Mahabali, the grandson of Prahlada and son of Virochana, was a renowned leader of the asura clans. He had the strength of a hundred lions, but he was also as gentle as a lamb. Like his grandfather, Prahlada, he was devoted to Lord Vishnu.
Mahabali led his men out of paataal, the nether world and the traditional home of the asura clans, conquered bhoo-lok or earth, and wrested control of svarga-lok or heaven from Indra. He ushered in an era of peace and prosperity. Pleased with his rule, Mother Earth produced bountiful harvests, much to the delight of the people.
Only one person was unhappy. Bali’s cousin Indra, the Lord of devas, had lost svarga-lok to Bali, and he desperately wanted his celestial kingdom back. He prayed to Lord Vishnu to restore the lost heaven to him.
“Kingdom must be won. Fight your cousin and win back heaven,” advised Lord Vishnu.
“You know how strong he is. I stand no chance against him,” said Indra.
“If you still want the kingdom of heaven, you have only one option,” said Lord Vishnu, “Beg for it. He’ll give it back to you.”
“I’ve no shame to come to you and beg for anything, Lord. But I cannot go to my cousin to beg for my kingdom,” said Indra. “I have my pride. Also, I doubt whether he will part with svarga-lok, which he won from me. I’ve always been devoted to you. Help me, Lord,” Indra pleaded.
Like Indra, Bali was also equally devoted to Lord Vishnu.
“My grandfather Prahlada, was only a child when he beheld Lord Vishnu. I’m lord of the three worlds, yet I’ve still not received a vision of Lord Vishnu,” he said to his wife.
“They say you need a child’s heart to see the Lord,” said his wife, trying to be helpful.
“All these years, I strived hard to conquer lands, and acquire power and possessions. But what is the use? I remain dissatisfied. My possessions cannot bring me the happiness I long for. I feel like giving everything away.”
“Bali, what matters most is your happiness. Do what you like. I’m with you,” assured his wife.
Mahabali announced that he would perform a sacrifice and give away all his possessions to charity. People came from far and near to witness the great sacrifice and to benefit from his generosity. After the sacrifice, the emperor gave whatever anyone asked for: A large number of cows, huge tracts of land, and gold and jewels were distributed in this manner.
The last to arrive was a young brahmana of unusually short stature. He was called Vamana or a dwarf. He held an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head.
Looking at his guest Bali thought to himself: “A Vamana emanating an extraordinary lustre!”
Mahabali offered his guest a seat and washed his feet with water poured by his wife.
“You’ve come at an auspicious time,” he said. “I’m giving away my wealth. Ask for anything and I shall give it to you. Cows, pasture lands, gold…you have but to ask!”
“Give me all the land that I can cover in three strides,” said Vamana.
“What?” asked Bali, wondering if he had heard right. “You want all the land that you can cover in three strides? I can give you much, much more! I’m Lord of the Three Worlds, in case you don’t know! I can give you three villages or three cities, or three or four or even five hundred kingdoms!”
“Three strides of land is what I want,” said Vaman, smiling.
Bali’s advisor and guru, Shukracharya, intervened. “Don’t entertain this guest. He’s an imposter. This is none other than Lord Vishnu in disguise. Give him an inch, he will take away a yard. He may take away all the land you have conquered here on earth and above, and hand them over to your cousins, the devas.”
Bali thanked his advisor for his concern. “Acharya, I’ve taken a vow to give in charity whatever anyone asks for. Please do not stop me. “
Then Bali turned to Vamana. “I look upon a guest as Lord Vishnu himself. I request you to measure out your land!”
Vamana stood up and put his leg forward; but while bringing it down he grew taller and taller, and his leg spanned further and further, until it covered the whole earth.
Bali looked up at the lad with wonder. He had grown into a Trivikrama, a giant, reaching up to the sky.
“Where shall I place my next step?” asked Vamana with a smile.
By now Mahabali had realized that his guest was none other than Mahavishnu, whom he worshipped. Numbly, he pointed to the sky, with his little finger. Vamana lifted his other foot and raised it to the sky. The foot arched over the whole of heaven.
Looking down kindly at the emperor of the three worlds, the Lord asked, “Where shall I keep my third step?”
With head bowed in surrender, hands joined in salutation, Bali said: “In my arrogance I thought everything in the three worlds was mine to give. You’ve shown me my rightful place. Place your foot on my head.”
As Vamana gently placed his foot on Bali’s bowed head, Indra who was watching, came running to Bali. Lord Vishnu watched silently as the cousins and foes embraced each other.
Bali turned to Lord Vishnu. “I wish to go back to where I came from — Paataal-lok, the land of my ancestors. Lord, allow me to take one thing I cherish most — You!”
Lord Vishnu smiled. “If you cannot live without me, neither can I bear separation from you who is devoted to me, Mahabali. I’ll stand guard outside your home in the paataal.”
People of earth were saddened by the decision of Mahabali. They had known no other ruler as benevolent as him.
“You may visit the earth once each year. Your subjects will be overjoyed by your presence when you come,” said Lord Vishnu.
Mahabali bowed and withdrew to the nether world. This day of the great sacrifice by Mahabali is celebrated as Bali Padyami, during the Diwali festival.
The day Mahabali emerges from the nether world and takes a walk on the lush green earth is celebrated as Onam, in the region of Kerala. Though the people of Kerala were upset that their legendary king was outsmarted by Lord Vishnu, they are happy that he has not forsaken them. They decorate their houses and the streets, draw kolam or pictorial designs in colour in front of their homes, and light lamps to receive Mahabali — greatest and the gentlest king who ever ruled the Earth.
(A modified version, adapted from the Bhagavata Purana,)