“An Asura Was Not Supposed To Be Dharmic”: An Excerpt from Gail Omvedt’s Writing on Jotirao Phule and the Kingdom of Mahabali

02 September, 2017

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.

Gulamgiri was an imaginative polemic, structured around the concept of avatars. These formed the various chapters and the main themes for his attack on Brahminic dominance. The idea of avatars was an all-pervasive notion in Brahminic Hinduism, used to reach out and win over the masses. Earlier radical sants like Kabir and Tukaram had expressed an unorthodox interpretation of the avatars, either rejecting the idea altogether or turning it around to make it an accusation against god himself. Phule attacked the avatars by historicising the whole theory, ridiculing the mythology, while using it instead as metaphor for the varying forms of Aryan invasions. At the same time he incorporated the popular folk deities of Maharashtra, interpreting them as sardars of King Bali; thus Khandoba was a title given to a lord of a khand or area. Jotirao was a well-known sardar of the Kolhapur region, his fort located on the mountaintop where the temple is today. Here there was no mockery; these were taken as heroes. Greatest of all was their king, Bali, and Phule referred to the popular Marathi saying, “ida pida javo, Balica rajya yevo”—let sorrows and troubles go and the kingdom of Bali come. Bali thus became for him the symbol of human achievement. The missionary influence was demonstrated by his reference to Christ as the “Bali of the West.” Where most Europeans had seen Krishna as the equivalent and counter to Christ, and were followed by Brahmin theorists like Harishchandra making a reversal to claim priority for Krishna and Vishnu, Phule instead looked at the asura Bali as Christ. Bali figures at the centre of a long and somewhat puzzling Brahminic myth, killed despite his generosity by the deceitful Brahmin boy Waman [or Vamana].

Gulamgiri was written in dialogue form, as was true of most of Phule’s writing with the exception of Shetkaryaca Asud (The Cultivator’s Whipcord). Using raw and powerful language, he lost no chance to scorn and mock the “Irani Aryabhats” who were seen as the enslavers of the masses. The first avatars, fish and tortoise, were said to represent invasion by sea. Then came the boar, apparently over land; then the direct confrontation with non-Aryans, as Aryans managed to win over some of them (Prahlad), and used deception to destroy the best of them, King Bali. Indeed, it was Bali Raja who provided the main symbol for Phule. Bali, remembered by the masses as an ideal king, who could make “troubles and sorrows go,” was for Brahminic theory a “demon,” upholder of adharma simply by the fact that he dared to violate his own demonic dharma to be a good king. Even the puranic stories depicted Bali as a good king; it was simply that an asura was not supposed to be dharmic, and in being so, his kingdom rendered Indra and heaven unnecessary. The fact is even today Bali is remembered in Maharashtra; the symbol of Bali Raja has been used by massive farmers’ organisations such as the Shetkari Sanghatana, anti-drought movements and others. (In Kerala, folk songs celebrate the rule of King Mahabali—known also as Maveli—the benevolent ruler who presided over a casteless, just society before the rule of the Chera kings from the eighth century. Today, Bali is remembered every year during what has come to be co-opted as the Onam harvest festival. The Brahminical “Aryan” version invokes the birth of the Brahmin dwarf-priest Wamana as the occasion for Onam.)

A mixture of mythology and history, Phule’s work had a strong appeal to many non-Brahmin readers, but was scorned by the elite. A historian of the period, Sunthankar, expresses this condemnation, arguing that “Phule’s reading of history and mythology was lacunary, mere imagination and unhistorical.” However, the intention was not so much to give a historical analysis—that Phule would do in his later Shetkaryaca Asud­—but to mock the theory of avatars, which was a major theoretical prop for the mass appeal of Brahminism. This he did with devastating ridicule, giving great detail about the bodies of the presumed avatars, scorning the pretensions to many mouths, or describing the various varnas being born to parts of Brahma as requiring so many menstruating wombs that the god would have been drowned in blood. This was an “empiricisation” of the theory of avatars, bringing it down to earth with a vengeance. The purpose of stressing embodiment, of refusing a metaphorical approach and insisting on a literal one, was to ridicule, in the strongest language, the pretensions to divinity of Brahmins and the stories they used to back it up.

That Phule was writing not only for Indians but also to educate the British about the caste realities of India is shown by his including an English introduction. This made no reference to the notion of avatars (and neither did his later, truly historical work, Shetkaryaca Asud, though he continued to use the concept of Bali Raja). This should remind us that the “construction of caste,” or rather the construction of consciousness about caste, was at least a three-way process in British India—including the colonial rulers, the Indian upper-caste elite, and members of the “lower” castes who were also continually putting forward their own views on the system. Both elite and mass spokesmen endorsed the “Aryan” theory of caste, linking it to ancient racial conquest, but they took very different points of view on this. The elite saw themselves as linked to Europeans, found their golden age in the Vedic period, and stressed the decadence of the indigenous people. Phule was to evolve a theory whose golden age was pre-Vedic, based on the indigenous non-Aryans and destroyed by Aryan invasions. The parallel was striking, and it was in a way presaged by the Kartabhaja emphasis on bhakti origins in contrast to the Brahmo emphasis on Vedic origins.

Gulamgiri (Slavery) was a hard-hitting, single-minded and pointed expression of a “non-Aryan” theory, and presaged what was to become a major and continuing theme of Dalit-Bahujan analysis. The elite dropped its interpretation of Aryans and non-Aryans around the 1930s, probably in reaction to the fact that emerging Dalit movements (and non-Brahmin movements in south India) were taking it up on a massive scale. “Aryan” continued to be a symbol of superiority for them, but now their stress was on the argument that Aryans had originated in India itself, that they were the builders of the newly discovered Indus civilisation. This remains a major theme of Hindutva ideology today, while a “non-Aryan” identity and “remembering the kingdom of Bali” have retained their appeal for the Dalit-Bahujans.

This is an extract from Gail Omvedt’s Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, published by Navayana in 2008, and reprinted in 2016.