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.

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.

Krishna Janmashtami: Hindus celebrate deity of mischief, fun & empathy

SATURDAY, AUGUST 24: Americans love the acrobatic feats of the Indian dance crew V. Unbeatable on America’s Got Talent. The crew has racked up more than 25 million views of their AGT video clip! (We’ve got that video, below.)

A dahi handi pyramid in India for Krishna Janmashtami. Photo by Akshay Charegaonkar, courtesy of Fllickr

On August 24, 2019, you’ll see some of the real-life origins of this death-defying cultural expression in Dahi Handi, a hugely popular part of Krishna birthday festivals. In city streets across India, men form towering human pyramids. Around the holiday, type “Dahi Handi” into Google-News and you’ll spot stories and videos of this colorful custom. In recent years, news stories also report efforts to protect these eager participants. Every year, people are injured in these efforts.

The holiday honors the birth of Lord Krishna. Millions will fast as well as indulge in sweets, chant and celebrate. The observance of Krishna Janmashtami lasts eight days in some regions!

The Hindu deity Krishna is also known as the eighth avatar of Vishnu. To devotees, Krishna is the epitome of many characteristics: according to ancient texts, he is a mischievous and fun-loving child, a romantic lover and an empathetic friend.

On Krishna’s birthday, events begin before sunrise and last through midnight. Public and private prayer, both in centuries-old temples and in private homes, can include chanting and singing. Feasts of many dishes are prepared, and dances and dramas depicting the life and ways of Krishna are watched with fanfare. Some devotees dress or decorate statues of Krishna, while others string garlands across temples.

Many Hindus fast until midnight—the official birth time of Krishna. At midnight, those at the temple watch a priest pull apart curtains to reveal a fully dressed figure of Krishna.

A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION: FROM MUMBAI TO NEPAL

At a celebration for Krishna Janmashtami, 2017. Photo by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math, courtesy of Flickr

Across India, Krishna’s birthday is commemorated with regional variations. In Mumbai, Pune and in other regions, boys form human pyramids in hopes of having the highest boy break an earthen pot (called a handi) filled with buttermilk, which is tied to a string strung high above the streets. If the pot is broken, buttermilk spills over the group and the boys win prize money. Various groups of boys compete in Dahi Handi, in impersonation of a favorite pastime of the child Krishna: stealing butter. Today, political figures, wealthy individuals and even Bollywood actors contribute to prize money for the Dahi Handi. In some regions of India, younger boys—typically the youngest male in a family—is dressed up like Lord Krishna on Janmashtami. Hindus across Nepal, the U.S., Caribbean and more revel in festivities for Krishna Janmashtami, offering fruit, flowers and coins to the deity and chanting together.

FROM HOME: HOW TO CELEBRATE

Devotees can celebrate Krishna Janmashtami at home, too, with suggestions from Krishna.com:

  • Invite friends and family to participate in festivities
  • Decorate your home for Krisnha with garlands, clothed figures and balloons
  • Check out the webcam views at Krishna.com, which capture temple festivities

Ugadi: Hindus in India, worldwide mark spring New Year’s festival

Fancy jars of food, rice, beans, on plants

Ugadi Pacchadi, traditionally eaten on Ugadi/Yugadi. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, APRIL 6: The sweet scent of ripe mangoes, aromas of calming jasmine and the Hindu New Year signal spring in regions of India, ushering in Ugadi (also known as Yugadi). In celebrating regions in India and around the world today, devotees gather for Ugadi poetry recitals, dance festivals, sports and youth essay contests. New Year predictions are announced by Brahmin priests, and traditional prayers are offered. Many homes are adorned with mango leaves and women braid fresh jasmine into their hair, toiling over special New Year dishes in anticipation of shared feasts with family and friends.

Did you know? One of the most popular dishes on today’s menu is Ugadi Pacchadi (known also as Bevu Bella), a dish containing several tastes that symbolize the many emotions 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.

Millions of men and women across India base the start of the Saka, or Indian national calendar, on an ancient system that balances both lunar and solar cycles. Derived from Sanskrit as “the beginning of a new age,” the Saka calendar places (Y)ugadi on April 6 this year. Many also believe that Yugadi marks the anniversary of our current era—known as Kali Yuga. According to Hindu legend, Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, at the moment Lord Krishna left the world.

 

Sri Ramakrishna Jayanti: Honoring a modern Hindu mystic, teacher

White statue of man sitting, decorated with yellow robe and flowers

A figure of Sri Ramakrishna, decorated for celebrations. Photo by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, MARCH 8: In Hindu communities worldwide, today marks the birth anniversary celebration for Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu mystic whose movement redefined modern Hinduism. Many Hindu legends date back thousands of years, but it was during a modern time of Western influence that Ramakrishna made an impact: as true Hindu devotion was eroding, Ramakrishna warned, it was time to revive the faith.

Many accounts verify the God-like essence that surrounded Ramakrishna, and his God-consciousness is described in various books (including works on psychology). Yet despite his mission to unify India, this mystic and teacher also taught an appreciation for other religious traditions. Ramakrishna’s small room in the Dakshineswar temple garden was frequently filled with men and women, young and old—atheists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians—all anxious to see and hear him. Ramakrishna became renowned for explaining the mysteries of God in the language of the common man.

As Hindu holidays are based on the lunar calendar in India, Ramakrishna’s birthday is on February 18—but, in translation to the Gregorian calendar, that date this year on the Gregorian calendar is March 8.

Care to learn more?

International peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry profiles Sr. Ramakrishna (1836-1886).