Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
The four Avatāras that have already been described are said to have occurred in the Satya-yuga, or age of Truth, corresponding with the golden age of classic writers; it was in the Treta-yuga, or second age, that this incarnation is supposed to have occurred. It is
not easy to see how this belief could be formed; for if the story of Prahlāda be regarded as a true picture of the Satya-yuga, it was not very far superior to the present, the last and worst of all.
This incarnation was undertaken to recover heaven for the gods. Bali, a demon, grandson of Prahlāda whose story has just been given, was king over the three worlds—heaven, earth and sky. In the form of a Brāhman dwarf, Vishnu appears, and asks, as a gift, all he could cross over in three steps. This the king grants. Immediately the pigmy becomes a giant, and with one step strides over heaven, and with the second over the earth, and thus fulfils his purpose. The "Skanda Purāna" * gives the following legend as the reason of this incarnation.
In the battle between the gods and asuras for the possession of the amrita produced at the churning of the ocean, the demons were defeated. Bali prepared a costly sacrifice in order that he might regain his power. As he presented his offerings to the sacred fire, he obtained from it a wondrous car drawn by four white horses, a banner displaying a lion, and celestial armour and weapons. The sacred rites being finished, he raised a large army, and in his newly-acquired chariot went and laid siege to Amravati, the capital of Indra's heaven. The gods in terror turned to their preceptor for advice. He told them that their enemies had been rendered invincible by penance. On hearing this, they were greatly alarmed, and Indra besought the preceptor, Vrihaspati, to tell them what to do. He advised them to forsake Amravati, assume other forms, and find a home elsewhere. They obeyed; Indra became a peacock, Kuvera a lizard, and the other gods, variously
disguised, went to the hermitage of Kasyapa, to whom they related their misfortunes. On hearing their story, the sage desired his wife Aditi to perform a severe
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THE VĀMANA AVATĀRA.
penance, in order to induce Vishnu to become her son, that through him the gods might be restored to heaven.
As the origin of this incarnation is probably found in the metaphorical language of the Vedas, it will be
well to consider the teaching of the Hindu scriptures as far as possible in chronological order.
The legend just quoted from the "Skanda Purāna" was written as an answer to the question why Vishnu had appeared in this strange form. In the Rig-Veda * the germ of the story is found: "Vishnu strode over this [universe]; in three places he planted his step." This passage is interpreted by the commentators in various ways. One taught "that the triple manifestation of the god in the form of fire on earth, of lightning in the atmosphere, and of the solar slight in the sky, was intended in this hymn." Another understands the three steps of Vishnu to represent "the different positions of the sun at his rising, his culmination, and his setting." According to this, therefore, Vishnu is simply the sun. Frequently in the Rig-Veda the term "wide-stepping" is applied to him, an evident allusion to his three steps.
In the "Satapatha Brāhmana," † the simple statement of the earlier book respecting Vishnu's strides assumes a larger form. " The gods and the asuras, who both sprung from Prajāpati, strove together. Then the gods were worsted; and the asuras said, 'This world is now certainly ours! Let us divide the earth, and let us subsist thereon.' The gods heard of it and said, 'The asuras are dividing the earth: come, we will go to the spot where they are dividing it!' Placing at their head Vishnu, the sacrifice, they proceeded [thither], and said, 'Put us with yourselves in possession of this earth; let us have a share of it.' The asuras grudgingly said, 'We will give you as much as this Vishnu can lie upon.' Now Vishnu was a dwarf. The gods did not reject this offer. They placed Agni in the East, and thus they
went on toiling and worshipping. By this means they acquired the whole earth."
The next form of the legend is that of the Rāmāyana. Visvamitra, a sage, addressing Rāma, tells him the story. "Formerly Bali, the son of Virochana, after conquering the chief of the gods, enjoyed the empire of the three worlds, intoxicated with the increase of his power. When Bali was celebrating a sacrifice, Indra and the other gods addressed Vishnu in this hermitage [saying], 'That mighty Bali is now performing sacrifice; he who grants the desire of all creatures; the prosperous lord of the asuras. Whatever suppliants wait upon him, he bestows on them whatever [they wish]. Do thou take the form of a dwarf, and bring about our highest welfare.' [Kasyapa now appears, and, after praising Vishnu, asks a boon, that Vishnu will be born as the son of Aditi and himself.] Thus addressed by the gods, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf, and, approaching the son of Virochana, begged three of his own paces. Having obtained three paces, Vishnu assumed a miraculous form, and with three paces took possession of the world. With one step he occupied the whole earth; with a second, the eternal atmosphere; and with a third, the sky. Having assigned to the asura Bali an abode in Pātāla (the infernal region), he gave the empire of the world to Indra."
The notice of this Avatāra in the Mahābhārata is not lengthy. Vishnu is represented as foretelling it to Nārada. "The great asura Bali shall be indestructible by all beings, including gods, asuras, and Rākshasas. He shall oust Indra; and when the three worlds have been taken by Bali, and Indra put to flight, I shall be born in the form of the twelve Ādityas, the son of Kasyapa and Diti. I will then restore his kingdom to
[paragraph continues] Indra, reinstate the gods in their several positions, and place Bali in Pātāla."
The "Vishnu Purāna" barely notices this event, but it is fully described in the Bhāgavata. The question is there asked, "Why did Hari, the lord of creatures, ask, like a poor man, three pieces of land from Bali? And why, when he had obtained his object, did he bind him? And why was an innocent being bound by the lord of sacrifice?" The answer given is as follows:—After Bali had been killed by Indra, he was restored by the Brāhmans of the race of Bhrigu, who consecrated him for supreme dominion, and performed a sacrifice to obtain it for him. He then sets out for Amravati, as before narrated; and Indra is told, when he applies to his preceptor for advice, that Bali had obtained this power "by virtue of the Brāhman's sacrifice;" and that, save by Hari, he is unconquerable. "He now reaps the fruit of Brāhmanical power; through contempt of these same Brāhmans he shall perish with all his descendants."
The gods forsake their capital, which is occupied by Bali. Aditi, the mother of the gods, is distressed as she sees the condition of her children; and acting upon the advice of her husband, propitiates Vishnu, who says: "I shall with a portion of myself become thy son, and deliver thy children. Wait upon thy husband, the sinless Prajāpati, virtuous female, meditating upon me, who in this form abide within him." Aditi followed the advice of the god; and Kasyapa knew by meditation that a portion of Hari had entered into him. In due time the son was born, and became a dwarfish Brāhmanical student.
As the Bhrigus are performing a sacrifice for Bali on the banks of the Narmada river, this dwarf visits Bali at Indra's heaven. "Acquainted with his duty, Bali
placed upon his head the auspicious water with which the Brāhman's feet had been washed, and said, 'Welcome to thee, O Brāhman! What can we do for thee? Ask of me, student, whatever thou desirest. Son of a Brāhman, I conclude thou art a suppliant; ask a cow, pure gold, an embellished house, food and drink, a Brāhman's daughter, flourishing villages, horses, elephants, and carriages." The dwarf concludes a speech with the semblance of moderation as follows: "I ask from thee a small portion of ground, three paces measured step by step. I desire no more from thee. A wise man incurs no sin, when he asks [only] as much as he needs." The king, though astonished at the smallness of the request, takes a vessel of water in his hand, and is about to confirm the gift; when his preceptor, seeing through Vishnu's device, tries to dissuade his pupil. In a long speech he seeks to show that rather than be left homeless it would be better for him to break his word. But the king persists in fulfilling his promise; even though cursed by his preceptor for doing so. With two steps Vishnu strode over the universe; there was nowhere for him to take a third.
The gods congratulate Hari; Bali is bound by Garuda and then reproached by Vishnu for not fulfilling his promise. "Asura, three paces of ground were given to me by thee; with two paces the entire world has been traversed; find a place for the third. As thou hast not given what was promised, it is my pleasure that thou shouldst dwell in the infernal regions. That man falls downward who, after promising a Brāhman, does not deliver to him what he had solicited. I have been deluded by thee." Bali offers his head as a place for Vishnu's foot, saying, "I fear not the infernal regions so much as a bad name." Bali goes to Pātāla, and is there
visited by his grandfather Prahlāda. First Vishnu's wife and then Brahmā intercede with him on the demon's behalf, who, in reply, promises that Bali shall again become Indra; but that in the mean time he must dwell in Sutala, where "by my will, neither mental nor bodily pains, nor fatigue, nor weariness, nor discomfiture, nor diseases afflict the inhabitants." Bali gladly left Pātāla, and went to Sutala, to wait until the time came when, in accordance with the promise of Vishnu, he should again rule over gods and men.
Another legend teaches that Vishnu gave Bali the choice of going to heaven, taking with him five ignorant people, or of going to hell with five wise. He chose the latter, for there is no pleasure anywhere in the company of the ignorant; whilst a bad place with good company is enjoyable.
155:* Ward, ii. 7, 8.
156:* Kennedy's "Hindu Mythology," p. 363.
158:* Muir, O. S. T., iv. 63-156.