Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Our Festivals Mean


It is man’s inherent nature to be happy and to rejoice, for which he tries to create as many occasions as are possible. To celebrate is to rejoice and celebrations are as old as mankind. For a cave dweller, the killing of an animal for food itself was a cause to celebrate. Whether celebrations have a primitive and crude form or one suffused with a culturally refined taste, man cannot help celebrating. He has a festival-inbuilt instinct in his personality. For some reason or the other, man wants to celebrate and if there is no real reason for celebration, he would rather invent one.

As rejoicing is the main purpose of a festival, the festival can take several forms depending on the purpose for which we rejoice. These can take place annually, once in a month or bimonthly or any other set period. There are, for instance, harvest festivals where the farmers want to celebrate their success in growing a crop and express a sense of gratitude to the Almighty for the bounty of nature. There are some other festivals which mark an event like the day when the country attains independence or adopts a constitution. There are also occasions like the birthday of great national or spiritual leaders which call for celebrations. Besides, there are cultural festivals like the music festival, dance festival, film festival etc. However, the festivals which occupy the premier position in terms of the scale, participation and individual involvement are those that have a religious significance. In fact, the Indian mind tries to relate every festival, whatever it may be, to a religious event. Speaking of this tendency of the Indian mind to associate every festival with a religious event, Swami Vivekananda once observed “The Hindu is a peculiar person. He does everything in a religious manner. He eats religiously; he sleeps religiously; he rises in the morning religiously; he does good things religiously; and he also does bad things religiously”.

Swamiji gave a wonderful interpretation for the term ‘religion’ which makes his above observation abundantly clear. Religion, according to the Swamiji, is not just a body of rituals and dogmas and temples or social practices which a man does out of fear and ignorance. Swamiji held religion to be man’s eternal endeavor to go beyond the senses and go in pursuit of the Transcendental Truth. The purpose of religion is to help mankind evolve higher consciousness and to help a human being climb higher steps of the inner world. In short, religion is the idea which raises the brute unto man and man unto God.

Hinduism, more accurately stated as Sanathana Dharma, has three broad aspects viz.
philosophy, mythology and rituals [festivals]. Philosophy deals with the ultimate question of life like the existence of God, nature of man, creation of the world, goal of life, problem of life and death, reincarnation etc.These are very subtle ideas beyond the
comprehension and understanding of the common man. Mythology tries to bring these ideas from the dizzy heights of metaphysics down to the ordinary level of understanding of the common folk through myths and stories. However, these also cater more to the brain than to the bosom. The common man wants to concretize these truths further. Thus are born rituals or festivals involving physical and mental activities and participation. Such direct involvement makes a man feel nearer to these subtle truths. All religious festivities thus are an attempt to capture the abstract through concrete symbols and serve the purpose of achieving the metamorphosis of the human being from the mundane to the divine level.

Every religious festival has two aspects: VRATA and UTSAVA. Derived from the Sanskrit root’vrn’ [to choose], a Vrata is a set of rules and disciplines. It is a voluntary decision one makes in order to restrain one’s energies and thoughts and channelise them towards divinity. It is a kind of psycho-physical exercise. This may include a sort of getting up early in the morning, bathing in cold water, going to the temple and so on. This is a kind of Tapas or austerity. The other side of a festival is the Utsava which literally means ‘to cause to go upward.’ In common parlance, it means a joyous occasion which brightens or buoys up the spirit of the participants. If Vrata, being in the nature of austerity, tends to restrain the spirits, Utsava, on the other hand, frees and brightens it. The two are thus complementary and the meanings go together.

The observance of the Vrata, as a precedent to the Utsava, is not special to Hinduism. It is observed in the other religions as well. In Christianity there is a festival called Lent,
which is observed during the period between from the Ash Wednesday to Easter Evening
of which the 40 weekdays are devoted to fasting and penitence in commemoration of Christ’s fasting in wilderness. Even in Islam, one keeps partial fasting during the month of Ramdan, followed by idu’l fitr festivities.

Scriptures do not specify that the festivals should be celebrated with pomp and grandeur. One can observe them with solemnity and religious fervour. One can celebrate a festival in a Satvic manner and avoid display of vulgar wealth and opulence. The expenditure one would incur in the display of pomp and grandeur during a festival could be better utilized in the service of humanity, as it serves the same purpose of a step to reach divinity, since Hinduism believes in the adage ‘Service to Man is service to God’.

As festivals are mainly meant to serve as instruments of remembrance of the Divine, one can make use of mythological stories as a cause [nimitta] to celebrate a festival.
Durga Pooja, Deepavali, Navaratri, Ganesha festival etc are some of the most popular festivals which act as causes to recall and recapture the spirit of the Dharma they represent. While these festivals are occasions which come once in a way at the specified season, there are a few occasions where the lives of great people provide us with an opportunity to celebrate a festival. Birthdays of realized souls like the Buddha, Acharya Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa, Basava, Chitanya, Meerabai, Andal, Tyagaraja, and Purandara ---the list is endless—are celebrated with great devotion. These great men and women radiate love and joy always and their Jayanthis are always looked forward to,
since they are the Pathfinders to the Eternal.


ARTICLE NO. 419----Festivals and their Significance
Created: Friday, November 16, 2007 8:45 PM


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