Now, if you recall the previous Avatar of Vishnu, Narasimha, you might remember that the crux of that story was a battle of wills between father and son: the Demon King Hiranyakshipu, and his religiously bent son, Prahlada. Going back further, it was Hiranyakshipu’s brother that demanded Vishnu’s previous incarnation as the giant boar, Varaha.
Well, trouble runs in the family.
So now we move on to the pious Prahlada’s grandson, Bali.
Recall: Prahlada’s uncle made a list of things that couldn’t harm him, but he left out boars.
Prahlada’s father made a list of conditions which should have left him invulnerable – but Vishnu’s fourth incarnation as Narasimha, part lion, part man, met every one of those conditions.
Do you see a pattern emerging?
Prahlada’s grandson, Bali, didn’t make any deals with the Gods. He did manage to vanquish all of the lesser Elemental Gods – the Devas – and their Heavens – much as his great-grandfather and great-grand uncle had done before him, but he did it without the help of any divine boons.
Yes, he’d also managed to take dominion of the earth, but once again, he did it without signing any divine contracts.
Maybe he’d learned from his ancestors’ mistakes. Maybe his grandfather taught him a thing or two.
Whatever guided him, he appears to have been a good ruler. By all mythological accounts (and there are several) he was a kind, generous and caring king.
So what could possibly go wrong?
The Elemental Gods – the Devas – led by Indra, didn’t really care that he was kind, generous or caring.
If you recall from the Narasimha story, they were prepared to rape Prahlada’s mother – it was the intervention of Vishnu’s wandering bard, Narada, that prevented that atrocity.
In other words, the Elementals weren’t about being nice. They were about ruling the Heavens.
And so, as they had done many a time prior, they appealed to Vishnu.
Once again, Vishnu relented.
Now, imagine you’re Bali.
You pretty much run the Cosmos. And so, as a token of gratitude, you decide to throw a party.
Of course, given the times, the main event would be a ritual sacrifice, but the point was that everyone was invited, nobody turned away.
And being congenial, you’ve decided to be extra generous.
As you sit on your throne, a dwarf beggar-priest (a mendicant Brahmin, a child in some versions) approaches you.
“Poor thing”, you think to yourself.
“Who are you, and what can I offer you?” you ask benevolently.
“Gold, jewels, cows, a night on the town? Your wish is my command.” you add.
He looks at you humbly, head lowered.
“My name is Vamana, and if it pleases my lord, all I want are three paces of land.” he responds, taking three small steps forward.
“You can have anything you want. Seriously. Villages, jewels, food. Anything.” you tell him.
“Thank you my lord, but all I want are three paces of land.”
You smile. “So be it, good sir. Take your three steps.”
Vamana proceeded to grow to Cosmic proportions.
With the first step, he covered the Earth.
With his second step, he covered the Heavens.
And at this point, understanding his situation, Bali fell to his knees.
Vamana’s last step landed on the Demon King’s head, sending him down into the Underworld.
Now, here’s where the stories diverge. By some accounts, that’s where it ends. By other accounts, Vishnu allows Bali to rule the Underworld. And according to some sources, Vishnu allows Bali to return to Earth once a year, celebrated in a festival called Onam.
That concludes the adventures of Vishnu’s fifth Avatar. From here, the stories get longer, and more complicated, both ethically and thematically.
Just remember the following lessons:
- Don’t mess with Elemental Gods
- Always read the EULA
- If you give an inch…well, you get the point
Next in this series, we’ll examine Avatar number six, Rama of the Ax…