Like most Hindu festivals, Onam is a time of celebration and reflection. Onam has a deep spiritual significance. Onam is celebrated as a major holiday in the southern Indian state of Kerala and by Malayalees around the world. Onam is primarily a harvest festival and typically falls in the months of August or September annually which corresponds to the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam (the first month of the Malayalam calendar). For many Malayalees, it is the major holiday and is also considered as a New Year’s Day. Although it is primarily a Hindu festival, many non-Hindu communities also celebrate Onam with many cultural events including boat races, various indigenous dances, flower offerings, prayers, and, of course, feasts.
Sathya Sai Baba encouraged the celebration of festivals of various religions. Swami emphasized the spiritual significance of these festivals in His discourses on numerous occasions. He emphasized that the lives of holy men and saints is worthy of study and is a source of inspiration for all. Swami also taught that all spiritual paths lead to the one God, but the path of devotion and dedication to serve God is the best path for most people to realize their innate divinity.
Swami, in His discourse on Onam in 1985, describes the spiritual significance of Onam:
….. Hiranyakasipu is described in the Puranas as a demonic ruler. He denied God and terrified his subjects. While he asserted that God is nowhere, his son Prahlada affirmed that God is everywhere. As a consequence, God was nowhere for the father, though He was everywhere for the son. Prahlada's son was Virochana and the hero of the story behind the Onam festival was the son of Virochana, Bali, Balichakravarthi (Bali, the Emperor). Being the grandson of the devout Prahlada, Bali too was engaged in the glorification of God and in the material and spiritual uplift of his subjects. There was no trace of poverty or ill health in his empire. Every home was lit with joy; every day was festive occasion. He decided to celebrate an elaborate sacrificial rite called Viswajith, which would propitiate the gods so much that, with their blessings, he could extend his beneficent rule over the entire world.
The Lord utilised this opportunity to shower Grace on him. He incarnated as Vamana and proceeded to the sacrificial altar in the form of a mendicant student, just initiated into spiritual life. Bali was happy to welcome Him. When Vamana was asked, which gift he would accept, He replied that he needed only three feet of ground, measured by His feet. Bali was surprised at this answer. For a short second, he doubted the intention and identity of the strange visitor. His preceptor, Sukra, warned him against promising to agree. But, Bali stood by his word. He permitted Vamana to measure for Himself the three feet of ground.
The Lord had incarnated to bless Bali, not to destroy him. So, when He had measured the earth with one stride and the sky with the second, He placed his foot on Bali's head and accepted the Emperor as the third foot of ground. That foot released Bali from the recurrent cycle of birth and death. But Bali made one last, lingering wish, which the Lord agreed to fulfil. He prayed, "Allow me to come to the Kerala I ruled over, one day in the year, so that I can see people I love and the land I cherish in my heart." Onam is that day. ……
The people of Kerala celebrate the arrival of Bali with great rejoicing. It is a holy day, when they prepare delicious sweets and offer them to the Lord. Everyone wears new clothes (Ona-Kodi), every home is decorated with festoons, garlands and floral designs. The atmosphere is fragrant with incense from every domestic shrine. Villagers spend the day together in dance and song. Lamps are lit in front of each home; they are placed on door sills, held before temples by rows of children. The lighted lamp symbolises the jiva (individual) whose self is but a tiny flicker of the Cosmic Light. Old and young, rich and poor, are all equally immersed on Onam Day in grateful adoration of the Lord and of Bali who earned the grace of the Lord by sacrificing his ego.
The lesson that Onam imparts is: A lifetime spent without devotion to the Almighty Lord is a pitiful waste. Ridding oneself of identification with the body and its adjuncts, one must involve oneself with the Spirit. This alone can reveal to him his reality, the Atma. Once the Atmic core of oneself is contacted, it needs only one step more to discover that all else have the same Atma as their reality. Thus, man becomes aware of the Unity that is the Truth, that is God……
Emperor Bali, who is welcomed into their hearts and home by the people of Kerala on Onam Day, had unwavering faith in God. He served his subjects as if he was commissioned by God (Narayana). He offered all he earned, all he was, and himself, most gladly, to God. He overcame the clouds of ignorance and rose to the heights of supreme wisdom. His self expanded so vastly that it merged in Divine Consciousness. Purity leads to Unity and Unity to mergence with Divinity. This is the Message that the Onam festival and the story of Bali conveys to mankind.
Discourse at Poornachandra Auditorium on Onam day, 28 August 1985.
SSS vol 18, discourse 18