The Deep Joy and Justice of Holi
By Sunita Viswanath
Springtime brings one of the most joyous celebrations for Hindus — Holi.
Friends and family wear white or light-colored clothes, gather and feast together, and then go outside and throw colored powders at each other with abandon.
Such inhibition is enjoyed most of all by children and courting couples. Holi is also a great time to bring out the jovial side of our elders and more serious family members. In some communities, revelers consume bhang (a cannabis milkshake) in order to heighten the pleasures of the festival. I have never been so fortunate as to experience such heights!
While Holi is a joyful time, it also lifts up three main aspects of our tradition that have important justice implications for how we treat one another and the earth:
1) Prithvi Ma (Mother Earth)
Holi comes at the onset of spring and celebrates the abundance of spring harvests. The colors we throw at each other represent the colors that come alive in the spring as the earth’s foliage and blossoms awaken after a long winter. In Sadhana, our celebration of Holi includes a recommitment to our work to care for our Prithvia Ma, and do all we can for environmental justice and climate action.
The colored powders usually used in Holi celebrations are made of toxic chemicals which are detrimental for the environment and also our skin and health. We encourage the purchase of environmentally friendly colored powders
2) A Celebration of Love
There is always an emphasis on romance in the celebration of Holi. Both in Bollywood movies and in real life, lovers and spouses evoke the love of Lord Krishna and his consort lovers and dance and daub each other with color.
The story is that Lord Krishna was sad that fair-skinned Radha would never love him because he was dark-skinned. Upon his mother Yashoda’s suggestion, Krishna painted Radha many colors, and so began the celebration of Holi as the festival of color.
This Holi story argues against the prevalent social bias towards fair skin. Moreover, it suggests a delightful permissiveness in matters of love – namely, that there should be joy, agency, and choice when we choose our mates.
3) The Victory of Good Over Evil, and the Oneness of All
Holi is named for Holika, who is considered a demoness in Hindu scriptures. Holika is the sister of Hiranyakashipu who wants his son Prahlad to revere only him, but Prahlad is a devotee of Vishnu alone. Hirayanyakashipu is so upset that he wishes for the death of his son. Holika has a shawl which protects her from fire. Hiranyakashipu asks her to wear the shawl and enter a fire with Prahlada in her arms. His aim is that Prahlada be burnt to death but Holika be unscathed. Prahlada is deep in prayer to Lord Vishnu as he enters the fire, and so the shawl flies from Holika to cover Prahlada. Holika is burnt and Prahlada survives.
On Holi, many build large bonfires in which they burn effigies of the demoness Holika and thus celebrate the victory of good over evil.
I have also heard interpretations that Holi became a day when Holika is actually celebrated because she saved Prahlada’s life by giving him her shawl and sacrificing her own life.
Prahlada tells Hiranyakashipu that Lord Vishnu is more powerful than he will ever be, and that he is omnipresent. Hiraṇyakaśipu points to a nearby pillar and asks, “Is your Vishnu in this pillar?
Prahlada answers, “He was, he is, and he will be.”
Hiranyakashipa is furious. “If he is in this pillar, why can I not see him?”
He smashes the pillar with his mace, and Narasimha (Lord Vishnu in the form of half man and half lion) emerges from the pillar.
Herein lies what I believe is the essential part of Hindu belief:
The divine–whatever we think of as God–is in every single one of us and in every part of the universe. In every tree and river and animal and mountain and even every book, stone, and even pillar.
Sunita Viswanath is a cofounder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, an emerging organization being “incubated” at Auburn Seminary. Sadhana is a loving community of Hindus whose faith is rooted in a desire for justice in this world.
On holy days like Holi, Auburn turns to leaders of faith to reflect on the ways that their celebration might trouble the waters and heal the world. In February, The Rev. Paul Raushenbush explored the confluence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday and January brought us new year for trees on Tu B’Shevat.