With the whole universe as his realm, King Bali gladly promised to give the little brahmana boy just three steps of land… . No one could have foreseen how colossal those steps would be—or how colossal the king’s truthfulness and generosity would be.
From Srimad-Bhagavatam, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. (Adapted by Drutakarma dasa.)
Indrapuri, the capital of Indra, the king of heaven, overflowed with pleasing orchards and gardens where graceful, gliding swans played in ponds full of lotus flowers. The city was shaded by canopies decorated with pearls, and the domes of the palaces had flags embroidered with gold and precious gems. All through the city there were sitting places made of diamond and coral, and breezes bore the fragrance of the flowers falling from the hair of the demigods’ wives, who were everlastingly beautiful and youthful. For protection the city was surrounded both by trenches full of Ganges water and by a high wall the color of fire. Yet even in the carefree ‘capital of King Indra there is sometimes cause for fear….
Desiring to conquer Indrapuri, the powerful king of the demons Bali Maharaja once performed the visvajit sacrifice. Because Bali had served his guru faithfully, he achieved success, and from the sacrificial fire appeared a celestial chariot of gold, powerful yellow horses, a flag emblazoned with a lion, a gilded bow, two quivers of infallible arrows, and a suit of invincible armor. Thus equipped for war, Bali assembled his vast army and set out for Indrapuri.
When Bali Maharaja and his countless soldiers reached Indra’s abode, they furiously attacked it from all directions. Overwhelmed, the demigods fled the heavenly kingdom in great haste and scattered here and there, assuming different forms to escape detection. Then the victorious King Bali entered Indrapuri and brought the three worlds under his control.
Lord Vamanadeva Appears
Aditi, the mother of the demigods, began to lament the fate of her sons, who had been forced to leave the heavenly planets. She pleaded with her husband, the great sage Kasyapa, saying, “O best of sages, please bestow upon my sons a benediction by which they can regain what they have lost.”
Kasyapa, who was also a great devotee of the Lord, replied to his wife, “Only Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, can bestow such a benediction. You should engage in His devotional service, and He will surely fulfill your desire.”
So with full and undiverted attention, Aditi began to meditate on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In this way she subdued her mind and senses, which were as strong as strong horses.
At last the Supreme Personality of Godhead appeared before her in His original Visnu form. He wore yellow garments and bore a conchshell, disc, club, and lotus in His four hands, and His eyes looked like the petals of a blooming lotus. On seeing the Lord, Aditi was overwhelmed with transcendental bliss and stood silently with tears in her eyes.
“You have prayed to Me and properly worshiped Me,” the Supreme Lord said, “Therefore I shall agree to become your son, and in this way I shall act to help your other sons regain their rightful positions.”
So on the twelfth day of the bright fortnight in the month of Bhadra, when the moon came into the lunar mansion Sravana, at the auspicious moment of Abhijit, Lord Visnu appeared in this universe as the son of Kasyapa and Aditi. Then, in the presence of His supremely fortunate parents, the Lord assumed the form of Vamana, a dwarf brahmacari (spiritual student). Just as an actor may play different roles, but remains the same man, so the Lord assumes many thousands and millions of forms—and yet these forms are not different from one another.
When the great sages saw the Lord in the role of a dwarf brahmacari, they were very pleased. They held many auspicious ceremonies and initiated Him as a brahmana (spiritual teacher of society). According to the Vedic culture a brahmacari goes out to beg alms to learn the spiritual qualities of humility and pridelessness. And Lord Vamanadeva determined that He would follow this custom, even though He was actually the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the proprietor of all the universes.
Lord Vamanadeva Begs Charity From Bali Maharaja
Meanwhile Bali Maharaja, the conqueror of the three worlds, was performing a huge sacrifice in the field known as Bhrgukaccha, on the northern bank of the Narmada River. When Lord Vamanadeva heard this, he immediately went there to show His mercy to Bali.
Bali Maharaja was jubilant on seeing the beautiful form of Lord Vamana. With great satisfaction he offered Him a seat and washed His lotus feet. Then Bali said, “O brahmana, I offer You my hearty welcome and my respectful obeisances. Please let us know what we may do for You. It appears that You have come here to ask me for something. Therefore, whatever You want You may take from me.”
Apparently, Bali Maharaja did not know that the dwarf brahmana was actually the Supreme Personality of Godhead. But since the Vedic custom prescribes that a king give lavishly in charity—especially to the brahmanas—Bali offered Lord Vamanadeva whatever He might desire. Then the Lord made what seemed to be an insignificant request.
“O King of the demons, from Your majesty I ask only three paces of land, to the measurement of my footsteps.”
Bali Maharaja replied, “My dear brahmana boy. You don’t know what is in your own best interest. I could give you a whole planet, for I have conquered the entire universe. But you are asking me for only three paces of land. You are not very intelligent, I can see. O small boy, you should take this opportunity to ask me for as much as you want. That way you will never have to ask for anything more from anybody, ever.”
Lord Vamanadeva replied just like a perfect brahmana. “If I were not satisfied with three paces of land, then surely I would not be satisfied even with possessing a whole planet. If I possessed one planet, I would hope to get others. One should be content with whatever comes his way by providence, for discontent can never bring happiness.
“Therefore, O King, from you I ask only three paces of land. By such a gift I shall be very pleased.”
When the Supreme Personality of Godhead had thus spoken to Bali Maharaja, Bali smiled and told Him, “All right. Take whatever you like.”
But Sukracarya, the family priest of Bali Maharaja, could understand that the dwarf brahmana Vamana was none other than the Supreme Lord Himself, so he spoke quickly to dissuade his patron.
“O King,” he said very earnestly, “you have promised to give Him three steps of land in charity, but when you give it He will occupy the three worlds. You are a rascal! You do not know what a miserable mistake you have made. After He takes everything from you, how shall you live?”
Actually, Sukracarya was more concerned over how he himself would live. As a non-Krishna-conscious, professional spiritual master, he was completely dependent on his disciple for his upkeep. Bali Maharaja remained silent for some time, deliberating on the words of his greedy guru, and then he replied.
“How can I withdraw my promise out of greed when I have already said that I shall give this land? How can I behave like an ordinary cheater, especially toward a saintly brahmana? There is nothing more sinful than untruthfulness. In any case, if Vamana is the Supreme Lord, then what choice do I have but to offer Him the tract of land He has requested—even if He is coming as my enemy? He is all-powerful.”
On hearing this, Sukracarya angrily cursed Bali Maharaja. “Although you have no knowledge, you pretend to be learned, and therefore you dare disobey my order. You are very impudent. Because of your disobedience, you shall very soon lose all your opulence.”
But even after being cursed in this way by his so-called spiritual master, Bali Maharaja never deviated from his decision to offer charity to the young brahmacari who had appeared before him. Thus, according to custom, he first offered water to Vamanadeva and then gave Him the gift of land he had promised. At that time the residents of the higher planetary system—namely the demigods, Gandharvas, Vidyadharas, Siddhas, and Caranas—all became so pleased by Bali’s simple and sincere action that they praised his character and showered millions of flowers upon him.
Then, as Bali Maharaja and the members of the assembly watched stunned in amazement, Vamana began increasing in size—until everything in the universe was within His body, including the earth, planetary systems, sky, oceans, birds, beasts, human beings, demigods, and great saints. Now the Lord stood before Bali Maharaja in His universal form—holding a conchshell, sword, shield, flaming discus, arrow, bow, lotus flower, and club in His eight arms. Bali Maharaja saw the surface of the globe on the Lord’s feet; on the surface of His calves, all the mountains; on His bosom, all the clusters of stars and also the goddess of fortune; and on the Lord’s hair Bali saw the clouds. The Lord wore a yellow garment covered by a jeweled belt, and He was decorated with a flower garland surrounded by bees. Manifesting Himself in this way, the Supreme Personality of Godhead covered the entire surface of the earth with one footstep, the sky with His body, and all directions with His arms.
As the Lord took His second step, He covered the heavenly planets—and not even a spot remained for His third step. With His second step the Lord actually kicked a hole in the covering of the universe, and through that hole the water of the sacred Ganges River descended to the material world.
Then Lord Vamanadeva reduced Himself to His original form, and all the predominating deities of the various planetary systems began to worship Him by offering fragrant flowers, water, sandalwood pulp, incense, grain, and fruits.
When the demonic followers of Bali Maharaja saw that their master had lost all his possessions to Vamanadeva, they were very angry, and without the approval of Bali Maharaja, they pushed forward to kill Lord Vamanadeva.
When the associates of the Lord, who were each as powerful as ten thousand elephants, saw the demons coming forward so violently, they smiled. Then they took up their own weapons and began to kill them. When Bali Maharaja saw that his soldiers were all being killed, he remembered the curse of Sukracarya and forbade his soldiers to continue fighting.
“O demons, please hear my words! Don’t fight! Stop immediately, for the present time is not favorable. When we conquered the heavenly kingdom, providence was in our favor, but now that same providence is against us.”
In accordance with the order of their master, all the chiefs of the demons and their followers entered the lower regions of the universe. Then suddenly Garuda, the huge bird-carrier of Lord Visnu, arrested Bali Maharaja with the ropes of Varuna [the demigod in charge of the seas]. Vamanadeva then spoke to the captive Bali.
“O King of the demons, as far as the sun, the moon, and the stars shine, and as far as the clouds pour rain—to that extent all the land throughout the universe was in your possession. Now, with my first two steps I have taken all this. But you promised me three steps of land. Where shall I place my third step? You have broken your promise, so now you must descend for a few years to a hellish condition of life.”
King Bali Surrenders Everything
Bali Maharaja understood why the Lord was acting so mischievously, and he said, “Your Lordship, You have disguised Yourself to cheat me, saying you wanted only three steps of land. But now You have expanded Your body and taken my whole kingdom with just two steps. Because You have done this on behalf of Your devotees, the demigods, You do not regard this as cheating. And since You came to beg from me, I will keep my promise to You—I do not want to cheat You. You have taken my wealth, but I still have my body. Therefore, please put your third step upon my head, for the possessor is even more valuable than what he possesses.
“Only by providence have I been forcibly brought under Your lotus feet and deprived of all my opulence. Because of the illusion created by temporary opulence, people in general, who live under material conditions, facing accidental death at every moment, do not understand that this life is temporary. Only by providence have I been saved from that condition. It is to bring me to the right platform of eternal life that You have put me into these circumstances.”
In other words, Bali Maharaja could see that although the Lord was apparently acting as an enemy. He was actually acting for Bali’s own best welfare. In this instance the Lord was a better friend to the demon than to the demigods. The demigods worship the Lord for temporary material benefit, and thus they are not pure devotees. But because the Lord took away all his possessions, Bali Maharaja rose to the platform of pure devotion—which is very rare.
Just then Prahlada Maharaja, Bali’s illustrious grandfather, a most dear devotee of the Lord, appeared there, like a moon rising in the nighttime. Standing tall and elegant, he was dressed in yellow garments, and his beautiful eyes resembled lotus petals.”
My Lord,” said Prahlada Maharaja, “it is Your Lordship alone who gave Bali his heavenly opulence, and now, today, it is You who have taken it all away. Because his exalted position as king of heaven was putting him in the darkness of ignorance, You have done him a very merciful favor. Wealth, women, followers, and prestige are so bewildering that they make even a learned, self-controlled man forget to search for the shelter of Your lotus feet.”
Bound tight by the ropes of Varuna, Bali Maharaja could simply bow his head respectfully. His eyes filled with tears of shame.
Then Lord Brahma, the chief demigod in charge of creation, spoke. “My dear Lord Vamana, please consider that those who sincerely offer even a little water, some newly grown grass, or a few flower buds at Your lotus feet achieve the most exalted position in the spiritual world. This Bali Maharaja has now offered You everything that exists within the three worlds, including his own body. How, then, can he deserve to suffer arrest like this?”
Lord Vamanadeva said, “My dear Lord Brahma, in truth Bali Maharaja has satisfied Me greatly. First I took away his kingdom, and then My soldiers defeated him and arrested him with the ropes of Varuna. His spiritual master has cursed him, and his friends and relatives have rejected him. And in spite of all this, he has kept his promise to Me. Therefore not only shall I release him, but I shall also give him a position not attainable even by the demigods themselves. He will again become king of the heavenly planets in a future age. Until that time he will live on a special planet called Sutala, which is hundreds of times more opulent than heaven.”
Then, turning to Bali Maharaja, Lord Vamanadeva said, “There you will live peacefully with all your friends and relatives, including your grandfather Prahlada Maharaja, and all good fortune will come to you. O great hero, I shall always be with you and give you protection in all respects.”
When the ancient and eternal Supreme Personality of Godhead had spoken, Bali Maharaja—his eyes filled with tears, his hands folded, and his voice faltering in devotional ecstasy—responded by saying, “O my Lord, the causeless mercy You have shown me, a fallen demon, has never been achieved by the pious demigods.”
After Lord Vamanadeva had released him from the ropes of Varuna, Bali Maharaja entered the planet Sutala in full satisfaction. Then the Lord returned all the lands He had taken from Bali Maharaja to their original owners—Indra and the demigods. Now that He had fulfilled Aditi’s desire, the Supreme Personality of Godhead continued to rule the affairs of the universe, protecting the devotees and reforming the demons, as always.