As Keralites gear up to celebrate Onam, RSS has triggered a controversy by questioning the legend behind the festival, arguing that it marks the celebration of birth of ‘Vamana’ (incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and not the homecoming of demon king Mahabali. An article published in the Onam special edition of RSS mouthpiece ‘Kesari’ claimed there was no reference in any mythological scriptures which supports the popular and widely circulated legend that ‘Vamana’ had sent Mahabali to the netherworld through deceit and the king visits the land annually to meet his subjects.
Countering the argument, senior CPI(M) leader and state Health Minister K K Shylaja said Onam was celebrated by all irrespective of caste, creed and religion and the attempt of the RSS was to bring back the bygone “upper class hegemony”. It was also a part of RSS’s agenda to “hijack the festival”, the minister alleged.
According to the popular belief in the state, Mahabali’s homecoming in the Malayalam month of Chingam to see his subjects is celebrated as ‘Thiru Onam’ annually, which falls on September 14 this year. However, the article written by K Unnikrishnan Namboothiri in the RSS magazine argued that Onam was originally celebrated as the birthday of Vamana and not a festivity to mark the homecoming of the demon king.
“There is no such reference or explanation anywhere in mythology or epics to support the story that Mahabali was pushed to the netherworld by Vamana and he visits the land every year to meet his subjects. Then, how did such a false story become prevalent in Kerala?” the article stated. The write-up claimed that Lord Vishnu had actually “blessed” the demon king and not “punished” him by pushing into ‘pathala’ (netherworld).
“There is no indication in spiritual texts like ‘Bhagavatham’ or ‘Narayaneeyam’ or such other authentic books that Bali was pushed to the netherworld. Instead, such texts say that the noble king had emerged victorious in the trial by Vamana and he was blessed by the God,” it said. The writer also criticised the general picturisation of Mahabali as a man with moustache, potbelly and wearing an ‘olakkuda’ (traditional palm leaf umbrella).
“It is an attempt by some vested interest to distort the mythical stories and paint in poor light the characters of Hindu Puranas,” the writer said, adding that such attempts to destroy Hinduism should be checked. According to mythology, Onam is connected with ‘Asura’ (demon) king Mahabali, under whose reign everyone lived in happiness and equality.
Envious by his popularity, ‘Devas’ (Gods) sought the help of Lord Vishnu to get him banished into the netherworld. But before going down, Mahabali secured a boon from Lord Vishnu to visit his subjects every year on the ‘Thiru Onam’ day. The demon king’s annual visit is celebrated by Keralites, who lay by their front yards with floral carpets, wear new clothes and prepare a sumptuous feast.
The RSS’s views on Onam have kicked up a debate on the centuries-old beliefs, which have been taught since school days as poems and stories. Kerala minister Shylaja charged that the RSS’s argument should be seen as an attempt to trace out the demon king Bali, under whose rule people enjoyed equality and no exploitation.
“Perhaps, lower caste or Dalit people were portrayed as demons in our mythical stories. Mahabali is considered to be a demon king. So, he represented the downtrodden. “The present RSS move is to eliminate the achievements of a Dalit ruler and picturise that the upper class is the supreme,” she told PTI.
Eminent historian and former chairman of Historical Research Council M G S Narayanan, however, said there were records that Onam was celebrated as ‘Vamana Jayanthi’ (birthday of Vamana) centuries ago in the state. “Mahabali is a mythical character and his story has nothing to do with the history. But, there are historical references that Onam was celebrated as Vamana Jayanthi in the state during early periods, especially during 9-11 century AD,” he said.
To mark the occasion, mass feast for Brahmin community members were organised in many temples during the time, he said. Unfazed by the controversy, people in the state are all set to celebrate Onam with shopping malls and markets witnessing heavy rush in cities, towns and villages. In a bid to check price of essential commodities, the CPI-M led LDF government has opened 176 special markets across the state.
According to official figures, the sale of essential products through the special festival markets has touched Rs 10 crore so far. Serpentine queues before state-run civil supplies and horticorp shops to get provision and vegetables on subsidised rates, have become usual scenes in every nook and cranny of the state.
Majority of shops, ranging from malls to small retailers, have announced reduction sales and special offers for various products. The government has also so far distributed around 15 lakh special ‘Onam kits’, comprising essential commodities to Below Poverty Line families.
The distribution of special kits to tribal families and free rice among school children, announced by the government as ‘Onam gifts’ is progressing, official sources said. Around five lakh government employees in the state have hit a special ‘bonanza’ during this festival season as they would get a week’s holiday as Onam, Bakrid and Sree Narayana Guru Jayanthi fall in the same week.
The government-sponsored week long Onam festivities would kick start in the state tomorrow. A colourful pageantry will be held here on September 18, marking the culmination of the Onam festivities. Around 70 floats, displaying the cultural legacy of the state, would be paraded through the heart of the capital city during the occasion, the sources added.