generous Baliraja, having become quite helpless now, told the gargantuan form to rest his third step on his head. At this the gleeful wicked gargantuan form banished Baliraja to the nether world by resting his foot on his head. Thus was the stratagem fulfilled. All this (fiction) has been described by the Upadhyas in their fictitious books of Scriptures such as `Bhagwat'. Your narration conclusively proves that all this is rank fiction. So what do you have to say about the whole thing now?"

Mahatma Phule proceeds to demystify mythical `history' and re-situates the narrative within the context of an alternative history to conclude that to take the narrative as it appears in the Puranas would be foolish and amount to being politically correct and religiously brainwashed.

"If you read the `Bhagwat' carefully, Dhondiba, you will conclude that Aesop's Fables' are much better (are far more credible)," he points out. It is fascinating that the Onam tale appears in two contexts in Kerala and in Maharashtra, two States where the Dalit has been fighting for his legitimate rights. It places the onus on the `reader' to come to an intelligent interpretation of what might have really been. Logically, this tale tells of a vanquished race and its hero (es) being appropriated by the victor and integrated into his version of `history'. The boon that you and I have alongside Mahabali, as readers, is a trace or traces of history before `history'. That is reason enough to see Onam rightfully as the season to honour the Asura, to celebrate one's authentic origin and past, before it was swept away, appropriated and rewritten by an invader.

Graphics: Manoj

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