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Mahabali and the dream of equality and fraternity

Mahabali still stands for the cultural lingering of the egalitarian Shramana tradition among the people of various parts of India from Maharashtra to Kerala. Bali is the unconquerable spirit of equality and justice for the common folk, writes Ajay S. Sekher

       Let us leave the ideology of Vamana

      And regain the just rule of Mabali

-Sahodaran Ayyappan in “Onappattu”

It was Mahatma Phule who in the mid-19th century envisioned future India as Baliraj, the kingdom of Mahabali, where everyone is equal. He also compared it with Christuraj, the kingdom of Christ where god is love. Bali stands for selfless sacrifice and extraordinary standards of ethics. Here, we also need to remember that Phule was denied the Vedic Sanskritic Gurukula education because he was a Shudra, and he received his education in a Scottish missionary school. He also educated his wife Savitribai, who went on to become modern India’s first lady teacher as the couple pioneered schooling for the underprivileged, particularly for Dalit girls. Narayana Guru, the visionary behind Kerala’s modernity, himself an Avarna or outcaste, also challenged the Vedic Varnashramadharma through his installations and educational endeavours for the Untouchables. He made it clear that “it is the British who gave us the right to education and asceticism, and they are our gurus. If it was in the time of Ram I would had met with the fate of Sambuka because the Hindus rule by the (Manu)Smritis.”

This 10th-century Buddha in Mavelikkara is a remnant of ‘Mahabali’s Kerala’

It is interesting to note that the Bali myth is alive and legendary from Maharashtra to Kerala, two regions of India that had enjoyed prolonged sea linkages with the rest of the world, especially with the Buddhist world. It is obvious that Vamana’s triumph over Bali signifies the defeat of Buddhism by Vaishnavite Brahmanism in the early Middle Ages throughout India. The thousand names or “Sahasra Nama” of Vishnu and Shiva also testify to the conquest and erasure of numerous Jain and Buddhist shrines and their localized deities by proponents of Brahmanism, using their two chief masks, the popularized Bhakti cults of Vaishnavism and Saivism. That is how they conquered the whole of India in the Middle Ages, annihilating the rationalist scepticism of Buddhism and its anti-caste, and therefore, anti-brahmanical, critical egalitarianism.

The “problem” with Bali was that he was a just ruler and a leader of the people. He was known for charity and selfless service of the needy. The proponents of Brahmanism could not tolerate this humanitarian and ethical legacy of the Buddhist Bahujan ruler and they misused the ethical commitment of Bali to trample him down. It is also vital to remember that brahmanical agents or Vaishnava incarnations like Vamana employed this kind of cheating and usurpation throughout the Indian peninsula, especially in the southern kingdoms, to cunningly oust the Shramana rulers and to capture power. The kingdoms of Mahishasur and Bali or Ravana are the other examples. It also brings us to the increasing demonization and animalization of humans in the literary epics of Hindus from the early Middle Ages onwards. The apes, bears and other beasts of the Hindu epics are a case in point. Bali is a typical victim of demonization. In the narratives of Vaishnavite Brahmanism, he was portrayed as a demon and referred to as an Asura and a Rakshasa and then shown to be tricked and eliminated. He is called an Asura because he broke the Vedic Varnashramadharma stipulations by showing his compassion and munificence to the people at the bottom rung of society. He rose above varna and its caste/gender hierarchies ­– the double labyrinth called brahmanical patriarchy by Ambedkar, Uma Chakravarti and Sharmila Rege. He became a threat to varna and caste, not to mention its rooted priestly ideology that is Brahmanism. Kancha Ilaiah has pointed out the references to the buffalo in the media in the 21st century to demonize and animalize Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi. The “buffalo demons” are easy preys to slaughter. The Buddhists in the Middle Ages and Muslims in the present have been otherized into demons or mlecha and then easily eliminated.

Warriors of egalitarianism: Narayana Guru and his disciple Sahodaran Ayyappan

In Kerala, the memories of Mahabali or Maveli are prominent among the people. It was Sahodaran Ayyappan, the lead disciple of Narayana Guru, who revived the memories of Maveli in the early 20th century through his songs. Sahodaran wrote two poems “Onapattu” and “Yuktikalam Onapattu” to commemorate the liberating spirit associated with Maveli. He appeals the people to abandon the ideology of the dwarfish Brahman Vamana. This appeal is relevant in India today. Sahodaran explains the problems and genocidal consequences of the Hindu order of things. He pays homage to the medieval Dalit poet Pakkanar by invoking his lines on Maveli. Even before Sahodaran wrote these poems, it was Muloor, another elder disciple of Narayana Guru, who paid tribute to Pakkanar and Pulayanar as early poets in the Kerala poetic tradition that can be traced to the Sangham age. Muloor Padmanabha Panicker also wrote Pulavritangal, an anthology of poetry, for his friend and Dalit reformer Kurumban Daivatar to use in his activism. He also translated Buddha’s Dhammapada from Pali into Malayalam. The festival of Onam itself is held in the memory of Mahabali and not of Vamana, the Brahman dwarf who is an incarnation of Vishnu. The legend clearly tells us that it was Vaishnavite Brahmanism that defeated Bali through treachery. We may also remember that a few years ago Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah’s attempt to greet Keralites on “Vaman Jayanti” and not “Onam” was met with a backlash, although this is only the beginning of a long-term targeted propaganda to brahmanize the regional festivals and legends.

The floral carpet and associated paraphernalia of Onam represent Buddhist aesthetics

According to the legend and popular belief, Maveli returns to see his people during Onam. The festival brings back the memory of an egalitarian age. If we study history, this is the age of Buddhism as far as Kerala is concerned. The floral carpet and associated paraphernalia of Onam represent the aesthetics of Buddhism that is ecologically aware and based on oneness of nature and culture. The stupa-like ritual, floral decorations, the yellow robes given as new clothes and the feasting on plantain leaves are in sync with the semiology and philosophy of Buddhism. The Malayalam month of Chingam, in which Onam falls, is named after Simham or Sakya Simha himself.

Sakya Simha or the Buddha is called Chakya Chinga in Kerala parlance. He is also called Onatappan, the lord of Onam. All the deities in major Kerala temples are called Appan. It is a Pali word of Tamil origin and has no relation with Sanskrit. Whether it is Guruvayur or Vaikom, that is Vishnu or Siva, they are called Appan. This again proves that they were all Buddhist shrines or Mahayana Pallys or Viharas till the Middle Ages. The Boddhisatvas in the Mahayana shrines were converted into Ayyappa, Muruka and Kannan as Bhakti fervour took hold of society. There is also an argument that Onatappan is Maitreya, the future Buddha.

Mahabali still stands for the cultural lingering of the egalitarian Shramana tradition among the people of various parts of India from Maharashtra to Kerala. Bali is the unconquerable spirit of equality and justice for the common folk. Only through cheating and betrayal, Brahmanism conquered this ethical and egalitarian culture that forms the foundation of the Bahujan or people’s culture in India. When Brahmanism makes its second coming through cultural nationalism and hardcore Hindutva, let us remember and resist it with our deep-rooted legacies of ethics and enlightenment, firmly founded in compassion and non-violence. Let Onatappan or Sakya Simha arise in us and, in the words of Ambedkar, let a thousand lotuses bloom in our hearts and parched wetlands.

Copy-edited by Anil Varghese

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir


About The Author

Dr Ajay S. Sekher

Dr Ajay S. Sekher is an assistant professor in the Department of English, SS University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala. He is the author of ‘Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a Democratic Future’ and more recently of ‘Putan Keralam’, a book in Malayalam on the Buddhist foundation of Kerala culture and civilization

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