In spite of the fact that I am not necessarily a religious person, I am fascinated by religion and the ways people practice their spirituality. I think it’s the reason that India calls to my heart. India is a place where spirituality and religion are part of everyday life and over the centuries numerous cultures and religions have thrived and flourished together resulting in a very unique and interesting society.
A couple weeks ago my friends and I ran 5k called Run or Dye. The reason why I wanted to participate in this race is because it’s based off my favorite festival in India—Holi. Celebrated in early spring, the Holi Festival is a celebration color, unity, and friendship. It is an opportunity to forget all differences and just have fun. Traditionally celebrated without any distinction of cast, creed, color, race, status or sex. People spend the day smearing colored powder all over each other’s faces, throwing colored water at each other, having parties, and dancing under sprinklers. The pictures are very dramatic! I have always wanted to experience this festival in person. I guess I saw this run as an opportunity at a little something Holi.
Hindus are a profoundly religious people and all Hindu festivals a deep spiritual import or high religious significance. During my time in India, my friend Inderjeet told me that Holi is tied to a number of different Hindu stories of Gods, but the one he grew up with is the Legend of Prahlad.
The story goes that long ago there lived demonic king named Hiranyakashyapu. Hiranyakashyapu deepest desire was to be immortal so he prayed long and hard, and eventually Lord Brahma appeared before him. When Hiranyakashyapu asked Lord Brahma to make him immortal, Lord Brahma refused, but offered to grant Hiranyakashyapu any other wish. So Hiranyakashyapu asked that he could not be killed by man, God or beast; not during the day or at night. He could not be killed indoors or outdoors; by any weapon made by man or God; nor by the sea, in the air or on land.
Once these wishes were granted, Hiranyakashyapu believed himself to be invincible and all-powerful. He vanquished Lord Indira, and set himself up as the King of the heavens, the earth and the netherworld. He banned his subjects from worshipping any God but him, and terrorized them to make sure they complied.
The only person who didn’t bow down to Hiranyakashyapu was his son, Prahlad. Prahlad found his truth in Lord Vishnu, and refused to pray to any other god. Despite Hiranyakashyapu’s threats and commands, Prahlad continued to worship Vishnu with ardent devotion. Enraged, Hiranyakashyapu, commanded that Prahlad be put to death. But, all attempts to slay Prahlad failed; Prahlad would simply chant Lord Vishnu’s name, and emerge unscathed.
Finally, Hiranyakashyapu approached his sister Holika for assistance. Holika possessed a divine cloak that made her invulnerable to fire. The plan was that Holika would hold Prahlad on her lap, and together they would sit in the center of a huge bonfire. Holika’s divine cloak would protect her from the fire, but Prahlad would perish in the flames. When the fire was lit, a huge gust of wind blew the cloak off Holika’s shoulders, and onto Prahlad’s, who though surrounded by flames, continue chanting the name of Lord Vishnu. The fates had turned the tables on Hiranyakashyapu and Holika. Holika was reduced to ashes, while Prahlad once again emerged unscathed.
It’s funny how two people can see a completely different perspective in the same story. For Inderjeet, the tale of Prahlad is about God protecting those who live a good and honest life and ultimately good triumphing over evil. I honor that, but when I heard the same story I thought of the 3rd Unitarian Universalist: a Free and Responsible Search for Truth and meaning, and in our hero I saw beliefs and values that allowed him to remain authentic, harmonious and balanced, no matter what challenges, hardships, or dangers he faced. It’s a reminder we’re all unique children of the divine, and as such each of us receives a unique truth that serves us.