Sri Ramakrishna Jayanti: Hindus honor modern mystic, teacher

Women gathered, sitting on floor, many smiling

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MARCH 10: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, today marks the 180th birth anniversary celebration for Sri Ramakrishna—a Hindu mystic whose movement redefined modern Hinduism. Many Hindu legends date back thousands of years, but it was during a modern time of Western influence that Ramakrishna made an impact: as true Hindu devotion was eroding, Ramakrishna warned, it was time to revive the faith.

Many accounts verify the God-like essence that surrounded Ramakrishna, and his God-consciousness is described in books including works on psychology. However, despite his mission to unify India, this mystic and teacher also taught an appreciation for other religious traditions. Ramakrishna’s small room in the Dakshineswar temple garden was frequently filled with men and women, young and old—atheists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians—all anxious to see and hear him. Ramakrishna became renowned for explaining the mysteries of God in the language of the common man.

As Hindu holidays are based on the lunar calendar in India, Ramakrishna’s birthday is on February 18—but, in translation to the Gregorian calendar, that date this year on the Gregorian calendar is March 10. Worldwide, devotions and programs are held for Sri Ramakrishna.

Care to read more?

International peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry profiles Sr. Ramakrishna (1836-1886).

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

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

New Year: Jains usher in Vira Nirvana Samvat 2541

Large marble statue of man sitting with legs crossed, hands in lap, eyes closed, meditating

A marble depiction of Lord Mahavir in Delhi, India. Jains count the years of this era as having begun with Lord Mahavir’s attainment of moksha (nirvana). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 24: Jains usher in a New Year!

According to Jain belief, a man named Mahavira attained moksha (nirvana) on Diwali night of 527 B cE. As Mahavira was the 24th and final Tirthankar (person who has conquered the cycle of birth and death) of this portion of our current cosmic time cycle, Jains began counting the calendar year from the date of Mahavira’s attainment. This year, Jains will welcome the year 2541.

On the first day of the New Year, Jains perform Snatra Puja at the temple and offer sweets. Fresh account books are opened, and business accounts from last year have been settled. Vira Nirvana Samvat (era) began with Mahavir’s enlightenment, and Jains also recognize that the chief disciple of Mahavir attained kevala jnana (omniscience, or supreme knowledge) on the morning of the New Year. At the temple today, Jains perform special morning worship.

The Jain calendar is lunisolar—that is, based on the position of the moon in relation to earth, and also adjusted to coincide with the sun.

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Categories: Faiths of India

Diwali: Hindus, Jains and Sikhs mark grand festival of lights

“From untruth lead us to truth. From darkness lead us to light. From death lead us to immortality. Om peace, peace, peace.”
English translation of a Vedic prayer celebrating lights

A cityscape lit up with abundant lights and fireworks in the sky

Diwali lights and fireworks in India. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23: 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.

This holiday is so important around the world that, this week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing two columns about Diwali. Our regular holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton reports here; FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis adds more about Diwali—plus a delicious recipe!

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. (Wikipedia has details.) During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

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.

Small lamps in leaf shapes filled with oil and lit with wick on one side

Diya, earthen lamps filled with oil, are lit for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. 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. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts. Tonight, the diyas will 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 revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, 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.

NEWS AND EXTRAS:
POLLUTION CAMPAIGNS,
GOLD THEFT IN LONDON

The Festival of Light has turned into a festival of excess pollution and noise in recent decades, and campaigns across India are asking celebrants to be mindful of their choices this Diwali (read more in the Deccan Chronicle). Online, major merchants like Amazon and Snapdeal ran major sales this year as Diwali season approached, and in London, festival-goers are voicing their fears of wearing gold jewelry in the face of growing gold thievery (BBC has the story).

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

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Categories: Faiths of India

Anant Chaturdashi: Hindus submerge Ganesh on last day of Chaturthi festival

Two males submerged almost fully in water, on either side of a golden and colorfully painted statue of elephant god, Lord Ganesh

It is popular custom on Anant Chaturdashi to submerge statues of Lord Ganesh into a body of water. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7: The colorful and auspicious days of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival culminate today on the Hindu holiday of Anant Chaturdashi. (Dates vary by region and by family; some devotees worship Ganesh for 11 days, instead of 10.)

On Anant Chaturdashi, Ganesh statues—from the massive to the tiny, the ornate to the plain—are marched in procession to a nearby body of water, for submersion. Singing and dancing often accompanies the processions through which Ganesh is bid farewell until next year. (Wikipedia has details.) With recent concern rising over the toxicity of the figures being submerged into rivers and other bodies of water, alternatives have been introduced: reusable figures, environmentally-friendly figures and the suggestion of community pools, for the safe submersion of Ganesh statues.

THE ANANT VOW:
THE LEGEND OF SUSHILA AND KAUNDINYA

While Lord Ganesh claims the spotlight in most regions on Anant Chaturdashi, another legend prevails, too: the legend of the Anant Vow. The story tells of a girl named Sushila, whose stepmother troubled her so much that she left home with her love, a man named Kaundinya. During their journey, the pair came to a river, where Kaundinya took a bath and Sushila spoke to a group of gathered women. The women were worshipping “Anant,” a ritual that required specific prepared foods, offerings and the tying of a string on the wrist. The string is known as “Anant,” composed of 14 knots and worn for 14 years. It’s believed that a faithful vow will bring wealth and divinity. Sushila took the vow.

Sushila and Kaundinya accrued wealth, until one day, when Kaundinya learned of Sushila’s vow. Kaundinya took the string from Sushila’s wrist and burned it; trouble and poverty ensued. When Kaundinya underwent serious penance and searching, and finally was met by Vishnu. Kaundinya realized that Vishnu was Anant, or “the Eternal One.” Kaundinya made the vow.

In honor of Lord Vishnu, deities invoke his blessings by praying to him today. Some begin or renew the Anant vow.

GANESH CHATURTHI & ANANT CHATURDASHI:
NOT JUST FOR HINDUS

Alongside Hindus, Jains observe Anant Chaturdashi for Lord Anant and often participate in processions of the day. Muslims in some regions of India, too, observe the entire festival of Ganesh Chaturthi by taking part in pujas and cultural activities, emphasizing love over separation. (Times of India reported.)

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Categories: Faiths of India

Paryushan Parva: Jains ask forgiveness during principle festival

Building with white pillars, gray-and-white tiles on floor of outdoor area

The Parasnath Jain temple in Calcutta, in India. During Paryushan, many Jains spend more time in temples. Photo by Jyotirmai, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, AUGUST 30: Forgiveness plays a central role in many world religions, but for Jains, it’s the focus of the most important festival of the year: Paryushan Parva.

Observed by Shvetambar Jains for eight days (Aug. 22-29, this year) and by Digambar Jains for 10 (Aug. 30-Sept. 8, this year), Paryushan Parva means daily fasting, inner reflection and confession. In India, monks and nuns take up residence in Jain centers during this period, providing guidance to the laity; the custom is now practiced in the United States, too. (Learn more from Jain World and Digambar Jain Online.)

Each evening of Paryushan, the laity gather for prayer, meditation and readings from holy texts. The end of Paryushan brings the grand day when forgiveness is requested from all living beings, and Jains forgive one another in full. (Wikipedia has details.) It’s believed that all negative karmic matter attached to the soul is overpowered when total forgiveness is asked, resulting in renewal and self-purification.

Did you know? Many Jains fast during Paryushan Parva. Some drink only between sunrise and sunset; others consume only water. At the end of the festival period, any who have fasted are fed by friends and loved ones.

Though known by several different names, Paryushan Parva unites Jains through 10 key virtues: kshama (forgiveness); mardav (humility); arjav (straightforwardness); sauch (contentedness); satya (truth); samyam (control over senses); tappa (austerity); tyaga (renunciation); akinchan (lack of attachment); brahmacharya (celibacy). Together, the 10 virtues represent the ideal characteristics of the soul; by achieving the supreme virtues, the soul has a chance at salvation. Only through these virtues may people realize the sublime trio: “the True, the Good and the Beautiful.” Evil is eradicated, and eternal bliss is realized.

IN THE NEWS:
JAIN STOCK INDEX REQUESTED FOR ADHERENTS

There is public discussion of creating an index of stocks of companies complying with Jain religious structures, reported Business-Standard, and officials are seriously considering the requests. Similar to the Islamic Shariah index, which avoids liquor companies, a Jain index would, for example, avoid companies that deal in food products that are not strictly vegetarian. With increasing numbers of Jain investors, officials say religious scholars would first need to provide an assessment of which stocks to include in the index.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaJain

Ganesh Chaturthi: Hindus observe beloved deity’s rebirth with pomp and color

Elephant's eyes carved in figure with crown and surrounding vibrant colors

The favored Lord Ganesh is front-and-center during the festivities of Ganesh Chaturthi. Photo by Ishan Manjrekar, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, AUGUST 29: Months of preparation and the handiwork of thousands of artisans culminate today with the launch of the Hindu festival: Ganesh Chaturthi. Named for its principle deity, Lord Ganesha, Ganesh Chaturthi lasts 10 days in most of India, although the extent of this festival varies by region.

The auspicious festival promises sweet dishes, spiked with coconut and dried fruit; processions, singing and dancing; colorful statuary in every size; and vibrantly decorated homes. For Hindus, Lord Ganesh is a god for everybody. Wealth, class or caste placement bears no interest in the eyes of Ganesh and for this trait the deity has earned many followers. He is known as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune—and, if invoked during his festival, brings fortune to any devotee beginning a new venture. In Hindu legend, Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvati.

MAKINGS OF A LEGEND:
SANDALWOOD PASTE & LORD GANESHA

Though traditions vary, legend has it that while taking a bath one day, Parvati wished for someone to stand guard by her door. Sculpting a son of sandalwood paste and breathing life into him, Parvati set her creation—Ganesha—to stand guard. Ganesha turned away every stranger who came by the door, including Parvati’s husband, Lord Shiva, when he returned home. Though the young boy did not know Lord Shiva, Parvati’s husband became enraged when forbidden from entering his own home. Finally, Lord Shiva severed Ganesha’s head. (Read more from Taj Online.)

Upon seeing her headless son, Parvati was distressed. Shiva promised to bring the boy back to life, but upon searching the lands, no human head could be found. Only the head of an elephant was available to save the boy. Shiva secured the elephant’s head onto Ganesha’s body.

FESTIVITIES, DECORATED FIGURES
AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Giant, colorful statue of elephant god sitting on chair, being paraded down crowded street

An enormous figure of Lord Ganesha is paraded down a street during Ganesh Chaturthi. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Months before the start of Ganesh Chaturthi, artisans craft models of Lord Ganesh, in all sizes and of varying materials: clay, Plaster of Paris, papier mache, stone and more. Intricately detailed and painted in a palette of bold colors, the models serve as sacred statues that are ceremoniously installed and, later, immersed in water.

Lord Ganesh is depicted in a variety of poses, in models ranging from less than an inch to 117 feet tall. (Wikipedia has details.) Many communities host a pandal (temporary structure), which is lavishly decorated and set in high competition against the pandals of nearby localities. Priests chant mantras, invoke the presence of Ganesha into the statues, and laypersons make offerings to the statues.

For several days, participants feast on sweets like modak (a dumpling of rice flour, stuffed with coconut and dried fruits) and karanji. From India to Nepal, Indonesia and Thailand to Europe, the United States and Canada, Hindus celebrate in temples and close the festival by immersing the Ganesha statues into local bodies of water.

In recent decades, devotees have been urged to discontinue some of the non-biodegradable Plaster of Paris figures that were causing environmental concern. Today, more and more adherents are choosing to immerse their idols into a tub or bucket; or, others are producing idols made of environmentally friendly materials. In Goa, the sale of Ganesh figures made from Plaster of Paris is banned by the state government.

IN THE NEWS:
LONDON FESTIVAL TO ATTRACT THOUSANDS;
ARTISANS COMPLETE MASSIVE GANESHA MODEL

A festival in Hounslow for Ganesh Chaturthi, now in its seventh year, attracts thousands of people, according to London news reports. Claiming the title of “largest in west London,” this party for Ganesh brought in more than 4,000 visitors during the festival weekend last year. In 2014, events will kick off with the arrival of a Lord Ganesh—straight from India.

Artisans in Hyderabad, India, are wrapping up one of the tallest figures of Ganesha for this year’s celebrations, as the statue pushes a height of 60 feet. Crafted by 125 workers for more than 50 days, the figure began as a 1-foot model in 1954, and has been slowly built upon and utilized for Ganesh Chaturthi every year since. (Read the story here.) Organizers say the sacred statue now reaches 60 ft. high and 28 ft. wide, weighing in somewhere between 45 and 50 tons.

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Categories: Faiths of India