A jolly good fellow with a cycle-bar moustache and a conspicuous pot belly. This was how the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali – at the root of the Onam legend, has always been portrayed. The story goes that the scenic state of Kerala was once ruled by King Mahabali. The King was immensely respected in his kingdom and was considered to be very judicious, wise and extremely generous. Everybody was happy in the kingdom and there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or societal class. Rich and poor were treated equally. There was neither crime nor corruption. People did not even lock the doors of their homes, as there were no thieves in the kingdom. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease and everybody was healthy and content. It is often said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali
The song in folk tune that begins with the lines “Maveli naadu vaanidum kaalam” is the theme song, so to speak, of the Onam festival. Although there is no unanimity among the literary and cultural circles in the country over the authorship of the song, it is an accepted fact that it resonates with the egalitarian spirit of Onam, that transcends all cumbers of caste, creed, religion and financial status. It is believed that during the four-day festival, the legendary King Mahabali comes to visit his subjects. For a world divided in the name of the race, caste, religion, etc., a festival like Onam literally spreads the message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (universal brotherhood).
Cut to today. The 21st century. Inequality and discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, religion, race, etc. is rampant across the world. For man to strive for equality is unequivocally reasonable. And in today’s world, partially utopian. Man is, principally and elementally, a rational being, and the evolution of equality as a concept is but a natural stratagem. It is on account of social consciousness evolving as time progresses, that the modern connotations apropos of the tenets of justice, equality, liberty, fraternity etc. engendered, and the construction whereof changes dynamically in conformity with the demands of a wayward and protean society.
A befitting definition of equality in compendious terms would be, “uniform apportionment of resources”. It is of utmost importance to note the word uniform and not identical. There is an element, therefore, of justice which remains intrinsic to equality. It can be said that there exists no punctilious division of society into such classes as imagined by historian Karl Marx. It has been observed that the middle class, as opposed to undergoing decimation, has indeed burgeoned. It may well be proffered that the middle class enjoys a numerical preponderance in neoteric society in contrast with both the upper class and the lower class. Furthermore, the mobility of classes must be taken into consideration. Certainly, a person from the lower class can, by means of merit, ascend to the middle class. Consequently, the hypothesized rigidity of class and social divisions having gainsaid and defied, and the mobility of classes established, the notion of identical apportionment must be forsaken.
Drawing parallels to Mahabali’s reign, equality becomes essential since it preserves the dignity of an individual and ensures equal treatment in the eyes of the law. However, instances of bigotry and prejudice on the grounds of caste, race, religion, gender, societal ‘class’ or birth are profuse. Of the aforementioned impediments, the most significant as I would opine, is the existence of gender inequality. Perpetual dominance of patriarchy has been detrimental to social and political equality, for it considerably diminishes the chances of a member of the fairer sex to rise to positions of power. The other factors based on primordial identities such as caste and religion exacerbate the effects of exploitation. Shameful practices such as female foeticide, untouchability, dowry, honor killing, etc. still continue to grow unbridled. Needless to say, such encumbrances obstruct the smooth functioning of the society, as a whole.
Onam carries the message of the basic goodness of a man, who is selfless in his deeds towards his fellow-subjects. It is also about a dream – a dream about a world of peace and serenity; economic well-being and resource sharing; love and fraternity; sacrosanct ethics and morals; and human justice and preservation of nature. People long for prosperity for most of their lives. But once it’s achieved, they crave spirituality and morals. At a more granular and functional level, for the world to be a better place to live in, more concerted efforts at local and national levels, and by the private sector are needed to bring women and the underprivileged to parity with the affluent ones. While increasing representation of women in the public spheres is essential and can potentially be attained through some form of affirmative action, an attitudinal shift is essential for them to be considered as equal within their families and in the broader society. Educating children from an early age about the importance of gender and social equality could be a meaningful start in that direction. Differences create, justify and unite human society, not equality.
“Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.”
Rashmi is an MBA candidate at TAPMI, Manipal. A Computer Science Engineer by qualification, she has worked in the IT industry for around two years. She is a Marketing and Strategy enthusiast and a passionate public speaker. A true Delhiite at heart, she describes herself as a bibliophile, clinomaniac and a big-time foodie!