Opinion
The RSS organ, Kesari, carried in this year’s special Onam edition a cover story which presents the occasion as Vamana’s birthday.

Twenty-five years ago, while travelling from Bengaluru to Kerala by road, I saw handwritten posters with the words “Sree Krishna Jayanti, Balagokulam, RSS” on walls at Palakkad. On reaching Thiruvananthapuram, I asked some journalist friends about this RSS activity. None of them had heard of it. Today RSS-promoted Sree Krishna Jayanti celebrations, marked by parades in which little boys dressed up as Krishna and little girls dressed up as gopikas participate in large numbers, are a familiar feature across Kerala. They have become so popular that the CPI-M feels compelled to organize parallel programmes to engage its predominantly Hindu ranks.

A few years later the RSS attempted to introduce in Kerala the North Indian festival in which sisters tie the rakhi on brothers’ wrists. Its cadres went to an Ottapalam location where Malayalam superstar Mohanlal was shooting on Raksha Bandhan day and tied the rakhi. The event received some publicity but the rakhi project was a non-starter.

Now, elated by the success of the campaign it mounted to end the BJP’s electoral drought in the state, the RSS has launched an ambitious project to depose the legendary king Mahabali, celebrated in Kerala lore as a just ruler under whom all people were equal and there was no lie, deceit or falsehood of any kind, and instal in his place his nemesis, the diminutive Brahmin, Vamana, the fifth of Vishnu’s 10 avatars. (The last avatar, Kalki, is yet to come).

According to local tradition, Onam, the most important festival on the Malayali calendar, is the time when Mahabali, whom Vamana had tricked into defeat just as he was about to establish himself as the ruler of all the worlds and sent to the netherworld, returns annually to visit his former subjects.  As a first step towards the promotion of Vamana over Mahabali as the hero of the festival, the RSS organ, Kesari, carried in this year’s special Onam edition a cover story which presents the occasion as Vamana’s birthday.  

There is reason to believe that the list of avatars underwent revision before it reached the currently accepted form. The author of the Malayalam Ramayana and Mahabharata, Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, mentions the Buddha as one of the ten avatars. This shows that as recently as the 16th century the Buddha figured in the list, at least in the south.  A scholar has observed that the mission of all avatars was to kill some enemy of the gods, and the Buddha’s candidacy failed as he had not killed anyone.

Quoting copiously from Srimad Bhagavatam, the most important of the 18 Hindu Puranas, the author of the Kesari article seeks to correct some aspects of the local tradition. He asserts that Mahabali was not sent to hell, as stated in the Kerala legends, but was honourably rehabilitated to a place which is the envy of even inmates of heaven.

More importantly, he totally delinks Kerala from the Mahabali story.  According to the Brahminical tradition, Parasurama, the sixth avatar, retrieved Kerala from the sea and gave away the entire land to Brahmins to atone for his sins which included killing of his mother and many Kshatriya kings. 

With touching simplicity, he argues that since the Parasuma avatar was yet to come, Kerala did not exist in Mahabali’s time and so he could not have ruled over this land. The Puranas, however, do not support his assumption that the avatars followed one after another. They contain a story about an encounter between Parasurama and Sri Rama, indicating that the sixth and seventh avatars walked the earth at the same time.

Virtually throwing out the Purnanic description of Mahabali as one who conquered all the worlds and posed a threat to the gods, the writer says his empire was in North India.

Onam is a harvest festival. The period between the harvest and the next sowing season is a time of festivity across all agrarian societies. Wearing new clothes, feasting, singing and dancing are all part of Onam celebrations, which at one time were spread over four weeks. Boat race, leopard dance and other folk dances, folk drama, swing ride and tug-of-war are among the cultural and recreational activities associated with Onam celebrations.

As Kerala’s agrarian economy declined, Onam shrank to five days but the Malayalis celebrated the occasion even if it meant inviting indebtedness. Now, Malayalis constitute a vast consumer society and during Onam, corporates tempt them into buying all kinds of goods from mobiles to motorcars.  

In a partial concession to the concept of Onam as a harvest festival, the author of the Kesari article says knowledgeable people have stated that the Namboothiris who settled in the land reclaimed by Parasurama, being Brahmins, may have started celebrating Vamana’s birthday. When they became feudal lords they may have integrated Vamana Jayanti with the harvest festival. He ends with a fervent plea to patriots -- yes, to the patriots --to defeat the efforts of mischievous elements to distort the Puranic tales and ridicule their heroes.

The Puranas, believed to have been produced between the 3rd and 10th centuries, put together the tales of the many communities of India. Their authors deserve credit for accomplishing the immense task of collecting and editing folk tales, many versions of which were in circulation. By and large, they did a good job of reconciling conflicting versions. 

However, some discrepancies still remain. To cite an example, in some stories Ganesha has two wives while in some others he is a celibate who took a vow before his mother not to marry.

None of the Puranas mentions the term Hindu, but together they integrated different gods and goddesses and laid the foundations of the edifice of today’s Hindu religion.

With cultural practices like lighting of lamps at public functions inviting criticism from some quarters on grounds of faith, lately there has been a tendency among some to view Onam also through the prism of religion.  The Kesari article, which appears to be an attempt to Hindutvaize the Onam festival may accentuate that tendency.

In subaltern reading, the Puranas tell the story of the Vedic establishment’s conquest of the subcontinent and subjugation of the earlier settlers.  Posing the question, “Do we need this pseudo-secular celebration?” a poster put up by a Dalit group presents the alternative view:  “Onam is not a harvest festival, it is a popular lie, legitimized and propagated through the so-called authentic Malayali (Caste Hindu) cultural and religious practices.  Onam celebrates the brutal murder of Mahabali who fought against the invasion of Chaturvarna and social hierarchy. Vamana is no god, he is the fascist, the murderer who made Kerala casteist.”

While such reading can serve a useful purpose in mobilizing the dispossessed people and inspiring them to intensify their struggle for justice, its historical accuracy, too, is open to question. 

Some of the Puranic tales may have originated before the Vedic community gained ascendancy. There can be little doubt that all tales underwent changes as dominant groups retold them in keeping with their interests. Today, the television channels are retelling them again, sadly, not to draw lessons appropriate for our time but to reinforce the archaic value system of the feudal era which still lives on in many minds.

Howsoever handsome the figure of Vamana that the Hindutva school conjures up may be, it is unlikely to have a greater appeal to the Malayali than that of the pot-bellied Mahabali with his handlebar moustache that is ingrained in his mind as the symbol of a golden era. Despite invocation of the authority of Srimad Bhagavatam, even ardent Hindutva followers may find it difficult to absorb fully the revised story. 

Speaking after the Kesari article appeared, K P Sasikala, an acid-tongued Hindutva campaigner, said Vamana was the freedom-fighter who liberated Kerala from Mahabali. Evidently she could absorb only the Brahminical part of the revised story. She could not take in the part which says there was no Kerala in Mahabali’s time.

The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.