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Spiritual Meanings for Holi

Holi Dahan - Burning of Desires

Holi heralds the end of winter and the onset of spring. It is also pointed out as an instance of the conquest of base instincts of man and Holi is a celebration of this conquest. The Holi fire connotes this event in Hindu mythology of the conquest of lust by Shiva. For this reason, Shiva is also known by the names Kameswara, Maara Ripu or Madana Ripu indicating one who has conquered carnal desires.

On Holi day, Hindus remember the life of a pure devotee, Prahlad and keep his spiritual ideas alive. In other parts, it is celebrated as the day of Kaama dahan (burning of desires). Madana Utsava is the vernal festival honoring Madana. Madana Trayodashi is the 13th day in the day in the bright half of Chaitra when the festival in honor of Madana is observed. Madana Chaturdashi is the fourteenth day in the bright half of Chaitra honoring Madana.

Lord Krishna teaches detachment

Sri Krishna relates to Arjuna in Bhagavadgita (Ch.2.62 & 63), on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (a place near Delhi) in Mahabharata that:

Dhyayato vishayaan pumsah, vangas teshupa jaayate
Sangaat sanjaayate kaamah, kaamat krodhobhi jaayate
Krodhad bhavati sammohah, sammohat smriti vibramaha
Smriti bhramsaad buddhi nasho, buddhi maashaat pranasyati

While contemplating material and sensual objects, persons become attached to them. Such attachment develops lust and lust generates anger. Anger leads to delusion and delusion to mental bewilderment. When the mind is bewildered, intelligence and discretion is lost. Loss of intelligence and discretion leads to downfall of the person.

Lord Shiva Conquers Lust - Kaameswara

Another story relates to Shiva who was in a deep trance in his Tapas (penance). Kaama or Manmatha or Madana is the son of Krishna and Rukmini. His wife is Rati. Lord Indra, the king of the Devas wanted a commander to lead their forces in their war with the demon Tarakasura. Taraka was the son of Vajranga and Varangi. He propitiated Lord Bhrahmadeva by a severe penance on the Pariyatra mountain. When Brahma appeared before him, he asked as a boon (vara) that he should not he killed by anyone other than a seven day old child. Brahma granted him the boon.

Misusing this boon, Taraka began to oppress the gods. They were obliged to approach Brahma for help to destroy Taraka. Brahma told the devas that only an offspring of Shiva could destroy him. For this they sought the help of Kaama or Maara or Manmatha, the god of love in Hindu mythology to Shiva to drag him out of his meditation and generate an issue with Parvati. This alone could vanquish Tarakasura. Kaama agreed to undertake this mission.

Maara shot his arrows at Shiva but he was not perturbed from his trance. Maara shot a powerful arrow in a final effort to perturb Shiva. At this, Shiva was offended and opened only his third eye (Phaala Netra) and Maara was burnt and turned to ashes instantly. Subsequently, at the beseechment of Rati and the devas, Shiva restored him from the ashes in the form of Pradyumna. His intimate friend is Vasanta or the Spring. His son is Aniruddha. He is armed with a bow and arrows, the bow string being a line of bees and the arrows being a string of flowers of five different plants. Shiva and Parvati created Kaartikeya to destroy Tarakasura. Later, Kartikeya was born and slew the demon Taraka on the seventh day of his birth.
Ref: V.S.Apte: The Student's Sanskrit-English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. Pub.by Motilal Banarsidas, 1988.



Holika, commonly called Holi is a spring festival celebrated at the approach of the spring season, during the 3 or 4 days preceding the full moon day in the month of Phagan. Holi is celebrated by throwing colors and colored powder in the air. Colorful Rangoli pattems are painted at doorways to houses. Families assemble around a fire throwing prasad and coconut in the fire. They also take home prasad. The Holi festival marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Essentially, Holi means the triumph of good over evil and conquest of sensual values by spiritual values. Thus, Holi has different mythological connotations in different parts of India. lt is interesting to learn about its spiritual significance. The story relates to an ancient demoniac king in India known as Hiranya Kasyapu. He was a cruel and tyrannical ruler. All his subjects followed his orders except for his son Pralhad. Pralhad was an ardent devotee of Vishnu. This infuriated his father who wanted to punish him. The king asked Pralhad to embrace a red hot pole. But, he was unhurt. Then, he asked Pralhad to jump off a steep cliff, but was unhurt again. Pralhad obeyed his father each time chanting Vishnu's name. Hiranya Kasyapu ordered that Pralhad be trampled by an elephant. But, he was unhurt.

As Pralhad was not hurt by all the punishment, Hiranya Kasyapu called his sister Holika from the gods that she would not burn in a fire. Holika made Pralhad sit on her lap in the fire. But, this time, Holika was burnt to death and Prahlad was unhurt. Eventually, the ordeals faced by Pralhad climaxed in the emanation of Narahari or Narasimha who destroyed Hiranya Kasyapu. Again, this displayed the triumph of a true Bhakta (devotee) over the evil represented by Hiranya Kasyapu. Pralhad never lost faith in the Lord despite all his ordeals.

The tender green leaves on the trees, the blossomed flowers in the gardens and the sweet calls of the Cuckoo mark the advent of a new season that is Spring(vasant). Enriching the freshness is the festival of Holi with a splurge of colors and an aura of romance all around.

Holi announces the arrival of spring and the passing of winter. It is a festival that breathes an atmosphere of social merriment. People bury their hatchets with a warm embrace and throw their worries to the wind. Every nook and corner presents a typically colorful sight.


History of Holi

Holi is an ancient festival of India and was originally known as 'Holika'. The festivals finds a detailed description in early religious works such as Jaimini's Purvamimamsa-Sutras and Kathaka-Grhya-Sutras. Historians also believe that Holi was celebrated by all Aryans but more so in the Eastern part of India.

It is said that Holi existed several centuries before Christ. However, the meaning of the festival is believed to have changed over the years. Earlier it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was worshiped.

Calculating the Day of Holi
There are two ways of reckoning a lunar month- 'purnimanta' and 'amanta'. In the former, the first day starts after the full moon; and in the latter, after the new moon. Though the amanta reckoning is more common now, the purnimanta was very much in vogue in the earlier days.

According to this purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the new year heralding the Vasanta-ritu (with spring starting from next day). Thus the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival - Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava.

Reference in Ancient Texts and Inscriptions
Besides having a detailed description in the Vedas and Puranas such as Narad Purana and Bhavishya Purana, the festival of Holi finds a mention in Jaimini Mimansa. A stone incription belonging to 300 BC found at Ramgarh in the province of Vindhya has mention of Holikotsav on it. King Harsha, too has mentioned about holikotsav in his work Ratnavali that was written during the 7th century.

The famous Muslim tourist - Ulbaruni too has mentioned about holikotsav in his historical memories. Other Muslim writers of that period have mentioned, that holikotsav were not only celebrated by the Hindus but also by the Muslims.

Reference in Ancient Paintings and Murals
History of HoliThe festival of Holi also finds a reference in the sculptures on walls of old temples. A 16th century panel sculpted in a temple at Hampi, capital of Vijayanagar, shows a joyous scene of Holi. The painting depicts a Prince and his Princess standing amidst maids waiting with syringes or pichkaris to drench the Royal couple in coloured water.

A 16th century Ahmednagar painting is on the theme of Vasanta Ragini - spring song or music. It shows a royal couple sitting on a grand swing, while maidens are playing music and spraying colors with pichkaris.

There are a lot of other paintings and murals in the temples of medieval India which provide a pictoral description of Holi. For instance, a Mewar painting (circa 1755) shows the Maharana with his courtiers. While the ruler is bestowing gifts on some people, a merry dance is on, and in the center is a tank filled with colored water. Also, a Bundi miniature shows a king seated on a tusker and from a balcony above some damsels are showering gulal (colored powders) on him.

Legends and Mythology

In some parts of India, specially in Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1533). However, the literal meaning of the word 'Holi' is 'burning'. There are various legends to explain the meaning of this word, most prominent of all is the legend associated with demon king Hiranyakashyap.

Hiranyakashyap wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana. Hiaranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god for his extreme devotion. The festival, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion.

Legend of Lord Krishna is also associated with play with colors as the Lord started the tradition of play with colours by applying colour on his beloved Radha and other gopis. Gradually, the play gained popularity with the people and became a tradition.

There are also a few other legends associated with the festival - like the legend of Shiva and Kaamadeva and those of Ogress Dhundhi and Pootana. All depict triumph of good over evil - lending a philosophy to the festival.

History of Holi - Part 2
We all celebrate Holi but hardly anyone knows the reason behind its celebration and origin. Originally Holi is a Spring festival. It celebrates good harvests and fertility of the land. There are many legends and history associated with the origin of this spring festival. The most popular among these legends is the one about the story of Prahlad, the son of the evil King Hiranyakasipu and the devotee of lord Vishnu. He tried hard to kill him but every time Lord Vishnu saved him. One of the sisters of the king named Holika had a boon to remain unscathed by fire, so she followed her brother's wishes. However, with this sinful act against Lord Narayana's devotee, Holika's boon ended and she was burnt to ashes, while Prahlad came out safe. From that day onwards Holi is celebrated as the festival of the victory of good over evil. Even today, bonfires are lit on the night before Holi in memory of the event and burning of the evil Holika. It symbolizes the victory of Good over evil. Holi commemorates this event from mythology, and huge bonfires are burnt on the eve of Holi as its symbolic representation.

Holi also celebrates colors. It is called the festival of colors. Lord Krishna and Radha is associated with the celebration of colors. It is the immortal love of Krishna and Radha, which is associated with the celebration of colors in Holi. Holi is also called Vasant Utsav or the festival of spring. The day after burning the Holika people put the ashes from the fire as Vibhuti on their forehead often mixed with Chandan paste (Sandalwood paste). Around the same time of the year as Holi, Catholics also celebrate ash ceremony called, Ash Wednesday. It is believed that on the day Holika was burnt Lord Shiva opened his third eye and burnt Kaamdev (the God of Love) to ashes because once Kaamdev in his foolish pride aimed his love arrow at Lord Shiv who was in deep meditation. Sensing his presence Lord Shiv opened his third eye and burnt Kaamdev to ashes. Rati, Kaamdev's wife, beseeched Lord Shiv to take pity on her and restore her husband to life. Shiv relented and granted her the boon that she could see her husband but he would remain without a physical form. Hence, the songs sung during Holi tell the tale of Rati and her lamentations. These are the few legends, which tells us the origin of Holi festival and its celebration.

HOLI legends

Young and old alike are drenched with colors (red, green, yellow, blue, black and silver). On Holi, people are suddenly caught unawares with colors being poured from atop the houses, bursting balloons, or long pistons squirting colored water. People in small groups are seen singing, dancing and throwing colors on each other.

Holi has long traditional links with several legends. According to one popular legend, the word Holi is derived from the demoness, Holika. She was the sister of Hiranyakashyap, a demon king, who having defeated the Gods, proclaimed his own supremacy over everyone else in the Universe. Enraged over his son, Pralhad's ardent devotion to Lord Vishnu, Hiranyakashyap decides to punish him. He takes the help of his sister, Holika, who is immune to any damage from fire. Holika carries Prahlad into the fire but a divine intervention destroys her and saves Prahlad from getting burned. Thus Holi is celebrated to mark the burning of the evil Holika. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.

Holi is celebrated throughout India but it is more predominant in North India. Preparations for the festival begin a week ahead. Houses are given a fresh coat of color, beautiful floral designs are drawn at the entrance, and powdered colors and spraying pistons are bought.

In earlier days the colors were extracted from a flower that blossoms only during this festival. And the pistons were made of bamboo sticks. But over the years colors are made artificially and pistons made of different materials are available in various designs.

Usually people burn the Holika tree on the eve of Holi. Folklore and dances are performed around the fire to welcome the new season. On the morning of Holi, people have fun with colored water. Men, women and children all participate in this merry making. In the evening, youngsters play with dry colors and seek elders' blessings.

Special dishes for the occasion is a typical fare. People visit each other's houses and savor the delicious eats, be it Dahi wada or a preparation of raw Jackfruit or the traditional Mal pua (a dessert made of maida, milk, sugar and dry fruits). Holi is as important a festival as Dassera and Deepawali. It is also distinguished in certain regions like Bengal where it is marked by performances of Dolothsava in which the image of Lord Vishnu is swayed in decorated swings and colored powder is offered to the God.

Holi is celebrated with special importance in Mathura. It solemnises the love of Radha and Krishna. The spraying of colored waters recalls the love sport of the Gopikaas and Lord Krishna.

In South India, Holi is not celebrated with as much fervour as in North India. But the spirit of communal harmony is very high. People indulge in merry-making, and playing with colored waters is a common sight. The peasants/laborers go around from house to house singing folklores and asking for small tips.

The color, noise and entertainment that accompanies the celebration of Holi bears witness to a feeling of oneness and sense of brother-hood. No other festival brings home the lesson of spiritual and social harmony as well as the festival of Holi!!

Holi is one of Hinduism's most colorful festivals. It is the spring festival of India. It occurs on the full moon day of the month Phagan (the 10th month of the Indian calendar). This is usually in April, although it can be during late March according to the Christian calendar. On this day, everyone gets dressed up and joyfully sprinkles gulal, a colored powder, at everyone else. This rejoicing is aimed at a legendary story of Holika, a demoness.

Holika was the demon sister of Hiranyakashipu, the demon king. He had a son named Pralhad. Pralhad was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. Despite his efforts, Hiranyakashipu could not stop his son's worship of the Lord. He tried several times to kill his son, but God saved Pralhad every time. Hiranyakashipu decided to burn Pralhad. He asked his sister Holika to sit with Pralhad in the fire. Holika had received a boon from God that would make her unscathed by fire. Fearing her brother's wrath, she did as she was told, but when she stepped into the fire, that boon from God ended and she was burnt to death in the fire while Pralhad remained safe. Holika was killed for trying to harm a devotee of the Lord.

The story goes on until Lord Vishnu appears in the form of a half man-half lion form. He slays Hiranyakashapu, and saves Prahlaad.

Now, many places burn a huge cardboard statue of Holika during Holi and sing and dance to rejoice. There are no major foods associated with Holi. People usually make some snack food. One snack that might be made is Chackli, a kind of pretzel.



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