Mahabali- The Pinnacle of steadfastness and Bhakti
On the festive occasion of Onam, we remember the celebrated Mahabali, counted among the foremost devotees in the Indic Consciousness. The grandson of another much loved devotee Prahlada is lauded by the poets who composed various versions of the story of Vamana Avatar. Yesterday, being Vamana Jayanthi was also a reminder of how Lord Vishnu, was ready to turn himself into a vaTu seeking alms in order to restore Dharma. Who can give alms to the spouse of Sri herself? What was his merit? The Telugu poet Pothana gives a first-hand tribute to Mahabali’s devotion and adherence to truth.
Born in the line of Kashyapa, Mahabali the son of Virochana was the King of Daityas. In Andhra Mahabhagavatam, it is specified that he was destined to become the Indra during the eight Manvantara. Even the great and unconquerable are prone to the lure of ambition and Bali felt that he could accelerate his ascension to the status of Indra by performing this Yajna called as ‘Vishwajit’.
Devas as usual sought the help of Mahavishnu who incarnates as the Vamana, to Aditi and Kashyapa Prajapati. As a vaTu or a boy who was just invested with Upanayana, Vamana approaches Bali for the customary alms. When Bali asks him to spell out his desire, the boy seeks three paces of land measured by his foot saying that the other riches did not hold any significance for him.
Bali agrees albeit with a remark about how lowly this ‘seeking’ was and how a seeker has to keep in mind, the capability and the status of the giver. IT was then that the Guru Shukracharya sees that the Vatu was none other than MahaVishnu himself. Shukracharya’s counsel to Mahabali is something worth pondering about. He cites the extent of dAna or Charity that one could indulge in. He says a man has to balance dispensing his wealth towards all the four Purusharthas namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. He also has to account for his dependants and progeny and any charity that breaks these bounds of balance was not called for. Furthermore, Shukracharya tells Bali that the boy who innocently asked for three paces of land was Mahavishnu himself and predicts that he was capable of covering the land with one of his feet and the skies with the second, thereby rendering Bali incapable of keeping up his promise. Failing in the promise, would condemn the King to hell, Shukracharya warns him.
It is hard to disagree with Shukracharya and in fact, his words could be a basis for the much needed financial prudence that everyone needs to practice. Poet Pothana’s excellence comes forth in his depiction of Bali’s poise and commitment in the face of this realization. In a couple of beautiful poems, he extols Bali’s devotion.
ధాత్రిని హలికునకును సు
క్షేత్రము బీజములు నొకటఁ జేకుఱు భంగిం
జిత్రముగ దాత కీవియుఁ
బాత్రము సమకూరునట్టి భాగ్యము గలదే?
Like a fertile land and seeds are a boon to the farmer, so is a meritorious seeker to the giver. Can a giver ask for anything better?
(It should be remembered that Pothana, unlike his patronized counterparts decided to farm for his livelihood and stay true to his conscience in composing the Bhagavatam. And he really knows the value of what is important to a farmer).
Further, Bali cites who he wanted to be remembered along with in the future.
కారే రాజులు? రాజ్యముల్ గలుగవే? గర్వోన్నతిం బొందరే?
వారేరీ సిరిమూటఁగట్టుకొని పోవం జాలిరే? భూమిపైఁ
బేరైనం గలదే? శిబిప్రముఖులుం బ్రీతిన్ యశః కాములై
యీరే కోర్కులు? వారలన్ మఱచిరే యిక్కాలమున్? భార్గవా!
O Bhargava, weren’t there countless number of Kings who were bestowed kingdoms? Did they not revel in their pride? Where are they? Could they take their earthly prosperity along with them after their death? Do we on the earth even remember their names? On the other hands, who forgot the likes of King Shibi, who joyously gave up themselves to fulfil the wishes of those who approached them?
ఉడుగని క్రతువులఁ వ్రతములఁ
బొడగనఁ జన నట్టి పొడవు పొడవునఁ గుఱుచై
నిడరాదె మహానుభావ! యిష్టార్థంబుల్
Besides, the one who sought my charity is the one who is even unattainable by the variety of Kratus and Vratas. O Great one, should I not grab the opportunity to give him what he seeks?
The unattainability of Mahavishnu is announced by Mahabali and perhaps, in the presence of Mahavishnu, Bali felt free of his actual ambition of becoming the Indra sooner. He further elucidates how rare is the opportunity that graced him.
ఆదిన్ శ్రీసతి కొప్పుపైఁ, దనవుపై, నంసోత్తరీయంబుపై,
బాదాబ్జంబులపైఁ, గపోలతటిపై, బాలిండ్లపై నూత్నమ
ర్యాదం జెందు కరంబు గ్రిం దగుట మీఁదై నా కరంబుంట మేల్
గాదే? రాజ్యము గీజ్యమున్ సతతమే? కాయంబు నాపాయమే?
The hand that has the supreme honour of being pleasured on the braids and beauty of Sri herself, the hand that has played with her upper garment, her lotus feet, her cheeks and her breasts- That hand is seeking alms, taking the position below my hand as a giver. Is it not a boon to me? Should I at the face of this opportunity, worry about perishable and inconsequential things like earthly prosperities, Kingdom and even my life?
One cannot help the goose bumps reading about the pinnacle of Bhakti that Mahabali has demonstrated being fully conscious that he is facing his possible doom. It is clear that he did not consider it his doom and he looked forward to accept the challenge of Vamana who as predicted by Shukracharya, grew to immense proportions as Trivikrama, covering the land and skies and ultimately claiming the third pace on the head of Mahabali. Here is where the ‘twist in the tale’ occurs in Vishnu’s own words when he says the Avatar as Vamana was in fact to demonstrate the steadfastness of Mahabali.
బద్ధుండై గురుశాపతప్తుఁడయి తా బంధువ్రజత్యక్తుఁడై
సిద్ధైశ్వర్యముఁ గోలుపోయి విభవక్షీణుండునై పేదయై
శుద్ధత్వంబును సత్యముం గరుణయున్ సొంపేమియుం దప్పఁ డు
ద్బుద్ధుండై యజయాఖ్యమాయ గెలిచెం బుణ్యుం డితం డల్పుఁడే.
Bound and cursed, forsaken by his own people, reduced from his status and his prosperity diminished, he stands at the face of poverty, but he in fact has conquered the Maya. He is the sinless and meritorious one, not to be undermined.
అసురనాథుఁ డనుచు ననఘుని మర్యాద
యేను జూత మనుచు నింత వలుక
నిజము పలికె నితఁడు నిర్మలాచారుండు
మేలుమేలు నాకు మెచ్చువచ్చు.
I only sought to test his steadfastness and this sinless King of Asuras has stood by the truth and hence won my praise.
Continuing further, Mahavishnu reiterates that Bali shall attain the position of Indra during the Savarni Manvantara and till then, shall rule in all his glory and with complete autonomy, over the Sutala loka, an abode created by Vishwakarma where the denizens would be free of disease, thirst, pains and miseries of all kinds. He further promises to guard the abode himself and punish any denizen who would disobey Bali and protect him from all dangers.
Bhagavatam in Telugu has the distinction of being written by a follower of Advaita. Pothana in his own unique style, makes every character endearing to the reader while not compromising on the philosophy of the root scripture.
With the Indic consciousness seating Mahabali as one of the foremost of devotees and as the Indra in waiting, it would look foolish to position him against Vamana or Vishnu who in fact is guarding him according to his own words. These petty ideologues end up diminishing the very greatness of Bali who they seek to celebrate by spewing venom against Vamana Jayanthi. But realizing and appreciating the likes of Mahabali needs reading and contemplation. Are we prepared to read, revise and realize?