29 Aug Vamana avatar – a dwarf incarnation of the Lord
This year the school starts just after Vamana Dvadashi, so I decided to open a school year with the story of Lord Vamanadeva. It is a story with so many lessons to learn and covers the whole range of themes, with detailed descriptions of heavenly planets, Universal form, the process of serving the Lord through payovrata vow, etc. For young children, I simplify the rich content of a story to the most essential elements, which are going to be elaborated during the discussion and activity time (see below).
The appearance of Lord Vamanadeva
On the stars above the Earth live good and pious beings called demigods. In the areas below the Earth live evil beings called demons. Demigods have faith and respect for the Supreme Lord Vishnu and live by His orders, and demons do not like Vishnu at all and do not follow the rules set by Him. But sometimes it happens that a good and pious man is born in the family of demons. This is the story of one man like that. His name is Bali Maharaja. His grandfather Prahlad Maharaja was of the same category, he was the topmost devotee of the Supreme Lord, but this is a subject of another story.
Because Bali Maharaja was faithfully serving his guru and pleased the brahmanas, he was rewarded with the golden chariot in which yellow horses were harnessed, and with a golden bow and unmistakable arrows. He got a magic armor and a garland of flowers that never wither. So equipped he set out to fight with demigods and conquered the heavenly planet where Indra lives. Lord Indra and other demigods hid away, afraid of king Bali’s mighty power. While Bali Maharaja was preparing to perform a Vedic sacrifice to gain even more power, the mother of Indra and other demigods was feeling more and more worried about the wellbeing of her family. Her name was Aditi. She approached her wise husband Kashyapa Muni for advice and help. Sage Kashyapa said: „This demon is too powerful. The only hope is to get help from Lord Vishnu. You should do some austerity to satisfy Him and seek His help.“
Following the advice of her exsalted husband, mother Aditi started to perform Payovrata, the vow of not eating and drinking anything but only milk for twelve days while serving Lord Vishnu with full determination. As a result of her service and austerity, Lord Vishnu appeared to her and promised to become her son and to help her family to return their kingdom. Overwhelmed with love and admiration, Kashyapa and Aditi welcomed their son Vamanadeva who appeared as a dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vamanadeva was dazzling as millions of suns. After He got blessings and gifts from Sun, Moon, and the sages, Lord Vamana went to the place where Bali Maharaja was about to start a new sacrifice, for the sake of becoming the ruler of the whole universe.
Upon entering the sacrificial arena of Bali Maharaja, Lord Vamana, carrying umbrella, water-pot, and danda stick, illuminated all directions as if the sun had appeared between them. Seeing Lord Vamanadeva’s splendor and beauty all the priests stood up and offered Him prayers. Bali Maharaja welcomed Him warmly and, as a king, offered to give Him whatever He desires. Vamanadeva praised the generosity of Bali Maharaja and asked for three steps of land. Bali Maharaja started to laugh, considering Vamana’s request frivolous. „I am the king!“ – he said – „I can give you much more than three steps of land. You can ask for any opulence: gold, cows, horses, elephants, chariots, rich villages, houses, or anything you want.“ But Lord Vamanadeva answered: „Dear generous king, three steps of land would be enough for Me because a man should be happy with only what he truly needs.“ Hearing these wise words, king Bali promised to give Vamanadeva what He asked for.
Suddenly, the guru of Bali Maharaja appeared looking upset and told his student: „No, you should not give Him three steps of land! He is none other than Lord Vishnu and He came here to help the demigods, who are our enemies. If you give Him what He asks, He will take all that you have.“ But, Bali Maharaja was not willing to follow the order of his guru, even though the guru became angry with him. Under the risk of losing everything he possesses, he was sure that he wants to keep his promise to Lord Vamanadeva, who had already stolen his heart. After worshiping His lotus feet, king Bali allowed Vamana to take His three steps of land.
In front of everyone, Lord Vamana started to expand Himself into a gigantic form and took the first step, crossing the whole Earth and the sky. Then He expanded Himself even more and took the second step, crossing the higher planets and reached the edge of the universe. He pierced the cover of the universe with His toe and allowed the pure water of mother Ganges to enter from spiritual abode. Now there was no place for His third step. Vamana asked king Bali: „Where is the place for My third step? You were proud of your opulence, but now you are not able to keep your promise of three steps of land. You should be punished because of that.“ Hearing these words Bali Maharaja was frightened, not of punishment but of not being able to keep his promise. With a great desire to remain truthful and to serve the Lord, he offered his head as a place for the third step to Lord Vamanadeva.
Seeing the full surrender of king Bali, Lord Vamanadeva showered His mercy on him. Because king Bali surrendered everything to the Lord, he reached the glory of a pure devotee of a Lord, even though he was born in a family of demons. He got a special planet Sutala, full of heavenly opulence, to rule over it and live there peacefully, and Lord Vamana agreed to personally protect his kingdom as a gatekeeper. Indra and other demigods returned their kingdom, and mother Aditi was happily reunited with her family again.
The story is based on the descriptions from canto 8 of Bhagavata Purana, translations, and commentary by Srila AC. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Themes for discussion and activities
Importance of brahminical culture:
At the beginning of a story, it is explained that Bali Maharaja got the blessings of the guru and the brahmanas, and that was the source of his extraordinary power. We can explain to the children the four divisions of society according to varnashrama dharma using the analogy of parts of the body – teachers and priests are the head, rulers and leaders are the arms, traders and farmers are the stomach, and workers are the legs of the social body. All divisions have their responsibilities and by their cooperation, the society runs properly.
We can make a funny experiment by trying to move in a way that our arms, legs, and stomach want to different things: legs run and hands write, arms want to reach something and legs do not move, stomach wants to take food from the table and arms take the food away. After we realize the absurdity of these actions we should decide to use our head by taking a decision and moving our body according to it. In this way, the brahmanas are the most important division of society because they have knowledge and wisdom of what should be done and how it should be done for the benefit of everybody, in the same way as our head knows how arms and legs should move to make a proper action. That is why the brahminical order represents the will of God in society and should be respected accordingly.
Importance of austerities:
In the modern world, nobody uses the word austerity anymore because the goal of religious duties is mainly lost. There are only material goals and people sometimes make special efforts to gain them. In this story, we can see how mother Aditi was advised to make a special vow to please Lord Vishnu to fulfill her desire. Austerity means that we do something that is not pleasing to the senses with the intent to please the Lord, and if we please the Lord all our needs will be fulfilled.
Austerity should be not too much hard to perform, but also not too easy. It is similar to a „sweet spot“ principal in teaching: if we find the task for a child that is not too hard so that he/she would not give it up, but not too easy so that he/she needs to put some effort in it, it is called a sweet spot in the course of learning. The same is with austerity – it should be motivating and strengthening for a child’s body, mind, and spirit. If we explain to the child that austerity makes us more strong and capable it would give additional motivation to perform it. We can discuss with children what kind of austerity they already do (like waiting for food to be offered to the Deities before tasting it, morning shower, and simple things like that) and what they can do additionally to please the Lord, which of course depends on the age, spiritual advancement of a child and the environment in which the child lives (it could be starting to chant japa regularly, or increase japa chanting, or to make a special offering for the month of Kartik, and things like that).
Truthfulness and keeping the promise:
Bali Maharaj has shown good qualities of generosity and truthfulness. Even though he was aware that he might lose everything he was determined to keep his promise to Vamanadeva. In a dilemma to obey his guru, by whose blessings he gain all his power, or to keep his word and serve the Supreme Lord, he chose to disobey the guru and to risk losing everything, even his life and freedom. Of course, it is a very high level of spiritual surrender and determination and we should not imitate it, but it is very important to discuss with children about decisions and motivations of pure devotees and to highlight their qualities we should all strive for.
Make with children a short sketch about some situation from ordinary life where one child gives promise to another child (like the child borrow a book and promise to give it back in two weeks, or one child promise to other to help the other in picking up the fruits from the garden). Then make two scenarios: one when the promise is not fulfilled and one when the promise is fulfilled. Then ask the actors how they felt in both situations. Ask them why they did not keep the promise in the first scenario and why they keep it in the second. This kind of conversation along with dramatic activity helps children to become aware of their actions and feelings, to realize how their behavior has an impact on others and why keeping the promise is so important.
Nine processes of devotional service:
Since Bali Maharaja is an example of atmanivedanam, the process of surrendering everything to the Lord, we can discuss with children about nine processes of devotional service: what is the name and meaning of each process, who is the pure devotees who exemplify it. Ask children which process they like the most and why. Do a pantomime game: one child takes out the paper with the name of the devotional process (or a name of a devotee who exemplifies it) and act it out while other children try to guess.
The appearance of the Ganges River:
After covering all the above-mentioned themes I will do with the children a nature study of aquatic habitats starting from the river Ganges, who appeared when Lord Vamana pierced the cover of the universe with His toe at His second step. We will follow the Ganges from her earthly origin at Gomukh up to its mouth into the sea at the Bay of Bengal. We will explore the flora, fauna, and relief changes from the source of the river to the mouth. Even though we are far away from the Ganges, nearby here we have a great river Tisa that looks just like the Ganges in the plains of Bengal (we spent our summer days bathing in this river and are already familiar with her features). We are going to make a comparison of the Tisa with the Ganges regarding their inhabitants.
To me, the Ganges is a great inspiration for painting and drawing. We have done a watercolor painting of river Ganges at her source in previous years, and this year we will do a painting of her in the plains.
Warm-up movement activity:
Make three simple drawings of Lord Vamana (if you are not the best in drawing you can just write His name, or you can engage the children to draw) in three sizes: small, bigger, and the biggest. Make a rule that children should make a small step when you show them a small drawing, normal step for a bigger drawing, and a really big step for the biggest drawing. You could stand in some distance and show the drawings one by one, first by order and later out of order, changing the speed, and children should make the proper steps towards you. It can be done as a competition (in that case whoever makes mistake is out), or just as a warm-up movements for fun.
Variation: If there is no enough space, you can do jumps instead of steps: small jump, normal jump, and a really big jump, from squatting position.
My not-at -all-perfect drawings of Vamanadeva for this activity