Onam, for all its cultural and commercial overtones, is still accepted as the visit of the Kerala’s erstwhile king Mahabali to his beloved kingdom. The legend associated with Onam is so absorbing and fantastic that it provides for interesting listening.
The most popular legend behind Onam is closely intertwined with the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu described in the Puranas. As per the Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu forms part of the Holy Trinity and is revered as the Protector. Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva take on the roles of creator and destructor respectively. Mahabali, with King Prahlada as his worthy ancestor, was a powerful demon ruler well-known for his benevolence.
Prahlada also was a powerful ruler but he is more commonly known for being an ardent worshipper of Lord Vishnu. According to mythology, it was the unflinching devotion of Prahlada that caused Lord Vishnu to take on the incarnation of Narasimha, the fierce lion headed form.
Mahabali’s superior administrative skills and the peace and prosperity that he ensured for his subjects earned him repute and name in all three worlds. His rule was especially noted for righteousness and the equality of all. His unbroken record at victory brought about apprehension in the minds of Indra, the King of Devas; the celestial beings or demigods. He, through his mother Aditi, sought the intervention of Lord Vishnu to curb Mahabali’s growth.
Heeding to his request, Lord Vishnu took on the incarnation of Vamana, a dwarf Brahmin. Vamana arrived at Mahabali’s kingdom at a time when the ruler was performing the ‘Ashwamedha Yaga’, the successful completion of which would make him the most powerful ruler in all the three worlds.
The visitor soon made his presence felt and Mahabali, in his benign self, asked Vamana for the fulfillment of any wish. Vamana replied that he only had a small wish to make and requested for three paces of land. Taken aback by the ‘simplicity’ of the wish, Mahabali immediately agreed. Shukracharya, Mahabali’s advisor tried to warn him of the true self of the dwarf Brahmin, but in vain.
Vamana then rose to his gigantic proportions and covered the entire universe, including the earth and skies, in two paces. Driven by the need to complete his vow and awakened by the fact that Vamana was none other than Lord Vishnu, Mahabali humbly offered his head for the third pace. The Lord completed the third pace with Mahabali’s head, thereby pushing him to the nether-world. Mahabali, himself an ardent devotee, prayed to the Lord and requested that he be allowed to visit his cherished kingdom once a year. Touched by his plea, the Lord granted him the boon to visit his subjects. It is the annual visit of Mahabali to the land he once ruled that Kerala celebrates as Onam.
Like most other legends drawn from mythology, the legend behind Onam also conveys virtues of life that are very relevant in the present day, most of all the principle of equality and lack of discrimination.