Holi or Holika, also called holikotsava, is an extremely popular festival observed throughout the country (India). It is especially marked by unmixed gaiety and frolics and is common to all sections of the people.
This festival is very ancient. Known originally as ‘Holika' it has been mentioned in very early religious works such as Jaimini's Purvamimamsa-sutras and Kathaka-grhya-sutras. It must have therefore existed several centuries before Christ. It was at first actually a special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was the deity worshipped by them.
There are two ways of reckoning a lunar month: purnimanta and amanta. In the former, the first day starts after the full moon; and in the latter, after the new moon. Though the latter reckoning is more common now, the former was very much in vogue in the earlier days. According to this purnimanta reckoning, Phalguna purnima was the last day of the year and the new year heralding the Vasanta-rtu (with spring starting from next day). Thus the full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. This perhaps explains the other names of this festival: Vasanta-Mahotsava and Kama-Mahotsava.
According to the stories in the Puranas and various local legends, this day is important for three reasons.
1. It was on this day that Lord Siva opened his third eye and reduced Kamadeva (the god of love, Cupid or Eros) to ashes.
2. It was on this day that Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakasyapu, who tried to kill the child devotee Prahlad by taking him on her lap and sitting on a pyre of wood which was set ablaze. Holika was burnt to ashes while Prahlad remained unscathed!
3. It was again on this day that an ogress called Dhundhi, who was troubling the children in the kingdom of Prthu (or Raghu) was made to run away for life, by the shouts and pranks of the mischievous boys. Though she had secured several boons that made her almost invincible, this – noise, shouts, abuses and pranks of boys – was a chink in her armour due to a curse of Lord Siva. The day itself came to be called ‘Adada' or ‘Holika' since then.
There are practically no religious observances for this day like fasting or worship. Generally a log of wood will be kept in a prominent public place on the Vasantapanchami day (Magha Sukla Panchami), almost 40 days before the Holi Festival. An image of Holika with child Prahlada in her lap is also kept on the log. Holika's image is made of combustible materials whereas Prahlada's image is made of non-combustible ones. People go on throwing twigs of trees and any combustible material they can spare, on to that log which gradually grows into a sizable heap. On the night of Phalguna Purnima, it is set alight in a simple ceremony with the Raksoghna Mantras of the Rgveda (4.4.1-15; 10.87.1-25 and so on) being sometimes chanted to ward off all evil spirits. (Coconuts and coins are thrown into this bonfire).The next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as prasad (consecrated material) and smeared on the limbs of the body. Singed coconuts, if any are also collected and eaten.
In some houses the image of Kamadeva is kept in the yard and a simple worship is offered. A mixture of mango blossoms and sandalwood paste is partaken as the prasad.
The day- Phalgun krsna pratipad – is observed as a day of revelry especially by throwing on one another gulal or coloured water or perfumed coloured powder. Throwing of mud or earth dust was prevalent in the earlier days also, but among the low culture groups.
Instead of the gay and frenzied celebrations that are witnessed elsewhere in the country, Bengal observes this festival in a quiet and dignified manner as Dolapurnima or Dolayatra (the festival of the swing). The festival, said to have been initiated by the king Indradyumna in Vrndavana, is spread over 3 or 5 days, starting from the sukla Chaturdasi of Phalguna. A celebration in honour of Agni and worship of Govinda (Krsna) in image on a swing are the important features. The fire kindled on the first day is to be preserved till the last day. The swing is to be rocked 21 times at the end of the festival.
The day is also celebrated as the birthday of Sri Krsna Chaitanya (A.D. 1486-1533), mostly in Bengal, as also in Puri (Orissa), Mathura and Vrndavan (in Uttar Pradesh).
Hiranyakashypu was the king of the asuras (demons). Hiranyakashypu's brother had been slain by Vishnu for terrorising gods and goddesses. So Hiranyakashypu wanted to destroy Vishnu and keep other Gods in heaven subdued. He told his soldiers to crush all those who worship Vishnu, but the Gods protected the Devotees of Vishnu.
Hiranyakashypu thought to himself "I will have to match my powers to Vishnu's to rule over the three worlds".
So he began to perform severe penances and tapasya. While he was so occupied the Gods ransacked his city and destroyed his palace. Hiranyakashiapu's Queen, who was expecting a child was sent by the gods to Sage Narada's hermitage. She lived in the Ashram of the great sage and learned about religion and the glory of Vishnu from him. The child within her, Prahlad, too, absorbed all this knowledge.
Narada taught the Queen that Vishnu is the soul of all created things and is present everywhere. Meanwhile, Hiranyakashypu's austerities pleased Brahma and said: "Arise Hiranyakashypu. Any boon that you ask of me shall be yours".
Hiranyakashypu said I wish that my death be not caused by man or beast, with a weapon or without a weapon, during day or night, indoors or outdoors, on earth or in the sky. Grant me the undisputed lordship over the material world.
Hiranyakashypu brought his wife back to his city where Prahlad was born. Hiranyakashypu, with his new powers renewed his hostilities against Vishnu and Vishnu's followers. He declared "There is non stronger than I. I am the lord of the three worlds. I shall be worshipped as such".
Prahlad in the meanwhile was growing up and was Hiranyakashypu's delight. He asked Prahlad: "Son, tell me what do you think is the best thing in life"?
Prahlad replied: "To renounce the world and seek refuge in Vishnu".
Hiranyakashypu laughed. Then he called his Son's teacher to him, saying: "Guard him closely. I think that the followers of Vishnu are secretly influencing him. Don't let him out of your sight!
After manyy months, his teacher said: "Prahlad, I think you are now ready to meet your father."
His father asked him: "You have been with your Guru a long time! What have you learnt?
Prahlad said: "I have leant that the most worthwhile occupation for anyone is the worship of Lord Vishnu".
Hirnaykashypu was very angry: "O cursed child! Who taught you such perverse things?"
Prahlad remained calm and said: "Vishnu. He reveals himself to all who are devoted to him."
Hiranyakashypu shouted angrily: "This boy must not live! Take him away and kill him! Kill this vilest enemy disguised as my son. Poison him or attack him when he sleeps but kill him!"
An Indian boy, smeared with colored powder, smiles during Holi festival in Bombay March 7, 2004.
Colored powder and water are used during Holi, the festival of colors, which heralds the beginning of spring and is celebrated all over India on Sunday.
The soldiers started attacking Prahlad when Prahlad was meditating on Lord Vishnu, but their weapons could not touch Prahlad. Most deadly snakes were let loose on Prahlad, but their fangs turned impotent. Mighty elephants could not trample him. Something kept them back. He was pushed off a cliff but Prahlad was unharmed. Holika, the wicked aunt of Prahlad Holika who had a boon to brave fire without hurt, sat with Prahlad in fire but Prahlad was unharmed. In desperation Hiranyakashypu had him fed with deadly poison but it turned into nectar in Prahlad's mouth.
Prahlad was sent to his teacher to try again. This time the teacher tried to get Prahlad interested in means for acquiring wealth and physical pleasures. But Prahlad thought to himself: "How can the pursuit of physical pleasures and wealth bring happiness? It will only lead to envy and anger?" The teacher eventually gave up, when Prahlad told his father that Vishnu is the soul of all created beings and is present everywhere.
Hiranyakashypu roared: "Where is Vishnu? If he is everywhere why is he not in this Pillar? If he is not there then I shall cut off your head with my sword. Let Vishnu, your Lord protect you."
As Hiranyakashypu was striking the pillar with his sword, Lord Vishnu, in the form of Nara-simha (nara=man,simha=lion) emerged from the Pillar. His look was neither beast nor man. Narsinha caught Hiranyakashypu and it was the twilight hour, carried him to the threshold of the court- room which was neither indoors nor outdoors and while holding him on his lap, killed him. Prahlad was installed on the throne and he ruled wisely and well for many years.
The religious significance of the festival of Holi is to mark the burning of self-conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, in fact all the undesirable demoniac tendencies, propensities, thoughts and behaviours.The victory of righteous forces over demoniacal forces.