Bali was a demon king of immense might and power. He had gained protection from a family of illustrious sages and with their blessings taken over Indrapuri, the gorgeous city of the heavens. He had also become master of the whole universe and was now conducting a very special ceremony called the Ashvamedha Yajna, a sacrifice where they offered sacred ingredients to a blazing fire, to gain even more power.
Thus, on the northern bank of the River Narmada, King Bali and a host of priests were in the middle of the sacrifice when they saw a young boy approaching them. He was dazzling; a glow emanated from all around him. A dwarf sage, he was very beautiful and tender-looking. His hair was tied up in matted locks; he wore a belt of straw around his waist and deerskin over his upper body. The sacred brahminical thread hung over his small shoulders. He carried a rod in one hand and an umbrella and water pot in the other.
The young boy was actually Lord Vishnu who had incarnated as a brahmin sage to fulfil his promise to Aditi, the mother of the demigods. Aditi was very upset to see King Bali usurp her son Indra’s throne in heaven. She wished for power to be restored to the demigods and had prayed to Lord Vishnu for help. Taking birth as Vamana, the dwarf sage, Lord Vishnu had come to the sacrifice to grant Aditi her wish.
The assembled sages looked with wonder at Vamana while King Bali stood up to welcome him. The king felt overjoyed to see this intriguing guest and offered him a seat. In accordance to the highest traditions, he washed Vamana’s feet and then sprinkled the water on his head.
“Dear bramin lord, my body, my home and this sacrifice are completely purified with the touch of your feet. Have you come here to ask for something? What may I offer you?” the king said.
Vamana was pleased. He praised King Bali’s noble ancestry before saying, “I would like just three steps of land.”
The king laughed, “I could give you a whole island as I am the proprietor of the universe, yet you ask for only three paces of land? You can have villages, horses, elephants, chariots, cows, even a brahmana’s daughter in marriage.”
“No, I only ask for what I need,” Vamana replied.
The king accepted, “Alright, take whatever you like.”
Vamana stepped forward to pour water from his pot to bind their agreement, but suddenly King Bali’s guru, Sukracharya, intervened and spoke urgently to the king.
“Bali, this is a very dangerous deal. Lord Vishnu has come disguised as this dwarf brahmin to take everything away from you and give it to the demigods. He asks three steps in charity but he will seize everything, be warned!”
The king reflected for a moment over what was the proper and respectful thing to do.
He said, “Saintly persons like you worship Lord Vishnu. And now that same Lord Vishnu comes in disguise begging for some land. I must satisfy his wishes, whatever the personal cost.”
Sukracharya was not pleased that Bali had not listened to him. In a fit of rage, the sage cursed the king to lose all his power and riches, though this did not disturb Bali, who remained determined. His virtuous wife stepped forward with a golden pot and the couple lovingly washed Vamana’s feet.
Then Vamana did an amazing thing. He started to grow and expand in all directions. Everyone watched in amazement as Vamana became so gigantic that in his first step he covered the surface of the Earth. With his second step he covered all the heavenly planets and in fact every part of the universe.
“Dear King Bali, I have covered the length and breadth of the whole of creation and taken everything away from you, where should I place my third step?” said Vamana.
Truthful and humble, King Bali bowed down his head in surrender; he only had himself left to offer to Lord Vishnu.
“Dear Bali, I accept. You are glorious and have shown a wonderful example. I now ask you to go live in the beautiful lower planet called Sutala where you will always be able to see me and I will always protect you as your gatekeeper.”
King Bali went happily to the lower planets while Indra returned to his heavenly realm.