Though apparently tricking Bali to take advantage of him, Lord Vamana set the stage for revealing Bali’s extraordinary devotion.
By Gauranga Darshana Dasa
By humbly serving and pleasing spiritually advanced persons, we receive unlimited blessings from God.

Here is the story of a great king who received blessings from great souls and thus became a recipient of the grace of God, who then lovingly became his gatekeeper.

The Vedic scriptures tell of the churning of the milk ocean (samudra-manthana) by the devas (demigods) and the asuras (demons), which resulted in the appearance of immortal nectar (amrita). The Supreme Lord Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini-murti, bewildered the asuras, and gave all the nectar to the devas. Being thoroughly cheated, the asuras fought with the devas but were defeated in the war. Shukracharya, the guru of the asuras, revived the asuras, headed by Bali Maharaja, the virtuous grandson of the pure devotee Prahlada Maharaja.

The Power of Blessings

Bali became very grateful to Shukracharya and served him sincerely. Pleased with Bali, the brahmanas of the Bhrigu dynasty had him perform a great sacrifice called the Vishvajit-yajna, through which Bali received a celestial chariot, a powerful bow, two quivers, and armor. Prahlada offered Bali a celestial garland, and Shukracharya gave him a conchshell. Thus they blessed him to be victorious.

By satisfying great souls, one receives profuse blessings and success in one’s endeavors, and by dissatisfying them, one receives the opposite. Pleasing great souls is the easiest way to attain God’s grace, which is certainly more powerful than God’s wrath. By God’s wrath great planets, their rulers, and the entire universe can be destroyed, but by God’s grace even the most fallen person can be uplifted. The grace of God comes through His devotees.

Compassionate devotees who are objects of Krishna’s mercy are always ready to transmit that mercy to common people, but only some fortunate persons are willing to accept it. For example, the sun gives light to everyone, but only persons who expose themselves to the sunshine can take advantage of it, and not those who lock themselves in a dark room or a cave. Collecting blessings doesn’t require expertise or diplomacy, but it requires genuine humility, submissiveness, and a service attitude. Arrogance and pride never attract any blessings.

Blessings Are Beyond the Giver

Bali acknowledged the blessings of the brahmanas by offering them obeisances and reverently circumambulating them. He also saluted Prahlada, who blessed him to attain all success. The blessing of the pure devotee Prahlada opened the door for Bali to attain the highest perfection. Equipped with all these blessings and with military paraphernalia, and accompanied by a great army of asuras, Bali attacked Indra’s city to settle past dues.

One might question: How could Prahlada bless Bali to conquer the devas, when it is the Supreme Lord’s arrangement that the devas rule heaven? The answer is that Prahlada blessed Bali to ultimately get the shelter of the Supreme Lord. And Bali humbled himself to receive Prahlada Maharaja’s blessing. Had Bali Maharaja not conquered heaven, Lord Vamanadeva wouldn’t have come to take everything from Bali, allowing him to completely surrender. So Prahlada was ultimately blessing Bali to go through whatever was needed to get the Lord’s grace. The immediate result of Prahlada’s blessings was that Bali could conquer heaven, but the ultimate result was that Bali could receive the gift of love for Vamana.

Blessings are beyond the giver, who can only be an instrument of God’s grace. To be such an instrument is the most excellent way of living. When devotees sincerely do their best in their devotional service and thus access the grace of Krishna, guru, and the Vaishnavas, a great spiritual power far beyond them manifests through them. That humbles sincere devotees; it does not make them proud. By blessing Bali, Prahlada humbly invoked the Supreme Lord’s blessings on him.

Just by seeing Bali’s splendor and confidence, Indra and the devas were surprised and approached their guru Brihaspati.

Brihaspati advised them, “This is not Bali’s power, but the power of the brahmanas’ blessings (brahma-tejas). At present, no one can stand before Bali except the Supreme Lord. You all should now leave heaven and wait for the situation of the enemies to reverse.”

The blessings of brahmanas and gurus are more powerful than one’s own strength and independent efforts.

God Responds to Sincere Prayers

Hearing Brihaspati’s words, the devas left the heavenly kingdom in disguised forms. Bali entered heaven and brought it and all the planets below it under his control. He performed a hundred opulent sacrifices to secure his position as the king of heaven.

Aditi, the mother of some of the devas, was pained by her sons’ predicament and wanted to regain the heavenly kingdom for them. On the advice of her husband, Kashyapa Muni, she performed a vow called payo-vrata, which entailed subsisting only on milk for twelve days while worshiping the Lord. In response, Lord Vishnu became pleased to appear as Aditi’s son named Vamanadeva, a dwarf brahmana.

The Supreme Lord responds to the sincere prayers of His devotees. Vamanadeva certainly appeared in response to Aditi’s prayers and to fulfill her desire to regain heaven for her sons. However, more than that, Vamanadeva appeared in this world to bless Bali Maharaja in response to the prayers of Prahlada Maharaja. Prahlada had prayed for his grandson to get pure devotional service. Prahlada had formerly prayed to Lord Nrisimhadeva to show mercy on Prahlada’s wicked father, Hiranyakashipu, and the Lord responded. If Hiranyakashipu was delivered, then why not Bali, who had many good qualities?

The Lord manifests His inconceivable pastime to simultaneously restore cosmic order, fulfill His devotees’ desires, and give and experience pleasure.

Principles of Satisfaction

Lord Vamana eventually arrived at the site of Bali’s sacrifice. Feeling blessed, Bali heartily welcomed Vamana and washed His divine lotus feet, the source of the holy Ganges River. Bali was spontaneously attracted to Vamana and wished to offer Him obeisances but couldn’t do so. Because Bali was in the position of the king of asuras, his offering obeisances to Vamana with devotion wouldn’t have been appreciated by the asuras and Shukracharya. Hence he was hesitant and fearful. Nevertheless, the Lord recognized Bali’s sincere intent. Even though a devotee may not render complete service to the Lord externally due to circumstances, the Lord is kind enough to accept the internal mood of a devotee, and thus He is called bhava-grahi, “one who accepts the purpose.”

Bali then took the opportunity to wash Vamana’s lotus feet. As it was natural for a kshatriya king to treat a brahmana guest in this way, none of the asuras raised an eyebrow in objection to this. Bali washed Vamana’s feet, sprinkled the water on his head, and promised to offer Him anything He desired.

Vamana praised Bali and his dynasty and asked for three steps of land. Considering the brahmana boy unintelligent owing to his tender age, Bali told Him to ask for as much as He might need to maintain Himself for all time.

Vamanadeva then spoke on the principles of satisfaction, and He condemned material greed.

O my dear King, even the entirety of whatever there may be within the three worlds to satisfy one’s senses cannot satisfy a person whose senses are uncontrolled. If I were not satisfied with three paces of land, then surely I would not be satisfied even with possessing one of the seven islands, consisting of nine varshas. Even if I possessed one island, I would hope to get others. . . . One should be satisfied with whatever he achieves by his previous destiny, for discontent can never bring happiness. (Bhagavatam 8.19.21-22, 24)

Satisfaction leads to liberation, while dissatisfaction leads to transmigration. If one doesn’t have the inner fulfilment in experiencing the shelter of the Lord that’s accessed through hearing about, glorifying, and remembering Him, one hankers for the satisfaction of being praised by others. If we don’t learn how to be content and peaceful and don’t try to find satisfaction in our internal relationship with God, then finding true satisfaction in any of our external endeavors is impossible. Satisfaction in bhakti depends on the purity of our intent (ahaituki, “without material motives”) and the consistency of our attempt (apratihata, “unimpeded”).

Why & Why Not to Give Charity

Bali Maharaja smiled and told Vamana, “All right, take whatever You like.”

To confirm his promise, Bali then took up his water pot and poured water to seal his solemn oath (sankalpa).

Shukracharya, aware that Vamana was deceiving Bali and would take everything from him, gave Bali nine reasons why Bali shouldn’t give charity to Vamana:

  1. This boy is Lord Vishnu and has appeared to fulfill the purpose of the devas.
  2. Your promise will bring great inauspiciousness to the asuras.
  3. Lord Vishnu will take away all your wealth and give it to Indra.
  4. How will you live when He takes everything from you?
  5. You can’t even fulfill your promise, as He will occupy everywhere in just two steps.
  6. Unable to fulfill your promise, you will have to reside in hell.
  7. Charity that endangers one’s livelihood is not praiseworthy.
  8. One has to divide one’s wealth for religion, reputation, opulence, sense gratification, and family, not for charity alone.
  9. Take back your promise. One has to maintain one’s body even by untruth.

Although it’s difficult for even great philosophers to understand the Lord’s plans, Shukracharya could understand both the identity and the plan of Lord Vamana. This is also a part of the Lord’s divine pastime. He allowed Shukracharya to understand His intentions so that Shukracharya could advise Bali not to give charity to the Lord. Then, to offer charity to Vamana, Bali would have to disobey his guru – the appropriate action in this special case – and thus Bali’s glory, devotion, tolerance, and surrender would be revealed to the entire universe. To glorify His devotees, the Lord performs wonderful pastimes like this.

Bali, being fixed in his truthfulness and especially his devotion to Lord Vishnu, humbly gave Shukracharya nine reasons why he must give charity to Vamana:

  1. I’m the grandson of the glorious Prahlada Maharaja. How can I withdraw my promise?
  2. There is nothing more sinful than untruthfulness.
  3. I don’t fear hell, poverty, distress, or even death as much as I fear cheating a brahmana.
  4. Wealth is separated from us at the time of death. Why not please a brahmana with that wealth?
  5. Dadhichi, Shibi, and many other great souls sacrificed even their own lives for the benefit of others.
  6. Time destroys everything except one’s reputation.
  7. The chance to give charity to a brahmana is very rare.
  8. Becoming poverty-stricken by such charity is very auspicious.
  9. If it is Vishnu who has come here in the form of this brahmana, I must carry out His order.

If a guru advises something against the desire of the Supreme Lord, there is no fault in disobeying such an order. Still, Bali’s disobedience displeased Shukracharya, who cursed him to be deprived of his wealth. Magnanimous Bali then solemnly vowed to give the charity of three steps of land to Vamanadeva.

No one can give anything to the Lord, for He is full in everything and everything belongs to Him. What we offer doesn’t belong to us, nor does it enrich His opulence. But such an offering brings one recognition as a devotee, which is an ornament for the soul. Thus Bali Maharaja offered charity of three steps to Vamanadeva.

Humility that Shone in Humiliation

Vamanadeva then manifested His divine pastime. Becoming Trivikrama (“one who took three great steps”), He increased His size and covered the entire earth with one step, all directions with His body, and the heavenly planets with His second step. Trivikrama then reduced to His original size as Vamana. The asuras tried to attack Him, but Bali stopped them. Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s bird carrier, then arrested Bali with the ropes of the deva Varuna (varuna-pasha).

Vamanadeva accused Bali, “O King, being falsely proud of your wealth, you have promised Me three steps of land, but I occupied the entire universe by two steps. Where shall I put My third step? Because you couldn’t fulfill your promise of charity, you should go to hell.”*

Even though the Lord seemed to have mistreated Bali and deliberately made him break his promise, Bali tolerated all this humiliation and spoke to the Lord with an undisturbed mind.

“O Lord, if You think my promise has become false, I shall rectify the situation. Place Your third lotus footstep on my head. I consider the most exalted punishment that which is given by You, the supreme well-wisher and benefactor even of the asuras. I don’t feel ashamed or aggrieved on being arrested by You.”

Thus Bali offered himself to the Lord after having offered all his property. To show the entire universe Bali’s tolerance, Vamana humiliated him in this way. Generally, wealthy persons are famous, but Bali became famous for all time by being deprived of all his wealth. Tolerance and equanimity in humiliation are a manifestation of true surrender.

God’s Favor

Being profusely pleased, Vamanadeva then spoke about His own merciful nature.

“I favor My devotee who is puffed up with material opulence by taking away all his possessions. If despite possessing high birth, youth, beauty, education, opulence, and wealth one is not proud, such a person is understood to be favored by Me.”

False prestige and impudence caused by material qualifications are impediments to spiritual advancement. The Lord protects devotees from illusion and pride by taking away opulence that made them proud.

Lord Vamana praised Bali’s forbearance and truthfulness.

“Bali has surpassed the insurmountable maya. He is fixed up in his vow of truthfulness despite being bereft of his riches, fallen from his position, defeated and arrested by his enemies, rebuked and deserted by his relatives, and cursed by his guru.”

A pure devotee never deviates from the Lord’s service despite all difficulties and impediments.

Vamanadeva blessed Bali: “You will become Indra during the reign of Savarni, the eighth Manu.** Until then you may live on the Sutala planet, which is more opulent than heaven. I shall be your doorkeeper, staying awake all the time to protect you from any attacks. By My prowess you will not adopt a demoniac mentality even in the association of the demons.”

The Lord offers Himself to those devotees who offer themselves to Him by mind, words, and actions.

Bali was overwhelmed upon hearing Vamandeva and thanked him.

“I merely offered obeisances to You within my mind, yet I attained results sought by fully surrendered devotees. The rare mercy You have shown to this fallen demon (by putting Your foot on my head) was not achieved even by the devas.”

Bali offered respects to the Lord and happily went to Sutala along with other asuras. Prahlada joined him, following the Lord’s instruction. Although a pure devotee may appear to have gone to hell or heaven, he doesn’t live in either place. Rather, he always lives in Vaikuntha, the spiritual world, engaged in the Lord’s service.

Bali Maharaja was not a sadhana-siddha (one who becomes perfect by following the prescribed principles of devotional life), but a kripa-siddha (one who becomes perfect by the mercy of the devotees and the Lord). Lord Vamana mercifully took away Bali’s opulence and gave him the opportunity to completely surrender himself. If a devotee is puffed up, thinking himself the proprietor of everything, and thus forgets bhakti, the Lord takes the opulence away. This is to protect His devotee from illusion and pride, and to show His special mercy on such a devotee (yasyaham anugrihnami harishye tad-dhanam shanaih, Bhagavatam 10.88.8). By the blessings and mercy of Prahlada Maharaja and the Supreme Lord, Bali attained love for the Lord. In this way God became the gatekeeper of His devotee who surrendered everything, including himself, to the Lord.

Gauranga Darshana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is the dean of Bhaktivedanta Vidyapatha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village, outside Mumbai, and a member of ISKCON Board of Examinations. He is a shastric teacher and is the author of over twenty books, including the Subodhini series of study guides and storybooks like Bhagavata Pravaha and Bhagavatam Tales.

*The word hell in the context of this narrative does not refer to the place where the sinful are punished after death. It refers to the planets below the earth, which although extremely opulent, are considered hell because they are inhabited by atheistic asuras.

**Lord Vamana appeared during the reign of the current Manu, known as Vaivasvata, the seventh of fourteen Manus in one day of Brahma.