One of the greatest weaknesses many humans have is that we tend to judge others by their outward appearance—the expensive jewelry they wear, the ay they dress or, these days, from the various gadgets they carry. Traditional wisdom says: ‘Do not judge a book by its cover.’ It is very important to regularly remind people about this human trait because Nepal is entering a new era where the only way we shall get to lasting peace will be to respect each other no matter how we appear to each other. People can be mistreated or deprived of a service based on their looks and family name. People often feel they are just ‘pawns’ in a big political chess game. This has become even more important when we see physically challenged people all around us. We often refer to them as disabled and as liabilities to society.
At the temple complex of Changu Narayan at the east end of the Kathmandu valley there are numerous beautifully carved stone images of Lord Vishnu in various forms or avatars. Lord Vishnu takes different forms in order to rescue humans and gods when they are in deep trouble. There is one sculpture at the south west corner of the courtyard in which he may be best described as ‘taking a very big goose step.’ The left leg is stretched high above the shoulders as if to reach out to the ‘heavens’. The stone sculpture also has many characters paying different forms of homage to Vishnu. This image depicts the fifth avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu and captures Vishnu’s Trivikrama Avatar (literally meaning Vishnu in three strides) in the popular folklore of South Asia.
Vamana is a short person, but when used to describe a dwarf it is considered to be a degrading term. As the tale goes, King Bali of the Demons has just defeated all the armies of the earth and is celebrating the victory of the asuras or demons. The King and the demons now have their sights firmly on the heavens. The unknown stone craftman has tried to visualize the actual celebration and is a so-called ‘horse sacrifice’. As the ceremony begins, Vishnu, in the form of a very short person, comes to ask for alms. King Bali is in such a good mood that he is giving away anything people ask for. So, when Vamana approaches the demon King he asks for a grant that will include everything he can cover in three steps. The king and the courtiers are amused and see no problems in the little man’s wish. The request is granted without a second thought and blinded by the illusion of power.
Vamana then takes that giant step shown in the famous sculpture. One step is into the Underworld of the Nagas, or sacred serpents, and the other is into the Heavens of the Gods. With the third step, Vamana steps on Bali’s head and pushes him underground. In our heritage, Vishnu, as the maintainer of the universe, takes numerous forms to preserve Good over Evil. People can be seen worshipping Vishnu who may be in the form of tortoise, as a boar, as a lion, as a fish and many more. While many of his forms are little known or not well understood, the Vamana avatar is very popular with local people. This is indicated by the amount of offerings at the particular idol. The reason could very well have its roots in the fact that people in power and authority treat the ‘little’ people badly. Perhaps ordinary people pray to Vishnu to come to rescue the people at the
bottom of the power pyramid.
Just a few days after the names were announced for the ‘proportional’ seats in Nepal’s Constitutional Assembly; citizens with physical disabilities marched, demonstrated and raised their voices for representation in the 601 member body. They finally resorted to a “fast onto death”—hunger strike, before the leaders of political parties heeded their call and came to give them assurances. As the process of writing a new Constitution for Nepal begins, we will need to keep a close watch on who gets left behind. Lasting peace will depend on it. Morality tales like this one have long had their place in society, reminding us over and again so that no one forgets.