Mahavir Jayanti: Jains honor final Tirthankar, meditate, teach non-violence

Jain temple with elaborate gardens in front of busy Indian landscape, lots of buildings in back

A jain temple in Calcutta. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 19: A national holiday previously slotted for April 20 has recently been moved to today, Indian news sources report, as Jains arrive at one of the most significant days of their calendar year: Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the final and most important Tirthankar, Mahavira.

In the Jain faith, each cycle of time—according to the laws of nature—gives birth to 24 Tirthankars, or souls that have attained ultimate purity and possess divine power. These Tirthankars were fully human, but achieved enlightenment through meditation and self-realization.

Today, Jains visit colorfully decorated temples, perform religious rituals and prayer and ceremonially bathe statues of Mahavira. As Jainism focuses heavily on meditation and the path of virtue, many Jains spend Mahavir Jayanti contemplating and then living out the virtuous path, by performing acts of charity.

MAHAVIRA: THE LEGEND AND THE MAN

According to texts, Mahavira was born the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, in 599 BCE. While pregnant with Mahavira, Queen Trishala had a series of dreams about her unborn child—dreams that, astrologers revealed, meant that she would give birth to either an emperor or a Tirthankar.

From an early age, Mahavira was interested in Jainism and meditation. By age 30, he was an ascetic who spent more than 10 years seeking spiritual truth. From that point, Mahavira preached on non-violence and righteousness until his death. He spoke of karma, and of the cycles of life and death.

Historically, Mahavira laid the foundation for the religion that is now Jainism.

NEWS: SIKHS IN TIMES SQUARE

Thousands of Sikhs and other community members recently gathered in Times Square, in an event for the holiday of Vaisakhi. (Economic Times has the story.) The event sought to educate non-Sikhs on the Sikh religion, as the group has experienced recent hate crimes. Some dubbed the day “Turban Day,” as the Sikhs handed out turbans and tied them on the heads of interested tourists and onlookers.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaSikh

Baisakhi: Sikhs and Indians of the Punjab region celebrate first of Vaisakh

Group of Indian men and women in colorful garb and native instruments gathered together in a field of tall wheat or other grain

Baisakhi is, in part, a Punjabi harvest festival. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 14: The grand Baisakhi festival sweeps across the Punjab region of India today, bringing lively processions and dancing, sacred baths, Sikh kirtans and expressions of gratitude for a good harvest. It is the first day of the month of Vaisakh, and the beginning of a new solar year.

For Hindus, Baisahki means Punjabi fairs, sacred rituals and a legend about the Goddess Ganga; for Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the anniversary of the organization of the esteemed Khalsa. (Tribune India reported on this year’s Baisakhi mela.) During the Baisakhi festival of 1699, Sikh Guru Gobind Singh Ji set the foundation for the Panth Khalsa—the Order of the Pure Ones. (Learn more at BaisakhiFestival.com.) Today, Sikhs visit a gurdwara (place of worship) with flowers and other offerings. The largest Sikh gatherings take place at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and at the gurdwara at Anandpur Sahib (the birthplace of the Khalsa).

Did you know? Spellings of the solar New Year festival vary widely, but generally, it is spelled “Vaisakhi” in specific dialects of Punjabi, and “Baisakhi” when referring to the Sikhs and the Khalsa anniversary.

While most Baisahki events take place around the Punjabi region, Sikh celebrations are carried out worldwide. (For an assortment of tasty Basaikhi recipes, visit BBC.co.uk.)  In New York, community service and food charity is practiced by Sikhs; in Los Angeles, a full-day kirtan (spiritual music) program is followed by a parade that contains an average of 15,000 participants. In British Columbia, a kirtan parade attracts tens of thousands annually (The Georgia Straight reported); in London, Sikhs gather for a kirtan and visits to the gurdwara.

Men in orange robes and turbans carry long wooden swords and walk in line in procession

A Vaisakhi procession in Southall, Great Britain. Photo courtesy of Geograph.org

BAISAKHI 1699

As Sikh’s recall their history this week, they will remember: In 1667 CE, the Mughal emperor installed himself as the emperor of India. Strict religious persecution followed, religious taxes gained momentum and temples and places of learning were closed. The Brahmins, eager to stop the emperor, approached Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Sikh guru) for leadership in the conflict. At his son’s encouragement, the guru accepted the Brahmin invitation. (Wikipedia has details.) Guru Tegh Bahadur was later imprisoned and martyred for his fight against the emperor, yet when his body was left exposed, in the open, by the executioner, no one came forward to claim it.

Then, the Sikh narrative continues: In such dangerous and violent times, Guru Gobind Rai—son of Tegh Bahadur—wished to instill in the Sikhs a unique sense of identity and courage. During the Baisakhi festival, it was common for Sikhs to visit Anandpur for the guru’s blessings. Two months prior to Baisakhi 1699, the guru sent a message to Sikh followers: this year, Baisakhi would be different. (Get a Sikh perspective at Sikhism Guide.org.) With a massive crowd before him on that day, the guru declared that every great deed must be preceded by an equally great sacrifice—and, with that, he asked for a head. One man stepped forward from the crowd, ready to sacrifice himself, and the guru led him into a tent. Moments later, Gobind Singh emerged from the tent with a bloodied sword.

After four more men declared themselves for sacrifice, the guru emerged from the tent: the five men, all dressed in pure white, stepped out, too. The men were baptized, knighted as Singhs and called the Five Beloved Ones. They were deemed saint soldiers and the first members of a new community. The Sikh duty, it was proclaimed, was to dedicate life as a service to others and to pursue justice. The identity of the Khalsa embodies the five “Ks”: Kesh (unshorn hair); Kangha (the wooden comb); Karra (the iron or steel bracelet); Kirpan (the sword); and Kachera (the underwear).

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Holi: Hindus revel in festival of color and usher in a vibrant springtime

Crowd of people covered in colored powders with powders being thrown into the air, outdoors

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, MARCH 6: Explosions of color cross India today as the mega-festival of spring arrives. The ancient Holi festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and bridges social, economic and gender gaps in Indian communities. On Holi, colorful powders are thrown at friends and strangers, as everyone wishes each other a “Happy Holi.” Celebrations now rage worldwide, and in some parts of India, festivities last more than two weeks.

THE COLOSSAL HOLIKA BONFIRES

The night before Holi, excitement begins to build with massive community Holika bonfires. Around the bonfire, participants sing and dance, recalling the destruction of Holika, an evil demoness of Hindu legend. (Wikipedia has details.) The night before Holi, the scores of Holika bonfires serve as reminder of the victory of good over evil. In some regions, effigies of Holika are burnt in the fires.

Three boys happy covered in colored powder

Boys celebrate Holi in India. Photo by Jean-Marc Gargantiel, courtesy of Flickr

SHADES OF SPRING

Nothing says “spring” like vibrant hues, and Holi ushers in a fresh season in India with vigor and excitement. The morning of Holi, revelers head outdoors with colored powders and water guns, dousing passersby, friends and neighbors. (Learn more from HoliFestival.org.) Holi delicacies are consumed, past wrongdoings are forgiven and debts are paid. In many regions, broken friendships are addressed and families take time to visit each other. Some groups carry drums and instruments in a singing and dancing procession.

While Holika is brought to mind on the eve of Holi, Krishna is 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.

Holi hues:
natural vs. synthetic

India’s Holi colors were traditionally plant-derived, serving a dual purpose as bright powders and supposedly serving as herbal protectants against springtime allergens. As urban areas became more populated, cheaper, more available synthetics began gaining in popularity. A lack of control over quality and content led to mass sales of synthetic colors that contained dangerous heavy metals, caused skin and eye irritations and polluted the groundwater and air. Organizations and environmental groups have taken action in recent years, campaigning for safe colors and making naturally derived powders available once again.

‘FESTIVAL OF COLORS’ ACROSS THE GLOBE

Outside of India, Holi is observed by Hindus in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa, among other countries with an Indian diaspora population. Recently, festivals and activities have sprung up in cities across the United States and the United Kingdom—Holi now is popular on many college campuses, for example. In some countries, Holi parties are scheduled according to the country’s climate and seasons.

FOR SIKHS: HOLA MOHALLA

While Hindus are throwing colored powders and rejoicing in spring, Sikhs turn to a different festival: 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. (Read more at SikhiWiki.) 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.

IN THE NEWS:

Demand is rising for safe and natural Holi colors, as was recently reported from Pune.

Widows in India wear only white and are often neglected, but this Holi, a group is organizing colorful celebrations for the once-forgotten women. Learn more from the Times of India.

Online shopping for Holi is slowly gaining popularity, though doubts of timely deliverance and other concerns bring limitations. Check out this article to learn more.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduSikh

Vasant Panchami: Hindus wear yellow, worship Saraswati & count days to Holi

Girl with medium tone skin wearing gold nose ring, eleaborate gem necklace and headpiece, looking at camera

A young girl is dressed in yellow and fine jewelry for the festival of Vasant Panchami. Photo by Adam Jones, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, JANUARY 24: Wear the color yellow and herald in springtime, joining Hindus and Sikhs in India and beyond in the festival of Vasant Panchami (spellings vary).

Literally the fifth day of spring, Vasant Panchami honors Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music, art, culture, learning and knowledge. Today, the spring cycle will begin that ends with Holi, the massive spring festival that is now celebrated internationally.

For Sikhs, Vasant Panchami marks the day in Amritsar when musicians begin singing the Basant Raga, a practice that will continue until the first day of Vaisakh. (Wikipedia has details.) In some regions of India, kites fill the sky, and the festival is better known as the Basant Festival of Kites.

Did you know? Saraswati is often depicted seated on a white lotus, with four hands. The four hands symbolize the aspects of learning.

An ancient celebration stretching back thousands of years, Vasant Panchami reveres Kamadeva, the god of love, and his friend Vasant (the personification of spring). In modern times, however, rituals for the goddess Saraswati have taken precedence over Kamadeva. Hindus treat Vasant Panchami as Saraswati’s birthday, worshiping the goddess and filling her temples with food. Figures of Saraswati are often draped in yellow clothing, and as the deity is considered supreme in many types of knowledge, students ask for her blessings. It is traditional that children begin learning the alphabet or their first words on Vasant Panchami, believing it auspicious to do so. While donning yellow clothing, Hindus often make and distribute yellow foods and treats to neighbors, family and friends.

A log with a figure of the demoness Holika is placed in a public area on Vasant Panchami, and for 40 days, devotees will add twigs and sticks to form an enormous pile. The pyre is lit on Holi (this year, March 6).

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduSikh

Maghi: Sikhs memorialize 40 martyrs at Muktsar, request status changes

Large white building with dome on top across body of water

Gurdwara Muktsar Sahib, so named for the 40 Sikhs who perished in the Battle of Muktsar in 1705. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14: As the festival of Makar Sankranti surges across India with its kites and sweet treats, Sikhs recall a solemn and momentous anniversary: the death and cremation of the “40 liberated ones.” In December of 1705, 40 Sikhs who had previously abandoned the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, returned to battle at Muktsar and suffered martyrdom for their leader. The imperial Mughal army was forced to retreat, and Guru Gobind Singh was free from attack. Following the death of the Chali Mukte (40 Liberated Ones), Guru Gobind Singh blessed the Sikhs and declared that they had reached mukti (liberation). Today, the largest gathering for this event—Mela Maghi—takes place at Sri Muktsar Sahib, a revered city in Punjab where the Battle of Muktsar took place.

Did you know? The city of Muktsar was originally called Khidrana, but was renamed “Muktsar,” or “the pool of liberation,” following the prominent battle of 1705.

The story of the 40 Liberated Ones begins when the group, led by Mahan Singh, had formally deserted Guru Gobind Singh and had written a memorandum about their decision. Shortly thereafter, the Sikhs were met by a spirited woman by the name of Mai Bhago, who reprimanded the Sikhs for their lack of bravery. The men were inspired and experienced a renewed sense of purpose. The Sikhs engaged in battle with the fatigued opposing forces, and though outnumbered, were victorious. (Learn more from All About Sikhs.) Before his death on the battlefield, Mahan Singh asked Guru Gobind Singh to forgive the 40 Sikhs who had previously deserted the leader. Gobind Singh officially declared the 40, now martyrs, as forgiven.

During Mela Maghi, Sikhs in India and worldwide gather in gurdwaras to recite hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) and watch elaborate recitals. At Muktsar, a grand three-day festival offers Sikhs a chance to submerge in sacred waters, worship at various locations and participate in a procession to Gurdwara Tibbi Sahib, a renowned favorite of Guru Gobind Singh. (Wikipedia has details.) According to the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs should take baths and gather in congregation to review God’s virtues.

IN THE NEWS:
OBAMA ASKED TO DISCUSS SIKH RIGHTS IN INDIA

An organization for Sikh rights has obtained more than 100,000 signatures on a petition requesting President Obama discuss Sikh status issues and more during an upcoming trip to India, report news sources. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited President Obama to be chief guest at Republic Day on January 26, and American Sikhs are urging the President to bring up the issue of separate status for Sikhs in India. The petition, entitled “Sikhs are not Hindus,” also asks President Obama to speak with Prime Minister Narenda Modi about bringing justice to the victims of the highly organized Sikh Genocide, which occurred in 1984.

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Categories: Sikh

Installation of Sriptures as Guru Granth: Sikhs celebrate final faith guide

Book lying open on red cloth

The Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. Photo by Gurumustuk Singh, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20: In the line of esteemed Sikh faith leaders (gurus), the final guru continues to lead the Sikh people today—some four centuries after conception. Today, Sikhs celebrate the Installation of the Scriptures as Guru Granth. On this day in 1708 CE, the 10th Sikh guru announced that following his death, Sikhs should look to the sacred text known as Granth Sahib for guidance. The sacred compilation, which contains words from Sikh, Hindu and Muslim leaders alike, is placed at the center of worship in every Sikh gurdwara (place of worship). The faithful believe the Guru Granth Sahib to be the final and sovereign guru.

With the succession of Sikh gurus in history, it was the fifth—Guru Arjan (1563-1606 CE)—who began compiling writings of the previous gurus and of other great saints of the time. This first edition was known as the Adi Granth. As the years passed, the words of the other gurus were recorded, until the 10th guru added the words of his predecessor and compiled a work known as the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Today, the Guru Granth Sahib can be seen in every Sikh gurdwara on a revered platform, covered with ornate and delicate fabric.

The Guru Granth Sahib consists of 1,430 pages. (Wikipedia has details.) Among the hymns in this sacred text are descriptions of the qualities of God, the necessity for meditation on God’s name, and the need to live in God’s will.

IN THE NEWS:
PRINTING PRESSES FOR GURU GRANTH
TO OPEN IN NORTH AMERICA AND EUROPE

The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee recently made the decision to install printing presses in Europe, Canada and the United States, to aid Sikhs in these areas who need greater ability to reproduce copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. (Learn more from the Times of India and Sikh24.) As the Granth Sahib must be printed and delivered according to per rehat maryada (the Sikh code of religious conduct), the process is carried out with elaborate, traditional measures.

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Categories: Sikh