The spirit of Holi – The stories and significance

Love. Fertility. Harvest. The onset of spring. If there is any festival that represents the true spirit of all of these aspects and bundles them in one joyful package of color and festivities, it surely is Holi – the Indian festival celebrated in the lunar month Phalguni, which usually falls in early or mid March.

Holi is considered an ancient festival, dating back to the 7th century, perhaps earlier. It finds mention in the Sanskrit drama Ratnaval and other Sanskrit literary and religious works such as Dashakumar Charit and Garud Puran.

When Cupid crossed the line

Holi is often referred to as the cupid festival. Quite ironically. Kama, the Indian equivalent of Cupid, was believed to have been assigned the task of disturbing Lord Shiva’s meditation, so he could give Parvathi a son who would save the world. Kama attempted to lure Shiva into carnal temptation and as a result became the victim of Shiva’s wrath. Furious on being disturbed, Lord Shiva burnt Kama to ashes with his third eye. Later, on the request of Kama’s wife Rathi, Shiva softened and granted him a partial life, one without physical form. This is one of the stories associated with Holi and the one most commonly told in the southern parts of India during the Kaman Pandigai or Kama Dahanam which are other names of Holi.

Good vanquishes evil, again

The other popular story associated with Holi is that of the young prince Prahlad and his aunt Holika. Prahlad was the son of the arrogant King Hiranyakashyap. Prahlad defied his father by praying to Lord Vishnu, whom he believed to be the all-powerful God. Hiranyakashyap on the other hand was boastful of his own supremacy since he had acquired the boon of not being killed by anyone in any of the three worlds. When he saw that his own son questioned his infallibility, he ordered his sister Holika to kill the young boy. Holika attempted to kill Prahlad by burning him in fire, but it was she who was killed instead, while the Lord saved Prahlad.

 The significance of Agni or fire is evident in many of the legends associated with Holi and so bonfires are an integral part of Holi celebrations everywhere. Fire represents the sustenance and victory of good over evil.

So, while it appears to be an uninhibited and joyful, even frivolous celebration of life on the surface, Holi, in fact, is an occasion with deep spiritual and philosophical significance. Not unlike many other Indian festivals that appear to be a mixture of meaningless rituals at first. Only deeper examination reveals the higher truth that drives them.

Coming up… some Holi rituals, Lord Krishna’s Ras Leela and other stories.