Holy Festivals

Ram Navami

Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, was born on navami, the ninth lunar day [see last paragraph, page 37, for an explanation of the lunar day] of the bright half of Meena, or Pisces (Chaitra the lunar month of March/April). Devotees observe this day with non-stop recitation of the Ramayana, the story of Rama's life. In the evening, crowds attend Ramalila, dramatic performances recounting Rama's deeds. Every home will resound with devotional singing. This festival is especially popular in Uttar Pradesh, where Rama's ancient kingdom of Ayodhya was situated. Sometimes Ramalila and other devotional observances are done during the nine days before or after navami. People will keep fasts or eat only fruit or a special prasadam prepared for the day. If celebrated for nine days, it is common to remain awake the whole ninth night, engaged in devotional practices. Devotees also contribute generously to temples and other charitable organizations on Ram Navami. Lord Rama is honored not only as an incarnation of God, but also as an ideal man who exemplified the virtues of reverence, obedience and duty.

Raksha Bandhan

On the full moon of Karkata, or Cancer (Sravana July/August), sisters tie a rakhi around the wrist of their brothers, who in return give a present of clothing, cash or jewelry and become obligated for the safety of the sister. The rakhi can also be given to anyone chosen as an "adopted brother," even outside the Hindu community. It signifies that she is praying for his welfare and that he is determined to give protection to her. Originally the rakhi was a handspun cotton thread dyed yellow with turmeric, but now many colors and materials are used. Three knots are made in the thread to signify protection in thought, word and deed. This day is also celebrated as Narali Purnima, "coconut full moon," when coconuts are offered to Varuna, God of the Sea, by throwing them into the ocean. It is also called Avani Avittam, the ceremony of changing of the sacred thread among the brahmins. This tradition dates back to Vedic times when the year's studies were commenced on this day.

Ganesha Chaturthi

The fourth lunar day of the bright half of Simha, or Leo (Bhadra August/September), is celebrated around the world as the birthday of Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Wisdom and Lord of Obstacles. As with other festivals, the homes and temples are elaborately decorated for the day. The special activity is the making of clay images of Ganesha, reverently formed and decorated. Some are huge works of art created by craftsmen, others are tiny icons painted and decorated by children. At the end of the day, or seven or ten days later, these images are ceremoniously immersed in the ocean or a nearby stream or lake, signifying the creation of Ganesha from the Earth and His return and dissolution in the ocean of universal consciousness. So intense has been His presence at this time that even grown men weep at His auspicious departure. His worship on this day removes obstacles and ensures smooth progress in all ventures through the year. As Ganesha is common to all Hindu sects, this festival is serving both inside and outside of India as a day to celebrate Hindu solidarity and unity.

Diwali

The festival of lights, Diwali, takes place on the fourteenth lunar day of the dark half of Tula, or Libra (Karttika October/November), with related festivities on adjacent days. It is the most widely celebrated Hindu festival in the world, and possibly related to the European Celtic festival of Samhain, observed at the same time of the year with huge bonfires set on hilltops. This is the day that Rama returned to Ayodhya after spending 14 years in exile, though many other reasons for the day are cited. It is a celebration of renewal as the New Year commences in the Vikram calendar. Everyone takes a special bath in the early morning and puts on new clothes. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated. Goddess Lakshmi is invoked for prosperity, and Her presence is felt in every home. Businesses close out their books for the past year and open new ones, even conducting a mock first business deal of the year. In the evening, every house, store, temple and wall is decorated with thousands of small lamps, while fireworks are set off overhead and firecrackers by the hundreds of thousands below. Family bonds are renewed, especially between brothers and sisters, and forgiveness is requested from friends for any misunderstandings during the previous year. Of all festivals, Diwali holds a special place, and is the premier international one, holding official holiday status in nine countries India, Nepal, Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Singapore, with attempts being made to add more countries where Hindus live.

Holi

Bonfires and the splashing of friends and strangers alike with brightly colored waters, powders and paints mark this most high-spirited of Hindu festivals. It is celebrated on the full moon day of Kumbha, or Aquarius (Phalguna February/March), and in many places for the several days preceding. Giant bonfires are built by neighborhood boys, where effigies of various demons are consumed. Friends are visited and presents of sweets exchanged. This is essentially a celebration of spring, at which different events are commemorated. This is the day the infant Krishna killed the demoness Putana; the day that Lord Vishnu's devotee Pralada, son of the demon Hiranyakasipu, survived a fire intended to kill him, and the day that Siva burnt Kama, the God of Love, to ashes. Holi is very popular among devotees of Krishna at Mathura, Krishna's birthplace. Also known as Hutasani, "fire consuming," Holi signifies the triumph of good over evil, the beginning of the new agricultural season and the renewal of relationships.

Guru Purnima

In ashrams around the world, the spiritual preceptor is honored on this full moon day of July with garlands, gifts and donations to show love and gratitude for his wisdom through the year. Devotees renew their commitment to following his teachings and guidance for the coming year. The traditional worship is pada puja, ceremonial bathing of the guru's feet (or, in his absence, his sandals) with water, milk, honey, sandalwood paste and offering gifts of precious items including 108 gold coins. This day is also known as Vyasa Puja, in honor of Sage Vyasa, codifier of the Vedas and author of the Mahabharata and Puranas. He is honored in temples with offerings of limes and rice, the latter being taken home by devotees and mixed with their own store of rice. This is also a day for reading religious books while remembering the auspicious form of the satguru through

Krishna Janmashtami

Lord Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, was born on the eighth lunar day (ashtami) of the dark half of Karkata, or Cancer (Sravana July/August). Devotees fast the preceding day until midnight, the time that Krishna was born to Vasudeva and Devika in the Mathura kingdom's prison 5,000 years ago. At midnight, amist grand ceremony the temple priest places the image of the newborn Krishna in a swinging crib. Among the traditional observances, pots of sweets, curd and butter are hung near homes, on trees and street poles in recollection of Krishna's love for these things. Teenage boys dressed as cowherds form human pyramids to reach and break the pots. The following day is again one of festivity, including puja, storytelling and the Ras Leela, a folk theater depicting major events of Krishna's life. "Dark as a rain cloud," reads one account of His birth, "He made the prison glow with the splendor of His crown, His jewelry and His yellow silk robes. He was the Lord God incarnate."

Navaratri

The festival of "Nine Nights," Navaratri, honoring the Goddess, begins on the first lunar day of the bright half of Kanya, or Virgo (Asvina September/October). Three days are devoted each to Durga (Goddess of valor), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge). In eastern India the festival is known as Durga Puja. There, images of the Goddess are created, worshiped for ten days, then immersed in the sea. In southern India, houses are decorated with displays of dolls, toys and images of the Gods. In western India, the traditional garbha dance is performed nightly. On the fifth day (Lalita Panchami), all books of a household are gathered, sacred lamps lit reverently by their side and the blessings of Saraswati invoked. Artisans give their tools a "day of rest," worship and seek blessings for them. Day ten, variously known as Vijaya Dasami, Dasara and Dussehra, marks the commencement of learning. In many localities huge effigies of Ravana are burnt to celebrate Rama's conquest of the demon.

Maha Sivaratri

On "Siva's Great Night," Maha Sivaratri, the fourteenth day of the dark half of Kumbha, or Aquarius (Phalguna February/March), devotees fast all day in preparation to worship Lord Siva from evening until early dawn bathing the sacred Siva Linga with water, milk, honey and saffron water, then offering bilva leaves while chanting Sri Rudram, the pre-eminent Vedic hymn to Siva, or reciting His 1,008 names are the highpoints of the all-night vigil. Only when the last puja is finished in early morning do devotees break their fast by eating the sacred prasadam offered earlier to the Lord. The following day is one of feasting and gaiety, especially at grand fairs held in many parts of India. On Siva's night we contemplate Siva as the Unmanifest Reality. We dive deep in yogic meditation on His endless/beginningless Radiance.

Setting Festival Dates

Most festivals are held on astrologically auspicious times for a particular deity in the same zodiac sign of the Sun each year. Ram Navami, for example, takes place in the sign of Meena or Pisces, which corresponds to the north Indian month of Chaitra or the Tamil month of Panguni. Each festival day is designated on a particular lunar day, or tithi, during a particular sign. There are 30 tithis from new moon to new moon. The month's "bright half" (shukla paksha) starts from the new moon (amavasya) to the full moon (purnima) and the "dark half" (krishna paksha) from the full moon to the new moon. Because the cycle of the Moon around the Earth (about 29.5 days) and the Sun through one zodiac sign (about 30.4 days) do not match, the month may begin on varying tithis. Tithis also vary in length from 20 to 26 hours, because of the Moon's orbit in relation to the sun. When a tithi occurs twice in one month, the second is chosen for the festival. Because a tithi is not the same as a 24-hour day and the calculations depend on location, one must consult a Hindu calendar (panchanga) computed for a particular place to determine a festival date. One cannot simply go by the dates for India. Some festivals are calculated using the nakshatra system. There are many regional variations in calendars and hence even dissent on festival calculations.

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