Hindu Festivals: Plurality and Colourful diversity
According to late Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, Philosopher-President of India, as it evolved Hinduism chose colourful diversity over dull uniformity. That this is so is visible in every aspect of Hindu life where a plurality of customs and practices have coexisted since practically time immemorial in India. They were then carried across the world wherever Indians have settled in the Indian diaspora, where local specificities – for example, the way we celebrate Maha Shivaratri in Mauritius – also came into play to further expand and enrich that diversity.
Hindu festivals are a prime illustration of that richness of Hindu culture, strewn as they are along its calendar throughout the year, and so many of them! – for life is meant to be enjoyed fully. This is done by fulfilling the needs of the body so as to keep it sound and healthy, away from harm and fit to relish the bounty of nature; next is nourishing and purifying the mind and prepare the individual to live life in the Hindu spirit, which is ‘that attitude towards life which regards the endless variety of the visible and temporal world as sustained by the invisible and eternal spirit’. If properly understood and celebrated, Hindu festivals meet all these three objectives of a purposeful and meaningful life.
Thus, 2016 for Hindus started with Makar Sankranti, then we progressed through Cavadee to Mahashivaratri, following up with Holi – truly the most colourful one! Now we shall enter the first month of the Hindu calendar, Chaitra which is packed with festivals that usher in the Hindu New Year, which is known by various names in the different states and regions of India such as west Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Kashmir.
The ones that kick off the season as it were, on the first day of Chaitra are Ugadi (Telugu), Yugadi (Kannada), and Gudi Padwa (Marathi), popular in the Deccan (from the Sanskrit dakshina meaning ‘south’) region of India, comprising the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. These will be held on 8 April. On the same day the Sindhis celebrate Cheti Chand, which too falls on the first day of the month of Chaitra, called ‘Cheti’ in Sindhi. As the month rolls out, Varusha Pirappu, known as the Tamil New Year, will be celebrated in Tamil Nadu, on 14 April. Up north in Punjab, it will be Baisakhi on the same day, which is not only New Year, but also harvest festival. As well, and symbolically very powerful this day commemorates the setting up of the Sikh Khalsa or Brotherhood by Guru Gobind Singh. Navaratri also begins on 8 April, and will end with the celebration of the birth of Bhagavan Ram one week later, on 15 April.
Irrespective of the reasons for the festivals, all of them are premised on:
- determination of the date of the festival;
- preparations for the festival;
- the actual celebrations;
- the symbolism of the festival; and
- the post-festival.
An important point to emphasize about Hindu festivals is that they are not of the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ type meant only for entertainment. As the word festival implies entertainment, it is worthy of note that the Sanskrit word for entertainment is manoranjan, which means entertaining or delighting the mind. How does one do so?
To do this, one must understand what is the mind, and in the Hindu perspective, the mind has four dimensions: manas – thinking, that is analyzing inputs it receives, internal and external; buddhi – intellect, coming to a conclusion on the basis of the analysis; chitta – memory; and ahankar – ego. Entertaining the mind therefore refers to engaging it in understanding and deepening of knowledge, of which it is an instrument, which involves the storing and retrieval function of memory, and keeping the ego in check.
Through understanding of all the aspects of a festival, not only does one gain a clearer appreciation of all the steps involved, but also derive joy in doing so because this contributes to elevate and purify the mind, which in turn translates into a higher quality of living.
The date of these festivals have been set according to the Hindu calendar or panchang dating from ancient times, based on observations of the planets and stars by astronomers, and calculations that they and famed mathematicians made as a result. Hindus have used both the solar and the lunar calendars, and there are also dates fixed on a lunisolar basis. This is what explains the variations in the dates of some celebrations, depending upon which system is used. Mostly, however, nowadays the dates are based on the lunar calendar. As far as Ugadi is concerned, by now it is common knowledge that it is derived from the Sanskrit words yuga (age) and ādi (beginning): ‘the beginning of a new age’. It also refers to the beginning of each new year according to the lunar calendar which has a 60-year cycle.
As regards the preparations for the festivals, it goes without saying that these start days before the actual date of the festival, especially with a thorough cleaning of the house when it comes to ‘New Year’. Then there is shopping for new clothes, paraphernalia for the ceremonies and pujas, ingredients for the sweets to be prepared as also for any particular food item, and so on at individual and family level. And nowadays, when public cultural events are held to showcase the festival, the logistical and other aspects are naturally attended to by those concerned in the organisation.
The actual celebrations mostly begin early on the morning of the festival, though in the case of Deepavali for example, there are some rituals that are carried out a few days before. But generally, there is a ritual bath using oil (traditionally mustard or coconut oil) that is taken in the morning. Mango leaves are strung up on the front door as a sign of auspiciousness and prosperity, and rangolis or kolams are displayed on the ground in front of the house. These are colourful and elaborate floral patterns which are made with rice, which may be ground, that is mixed with different bright colours, and which children especially delight in designing. It is a collective activity that draws and bonds them with the adults who participate, mainly ladies. Men do also have a go – at least I have!
Then the family will hold a puja, with everybody gathered around the decorated shrine of the deity which would of course have been thoroughly cleaned and arranged. There will also be attendance at pujas and ceremonies being held in the mandirs, kovils and mandirams, but a home puja is an absolute must.
Every festival is associated with some special food preparations, e.g. khichree for Makar Sankranti and sweetmeats made of til seeds; locally sept carris and payasam are enjoyed during Cavadee. Deepavali is the festival par excellence when sweets of a bewildering variety are prepared and consumed as well as shared with relatives, friends and neighbours. Coming to Ugadi, with is due tomorrow, Ugadi pachadi has become synonymous with it: made from new jaggery (unrefined, dried sugar chunks), raw mango pieces and neem flowers and new tamarind which truly reflect life – a combination of six different tastes sweet, sour, spice, salt, tanginess and bitter tastes symbolizing happiness, disgust, anger, fear, surprise and sadness.
The fundamental aspect of the festival is of course the symbolism that underlies it in all its dimensions, as for example in the case of Ugadi the pachadi’s mix of tastes signifying that life is made up of joys and sorrows, of ups and downs and that one must learn to understand and accept them as part of the reality of living. It will also be seen that all the materials used during the pujas are natural ingredients, which represent the five primordial elements or panchmahabhutas which constitute the Hindu model of existence, namely akash (space) – agni (fire) – vayu (air) – jal (water) – prithvi (earth), and of which all that is created is made up, and that includes us: so as we perform these pujas and as we partake of the foods, we acknowledge our connectedness and oneness with the whole of nature which it is our duty to therefore protect, as it both nourishes us and takes us in its lap when we die.
Likewise, other powerful symbolisms are expressed, in particular that of righteousness, and the dispelling of darkness of ignorance and replacing it by the light of knowledge. Such understanding is gained when one goes to listen to gurus and others involved in dispensing knowledge about the teachings enshrined in the scriptures. And that is why post festival, it is important not to forget all that has gone into it, and to commit oneself to constant renewal by continuing to live in the spirit of the festivals all of which as stressed above, are primarily about purifying the mind though infusing it with the proper knowledge, that is knowledge of the Self. This demands the same discipline, preparedness and dedication that goes into the festival, and that must become part of our daily life, effortlessly.
2016 04 08
- Dr S Radhakrishnan: The Hindu View of Life; Harper Collins Publishers India, Fourth Impression 1998
- Swami Tejomayananda: Hindu Culture An Introduction; Central Chinmaya Mission Trust Mumbai 1994
- Swami Chinmayananda: Kindle Life; Central Chinmaya Mission Trust Mumbai
- Online sources: About.com Hinduism, Wikipedia
* Published in print edition on 8 April 2016