Many descriptions of the Vamana Avatara portray King Mahabali in a bad light. They portray that Lord Vishnu punished him by pushing into hell by pushing Mahabali’s head down with His feet. If a person carefully reads the most authoritative book, Srimad Bhagavatam, he can find that these are absolutely wrong descriptions.
Book 8 of the Srimad Bhagavatam tells us the story of Vamana Avatara. Here are some highlights from the Srimad Bhagavatam. The translations are from http://srimadbhagavatam.org/downloads/bhagavatam-canto8.html
Even when fighting with Indra, Srimad Bhagavatam shows the wisdom of Bali:
8-11-2to6: Indra shouts at Bali with anger.
8-11-7: Bali retorted: ‘All present here on this battlefield are subjected to the rule of time and successively acquire with what they do a reputation, achieve a victory, suffer defeat and find their death. (8) Because the entire world is moved by time, an enlightened soul who sees this will not rejoice or complain. In that sense you all have pretty much lost your way [compare B.G. 2: 11]! (9) We who manage to control ourselves in that respect, reject these embarrassing words of yours that the saintly feel sorry for.’
Bali is killed in the battle and is brought back to life by Sukracharya using Sanjeevani herb.
8-11-48: Also Bali was brought back by the touch of Us’anâ, but despite the fact that he was defeated, he with his experience in worldly affairs did not lament [it to regain] his memory and senses.
Thus Mahabali is shown as a great person with great valor and wisdom.
8-15-1,2: The king (Parikshit) said: ‘Why did the Lord, the Controller of all living beings, like a poor man beg Bali for three steps of land and why did He fetter him notwithstanding his donation? We very much would like to understand all this begging of the Controller who is so complete in Himself and the arrest of Bali in spite of his innocence.’
8-15-3: Srî S’uka said: ‘Bali being defeated by Indra and deprived of his opulence and his life [see 8.11], was resuscitated by the followers of Bhrigu [S’ukrâcârya and his pupils]. He [then] as a great soul and disciple proved his respect for them by offering in full surrender everything he had.
8-15-4to23: Bali performed yagna with the help of Sukracharya and other followers of Bhrigu rishi. He got divine chariot, weapons, etc. He went to Indra’s city and surrounded it. Bhrihaspati advised Indra that he was no match to Bali, who derived his power from yagnas. Brihaspati advised Indra to leave without even trying to fight. Indra and all the devas left their city.
8-16,8-17-1to11: Aditi, the mother of Indra and devas lamented to her husband the great Kashyapa rishi about the condition of her sons. Kashyapa chided Aditi for being so attached to her children. Then he asked her to worship Vishnu following the procedure of payo-vrata.
8-17: (12) The Supreme Lord said: ‘Oh mother of gods, I have understanding for your long standing desire in relation to your homeless sons who were vanquished by their rivals. (13) What you desire is to defeat in battle those mad Asura leaders who are so proud of their strength, regain the victory of your opulence and reunite with your sons in devotional service. (14) You would like to see the tears of the grieving wives of the enemies when they find them killed in battle by your sons under the lead of Indra. (15) The restoration of the full glory, reputation and opulence of your offspring, the joy of their lives and a place for them in heaven is what you want to see. (16) At present all those Asura masters of war are as good as invincible oh Devî [goddess]. It is My opinion that no form of using force will bring you the happiness, for they are all protected by the brahmins who enjoy My favor. (17) Nevertheless I must think of something to help you out, for I am very pleased with the vow you have observed. Someone who worships Me never deserves it that his belief and devotion would lead to another result. (18) Because you in faithful austerity with the son of Marîci [Kas’yapa Muni] for the sake of your sons have worshiped Me with the payo-vrata vow and to the best of your ability have prayed as should, I will become your son with a plenary portion of Myself and thus protect your other sons.
From these, it is very clearly shown that even the Lord is very reluctant to help the selfish mother of the devas. He wants to help her only because He is forced to reward her vrata. The only defect that the Lord finds in the Asuras under the leadership of Bali is that they are proud of their strength. There is no other defect.
Lord Vishnu was born as Vamana to Aditi as her son.
8-18-20: As soon as He heard about the glory of Bali as someone who under the guidance of Bhrigu brahmins performs horse sacrifices, He headed for the location where they took place.
Vaman went to the place where Bali was performing the Ashwameda yagna.
8-18-26: (26) The instigator of the sacrifice (Bali), delighted to see Him so beautiful in each of His lustrous limbs, offered Him a seat. (27) The Beauty of the Liberated Souls was thereupon with words of welcome worshiped by Bali Mahârâja who honored Him by washing His feet. (28) The water washing from His feet washes away the sins of all people. Bali knew the dharma and placed on his head the all-auspicious water that also the god of gods, Lord S’iva who is marked with the emblem of the moon, in his supreme devotion had accepted on His head.
We can see here, how the Bhagavatam indicates that Bali was washed away of all his sins, whatever little that remained. Also, indicates that Bali sprinkled the holy water from the feet of the Lord on his head, like Shiva who accepted Ganga (which is also the holy water from the feet of Vishnu) on his head.
Bali offered Vamana to ask whatever He wants.
8-19-1: Srî S’uka said: ‘When He thus heard the very pleasing and faithful, dharmic words of the son of Virocana, the Supreme Lord praised him satisfied with the following words. (2) The Supreme Lord said: ‘Oh Lord of Man, what you have said is very true, befits the dynasty, is in accord with the dharma and adds to your repute. It proves the authority of the Bhrigu brahmins and is of the peace of your grandfather [Prahlâda], your oldest ancestor in the afterlife. (3) No one in this dynasty has been as poor-minded as to break his promises unto the brahmins and not be charitable. (4) Because of the impeccable reputation of Prahlâda who is like a clear moon in the sky oh ruler, in your dynasty no kings are found who, in holy places or on the battlefield, were as low-minded not to respond to the requests of petitioners.
Some people claim that Lord Vishnu spoke these words to please and later cheat Bali. That cannot be so, because Suka’s words in the verse 1 indicate genuineness of the Lord.
When Sukracharya tells Bali that it is Vishnu who has come and justifies to Bali that telling a lie or not keeping a word is acceptable for various reasons, Bali refuses.
After having covered the land and sky with two steps, Vamana tells Bali that there is no place for the third step. Vamana shows Bali that he is pushed to a position where he cannot fulfill his promise. Vamana says that he should be punished for making a promise that he cannot fulfill.
8-22-1: Srî S’uka said: ‘Thus having run into trouble with the Supreme Lord oh King, Bali the Asura king, was despite his awkward position an unperturbed soul who replied positively with the following words. (2) S’rî Bali said: ‘If, oh Lord Praised in the Verses, Your Goodness thinks that what I have promised proved to be false oh Greatest of the Gods, then let me, in order to be just in this matter and not to have turned to cheating, offer You my head to put the third step of Your lotus feet. (3) I am not as afraid of residing in hell or of being bound in fetters, of facing hard to endure distress or of a lack of funds, as I am of the punishment of the dishonor I now have to endure by You [compare B.G. 2: 34 and 6.17: 28]. (4) I consider it the most exalted thing to be punished by the worshipable Lord, for that is something one’s mother, father, brother or friends cannot offer [see 10.14: 8]. (5) You are of us Asuras the unseen supreme guru who gave us the vision many of us were deprived of in our blind arrogance. (6-7) Many of the ones who apart from the wisdom fixed their intelligence upon You in a constant enmity, achieved the state of perfection, a position which, as is known, equals that of the yogis. Despite being punished by Your Lordship who are so full of wonders, I am therefore not ashamed – nor do I suffer that much – from thus being bound with Varuna’s ropes. (8) My grandfather [Prahlâda] who is appreciated by Your devotees, is famed all around for being a saint, as someone having You, the Supreme One, [as his shelter] when he had to suffer all the nasty matters that were plotted by his father who was set against You [see 7.5]. (9) Of what use is this body that leaves you in the end? What is the service of all those profiteers who passing as relatives snatch away the inheritance? What is the need of a wife who only drags one more into the material world? And what is for a person certain of death the use of wasting his life with domestic attachments [see also 5.5: 8 and B.G. 18: 66]? (10) My grandfather the great devotee who so deep in his wisdom was afraid of worldly association, was free from fear in his surrender to the immovable refuge of Your lotus feet oh my Lord, oh Best of the Best Ones, even though You have put an end to his own kind. (11) I, who by providence was arrested and with force was bereft of all my wealth, [to my luck] have now also been brought under the shelter of You, the enemy of our family. The fact that wealth is a temporary thing and that life may end any moment is something a narrow-minded person does not think about [see 7.5: 30].’
Thus, Bali offers his head. But it is not mentioned in the Bhagavatam whether the Lord put His foot on the head or not.
Prahalada and Bali’s wife pray to the Lord and say to the effect, “You gave. You took. What is the big deal. It is all your play.”
8-22-21: Lord Brahmâ said: ‘Oh Goodness of all Living Beings, oh Controller of Each, oh God of Gods, oh All-pervading One, please release this man now who has lost everything. Someone like him does not deserve it to be punished. (22) He gave to You all the lands and all the worlds. With a firm resolve everything he has achieved in his piety has been offered to You with an intelligence free from hesitation; all that he possessed, even his body. (23) At Your feet he honestly offered water, grasses and flower buds. How can such a worshiper despite his most exalted offerings, despite his worship, after generously offering You the three worlds, deserve the pain given to him? He not being duplicitous deserves the highest destination[B.G. 9: 26]!’
Now comes the grand finale.
8-22-24: The Supreme Lord said: ‘Oh Brahmâ, it is My mercy to take away the riches from him who is led by it, for someone under the influence of material opulence takes pride in it and looks down on the entire world! (25) When the living entity, dependent because of its karma, from birth to birth moves through different species of life, it longs to attain the human life form [see also B.G. 13: 22]. (26) It is [also] to be regarded My grace when a person because of his [human] birth, activities, age, physique, education, achievement, wealth and other opulences then not has hardened in this pride. (27) Matters as a high birth and such that are the cause of arrogance and bewilderment, [for a normal person] together constitute impediments for [attaining] full beatitude, but no, My devotee is not disturbed by them [see also 4.8-12]. (28) Bali, this best and most famous devotee among the Dânavas and Daityas, already surpassed the insurmountable deluding material energy. Despite losing his wealth he was not taken aback. (29-30) Having lost all his riches, having fallen from his superior position, being reviled and arrested by his enemies, being deserted by his family and relatives, having suffered all kinds of uncommon hardship, being rebuked and cursed by his guru, he, fixed in his vow, did not forsake his truthfulness, the dharma that I so deceitfully for the sake of the gift spoke about. True to his word this man never gave it up. (31) Through Me he has achieved a position that even for the immortal ones is most difficult to obtain; during the time of Sâvarni Manu [see 8.13: 10-11] he will become the Indra enjoying My full protection. (32) Till then he may go and live in Sutala [see 5.24: 18], the place created by [the heavenly architect] Vis’vakarmâ, where it because of My supervision has been made impossible for the inhabitants to suffer psychically or physically any weariness, exhaustion or defeat. (33) Oh Indrasena, oh Mahârâja, please go now oh ruler. May there in Sutala, the place so desirable for even the denizens of heaven, for you surrounded by your people, be all auspiciousness. (34) None of the controllers of the worlds will be able to overrule your command there, not to speak of the common man, for I with my cakra will personally take care of all the Daityas who defy your rule. (35) I will protect you, your associates and your property. In every respect I will always stand by your side oh great hero. You will be able to see Me there! (36) In that place the foolishness from being associated with the Asura mentality of the Daityas and Dânavas, will disappear immediately by observing My excellence.’
So, Lord Vishnu gives these to Bali:
- Position of Indra in the next cycle of creation
- Till then, residence in Sutala a place created by Visvakarma under the supervision of Vishnu where there is no physical or psychic suffering
- Place in Sutala for all the followers of Bali, so that he is not there alone
- Personal protection by Vishnu with Cakra to Bali against people who defy his rule
- Protection to Bali, his associates and his property
- Promise that Vishnu will stand by Bali’s side
- Bali will be able to see Vishnu at Sutala
- Freedom from the deluding Maya and its illusion that cause the Asura mentality
Now, is this a reward or punishment? Is this a blessing or curse? The reader can decide.
In reality, what the Lord has done is that He has offered Himself to His devotee and has sidelined the selfish Aditi, Indra and others, in the disguise of giving them what they wanted.