In this course, you will learn about some of the traditions for the New Year. Please note that there are tremendous regional and historic variations in terms of how these holidays get celebrated, and many parts of South Asia actually celebrate their New Year in the spring. What we are sharing here is what most of the Northern and Western regions practice – although you’ll find each community – and even each family – has its own personal rituals and traditions.
As with all of these traditions, you are welcome to practice as much or as little as you are able. Remember that the outer ritual helps us to connect with the spirit of the holiday inside, so maintaining that connection and cultivating wisdom will yield greater fruit than just trying to do every ritual perfectly!
Also, please note that these traditions have ancient roots but are still fully alive today. Accordingly, we will teach you their modern Hindi names as well as Sanskrit ones so you can recognize them in the world.
The common theme through this holiday season is offering gratitude for the abundance in our lives, and choosing light over darkness. Mahālakṣmī – the power of Śrī, is the primary deity of this time, and each day we welcome and honor her in different forms.
Śrī is a spiritual understanding that is hard to translate, but yet we all innately seem to recognize her power. Śrī is the power of divine beauty, prosperity, abundance, goodness, and radiance. Śrī is often described as an infinite golden light – the beauty of the universe, the beauty of God, and all creation. The goddess Mahālakṣmī embodies Śrī, and we envision that we are inviting her into our homes and our lives. Śrī is the prasāda, the fruit, of living a dharmic life; it makes perfect sense then that Mahālakṣmī is married to Śrī Viṣṇu, the embodiment of dharma.
In Hindi, we call this day Vāgbāras, and in Sanskrit, this day is known as Govatsa-dvādaśī. It is a day where we honor and give thanks for the cows, who are the most ancient form of wealth and abundance.
Why are cows so revered in this tradition?
Our tradition is rooted in the earth and in natural rhythms. Although now most of us rarely even see or interact with cows, for most of our ancestors, and many today, cattle were powerful assets and both the source and measure of abundance. In many native cultures around the world, wealth was determined by how many cows you owned, and you could trade cows like you can trade money today.
An underlying principle of this tradition is that the sacred is that which sustains life. Nearly every part of the cow – more so than almost any other domesticated animal – helps to protect and nurture life.
For example, its milk is full of fat, protein, and vitamins – and something you can live off of for a long time if need be, in both heat and cold. Bulls can be used to lift heavy loads or plow fields. Cow dung can be dried and burned for fuel – this is especially useful in an area that has few trees. It provides warmth, food, and light.
You can also use it as a sustainable building material – walls and flooring that are both waterproof and, more amazingly – that stay cool to the touch even in scorching heat. (In case you’re wondering, the dung smell actually goes away in a few hours and then it turns into a subtle sweet, grassy, smell that could even be called pleasant). And finally, no matter how old we are, the foods we find sweet and comforting all come from cows – cream, yoghurt, butter, cheese, etc!
Additionally, cows embody many of the qualities we seek to cultivate on the spiritual path – for one, they are a wonderful combination of sweet, strong, generous, steady, and loyal. Cows are affectionate and intelligent, capable of deep emotion and sweetness (like puppies, they are known to lick their favorite people when they greet them!)
When we destroy something that embodies qualities we hope to cultivate, we run the risk of confusing our mind-bodies as to what our values actually are. This is a major reason why we are traditionally advised not to eat beef.
In fact, killing and eating cows is as emotionally and morally repugnant in this tradition as it would be to kill and eat dogs or cats in most Western countries. It would be like killing your best friends, because cows give us so much and ask for so little in return.
The traditional practice for the day is to honor and take care of cows.
Most people feed, bathe, cuddle, and do pūjā – ritual worship – of their cows (this practice, when witnessed by early colonialists, led them to believe that we worship cows the same way we worship God). However, doing pūjā is recognizing the sacred power within something, not idolizing it AS the entirety of the sacred. By doing pūjā to cows, we recognize the strong, sweet, life-giving power within them and offer our gratitude to it.
An easy way to honor the cow is to abstain from beef as much as possible. This also has great environmental benefits – scientists agree that a tremendous amount of deforestation, water shortage, and global warming is due to the cattle farming industry.
If you can’t or don’t wish to give it up entirely, you can still make a step towards reducing beef consumption. And all of us – vegetarian or not – can make an effort to make sure our dairy is sourced from healthy, happy, pasture-fed cows.
If you are not physically near a cow today, you can still do the practice by reflecting on the many great qualities of cows, or doing pūjā to a picture or other representation. Try to discover the cows’ great qualities in yourself: reflect on how you can also be a source of support, sweetness, strength, and abundance for yourself and your world.