TOI Blog | March 20, 2019
Every festival in India is imbued with alternate meanings. For example, Holi is often called a “spring festival” signifying the transition from winter into summer. Others call it a “harvest festival” to give thanks for a bountiful crop. Yet others call it the “festival of colours” to denote the colours that are daubed on each other as part of the celebrations, while some call it the “festival of love” associating it with fertility.
Of the two-day celebration, the first day is called “Holika Dahan” or “the burning of Holika”. Hindus light a bonfire on the evening of the first day to mark this occasion. We have all heard the story of the Asura King Hiranyakashyap who merited a boon from Brahma through severe penance. That boon gave him five tremendous powers. He could neither be killed by human nor animal; neither indoors nor outdoors; neither at day nor at night; neither by astra nor shastra; and neither on land nor water or air. Owing to the boon, Hiranyakashyap became all-powerful and demanded that everyone worship him instead of Vishnu.
The only opposition came from Hiranyakashyap’s own son, Prahlad, who was a devoted follower of Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap punished his son repeatedly to make him change his ways but to no avail. Finally a plan was hatched to finish off Prahlad once and for all. Hiranyakashyap’s sister, Holika, convinced Prahlad to sit inside a flaming pyre along with her. Holika was clad in a robe that had special powers to protect the wearer from flames. But Vishnu came to the rescue of Prahlad. The robe magically flew off Holika’s body and enveloped Prahlad instead. Thus Holika died and Prahlad emerged unscathed.
Finally, Vishnu decided to end Hiranyakashyap’s evil reign once and for all. He took the form of Narasimha, a half-man, half-lion figure so that the slayer of Hiranyakashyap would neither be human nor animal. The killing happened at dusk—neither day nor night. Hiranyakashyap was slayed at the entrance threshold of his palace, thus the location was neither indoor nor outdoor. The Asura king was slaughtered after being placed by Narasimha on his lap, thus ensuring that the death was not on land, sea or air. Narasimha killed Hiranyakashyap with his claws, hence the weapon was neither an astra (a handheld weapon) nor a shastra (a projectile). After the death of Hiranyakashyap, Prahlad ascended the throne and revived a reign of righteousness in the kingdom.
Thus, the bonfire on the first day of Holi is to commemorate the triumph of Prahlad over Holika, the defeat of Hiranyakashyap by Narasimha and the overall victory of righteousness over evil.
The second day is “Rangwali Holi” or “Khelnewali Holi” in which people drench each other in varied colours. Interestingly, this second day is also linked to Vishnu but in a slightly different way. Vishnu’s most lovable avatar was the cowherd, Krishna. Krishna had characteristically dark skin owing to the poison that the demon Putana had fed him through her breastmilk. Krishna wondered whether the fair-skinned Radha would ever love him given his dark complexion. Krishna’s mother offered him a piece of advice: to tell Radha to colour him in whichever colours she liked best. Radha obliged and thus began the romance of Radha and Krishna and the tradition of smearing colour on each other.
But there is another equally interesting legend associated with Holi. This has to do with Shiva, not Vishnu. It is said that Shiva was deep in meditation, and his wife Parvati wanted his attention. Breaking Shiva’s penance was no ordinary task so Parvati sought the assistance of Kamadeva, the god of love. Kamadeva shot a series of arrows at Shiva in the hope of getting him to pay attention to Parvati. Shiva got up angrily and opened his third eye, thus incinerating Kamadeva to ashes. Kamadeva’s wife, Kamadevi, was inconsoloable and she performed severe penance for the next forty days until Shiva was left with no alternative but to restore Kamadeva to life. The fortieth day, marking the rebirth of love, is celebrated as Holi.
All constituents of the Hindu trinity—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—are associated with Holi. Creation and rebirth, preservation of good, destruction of evil… all these elements find play in the myths and legends of Holi. Holi is about good over evil, as per the Hiranyakashyap-Prahlada story; it is about non-discrimination and overlooking faults as per the Radha-Krishna story; it is also about the supremacy of love and rebirth as per the Shiva-Kamadeva story. But does it really matter what the myths associated with Holi are? Why not simply look at Holi as a day of renewal, a day of new beginnings? Why not use it as a day to rectify past errors, overlook faults and make new resolutions? Why not use it as a day to renew old friendships and make new ones? Surely that has to be the greatest and most enduring way that we can celebrate this timeless festival.