When the Lord, as Vamana, was approaching Emperor Bali's sacrifical ceremony (yaga), the Emperor received him reverentially and asked him what he wanted. He said, "I want three feet of ground, measured by my feet." Bali said, "Why come all the way to ask for just three feet of ground?" Vamana declared, "That is all I want." The Emperor's preceptor, Sukracharya, warned the Emperor against making the gift, since the seeker was no ordinary person. But the Emperor firmly declared that there is no greater sin than going back on one's promise. He kept his word.
Emperor Bali stands forth as the great upholder of the plighted word. That is why the people of Kerala worship him to this day and celebrate the festival of Onam in his memory.
What is it that is adored today? It is Truth. Without truth nothing has any value.
Without the values of truth, righteousness, peace and love,
all education and other attainments are useless. (Telugu Poem).
Love is the supreme value. It is not mundane love but Divine love that is precious. That Divine love encompasses every other form of attachment to friends and others. Cultivate the enduring friendship of God.
Emperor Bali was prepared to offer everything, including himself, to God. That is his greatness. It is not the gift of mere three feet of land. He offered himself to the Lord.
I offer all that is mine, my family, my wealth, and myself, keeping nothing for myself.
Save me, Oh Lord, who has sought refuge in you. (Sanskrit sloka)
The heart that you gave to me
I am offering to you --
what else can I offer at your Lotus Feet?
This is the spirit in which Bali surrendered to the Lord.
The Lord had incarnated to bless Bali, not to destroy him. So, when He had measured the earth with one stride and the sky with the second, he placed his foot on Bali's head and accepted the emperor as the third foot of ground. That foot released Bali from the recurrent cycle of birth and death.
But Bali made one last lingering wish, which the Lord agreed to fulfill. He prayed, "Allow me to come one day each year to the Kerala I ruled over, so that I can see people I love and the land I cherish in my heart". Onam is that day. The word Sravanam, when it is applied to this month, has become Chingam, and when applied to the star with which the moon is associated this day, it has become Onam --Sravanam, Vanam, Onam. Bali chose for his annual visit the day of the Sravanam star, in the Sravanam month.
The lesson that Onam imparts is this: A lifetime spent without devotion to the Almighty Lord is a pitiful waste. Ridding oneself of identification with the body and its adjuncts, one must involve oneself with the spirit. This alone can reveal to him his reality, the Atma. Once the Atmic core of oneself is contacted, it needs only one step more to discover that everything else has the same Atma as its reality. Thus, man becomes aware of the unity that is truth, that is God.
Emperor Bali, who is welcomed into their hearts and home by the people of Kerala on Onam day, had unwavering faith in God. He served his subjects as if he were commissioned by God (Narayana). He offered all he earned, all he was, himself, most gladly to God. He overcame the clouds of ignorance and rose to the heights of supreme wisdom. His self expanded so vastly that it merged in Divine Consciousness. Purity leads to unity and unity to mergence with Divinity. This is the message that the Onam festival and the story of Bali convey to mankind.
Divine Discourse: 28 August 1985