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Sacred Colors!

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, today we have the opportunity to wish our Hindu friends a happy Holi Day!  This holiday is celebrated in India and around the world wherever ex-patriots from India have gathered.  It is best known to the non-Hindu world for rituals which involve the throwing of a colored powders or the squirting of colored water on the various celebrants like a giant water and/or powder fight.  I heard about a Holi gathering at Stanford University which started with only a few dozen participants several years ago and has now swollen into thousands of celebrants, many of them non-Hindus who wish to join in the festivities.

A Joyful Mess!

The origins of the holiday speak directly to some of Hinduism’s sacred stories.  The Holi Holiday story starts by noting that the King of the Demons had been granted the gift of apparent immortality.  For it was said to be impossible to kill him: “during day or night, inside or outside his house, not on earth or in sky, and neither by a man or animal.” Consequently the Demon King grew arrogant and attacked the heavens and the earth and demanded that people stop worshiping the Gods and start worshiping him.  The story goes that his own son, Prahlada , was a devote of the Lord Vishnu and in spite of several threats, and attempts by his father to have him killed, continued to resist his father’s orders.  Finally the Demon King ordered Prahlada to sit on a fire pyre in the lap of his sister Holika.  His sister could not die by fire because she possessed a shawl which would prevent fire from affecting her. The son followed his father’s orders and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe.  When the fire started everyone watched in amazement as the shawl flew off of Holika and covered Prahlada.  Holika then burned to death while Prahlada survived unharmed.  The burning/destruction of Holika is commemorated with this festival.  The story goes on to note that Lord Vishnu later came to earth in the form of a Narasimna (half human and half lion being) and killed the Demon King at dusk (which was neither day or night, on the steps of his house (which was neither inside the house or outside) by restraining the demon king on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth).

So we have a holiday that: celebrates the death of a demoness and the eventual defeat of the Demon King;   glorifies the Lord Vishnu; and serves as an example of a devoted follower who because of his faith was saved from death.  The rituals of the of holiday appear to vary somewhat but typically involve food preparations that began days in advance as various kinds of snack items are typically served to the festivals guests, the night before a bonfire (the Holi Fire) is lit which is said to represent the burning of evil.  It was noted that in the United Kingdom coconuts are often thrown into the fire and then pulled out and broken open.  The burnt husks are said to represent the demoness who died in the fire the white inside represents faithful Prahlada who was alive and unaffected.

I noted in a discussion with a friend that I am struck by the wide variations in sacred stories and rituals within a month we will have major festivals in three of the world’s religions.  These holidays commemorate the destruction of evil, the birth of a prophet, and the death and the rebirth of a Savior.  Clearly the substance and form of these celebrations vary considerably, however, from a functional standpoint they meet many of the very same needs. They bring together the respective communities with rituals involving food, joy and laughter.  These festivals grant the celebrants a sense of purpose, of guidance and a connection with the divine.

Some people might say that a story with a Demon King and a half human God, and rituals involving colored powders sounds strange and unbelievable.  However I would caution these people in their statements of disbelief, that for many people in the world would find it odd to have children running about the spring grass collecting colored eggs deposited by a rabbit, or enacting the tortuous death and resurrection of a savior God.  

I would like to comment on an incident that points to a need for caution when we look at other faith belief systems.  I was visiting a national bookstore chain and I came across a display of books produced by the bookstore chain entitled “Mythology of the World.”  There were dozens of volumes including everything from Babylonian, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, Greeks, Buddhists, to Hindu.  After studying the selection I was puzzled and asked myself: “Where is the Jewish and Christian mythology?” Where is the volume that talks about: parting the Red Sea, burning bushes, loaves and fishes, a God rising from the dead.  I shook my head, disappointed by the book chain’s apparent slight to so many of the world faiths. To call their faith beliefs Myths and not sacred stories is an affront to these believers.  These stories are based on faith and passed down through word-of-mouth and sacred scripture, no different from the stories of the Judo-Christian traditions.

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