By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Holi, Holika, Holi, HolikA, Holi, Holikaa
Significance of Holi
Holi or Holikā is also called holikotsava. It is an extremely popular festival observed throughout the country. It is marked by unmixed gaiety and frolics. It is common to all the sections of people. This festival is very ancient.
References in Literatures
The festival is originally known as ‘holikā’. The festival has been mentioned in early religious works such as:
- Jaimini’s Purvamimāmsāsutras
- Kāthaka Gṛhyasutras
It must have therefore existed several centuries before Christ. Initially it was a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families. The full moon (‘Rākā’) was the deity worshiped by them.
Tales Behind The Festival
According to the stories in the purāṇas and various local legends, this day is important for three reasons:
- This day Lord Śiva opened his third eye and reduced Kāmadeva (the god of Love, Cupid or Eros) to ashes.
- Holikā, the sister of the demon king Hiraṇyakaśipu, who tried to kill the child-devotee Prahlāda by taking him on her lap and sitting on a pyre of wood which was set fire, was herself reduced to ashes, while Prahlāda was unscathed.
- Ogress called Dhuṇḍhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Pṛthu (or Raghu) was made to run away for life, by the shouts and pranks of the mischievous boys. Though she had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, noise, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys was a chink in her armor due to a curse of Lord Śiva. Since then the day was called ‘Aḍāḍā or Holikā’.
Types of Lunar Months
There are two ways of reckoning a lunar month:
- Purṇimānta - It happens on the first day after full moon. It was in vogue in the earlier days.
- Amānta - It happens on the first day after new moon. Presently amānta reckoning is more common.
Inception of Spring
According to this purṇimānta reckoning, Phālguna purṇimā was the last day of the year and the new year heralding the Vasanta-ṛtu or spring started the next day. Thus the full-moon festival of Holikā gradually became a festival of merry¬making, announcing the commencement of the spring. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival: Vasantamahotsava and Kāma-mahotsava.
Celebration of Holi
Igniting Holy Fire
There are practically no religious observances for this day like fasting or worship. Generally a log of wood will be kept in a prominent public place on the Vasantapañcami day (Māgha śukla pañcamī) almost 40 days before the Holi festival. An image of Holikā with child Prahlāda in her lap is also kept on the log. Holikā’s image is made of combustible material whereas Prahlāda’s, of non combustible ones. People go on throwing twigs of trees and any combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a huge heap. On the night of Phālguna purṇimā, it is set fire to in a simple ceremony, the Raksoghna mantras of the Ṛgveda being sometimes chanted to ward of all evil spirits. The next morning, the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasāda (consecrated material) and smeared on the limbs of the body. Singed coconuts are collected and eaten.
Puja of Kāmadeva
In some houses, the image of Kāmadeva is kept in the square yard and a simple worship is offered. A mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste is partaken as the prasāda. The day, Phālguna kṛṣṇa pratipad, is observed as a day of revelry especially by throwing on one another gulāl or coloured water or perfumed coloured powder. Throwing of mud or earth-dust was prevalent in the earlier days also, but among the low culture groups only.
Instead of the gay and frenzied celebrations that are witnessed elsewhere in the country, Bengal observes it in a quiet and dignified manner as Dolpurṇimā or Dolāyātrā (the festival of the swing). The festival, said to have been initiated by the king Indradyumna in Vṛndāvana, is spread over 3 or 5 days, starting from the śukla caturdaśi of Phālguna. A celebration in honor of Agni and worship of Govinda (Kṛṣṇa) in image kept on a swing (dolā = swing) are the important features. The fire kindled on the first day is to be preserved till the last day. The swing is to be rocked 21 times at the end of the festival. The day is also celebrated as the birthday of Srī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya (A. D. 1486-1533), mostly in Bengal, as also in Purī (in Orissa), Mathurā and Vṛndāvan (in Uttar Pradesh).
- Ṛgveda 4.4.1- 15; 10.87.1-25
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore