One of the first things that come to mind, when someone thinks of India, is the reverence for culture and festivals. We have been taught to celebrate everything – from relationships, faith, nature, harvest, seasons, to every single moment we live, because life itself is a celebration. With this very idea, our culture celebrates various relationships that a person can have, not just to remind us of the importance of relationships, but also be thankful for them.
Relationships are the roots to the very existence of this societal tree. A person’s birth commences with his very first relationship – as a son or a daughter to a mother. Though there are many festivals dedicated to the celebration of feminine energy like Durgashtami, Navratri etc., there exist a few which celebrate the beautiful bond between a mother and a child.
The maternal bond
Sheetala Saptami – a festival celebrated in north and some parts of the south of India is a festival dedicated to Goddess Sheetala Devi – the consort of Yama, the God of death. Mothers fast and pray to the Goddess for the safety and good health of their children from any epidemic (like measles and chicken pox).
Another festival celebrating this beautiful bond is Bachcha baaras, which has an interesting story behind it. Mostly celebrated in Rajasthan, on this day women worship calves and cows. Though over the years, it has just turned into a meaningless ritual, very few know the significance of worshipping an animal and its offspring. The tale tells us of some indefinite time ago, about a newlywed woman who lived with her mother-in-law. They had a cow who had two calves named ‘Gehula’ and ‘Johula’. One day the old lady took her cow for grazing. Before leaving the house, she asked her daughter-in-law to cook gehula and johula (meaning wheat and barley in local language), for dinner. The young woman out of her ignorance and innocence cooked the two calves for dinner. When the old woman returned home in the evening along with the cow, unable to find the calves anywhere nearby, the cow got restless. The old woman was horrified on hearing what her daughter-in-law had done to the calves. She buried the dead calves nearby and went to sleep with a heavy heart. When the cow’s efforts at searching her offspring went in vain, out of desperation she started mooing. On hearing her moo, the young woman’s maternal instincts kicked in, and she prayed to the mother Goddess to bring the calves back to life even if it meant her not being able to ever conceive. The next day when they both woke up, much to their astonishment they saw that the ground where the calves were buried had been ploughed by the cow during the night, and both the calves, healthy and steady as never before, were drinking their mother’s milk. The old lady and her daughter-in-law thanked the mother goddess for this miracle and performed a ‘pooja’ of the Goddess along with cow and the calves, to celebrate the strength of motherhood.
Since then, this ritual of worshipping the cow and calves has been carried out to celebrate the bond between the mother and her child. Childless mothers take part in this ritual to be blessed with children.
In India, there are many other festivals that celebrate relationships between siblings, a guru and a disciple, between couple, friends, and even with our ancestors. With the amalgamation of various cultures, modernisation, impact of westernisation and complexity of social norms, many of these festivals are not celebrated with the same fervour as they once used to be or are celebrated in their modern avatar as Teacher`s day and Valentine`s day. While Raksha Bandhan and Bhau Beej, which celebrate the beautiful relationship between a brother and sister, are celebrated throughout India, Guru Purnima, which celebrates the bond between a teacher and a disciple, is not so known. Many of us are not even aware of the significance of the many popular festivals like Mahashivratri, Holi, and Janmashtami, but blindly follow rituals.
Mahashivratri is a festival of great spiritual significance, where many Indians observe fasting and meditate all day to please Shiva, but very few celebrate the divine love that this day symbolises. While Puranas mention Shivaratri as the day “Halahal Vish” (most lethal poison as per Puranic scriptures) arose as the result of the churning of ocean, and Shiva drank the lethal poison to save the world, another legend has it that Shiva got married to Parvati (Shakti’s incarnation), on Mahashivaratri and hence this day is celebrated as the wedding anniversary of Shiva-Parvati. Not only does this festival help in connecting us with our inner self, it also celebrates the pure and occult relationship of the divine lovers. Though many of our culturally uneducated ringmasters get offended by the mention of “love”, Indian culture has always celebrated love.
Another such festival that entails a love story is ‘Holika Dahan’ – celebrated as Holi throughout the country. Whereas most of us are aware of the story of Prahlad and Holika narrated repeatedly , there is a tragic love story behind the tale. As the story goes, Holika was deeply in love with a man named Eloji. In fact they were supposed to get married on the full moon night of ‘Phalgun’. But Hiranyakashipu, Holika’s brother insisted that she sit with his son Prahlad in the pyre of fire. The fire that was supposed to destroy Prahlad, consumes Holika instead. When Eloji, unknown about the event arrived at the location with the ‘baraat’, his beloved was already dead. On seeing this, Eloji tried to end his life by jumping into the fire, but the flames had almost extinguished. Eloji lost his mental stability and lived as a ‘mad lover’ for the rest of his life. Though this tale has a tragic end, Holika dahan is celebrated in many parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh, where newlywed couples pray to Eloji for their love to last forever.
Sharad Purnima is another festival that celebrates the divine love of Radha and Krishna. It is celebrated by performing ‘Raas Leela’ or the dance of passion on the full moon night, as it is believed that Lord Krishna had performed the raas with the gopikas on Sharad Purnima. Janmashtami, is yet another festival that celebrates the friendship between Gopas and Krishna. While Janmasthami is celebrated as the birth of Lord Krishna, the ritual of ‘dahi-handi’, which falls on the next day celebrates the strong bond of friendship between the God and his childhood friends, the gopas, who helped Krishna in “stealing” makhan or butter from the handis (pots).
Remembering our ancestors
Not only do we celebrate these wonderful relationship and bonding with family and friends but we are also taught to be thankful to our ancestors for the wondrous life we live and the sacrifices they have made. During the month of Shradh or Pitru-Paksh, Hindus pay homage to their ancenstors (pitras) by remembering them with gratitude and seek their blessings by offering prayers and food. It is the Indian way of Thanksgiving.