Krishna Janmashtami: Pyramids, chanting, fasting commence in India

Hindus in colorful celebration

A Krishna Janmashtami program. Courtesy of Vimeo. (Click on the photo to view a video of the program.)

MONDAY, AUGUST 14 and TUESDAY, AUGUST 15 (date varies by country): Millions of Hindus worldwide revel in the spirit of Lord Krishna, fasting, chanting, indulging in sweets and celebrating for the grand festival of Krishna Janmashtami. An observance that lasts eight days in some regions, Krishna Janmashtami honors the birth of the Hindu deity Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. To devotees, Krishna is the epitome of countless characteristics: according to ancient texts, he is a mischievous and fun-loving child, a romantic lover and an empathetic friend. Worshippers relate to one or more aspects of Krishna’s personality, and legend has it that the deity reciprocates devotions in ways unique for each devotee.

Fast fact: Scriptural details and astrological calculations place Krishna’s birth on July 18, 3228 BCE.

On Krishna Janmashtami, 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 or a more private praise. 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.

DAHI HANDI, BUTTERMILK & KRISHNA

Human pyramid at nighttime

A Dahi Handi human pyramid. Photo by Ramnath Bhat, courtesy of Flickr

Across India, Krishna’s janmashtami 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 compete in Dahi Handi, in impersonation of a favorite pasttime 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.

NEWS: DAHI HANDI PYRAMID RESTRICTIONS IMPACT 2017 FESTIVITIES

The famed Dahi Handi pyramids, formed by young people in efforts to break a hung pot and earn prize money, now face restrictions as the Bombay High Court banned entrants under the age of 18 and limiting the height of the human pyramids to 20 feet last year.

Now named a “dangerous performance,” the long-standing tradition of Krishna Janmashtami causes injuries that are often fatal, as pyramids may reach up to nine stories tall with no means of assistance in the occurrence of falls. (The Hindu reported; The Indian Express has updated on the story, this year.) Still, officials voice uncertainty in verifying the age of Dahi Handi participants, as well as in the heights of the pyramids amid the excitement of the crowded festivities.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Raksha Bandhan: Brother-sister bonds honored across India

Women at marketplace looking at bracelets

Women shop for Raksha Bandhan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 7: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters are honored on Raksha Bandhan. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

The simple gift expresses renewed love between siblings and sometimes between others who share a bond of brotherhood. Typically, today, women present a rakhi to men and, in return, the men promise to protect the women who offer them a bracelet. Although usually associated with Hinduism, Raksha Banhan has now reached a wider cultural status—often celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and even some Muslims across India, Mauritus, parts of Nepal and Pakistan.

What is a rakhi? A rakhi is a type of bracelet—intricately designed or simple, expensive or handmade—tied onto a brother’s wrist by his sister. The fragile thread of rakhi represents the subtle yet impermeable strength that exists between siblings. The sacred relationship between brother and sister is considered unparalleled, as even when a woman marries, her brother’s duties as protector do not cease. On a broader scale, Raksha Bandhan is a time for harmonious existence and a bond between leaders—teachers, political figures, civil authorities—and those they serve.

RAKSHA BANDHAN: COLORS AND RITUALS

Rakhi Ganesha

A rakhi featuring Ganesha. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi; shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother promises, in return, to protect his sister under all circumstances—even if she is grown and married—and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family.

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find 15 kid- and adult-friendly ideas at the blog Artsy Craftsy Mom, which features simple to complex DIY rakhi instructions.

IN THE NEWS: 2017 AUSPICIOUS TIMES & MUSLIM-HINDU BONDS

The most auspicious times to observe Raksha Bandhan are discussed at India.com, and also in the news, Indian Prime Minister Suraksha Bima Yojana has announced the gift of insurance coverage for 11,000 girls and women in need for Raksha Bandhan. The prime minister will also build 100 toilets in houses for women who cannot afford them, according to Times of India. A rahki campaign will also be run throughout August across India, for which Muslim girls will tie rakhi onto Hindu boys and Hindu girls will tie rakhi onto Mulsim boys. The boys will promise protection to the gift-bearers in this effort of brotherhood between religions and castes. (Read more in The Hindu.)

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduInterfaith

Hindu, Jain: Observe ‘never diminishing’ Akshaya Tritiya

Sugarcane juice

Cool cups of sugarcane juice ready for the holiday.

FRIDAY, APRIL 28: It’s an auspicious day for Hindus and Jains today: It’s “the never diminishing” Akshaya Tritiya. The most common ways to celebrate? Buy a bit of gold or make an investment to celebrate in the Hindu manner. Or, sip a cool cup of sugarcane juice to appreciate Jain traditions.

As its Sanskrit translation indicates, Akshaya Tritiya is a day traditionally believed to bring success to anyone who begins a new venture, performs a work of service or makes an investment. Although both Hindus and Jains observe Akshaya Tritiya, their reasons for marking the holy day are different. (Wikipedia has details.)

For Hindus, a variety of legends surround this sacred day. Many turn to the god Vishnu on Akshaya Tritiya, as it’s believed Parashurama—the sixth Avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu—was born. Another Hindu tradition holds that the river Ganges descended to Earth from heaven today, and so a dip in the most sacred Indian river is common. Still others believe Akshaya Tritiya is the day Veda Vyasa began declaring the epic Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha.

How seriously is this tradition held in Indian communities? Answer: Pretty seriously. The Times of India recently reported that the real-estate market in the Mumbai area is expecting a boom around the holiday. Meanwhile, Business Standard reports that sales of gold jewelry will rise.

Jains call to mind the first Tirthankara, or enlightened spiritual leader, named Rishabhadeva. Jains believe the first Tirthankara gave up his kingship in Ayodhya to become a Jain monk, but that as he traveled the countryside, he became hungry because the people offered their former king gold, jewels and expensive garments instead of food. Finally, Rishabhadeva’s grandson understood his need and gave him sugar cane juice. On Akshaya Tritiya, it’s common for Jains to break a fast with sugar cane juice, too.

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Categories: Faiths of India

Holi and Hola Mohalla: Celebrate spring, bravery and high virtues

Two men stand covered in colorfu powder while woman's hand spreads powder on one man's face

Photo by WBK Photography, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MARCH 12: Colored powders cloud the air, and frivolous shouts ring through the streets: It must be springtime—it must be Holi! In India today and in Indian nations around the globe, the exhilarating Hindu festival of Holi is in full swing. Rightly called the “Festival of Colours,” Holi calls all participants to forget about 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. Today, Holi is celebrated across the globe.

HOLIKA DAHAN (AND BONFIRES)

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.

HOLI: A COLORFUL CELEBRATION

Piles ofcolored powder in silver bowls

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

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, and winter’s neutrality makes way for the colorful essence of spring during this beloved holiday.

In recent years, a demand for organic, healthy Holi colors has spurred a new trend, 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) became all the rage. Though inexpensive to make and widely available, 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.

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. 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.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduSikh

Diwali: Hindus, Sikhs and Jains light up the nights, rejoice in truth and goodness

Variety of colors in design on floor with candle in the middle

Photo by Nimish Gogri, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30: The worldwide festival of lights launches from India today, in the ancient Hindu celebration of Diwali. 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. And, please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region.

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 comparable to the Western Christmas season, 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.

Hands with tatooed henna holding lit diya lamp in semi-darkness

Hands holding a diya lamp for Diwali. Photo by Shrinivasa Sharma, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit fusion of dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line,” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of lamps are lit in homes and temples.

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. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. Families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts as the diyas remain lit through the dark hours.

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, HIGHER KNOWLEDGE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, Hindus believe that 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.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Navaratri: Hindus fast, pay homage to Durga & femininity during ‘Nine Nights’

Girl with eyes closed, items on table, with hands clasped

A young girl pays respect during Navratri. Photo by Manoo Joshi, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1: For the first time in 16 years, Hindus celebrate an exceptional religious festival for 10 days, celebrating legends and femininity during Sharad Navaratri. (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a.” Read more on the astrology of this year’s determination here.) An ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine, Navaratri is usually observed for nine nights; this year, the Hindu calendar so falls that the festival will last an extra day, and include two weekends, as well.

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? The key term, Navaratri, literally refers to nine nights (“nava” and “ratri”).

Woman dancing in brightly colored costume with other dancers, Indian

Dancing for Navaratri. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Navaratri in its basic form takes place five times per 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.

NIGHTTIME DANCING AND ADORNMENTS

In India, Navaratri brings out orchestras and community-wide singing; 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.

NEWS: DOMINO’S GOES VEGETARIAN, INDIA REVS UP FOR FESTIVITIES

In preparation for the food restrictions of its Indian customers during Navaratri, approximately 500 Domino’s pizza outlets in 248 cities across India will go all-vegetarian during the Hindu festival, reports the Free Press Journal. That’s not all: the chain’s participating locations will also intend to feature no onions, garlic or wheat during the days and nights of Navratri, according to news reports.

Fasting is an integral part of Navratri, and this article from NDTV suggests 10 basic staples to have in the kitchen in preparation for the length of the festival.

What are the trends for Navratri 2016? Times of India offers tips and the latest news from Mumbai, including fashion trends, sought-after products and more.


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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Paryushan Parva: Jains enter period of intense meditation and forgiveness

White temple agains sunset sky

The Manas Mandir Jain Temple in India. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

MONDAY, AUGUST 29: The deepest spiritual period of the year arrives for Jains today with the festival of Paryushana. For eight or 10 days (Swetambar Jains observe Paryushana for eight days; Digambar Jains observe for 10), adherents fast, study sacred texts and make a renewal of faith.

In comparison to other world religions, Jainism incorporates an especially deep concern and respect for all living beings, from animals and insects, to plants and root vegetables. (Learn more from Jain World.) Jain monks uphold this value to the highest level.

Did you know? Swetambar Jains observe the festival as Paryushana; Digambars refer to it as Das Lakshana. Some Jains in the United States observe the festival for 18 days, which combines the Swetambar and Digambar periods.

During the eight-day festival for Swetambar Jains, the Kalpa Sutra is recited, which includes a portion on the birth of Mahavira, the final Tirthankara, or spiritual exemplar. Some Swetambar Jains recite the Antagada Sutra, which describes the lives of men and women who attained moksha, or soul liberation, during the era of Mahavira. In many communities, a procession is made to the main temple during Paryushana.

Looking for recipes? Many observant Jains already keep a vegetarian diet, but during the period of Paryushan Parva, additional dietary restrictions are practiced. Find 35 delicious Parushan recipes at Archana’s Kitchen, and Indian food blog website.

Indian boy standing against concrete wall holding basket

A young Jain stands outside of a temple in India. Photo by Meena Kadri, courtesy of Flickr

THE FESTIVAL OF FORGIVENESS

A vital element of the Paryushan Parva is the asking of forgiveness—from other persons, animals and any other form of life, whether the offense is known or not. Jains ask forgiveness with the words “Micchami Dukkadam,” or “Uttam Kshama,” which conveys the meaning: “If I have cause you offense in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought or deed, then I seek your forgiveness.” This ritual may be referred to as the rite of universal friendship.

For the duration of this festival, Jains are expected to uphold 10 specific virtues:

  • Forgiveness
  • Modesty/humility
  • Straightforwardness
  • Contentment/purity
  • Truth
  • Self-restraint
  • Penance
  • Renunciation
  • Non-attachment
  • Supreme celibacy
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Categories: Faiths of IndiaJain