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Holi: A Call to Celebrate Life in all Seasons and in all its Colours

As a spring festival, Holi marks the end of winter and the arrival of spring, the season and symbol of regeneration and new life. The
Holi the festival of colours
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Starting on the Purnima, the full moon day, in the month of Falgun in the Hindu calendar, Holi, the two-day (in some places, five-day) festival of spring, colours, emotions, and joy falls somewhere between the end of February and the middle of March every year. Though essentially a Hindu festival, people of other faiths in India also take part in the festivities of Holi owing to the secular and colourful nature of the festivities, and the universal and enduring significance of the narrative of good triumphing over evil that is embedded in the celebration.  

As a spring festival, Holi marks the end of winter and the arrival of spring, the season and symbol of regeneration and new life. The much-awaited spring harvest and the availability of the abundance of food at the time of Holi add newer niceties to the flavours of the festivities every year. Emerging from the gloomy days of winter, people regardless of their faith, caste, class and gender come together to welcome and celebrate spring by singing, dancing and throwing colours at each other. It is a joyous occasion characterised by great fun, frolic, freedom, social cohesion and harmony.  Holi is a carnival of colours – colours of the rainbow and the colours of nature – colours obtained traditionally from seasonal plants, flowers, and fruits.

kids playing holi
Kids playing Holi

Colours are associated with different human feelings and emotions. For instance, red is the colour of love, sacrifice and anger, green of jealousy, blue of vastness, yellow of happiness, purple of knowledge, white of peace, saffron of sacrifice and so on. Since every person is a unique assortment of diverse colours (gifts, talents and personality traits) with concomitant emotions, life can be seen as an ever-unfolding drama of infinite colours and shades. Hence, Holi is a celebration of life in its manifold manifestations with significant spiritual underpinning. 

Despite the many narratives regarding the origin of Holi, and the regional variations in the celebration of the festival under different names, the story of Holika-Prahlad-Hiranyakashipu in the Vaishnava tradition is the most well-known among all. In commemoration of the events related to this legend, on the first day of the festival, most devotees celebrate Holika Dahan (burning of the demon named Holika in the holy fire), also known as Chhoti Holi. On the second day, they celebrate Rangwali Holi, variously known as Dhuleti, Dhulandi, or Dhulivandan, but all refer to the celebration of colours.  

Holika Dahan
Holika Dahan ritual

Holika Dahan commemorates the death of Holika by the fire while she tried to kill Prahlad, her nephew, and son of her brother, King Hiranyakashipu. She tried to kill him by burning him alive as per the order of the king. Holika, who enjoyed immunity from fire, used her special immunity for an evil purpose: holding Prahlad in her lap, she entered and sat in the fire to burn him alive. The gods punished her by letting the fire consume her while Prahlad, a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu, invoked the latter’s assistance, and was saved. Prahlad walked out of the fire unscathed. Thus, Holika Dahan commemorates not only Holika’s death but also Prahlad’s miraculous survival by divine providence. The festival of Holi is named after Holika.

In commemoration of this great mythical event, the devotees burn the effigy of Holika on the night of Holika Dahan every year. Amidst the singing of hymns, drumbeats and conch blowing, they light a bonfire that symbolises the divine fire that annihilated the evil Holika. They burn the effigy of Holika and walk around the fire seeking divine blessing for the destruction of all forms of evil by the Divine symbolised by the fire. They pray that like Holika, all evil both in them and in the world be destroyed in the holy fire, leaving only what is pure, good, and holy. 

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In Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Narada Muni explains how Hiranyakashipu, a Daitya king had received a boon from Brahma “not to be killed by any living entity, not to be killed in any place, covered or uncovered, not to die in the daytime or at night, not to be killed by any weapon, on land or in the air, and not to be killed by any human being, animal, demigod or any other entity, living or non-living.” Narada Muni further explains how Hiranyakashipu had also received another boon for “sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and … all the glories obtained by that position.” 

Holika Dahan commemorates the death of Holika by the fire while she tried to kill Prahlad, her nephew, and son of her brother, King Hiranyakashipu. She tried to kill him by burning him alive as per the order of the king. Holika, who enjoyed immunity from fire, used her special immunity for an evil purpose: holding Prahlad in her lap, she entered and sat in the fire to burn him alive. The gods punished her by letting the fire consume her while Prahlad, a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu, invoked the latter’s assistance, and was saved.

As Hiraṇyakaśipu thought that he had become invincible through the boons, he “conquered everyone in the ten directions and the three worlds and brought all living entities, both demigods and asuras, under his control … All the demigods but Lord Viṣṇu, Lord Brahma and Lord Śhiva came under his control and began serving him.”  He became the master of all and declared himself to be greater than Lord Vishnu, the supreme God and decreed that everyone should worship him as the supreme God. Those who refused to do so would be tortured to submission or death. 

Narasimha kills Hiranyakashipu
Narasimha kills Hiranyakashipu

However, Prahlad, his son, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused to regard his father as God and worship him. He declared “that the Lord is all-pervading, that everything is under Him, and that no one is equal to or greater than Him. Thus, he requested his father to be submissive to the omnipotent Supreme Lord.” Hiranyakashipu would not tolerate Prahlad’s rebellion and his devotion to Lord Vishnu, and hence,  tried to kill Prahlad in many ways, but he could not. Finally, he ordered his sister, Holika, who was immune to fire, to enter the blazing fire and sit inside it with Prahlad in her lap. In the event that followed, to everyone’s surprise, Holika was consumed by the fire and vanished without a trace, while Prahlad emerged from the fire unhurt and alive.  

One day fuming with rage at Prahlad’s discourse on the omnipresence of Lord Vishnu, Hiraṇyakaśipu asked his son if his Lord existed in the pillars of the place. Prahlad answered saying that since the Lord is omnipresent, he was present in the pillars as well. To prove his son wrong, Hiraṇyakaśipu struck one of the pillars with his fist at which with a tumultuous sound, Lord Vishnu emerged from the pillar as Narasiṁha, a half lion and half man, the fourth avatar of Lord Shiva. Hiraṇyakaśipu fought Narasimha in vain the whole day “and in the evening, on the border between day and night, the Lord captured the demon, threw him on His lap, and killed him by piercing his abdomen with His nails.”

Narasimha who slayed Hiranyakashipu was neither fully man nor fully animal. The slaying took place at twilight (a time between day and night) with the sharp nail of the lion and not with any weapon. While slaying Hiranyakashipu, Narasimha kept him in his lap (a place which belongs neither to the land nor the air). When he was slain, one of his feet was inside the palace and the other outside, hence, he was neither inside nor outside the house. Therefore, though none of the terms of the boon granted to Hiranyakashipu was violated, his life met with a dreadful end. While Hiranyakashipu’s invincible pride, ego and wickedness brought about his own annihilation, Prahlad’s goodness and firm faith in God saved him from every form of evil directed against him by his own father.

Sculpture of Narasimha in Hampi
Sculpture of Narasimha in Hampi

The story of Prahlad, Holika and Hiranyakashipu has an interesting parallel in the Judeo-Christian tradition though the latter has no bearing on the celebration of Holi. The book of Daniel in the Bible relates the story of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s futile attempt to burn three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, alive. When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem in 605 BCE, he took many of the men of Jerusalem as captives and transported them to Babylon. Among the captives, there were four young intelligent and handsome men, namely, Daniel and three brothers – Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were eventually rechristened as Belteshazaar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego respectively in Babylon. Since they were handsome, efficient and wise, they found favour with the king. While Daniel was appointed to an important government office, the other three were appointed as his advisors. Though captives in Babylon, all four lived a life of comfort and happiness there.

However, their happiness was short-lived. When Nebuchadnezzar’s megalomania got the better of him,  he set up a golden statue and decreed that everyone in his country shall worship it and that anyone who refused to do so would be thrown into a blazing furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood their grounds defying the king’s command. They would not worship any god other than the One True God, Yahweh. The three were brought before the king who insisted that they worship the statue or else face the blazing furnace. They refused to worship the statue declaring boldly, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” 

The fiery furnace
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace

The fuming king commanded that the three men be bound immediately and thrown into the furnace, heated seven times hotter than normal. After they were thrown into the furnace, however, the king was astonished by what he saw. “He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’” The repentant Nebuchadnezzar not only brought the youths out of the flames but also promoted them to high office and decreed that anyone who spoke against their God would be put to death. 

If Nebuchadnezzar had a change of heart and survived, the hard-hearted Hiranyakashipu persisted in his stubbornness and insisted on perpetuating his wickedness and met with a tragic end. Legend has it that the death of Hiranyakashipu was received with great jubilation and people celebrated the event by throwing colours in the air and on each other and spraying each other with coloured water – an event immortalized in the ‘Rangwali Holi’ of the present day. 

However, the religious narratives about Holi notwithstanding, the best part of this festival of colours, as it is celebrated in the country in the present day, is its secular nature and orientation. When India celebrates Holi, breaking down the boundaries of religion, faith, caste, class and other divisive forces, the festive colours bring everyone together into a spontaneous, joyous celebration of life. While the festival of Holi is a time of great festivity filled with lots of fun and frolic, it is also a day to leave the disagreeable past behind, reconcile with friends, relations and family and turn over a new leaf in life. Holi reassures people of the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the need for reconciliation, forgiveness, social cohesion and harmony. The colours of spring and the colours of life merge together in the festival of Holi in a triumphant celebration of all things good, positive, joyous and abiding. Holi is a call to celebrate life in all seasons and in all its colours.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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