While travelling in Delhi Metro two days ago I came across two small children who were claiming for a newly purchased bag. “Yeh meri hain” (this is mine), said the little brother aged four or five, and “yeh meri hain,” repeated the elder sister who must be an year older, trying to snatch it from her brother of his ‘arbitrary possession.’ They kept repeating the slogan in loud shrill voices making a real nuisance to the commuters in the coach while the parents absolutely ignored their children’s misconduct in a public space.

India is going through a period of large-scale cultural appropriations. The behaviour of the aforesaid children is very much redolent to India’s social bearing today. Hindutwa ideologues periodically surge the political sphere relentlessly making cultural claims. They forge bizarre theories; provoke civic sensibilities and disrupt social harmony.

As Keralites were gearing up to celebrate Onam, the leaders and ideologists of the Hindu right wing were trying to communalise the festive mood of Onam with theories having Brahmanic undertones. An article published in the Onam special edition of RSS mouthpiece ‘Kesari’ has questioned the legend behind the festival, arguing that Onam marks the celebration of birth of ‘Vamana’ (incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and not the homecoming of native king Mahabali.

The essay argues that no mythological evidence can be found in support to the popular and widely circulated legend that ‘Vamana’ had sent Mahabali to the netherworld through deceit and the king visits the land annually to meet his subjects. The story crafted by RSS ideologues is unheard in Kerala and would no way appease their cultural sensibilities. Ironically, no sections of the community including the Brahmins till date did have any problem with the traditional popular mythology associated with Onam.

A plain reading of the Hindu mythology depicts that gods, especially Lord Vishnu, are jealous of native kings such as Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada in spite of they being devoted to Vishnu. These stories are indeed intended to glorify the social and spiritual role of Brahmins. The objective of this article is not to investigate the veracity of the myth behind Onam, but to expose the cultural agenda of fundamentalist groups who want to hijack cultural artefacts for their own purpose.

Celebrations for Social Cohesion

Keralites know that Onam is a harvest festival celebrated in the month of Chingam of the Malayalam era (August – September). Most agrarian societies around the globe celebrate similar harvest festivals, such as Thanksgiving feast of US and Canada, Rice Harvest of Bali, Sukkot of Israel, Chuseok of Korea, and Yam Festival of West Africa to name a few. Some cultures link these celebrations with mythology (Bali), while some cultures have historical reasons supporting the celebration (US).

The functional goal of such festivals is the promotion of goodwill and social cohesion. Further, these celebrations relieve people of their physical, mental and psychological stress due to the continuous hard work they have been investing in the field for an abundant harvest. Onam is no exception to this as people enter into a mood of rest and relaxation by playing games, swinging and dancing and finally eating sumptuous meals prepared with local produce.

Rising above the customary celebrative aspects, Onam, nonetheless upholds some esteemed values regarding social order. Relinquishing social disparity and discrimination as well as aspiring for joyful and fear-free life is at the core of Onam celebrations. It idealises governance based on truth and justice and devoid of deceit and corruption. It is a time of glorifying and promoting an inclusive society.

Rituals and Myth

Traditional celebrations mostly have some myths behind its origins and some rituals to be practiced. Social scientists still are on opposing poles as regarding the primacy of myth and ritual. Scholars like Frazer argue that rituals precede myths as they consider that “myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual.” The functional role of myth and ritual are primarily social cohesion based on moral and social values.

During Onam people practice rituals such as making the flower diagram, singing the popular folksong “Maveli naadu vaanidum kaalam…,” the tiger play, participating in boat races and traditional games, wearing new dress etc. Some others extol the popular myth of a jealous god Vamana pushing down a just king Mahabali to the netherworld.

With regard to Onam the popular myth might be a story evolved later than the social rituals practiced by the community. Considering the social values – peace, prosperity and harmony – epitomised in the Onam celebration, the myth of Vamana and Mahabali with religious implications does not matter at all to many sections of populace in Kerala. On the contrary they are enthralled by the organic and social nature of the rituals during the season of plentiful harvest.

The most fascinating fact with regard to the legend is that it glorifies a native king Mahabali (whom the myth calls a ‘demon’ king!) who has been shunned to memory by Brahman Vamana (Avatar of Lord Vishnu). Even if myths have some value, Keralites must be proud of having this native king in the Onam mythology whose rule was renowned for justice, truth, equality and harmony. It is no surprise that the myth has irked the eyes of the North Indian Brahmanical Hindu right wing. Amit Shah, by sending a forged ‘Vamana Jayanti’ greetings to Keralites at Onam, foolishly thinks that RSS can simply dumb the Brahmanic hegemony over Keralites where it is desperate to spread roots yet. The massive trolls followed in the social media reminds the RSS and BJP masterminds that a mere verbal claim – just as the children in the Metro coach did – does not help steal the soul and heart of Kerala populace that has grown beyond casteist frameworks.

Onam, Religion and Politics

Religion has been a playground of fundamentalist political groups such as RSS and VHP for so many decades. Presently these groups, with a presumable support of a ruling government with a massive majority, make arbitrary cultural appropriations. On the other hand they fail to offer protection, and development for specific sections of the population, Dalits being one important section. Upholding Vamana over Mahabali is implicitly thrashing the Dravidic/Dalit sensibilities of Kerala social sphere.

The nation is witnessing a new wave of Dalit rise who have been oppressed by the casteist Hindu dominants for several centuries. The National Crime Records Bureau reports a 29% increase in cases related to caste based atrocities in 2014 as that of 2012. 30% of these crimes were committed in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, all BJP ruled states. The increasing atrocities to them have instigated the on-going Dalit revival that has posed challenging threats to Hindu majoritarianism and casteism. The Dalit consolidation would have tremendous impact on electoral prospects of BJP in forthcoming UP and Punjab polls where caste bank plays a crucial role.

Kerala has maintained a great sense of communal harmony and social cohesion thanks to its high rate of literacy and education. Though many people maintain strong religious affinities to their heart, religious fanaticism disruptive of social amity rarely occurs. Kerala, which comes 2nd in India in lowest untouchability status, has been most inclusive about its Dalit population. They who constitute the 9.8% of its population hold 8.6% of jobs in Kerala government. Dalits in Kerala are also strong enough to make social statements through their agitations such as that happened in Muthanga, Chengara, and that of the ‘Standing Strike’ under its powerful leaders. Allocation of land to the Dalit is an area Kerala has now to focus more.

Christian Response

As a cultural festival Onam is celebrated by everyone in Kerala irrespective of caste and creed. The season also promotes increasing sensibilities for the other as well as relaxation and entertainment. However, recent tendencies demonstrate that people are falsely motivated on religious grounds. Some including a few Catholic charismatic preachers emphasise that Onam is a pagan festival and shall not be celebrated by Christians. On the contrary there are others who take the absolute freedom to ascend symbols of Onam to the sanctuary at Sunday liturgical worship.

In the era of social media, hundreds of messages spreading religious confusion about such cultural festivals are virally spread. Whereas religious authorities do not reach out to the faithful with pastoral guidance explaining the possibilities of cultural celebrations. Catholic faithful often remain in absolute obscurity and terrible confusion, some even having devastatingly scrupulous perceptions to cultural festivals.

Communities need various social and cultural celebrations, not exclusively religious. Religious and social leaders have to take all efforts to promote such festivities. It is a social responsibility of Government and non-government organizations to take these as opportunities to foster communal harmony, peace and ecological sensitivity among the people. They shall be vigilant to agencies trying to infiltrate and spread seeds of poison among vulnerable individuals and groups in the community.

Onam also is about having a sumptuous meal with as many number of dishes served on the banana leaf. Even the hard-core non-vegetarians prefer to eat a vegetarian meal on Onam. However the venomous Hindu extremists and the acid tongued leaders had prepared a ‘fishy meal’ at this Onam as they were trying to fish in dirty water. That will only serve a poisoned meal for the otherwise harmonious and inclusive society of Kerala. Every people of good will shall be extremely vigilant and unite together to keep the poisonous dish away from the flavourfull banana leaf.

Image: Native Mahabali, Art P.K Srinivasan

Published in Indian Currents on 19th September 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 38