I chanced upon the book, “The myth of Mahabali and the history of Onam”, when I was doing my habitual browsing at the DC book shop. Myths and folklores had always been my favourite subject of reading since my childhood. But as I grew up, I started to search answers for historical and sociological questions in the light of myths and legends. This was how my interest in the above mentioned book, written by K T Ravivarma, also aroused and I picked it up to own it.
The book focuses mainly on the myth of Bali and Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Through the analysis of the myth, the author tries to locate the character Bali in the history. He attempts to seek the historic presence of Bali in the socio-political map of the subcontinent. The author travelling from the oldest literary piece of India, ie the Vedas, traverses through various religious and secular texts reaching even the folklore traditions of the subcontinent. The author stresses that legends have always originated as ways to demonstrate a natural or sociological phenomenon. The author believes that the stories are impregnated with symbolisms and underlying meanings. He draws a thread of the Bali-Vamana myth that holds its root in the Rig-veda. The author analyses that in the Rig Veda, nowhere does Bali or Vamana appear. In the Rig Veda, Vishnu is said to have done the “Thrivikrama”(taking three steps) to kill the demon, Vritha, and make the earth a place suitable to live. Thus in the earliest scripture, the act of taking three steps is aimed at the prosperity of the society. Author draws an analogy with a myth from the Parsi holy scripture, Avesta, and concludes that the roots of Indo-Aryan and Indo-iranians are the same. According to him, historical incidents may have later taken the form of stories and spread through generations. The author argues that the split and spread of Aryans is symbolised in the myth of “thrivikrama”. To add strength to his argument, he explains how Ahura (sounds similar to Asura) is the god of indo-iranians and devas play antagonists. For indo-aryans, devas are the worshipping deities while asuras are antagonists. Hence the author strengthens his argument that indo-iranians and Indo-Aryans must have had an inner conflict resulting in a split of the clan.
Though the reader may be fascinated by the above argument, the author looses the thread of his analysis in the later part of the book when he comes to the mediaeval scriptures such as Brahmanas and Puranas. The first synthesis of Vamana-Bali myth can be seen in the Brahmanas, where in “thrivikrama” is done in order to capture the land back from Asuras. Here for the first time, Bali emerges as the leader of the Asuras. Mahabharata also witnesses a variety of the same myth. The author argues that the prejudice and importance that the Brahmins enjoyed in the society when Mahabharata was written, is reflected in the stories. Here Vamana is clearly portrayed as a Brahmana. From the myth, the author stresses that the caste and Varna systems had taken a deep root in the society by the time of Mahabharatha. The picture of a conflict between the Kings(who are Jain followers) and Brahmins(Vedic followers) can be traced from
the myth, says the author.
Coming to the later part of the centuries, a more confused analyses has been done by the author. The possibility of the existence of more than one king in the same name has been neglected by the author. The tendancy of the author to consider all Balis as the same person has led to some confusion in the later part of the book. The reader seems to lose the sight of the picture as a whole. When author tries to pinpoint the Baliprathipada that is celebrated on the fourth day of the Diwali, there rises a cloud of confusion and the arguments seems to lose the solidity.
Hence, the attempt of the author to historically place the king Mahabali has not become a completely fruitful one. Yet, when one turns the last page of the book, she would be enriched with how the myth of Vamana and Bali has been present in variants at different points of the history. She would also be fascinated by how the myth has been manipulated at each stage so as to facilitate the socio-political situations of the time. The reader, like the author, is also convinced that myth and history has always been entangled and interrelated.
Reviewed by Savithry K. C., TGT Art Edn