I am beginning to think that the Holi festival may be like the Christian Easter, in the sense of a very ancient celebration that gradually had layers of significance and symbolism added to it. The Moon times have always carried a special weight vis-à-vis Indra, but the Full Moon of Phālguna month, in particular, seems important, and I think that this time may have other, forgotten meaning. There are three stories associated with Holi, and – not surprisingly, because I’m incredibly biased – I consider all three to link to Indra in some fashion.
(1) From Wikipedia: “Hiranyakashipu was a great king of demons, and he had been granted a boon by Brahma, which made it almost impossible for him to be killed…he had demanded that he not be killed ‘during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or on sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra.’ Consequently, he grew arrogant and attacked the Heavens and the Earth. He commanded that people stop worshipping gods and start praying to him.
“Despite this, Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlada, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. In spite of several threats from Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada continued offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. Prahlada was poisoned, but the poison turned to nectar in his mouth. He was ordered to be trampled by elephants, yet remained unharmed. He was put in a room with hungry, poisonous snakes and survived. All of Hiranyakashipu’s attempts to kill his son failed. Finally, he ordered young Prahlada to sit on a pyre in the lap of his demoness sister, Holika, who could not die because she also had a boon which would prevent fire from burning her. Prahlada readily accepted his father’s orders, and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika burnt to death, while Prahlada survived unharmed. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi.
“Later Lord Vishnu came in the form of Narasimha (who is half-man and half-lion) and killed Hiranyakashipu at dusk (which was neither day nor night), on the steps of the porch of his house (which was neither inside the house nor outside), by restraining him on his lap (which is neither in the sky nor on the earth), and mauling him with his claws (which are neither astra nor shastra).”
But before the prideful Hiraṇyakaṣipu and the terrific Narasiṃha, this story had been told once before with different characters: “The compact is constructed very diplomatically, so as apparently to leave no possibility of danger to Namuci from Indra: the latter agrees not to slay the former either by day or by night…He agrees further not to slay him either with a staff or a bow, with the flat hand or the fist, with anything wet or dry…”
The result of this accord is that Indra slays the demon Namuci on the seashore, at twilight, with a weapon made of seafoam – Namuci, the demon who fought Indra, poisoned him, tried to kill him, then forced his agreement to their uneasy truce. The story is told in abbreviated version in the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, canto 8, but first appears in Ṛgveda, I believe maṇḍala X.
To my mind, it is the bonfire part of the story that has the weightiest significance. Fire is the physical form of Agni, the purifier (pavakā), sanctifier, the direct conduit between mortal and divinity. One may set aflame anything to be purified or destroyed, or anything to be given to the Devas. (Here, the pure child and the unholy demoness are both engulfed in the flame; the demoness is destroyed, the boy is forever blessed by Viṣṇu.)
One of Indra’s epithets is soul of the sacrifice, and one of his few remaining remaining festivals is Bhogi (or Indran), the first day of Pongal festival, in which all worn and broken things are cast onto giant bonfires to be destroyed. So it seems that the slayer of demons, uncoverer of Truth, is appropriately honoured by the destruction of the outworn and impure.
(2) Again from Wikipedia: “This story is about Kāma Deva, the god of love…Kāma…shot his weapon at Shiva, in order to disrupt his meditation and help Parvati to marry Shiva. Shiva then opened his third eye, the gaze of which was so powerful that Kāma’s body was reduced to ashes. For the sake of Kāma’s wife Rati (passion), Shiva restored him, but only as a mental image, representing the true emotional and spiritual state of love rather than physical lust. The Holi bonfire is believed to be celebrated in commemoration of this event.”
One of Kāma Deva’s names means obedient to Indra; it was at Indra’s command that Kāma performed this act.
(3) From hindu-blog.com: “Talk about Holi, and the first thing that comes to mind is the throwing of colored water and colored powder on one another. Holi festival is largely associated with Lord Krishna, and it said that in his childhood and teenage years, Krishna played Holi with Gopas and Gopis in Vrindavan.
This way of celebrating Holi is said to have originated with Krishna, as well: “Krishna was jealous of Radha’s fair color and asked mother Yashoda for the reason for Radha’s fair color. Yashoda jokingly said, if you are so jealous, change her complexion by smearing color. Naughty young Krishna was waiting for an idea for a prank and did exactly as his mother suggested.”
This story is one very well-known explanation of the colours-throwing custom; I have another thought besides.
Indra and his son Arjuna share a birth-star (nakṣatra), that of Uttara Phalgunī, from which Arjuna is also named Phālguna. To be precise, Arjuna was born on Phālguna Pūrnīmā, i.e. Holi. By some accounts, Arjuna was a partial incarnation of Indra, but according to other tellings, Arjuna was a full earthly avatara of the King of Gods. If Arjuna and Indra are at least partly non-different, if not the same being entirely, it seems reasonable to consider that the father may have appeared on the same day as the son (especially since the Moon is Soma).
After considering all of these stories, I thought how lovely it was, the possibility that maybe, even once, the “birthday celebration” of the Deva of sacrifice, battle, rainbows, and waters, might have consisted of people setting huge bonfires alight and then chasing each other around while throwing multicoloured substances everywhere.
I won’t be able to prove this “theory,” nor is there really any need to academically support such speculation, which is only the whim of a foolish devotee. But still, it delights me to think of Holi also as Indra Jāyantī – there should be one in the calendar, anyway, shouldn’t there? – and to remember my Lord when I see photographs of smiling, breathless celebrants covered in a vivid spectrum of colour.
Addendum, 8 September 2011: I’ve discovered a custom that lends a bit of support to the above ideas: that of “Gobar Holi,” of playing Holi with gobar (cow dung) specifically to please Indra and bring the rain. This brief article is from Uttar Pradesh, and the practice has also been recorded between Delhi and Amritsar, suggesting that it is specifically a north Indian celebration.
Gobar Holi is an unusual practice. So far I can only think of two ideas:
–Perhaps it’s something of a veiled threat. Dried cow dung cakes are used as sacrificial fuel. Maybe throwing dung everywhere, instead of burning it, is an implied message that people would rather play with gobar than use it for offering – i.e., unless Indra sends rain, he will not be worshipped. (This seems possible after I found another news story from Uttar Pradesh, describing a 2010 Holi that was played with cow dung and mud outside of an executive’s office in protest of unpaid salaries.)
–It could be a religio-magical ritual and sort of symbolic communication (thanks, Lévi-Strauss; I knew my degree was good for something). Gobar is purifying; Holi played with it would thus purify everyone present, and because cows are rain (or rain-bringers, or fertile and wealth-giving like the rain) in a few Vedic hymns, there may be an idea of ‘like attracting like.’ Indra has several epithets praising him as lord of the cows, so those who are anointed with cow dung might become sanctified to, and aligned with, him.
I did have to giggle, a little, at reading a clarification in the above article: “Though anyone can participate in the age-old custom, young women are preferred to carry out the ritual in the belief that they stand a better chance to appease Indra, the rain god, than others.”
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