This story is about Prahllada’s grandson, Bali. Bali was an extremely powerful king, but he also wanted to be popular. By becoming powerful, we cannot be appreciated, admired or adored. It is like a superpower country. We may surrender to it, but with hatred instead of love.
Bali was determined to find a way to be popular. He came to the realisation that he would be loved, admired and adored by everybody if he performed a particular kind of sacrifice called a yajna. A yajna is performed only by great kings.
When the cosmic gods learned of Bali’s intention, they became very jealous. They thought that after Bali had completed his sacrifice, people would worship him and they would no longer care for the cosmic gods. They went to Vishnu for help. “Please, please, do something,” they begged. “Bali has become so powerful on earth! Soon the whole world will appreciate, admire and adore him, and our glory will be diminished.”
Vishnu consoled them, “Do not worry,” he said. “I will deal with Bali.”
King Bali proceeded with the sacrificial ceremony under the guidance of his Guru, Shukracharya. Many people came to observe and participate in the function. As part of the sacrificial rites, Bali decided that he would grant special favours to anyone who asked him. He would immediately give whatever that person wanted.
All of a sudden, a dwarf joined the gathering and started chanting from the Vedas, the Upanishads and other holy scriptures. Bali was so happy to see such a tiny person, and he was full of admiration for the dwarf’s chanting. He asked the dwarf, “Is there anything that you want from me?”
“Yes, there is something,” said the dwarf. At that moment, Shukracharya whispered to Bali, “O my God, I can sense that this is not a dwarf! It is Vishnu, who has come here with some mischievous motive. Please, please, do not fulfil his desire! Whatever he asks you to do, you must refuse. As your Guru, I am telling you not to grant his wish.”
“No, no,” objected Bali. “I made a promise and I must keep it.”
“I am your Guru,” said Shukracharya. “You have to listen to me in this matter.”
“You may be my Guru, but I made a promise, and I place my promise above everything else,” said Bali. Look at Bali’s disobedience! Instead of surrendering to his Guru, he bound himself to his promise.
Shukracharya loved his disciple and was determined to save him. Shukracharya had a big heart, and he also had wisdom in boundless measure. He said to Bali, “Before you give something, you have to have a small ceremony. In this detail, at least, you must listen to me. Whatever you want to give him, you can give. I do not know what he will ask you for. But before granting his wish, you must sprinkle a few drops of water on the dwarf’s feet. Only then will everything be purified.”
The sages used to keep their sacred Ganges water in an earthen vessel called a kamandalu. Shukracharya occultly entered into the kamandalu that Bali’s wife had brought and sealed up the opening with his body. He felt that if he could stop the flow of the water, the purification ceremony could not be performed and Bali would not be able to fulfil the dwarf’s wish.
Bali did not know that his Guru was inside the earthen vessel. When Bali sat at the feet of the dwarf and tried to pour the water, he discovered that the mouthpiece of the vessel was sealed. “O my God!” he said. “What am I going to do?”
Bali looked around for something to pierce the opening. You may think that a knife would have best served his purpose. But instead, he merely used a straw of hay. With the straw he was digging and poking. Unfortunately, the straw pierced one of his Guru’s eyes, leaving him blind in that eye. Naturally, Bali did not know that his Guru’s eye was there. When Shukracharya emerged from the vessel holding his left eye, Bali felt utterly miserable.
He said to the dwarf, “I am responsible for making my own Guru blind in one eye, just because I wanted to keep my promise. I am filled with sadness, but I still want to grant you your desire. The water is now coming out of the vessel without any obstruction. Let me sprinkle some on your feet and then you can ask me for whatever you want.”
After Bali had observed the ceremony, he asked the dwarf to tell him his wish. “You see how tiny I am. Kindly allow me to have the ground that can be covered in three steps,” said the dwarf. Bali laughed at the dwarf’s wish. “You are so short! How much distance can you cover in just three steps? All right, I grant your request. You can take your three steps in any direction you choose.”
Upon hearing Bali’s words, the dwarf, who was Lord Vishnu himself, resumed his universal form. With one stride, he covered the whole world; with his second stride, he covered the Brahmaloka, or Heavenly world. For his third stride, there are two versions of the story.
One version says that there are three worlds: this world, the higher world and the nether world. In Sanskrit, the words are bhuloka, bhuvarloka and svarloka. After covering this world and the higher world, Lord Vishnu said to Bali, “Now please tell me, where will I place my foot? There is still one stride left.”
Bali answered, “There is no place left for your third stride, so please be kind enough to put your foot on my back.” Lord Vishnu then placed his foot on Bali’s back and Bali was immediately destroyed.
Another version of the story says that after Vishnu had covered the three worlds, he saw that poor Bali did not have any place to stay. Bali, who had been all-powerful on earth, now had nothing. Vishnu told him, “By birth, you are an asura. Your proper home is in the nether world. I would like you to return to the nether world to live so that Indra and the other gods can enjoy their proper kingdom in Heaven. You have lost all your wealth and power. There is no place for you here on earth now.”
Bali was filled with happiness. He said, “My Lord, with your infinite Grace you have blessed me by allowing me to see your celestial form. I was blinded by wealth and power. But now I am so pleased that you are sending me back to my real home underground. I will be happy in that world and the cosmic gods, especially Indra, will be happy once again in the higher world. I do not know how I can thank you for your kindness towards me.”
This is the story of Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as a dwarf, who was called Vamana. To me, the most painful part of the story is when Bali pierced the eye of his own Guru while he was trying to get water from the vessel. That is why Shukracharya is known as being blind in one eye. This tragedy happened only because Bali disobeyed his Master. When there is a conflict between the Master and his disciples, very often something happens to the body of the Master.