Holi, the Festival of Colors, is one of the largest festivals across India. While the different regions have varied adaptations and myths associated with the festival, it is agreed that the name Holi was given after the Demoness Holika, whose attempt to kill Prahlad, was foiled on this Phalguni Purnima (full moon night) many centuries ago. The Bhagavat Puran celebrates the victory of good over evil through her story. India commemorates Vishnu’s triumph with an annual bonfire, Holika Dahan, on the night before Holi each year.
History is written by the Victors
A large part of Vedic and Puranic literature is composed in glorification of the different avatars of Vishnu. Over centuries, the stories have seeped into folklore. To a certain extent, they have gotten simplified to make the morals stand out – in black and white, good vs. evil.
But, as life teaches us, no political discord is as simple, as black and white, in its discourse.
The Demons (or Asuras), depicted in Hinduism, have some traits in common. They were darker, with bigger built, and less conforming to conventional standards of beauty. It is possible that they were indigenous to the land and more coarse in their lifestyle than the fair-skinned Gods (or Suras), led by their heroes, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva (less prominent in above-mentioned literature). But, it is clear that the Suras won the conflict, and went on to occupy the land.
The history of Hinduism has been authored under the able patronage of the victor Devas. It is possible that their accounts have exaggerated the evil of their foe.
There is, in fact, a little town in Bundlekhand, Erich Town, that doesn’t celebrate Holi to this date. It is customary there, to stay indoors and wear black, in remembrance of their Princess Holika, who was burnt alive on this occasion.
Let us talk about Holika
Holika’s story is connected to Vishnu’s Narasimha avatar. According to the Puranas, Holika’s brother, the mighty King Hiranyakshipu, wanted to be immortal, like the Devas. He had tricked the Lords into giving him a boon, that laid many conditions, to inhibit his mortality. This gave him the misplaced confidence of being the Lord himself. He asked his son, Prahlad, to worship him instead of Vishnu. Prahlad disagreed to sway his allegiance from the Deva. This led the King to such a rage that he wanted to kill his son. It was at this time that he asked his sister, Holika, to enter a pyre with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a magic cloth that could protect her from burning in a fire. She entered the pyre with the child and the cloth. But, she burnt alive while the child survived.
Some folktales mention that Holika, in fact, knowingly sacrificed her own life to save the child.
Even if that is not true, it seems far-fetched to imagine the King, who was ready to kill his own son, gave a choice to Holika. It seems way more likely that she was compelled to follow the King’s orders at any cost.
From that lens, Holika was more likely a victim of royal crossfires, rather than an embodiment of evil.
Into the Jaws of Death
It is sometimes important to question the wisdom of the folklores. In my head, Holika Dahan signifies the helplessness of the affected, in the face of belligerence and power struggle. I wish someday we are able to see how Holikas are burning everyday as wars still ravage our worlds.
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