Lesson 1: About Holī

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Splatters of bright colors, water gun fights, and giant bonfires - today marks the celebration of one of the most visually iconic festivals in the tradition - Holī!

The most famous Holī tradition is running around tagging everyone in sight with vibrantly colored powders.  It's a bit like Halloween - if someone refuses to play, you can pull a prank on them, and/or tag them anyway.  If they get mad, you shrug, smile, and say "It's Holī"!

Historically, it was one of the few days where everyone was equal - men, women, and children, regardless of economic or political status, could all join in the fun.  There are even sacred art images of Lord Kṛṣṇa spraying colors on his companions, the gopīs, and his beloved Rādhā.

In India, where it's finally starting to warm up, there's the added joy of water gun fights.  The colored powders (which are traditionally organic and plant-derived) can also be mixed with water and used to cover everyone - and everything - in sight.  The world melts into dancing colors.

This sounds really fun, but you might be wondering why this is a sacred festival.  What does shooting colors at each other and playing like children have to do with spirituality?

Behind this day of celebration is a profound story of devotion, integrity, and the force of divine compassion.  On this day, Bhagavān Viṣṇu, the embodiment of dharma, takes a truly ferocious form in order to protect an innocent little boy, Prahlāda, who loves him very much.  You can read the full story in Lesson 2.


In the story, Prahlāda's demon-king father and equally demonic aunt keep abusing him and even attempt to murder him. They use their wealth, resources, and spiritual power in increasingly cunning and devious ways.

However, in the end, we see the tremendous power and grace of childlike devotion.  Not childish, but childlike - openhearted, guileless, trusting, patient, loyal, and sweet. And this celebration is an invitation for all of us to become like children - totally innocent, playful, and accepting.

Like children, we disregard social class, age, or gender - everyone is our friend and we play with everyone!  We touch strangers and let them touch us.  All distinctions break down on Holī.  And, everyone participates, even the old, sick, or disabled.

In urban Indian cities, many people - especially upper-class - have come to look down on Holī as a children's holiday, and not for mature, dignified grown-ups.  But this is missing the point!  It is not a children's celebration, it is a sacred opportunity where we ALL can strive to become like children.

Narasiṁha - the wrathful form of Śrī Viṣṇu - is not commonly worshipped because his energy destroys anything that is impure, manipulative, abusive, or proud with great forcefulness.  Most adults are - rightfully - frightened of this because it is actually quite difficult to keep your mind and heart as simple, loving, and clean as a child's.  And this teaching - that children are innately able to access the divine presence - exists in most cultures and spiritual traditions around the world.


Practice: Play Like a Child

The celebration of Holī takes place across two days.  The first day, the full moon, we light a huge bonfire.  We visualize Holikā, the demon-aunt who abused her spiritual power, burning inside the flames.  She represents the dark place within human consciousness that is cunning, selfish, manipulative - essentially psychopathic. She is also our spiritual delusions and false "mastery".

If you are practicing at home, a small fire is fine (no matter how big your fire, please be safe!)  As the fire blazes, let yourself experience that all your pride, darkness, fear, and greed are burning, while your pure and innocent essence is being protected.  You can also do pradakṣinā, where you walk around the fire clockwise out of respect.

Once the flames die down, place a pot of water on the coals and leave it out all night under the full moon.  The next morning, use that water in your shower or bath.  Have the experience that any darkness or malevolence is being completely washed away by this purified water, that you are once again in the pure and innocent body of a child.

And from THIS place, on the second day, we begin our Holī games of throwing colors and water-gun fights.  You can use non-toxic (and ideally organic) colored powder or paints.  If nothing else, just turmeric and kumkum powder is fine!  The bright colors represent life energy (Lesson 4), and splattering each other is a way of wishing each other vitality, good health, and beauty.  If you want company, most major cities around the world have some sort of Holī games available.

We also eat pūranpoli, the delicious buttery sweet lentil bread that children absolutely love. (It is also quite nourishing, perfect for the season, and the traditional Āyurvedic prasāda for Holī!  You can learn about it, including how to make it, in Lesson 3).

Lastly, throughout the Holī celebration, we honor and worship Bhagavān Viṣṇu, the power of dharma and complete protection.  In some regions, people specifically worship Śrī Kṛṣṇa, also an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, and also a protector.  Most of all, Holī teaches us that no matter how seemingly dark and hopeless our situation, by staying true to our hearts, and to dharma, we can emerge whole and happy.

Happy, happy, Holī!

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