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Onam And The End of Buddhism in Kerala

Onam is the most important festival in the Hindu calendar in the Indian state of Kerala.  The ten day festival begins in the month of August or September.  There are many reasons for celebrating Onam.  First and foremost it is a celebration of the end of the harvesting season.  It is also the time of the return of the beloved king Mahabali.  According to mythology Mahabali was an Asura (demon or sinful) king.

However, Mahabali’s rule was considered as the golden era in Kerala history.  He was wise and benevolent ruler and his subjects loved him.  His fame and fortune grew and eventually he defeated the Devas (celestial beings).  Lord Vishnu wanted to defeat Mahabali before his fame grew any further.  He took the form of a dwarf, approached the king and asked the King if he would grant him the land covered by three footsteps of his.

Mahabali not realizing that the dwarf is really Lord Vishnu said yes.  The dwarf then became a giant and with one foot covered the whole earth with his next foot he covered the entire heavens.  He had no place to put the third foot.  Mahabali asked Vishu to put the third foot on his head thereby burying him inside the earth.  Mahabali was given the permission to visit his subjects once a year.

There are a few different versions of this story.  But what is really the story behind the story?  Why should a good king be defeated?  The story really shows the conflict between the Asuras (the indigenous people of Kerala who where mostly Buddhist at the time) and the religion of the Devas (the new incoming religion of the Brahmins).  This Onam story is first documented in 8th century to 9th century ACE (After Common Era) the same time historians believe marks the end of the Buddhist domination of South India and the beginning of the Brahmin religion emanating from North India.

During this period many Buddhists from Kerala fearing prosecution from the Brahmins actually started following Islam and Christianity (which were fairly new faiths in the region at that time).  It is interesting to note that many Muslims and Christians in Kerala today call their place of worship as “Palli”. Palli is a Buddhist word derived from the word Pali, which is the language of Buddhism (as compared to Sanskrit which is the language of the Brahmin religion).  Although Onam celebrates the return of King Mahabali it also in a way signifying the end of Mahabali’s faith and belief system which is Buddhism.

After the fall of Buddhism many of its religious sites including Ayyappan Temple in Sabarimala or the Kodungallur temple where either included in the Hindu pantheon or in some cases their Buddhist idols where replaced with Hindu idols.  There remains only one temple dedicated to Vamanamurthy (Vishnu as the dwarf who defeated Mahabali) in Kerala.  It is located in Thrikkakara (near Cochin).  This area is considered to have one of the earliest Brahmin settlements in Kerala.  More on Lord Ayyappan in a later article.  Meanwhile Happy Onam to all of you.

Related posts:

  1. Thirumala Venkateswara Temple: From Buddhism to Hinduism
  2. Syrian Christians of Kerala
  3. Gautama Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama an Avatar of Vishnu?
  4. Hindu Fundamentalists: Ayodhya Similar to Mecca
  5. Lord Ayyappan and Sabarimala Pilgrimage

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Category: Culture & Religion

Comments (9)

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  1. dr felix says:

    congrats on your efforts to present the covered history of kerala. expecting more enlightenment. thank you

    • Hari says:

      Thank you for the feedback Felix. I will try my best.

  2. Dev says:

    I became interested in Krishnacharya’s Sahaji-Nathayan or Shiva-Buddhism and have now included a Natha lingam in my shrine. The disappearance of Buddhism from most of India was owing to Hindu persecution and massacre of Buddhists. Buddha Marg is really about pratityasamutpada or chain of dependent origination. India has suffered a great spiritual loss.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Dev and thank you for posting your comments.

      I agree that the marginalization of Buddhism in India over the centuries is a great loss to India. But I would not go as far as saying that it is because of Hindu persecution and massacre. Buddhisms hold on India started waning at least 1200 years ago and there was no religion called Hinduism as we know it today. Also I believe that “Hinduism” did not eliminate the Buddhists but absorbed it (Lord Vishnu has very similar characteristics to Buddha (they almost look identical in some cases)). So what we call Hinduism today includes and is also greatly influenced by Buddhism.

  3. Sathya says:

    Friends: Hinduism is one religion that constantly keeps evolving. It spreads it arms to embrace diverse view points in a harmonious way. That way Buddhism and Hinduism are not all competing with one another . Most of the values and belief systems in both the religions are similar if you focus on their unity.. If a Hindu wishes to practice a religion without rituals and multiplicity of Godheads, then surely he can follow Buddhism and be absolutely at home.
    I say Buddha is an avatar who came on earth to cleanse the Hindu religion of its cobwebs and meaningless rituals that have crpet in over the years. He made these values accessible to common man.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Sathya,

      In general I agree with your theory. Unity is important. But history is also equally important. You assume that Buddha came to cleanse Hinduism. But Buddhism was in India centuries before Brahminical religions spread to India (particularly South India). This conversion of South Indians from Buddhism and Jainism to Vaishnava and Shaiva religions and the introduction of systematic caste system was a severe blow to the south.

      Most of the lower caste people today in Hinduism were mostly the followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhist places of worship like the Puri, Tirupati, Palani and Sabarimala temples were converted to Hindu shrines. South Indian languages (particularly Tamil) were relegated to second level languages and preference was given to the Sanskrit language (please note that the earliest and best documentation of Indian history is Sangha period Tamil literature written by Buddhist and Jain monks). While every Indian today knows about Ramayana and Mahabharata how many Indians can name a single document from the over 400 Sangam period Tamil texts?

      Buddha is not an avatar who came to cleanse Hinduism. Hinduism converted Buddhist followers of south India and then incorporated the Buddhist god to the Hindu pantheon. Before we talk about unity we should learn to be honest with each other.

  4. Hmmmm… this is a new dimension for me :)

  5. James says:

    Where do you have the references for this article?

    • Hari says:

      Google it!

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