Dussehra: In India, Hindus permitted to gather in larger groups for joyous festival

Dussehra effigies street

Celebrating Dussehra in the streets of India. Photo by Tanuj_handa, courtesy of Needpix.com

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 25: The festival of Navaratri—which began in India and in Hindu communities worldwide nine days ago, on October 17, this year—culminates in the most celebrated holiday of all nine nights: Dussehra, or Dasara (spellings vary).

News 2020: Just days before Navaratri began—on October 15—India underwent its fifth “unlock,” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Navaratri and Dussehra, worshippers will be permitted to gather in temples—some of which have been closed since the lockdowns began. Religious functions may be held, with a limit of 100 people (outside of containment zones). The wearing of masks, social distancing, sanitizing and other health precautions will remain mandatory.

From the Sanskrit words for “remover of bad fate,” today’s Dussehra brings towering effigies to the streets of India, along with a host of ancient rituals and marked traditions. Many Hindus recognize the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, a demon, during an epic battle over Rama’s wife, Sita. It’s believed that Ravana had 10 heads, and thus, 10 unfavorable qualities are rid from households with elaborate Yanga performances today; the unfavorable qualities include lust, anger, delusion, greed and jealousy.

In many parts of India, massive effigies of Ravana and his brothers are traditionally filled with firecrackers and exploded. The burning effigies are also seen as a cleansing ritual, as they encourage Hindus to burn inner evil and follow the path of righteousness. In northern India, it is custom that a chariot holding devotees costumed as Lord Rama and Sita rolls down the streets; in southern India, homes are decorated with lamps and flowers.

Did you know? Feminism shines in the victory of Goddess Durga over demons, thereby continuing the female-centered rituals of Navaratri. In rural areas of India and Nepal, it’s recognized that harvest season begins today.

Given the day’s auspiciousness, many Hindu (and non-Hindu) children begin their formal education today. (Note: Under to Unlock 5.0, India is now permitted to reopen schools. However, virtual learning is still emphasized as the preference, and not all states are opening schools yet.) Some devotees purchase new work tools—whether books, computers or farming equipment—and still others pay respect to elders and request their blessings. Families and friends often gather for a feast.

Paryushan Parva and Das Lakshan: Jains pray, look inward, ask forgiveness

A Jain meditation statue. Photo courtesy of Wallpaper Flare

SATURDAY, AUGUST 15-SATURDAY, AUGUST 22

MONDAY, AUGUST 23-TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: Observed by Shvetambar Jains for eight days (beginning Aug. 15, this year) and by Digambar Jains for 10 (beginning Aug. 23, this year), the period of Paryushan means daily fasting, inner reflection and confession. (For Digambar Jains, the festival is also sometimes known as Das Lakshan, or Das Lakshana.) In India, monks and nuns take up residence in Jain centers during this period, providing guidance to the laity; the custom is now practiced in the United States, too.

2020 News: While many prayers and readings during this period are usually performed or undertaken at Jain temples, many temples are closed this year due to coronavirus. Instead, many Jain places of worship—such as this one, in California—are hosting virtual programs during Paryushan.

According to Young Jains of America, pari translates into “all kinds,” and ushan translates into “to burn,” so by one aspect, Paryushan involves burning all types of karma. At its core, Paryushan is about getting closer to one’s soul through introspection and meditation.

During Paryushan and Das Lakshan, Jains often reduce their involvement in worldly affairs such as shopping, entertainment and eating out. Instead, the faithful attempt to spend time focusing inward, reflecting on habits and actions and affirming commitments to Jain principles.

Shwetambar Jains, celebrating Paryushan, typically say:

“Michhami Dukkadam!”

Digambar Jains, celebrating Das Lakshan, typically say:

“Uttam Kshama!”

(Translation: “If I have hurt you, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words or actions, I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”)

PRAYER, MEDITATION AND HOLY TEXTS

Each evening of Paryushan, the laity pray, meditate and read from holy texts. The end of Paryushan brings the grand day when forgiveness is requested from all living beings, and Jains forgive one another in full. It’s believed that all negative karmic matter attached to the soul is overpowered when total forgiveness is asked, resulting in renewal and self-purification.

Did you know? Many Jains fast during Paryushan Parva. Some drink only between sunrise and sunset; others consume only water. At the end of the festival period, those who have fasted are often fed by loved ones and/or friends.

Though known by several different names, these festivals unite Jains through 10 key virtues: kshama (forgiveness); mardav (humility); arjav (straightforwardness); sauch (contentedness); satya (truth); samyam (control over senses); tappa (austerity); tyaga (renunciation); akinchan (lack of attachment); brahmacharya (celibacy). Together, the 10 virtues represent the ideal characteristics of the soul; by achieving the supreme virtues, the soul has a chance at salvation. Only through these virtues may people realize the sublime trio: “the True, the Good and the Beautiful.” Evil is eradicated, and eternal bliss is realized.

Ramayana, Ramanavami: Hindus read epic, celebrate birth of Lord Rama

Ramayana manuscript Hindu

A photo of a portion of a Ramayana manuscript. The image depicts Rama and Lakshmana arriving at the rocky terrain near Lake Pampa, in their search for Sita. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 25 and THURSDAY, APRIL 2: With the birthday of Lord Rama on the horizon, millions of Hindus begin Ramayana Week to prepare for the occasion. During these auspicious days, devotees read the timeless epic, witness narrations of the exciting events in Rama’s life and fast for the deity. Though some fast only on the birthday of Lord Rama, many fast during the entirety of Ramayana Week. During Ramayana Week, it is common for temples to hold a non-stop recital of the epic Ramayana.

The story of Lord Rama is recorded in an ancient epic written by Valmiki, one of the first Sanskrit poets. Most historical references date the Ramayana to sometime between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, though scholars debate the date. Through the centuries, the Ramayana has taken on many versions—for which Wikipedia devoted an entire article—and the complex story incorporates thrilling battle scenes and climactic events. Through the year, the international initiative Read Ramayana brings the epic tales to the electronic devices of thousands across the globe. (Check out its Facebook page here.)

This year, the birthday of Lord Rama—Ramanavami—will fall on April 2.

Lord Rama Hindu Rama Navami

Lord Rama. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

RAMANAVAMI: THE BIRTH OF LORD RAMA

The story of Lord Rama has been read and recited and reviewed by Hindus worldwide, during Ramayana Week—all leading up to today’s climactic festival, Ram Navami. (Spellings vary; Ramanavami and Ramnavami are also common spellings.) Celebrated as the birth of Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, Ram Navami recalls the righteous, peaceful and presperous reign of the ancient kingdom under Sri Rama. The epic Ramayana, read during Ramayana Week, tells the exciting and thrilling adventures of Rama and the widespread anticipation of the long-awaited heir of King Dasharath of Ayodhya. Many Hindus believe that listening to the story of Rama cleanses the soul.

Did you know? According to studies, some consider the birth of Rama to have been in January of 4114 BCE.

Legend has it that Rama was born at noon: Rama’s dynasty has been linked with the sun, and at noon, the sun is at its brightest. At home, Hindus set pictures of Lord Rama, his wife (Sita), Hanuman and Lakshman in places of importance; puja is performed with joy. It is common to fast from onions, wheat products and several other foods on Ramanavami, and community meals free of these foods share the gaiety of the festival. In temples, fruits and flowers, Vedic chants and mantras are offered to Sri Rama. In South India, the wedding of Rama and Sita is ceremonially recognized.

Care to See a Movie Version?

Various cinematic versions have been produced from these stories for Indian audiences, including some lengthy TV series. Two of the most popular TV versions are streaming at the moment. Amazon has the 2008 TV series for a fee. Netflix has the 2012 TV series streaming, free to subscribers. Just search for “Ramayan” on either Amazon or Netflix.

AN ALTERNATE BIRTHDAY: SWAMINARAYAN JAYANTI

While the majority of India is celebrating Sri Rama, many Hindus also recall the birthday of the founder of the Swaminarayan tradition within Hinduism. In stark contrast to the millennia-old commemorations of most Hindu deities, this jayanti marks the birth of an 18th-century figure who lived into the 19th century. Lord Swaminarayan was born in North India and traveled across the country as a social and moral reformer. Today, his devotees sing, fast and offer food at temples, with a late culmination at 10:10 p.m.—the documented time of his birth.

Holi: Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and revelers worldwide welcome spring in vibrant color

Colored powders in air, crowd below

Holi festival in Spanish Fork, Utah, at the Sri Radha Krishna Temple. Photo by Steven Gerner, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 9-10: Shouts ring through the streets as colored powders fill the air: It’s Holi!

NOTE: Dates vary and some Holi festivals around the world are moved to the convenience of the weekend.

In India and around the globe, the thrilling Hindu festival of Holi is in full swing. Termed the “Festival of Colours,” Holi calls all participants to set aside castes and manners for the day so that young and old, rich and poor, men and women can all gather to welcome the joy of spring.

HOLI EVE: HOLIKA DAHAN

Holi unofficially begins on Holi eve, in a ritual of burning bonfires to commemorate the legend of Prahlad. According to legend, Prahad miraculously escaped a fire when the Demoness Holika carried him in; Hindus believe Prahlad emerged with not even a scratch, due to his devotion to the deity Vishnu. The scores of Holika bonfires serve as reminder of the victory of good over evil and, in some regions, effigies of the demoness are burnt in the fires.

Songs are sung in high pitch around the bonfire, accompanied by traditional dances. After a frivolous night, celebrants wake early the next morning for a day of carefree fun.

KRISHNA AND HOLI, LOVE AND SPRINGTIME

Hand with colored powder

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Krishna is the primary deity worshipped during the festival of Holi: The divine love of Radha for Krishna makes Holi a festival of love. Various legends explain the link between the child Krishna and Holi’s many colors, as winter’s neutrality makes way for the colorful essence of spring during this beloved holiday.

A demand for organic, healthy Holi colors has spurred a new trend in recent years, and more companies and organizations are working with recycled flowers, vegetables and natural powders. Long ago, Holi’s powders were made with clay, flowers and dried vegetables, but in recent decades, synthetic powders (that contain lead, asbestos and other toxic substances) were used, as they were widely available and inexpensive. Though convenient to buy, the synthetic powders have caused widespread environmental and health concern. Regulations are still underway, but experts anticipate that the demands of young generations will someday be satisfied with a healthier, “greener” Holi.

KING OF HOLI: In Barsana, in India, courting takes on a new twist as men sing provocative songs to women and the women literally beat the men away with sticks (don’t worry—the men carry shields to protect themselves). In Western India, pots of buttermilk are hung high above the streets in symbolism of the pranks of Lord Krishna, and crowds of boys compete to build human pyramids and reach the top pot. The boy who reaches the pot is crowned King of Holi.

SIKHS & HOLA MOHALLA

Sikhs turn to a different festival during the time of Holi: Hola Mohalla, literally translated into “mock fight.” In 1699 CE, the 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa, a group of men who had shown immense bravery and selflessness. These saint-soldiers pledged loyalty to the poor and oppressed, vowing to defend wherever injustice was present. Two years later, Guru Gobind Singh instituted a day of mock battles and poetry contests, to demonstrate the skills and values of the Khalsa and to inspire other Sikhs. Today, these events have evolved into Hola Mohalla, a week-long festival replete with music, military processions and kirtans. Food is voluntarily prepared and large groups of Sikhs eat in communion. The largest annual Hola Mohalla festival is held at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, although many gurdwaras worldwide hold their own versions of the events at Anandpur.

The Nihangs, bearing the symbol of the Khalsa, often display their skills at Hola Mohalla and are distinct for their blue robes, large turbans, swords, all-steel bracelets and uncut hair. During Hola Mohalla, Nihangs display a mastery of horsemanship, war-like sports and use of arms. Guru Gobind Singh instructed Sikhs to obey the highest ethical standards and to always be prepared to fight tyranny.

Diwali: Mega Hindu festival of lights spans the globe

Dark night sky, dusk, colorful fireworks over body of water

Diwali celebrations in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Sriram Jagannathan, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27: Happy Diwali!

Today begins Diwali, the ancient Hindu festival of lights. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike; as awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world.

This year, the Washington Post reports, more than 1 billion people will be celebrating Diwali: from celebrations in Chicago to Edinburgh to Stockhom to Dubai, the colors and culture of India span the globe. (But, please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali may vary by country and region. This festival is also called Deepavali, or Dipavali.)

DIWALI PREPARATIONS: A 5-DAY NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Diya lamp in darkness, Hindu

A Hindu diya lamp for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: PURE AND INFINITE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

Navaratri: Hindus celebrate motherhood, femininity during nine-night festival

Navaratri temple India

The Gokarnanatheshwara Temple, in India, during Navaratri (on the eve of Dussehra). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29: Hindus begin the nine-night religious festival known as Sharad Navaratri (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a”), an ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine and femininity. Each night during Navaratri, Hindus worship a different form or characteristic of the Mother Goddess Durga, who is regarded as being manifested in cosmic energy and power. In general, Sharad Navaratri is the celebration of good over evil, though many aspects of this tradition vary by region in India and around the world.

Did you know? Navaratri in its basic form takes place a number of times during the seasons of each year, but it’s Sharad Navaratri—this festival, at the beginning of autumn—that takes precedence over any other. Sharad Navaratri culminates on a final day known as Dussehra.

Legends related to this observance differ: Some indicate that Shiva gave permission to Durga to visit her mother for nine days, while others describe Durga’s victory following a nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura. Life-size clay figures depicting this battle are commonly seen in temples during Navaratri. But there is a universal theme to this tradition, too: All Hindus aim for purity, avoiding meat, grains and alcohol—and usually installing a household pot that is kept lit for nine days. Some devotees fast, and others consume only milk and fruit for nine days.

SINGING AND DANCING IN THE STREETS

Navaratri brings out orchestras and community-wide singing in India: nighttime dances in the streets combine with bountiful feasts and shrines are elaborately decorated. In Saraswat Brahmin temples, statue figures are adorned with flowers, sandalwood paste and turmeric.

In some regions of India, it’s believed that one should try to envision the divinity in the tools used for daily life—whether books, computers or larger instruments—and decorate them with flowers and other adornments, in hopes of both humbling themselves and bringing auspiciousness upon the items that aid them in livelihood.

Paryushan Parva: Jains examine 10 virtues during Festival of Forgiveness

The Hutheesing Jain temple, in India. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, AUGUST 27: Observed by Shvetambar Jains for eight days (beginning Aug. 27, this year) and by Digambar Jains for 10 (beginning Sept. 3, this year), Paryushan Parva means daily fasting, inner reflection and confession. (For Digambar Jains, the festival is also sometimes known as Das Lakshana.) In India, monks and nuns take up residence in Jain centers during this period, providing guidance to the laity; the custom is now practiced in the United States, too.

Each evening of Paryushan, the laity gather for prayer, meditation and readings from holy texts. The end of Paryushan brings the grand day when forgiveness is requested from all living beings, and Jains forgive one another in full. It’s believed that all negative karmic matter attached to the soul is overpowered when total forgiveness is asked, resulting in renewal and self-purification.

Did you know? Many Jains fast during Paryushan Parva. Some drink only between sunrise and sunset; others consume only water. At the end of the festival period, any who have fasted are fed by friends and loved ones.

Though known by several different names, Paryushan Parva unites Jains through 10 key virtues: kshama (forgiveness); mardav (humility); arjav (straightforwardness); sauch (contentedness); satya (truth); samyam (control over senses); tappa (austerity); tyaga (renunciation); akinchan (lack of attachment); brahmacharya (celibacy). Together, the 10 virtues represent the ideal characteristics of the soul; by achieving the supreme virtues, the soul has a chance at salvation. Only through these virtues may people realize the sublime trio: “the True, the Good and the Beautiful.” Evil is eradicated, and eternal bliss is realized.