(This year, 2017, Holi is on 12 th & 13th March)
Holi is the most colourful and energetic religious festival in the world. It is a celebration of the arrival of spring as well as marking the death of the demoness Holika, from whom the festival gets its name.
A large bonfire is lit, in a great community gathering. Prayers are chanted and food is distributed. Newly born babies especially are taken to witness the event in order to receive Vishnu’s blessings. On the next day, in Hindu localities in India and elsewhere, entire towns and villages come out with coloured water and powder and engage each other in a huge colour fight. The idea behind this sort of energetic and shocking treatment is to tell us to get out of the slumber of winter and into the creativity of spring. It is a time of great unity. Everybody is free to draw any other person into the celebration, no matter who they are. Thus it is a time for breaking down barriers.
Holi is an affirmation of hope that no matter how encompassing the forces of adharma (unrighteousness) appear to be, that eventually, by divine grace dharma will prevail and be re-established.
The story behind the festival relates to an ancient demonic king known as Hiranya Kashyapa. He was a cruel, tyrannical and vain ruler. He declared to his subjects “There is none stronger than I. I am the lord of the three worlds. I shall be worshipped as such”.
All his subjects followed his orders. Except for one person – his son Prahlad. When Prahlad returned from his studies, Hiranya Kashyapa asked him: “What have you learnt? Prahlad said: “I have leant that the most worthwhile occupation for anyone is the worship of Lord Vishnu”. Hiranya Kashyapa was very angry: “O cursed child! Who taught you such perverse things?” Prahlad remained calm and said: “Vishnu. He reveals himself to all who are devoted to him.” This infuriated his father who wanted to punish him. He tried many schemes to kill Prahlad, such as having him poisoned, trampled by an elephant and hurled of a cliff. These attempts failed.
As Prahlad was not hurt by all the attempts on his life, Hiranya Kashyapa called upon his sister Holika, who had a boon from Lord Brahma that she could not be burnt by fire. Holika made Prahlad sit on her lap in the fire, with the intention that he would be burnt to death. But the scheme failed. Holika was burnt to death and Prahlad was unhurt. Eventually, the ordeals faced by Pralhad climaxed in the incarnation of Narahari or Narasimha (an Avatar of Vishnu) who destroyed Hiranya Kasyapu. The story displays the triumph of a true Bhakta (devotee) over the evil represented by Hiranya Kasyapu. Prahlad never lost faith in the Lord despite all his ordeals. Thus to the devout, the legend is an affirmation that no matter how powerful and all encompassing the “forces of adharma” are, the victory against all odds eventually belongs to dharma.
Stories such as this are from the literature known as the Puranas. The Puranas carry important principles and reveal sacred truths. From a human perspective the stories from the Puranas would often seem “unrealistic” or “imaginary”. However, it should be noted that they were never meant to be portrayals of events solely of human history, although the stories do have a historical core. To insist that such stories are literally true (like a scriptural fundamentalist) or to reject them because they are not both represent a failure of intelligence and the application of a wrong standard. Sacred history as we find in the Puranas is not concerned mainly with events as they occur in the human world, but rather with portraying the spiritual forces of the universe, that are the true determinants of outer events. Whereas textbook history is linear, sacred history has a qualitative dimension that transcends chronological time. In this view of history, the wars between the Gods and demons, the positive and negative forces in the cosmos, are as important as the wars on Earth. The individual who transcribed such accounts was not suffering from a defect of imagination but judging events by a different standard. Through the celebration of such festivals we are intended to leave our petty everyday concerns and participate inwardly in the life of the universe.