Rama Navami: Hindus celebrate Lord Rama, Ramayana, righteousness

A devotee observes Rama Navami. Photo by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21: The story of Lord Rama has been read, recited, and reviewed by Hindus worldwide, during a period known as Ramayana Week—all leading up to today’s climactic festival, Ram Navami. (Spellings vary; Ramanavami and Ramnavami are also common spellings.)

NEWS 2021: Though some celebrations have been cancelled due to the continuing pandemic—such as the festivities detailed in this article, from Telegraph India—many Hindus will be marking the day at home or within safety guidelines.

RAMA: THE SUN, FASTING AND A WEDDING

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, the birth of Rama may 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, while in parts of North India, chariot processions attract thousands of visitors. (This year, due to pandemic guidelines, some festivities will be withheld or altered.)

Did you know? Gandhi said that Ramrajya, the peaceful reign of Lord Rama, would be the ideal state of India following independence.

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.

Nowruz, Naw-Ruz, Ugadi and Ostara: Welcome spring

spring image, Nowruz

Photo by seznandy, courtesy of Pixabay

SATURDAY, MARCH 20 and SUNDAY, MARCH 21: All across the Northern Hemisphere, men, women and children welcome the season of spring, marked by the vernal equinox. This ancient cycle fuels celebrations worldwide:

  • In many parts of the Middle East and Asia, the ancient holiday is known as Nowruz; for Bahai’s, it’s Naw-Ruz.
  • For many Hindus, it’s Ugadi.
  • For Pagans and Wiccans, it’s Ostara.

Though the names and specific rituals may differ, the theme is joy in the promise of new life that comes in the spring season. As the darkness of winter lifts, communities rejoice. Whether it’s Kurds in Turkey jumping over fires, Iranians sprouting grains or Wiccans discussing the symbolism of the egg, all embrace the rejuvenation of the season.

NORTHERN SPRING AND THE VERNAL EQUINOX

On March 20 at 5:37 a.m. EDT, the 2021 vernal equinox will occur—and for those in the Northern Hemisphere, that signals springtime. Though day and night are not exactly equal in duration on the equinox—that event is known as equilux, and varies by location—the plane of the Earth’s Equator passes the center of the sun on the equinoxes. During the equinox, length of daylight is (theoretically) the same at all points on the Earth.

In Chinese belief, spring is associated with a green dragon and the direction east: the green dragon for the green sprouts of spring, and east as the direction of sunrise and the beginning of each day.

Haft-sin table, Nowruz

A Haft-sin table. Photo by Hamed Saber, courtesy of Flickr

NOWRUZ: THE HAFT-SIN TABLE

Spellings vary widely, but across much of the Middle East, Central and South Asia—Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and more—as well as by Zoroastrians and other religious and ethnic groups, the vernal equinox marks Nowruz, the New Year holiday.

Classified among UNESCO’s Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Iranian/Persian New Year dates back hundreds of years BCE. Many believe that Nowruz is rooted in Zoroastrianism and was started by Zarathustra, though some place the festival’s origin centuries before Zoroaster.

Nowruz dawns as the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar. Nowruz is a very important holiday in Iran and for Zoroastrians. Extensive spring cleaning begins a month prior to Nowruz, and new clothing is bought in anticipation of the 12-day celebrations that include numerous visits to family and friends. Prior and sometimes during the festival, fires are lit that reflect the Zoroastrian perspective on light’s victory over darkness. Many Iranians put up a Haft Sin table, covered with seven symbolic items. Items vary slightly but may include apples, mirrors, candles, sprouted wheat or barley, painted eggs, rose water, dried fruit, garlic, vinegar, coins and a holy book. Parsi Zoroastrians set up a “sesh” tray, filled with rose water, a betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a wick in a glass and a picture of Zarathustra. On the 13th day of the New Year festival, families head outdoors for picnics, music and dancing.

NAW-RUZ: BAHA’I NEW YEAR

Baha’is have been fasting for the past month, and on Naw-Ruz, that fast is broken—a celebration of the Baha’i New Year. Naw-Ruz was instituted by Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, as a time for great joy. No set rituals exist for Naw-Ruz, but most Baha’is gather for a meal and read sacred Baha’i writings. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, described the equinox as a symbol of the messengers of God, with their message as the spiritual springtime that is Naw-Ruz.

UGADI: RELIGIOUS FORECAST; SIX TASTES

For Hindus and the people of the Deccan region of India, this time of year bring (Y)ugadi, derived from Sanskrit as “the beginning of a new age.” Names for the festival vary by region, but across India, Ugadi specifically refers to the start of our current age, Kali Yuga. According to Hindu legend, Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, at the moment Lord Krishna left the world. On Yugadi, people traditionally gather to listen to the recitation of the religious almanac of the new year—or, in other words, a forecast of the coming year. Hindus used to gather in temples to hear the Ugadi forecast, but today, priest-scholar recitations can be viewed on television or the almanac might be read by an elder in other settings.

On this auspicious day, extended families gather and ritual baths are taken before prayers. Carefully cleaned homes welcome visitors with an entrance draped in fresh mango leaves. In many regions, a dish of six tastes is partaken with a symbolism that represents the varied experiences of life. Most commonly, neem buds and flowers symbolize sadness; jaggery and banana signify happiness; green chili peppers represent anger; salt indicates fear; taramind juice symbolizes disgust; and unripened mango translates to surprise.

OSTARA: PAGANS AND WICCANS CELEBRATE

Symbols of eggs and rabbits illustrate the Pagan and Wiccan holiday of Ostara, known also for the goddess of spring by the same name. Ostara, or Eostre, is the ancient goddess of spring and dawn who presides over fertility, conception and pollination. Symbols of eggs and rabbits represent the fertility of springtime, and in centuries past, these symbols were often used in fertility rituals. The next full moon, also called Ostara, is known as a time of increased births.

As the trees begin to bud and new plants emerge, modern Pagans and Wiccans fast from winter’s heavy foods and partake in the fresh vegetables and herbs of springtime. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Traditional foods for this time are leafy green vegetables, dairy foods, nuts and sprouts; favored activities include planting a garden and taking a walk in nature.

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Maha Shivaratri: Hindus fast, hold vigils and ritual baths for ‘Great Night of Shiva’

Lord Shiva statue

Lord Shiva. Photo courtesy of PixaHive

THURSDAY, MARCH 11: Fasting, worship and ritual baths for Lord Shiva are followed by a nighttime vigil on Maha Shivaratri, a holiday observed across India and by Hindus around the world. On Maha Shivaratri, many Hindus believe that Lord Shiva performed the Tandava—the cosmic dance of creation, preservation and destruction. Lord Shiva, a member of the Hindu Trinity, is associated with several legends and renowned as the model of an ideal husband.

NEWS 2021: Although worship in temples will occur this year, devotees will be required to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines: wearing face masks, maintaining physical distancing, using hand sanitizer, etc. The New Indian Express has an article on a temple that will be a destination for Hindus this Maha Shivaratri.

RITUALS, LEGENDS & MORE

Hindus in India, Nepal, Trinidad and Tobago and other parts of the world share stories as well as traditions on this renowned holiday. According to one legend, Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, were married on this day. As the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvatai is regarded as ideal, married women pray for the well-being of their husbands and single women pray that they will find a husband like Shiva. In another traditional story, Lord Shiva manifested in the form of a Linga on Maha Shivaratri, and thus the day is regarded as extremely auspicious. It’s believed that sincere worship of Lord Shiva on Maha Shivaratri—Lord Shiva’s favorite day—will bring absolution of sins, neutrality of the mind and assistance in liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Did you know? Maha Shivaratri means “the Great Night of Shiva.”

As a time for “overcoming darkness and ignorance,” devotees begin Maha Shivaratri early in the day. After a a ritual bath, many Hindus visit a temple, where they pray, make offerings, chant prayers and bathe figures of Shiva in milk, honey or water. Many devotees either fast or partake in only milk and fruit throughout the day, as they contemplate virtues such as forgiveness, honesty and self-discipline. As evening falls, worship to Lord Shiva continues, and hymns and devotional songs are sung to Shiva throughout the night.

 

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

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14: 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, 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.

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.