Spiritually speaking

The hermeneutics of Holi

Holi symbolises the element Agni, which in its material aspect, stands for passion and purity, and is invoked for material welfare and spiritual fulfilment.

The hermeneutics of Holi

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shalender@tribune.com

Dr Satish  K Kapoor

Holi symbolises the element Agni, which in its material aspect, stands for passion and purity, and is invoked for material welfare and spiritual fulfilment. Holi is called Hutashini, ‘fire-consuming’ as it has esoteric dimensions. Says the Shatapatha Brahman, atmaiva agnih – ‘verily soul is agni’. Bonfires lit on Holi along with the chanting of rakshoghna mantra dissipate negative forces and remind one of the cosmic fire that stimulates human activities.

Agni, with ‘golden teeth’ and ‘flaming hair’, as per its metaphorical description in the Rigveda (V.2.3.; VIII.44.26) brings to mind the kaleidoscopic colours of the human aura, and conveys a philosophy that is meaningful and illuminating.  

The Holi festival falling on Phalguna Shukla Purnima, the full moon day of the lunar month, Phalguna (February-March) exemplifies the symbolic quality of colours that represent the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, the saturnian and the heroic, and many other facets of human life. 

Holi is celebrated for three days. The first day, called Gheraiya Chaudasha in western India, is observed by gheraiyas who spray colours and perform group dances to the beating of flat drums, at the site where bonfire is to be lit on the next day. This is followed by Holi-proper, called Kamala Holi. It is marked by splashing of colours, merry-making, friendly meetings, partaking of gujhia, a sweet dish, bhang-pakoras or bhang- beverages, and the lighting of fire for oblations and circumambulatory rites.

The third day of Holi is called Pushpa-dolotsava, due to the Vaishnava tradition of embellishing  a swing with mango leaves, fragrant flowers, and rocking  the well-dressed up image of  Shri Krishna, placed in it with religious fervour.  Holi is simultaneously  known as Dhuleti, Dhuli Padvo or Dhulendi, meaning the dust-throwing day. During the Vedic period, the peasants made a sacrificial offering of their chief crops and rubbed the ashes on their body before scattering it in all directions.      

The Puranas describe Holi as signifying the victory of virtue over vice. According to Narada Purana, the festival is celebrated to commemorate the death of Holika, sister of king Hiranyakashipu, who attempted to burn her nephew Prahlada. Another popular legend is that of Putana who wanted to kill the child Krishna  by suckling him on her poison-smeared breasts, but was killed by the divine child. Classical Sanskrit dramatists, Bhasa and Kalidasa, describe Holi as Kamadeva-anutthana or Madana-utsava. 

Holi evokes pictures of revelry and ribaldry, of noisy groups of men, women and children drenched to the skin with coloured water dripping from their clothes, of faces all red and green with gulal, of murkha sammelans, conferences of  fools, and  of mock fights (called Lattha holi). In Punjab, Holi acquires a masculine form. The first Hola Mohalla was observed in 1700, a year after the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, to instil martial spirit in the Sikhs in their fight against the Mughal tyranny. The festival begins a few days before Holi at Anandpur Sahib and is marked by religious congregations, political conferences and guru-ka-langar. Nihangs make a display of their traditional expertise in martial arts. The Hola Mohalla fair at Dera Baba Gurbarbhag singh, Himachal Pradesh, is famous for exorcism and religious activities.

Holi has inspired poets, musicians, sculptors, painters and holy men  through the ages. Its message is: Fill one’s life with colours of love and compassion, and light the fire of spirituality within to exhume lust, anger, egotism and other vices lying buried in the subconscious mind.

(Dr Satish K Kapoor is a noted educationist, historian and scholar of Hinduism)

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