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King Bali, Vaman Avatar and the Dharma of Giving

Article of the Month - July 2014
Viewed 12298 times since 15th Jul, 2014
Once upon a time there ruled a king named Bali. He was so powerful that he even defeated Indra, the king of heaven. Thus Bali now ruled over the entire universe, including this world and the others beyond it. The distressed Indra rushed to his beloved God Vishnu and appealed for help. Meanwhile, Bali decided to perform the ‘horse sacrifice’, known in Sanskrit as the Ashwamedha Yajna.

Vaman Avatara



To help His devotee Indra, Bhagwan Vishnu resolved to visit Bali’s sacrifice and ask back for what was rightly Indra’s. Accordingly He manifested Himself as a young brahmin. In this incarnation, He is known as Vamana, meaning ‘short’ or ‘ small’. Why did Vishnu become small? It is to show us that whenever one wants something from somebody, one is reduced in stature. However, God will do anything for His devotees.


When Vamana presented Himself in the sacrificial hall, all present there were enchanted by His divine beauty. The great king Bali himself came out to receive Him, accompanied by the brahmins conducting his sacrifice. They invited Him to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Yajna. Inside, Bali washed Vamana’s feet and said:

"Dear Sir! You are welcome. I bow to You. With Your coming, my whole lineage has been purified and this Yajna has become successful. By washing Your feet, I have washed away all my sins. O Young Brahmin, Your coming here indicates that you want something. Please ask for whatever You want. Take gold, elephants, land, wealth. Whatever you desire is yours for the asking. You are a brahmachari, if you want to marry a suitable young lady please command me and all arrangements shall be made."

Hearing these words of king Bali, full of dharma as they were, Vamana Bhagwan answered:

"Dear King! I know that generosity flows in your veins. Your ancestors too were similarly generous. You are merely following the glorious tradition of your forefathers. You are truly blessed to have been born in such a noble lineage."

The one who wants something has to lavishly praise the giver. People do not give until they are flattered and pampered. This is why the great poet Kalidas has said: "stotram kasya na tushtaye" - who is not pleased to receive praise?

Bali too was pleased to hear Vamana’s words of praise and reiterated his offer to give whatever was asked for.

Vamana then said: "Even though you are the lord of the whole world, I do not ask much from you. What I merely want is a small piece of land, measured by three paces of my feet."

King Bali laughed out aloud saying: "Your words sound mature, however, your intelligence is childish. I am the king of the three worlds and can gift you a whole continent. Anyone coming to me to ask for something never again has to ask for anything in his whole life. Reconsider your request and ask for more."

Vamana said: "All the wealth of this world cannot satisfy a discontented man. He who is dissatisfied with three feet of land cannot be satisfied by even a whole continent because he will then crave for all the seven continents. A contended person leads a happy life with whatever comes his way, while a discontented person is never satisfied even if he comes to possess all the three worlds. The wise say that discontentment is the reason for getting stuck in the cycle of birth and death while contentment leads to moksha. Hence, I request you to only give me the land measured out by three paces of my feet."

Also present in the sacrificial hall was Shukracharya, the guru of king Bali. The perceptive guru realised that Vamana was no ordinary human and sensed that his disciple was about to lose his wealth. He consequently advised him against making any such pledge to Vamana. Bali’s answer to his guru is one of the most celebrated explanations of dharma ever. He said:

"Respected Guru Ji, you are right when you say that it is the duty of householders to protect their money. However, I belong to a family where people never go back on their words. Having made a promise to this brahmin to give, how for the greed of wealth can I now go back on my word? The Earth says: ’There is no adharma greater than speaking a lie. I can bear any load but not that of a false man.’

Dear Guru Ji, I do not fear hell, poverty, suffering or destruction of my kingdom as much as I fear cheating a brahmin by making him a false promise. Money in any case deserts us after death. What is the use of this wealth if not voluntarily sacrificed for the use of brahmins? Great people like Dadhichi have even given up their lives in the service of others. What then is there to think about mere wealth? The most powerful of kings have ruled this world before us. Time has swallowed up all of them. However, their great fame remains intact. (Hence I too should strive for an everlasting fame rather than transient wealth).

Guru Ji, it is easy to find people who sacrifice their lives on the battlefield. But rare is the donor who when approached by a worthy recipient respectfully gives away his wealth. If one has to suffer poverty and affliction as a consequence of one's charity then these sufferings are to be welcomed as adding to one’s glory. Even if this brahmachari is Bhagwan Vishnu Himself, His coming here to ask is a victory for us, because if He wanted He could in any case take back Indra’s kingdom by force. Hence, I will definitely fulfil the wish of this young brahmin."

Trivikrama: Vishnu in His Incarnation as Vamana



No sooner had Bali requested Vamana to take the three steps than a strange thing happened. The dwarf form of Bhagwan Vishnu started expanding until it encompassed the whole universe. With this cosmic form did Bhagwan Vishnu proceed to place His steps. With the first step He mapped out the Earth. His second step strode across the worlds beyond the Earth.



Vamana Incarnation - Tanjore Painting



When the second step reached the Brahmaloka, the great God Brahma who lived there worshipped Vishnu’s foot and washed it with water. This water, which was poured out of Brahma Ji’s water pot, after washing Bhagwan’s Vishnu’s foot fell down to the earth and became the river Ganga, retaining the potency to sanctify anything which came in contact with its sacred waters.



Now came the question of putting the third step. There remained no place where it could be placed. Seeing that Bali had not fulfilled his promise, the great bird Garuda immediately tied him up with the Varuna-Pasha (noose of Varuna). Immediately there arose from around the world a clamour in support of king Bali. People everywhere were singing songs of his glory.

Even though he was thus slighted by Bhagwan Vishnu and made to swerve from the truth, Bali remained unswerving and with a firm mind gave this dignified reply:

Vishnu's Vaman Incarnation



"Dear Bhagwan, Do you consider me a false person? It is not so. I will prove myself true right now. I request you to kindly place your third step on my head, then I too will be Yours.





"Beloved Bhagwan, I do not fear going to hell nor do I fear the loss of my kingdom. I am not afraid of suffering nor of becoming penniless. What I do fear is a loss of repute. Actually, any punishment given by exalted persons like Yourself is nothing but a worthy reward in itself. Not even one’s parents, brothers or friends can mete out such desirable punishment. In the guise of our enemy, You are actually our highest guru. When people like us become blinded by power and wealth, You give us the eyes to see the correct path by snatching away everything from us.

"Indeed, what is the use of this body which eventually abandons one at death? What is the worth of those who have taken the form of our dear ones like sons, daughters etc. only to grab our wealth like robbers? What use is one’s wife because attachment to her puts us again and again in the cycle of life and death? When death is inevitable, what is the sense in attachment towards one’s house? Getting entangled in these things is a sheer waste of life."

Vamana - South Indian Temple Wood Carving



Bali’s offering of his ‘own self’ to God symbolises the ultimate act of sacrifice. Till now, he had only given up the fruits of his karma which consisted of this world and those beyond it. However, he had not still not given up his sense of doership. Now, by offering ‘himself’, he had made the ultimate sacrifice - that of his ego.




King Bali’s plight saddened the whole world, so much so that Bhagwan Brahma descended from his loka and requested for mercy from Bhagwan Vishnu. The following wonderful reply was given by Bhagwan Vishnu to Brahma Ji:

"Dear Brahma Ji, I take away the wealth of those on whom I wish to bestow My grace, because when a man becomes infatuated with money and power he loses all humility and starts disrespecting the world and even me. A jiva, passing through numerous lower births because of his karma, happens to become a human being only because of My grace. If he, as a human, is not affected by pride of his lineage, achievements, youth, beauty, learning, power etc, then it should be considered the highest expression of my grace. All these disable one’s spiritual advancement. However, those who have surrendered to Me do not get infatuated by these material opulences.

"King Bali has vanquished the otherwise unconquerable maya and did not swerve from his dharma even in distress. He has been dislodged from his position of power, deprived of his wealth, insulted, tied down by his enemies, abandoned by his kith and kin and reproached by his own guru. Still, he remained firm in his vow and did not deviate from the truth. Therefore, now I am giving him that position which is obtained with great difficulty even by the devatas. During the next cycle of Creation, he will be the Indra of that Creation and will live under my gaze and protection."

When Bhagwan Vishnu uttered these words, the magnanimous Bali joined his palms and with his eyes flowing with tears and throat choked with emotion, addressed God with the following words: "Bhagwan! I did not even bow before you completely. However, my mere attempt to do so was sufficient enough for you to bestow on me the blessings which are reserved exclusively for your devotees who have surrendered totally to you. The grace which is difficult to obtain even by the gods has been conferred upon a wretched person as myself. Indeed, Bhagwan! How wonderfully mysterious are your ways."

Conclusion: While we try and sincerely follow dharma in our daily, normal life, but when faced with adverse circumstances we are the first to desert dharma. This episode from King Bali’s life teaches us to remain steadfast in dharma, however adverse the circumstances may be.


References & Further Reading:

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  • That was very interesting.
    There also other ways of looking at the episode.

    The Mahabali – Vamana episode is at times explained in the context of Brighu- Angirasa rivalry. Maha-Bali (aka Indrasena) the son of Virochana and the grandson of the legendry devote-prince Prahlada, was an Asura. Shukra the son of Brighu was his preceptor. The king Mahabali, whose preceptors were the Brighus, ruled and controlled vast area called Brighu Desha or Brighu Kakshya– the domain of the Brighu (Brighu kaccha – Baruch) that covered the west, the north-west and the south west of the Indus. He performed a sacrifice on the southern banks of the Narmada situated in Brighu Kakshya.

    Vamana represents the arrival of Angirasas into the kingdom of Mahabali. Vamana the son of sage Kashyapa, in the linage of the Angirasa, initially asked the king for a small piece of land for their settlement; and the king consented to his request despite warning from his priest (Shukra). The Bhargava Shukra seemed to be aware of the designs of the Angirasas. The Kashyapas, starting from their small settlement, spread throughout the kingdom of Mahabali and eventually overthrew him from his kingship. The story of Vamana, perhaps, signifies the transfer of power from the Asura kings and their Brighu priests to the Devas and their Angirasa priests.

    The Brighus and Yadus who earlier formed the majority in the Bhrigu country were now overwhelmed by the fresh immigrants. They were thereafter resettled – through sea route – by Bhargava Rama (in the linage of the Brighus) along the western coast and in what is now Kerala. The resettled Brighus carried to their lands the legend of their beloved King Mahabali and also the Krishna cult.
    by Sreenivasarao Subbanna on 17th Jul 2014
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