The tradition of Onam revolves around a story of the king Mahabali who was seen as a just king who ruled over Kerala. He was seen as a king who ensured a period when all people were seen as the same. For us this indeed will come as a surprise as to how it is possible to live in a period when people are seen as the same. India still cannot figure out a way where all women and men will be seen as equal. With our own problems of caste and gender, the story of Mahabali will definitely seem unlikely and therefore has the problem of being limited to a celebration where people of a state get together, arrange flowers, sing songs and eat a meal with close to twenty side dishes. But is it just a festival or is it much more than that?
The story of Mahabali when continued sees that the Gods became jealous of his popularity and the simple fact that he brought about the imminence of everyone being the same into the lives of people. This was supposed to be an after life reality. The Gods were indeed fuming because Mahabali was doing their job and doing a better job of it. It had to stop because this was upsetting the way they had intended society to be.
Of course one should also be aware that the said Gods were also the constructs of high caste religious priests. The story continues and the Gods send their representative Vamana to Mahabali. Vamana asks for three feet or foot of land. Mahabali perhaps undone by the small demeanour of Vamana or offering his usual hospitality readily agrees although there may have been an element of doubt in his mind about the intentions of Vamana. Vamana then assumes his real size with which he covers up all the space available with two of his foot steps. He then asks Mahabali where he will put his third step. Mahabali then offers his own head and he is pushed down into the earth by Vamana. Before being pushed down Mahabali asks for the opportunity to visit his people every year and he is granted this wish.
Onam is then the time that people in Kerala believe that Mahabali visits them and they want it to be a special time when there is a lot of sharing and coming together of families and communities. People belonging to all religions celebrate this as Mahabali is seen as a leader of all people. Food which is predominantly vegetarian has undergone certain changes and has got its own additions depending on the different communities celebrating Onam.
Mahabali can be seen on similar lines with Jesus because of the way Jesus positioned himself and how he was done away with by high priests because he started doing things which they thought were meant for God and were anyway disturbing their well established system. Mahabali and Jesus are similar because
1. Both Mahabali and Jesus were leaders who were passionate about equal rights and justice.
2. Both of them sacrificed their lives for the sake of their subjects.
3. Their commitment goes beyond the earthly life. Those who believed in their ideology, especially the poor and the oppressed were not left to fend for themselves. Their commitment to ensure justice leads them to extend their involvement beyond life as we see it here.
4. Both of them are done in by a conspiracy and although they agree to being sacrificed are actually murdered in cold blood.
5. Both Mahabali and Jesus offer hope as can be seen in the past, present and future.
Onam is a festival and also has characteristics of a festival. A festival brings forth happiness, celebration and above all, hope. Without hope, there is no life. In the read passage in John 20 Mary is filled with this hope and she waits with expectation to see the fulfilment of this hope. Hope is a right of the poor and the downtrodden. In this sense celebrations which do not include the poor are mainline, dominant and market based celebrations. But true festivals are people’s festivals which are a celebration of protest, dissent and non-conformity. The Onam festival goes beyond region and community. In Kerala it has become the festival of all people. But it is not just a festival of conformity to certain high caste traditions. The spirit of the King Bali also moves beyond the borders of Kerala. M.E. Sharp in his book “Reinventing revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India says that Bali has been taken as the major symbol of the oppressed shudra-dalit peasantry in Phule’s interpretation of the Aryan-Brahman conquest. The hope filled slogan in Marathi is “Ida pida javo, Bali-ca rajya yeva” (let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come). This has great similarity to the expectation of the arrival of the kingdom of God. A slogan is very much important to provide hope for the people and the slogan of the getting back of power is indeed very powerful. Mahabali the Asura King or the king from a lower caste, who ruled justly and provided equal opportunities for his people, is unceremoniously done away with. His re-installation means the bringing back of a glorious era where the practise of untouchability, inequality and other social evils did not exist. It also gives power to the people. Just as protest is a right of the poor, hope is also the right of the poor.
Mary exercises this very hope which is her right as a woman. Her visit to the tomb before anyone else reflects the hope that she and not any other disciple had. There is a sense of dissonance in the passage. It is not the apostles who go first but Mary who goes first. Mary is then seen as going to tell Peter about what she sees. Here there is a legitimization of established orders within the church. But Mary offers the essential piece of information first. The story becomes more exciting because Mary then goes and expresses her hope in full by standing and crying outside the tomb. This is a cry of protest which she hopes will bring back the one who will let all sorrows to go.
India is now going through a period of uncertainty where FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) has been allowed in the aviation and retail sectors. More sectors will be added in the near future. There is huge protest against this. Some of it is political but mostly it is the public expression of the aspirations of people who want to decide their own futures. The protest against the Koodankulam nuclear project also reflects the same aspirations of the local populace. When state and central governments have closed their eyes to nuclear waste and the risks involved so that they can have electricity, the only choice for people of the land is to protest. Protest needs a figure to inspire. Mahabali is one such figure and the inspiration of Onam is to live in harmony with one’s brothers and sisters. Mary seeks this inspiration from Jesus.
Perhaps festivals like Onam should inspire us to seek freedom for the masses and to effectually improve the lives of people. Festivals should also become a more common and repetitive part of our lives. Without this we make the festival and its commemoration and meaning making a once a year event which has no more significance than eating variety of food, meeting people and buying consumer goods. The festival of Onam has to transcend this in theological colleges and society at large. It can be a time when we vow and strive for equal opportunities for all and reservation for those who have been thrust behind. It can also be a time when we try to do away with all the corruptions that have crept into society. This could be a time for cleansing. Festivals in churches are no different. Two major festivals in the church I belong to are the festival of St. George and the festival of St. Mary. Both are very special for the people of the church. But consumerism and the evils of structure and power have crept in and limited it to an event. In the midst of this, ordinary people still find meaning out of these festivals. Mary Magdalene tries to question while initiating the quest to finding Jesus. Here is a festival procession which tries to go beyond certain fixed constructs. Her short pilgrimage to find Jesus inspires Peter to conduct the same journey.
Onam as the festival of hope has huge potential and offers valuable lessons for all. In situations of conflict and lack of harmony, festivals like Onam remind us of a time when humans lived together as one and that this is the opportunity we should use to try and reconcile. Nothing is beyond reconciliation and one should put out one’s hand in a reconciliatory mood of accepting and respecting the other. Even in the hardest and most difficult of times hope stands as the reason to live on. Mahabali offers this hope through his presence with us in this worship today. Jesus lives inside us as an ever present hope that there is nothing which cannot be redeemed.
The festival of Onam then is a once a year festival of forgetting all differences and coming together. It is an opportunity to re-learn our commitment to stand for justice, peace and reconciliation. This is not just one community’s celebration attended by others. It is the celebration and commitment of all that we hope for a better today and tomorrow. Justice has no boundaries and regions. Festivals cannot be limited to one caste or region. Let us all come together to remember a time when all people were treated with respect. Let us all be inspired by a man who did not belong to a high caste but shook the entire establishment by following the simple and yet hard formulae of not favouring anyone. Let us learn from the woman who hoped and stood strong in her hope even when others were not sure. Let us be steadfast in our faith and love for Jesus, the son of the carpenter, who took a stand and stood for the poor, the outcasts and the different people in society. I wish you peace, justice and reconciliation. Onam greetings. Amen.
(Preached this in UTC for the Onam worship on October 3, 2012)