Every year, the state of Kerala celebrates the festival of Onam, which marks the return of the king Mahabali, or Bali Raja, to his kingdom from the netherworld. The myth goes that the king ruled over an egalitarian land, and such was the joy and prosperity in his kingdom that it invited the envy of the gods. In order to overthrow Mahabali, the gods sought the help of the deity Vishnu. Vishnu appeared before Mahabali in his fifth avatar, a diminutive Brahmin named Vamana. He asked the king to grant him as much land as he could cover in three paces of land. After Mahabali agreed, Vamana assumed a gargantuan form—he covered the earth with one step and the skies in another. For his third step, Mahabali offered his own head. Vamana stepped on him and pushed him down to the netherworld, but granted Mahabali a yearly visit to his kingdom. This annual visit is celebrated in Kerala as Onam.
In Hindu mythology, Mahabali is commonly portrayed as an asura, or demon king. However, many in the Dalit community consider him to be a just and egalitarian icon. The nineteenth-century philosopher and anti-caste social reformer Jotirao Phule had written extensively on Mahabali’s reign. In Gulamgiri, or Slavery, one of his seminal books on caste, Phule identifies Mahabali as a “strong and valiant King” who was “a friend of the downtrodden” and Vamana as “mean, cunning, treacherous and ungrateful.” Gail Omvedt, a scholar and sociologist, has written several books on caste reform in India, such as Dalits and the Democratic Revolution and Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism. In 2008, Omvedt published Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, in which she looks at the writings of reformers spanning five centuries, from Chokhamela to Ravidas to BR Ambedkar. The following is an excerpt from Omvedt’s chapter on Phule, in which she discusses his characterisation of Mahabali’s reign as the “golden age” of India, as well as the role that Phule’s narrative played in the emergence of the Dalit movement in the country.
The notion of an Aryan conquest was widely accepted—by missionaries, administrators and Indians themselves. Brahmins, whether in Bengal or Maharashtra, used it to emphasise the “golden age” of the Vedic Aryan period, before society was overwhelmed by indigenous decadence and by the exigencies caused by Muslim conquest. The British could simply see the Aryans as a spiritually gifted but otherwise inferior form of Europeans. Phule was a pioneer among the intellectuals coming from the masses when he took a different tack. In Gulamgiri, published in 1873, he turned the theory upside down, and wrote of the golden age in pre-Aryan India, with the Aryan invasion motivated by visions of this wealth and resulting in slavery.