Power Days of India
Sucheta Shetty and Anindita Basu
thread the colour of gold becomes a powerful link of love from sister to
brother in one of the holidays that makes August a joyful and power-packed
month in India. The brother-and-sister celebration, midway through the Hindu
lunar month of Shravan, is followed by joyous festivals in which two
of the best-known and most-beloved gods of Hinduism hold centre stage.
Krishnas birthday, late in Shravan, is an important religious
observance sweetened with candy and bright décor. Then, as the month
of Shravan gives way to Bhadra and August winds up, the
elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is honoured in public festivals and with devotions
that last into September, when colourful representations of Ganesh are paraded
through the streets.
Bandhan: August 12, 2003
Full-Moon day of the month of Shravan is a special day for brothers
and sisters, and girls look forward to the occasion because, in exchange
for tying a golden silk thread (called a rakhi) on the wrist of their
brothers, they get showered with goodies, including hard currency, traditionally.
The brothers reaffirm their vows to always protect their sisters. A
rakhi, once tied, becomes a bond for life that cannot be broken under
any circumstances. The holidays name comes from raksha, the
Hindi word for protection, and bandhan, which means bond.
festivals origins are obscure and, strangely, have nothing to do with
the brother-sister bond celebrated today. Mythology speaks of Jupiter, teacher
of the gods, tying a rakhi on the wrist of Indra, the god-king, on
the eve of his battle against the demon, Vrittra; a battle in which Indra
emerged victorious. Another version states that it was Indras wife
who tied the rakhi. The old texts also speak of the priests tying
a rakhi on the wrists of those on whose behalf they offered prayers
and sacrifice. This religious practice prevails even today, where the thread
used is of a red-and-yellow colour, but it is done after any prayer-offering
ceremony (especially at the places of pilgrimage) and is not limited to the
full moon day of the month of Shravan.
of stories are associated with the sanctity of the rakhi. During the
Freedom Struggle for Indias independence, the Nobel laureate poet Rabindra
Nath Tagore used the rakhi to rally people from all walks of life
against the Partition of Bengal. And then theres the story of a Hindu
dowager queen of a border state of India sending a rakhi to the Muslim
sultan of Delhi, asking for his help to thwart a possible attack on her kingdom
by a neighbouring one, ruled by another Muslim. This was sometime during
the 1500s when India was increasingly being taken over by invading Muslims.
The Delhi sultan did send an army, though it arrived a bit late. Traditionally,
some women send rakhis, by post, to unknown soldiers on Indias
borders whenever there has been a major armed conflict.
is another festival where creativity is found in abundance, as is sadly,
commercialisation. Rakhis of all shapes and sizes and all kinds of
materials crowd the market places. From teddy bears on strings that lure
the little girls, to musical rakhis that target the youth, to the
more sober silken thread with an Om or similar symbol for the older generation,
the rakhi shops that spring up in every nook and cranny have something
festival also has given rise to the concept of Rakhi Brothers and Sisters,
which means that the brother and sister are not related by blood but regard
each other as such, and the adopted sister ties a rakhi
on her adopted brothers wrist to indicate a bond between
them that goes beyond blood relations. Interestingly, this is also an annoying
time for incurable flirts, who are sometimes flooded with rakhis from
girls who are sick and tired of their flirting.
Janamashtami: August 20, 2003
one of the most-beloved gods of the Hindu pantheon, is depicted as a playful,
mischievous character who grew up to teach the people the wisdom of the
Bhagavad Gita - a set of teachings that has become one of the most
scared books of the Hindus. An incarnation of Vishnu, the second god of the
Hindu trinity, Krishna was born (janam) on the eighth day
(ashtami) of the dark-moon phase of the Hindu month of Shravan.
The story of his birth has interesting parallels with that of Jesus. The
exact year of birth is still mere speculation, but is thought to be around
story of Krishnas birth involves a brutal king who was the brother
of Krishnas mother. In the kingdom of Mathura in Northern India, the
evil king, Kansa, had imprisoned his own father to ascend the throne. King
Kansa had a sister, Devaki, whom he loved dearly and who was married to his
on the day of their marriage, an Akashwani (literally, a voice from
the sky) warned Kansa that Devakis eighth child would be the cause
of his death. Ready to kill his once-beloved sister, Kansa was convinced
by Vasudev to spare her life in return for the life of their eighth child.
He promised to hand over the eighth child at its birth to Kansa. But Kansa
was not willing to take any chances. So he imprisoned Devaki and Vasudev
in his dungeons. One by one he killed six of Devakis babies at
seventh child is said to have been miraculously transferred into the womb
of Vasudevs first wife, Rohini, who visited them in the prison. Rohini
gave birth to a child named Balram, said to be the incarnation of Vishnus
serpent, Shesh Naag, the great snake on whom Vishnu reclines and dreams of
the universe. (Vishnus dreams keep the universe in existence, hence
the name Vishnu the Preserver.) After the child was miraculously transferred,
Kansa was told that Devaki had had a miscarriage. When she got pregnant for
the eighth time, the king posted guards around the prison cell to keep him
abreast of developments.
stroke of midnight on a stormy dark night, a stunningly handsome,
dark-complexioned child was born. He was Krishna, by whose powers the prison
guards fell into a deep slumber and the locks loosened. The father, Vasudev,
placed the newborn in a basket, with the intention of smuggling him out of
the prison, across the river to a village on the other side where his friend
Nand was a milkherd-cheiftain. But it was pouring torrentially and the Yamuna
River was in spate. While Vasudev stood there on the riverbank, dripping
with water and wondering what to do, Adishesh (another name for the snake
Shesh Naag) appeared and, unknown to Vasudev, spread his hood over the father
and child, shielding them from the downpour. At that moment, Vasudev spied
a ford in the swelling waters, and he walked across to the other side.
Nands house he found Nands wife, Yashoda, sleeping next to her
just-born baby girl. Acting upon divine instruction, Vasudev switched the
babies and carried the baby girl back to the prison cell. The chains binding
him were replaced, the locks shut and the sleeping prison guards arose to
hear the cries of the baby girl. They rushed to inform Kansa, who arrived
to murder yet another baby. He was surprised to find a girl instead of a
boy as he had expected. Devaki pleaded with him to spare the life of the
innocent girl, as she could do him no harm. Kansa, however, wasnt willing
to take the risk. He picked her up to dash her against the prison walls,
but she flew out of his hands and took the form of a goddess named Maya
(literally, illusion). She laughed at Kansas foolishness and told him
that he could neither harm her nor the one he should really want killed -
because the other babe was safe in Gokul and would one day fulfil the prophecy
of Kansas death.
Gokul, Nand and Yashoda, unaware of the switching of babies, celebrated the
birth of their baby boy and named him Krishna. However, their joy was
short-lived, as Kansa ordered the death of all newborn babies in Gokul. Krishna,
however, survived this and many future attempts by Kansa to end his life.
He eventually grew up to defeat and kill his evil uncle in a wrestling match,
thus restoring the throne to his grandfather, Ugrasen.
celebrate the day of Krishnas birth with great devotion. Tradition
is to observe a fast on this day, into the night, to offer worship to Krishna
at midnight and generally chant his name throughout. Colourful decorations
called jhanki, depicting Krishnas birth and other scenes, are put up
at homes, somewhat like nativity scenes and crèches that depict
the birth of Jesus at Christmas celebrations in Christian homes. During the
celebration of Krishnas birth, one can see groups of children trooping
from one home to another, taking a peek at the decorations and being offered
the prasad, which are sweets offered first to the gods during worship
and then distributed among the devotees. Large-scale festivities take place
where Krishna was born, Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, India, as well as where
he grew up with the milkherds, Vrindavan in the same Indian state, and where
he lived for a large part of his life, Dwarka in Gujarat, India.
has an interesting legend associated with it that says that an earlier version
of the city was built on land Krishna borrowed from the Sea God and promised
to return later. The old Dwarka that Krishna ruled is said to have been submerged
into the sea after the promised period elapsed. The story is told in the
epic Mahabharata, and archaeology has found its basis by discovering
the remains of a city submerged in the Arabian Sea off the coast of present-day
Dwarka. This is considered proof that the story of Krishna is more than just
a Hindu myth. The findings in Dwarka and archaeological evidence found
compatible with the Mahabharata tradition remove lingering doubt about
the historicity of the Mahabharata, said S.R. Rao, a former
advisor to Indias National Institute of Oceanography who was involved
in much of the underwater excavation. We would say Krishna definitely
Chaturthi: August 31, 2003
the elephant-headed god, is the most visible icon in Hinduism today. He is
said to be a repository of knowledge and learning and is believed to be the
Remover of Obstacles par excellence. Consequently, no venture is begun without
first propitiating Ganesh. A car owner, for example, will deem it more important
to keep a small Ganesh idol on the dashboard than to renew his yearly car
insurance in time.
elephant head on a human body may appear strange to a non-Indian. But there
is a lot of symbolism involved in this strange-looking form. The elephant
head is said to represent the macrocosm (brahmanda) and the human
body represents the microcosm (pindanda). Both coming together in
the person of one entity represents the unity of the microcosm and the macrocosm.
The elephant head is also said to be a symbol of infinite consciousness.
Ganeshs elephant head has only one tusk. This is said to be a symbol
of oneness, or the one-pointed concentration with which one can attain
broke off his other tusk to write the Mahabharata epic as dictated
by Ved Vyas, the divine being who is credited for having produced all Hindu
scripture. Ved Vyas couldnt find a suitable person to write the epic
as fast as the words flew from his mouth, so he approached Ganesh. Ganesh
agreed and started transcribing the rishis words, but the
rishi spoke so fast that every pen Ganesh used would soon snap and
break. Disgusted, Ganesh broke off one of his tusks and proceeded with the
transcription, and this pen stayed in one piece until the
Mahabharata was complete.
has four arms representing the four directions. Each of his hands holds an
object that may vary with each depiction of his form. Most commonly depicted
are the noose and goad, which represent control over ego and material desires.
The other two hands form the gestures of abhaya (lack of fear) and
varada (bestowing blessings). Ganesh has a big belly, indicating that
he holds the abundance of the universe within him and projects it out from
him. His small, penetrating eyes represent the inner eyes with which one
can see that God is in everyone. One sees unity instead of duality; We instead
of Us and Them.
has big ears and a small mouth, which is said to mean that one must be a
good listener and speak little. Just as the elephant fans its ears, we must
fan away all negativity that falls on our ears and take in only that which
expands our consciousness. The trunk of the elephant is powerful enough to
uproot trees and flexible enough to pick up a needle. Being a mixture of
strength and gentleness, Ganesh has for his mount a mouse. The mouse again
represents the ego that moves in the darkness of ignorance and interferes
in other peoples business, just as a mouse moves in the dark and steals
and hordes food from peoples kitchens and chews and destroys their
things. Ganesh mounted on a mouse represents the taming of the ego - control
over all arrogance, lust, anger, greed, infatuation and attachment to the
Ganeshs birthday was celebrated privately in houses in the states of
Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. Depending on the region, idols of Ganesh
were made out of clay or sugarcane and ritually worshipped for a fixed period
of time starting with Ganesh Chathurthi Day. The period varies from family
to family. It may be as short as one-and-a-half days or as long as 11 days.
But it is always an odd number of days. The ritual worship is carried out
twice a day and offerings are made to the Lord of his favourite dishes,
especially sweet modaks. Houses are decorated festively, and friends, relatives
and neighbours are invited to participate in the festivities. At the end
of the period of worship all the idols are immersed in a body of water.
has a regional tradition of drawing pictures of Ganesh on paper, which dates
back to the days of Portuguese colonial rule when it was illegal to keep
idols of Hindu gods in ones house. People would draw pictures of Ganesh
on paper and use special wooden boxes with sliding doors to display the pictures.
If there was suspicion of Portuguese soldiers being around, the doors of
the boxes would be slid shut and the boxes would appear to be ordinary chests
for storing household goods. The tradition still endures as Ganeshas drawn
on paper share space with the clay idols.
the Freedom Struggle, the firebrand Bal Gangadhar Tilak popularised the concept
of public celebrations of the festival in his home state of Maharashtra in
an effort to inculcate a sense of pride among the people, who were increasingly
being battered spiritually by snobbish colonials. It was also an excellent
means to get around the law passed by the British that restricted the gathering
of people in public places for meetings. Lokmanya Tilak (as he was popularly
called) used the festival as a platform for fiery speeches that inspired
people to unite against the foreign rulers who were dictating terms to them
on their own land.
the festival still remains a hugely popular one in the state, with colourful
floats and tableaux being taken out for the occasion. Bombay, the capital
of Maharashtra, India, comes alive during this period. Different localities
compete with each other to see who can come up with the best decorations
and the biggest and most beautiful idols. Every tableau has a theme that
could range from mythology to nuclear weapons, literacy to national integration.
In a sense it still fulfils the original intent of Lokmanya Tilak in starting
the public celebrations - making a statement that captures the current mood
of the people, and informs and inspires.
the idols vary from the regular garishly painted clay idols to innovative
eco-friendly Ganeshas made entirely of coconuts or other such chemical free,
natural materials. One may depict a cute baby Ganesh, another may show him
dancing like his father Shiva in the form of Nataraj (god of dance and drama),
or he may play the flute like Krishna, or hold the globe protectively in
his hands. There is no limit to the imagination when it comes to Ganesh idols
in Mumbai (Bombay).
Charturdashi Day, which is the 11th day of the celebrations (and the 14th
day of the bright-moon phase of the month of Bhadra - September 10
this year), almost all the idols are taken out in huge processions to the
citys beaches, lakes and wells for immersion. The joy and enthusiasm
in the air is infectious. It reflects in the eyes of grannies and children
alike as they watch the beautiful Ganeshas glide by and shout out their
farewells. Ganpati Bappa morya, pudhchya varshi lavkar ya!
they say. Beloved Lord Ganpati, come back soon to visit us next
this months world holidays, please see the
August Interactive Calendar.