Holi go lightly
A search for the meaning of the festival of colours, through different myths of origin.
Somewhere in Germany: Sunshine, beer, probably some synthetic drugs. Thousands of people, some as young as sixteen, dancing to loud electronic music. Suddenly, a cloud of colour bursts into the air. This is Holi - Festival of Colours, which is increasingly taking place all over the world.
For quite some time now, writer and politician Shashi Tharoor has been praising India as a soft power, which is gaining international influence by sharing its attractive culture. Keeping the electronic Holi festival in Germany in mind, it seems that Holi is very much a part of this soft power.
But one can’t help but ask if such an export of Holi is positive in every respect. Is there not an estrangement from its original meaning? A devaluation? Superficiality? Or is it rather admirable that people from all over the world come together, in joy, to celebrate an Indian festival – in whatever manner?
On the one hand, one could argue that this is very much the meaning of Holi, as one of its myths of origin points out – if read euphemistically. It can be read as a story about overcoming discrimination and differences.
According to the legend, the young Krishna is in despair. He wondered whether Radha and the other fair milk maidens, the gopis, would like him because of his dark skin.
His mother urges him to ask Radha to smear any colour of her choice on his face. Frolickingly she does, and so they became a couple.
Of course, the varicoloured powder signifies – to some extent – the colours of spring. It can also be interpreted as a symbol that our skin colour, origin, religion, social background, and other identities do not matter, as they are all covered beneath an equalising cloud of colour. No wonder that in India itself, Holi is celebrated by other communities as well like the Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
A less euphemistic interpretation would, however, reveal that Krishna’s dark pigmentation had to be covered by colour in order for him to be accepted by his fair-skinned inamorata. But let us stick with the euphemistic reading for now.
Such a reading would not only make it a tale about equality but love.
This is reflected by yet another myth of origin. In this legend, Parvati tries to bring her beloved Shiva back from his ascetic meditation. She enlists the help of Kama, the God of human love and desire. This happens on Vasant Panchami, the spring festival that is celebrated 40 days before Holi.
Annoyed by Kama’s cupid-like arrows, Shiva burns him to ashes, which unsettles Parvati and Kama’s wife Rati. After Rati, in turn, meditates for 40 days and nights, Shiva shows compassion and resuscitates the god of love. Kama’s return is celebrated on the day of Holi.
Seemingly, if people come together in a loving and caring manner – no matter where, no matter who – it is within the meaning of Holi. As is the act of accepting love. We should, however, keep in mind that this story is also about asceticism and meditation.
Fair enough, Shiva does not destroy love. Yet, he restores Kama merely as a mental image that symbolises – instead of concupiscence – true, maybe even divine love.
Just how meditative is a raving crowd? One could argue about that.
Then, there is a third myth of origin, which is probably the least respected by those celebrating in some electronic festival.
In this story, the immortal king Hiranyakashipu believes himself to be God. The king wants everyone to exclusively worship him.
His son Prahlada, nevertheless, remains a devotee of Vishnu. Prahlada gets tricked into walking into a pyre by his aunt Holika. While he survives the flames, Holika gets burned although everyone expected it to be the other way around.
Vishnu then appears as the half-human, half-lion Narasimha and kills Hiranyakashipu. Holi and the Holika bonfire symbolise this righteous faith and the victory of good over evil.
If we argue about the pros and cons of the proliferation of Indian culture and its concurrent detachment from its original meaning, we should not forget that the same is also taking place in India itself.
For instance, in Jaipur (which carries the colourful and congenial sobriquet of “Pink city”) young, affluent people celebrate with at least as loud electronic music and as many synthetic drugs as in Germany.
Maybe, in this debate, one has to take a utilitarian approach. Cultures are like butterflies, they are ever-changing, metamorphising into something new, especially when they encounter another culture.
As long as this process causes good rather than evil – as can be seen in the spirit of Holi – one should encourage it. And if not, one should guide it in such a way that it will be.
The author is currently pursuing a PhD in Modern philosophical interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita (in form) at the University of Hildesheim, Germany.