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Bali was an Asura king, known for his generosity and large heartedness. He was a descendent of Prahlada.
The Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) were always at loggerheads over gaining supremacy over the other. Upon the churning of the milk ocean (amrit manthan) by devas and asuras the amrit or nectar was obtained. The nectar was meant to be distributed equally between them. But having the nectar meant immortality and so Lord Vishnu knew that it should not be given to the demons. The Lord therefore took the Mohini avatar – the form of a beautiful maiden and distracted the asuras by her charm while the nectar was being distributed. Unnoticed by the asuras, Devas got all the nectar and became immortal. The asuras having realised that they were cheated by the Lord in the form of a beautiful maiden waged war with devas. As a result of the war Bali the Asura king was deprived of his wealth and kingdom.
Bali approached Shukracharya, the guru of the asuras who accepted him as a disciple. Bali performed elaborate rituals and austerities under the tutelage of his guru. With the blessings of his guru, Shukra he acquired great powers. With power came pride and Bali felt himself to be invincible. Fearless he went to attack Indra (Deva) at his abode in the heaven. The gods decided not to fight him as it would be futile and endless. The only person who could teach him a lesson would be the Lord Vishnu himself. They desisted from fighting him. Bali was deluded into thinking that the gods were incapable of confronting him and had run away. Thus Bali occupied the heaven became the lord of the three worlds, the heaven, earth and nether land (Patala).
Aditi the mother of Indra and devas, felt dejected that her sons had to leave their abode and live in hiding because of Bali. She shared her sorrow with her husband Kashyapa. He asked her to observe a ‘vrat’ called the ‘payovrat’( a penance of incantation of the name of Lord Vishnu )for twelve days. Aditi observed this ‘vrat’ sincerely upon which the Lord Vishnu appeared before her on the twelfth day. The Lord assured her that he would be born to her as a son.
As promised Lord Vishnu was born to Aditi as her son. Soon he grew to be a boy dwarf like in appearance and called Vamana. He was initiated into Brahmanism by undergoing the scared thread ceremony. He performed rites on the scared fire as a Brahmachari. He acquired a staff, a kamandalu(a vessel containing scared water) an umbrella, deer skin and an akshamala(rosary) as gifts from various celestial beings.
Vamana proceeded to the place where Bali was preparing to perform the Ashwamedha yagna. As he entered the yagnashala all eyes turned to him, for a glow was emanating from him. Although small in size his presence was powerful enough to draw the attention of those present there. Bali rushed towards him and offered Vamana the Brahmin boy a seat and washed his feet as was the custom to do the honours to Brahmin. Further, as an offering he requested the boy to ask of him anything that he wanted. Bali was under the impression that being the lord of the three worlds there was nothing that the boy could demand that would be beyond his capacity to give.
Vamana asked for “three paces of land measured by his feet”. Bali felt this was a very trivial demand as compared to wealth he possessed and therefore asked Vamana to revise his demand. But Vamana was sure that was all he wanted. Shukra his guru who was watching the scene realised that this was a trick of the lord and tried to prevent Bali from granting the wish of the Brahmin boy.
Bali did not heed his guru’s advice and would rather keep his word and promise, he sprinkled water on the ground indicating the acceptance of the demand of the boy and asked him to step in and take three paces of the land.
Vamana who was indeed the avatar of Lord Vishnu, now grew to immense proportion and by his one foot covered the entire heaven even as Bali watched wonderstruck. By the next step he covered the entire earth and then smiled and asked Bali ‘where was the place for the third pace’. Bali was humbled. He realised that it was the Lord who was opening his eyes to the reality that everything belonged to the Lord alone and by proclaiming that “this is mine … I am the owner” showed lack of wisdom.
In all humility Bali offered his head to the Lord to keep his foot over for the third pace. He would keep his promise even if it meant going to hell. He understood that though outwardly it appeared that the lord was punishing him. The lord was in fact blessing him by opening his inner eye of wisdom. So the Lord placed his foot on Bali’s head and pushed him to the patala lok or nether land.
This way the Lord as Vamana humbled Bali. Devas were restored their heavenly abode as well as Bali was liberated.