There’s colour. Lots of it. There’s water. Lots and lots of it. There’s a heaving, roiling crowd of women and men, girls and boys, dancing with fierce abandon, spraying colour and water everywhere.
It can be crazy. It can go wild. Above all, it can be… sensuous. Almost erotic. It’s the festival called Holi, and it’s one of the very rare ones in the country where women and men party together freely, all gender rules and restrictions forgotten for the day.
That’s because one of Holi’s many associations is with the legend of Radha and Krishna – one of the most intense legends of kama or love in our mythology ever.
Dance of love
“Krishna is called the purna avatar – he has all the 16 attributes of the perfect man,” says Pavan K Varma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan and the author of Krishna: The Playful Divine (also published in an abridged form as The Book of Krishna), among other books. “These include shringar, or sensuousness. Rama does not have this attribute – he has only 13 attributes where Krishna has all 16.”
Krishna always had the element of sensuousness in his makeup – the tale of the smitten gopis and the ras leela, the heady, love-struck dance between him and the gopis, is very, very old.
“Nothing in Hindu mythology is random,” says Varma. “There are four elements in life – dharma, artha, kama and moksha, and the ras illustrates the element of kama.”
But it was never about pure hedonism, Varma adds. “The ras was a spontaneous response to the world in autumn, when the harvest was in, the fields were lush, the cattle were well fed, the flowers were blooming… that was when Krishna played the flute and all the senses came together. And the gopis spontaneously danced to that music on the cool sands of the Yamuna in the garden of Vrindavan, each imagining that she was special to Krishna…”
All this while, however, there was no Radha. There were only Krishna and the gopis. Radha came into the legend much, much later.
“I believe she was created by the poet Jayadev in the 12th century CE in his Gita Govinda,” says Varma. “All of the earlier texts spoke of ras leela with Krishna and a group of gopis, but there was no counter-erotic figure to Krishna in the form of a single woman. I think Radha was created by popular demand.”
With the legend now centred around the intense love between Radha and Krishna, the association with Holi seemed inevitable.
“In a Hindu marriage, the role models are Rama and Sita,” says Varma. “But in a festival, especially one like Holi where the interaction between the sexes is socially sanctioned, the role models would be Radha and Krishna. This would give that social sanction a divine sanction.”
So is there a connection between the Radha-Krishna legend and Holi? If we were to go by the really ancient texts, not really. Though the story goes that the festival of Holi was created when dark-skinned Krishna, jealous of Radha’s fair complexion, smeared her with colour, the truth is, there is really no connection between Krishna’s ras leela – an autumn event – and Holi, a spring event, says Varma.
But the sensuousness and heightened emotion of the ras together with the (relatively new) Radha-Krishna legend worked very well for Holi. It gave the festival that divine sanction.
Other Holi legends
The story of Holika: A demon king named Hirnakashyipu insisted that everyone should worship him instead of the gods. But his son Prahlad continued to worship Lord Vishnu. Infuriated, Hirnakashyipu had Prahlad thrown down a hill, but Lord Vishnu rescued him.
So Hirnakashyipu asked his sister, Holika, to help. She had a boon that allowed her to walk through fire unharmed. She picked up Prahlad and entered the fire – but according to the terms of the boon, she would only be unharmed if she entered the flames alone. Holika burned to death, but Prahlad was safe. And so Holi is celebrated to mark the death of Holika.
Dhundhi the ogress: Almost invincible because of boons from Lord Shiva, Dhundhi terrorised the village she lived in by eating children. But she didn’t realise that her boons did not make her invincible to abuse. One day, the boys of the village got drunk and intoxicated and then followed Dhundhi, beating drums and calling out abuses till she left the village. That’s why boys are allowed to be rowdy and intoxicated during Holi.
Kamadeva’s sacrifice: After Lord Shiva’s wife, Sati, died because her father had insulted her husband, Shiva renounced the world and sat in a terrible meditation. Soon the world fell out of balance. Sati was reborn as Parvati but she couldn’t penetrate Shiva’s trance. So she asked Kamadeva, the God of love, to shoot his love arrow at Shiva. Angered, Shiva opened his third eye and burned Kamadeva. But later, he granted the love god immortality. This is why Holi is seen as Kamadeva’s sacrifice.
- From HT Brunch, March 20
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