Onam Appropriation: Why It Is So Easy For The Left To Term The Festival As Secular And Un-Hindu
The absence of overt, in-your-face Hindu symbolism is why it was so easy for the Left to audaciously appropriate an entire festival, and not just brand it as secular, but to term it un-Hindu as well.
Kerala’s harvest festival of Onam is based on the legend of the asura King Mahabali.
He returns from the universal ether every year to greet his subjects, in the land hewn by Parashurama’s axe, after having been granted eternal salvation by Vamana, the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu.
By tradition, Malayalees congregate at ancestral homes to celebrate the return of their king with a royal feast.
The Mahabali legend has three principal narrative strands.
The first is from the Valmiki Ramayana.
In this, sage Vishwamitra tells Lord Rama the story of Mahabali, while pointing out the grove near the sage’s ashram where Vamana was born (Chapter 12, Balakanda).
It is a brief passage.
By it, Mahabali was a virtuous king whose talents and ambitions were so boundless that he accumulated enough power to conduct a Vedic sacrifice of conquest, to seize the abode of the gods.
This was unacceptable to Indra, the lord of the gods, since it went against the principle of live and let live, and because no one man should become so powerful as to own the known worlds.
In desperation, Indra approached Lord Vishnu, who took the form of the Brahmin dwarf Vamana.
The young Brahmin interrupted Mahabali’s yagna to ask for three paces of land.
The king consented.
At that, Vamana reverted to his celestial form (note that in this version he doesn’t grow into a giant), took the earth with one step, and the heavens with the next.
For the third pace, the king gladly offered his head, saying, "My yagna is fulfilled, since Vishnu himself has appeared in his celestial form to bless me".
This episode is intended as a lesson in humility, and the ‘learning outcome’ is that we should temper our ambitions within limits, lest they inadvertently turn into avarice.
(Valmiki also uses the legend to explain the concept of Siddhashrama – literally a beautiful, divine place; and metaphorically, a spiritual destination to be reached by right thought, right action, and perseverance).
The second strand is from the Srimad Bhagavatam (also known as the Bhagavata Purana).
It is a far, far more elaborate account, and the structuring is different.
In this, the Vamana episode is actually a second act set in the aftermath of the ‘churning’ — the story of the second avatar of Vishnu, when the devas and the asuras, who are ever at loggerheads, temporarily join hands to churn the galactic ocean of milk for amrit — the nectar of immortality.
The overriding theme here is of deceit, distrust and dejection, with not just the devas and the asuras, but the celestial bodies, and gods like Brahma and Vishnu, too, not pleased with the way in which the treasures of the churning were shared.
Both sides accuse the other of seizing disproportionate shares (the amrit went to the gods, and that rankled the asuras to no end).
In the end, an aggrieved Mahabali decides to get his own back by conquering the heavens and rendering Indra homeless. That is when Indra is forced to approach Vishnu for help.
Nonetheless, there are no binary classifications of 'goodies' and baddies, of anyone on any side.
If Indra is cast as furtive, then Mahabali, too, is portrayed as over-ambitious.
It is in this backdrop that the Srimad Bhagavatam tells the story of the Brahmin dwarf and his demand for three paces of land.
As an aside, we also learn that Vamana’s given name is actually Upendra.
There is a clear moral aspect to the Vamana-Mahabali episode in this retelling too.
As Vamana says, just before he places his foot on Mahabali’s head, “if a man has not conquered desire, all the desirable things in the worlds will not be enough to satisfy him”.
The third narrative is a modern one, propagated by the communists, and that is where the problem starts.
It completely ignores the moral lessons of the sacred texts, and, instead, treats the account as a perfect example of how Brahminical patriarchy exploits the downtrodden lower castes, crushes them, and cheats them of their riches through deceit.
In this interpretation, the Vamana-Mahabali story becomes a secular Marxian fable of class exploitation; how the proletariat are robbed of their rights by the bourgeoisie.
It makes two points.
First, Vamana is a cheat (and by extrapolation, so are all ‘caste’ Hindus).
Second, Onam is not a Hindu festival.
In the process, both Mahabali’s Brahmin identity, and the fact that the original texts make zero reference to caste distinctions, are conveniently redacted from the legend.
A perfect example of how this lunatic interpretation is applied in practice (and sadly bought by so many without question), was provided by former Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac, in his repulsive Onam tweet of 2020.
Only in Kerala can a politician not just get away with such an egregious comment, but be lauded for it as well.
That is why these people have managed to ruthlessly distort a morality tale from a sacred text, and turn it into exactly what it isn’t — an example of evil upper caste discrimination mandated by religious, scriptural sanction.
This is what postmodernism and dialectical materialism are capable of —they can take a point out of context and warp its original meaning so completely, that black becomes white, up becomes down, and right becomes wrong.
It was a brilliant move, because in one fell swoop, they could now further caste divides by demonstrating that prejudice was intrinsic to Hindu texts, guilt-trip the upper castes into shamed silence, and prove that religion was indeed the opium of the masses.
If this was Hinduism, then who needed it? Who was Vamana the cheater compared to Marx the emancipator? Das Kapital trumped the Ramayana any day, and the Vamana-Mahabali episode was the proof. Vote for the Left.
The Congress didn’t contest this abominable distortion because they were simply too heavily dependent on the Christian and Muslim vote.
If someone painted the Hindu as a fiend, that was fine, because it tied in neatly with their own secular narrative of a fascist, majoritarian, Hindutva threat, and the attendant alarmism they could whip up for rich electoral profit.
So what if it was at the cost of Hindu sentiments, the heaping of insults upon a god, or the institutionalised vilification of the so-called upper castes?
A Brahmin was a villain, Hinduism discriminated against the ‘lower castes’, and they had the sacred texts to prove it.
But they are wrong.
If our Marxist comrades are to be believed, that there’s nothing Hindu about Onam, that is, in fact, the best descriptor possible, of the actual, ‘secular’ nature of Hinduism.
That is because there is hardly any overt religious iconography or symbolism on display in the conduct of this festival.
But then, that is also true for most ‘Hindu’ rituals in Kerala (dating back to well before communist thinking came to dominate the state’s socio-cultural-religious discourse).
Take Nair weddings, for example: there is no ‘homam’, no pundit, no elaborate rituals or chanting of sacred shlokas, no idols in attendance, and the ceremony gets over in a flash.
The mangalsutra is tied, flowers and coloured rice are thrown at the pandal by the guests, rings, garlands, and flower bouquets are exchanged by bride and groom, both walk seven times around a lamp, touch their elders’ feet, and that’s that.
By this yardstick, our Left Liberal jamaat could just as easily classify Hindu Malayalee weddings as non-Hindu, or even irreligious.
This utter absurdity, which they have so successfully applied to Onam, stems from two flaws and two duplicitously expedient moves:
One, they forget that the taali — the tiny, heart-shaped pendant on the mangalsutra — is mandatorily taken to a temple to be blessed in the sanctum sanctorum prior to the wedding.
Indeed, some families follow the practice of the groom tying the mangalsutra around the bride’s neck at a temple (usually near the marriage hall), and then making separate entrances into the auditorium.
Two, the Kerala way has always been one of severe minimalism. People dress simply, usually in white, ostentation is frowned upon, and religious icons are mainly found in the puja room.
Traditional home decor usually consists of brass lamps, mirrors, Rama Varma prints, an apsara in a tribhanga pose, intricate woodwork, and the ubiquitous grandfather clock.
Indeed, the most hallowed spot of any old home, where the evening lamp is lit, is a simple tulsi shrub growing in the courtyard.
This absence of overt, in-your-face Hindu symbolism is why it was so easy for the Left to audaciously appropriate an entire festival, and not just brand it as secular, but to term it un-Hindu as well.
Three, making Onam irreligious, or un-Hindu, allows our Marxist brethren to participate in Onam festivities without being accused of having committed the ultimate Marxian sin — the ideological deviancy of approving, or legitimising, meaningless, superstitious practices.
Four, distorting the true meaning of Onam and the Mahabali legend, also serves a convenient socio-political purpose, because now, this festival can be employed as the perfect binding agent to link communities culturally.
A Malayalee festival with a novel Malayalee legend for all Malayalees to joyously celebrate, without the deterring stigma of a pagan faith, while simultaneously reinforcing the evil nature of the upper castes, is also extremely useful in fashioning a secular, ‘progressive’ Malayalee identity.
This is how, and why, our traditions were attacked and successfully eroded; and we didn’t even realise what was happening.
Yet, the serial mangling of Onam is only a metaphor for the battering which our customs and practices suffered in the rest of the subcontinent as well, because the modus operandi is always the same, everywhere.
Thus, in essence, interpreting Karva Chauth as a repugnant, patriarchal practice, or viewing Holi as nothing more than an excuse for men to molest women, is part of the same strategy.
India has, of course, now woken up, and these malign efforts are fiercely contested as the subcontinent reclaims its civilisational ethos, but there is a long way to go before the damage is fully undone.
In that interim, we can but imagine how deludingly satisfying it must be to the children of Marx and Nietzsche, to think that god is dead in god’s own country.
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