By Kumkum Bhatia
Holi, the rejuvenating festival of colours, occurs at the end of winter in March. It heralds the advent of spring; reveals the colours and oneness of nature; brings in prospects of bountiful winter harvests where people of different castes, communities come together in a spirit of sharing and forgiveness. It is a time for celebration and joy, for collective rejoicing, for burying old enmities and inner reflection.
Legend of Holi
Hiranyakashipu, a mighty, demon king practiced severe austerities and gained the boon of near ‘invincibility’ from Lord Brahma. The king forbade the worship of Lord Vishnu and declared the he, Hiranyakashipu alone, was the supreme. Hiranyakashipu became such a tyrant that he subjected his young son Prahlad –an unshakable devotee of Lord Vishnu – to terrible atrocities because the boy refused to acknowledge his father’s diktat and supremacy.
The demon’s sister, Holika had the unique boon of being unharmed and unaffected by a burning fire. She came to her brother’s aid and suggested that she would sit in a fire with Prahlad on her lap. A huge pyre was built in the middle of the city; Holika took Prahlad with her and sat in it. People waited in apprehension; as the fire settled down, the joyous name of Lord Hari was heard amidst the crackling sound – Prahlad came out unscathed.
Burning of Holika
It is to celebrate this victory of Prahlad over Holika, a victory of good over evil; a victory of righteousness over unrighteousness; and a victory of our virtues over our vices or negative tendencies that Holi celebrations start with a huge bonfire enacting the burning of Holika. Earlier, people collected dried weeds and twigs, old and discarded furniture for the fire and thus cleaned out their homes and purified the atmosphere in the process. Carrying green plants tied to sugarcane sticks in their hands, people offer gratitude to Mother Nature for a good harvest.
Swami Sivananda points out that the real spirit of Holi is to “burn all the impurities of the mind, such as egoism, vanity and lust, through the fire of devotion and knowledge. Ignite cosmic love, mercy, generosity, selflessness, truthfulness and purity through the fire of yogic practice.”
The next day, all communities, young, old, rich and poor come out and rejoice by throwing colour and coloured water on each other. It is a special treat for children to drench all and sundry!
The colours signify peace, prosperity, vitality, growth, fertility, healing happiness and harmony. In the pre-synthetic era of powders, natural colours were obtained from flowers, leaves, roots, barks of trees etc. which cleansed and revitalized the skin.
In Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna used to play with the gopis, the festival lasts for many days. Here scenes of Krishna playing and soaking the gopis with coloured water are enacted, thereby celebrating the ‘jiva’s’ devotion and yearning for the Supreme. This also highlights the need for a personal relationship with the Lord to develop steadfast faith and devotion
While nurturing all aspects of individuality, Hindu culture lays stress on the harmony of social and communal living. After returning home and wearing fresh clothes, people gather in the evenings, embrace each other and share desserts in an attitude of forgiving past hostilities. The difference of status, position etc. are merged in a common bond of humanity.