Growing up in California, I fondly remember those long-awaited sunny spring mornings we spent each year at our local community park, with families and friend groups from all over town coming together to celebrate Holi. My brother and I, sporting our white t-shirts and red tilak, would chase our friends around with handfuls of color powder and water balloons, while Amma would sit with the other adults pressing laddus and threading flower garlands for the puja at the temple. It was one of those special days that everyone in the community looked forward to celebrating together.
The Hindu festival of Holi is observed every year on Phalguna Poornima (full moon day of the Phalguna month), which typically falls around mid-March as per the Gregorian calendar. Holi, also known as Phagwa, Dulhendi, and Rang Panchami across regions of India, celebrates the birth of new life, the welcoming of change, and the blossoming of relationships old and new.
Holi is a particularly significant day in the Hindu panchang calendar because it marks the end of winter and the advent of summer and the harvest of crops. In traditionally agrarian societies like India, the harvest represents a year-long penance of effort, patience, and discipline. Holi marks the point in the year at which farmers can finally take some leisure time from the field as the summer crop matures. There is great joy and festivity in anticipation of the bountiful harvest to come.
Beyond its agricultural roots, however, Holi is a community-based festival with deep spiritual roots in Hinduism, particularly in stories from the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. One such story narrates the life of young Bhakta Prahlada, son of King Hiranyakashipu. Hiranyakashipu was a powerful emperor who was blessed with a boon of invincibility from Lord Brahma as a result of his extreme penance. Filled with ego and ahamkara, he ruled over his subjects with an iron fist and forbade the worship of anyone but himself. However, his plans were soon thwarted by his own son, Prahlada, who was an ardent bhakta (devotee) of Bhagwan Vishnu.
Hiranyakashipu used many tactics of coercion, intimidation, and torture to try and change Prahlada’s ways, but to no avail. Finally, he decided that the only way forward was to kill Prahlada, and so Hiranyakashipu turned to his sister Holika for help. Holika was blessed with a magical fireproof shawl that protected her from being burnt, and so she invited her nephew Prahlada to sit on her lap upon a burning pyre with the intent to kill him. When the fire began to burn, Prahlada prayed to Bhagwan Vishnu, who sent a gust of wind to blow the shawl off of Holika and onto Prahlada. Holika burned to her death because of her malicious intent to a child, while Prahlada survived the fire because of his bhakti. The festival of Holi commemorates this victory of devotion, of good over evil, and of dharma over adharma.
Holi also commemorates the timeless stories of Krishna – his mischievous childhood, his youthful antics with his friends, and the immortal love of Radha and Krishna – as people throw colors and spray each other with water and spend the day of festivity with friends, family, and loved ones.
Hindu festivals have immense spiritual and cultural significance, and Holi is no exception. There are countless temples, villages, and communities across India that draw a large number of pilgrims to celebrate the festival. Notable among these are the Banke Bihari temple of Uttar Pradesh, the Shantiniketan community of West Bengal, and villages of Nandgaon and Barsana (the respective villages of Sri Krishna and Radha), and many more.
And yet, the celebration of Holi is not exclusive to the Indian subcontinent – it is a global phenomenon. In fact, some claim the world’s largest Holi celebration may take place in Utah! Just outside of the city of Spanish Fork, Utah, the local Hare Krishna temple’s two-day celebration of Holi attracts close to 70,000 attendees each year.
Regrettably, this global phenomenon has also inspired countless “color runs” and other unfortunate forms of cultural appropriation, where the unique and distinctive elements of Holi have been co-opted and transplanted into completely different settings, divorced from any acknowledgment of their inspiration from Hindu traditions.
Unlike many festivals which place a focus on the family, Holi is unique in that it celebrates diversity, unity, and inclusion across groups of gender, class, race, and other social divisions. Holi offers the opportunity to set aside differences, mend existing relationships, and create new beginnings. Holi not only holds a deep significance in the religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions of Hindus around the world, but also welcomes non-Hindus irrespective of religious or cultural background to join in this celebration of love and inclusion — as is evident from the large Holi events that dot the landscape of the US and other countries.
Given this background, I am aghast when I find that even these joyous universal celebrations are not spared from the push and pull of politics. It’s been especially saddening to see movements like Holi Against Hindutva seek to tarnish the spirit of this sacred festival and co-opt Holi for their personal political motivations, shaming a broad and diverse community. Every celebration of Holi that I attended, both growing up and while in college, emphasized qualities of unity and inclusion while simultaneously staying true to the festival’s Hindu roots. There was inexplicable joy in sharing the stories of Holi and celebrating the festival with both friends and strangers alike. This was what Holi was all about – sharing joy and love with all.
As a diasporic community, festivals like Holi offer an occasion for Hindu Americans to reminisce upon our childhood traditions of the Indian subcontinent and revive our indigenous customs. But beyond this, celebrating these traditions and festivals outside of India gives us the opportunity to recreate and tailor our celebrations to reflect the duality of being Hindu-American. Let us again welcome this year’s Holi celebrations with the colorful spirit of love and joy!
Check out Holi events in the Bay Area or add any events you know HERE. Holi Hai!
Snigdha Nandipati is a non-fiction author of “A Case of Culture”, a blogger for The Modern Hindu, and a writer with interests in healthcare, culture, and spirituality.