About Hinduism and India

Man gets tired on account of hard work and monotonous actions. Some change to relax and something to cheer up is necessary. Festivals (Parva) add color, spice and meaning to life. Unlike other religions, there is no festival for public breast beatings at all. Hindu society is a cheerful and open society having large list of festivals. There is no regimentation. Individuals may opt to celebrate festivals with family members or with the community at large, or not at all.  Even non-Hindus can also join the festivity.

All Hindu festivals signify unity of the Indian nation. Every Hindu festival is a community gathering. They are directly related to local environment, places, events, and personalities within the geographical and cultural domain of India.

Importance of Cleanliness

Hindu festivals reflect a combination of spirituality and hygiene with social life. They begin with cleanliness and decoration of living as well as work place. Bathing in the morning by all members of the family, followed by some recitation and meditation are integral part of every festival.

Cultural Unity in Diversity

Multitudes of festivals reflect the cultural diversity and serves as unifying force on the vast population of Hindus in India and abroad. Some common features of festivals are:

  • Most of Hindu festivals are connected to the cycle of seasons. These are observed to promote healthy environment and preservation of ecology.
  • Some festivals commemorate events connected with the development of Society as several legends are associated to these festivals.
  • There are festivals to celebrate the birth of Hindu role model ancestors.
  • Some festivals are regional, and reflect the life style of people living in different parts of the country.
  • Certain sects within the Hindus celebrate some festivals exclusively connected to the history or founders of the sect.

At on average four to five festivals are celebrated every month. Only the few most celebrated festivals have been mentioned here.

Seasonal Festivals 

The salient feature of these festivals is that seasonal changes are visible in nature to inspire the feelings of festivity. The reasons for festivity are not far-fetched, but spring out from local environment.

Lohri: Lohri is celebrated in the month of January (Posha) during the peak of winter season, particularly in Punjab and its neighboring areas. Few days prior to Lohri children go door to door and rattle funny humorous folk songs to demand a treat, which could be groundnuts, Rewaries, or a coin to light community fire. The celebrations would close with burning wooden logs at night and all young and old singing and dancing around the bonfire. Puffed maize corn, roasted groundnuts, sesame and Rewaries would be thrown in the fire as offerings, before being distributed to participants in the celebration.  Besides community gathering and enjoyment, the occasion provides an opportunity to burn old and discarded household belongings as a cleaning drive before the New Year dawns on the following day.

Makara Sankranti: The morning after Lohri, is the beginning of Hindu New Year. On this day Sun enters Northern hemisphere. Indians knew this fact much earlier than the battle of Mahabharata. Bhishma Pitamah, while lying on the support of piercing arrows, had revealed that he would die when Sun entered ‘Utrayana’ (Northern Hemisphere). In South India this festival is called ‘Pongal’. It is closely connected with agriculture, and can be rightly identified as the ‘Farmer’s Day’, who bring home the fruit of their toil. Symbolically, the first harvest is offered to the Almighty. Newly harvested corn is cooked for the first time on that day. Joyous festivities mark the celebration in every home. Mass kite flying is enjoyed. The landlord distributes food, clothes and money among the laborers. Special prayers are offered in temples and houses. Homes and roads are cleaned and swept and lovely designs are drawn with rice-flour. There is family re-union in all homes. Brothers renew their contacts with their married sisters by giving presents. It is a great day not only for humans but also for cattle. The herds of cows are adorned beautifully, fed and worshipped. Birds and other animals are also fed. In some villages the youth demonstrate their valor by taking the bull by the horn, and often win their brides thereby. On the same day, young girls prepare various special dishes—sweet rice, sour rice, rice with coconut—and take them to the bank of nearby river or tank. They lay some leaves on the ground and place on them balls of the various preparations for the fish, birds, and other creatures. It strengthens the bond of ‘live and let live’ by sharing whatever we have. One is given the message that real wealth lies in the goodwill and friendship of all.

Vasant Panchmi: Vasant Panchami marks the end of winter and is the first day of spring season, when flowers bloom all over the countryside. People worship the Goddess Saraswati on this day. Pupils offer their reverence to teachers. Festivity continues for entire Vasant season. Men, women and girls wear lemon yellow clothes, which is the sign of auspiciousness and spirituality. Even some items in the food are also colored yellow by using saffron. All the folks get together and sing songs connected with spring. It is an occasion similar to ‘Valentine Day’ for young man, not only for a day, but to last for the entire season to propose their desired partners. It is a youthful season devoted to aesthetic senses.

Holi: Holi is a festival of merry-making spread over for ten days, and marks the beginning of summer season. It is also known as Kamadahana in South India, the day on which Lord Siva subdued Kamadeva (Cupid). There is another legend connecting Bhakta Prahlad’s escape from death at the hands of Holika. People clean their homes, segregate non-usable articles in the house and burn them, thereby destroying disease-breeding bacteria also. Voluntarily people assemble at community places and smear each other’s with scented colors, offer sweets and drinks, and reconcile if at all there had been any misunderstandings with anyone. People compose and sing humorous Holi songs. It is like the ‘April Fool’s Day’ of the Europeans or Tomato throwing of Spain.

Mahalaya Amavasya: The dark fortnight in the months of September-October (Ashwin) is known as the Mahalaya Paksha. This period is especially earmarked for offering oblations to the departed ancestors. During these fourteen days, offerings are made for the departed souls, whether they are related to individuals or not. The incident underlines the supreme value of food over material wealth and also affection and gratitude towards ancestors. Human body is the most important vehicle for realizing God and it is sustained on food. Thus the gift of food is considered as the greatest gift.

Naga Panchmi: In Hinduism snakes are not evils but an important ecological link. The medicinal properties of snake poison had been realized long ago, and therefore this festival is exclusively dedicated to snakes. The festival falls on the fifth dark night in the month of August (Shravin).  Snake figures are painted on house entrances, people observe fast and make offerings. Their likely habitats are not disturbed.

Navaratri:  This festival is observed twice a year, once as ‘Rama-Navaratri’ in the month of April-May (Chaitra) to mark the beginning of summer: and then as ‘Durga Navaratri’ in September-October (Ashawin) to mark the beginning of winter. Shri Rama is worshipped during Ramnavmi, and Mother Durga is worshipped during Navaratri. The beginning of summer, and beginning of winter are two important junctions of climatic and solar influence, and bodies and minds of people undergo considerable change on account of the changes in weather. For health point of view, diet routines are changed for a period of ten days by observing fasts, to prepare digestive system to acclamations with the changes in weather. Durga Puja is the greatest Hindu festival in which God is adored as Mother and is celebrated in various parts of India in different styles. This truly reflects the unity in diversity of Hinduism. Particularly in Gujarat males and females dance for nine nights in gorgeous festive attires to the rhythm of devotional songs in praise of Goddess Durga.

Vijaya Dasami: The tenth day after Durga Puja is called Vijaya Dasami or Dussera. During ancient and medieval period this marked the beginning of campaigning season in India, when flooding rivers used to be on receding course after the rainy season. Weapons are cleaned and decorated. Kings undertook adventurous expeditions on the day of the Vijaya Dasami after performing Shastra Puja. In India, hunting is not undertaken during breeding season of animals. As after rains, animals have enough to graze and their new-born turn self-sufficient, the kings who did not go to the battlefields would go for hunting in the deep forests to annually test their weapons and skills.  In Rajasthan even these days’ people arrange mock attacks on some nearby fort on Vijaya Dasami. Dussera signifies the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, the demon King. The effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna, and son Meghnada stuffed with crackers are burned to symbolize the victory of good over the evil. 

Like Naga Panchmi, some other festivals have been dedicated exclusively to the well-being of other animals also. On the occasion of Hanuman’s birthday, fruit offerings are made to monkeys. Such actions affirm Satan Dharma’s commitment to the principal of Live and let live in practice.

Apart from living beings, awareness towards non aware living beings also reflects through festivals. There is a long list of prominent rivers and mountains regarded as sacred. As for as possible, festivals are celebrated around local rivers, streams, ponds and hillocks. That way in Hinduism humans remain closest to Nature in every shade.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 28/72 – Festivals of Cultural Unity)

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