Holi, Holy, Wholly Human

Swami Muktananda Saraswati

There was once a king, Hiranyakasha, whose dominion extended over all known lands. A man of might, naturally, but his worldly power blinded him to the powers beyond who were yet more glorious than he. Hiranyakasha did not believe in God, and since no man could challenge his sovereignty, he assumed that his was the ultimate majesty. He declared that worship should be offered to himself only. The true God was to be wiped from memory and no one should even repeat any of His names. With all the means at his disposal, the King persecuted those who dared disobey so that the people submitted from practicality and fear, always doing as he commanded.

Now it happened that the Queen was with child, and the everyday miracle that was taking place in her body set her wondering about the great truths behind life and death. Often she would sit in her garden contemplating these mysteries in the company of other fertile and growing things. Then one day, the great sage Narada made his way to the Queen's garden and, resting under a shady tree, he began to sing.

His song flew straight to the Queen's soul, answering the questions that she harboured there. Approaching the sage she said:

-Muniji, what is the song you sing that brings peace to my heart?

-Devi, he replied, I sing only the name of God, who has dominion over the hearts of all mankind. It is he who brings you peace.

Like a sweet dream reaching out into the daylight, the teachings of her childhood were revived and she demanded:

-Teach me your song.

So the Queen was initiated by Narada, and her heart sang God's name to her unborn child.

In due time she was delivered of a fine son who was called Prahlad. As he grew up, it became clear that he was no ordinary child, for Prahlad was filled with the awareness of God, and spoke of him always. This caused great consternation in the royal court. Though they felt the truth of his words, the servants would not attend Prahlad and his tutors refused to teach him, for they lived in fear of the king.

Hiranyakasha would not tolerate such defiance, especially from his own son, and he threatened, punished and tortured Prahlad. All to no effect. Eventually the king decided to murder his son and ordered that he be thrown from the highest mountain. Although his henchmen carried out Hiranyakasha's bidding, Prahlad was mysteriously saved.

Hiranyakasha was furious and came to believe that he had been tricked. So he called upon Prahlad's sister, Holika, to assist him with his evil designs. Like her father, Holika did not believe in God, but she knew that the old rituals could awaken man's dormant super-faculties. So she studied the old ways, exploiting them for her own ends, and in this way obtained the magic power of immunity to fire.

- Holika, my true daughter, said the king, we must be rid of Prahlad and his subversive blasphemies. He has bewitched the hearts of the people and they refuse to obey my instructions. When I order that Prahlad be killed, they protect him by trickery and try to deceive me.

- Yes father, I would gladly see Prahlad dead and I will be faithful in executing your desires. If we cannot burn him as a corpse, we will burn him alive. You must build a great pyre and I will take a seat there with Prahlad, beguiling him with sweets and stories. He is so affectionate and trusting that he will suspect nothing and since I know the secrets of fire, I will be unharmed.

So it was that a tremendous bonfire was built and Prahlad chained there by his sister's arms. The fire was ignited, the blaze continuing for hours, and Hiranyakasha was confident that he was now free of his son and enemy. However, when the embers cooled, the king was dismayed to see that ashes were all that remained of Holika. It was Prahlad who stepped from the holocaust, triumphantly singing God's name, a living testament to the power of faith in the divine.

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In India the triumph of Prahlad is celebrated every year in March. Holika was reduced to ashes and her name shortened to Holi, the name of one of the most important festivals in the Indian calendar. This is not just a Hindu feast day, but is celebrated throughout the length and breadth of the country, by all people, regardless of social status or religion. It is a true celebration of the masses.

In a primarily agricultural society, the official Gregorian calendar is given second place to the traditional solar and lunar calendars, which link the community with the earth, the seasons and the rainfall. Thus the new year in India begins not in the middle of winter, but at the spring equinox. After this the days grow longer and the cosmic energy reaching the earth increases accordingly. Holi spans the junction of the old and new year, beginning at the previous new moon and climaxing at the full moon closest to the spring equinox. This is the most favourable conjunction of solar and lunar energies.

The period prior to the festival proper is called 'sitting' Holi, meaning the time of preparation. During this time, family and other groups plant a tree, similar to the traditional Christmas tree, symbolizing the renewed fertility of the earth and the eternal Tree of Life. Every night the people gather beneath this tree around a huge bonfire. The bonfire is Holika, and everyone begins to unload the year's grievances by hurling obscenities and abuse into the flames. The night progresses with music, singing the names of Radha and Krishna - the archetypal lovers - the most popular symbol of the Lord and his faithful devotee.

As the moon waxes brighter, so the atmosphere of the Holi festival grows stronger until it explodes in a wild free-for-all on the full moon day. This is a day of total license, a day when all normal social conventions are thrown aside. You can do what you like, as long as you can defend yourself. You are free to say whatever comes to mind, no matter how offensive. Nobody needs any encouragement to use this license fully. Sons and daughters revile their parents in gross language, and parents their children. Men jettison their respectful behaviour towards women and women forget their gentleness and reserve.

Mudslinging is the order of the day, verbally and physically. High caste or low, young or old, male or female, everyone is pelted with mud, gutter filth, rotten vegetables- whatever you can imagine, whatever comes to hand. Sometimes coloured dyes or paints are used, but in all cases your glad-rags will be stained beyond recognition.

On Holi all the shops are shut, even the tea stalls, and everyone who is concerned for his safety stays at home. Nevertheless, the people surge into the streets, the crowd building up to a great throng by nightfall. Abuse, obscenities, flying filth and laughter fill the air; there is fighting and dancing, crying and singing. All the year's frustrations and longings are given riotous expression in a day and night of complete anarchy, but above all can be heard the continuous singing of Radhe Radhe, Govinda Gopala, the innumerable variations on the theme of the Lord and his devotee.

The psychological value of this custom is obvious, allowing people to express their pent-up emotions in a socially harmless way. It relieves people of their emotional burdens and frustrations, in a way that has positive benefits for the individual and the society as a whole. Everyone is then able to cast off the filthy rags, and begin the year with a heart as fresh and spotless as the white clothes worn on new year's day.

Holi is a truly popular festival in all senses of the word, being celebrated with gusto by people throughout the world. It is a universal spectacle and very ancient, having its counterpart in some of the oldest human cultures. Among the Iraqois Indians of North America, the 'festival of dreams' is celebrated in March to mark the new year. The ceremonies extend for a couple of weeks and it is a time of general freedom. Men and women in disguise go from tent to tent smashing and destroying anything in their way. It is a time to pay off old scores by beating up the obnoxious person and covering him with filth and hot ashes.

The Slavs of eastern Europe also began the new year in March, as did many other European peoples. As in India, this was linked with the sun, the moon and the crops. Throughout northern and central Europe the Easter fire ceremonies still commemorate this tradition with huge bonfires like those that blaze during Holi. In Germany, the custom is to cut down two trees, plant them together in the ground and heap brushwood and tar barrels around them. On the evening of Easter Saturday the whole lot is ignited and the children use the ashes to blacken themselves and the clothes of the adults; there are variations of this festival in all parts of Germany and Holland. In Sweden bonfires are lit on hills and high places; shotguns and other firearms are then discharged in all directions.

In some parts of Europe, especially in Catholic countries, a wooden figure is burned on a consecrated bonfire. The figure is called Judas, after the traitor who sold Christ to his enemies, and it personifies sin and betrayal exactly as does Holika. Just as in India where the fire itself has come to be called Holika, so in some places the bonfire itself is called the Judas.

Moving to southern Europe we come across the 'burying of the Carnival'. Although in France the famous Mardi Gras is held on Shrove Tuesday at the beginning of Lent, the Carnival is generally celebrated closer to Easter. Like Holi, the Carnival runs for at least several days. In Italy, a huge dummy is constructed and led in procession to a fiery end. The crowd throws aloe leaves and cabbages on the virtuous and the villainous alike, with an accompanying barrage of shouts, abuse and blasphemy. Ultimately this escalates into a brawl with brother beating brother, children assaulting parents, wives belabouring husbands. Primed with a plentiful supply of local wine, the people strip the Carnival figure and burn it on a huge pyre, then give themselves up to feasting and dancing.

The Carnival is also celebrated throughout Latin America, and with particular gusto in Brazil. Every year thousands of tourists from all over the world flock to Rio de Janeiro just to take part in the melee. The celebration here is exactly as in India, with bonfires, singing and throngs of people smearing each other with every imaginable filth, abusing each other with the vilest obscenities and invective.

Chinese in their homeland and throughout Asia celebrate the new year in March with their own 'festival of colour'. People wear gay masks and dance in procession behind an elaborate dragon; bonfires are lit and fireworks are in abundance. In Indonesia, with its combined Indian and Chinese influences, there is a similar festival with the usual rain of filth and abuse.

In the Middle East, the Jews celebrate the Passover around the time of the spring equinox, in commemoration of the Hebrews' escape from Egypt. Like the miracle of Prahlad, the Jewish exodus confirmed the power of faith in God, as does the Christian Easter pageant which grew from this celebration.

Easter, like Holi, is associated with both the sun and the full moon, Easter Sunday falling on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Easter is preceded by a period of preparation called Lent, just as Holi is preceded by 'sitting' Holi. During Lent, Christians call to mind all their sinful ways and undertake fasts and penances in atonement. However, rather than hurling their personal evils and frustrations outwards into the fire, Christians take into themselves the guilty responsibility for the death of Christ. He died expressly to atone for their sins, enabling them to start a new life in God's grace. Their period of mourning, like the Jewish Day of Atonement at the Wailing Wall, has the same purging effect as abusing the fire Holika has for Indians.

The imagery of the risen Christ and Prahlad rising from the fire with God's name on his lips is significantly similar; the motif of the Holi tree is repeated in the Cross on which Christ died and the ritual fire appears as the Paschal candle. In Catholic countries, it is customary to extinguish all the candles in the church on Good Friday. At midnight on Easter Eve, the bishop appears and announces the glad tidings that 'Christ is risen' to which the crowd replies 'He is risen indeed'. A gigantic Paschal candle is lit, from which all the lights of the church are then kindled. The bishop raises up the candle and carries it at the head of a procession together with the consecrated bread that is the body of Jesus. In some parts of Europe a bonfire is also kindled. The resurrection of Jesus is the Christian counterpart to the triumph of Prahlad, both symbolizing the victory of the forces of light over those of darkness and testifying to the potency of faith in the divine.

The time of Holi is a season of rejoicing for people all over the world, expressing an urge towards wholeness in rituals that spring from deep in the collective unconscious of humanity. It is a celebration of our place in the cosmic scheme, an acknowledgement of the vital web connecting man to the earth he tills, the moon that brings rain and the sun that radiates the energy behind it all. The Holi festivals are a ceremonial acting out of both the positive and negative aspects of the human psyche, removing the barriers that divide us from ourselves. To ignore frustration and deny our more violent impulses only makes them stronger, but during Holi we have the chance to destroy these demons in the festival fires, bringing us wholeness and peace. We are then free to fulfil the playful and joyous aspects of our nature in feasting, dancing and merrymaking. Holi temporarily removes the inhibitions necessary to live in society, acting as a safety valve for energies that would otherwise explode the social structure. As it is, this opportunity for sanctioned anarchy reinforces social cohesion.

The various myths and legends associated with this festival season have a common theme - affirmation of the power of faith over faithlessness, a confirmation of faith in the divine potential of mankind. Christ's death is an archetype of the death of the divine in mankind, resulting from deluded identification with the lower manifestations of our being. His resurrection is an act of faith in the possibility for every one of us to rise to our full human potential. The story of Prahlad is a confirmation of faith, that through communion with the spark of God within us, we will be untouched by the flames of worldly attachment and delusion, and that we will emerge in joyful awareness of the divine within and without us.

Holi is truly a global festival reflecting man's deepest urge towards becoming wholly human.