As we celebrate Holi with a festive spirit in India today, not many understand that it is symbolic. Holi is not about a story that happened centuries ago. Holi is about you and me.
According to Bhagavat Purana, there lived a king named Hiranyakashyap. He had a wish to be immortal and for that, he did intense ‘tap’ until the Gods granted him a ‘vardan’ or a boon. The boon that was granted to the king with this five powers – he could not be killed by a human or animal, he could not be killed indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and not on land or in water or air.
Overjoyed by the boon, Hiranyakashyap became arrogant. He began thinking of himself as a God and committed various atrocities on his people who refused to worship him. He even killed many.
The king had a son named Prahlad. Prahlad refused to worship his father as a God and continued to pray to Lord Vishnu. Angered, Hiranyakashyap decided to kill his own son, Prahlad. For this, he asked his sister, Holika to burn him to death. Holika, had a boon herself that she could not be burnt in the fire. So, she took Prahlad in her lap and sat in the fire thinking that it would kill the child and do nothing to her. But a completely different thing happened. Holika died and Prahlad was saved.
Later, Lord Vishnu took the avatar of Narsimha – half human, half lion (not a man or animal) took Hiranyakashyap at a doorstep (not indoors or outdoors) at dusk (neither day nor night) ,made him sit in his lap (not on land, water or air) and killed him with his claws (neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons). That is how good triumphed over evil and that is why we celebrate Holi.
But like it was said previously, Holi is about you and me. The three characters in this story – Hiranyakashyap, Holika, and Prahlad can be still found today. One who does wrong, another who supports and the wrong and lets it happen and the third who suffers. It feels different when we put it that way, doesn’t it?
Picture India in the 21st century. Now picture those endless victims of rapes, murders – those who are debt-ridden and commit suicide for no reason at all – those who are constantly bullied by authorities – those who suffer every single day because they were born without the silver spoon and those who, for the simple reason of being different than what the society expects, undergo ridicule every single day. They are like Prahlad. Innocent and different.
Then there are those who are agents of people who want to make others suffer and spread fear. Those who do not think about wrong or right and simply carry out things for profit, for power and for something very material. They would go to the extent of taking lives. They are like Holika.
And then comes the evil incarnates. The few in power who abuse it every moment. Who, to achieve their wicked goals, continue to exploit those who do not ‘obey’ them or act according to their wishes. There are many in today’s India. They are like Hiranyakashyap.
Now you would say, you don’t belong in any of the above categories. You are not a victim, a culprit or the agent of the culprit. Who are you then? You are the one who stops bad from happening. It is really simple. Lord Vishnu’s role in the story is an example that we need to follow. That is what we are to do. Stop wrong from happening in front of our eyes. Simply because we can.
This time, when you circle the fire on a Holi night, and you play with colours the next day, mean it. It is not just an ancient ritual. It is a promise of letting humanity prevail.