The Shivaratri (the night of Lord Shiva) has many legends behind it – some say it is the day when Lord Shiva was reunited with Sati in her new incarnation as the daughter of Himalaya, Parvati. Some say it is the day when Lord Shiva performed his famous dance Taandav. I recall the story I heard from my mother’s grandmother and in so many ways I like it.
Her story says that Maha Shivaratri is the night when Lord Shiva’s four-month vigil, or voluntarily accepted duty to guard king Bali who was dispatched to the Paatal, comes to an end.
Bali’s story is quite famous – what I like in it is the message that even when those more powerful than ourselves cheat, one can retain one’s grace and dignity, and negotiate terms. That is how one redefines the very meaning of being powerful. It also serves as a reminder that those who chase power will do anything to get it. The question is, how would you respond? Or, that if you stereotype all demons, you might miss some thorough gentlemen like king Bali.
So, let’s see what Bali did.
King Bali was an Asur, or Daanav – a member of a group that was an arch enemy of the Gods. They were constantly at struggle and strife to gain power and control over – I don’t know what, may be the universe and its resources.
Bali was a demon king. Now it was believed that if someone performed 100 Ashwamedha Yagnas successfully and flawlessly, one would have absolute power. Bali was a great, effective king and he had already performed 99. The way he was managing his kingdom and performed Yagnas was flawless, so he had all the credit to himself and he was just short of one more.
He began his 100th Yagna, and that, too, drew closer to completion. The last rite towards the conclusion was to fulfill the requests of ALL those who came at the door of the performer of the Yagna.
The Gods decided to ask something of Bali, that would banish him from this world forever, so there would be no question of him overpowering the Gods. But the Gods also feared that if Bali recognized them, he might not grant their requests. Insecurity does not inflict humans alone!
Well, so the Gods assigned this task of requesting to Lord Vishnu, who took the form of a small person (vaaman) and queued up to ask favor from Bali. As he approached Bali, Vaaman asked three and half steps of earth from the king, which the king granted.
Immediately, Vaaman turned into a huuuuge form so large that in one step, he covered the earth, in another the heaven and the third the Paatal. Now he asked where he could recover the final half step promised by Bali.
Bali, the great donor offered his head where the Lord could step. Predictably, when the Lord Vishnu in his now large form stepped upon the head of the king Bali, Bali went into Paatal with the weight. The lord told him that all that was covered within three and half steps was his, so Bali must now remain in the Paatal. Bali wanted to honor his word, so he accepted the arrangement.
The gods did not expect that their smartness be reciprocated in such a gentlemanly manner, so out of happiness, Lord Vishnu told Bali that he (Lord) will grant one wih from Bali.
Bali now said that while he would live away from the usual life of the world, his palace should be guarded by one of the Gods of Trinity on four-monthly basis. That meant that Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva would take turns to guard the palace of the king Bali in Paatal. The request could not be denied, and so the gods of the gods took turns performing the job of guards for Bali.
Shivaratri is the night when Lord Shiva is believed to have completed his four months of vigil and emerges from the Paatal, where Bali is supposed to be still existing. Following Lord Shiva, now lord Brahma the creator would guard the palace of Bali, and the last four months would be the duty of Lord Vishnu.
What appeals me in the story? Well, it gives me a lot more of questions than answers.
The notion, that you might find yourself in an impossible chase for something where your fate is inextricably interwoven with those who are far more powerful than you, appears more realistic in the light of this story if you are out to do something new yet meaningful. The greater their power, the more prone they will be to cheat, as they have a lot at stake if they lost out. When they cheat,you have a choice to cheat back – like Bali had a wish that Lord promised to grant in the end. What if he had asked his kingdom back and that the merit of his 100 Yagnas be credited to him?
It seems he not only put an end to the power struggle by choosing to go to Paatal, he did it more gracefully and with more dignity that the gods could ever show. In turn, he had the supreme gods guarding him – such that he ascended in term of his status and in addition to that, he ensured that no further harm would ever befall him since he had the most powerful guards round the year forever.
I don’t know if this is blasphemy, but it kind of tells us that gods are also not free of desire. We might have some justification that would ultimately explain why the kingdom of Bali had to be taken, and what would have happened if it had not happened etc. But if the purpose was so noble, why resort to treachery? If gods resort to foul means, do they become fair?
Who is greater in so many respects??