By Aja Govinda Dasa

Lord Vishnu comes in disguise to return control of the universe to the demigods, His devotees.

God is the master of all arts, including the art of conflict resolution. He is the loving father of all, and His every action benefits all His children. The story of Lord Vamana shows how the Lord satisfied two rival parties and ended a cosmic war between the demons and demigods.

We also learn from this pastime that the highest compassion of the Lord is His depriving His devotee of all material defenses so that the devotee can surrender unto Him unconditionally. The Lord does this to increase the devotees’ loving reliance upon Him, freeing them from dependence on their fleeting worldly powers.

The Virtuous King Prahlada

The story of Lord Vamana is a sequel to the story of Lord Nrisimha. Briefly stated, Lord Nrisimha descended to protect His devotee Prahlada Maharaja, who was terrorized by his atheist father, Hiranyakashipu. After Sri Nrisimhadeva killed (and liberated) the atheist tyrant, Prahlada Maharaja was crowned emperor of the demons, the enemies of the demigods. The demigods (administrative heads of the universe) then regained their sovereignty of heaven, which had been under Hiranyakishipu’s control.

After Nrisimhadeva set things in order, how did conflict again arise between the demons and demigods? Now that the peace-loving saintly king Prahlada was ruling the demons, how could there be wars?

Prahlada Maharaja was so peace loving and saintly that he demonstrated his selflessness by caring more for his public than for his own family. When Prahlada’s son Virochana wished to marry a girl desired by a young brahmana, Prahlada instructed Virochana to renounce his own desire. Prahlada thus showed that the king and his family should always serve the public and never exert force or power over them to fulfill their own desires. (Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva 35).

With such an amiable king in charge, the demons were peaceable. But after Prahlada renounced the throne and passed it on to his son Virochana, the hatred among the demigods and demons arose again.

Here’s the history behind Prahlada’s renouncing the throne.

Once, while Prahlada was still ruling, a sage bathing in a holy river was bit by a serpent, which coiled around his legs and dragged him underwater. Because of his sincere faith in the protection of Lord Vishnu, the sage was unaffected. The snake pulled him all the way down to the subterranean kingdom of the demons, where Prahlada honored him. During their meeting, the sage inspired Prahlada to visit pilgrimage sites.

On a visit to a holy forest, Prahlada saw a pine tree pierced with arrows, its sap looking like tears of anguish. Near the tree sat two ascetics. Angered by the sight of their arrows in the innocent tree, Prahlada attacked them. But the ascetics easily defeated him in battle. He then prayed to Lord Vishnu, who told him he could win over the two ascetics only by devotion. The ascetics were in fact Nara-Narayana Rishis, incarnations of Vishnu. To beg their pardon for fighting them, Prahlada then renounced his kingdom and retired to perform penance. After this incident, Prahlada served only as an advisor to his successors. (Vamana Purana 7–8)

Virochana, Son of Prahlada

Virochana became the next emperor of the demons. Blessed with a dazzling golden crown, a boon from the sun-god, he became arrogant and offensive toward the demigods. Virochana had received the benediction that he could not be killed as long as he wore the crown. (Ganesha Purana 2, 29) Knowing this, the demigods conspired against him. Disguised as sages, they entreated him, and the generous Virochana vowed to grant their wish. They begged for his crown. Even though Virochana recognized the demigods’ plot, true to his word he parted with his crown and his life as well. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.19.14)

Bali Conquers the Heavens

Enraged at the demigods’ intrigue, Bali, son of Virochana, became an avowed adversary of the demigods, the ruthless slayers of his father. Once, when Indra, king of the demigods, had haughtily rejected a garland offered by a sage, the sage had cursed the demigods. As a result of this curse, Bali easily defeated the demigods in battle and won the kingdom of heaven.

The demigods were at a disadvantage: The demons were fearless of death because their preceptor Shukracharya could revive them from the dead with a secret mantra. Chased from their abodes, the demigods surrendered to Lord Vishnu, who told them to churn the milk ocean in a truce with the demons. The churning would recover jewels that had fallen into the ocean from Bali’s hands while he was transporting the treasure of the gods to his capital. The churning would also extract ambrosia, which could immortalize the demigods. (Vishnu Purana 1.9, Matsya Purana 250–251)

The churning first produced poison, then valuable things such as gems, jewels, animals, gods, and goddesses. Finally the pot of ambrosia emerged. Lord Vishnu, disguised as a woman who was the embodiment of sensual beauty, deceived the demons and delivered all the ambrosia to the demigods. Empowered with the nectar of immortality, the demigods repulsed the attacking demons, who wished to secure the nectar for themselves. The demons then resorted to illusory maneuvers, bewildering the demigods.

The demigods took shelter of Lord Vishnu, who effortlessly thwarted the demons’ tricks. With the Lord on their side, the demigods killed Bali. Taking advantage of the ailing demon army, the demigods began mercilessly massacring them. Then Narada Muni, the sage among the demigods, forbade them to continue the carnage. He advised them to return to their heavenly kingdom. He told the demons to take their dead emperor, Bali, to Shukracharya, who revived all the dead demons whose limbs were intact.

When Bali was revived, under the guidance of Shukracharya he performed a sacrifice for universal conquest. He thus obtained an invincible bow, impenetrable armor, two inexhaustible quivers, and a golden chariot led by fine horses and bearing a splendid flag. His grandfather gave him an ever-fresh garland, and his teacher gave him a victory conch shell. After receiving these gifts and blessings, Bali charged toward Indra’s capital and attacked with full force. Indra and the other demigods hid. Blessed by his teacher, Bali reigned over heaven. Following the good counsel of his grandfather Prahlada, Bali ruled virtuously. (Vamana Purana 74–75).

Vamanadeva Appears

Aditi, the mother of the demigods, lamented upon seeing her sons wandering homeless. Her husband, Kashyapa, advised her to stay calm in both loss and again, but he could not pacify her. He then recommended that she perform a twelve-day vow to satisfy Lord Krishna. Pleased with her vow, the Lord promised to appear as her son. In trance, Kashyapa saw the Lord. He then impregnated his wife, and the Lord entered her womb.

The blue-hued Lord Vamana appeared in this world adorned with golden silk and holding in His four hands a conch shell, a disc, a club, and a lotus. His appearance brought joy to all creation.

He then transformed into a dwarf brahmana boy, and at His birthday ceremony all the demigods and sages presented Him gifts. The sun-god chanted Vedic mantras, the priest of the demigods decorated His chest with the sacred thread, and Kashyapa Muni put a straw belt around His waist. Mother Earth and His own mother provided Him a deerskin and a loincloth. The Moon (king of the forests) offered Him the rod of a celibate, and the heavens furnished an umbrella. Brahma supplied a water pot, the seven sages handed Him sacred grass, and the goddess of learning equipped Him with prayer beads. The treasurer of the demigods gave a begging pot, and Bhagavati, Lord Shiva’s wife, gave Him His first alms.

Vamanadeva Begs from Bali

Sri Vamanadeva performed fire sacrifices to set the proper example for all sages. When he heard that King Bali was engaged in sacrifice under the guidance of Shukracharya, He went to see Bali, pressing down the surface of the globe with every step.

When Vamanadeva approached Bali, the sacrificial fire was nearly extinguished, the demons couldn’t receive their shares of sacrifice, and the hymns emanating from the mouths of the sages empowered the demigods instead of the demons. (Nrisimha Purana 45.10–13) All the sages at the sacrifice were stunned to see the radiance emanating from Vamanadeva. They thought the sun or fire incarnate was approaching, and they all offered their respects to Him. Bali Maharaja, cordially seating Him, washed His lotus feet. The great king then placed upon his head the sacred water sanctified by touching the Lord’s lotus feet, just as Lord Shiva carries in his hair the holy Ganges. Maharaja Bali then asked the Lord how he could serve Him.

After praising Bali’s dynasty as glorious and unfailing in its vows of charity and chivalry, Vamana asked him for only three paces of land. Bali Maharaja derided His decision as immature and insisted He ask for something more substantial. Vamanadeva replied that greed can never be satiated; it will drive the possessor to run after more.

In effect, Vamanadeva was instructing Bali Maharaja that his kingship over heaven was only satisfying his selfish greed and tormenting the demigods. As the supreme warrior, the Lord could have easily regained the heavens for the demigods by vanquishing Bali’s pride in battle, but He came as a boy sage to instruct His devotee Bali Maharaja about giving up excessive attachment to proprietorship. The Lord instructed Bali that one should be satisfied with whatever one owns by the will of providence, and not hanker for others’ property.

Bali then agreed to grant the Lord three paces of land. Just as he was about to confirm his promise with water, Shukracharya, recognizing Vamanadeva as Lord Vishnu Himself, tried to dissuade Bali from fulfilling his promise. Bali maintained Shukracharya, who did not want his rich benefactor to lose all his wealth. He informed Bali that the boy in front of him was actually the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who had come to retrieve all the opulence of the demigods.

Shukracharya also warned Bali that he would suffer in hell for failing to fulfill his promise to Lord Vamana, since Lord Vamana would cover Bali’s entire kingdom (the universe) with two steps, not leaving any space for a third step. Bali had not yet uttered om, so in fact, said Shukracharya, his promise could be revoked.

Bali was not prepared to go back on his word, however. He knew that Mother Earth cannot bear the weight of a dishonest person. Now that the Lord Himself had come to his door, how could he go against His supreme will? Though not abiding by the guru’s orders would ordinarily be an offense, Bali rejected his guru’s advice because it contradicted with the principle of satisfying the Lord.

As for hell, Bali Maharaja said, “I do not fear hell, poverty, an ocean of distress, falldown from my position, or even death itself as much as I fear cheating a brahmana.

He cited the examples of great souls who sacrificed their lives for others. After all, death takes away everything, so why be attached to one’s possessions?

Bali continued: “Many kings have attained immortal fame by their heroic deeds, but rarely do they obtain the fortune to serve a saint. And my fortune is beyond limit, for the husband of the goddess of fortune has come as a saint to beg from me. My dear teacher, you yourself worship Vishnu, and now that He has appeared before me, I must carry out His instruction, even though He may have come as an enemy. Since He is now a brahmana boy, I will not fight with Him, though He may arrest or kill me.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.20.12)

On hearing this, Shukracharya condemned his disobedient disciple to lose all his wealth.

Even after being cursed, Bali offered water to Vamanadeva, thus solidifying his promise. Shukracharya tried to intervene, but was unable to do so. [See sidebar: “Shukracharya’s Reformation.”]

Though appearing as a dwarf, the Lord expanded into His cosmic form, revealing the entire universe. With His first step He covered all the lower planets up to the earth, and with His second He reached all the way to the top of the universe. His toenail pierced the universal coverings, and the water of the Causal Ocean (in which countless universes float) surged in, washed the Lord’s lotus feet, and descended into our universe as the celestial Ganges. ( Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.17.1).

The twelfth-century poet and devotee Jayadeva Goswami writes:

chalayasi vikramane balim adbhuta-vamana
keshava dhrita-vamana-rupa jaya jagadisha hare