The Hindu Festival of Holi
Learn about the Hindu celebration of Holi by Awake in the World blogger Debra Moffitt.
Holi is a lively Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of spring. It dates back to texts from the 11th century and is connected to both deities and rites of spring. You may know it best from images of Eat, Pray, Love where villagers toss vibrant colored powders onto each other and dance in the streets with joy. Holi falls around the time of the vernal equinox – what in Western tradition would be the first day of spring. The deep meaning of Holi is connected to different Indian legends and their symbolic messages. The focus may vary depending on the part of India and the world where it is celebrated. Holi celebrates the story of a pure-hearted devotee, Prahlad who underwent many trials to maintain his faith as well as the burning of carnal desires by Shiva to reach a higher level of love. The stories, rituals and meanings behind them follow.
The Legend of Prahlad and Holi
Prahlad loved the Divine more than anything. This isn’t easy when your father is Hiranyakashipu, the king of demons. While Prahlad worshiped the Divine in the form of Lord Vishnu, Prahlad’s father persecuted him. He gave his son poison, but in his mouth it turned into nectar. He ordered that Prahlad be trampled by elephants, but again God protected him. He was placed with poisonous serpents, but they didn’t strike him. Finally, he ordered Prahlad to sit on a burning pyre on his sister Holika’s lap. Holika had been given a boon by one of the gods that she could withstand fire. Prahlad bowed to his father’s command, but when the pyre was lit, Prahlad was protected while his sister burned to ashes. The name for the Holi festival and the bonfires are derived from Holika’s name.
Shiva Burning Away Desires on Holi
Another legend associated with Holi is the story of Shiva and Kama, the lord of desire. Shiva is renowned for remaining undisturbed in deep meditation, but Kama sought out Shiva in order to stop a powerful demon who was destroying the earth. Only a seven-day-old child issuing from Shiva himself could stop the carnage. The people sought the help of Kama, the god of love and desire in Hindu mythology, so that Shiva might marry Parvathi and bear a child. Kama found Shiva in deep meditation and shot arrows at him to draw him out. But Shiva only opened his third eye and burned Kama to ash. The devas pleaded that Shiva restore Kama, and he was restored in ethereal form, representing a higher form of love. His intimate friend is Vasanta or the Spring. Shiva and Parvathi came together and gave birth to a son who killed the demon. The story represents releasing lower desires for desire for divine love.