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Then & Now
A day in Ashram

Onam, the foremost cultural festival of Kerala, which coincides with the harvest season falls in the month of August-September. A festival that celebrates a happy blend of myth and reality, Onam is a part of the cultural repertoire of every Keralite. Tradition has it that Emperor Mahabali who, while ruling that area as the most benevolent ruler, was liberated by being sent to the netherworld by Lord Mahavishnu (incarnated as Vamana) as he offered his head to be measured as the third step of land Lord Vamana had asked for as alms. But, honouring his great devotion and sense of sacrifice the Lord granted him permission to visit his subjects once a year. Thus, Keralites celebrate this festival to commemorate the Advent of Lord Mahavishnu as Vamana Avatar and to rejoice the annual visit of Emperor Mahabali to meet his subjects, to this sacred land. The feast and festive mood of the people who rejoiced on this occasion, dressed in their best, is considered reminiscent of the prosperous and truthful life of the subjects during his flawless reign. It takes one to a nostalgic world of that golden period of Emperor Mahabali's reign, for whom year after year, for centuries, the people of Kerala, forgetting all sectarian outlooks, join together to welcome on this auspicious 'Thiruvonam' day. Preparation of floral carpet called 'Athappookkalam" in front of houses, from the first day of 'Atham' to the tenth day of 'Thiruvonam' is a part of the festivities, which is symbolic gesture to welcome King Mahabali. A sumptuous meal on plantain leaf and the traditional sweet dish of Kerala "Payasam' etc. are served in every house. The pomp and pageantry of Onam reflects the Keralite's zest for all beautiful things of life.

In Bhagawan's words, "Onam means wearing new clothes. The 'Vastra' not only means cloth but also means heart. Therefore, the significance of wearing new clothes (Vastra) is that one should make the heart new by getting rid of all bad thoughts and feelings".

Every year thousands of devotees from all across the world, especially from the state of Kerala throng to Prasanthi Nilayam to celebrate the festival in the Divine Presence of Bhagawan. To Keralites, it has an added significance, as they are fortunate to celebrate the advent of Lord Mahavishnu to Kerala, in the Divine presence of Lord Mahavishnu Himself, who has incarnated now as Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Devotees and Balvikas children from the state stage different cultural programme in the divine presence during these days of festivity and on the 'Thiruvonam' day (the day when Lord Mahavishnu supposed to have blessed the land of Kerala) Bhagawan blesses the people with His nectarious Divine Discourse.

The Legend
Kashyapa and his two wives, Diti and Aditi, were the parents of demons and demigods (Asuras and Devas). Indra, the king of Devas, went on war with the king of Asuras, as it was a common practice in those days, for one king to invade the kingdom of another to acquire additional territory. Mahabali vanquished Indra in the war and proceeded to annex the territory of Indra and occupied his capital Amaravati. Kashyapa had gone to the Himalayas to do penance. Lamenting over the defeat of her son, Indra, Aditi was in great grief. When she was wailing, Kashyapa came to her. Instantly he was able to recognise the cause of grief by divine insight, which he had acquired as a result of his penance. He consoled his wife Aditi saying that nothing happens in the world without God's will and people should go on doing their duties. He asked her to pray to Lord Narayana and taught her a Vrata (ritual) to be followed strictly, known as Payovrata. It has to be observed from the twelfth day of the bright half Karthika (Sukla-paksha Dwaadasi). She observed the Vrata as prescribed. A devotee's sincere prayer will never go waste. Since she carried out the Vrata with a pious heart, Narayana appeared before her and informed her that he would himself take birth in her womb and help Indra. Aditi was very happy. True to the world of the Lord, she gave birth to a son of uncommon effulgence on the twelfth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada. That child was "Vamana-murti'. Even as a child, He demonstrated his divine power by doing marvelous deeds.

Mahabali was performing an Ashwamedha Yagna (horse sacrifice). He had previously performed a hundred such Yagnas. He declared that he would give anything that anyone sought from him during this Yagna. Vamana came to her to the Yaga-shala. As he was approaching them, the sages assembled there perceived the extraordinary effulgence form of the young lad. Mahabali went forth to receive the Brahmin boy with all traditional honours and gave him an eminent seat befitting the status of a holy person. Bali told him 'Master! It is my good fortune that you have chosen to honour me with your presence. Whatever you desire, I am here ready to fulfil the same'. Vamana smiled and said: "You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine".

On hearing him, Bali's preceptor, Shukracharya, who could have vision of the future told Bali that the one, who had come to seed a gift from Bali was not an ordinary Brahmin but Lord Narayana Himself who had assumed this form. He advised Bali not to promise the lad anything. But Bali was a king who would never go back on his word and told his Guru that he would never break his promise. He was determined to give Vamana whatever he wanted since breaking one's word was a sin and he had to keep his pledge Shukracharya insisted that he should not fulfil the demand of Vamana as he had come to deprive Bali of all His possessions. He said that Vamana was not really in need of anything as everything was in his hands.

Bali, however, was determined to honour the word given to Vamana, begged pardon of his Guru for disregarding his advice. Earlier, while Bali was embarking on the war with Indra, he had prostrated at the feet of his preceptor, Shukracharya, and on his advice he performed the Vishwajit Yagna from which he secured very powerful weapons. It was only because of Shukracharya's help that he was able to conquer Indra. On this occasion, Bali was not prepared to heed the advice of the same preceptor. Shukracharya cursed Bali, saying: 'As you have not heeded your Guru's words, you will be reduced to ashes'. Bali was firm and replied: 'I am prepared to face any consequence but will not go back on my word'.

So saying, he told Vamana to measure the three feet of land as desired by him. All attempts of Shukracharya to dissuade Bali from offering the land desired by Vamana proved futile. Bali told his Guru: "Prana (life) and Maana (honour) are the two eyes of a person. Even if life goes, honour should be protected. Granting that the person that has come now is the Lord Himself, I should be the most fortunate one as the Lord, who gives everything to mankind, is seeking something from me."

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