Winter has already passed and we have already started getting ready for the summer ahead. Mornings and nights are still cold whereas afternoons are hot. Forenoons are pleasant, very very pleasant. Peculiar March weather. Yet another festival — Holi — is knocking at our doors. The whole campus is empty — students, professors, staff, nearly everybody has gone on leave. Yes, the whole campus is indeed empty, except only a few individuals. Most of them live such an isolated lives — engrossed in social media and/or video games — that even their neighbours aren’t aware of their existence. There are others of whom I could only say that it would have been better had they not existed at all. But this world doesn’t go by our choices or preferences, so we have to adjust ourselves and share this planet with such demons.
Holi — a festival of colour, of laughter, of joy, and of sweets. Isn’t it curious and interesting that all Hindu festivals celebrate life, happiness and joy? To the best of my knowledge, Hinduism is the only religion which doesn’t have any festival dedicated to mourning, death or sorrow. Vedanta says, “Anandam Brahma“. I’m not sure what is implied by Anandam here, and most probably the actual intended meaning might have been lost in substance, yet Hindus for ages have continued to live the philosophy in true spirit on Holi.
But there is another face of this festival. The ugly face. Unlike other festivals, Holi gives certain individuals carrying peculiar interests a free hand to indulge in base behaviour so that free drinking, shouting abuses, eve teasing, harassment, molestation all are common under the garb of culture. I really fail to understand what has this behaviour to do with religion and/or culture. No wonder women and girls prefer to stay indoors and not participate in the festivities. Even if they do, they play with their family members and/or other ladies. Talk of women honour, 21st century, shining India, glorious civilization. Holi brings out the animal in us. Police personnel are sent on duty — not to maintain law and order or to keep crowd under control (e.g., like in Ganesh Chaturthi) — instead, to deal with an iron hand all these animals living inside human skin.
This leads to another question — don’t these police personnel have families of their own? Don’t they feel like celebrating this festival with their loved ones? Doesn’t the sight of laughing children remind them of their own kids back home? How would they have to wait for several hours, after the heat of the festival has already died out, before they can return home and taste the sweets that their women had prepared with so much love and affection. I didn’t visit my family this time — out of choice. But these personnel didn’t have a choice. However emotional or sad it might make you feel, there doesn’t seem to be a way out. As long as bastards and scoundrels roam around in society like hungry wolves, drooling over a piece of flesh — female flesh — so long these personnel would have to sacrifice their own happiness for general welfare of others.
And what about the medical professionals — doctors, nurses and ward boys — who are on emergency duty, ready to deal with any cases of food poisoning and skin infection resulting from artificial colours, paints, greases, as also accidents mainly due to drunken driving.
I often think about the various aspects of the story associated with this festival. If you know about this festival, then definitely you already know this story as well. Otherwise I encourage you to educate yourself in Indian culture and tradition before reading any further. The underlying philosophy of the story is certainly deeper. However, every time I reflect on this story, new perspectives are revealed to me. And it is these perspectives that I want to share with you today.
The King sent his sister to kill his son, God saved. On superficial level, this is all the story is about. But just think of it. Why did he want him killed? Because he worshipped God, who in turn was the King’s purported enemy? The child was merely doing what he loved doing — worship his deity. Note that he was doing it because he loved it and not to achieve salvation or to derive any material gains. Now, his own son worships his enemy day and night, how would the King feel? A conflict arises between fatherly emotions, duties of a king and the eternal fight between gods and demons.
Why did Hiranyakashyap hold grudge against Vishnu? The former was seeking revenge for his brother Hiranyaksha’s death, who was killed by Vishnu. His dilemma had several layers — his son, his enmity with gods, his bond and sense of duty for his brother. Ultimately it all boils down to making a choice — in this case, his love for his brother and that for his son.
I don’t know whether Hiranyakashyap indeed thought along these lines. However, as I think about the various characters of the story, I cannot help myself. Of course, purists must have already become upset and restless by my inquiry and must be frowning over how dare I say anything over their sacred story. In the global culture of today, different cultures mix freely and influence each other. I attribute this rigidity to Islamization of Hinduism, something which does not allow analytical thinking over our heritage. Let me remind you, unlike several performing artists who boast off their modernity by ridiculing, and passing vulgar and obscene remarks over anything associated with Indian heritage, my intention is not to disparage or contradict the ancient thought. Of course, it must already be obvious to my regular readers and such clarification was unwarranted, yet sometimes putting up a disclaimer is a good idea, even if it is not necessary. Anyway, let us go back to our discussion of the story.
First the King told his son to stop worshipping his enemy. Then he shouted, scolded, threatened and eventually tried to kill him several times using different means. But why the boy, who was indeed still a child, refuse to obey his father’s command? Was he only following his passions, irrespective of family pressure? We talk of paternal love and censure the King for trying to kill his own son, but how come the son refuse to listen to his father, especially when he most probably knew about his uncle’s death? Career counsellors nowadays suggest youth to follow their own passion while choosing a career instead of giving in before parents’ wishes and expectations. However, this advice is given to grown up youth who have already acquired basic education. What does a mere child know about its passion? Why didn’t he trust his father the way he did in all other matters concerning his life?
The child was brainwashed. We know this as a fact. While the child was still in its mother’s womb, Narada, who is the greatest teacher of Bhaktiyoga, entered the mother’s womb and imparted the first lessons of the path of devotion to the baby who was yet to take birth. Now psychologists have told us the importance of sensual information acquired at pre-natal stage. I know you are thinking of Abhimanyu. Or probably Shukadev. That conditioning framed the child’s mindset for a lifetime. And as children have Himalayan faith — all children — Prahlad couldn’t have helped his actions. It is not the question whether Narada’s preachings were right or wrong, or whether the path of devotion is the only appropriate way; the question is whether Narada and all gods were justified in involving a child in their battle against demons. Shouldn’t they rather have kept the child out of it, as Krishna centuries later so vehemently propounded on the final day of the great war (when Ashvatthama killed Parikshit, the latter being still in mother’s womb)? Were the gods really scared to such a degree that they had to resort to such means to achieve victory?
Prahlad knew that the Lord would protect him, and in case of any casualty, would save him. He had unshakeable faith. He had left the matter completely into the Lord’s hands, and was only concerned with his own prayers and doing what he felt to be right, or rather what he was taught to be right. He did not know how the Lord would achieve it. But he knew it with certainty and beyond any doubt that He will. “Neither day nor night, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither on Earth nor in the sky, neither human nor animal, no weapons . . .” and you know how the Lord achieved it. The Divine will always find a way to salvage you. No matter how complicated your situation be, no matter how difficult your problems are, the Lord with always save you — do not for a moment doubt it. Parents, friends, teachers — you can doubt anybody or everybody, but not for a moment doubt the Divine Grace. Only a heart which carries innocence of a child can carry such faith. Wherever there is faith, there is no fear. If you are afraid, it means you do not have faith. The gods were afraid of Hiranyakashyap because they didn’t have complete faith in the Lord. Note the irony — the gods who themselves didn’t have faith, resorted to brainwash a child in order to achieve their objective, and the child in turn went on to attain unshakeable faith! Here we see a student surpassing his teacher! Had the gods themselves believed in the teachings which they were imparting to the child, all this drama would not have taken place. Hiranyakashyap would have been killed anyway, though not necessarily in an identical manner. May be some other way, we do not know. Strange are the ways of the Divine. But it always has a way.
Now the biggest question of all — why Prahlad didn’t stop the Lord when He was killing his father? How come a child became so convinced that his father must be killed and there was no other alternative? Couldn’t he persuade his deity to forgive his father and spare his life, and instead impart him wisdom and spiritual knowledge so that he too could follow the spiritual path? Did he after all doubt the capability of the Divine in achieving this transformation? Prahlad had already been giving lectures and sermons to his friends and other people, why couldn’t he be able to convince the Lord — who loved him so much — to let his father live? And if he did ask for it, would the Lord have accepted his prayers and let the King live? Or would He have ignored the child’s prayers and went ahead with His mission? This brings to the fore yet another conflict — that the Divine might have been fighting.
Finally, I have reservations and objections to the role of women in this whole story. Why did the aunt and the child’s mother not try to resolve the conflict between the father and the son? Women are so good in communication and interpersonal relationships. How come they failed in this story? How come the queen is absent throughout the story in its popular narrative? How come she failed to convince her son to respect his father and thus maintain the fabric of the family intact. Or is it indeed an attempt to follow the ancient command to sacrifice the individual self for the sake of family, to sacrifice the family for the humanity, and to sacrifice everything for the Divine.
Holi does indeed represent conflicts — conflicts between evil and good, conflicts within society, conflicts within our own selves, the various relations we have, the various preferences we carry. The whole life is a struggle, and as we try to grope in the dark looking for a way out, we manage to find time for celebration, joy and happiness. That is the spirit of Holi, and humanity should be commended for this courage.