Holi is one of the most festive, joyous holidays of the Hindu year. It is celebrated primarily in the North of India and it falls on the full moon day of Phalguna (February – March). The festival is marked by great revelry during which everyone paints each other with brightly colored powders. Song, dance and bright red, green, yellow and pink powder are the hallmarks of the occasion.
The meanings of Holi are numerous. For some, it is the festival of Springtime, the heralding of warm weather and bidding farewell to the winter. It is also seen as a festival of love, the return of fertility and virility. However, side by side with the celebration of love and fertility is the message to exercise control over the emerging passion. In some parts of India the story is told on Holi of Kamadeva (God of Love; Cupid), whom Lord Shiva burned to ashes as he tried to seduce Him out of His meditation. The message is: celebrate love, but don’t get carried away. Thus, Holi is a celebration of divinity and discipline over passion.
The Puranas describe Holi as a celebration of virtue over vice. It is a time when we rejoice in the victory of pure, divine Prahlaad over his aunt Holika. The story – in a simple, condensed way – says that Prahlaad was a young, beautiful, pure, divine devotee of God. However, Prahlaad’s father was a powerful king who believed that everyone should worship him. At Prahlaad’s refusal to do so, due to his singleminded love of God, his father decided to have him killed. Prahlaad’s aunt (his father’s sister), Holika, had been given a special shawl as a boon from God for various austerities she had performed. When she wore this shawl, she could not be burned by fire. So, Prahlaad’s father and his sister devised a plan in which she would wear her shawl and hold Prahlaad tightly in her arms as they sat in fire. In this way, Prahlaad would be killed, but she would emerge unscathed.
However, as divine plan works, a strong gust of wind came and blew the shawl off of her, as well as carried pure Prahlaad to safety. Holika was burned in the fire of her own evil.
One of the great obstacles in life to our spiritual progress is the difference between what we do or say on the outside and how we really are on the inside. Holika had performed certain austerities by which she was entitled to this boon from God. On the outside, she was “pious.” But, on the inside she was not pure. Prahlaad, on the other hand, was a simple, pure, loving devotee of God. This is what saved him. This inner purity and inner piety are what truly save us, what truly make our lives divine.
So many of us go to temple, do the rituals, offer money to the priests, and chant a certain number of malas. Then, we go out and act in selfish, unpious, dishonest ways. These may not necessarily take the form of malicious transgressions. It may simply be the way we speak to our children or to our loved ones. It may simply be the way we try to cheat those with whom we do business. It may be the way we sit and gossip about others.
All the rituals and puja in the world cannot make up for a lack of piety, honesty and compassion. The goal of going to temple is not just to perform rituals; the goal is to become spiritual. God is happier with pure, innocent, devoted Prahlaad than with all the austerities and rituals performed by his father and aunt.
Thus, on this divine occasion, we should pray to be filled with the purity and devotion of Prahlaad. We should commit ourselves to performing our puja, meditation and japa with focus, dedication and deep love for God.
One meaning of the word Holi is sacrifice. On Holi we light so many bonfires to revel in joy and to burn the effigies of Holika. The meanings of these bonfires are to burn that which is devilish and impure, leaving only the purity and divinity after Holi. However, we must remember not only to partake in the merry-making of a bonfire. We must remember to sacrifice that within us which is devilish and impure. There is some demon-nature in all of us. We must burn that demon-nature on Holi and emerge as pure and pious as divine Prahlaad.
The fire of purity and divinity which we light on Holi must burn continuously in our hearts throughout the year. We must have an ever-burning bonfire of impurity, so that we are continuously renewed, continuously purified and continuously rejuvenated.
On Holi we sing loudly in the Hindi language: “Holi I, Holi I, Holi I….” However, let us not just chant this rhyme; rather, let us truly pray to God that on this day “I” may become holy. Let us pray that “I” may become pious, pure and devoted as Prahlaad. In that way our lives and our hearts and our souls will be forever protected, forever sheltered at His holy feet.
As we chant “Holi I, Holi I, Holi I….” let us also pray that our “eye” may become holy, that we may be granted the divine vision by which we behold Him in all whom we see. Let us pray that through our holy eye, we never are led toward anger, greed, lust or jealousy.
LET THIS HOLI BE A TIME WHEN WE CHANGE
NOT ONLY THE COLOR OF OUR FACES,
BUT THE COLOR OF OUR HEARTS.
LET US NOT ONLY “PLAY” HOLI,
BUT LET US BECOME HOLY.
With love and blessings to you all,
In the service of God and humanity,
Swami Chidanand Saraswati