Holi is a celebration of love, color, and the arrival of Spring. The festival is celebrated on the full moon closest to the vernal equinox, typically in late February or March. Now a global phenomenon, the Holi festival has its colorful and complex roots in Hindu tradition.
The story goes as follows: Prahlada was a young prince and heir to the throne of the Demon King, Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu was an arrogant king, demanding that all of his people worship him as a God. Prahlada, however, remained loyal to Lord Vishnu, one of the main heavy-hitters of the Hindu faith and a primary manifestation of the Divine.
Hiranyakashipu was furious that he did not hold his son’s favor. After numerous failed attempts to trick (well, to maim and murder) the prince into adulation of his father, the king sent his sister Holika after him.
Holi festivalgoers throw colored dyes. Source: Holi One
Her plan was to wear a fireproof cloak and have the two of them sit on a pyre, but the protection of Vishnu was with Prahlada, and the cloak miraculously blew off of her, covering him. She burned to bits, of course. Like the festivals of the Pharmakos, Mardi Gras, and Carnival, the Holika bonfire that inaugurates the Holi festival is thanksgiving to Vishnu’s benevolence as well as a chance to purge oneself of past wrongdoings, grudges, and regrets– burning them away in the bonfire.
The colored powders and paints are borrowed from another myth in which Krishna is poisoned by the breast milk of a she-demon, and is embarrassed to present his now tainted and discolored skin before the other young girls of the village, including his beloved Radha. Krishna’s mother says “May Radha paint your face any color she desires”, and indeed, Radha obliges. The two fall in love and wed.
A lovely message, a lovely bit of culture, a lovely faith- it’s a wonderful thing that Holi is spreading all over the world. It is important to remember that it’s a religious festival, but for the non-Hindu it can also be good, peaceful fun.