Lecture 15: Major Holidays in Popular Hinduism
Course: Introduction to Hinduism
Lecture: Major Holidays in Popular Hinduism
Like the gods and goddesses, India has a lot of festivals. A lot of festivals. We're going to focus on some of the major ones. There are actually … the government of India has recognised sixteen religious holidays. That means that on those days the government workers do not have to work, so they're particularly well celebrated because everybody's in the streets and so forth.
But there are many, many other holidays. You actually have, in India, several layers of holidays. You have ... layer one would be the national holidays, which are the sixteen. Then every state, not every state but most every state, will have their own holidays that are peculiar to their state. The most obvious, or the most important, example in India would be, for example, Onam – which is a very huge festival, but it's only celebrated in Kerala. So we're not even going to look at that in this class. I was actually in Kerala for Onam last summer and ... gee it's a big deal. They closed down the entire government for an entire week of festivals. So you have a number of festivals that operate at the state level.
And then you may have a number of religious festivals that are peculiar to a particular sect of Hinduism that may not be across the board. So we're also going to be essentially focused on major Shaivite/Vaishnavite holidays. We're also limiting ... taking out of our consideration, major holidays like Christmas which is acknowledged by the government, because it's ... we already know what Christmas is. So I'm sticking kind of to the major Hindu festivals that are celebrated round the country.
The only little caveat which I will throw in is that even though some of these festivals are celebrated round the country, they're often given different meanings based on where you are in the country. So a lot of times, north India will have a little spin on things that is different than south India where they have a different tradition that they base it on they do in north ... or south India, whatever. So, there are little differences north and south with regarding a lot of these festivals and how they develop it – mostly reflecting Shaivite/Vaishnavite tensions or ideological differences within Indian ethnic groups. If that's necessary to bring out, we'll bring it out. Otherwise we'll let it stand kind of as the major expression of it.
What I've done also, by way of introduction, is to point out that all of the holidays, or most of the holidays, are based on the lunar calendar. So the dates vary from year to year. I've given the essential dates that most of these things take place in the margin or in a parenthetical point so you can follow it that way. There's also in India a difference of opinions amongst Indians about what constitutes a lunar month and how you figure it. Because some will start it immediately following the new moon. Others will start it at the appearance of the new moon. So there's a little bit of a difference in terms of how some groups will calculate it and all that. But most of the national holidays we're looking at have standard government calendars they follow.
But what I've tried also to do is to kind of give you each of the major holidays we'll look at and, as you can see, we're looking only at nine of them – I'm going to share with you basically the key thing it symbolises and then I'm going ... I have what I call a practical sign. This is like ... for the late person, what you would actually notice if you were in India – things that I've observed at various points looking at these holidays. So, we'll do that.
Actually, the first one, and I don't have any pictures for, but the first is Lohari, which is generally around the middle of January – is typically January 14 is kind of the date you often hear a lot. It's kind of a new year's thing. It's actually not the official beginning of the Indian calendar, Indian year, but it is a starting off fresh. They will do things that symbolically demonstrate the casting off of evil and blessing, asking the gods to bless them for the coming year. They'll say this thing. They'll say ??? It means: May the blessings come to me. ??? means come. May the curses leave – ???
So they will say this typically around campfires – these fires, they build these huge fires and they .. the fire technically represents Agni. Again they go back to the Vedic times. They will cast popcorn and peanuts, candles into the fire. And it's supposed to be quite a remarkable way to cast off evils and ask for blessings for the new year, for the coming year. So that's done.
You'll often find kids going around ... it's almost like a ... the closest I can think of is "trick or treat" in America. Kids will go around to the doors and they'll knock on your door and ask for candy. And the candy symbolises blessings. And so you give them the candy and they'll go and they'll dance round the fire and they'll eat candy and have a big time and then they'll throw the candy into the fire – or some of the candy into the fire. It also gets eaten, but some into the fire. Popcorn into the fire. Things like that. That's Lohari.
The second which is certainly more interestingly visible is the celebration of the death of winter and the return of spring. So this occurs around February/March. We definitely need that right now. Everybody needs a Holi festival. But this is actually an exchange of colours, is really the way it's described, as we will see in our own climate here. Things will begin to change – the colours will change. Things will get green again. And so, in India, this normally means, practically speaking, as you can see in this very, very ancient picture here, the people will spray each other or squirt each other with colours. And so this is the thing naturally that kids really enjoy this because you get to go round with a squirt guns. Anyway and god says it's OK. And you fill it with various coloured fluids. And everybody knows during Holi you don't wear nice clothing because you will get your clothing splattered with various kinds of dye or colour. Some people throw like coloured sand on you and things like that.
But you'll have an exchange of colours that goes on. I'll show you some pictures in a moment. It goes back for ancient times. Here you have some, again, this is actually the same picture, just further out, of the exchange of colours in ancient India. This is a modern-day group that's just had a kind of Holi battle. A Holi battle. A Holi battle – where see they've been spraying each other with colours and paints and all. And you see this guy has ... these guys have put their handprints on their bodies and all. It's a very exciting thing. Now all this supposedly is celebrating the death of winter, the coming of spring.
In north India, especially, where we are, it's associated with Krishna. According to Hindu mythology, which we've only looked at a little bit in this class, but Krishna as an infant killed a demon who served the king of winter. And so they use this opportunity to celebrate Krishna. Across most of India, it's actually dedicated to Kama. We haven't discussed Kama, but Kama is the god of sexual love in India. So you'll find a lot of celebration of love. And people get married. There's actually two periods when people get married: during this time and during Devali, we'll look at later, and almost everybody gets married during those two months.
So in the north, especially, you'll see a lot of emphasis on the gopis. All over India, people get plastic squirt guns, spray each other with coloured liquids. It doesn't ??? five days but it occurs during the February ... sometimes during February and March when it falls based on the lunar calendar. This guy here you see has coloured his face for Holi.
The third festival is the Nag festival. You have here Nag panchami. Again the word panch is the word for five. Eca, do, tina, cara, pamca is the five day festival. I want you to look at this and see if you can tell me a little bit about it from what you already know. Now, the word for snake is nag in Hindi, as well as Sanskrit. And so this is a time to celebrate the snake and to revere the snake. There's a lot of stories in India that surround the snake. This is a poster celebrating the Nag festival. What can you tell me about it? Looking at it – what else besides the snake?
There's a Siva Lingum. What else do you see?
Answer: The OM symbol.
You see the OM symbol.
Answer: ??? symbol on the snake.
That is. That is. Even the snake is resonating with the sound. What else do you see?
Right. You definitely see the two main symbols of Siva. If you count the Siva Lingum, that's a third major symbol. And what does Siva wear around his neck? Snake. So this ties in to all the Shaivites. So north India, it's a very important festival. People will take the snakes. They'll paint them.
One of my biggest memories in India was actually ... I had come to India with a suitcase naturally. And I was in a van in Bhopal and we were ... went over this hill and, where they used to live, you had to pass underneath one of these bars that's ... well, it's actually a bridge. But before the bridge they have a big steel bar there so the trucks that are too high can't go because it'll ... the bridge is too low. So it's like a protective bar like you see at like drive-throughs or whatever.
So, he did not anticipate how high my suitcase would be. So when we swept underneath there with a van, which normally passed right through, it just caught the edge of my suitcase and exploded it and all my stuff went flying everywhere. I mean, the suitcase was just totally destroyed. All right. So I gathered my stuff up. The suitcase was totally lost – just threw it in the ditch. I got all my stuff and put it in the back. And so we had to go buy a suitcase.
Well, what was so interesting – in India they were so sure that if I walked in the shop to buy a suitcase the price would double because I was ... you know, as a white face. So they said: "You stay in the car. We'll go buy it and then bring it back." So they went to buy it. It's the suitcase I still use to this day actually, you know, when I go to India. But anyway, it happened during Nag festival. And so, here I was sitting in this truck, or this car, poodly hot. I had the windows down, it was so hot. And they were in there negotiating the price of this box, this ... they call them boxes, but suitcases. So, you know, that takes forever, you know, going through the whole process and, you know, I didn't want to buy the store, just the suitcase and all that, you know.
So finally, while they're out there, the Nag people get wind that I'm in the car. So they thought: "O, this might be the opportunity for some, you know, some easy offerings." So I was surrounded by snakes. People holding snakes. And I mean, I'm not talking about just like little garden snakes. I mean serious cobras and stuff. The people had painted and they'd decorated them and they kept thrusting them into the window. I was not ... I can handle a lot of things, but that was really difficult. Because I ... these snakes didn't look very friendly.
And you see things like this. This is very typical during Nag festival. This is, you know, the famous Indian snake charmers. What happens during Nag? And so these guys had these snakes – these are not just, you know, garden snakes. They had them all painted and all. And they were holding the window at me. But I survived it.
You'll find this ???. I had a picture. I seem to have lost it. But I have another picture somewhere in my files. ??? you see a lot in India is people will take milk and pour it down holes in India. Again, the idea is that snakes live in the holes. We're going to bless the snakes. Pour milk down the hole. So there's a lot of that. You see a lot of strange things going on.
I'm not sure if I have ... yeah I have it on here actually. Snakes are seen everywhere. People sprinkle vermillion – that's the red powder that they put on their ... for the third eye Siva. They put rice on the hoods of the cobra. This is, of course, as you know I'm sure, this is the hood of the cobra. So they will sprinkle rice on it.
The main thing you'll notice are just snakes everywhere, especially cobras. People will wear snakes around their necks. This is not a minor festival. This is, I mean, back in north India I'm sure it's more than south India, but in ... since I work in north India, I'm amazed. This happens when I'm there. But you're just amazed that snakes will come out of the woodwork during this festival. And they worship the snake.
I was ... if we had time, we could have taken time to explore a lot of the stories behind each of these things, but unfortunately we're going to have to keep moving here. But just to give you a feel for some of the major holidays. That occurs in July and August.
Question: Why do the farmers refuse to plough during that festival?
They refuse to plough because they don't want to disturb the snakes. Because when you plough you kill snakes and mice and things and so they refuse to plough during that time.
Question: What do the Christians do during this festival?
That is a great point. One of my handouts here. Can a Christian celebrate Hindu Devali festival? This is really partly why I bring this up because it involves some really important theological issues and so we will talk a little bit about it. ??? that will happen ... many of you who go to India will probably go in the summer time, so you'll often see that if you go you should be well aware of that. You see someone walk down the street with a snake around their neck you won't feel surprised. Now if you're in a holy place, like Varanasi or Haridwar or Rishikesh ??? on the Ganges River, you may find someone with a snake around their neck and nothing else on. It's really quite a remarkable sight. OK. Yes.
Question: How safe is it to be handling all these snakes? Do a lot of people die from snake-bites and stuff?
People do. The ones who do this, like this young man here, they have been trained to do it. They handle snakes from the time they're very, very young. In fact, it's a caste. There's a caste of people who do this. I mean, in India, everything's a jati. I say jat-caste, I mean jati. It's a jati – special caste-grouping that does this. So, because of that, they have techniques where they milk the poison out of them. But that's not that effective actually ... That will keep you from being killed, but not necessarily from, you know, getting bitten or sick. They used to handle snakes in your area, so tell us ...
Comment: one of the ??? they came to our area and ??? just ??? What they do is they hold one kind of a ???
Comment: and he have that one ???
I wish they'd given out her before they stuck the snake in my car window. Seen the movies where they have the baskets and they blow and they come out of the basket and all that? Yeah, I always thought that was like Hollywood. But I've seen it many times actually doing this. In fact, especially during this time, if you're a tourist and you go to a big hotel, even like Marriott and some international hotels like that, they all have on staff a guy who sits out in the front, you know, and does this for tourists, like if you have a five-star hotel and you're coming to India.
A lot of people don't actually go out into the villages. They'll go to a five-star hotel, take an air conditioned train to see Taj Mahal in Agra, back to Delhi and out. So they want to see India. So their idea in India is to see a snake-charmer. So these guys ??? with the big hats, all the flowers and all that. This is kind of like your typical street nag festival guy. This is what you would actually see in the festival – people standing around like this. And there'll usually be a person with him that is asking you for money because you're getting to see the show as it were. But in the hotels you'll see them really dressed up with all kinds of big, big fancy hats and plumes and they're playing the thing and the snake comes out, opens up his hood and everybody gasps. He takes the money. He puts it back in the basket and you know. It looks great. You know, all he has to do is feed the snake.
Comment: One more in addition to that. Not only in the Christian ??? but ??? snake charmers they will just ??? snakes ??? all the year and they will sit in the one place ??? not only ??? snake festival, but throughout the year
Yes, that's true. That's true. You could see those snake charmers ??? the big hotels all year round. I know in Bhopal … I don't know if you saw the big anthill in Bhopal? The snake sort of lives inside. There's a huge anthill in a city in central, north central India, that they believe a snake lives in there. And there's kinds of stories about the snake and how the snake saved the city and da-da-da-da-da. And so people will pour offerings in this hole year round in honour of the snake in Bhopal.
OK, the other is Janmashtami, which is Krishna's birthday – occurs between August and September. And you will find many, many, many re-enactments of Krishna stories that come out of the puranic material especially, Bhagavata purana, stories about Krishna's life, his boyhood.
You'll find this particular ... well, you see this baby Krishna very, very typical. I'm sure the other hand is in the butter dish. This is the scene, the famous scene about Krishna stealing the clothing. They will re-enact this event in many places around India. So during this time you'll see Krishna plays. People also will take pots, clay pots, filled with butter or milk curd or whatever. And they will string it up, way up high from trees or buildings or whatever. And people will reach for it – and they'll have like human pyramids to see if you can go up and grab it. And again all this is played on the idea of Krishna stealing the butter – re-enacting this, you know, grabbing the butter and of course it supposedly represents getting blessings and so forth. So you'll see a lot of this kind of thing during this time period.
The Vaishnavites will also used it as an austerity time to fast until midnight and then they will have celebrations throughout the night. So Krishna's birthday is one of these. Yes.
Question: When they're re-enacting the scene, how much do they read it back that
Yeah, they don't know. Believe me, they don't re-enact it in actuality. They re-enact it symbolically. Yeah, right.
Question: And then, the other thing is what do like in a sense this would obviously be a big holiday for the Vaishnavites, what do like the Saivites and others such as those, what would they do?
Well, it depends on what you mean. If you mean by ... do they still accept Krishna's birthday? Because of the role of the Bhagavad-Gita everybody can appreciate Krishna's birthday even though … even south Indians versus north Indians. There may be some of the particular stories that they may not celebrate certain places, but just the basic idea of Krishna's birthday, it's not a problem for anybody. They're very eclectic, you know, so it's not a problem even if you're not a ...
The other is, of course, Ganesh's life. The Ganesh Chaturti which is ... celebrates his life and his exploits. You find this especially in west India and south India. What you'll find is they'll create thousands and thousands of Ganesh images. And this is a picture of a man that's creating these. You can see, behind him, he has produced dozens and dozens of them which will then be sold – rather relatively cheaply. These are quickly made.
And people will take these images. They will sing to them for over a week. And they'll carry them to the Ganges – some body of water – where they'll cast them into the water. And this is supposed to represent blessings.
If you remember the story about Ganesh when his head was cut off because of guarding Parvati's place – when he ... his head was restored by Siva, he's called to be the overcomer of obstacles. I mean, that's the ultimate obstacle, having your head cut off. And so Ganesh supposedly helps you overcome even the worst obstacles that you face. And so people ... typical in India in my experience, if you go into a shop, a retail shop, you almost always see a Ganesh statue there – because Ganesh statue represents overcoming poverty, blessings, prosperity. You'll see either Ganesh or Lakshmi in these places very regularly. So Ganesh is tied into this a lot.
You'll see thousands of clay idols of Ganesh appear in the marketplace for sale. This is later followed by all kinds of puja to Ganesh. Here's one example of a Brahmin that's burning the sacred flame, offering incense to Ganesh. You may not recognise this off the top as a Ganesh, but you can see, of course, his trunk. This is indeed a Ganesh puja service going on. And you can see the sacred thread of the Brahmin there and there. Another guy has his on. These are some young men that haven't been invested yet.
The next one is, the sixth one is Durga Puja. You already have the goddess Durga. It takes place in September/October. It's really, I don't have it noted here on the handout but it's something that's particularly practised in west Bengal, in the eastern part of India. The rest of India focuses not so much on Durga as on Ramayana celebrations because the basic theme of Durga, as you remember, is that she overcomes the demon god. And she has a big, big epic battle where she destroys the demon. So in the same way, the Ramayana epic is re-enacted to symbolise the triumph of good over evil. So this is the time when children will come and they will have marvellous festivals.
Now, this particular event here, which is called Dasehra, it means the setting up of an effigy of Ravana. Remember in the Ramayana this was the big demon that had captured Sita. And they ... he had the whole engagement with Hanuman. And Hanuman helped Rama restore Sita to himself. Of course, it's a long complicated story, but that's the gist of it. So Ravana is the demon-king. So they will create these huge effigies. And this is ... I'll show you several pictures of this ... other picture. But this is actually, I would say, small by the standards of how these ... how big these can be made. I mean, so this is, you can see, this is probably, what, fifteen feet high. They have them that are twenty, thirty feet high. Huge things. Not as big as a Saddam Hussein statue, but big.
And what they'll do is, they'll create the statue. They'll re-enact the whole event of the Ramayana. And then, in the process, they will light this on fire and it will burn up to symbolise the victory over the demons. And you can imagine the kids – how much every kid would enjoy this – seeing this huge effigy of this big figure being lit fire. And people gather round and have big celebrations and all the rest.
Give you a few other pictures of it. Here's another one. See how large this is? This is a fairly large demon. Here's some others that are really big. You can see how ... this other person ... it's not that clear but you can see it. And here they are setting one up. These are massive effigies that they create and then they burn to the ground at the height of the festival. So, you'll see the Ramayana epics. I think I may have a picture here of a ... yeah, this is a Ramayana epic that's being re-enacted for a crowd. They're all gathered there and it's being re-enacted on the stage for them.
Question: How long is this particular festival?
All these festivals are roughly a week or slightly less than that – five or six days. And what they'll do ... generally have certain things that take place on each day. It doesn't mean they can take off work for the whole week, but they'll have like a build up. There'll be ... maybe the government and that will give them off the day ... the main day of the festival, but there'll be all kinds of things you do building up to that. So it's just like, usually a whole week – a whole workweek – Monday to Friday – or they set aside for this.
You have people ... this is a painting but it's the painting of young boys, young girls, gathered around while this sage recounts them the epic stories. I mean, this is an idealised thing. I don't know if it happens quite this way today as much. You probably have it more often with just families and things of that nature. But still the idea of the young who will gather and hearing these stories and epics (now they see them on TV) is really a big part of the way Hindu thought is passed down from period to period.
The next big one – in fact, this is the biggest one in terms of just practical ... what most Hindus will definitely celebrate is Devali. It's spelt various ways. I have on my handout d-e-v-a-l-i – because it's probably more how it's pronounced – Devali. You'll see it spelt d-e-w-a-l-i or d-i-w-a-l-i or d-i-v-a-l-i. The "v" and "w" in India is completely merged. I'm not saying that to be critical of Indian English, but it's just a fact that, even in high-level Indian schools, where they teach English, they don't distinguish between the "v" and "w". And so it's very normal, even to have a very well-educated Indian who has beautiful perfect English will not always have their vs and ws right. They'll say vorld when they mean world. And so you'll find that this is a kind of ongoing problem. It has to do with certain features in Hindi especially that make this difficult.
So, Devali is the way it's properly pronounced. It actually comes from deeper valley, which is Sanskrit, which is a … deep is a word of blessings, the time of receiving blessings. This is a time when they have major celebration of fireworks. They celebrate the return of Rama from exile, which is part of the Ramayana – a long exile period.
Because it's Devali, they will have a number of weddings during this period. They believe this is a very auspicious time for weddings. So you'll see Lakshmi, which you should recognise this is Lakshmi because the iconography, especially the lotus and the coins coming from the hand. Lakshmi is often associated with Devali and so they will celebrate Devali, celebrate prosperity.
People believe it's a good time to get married. And my experience, being in India during Devali is that there's a wedding almost every night. They'll parade the groom through the streets. I mean, traditionally the groom comes on a big horse and all and they have a big celebration. Nowadays, it's sometimes on a cart, but they'll have these generators and they will generate power on the cart itself without having electricity plugged in. They can just parade down the streets with these huge lights and loudspeakers. And there'll be singing and it .... It's not something that happens like a wedding that lasts an hour. This is like an all-night affair, singing, singing, singing, sing, sing, all night long. You know, and drums, shout. And it's difficult to sleep. For really ... this is a whole ... several weeks this goes on.
So say fireworks, weddings, people clean their homes out, they wear ... get new clothing. It's a very festival time. This is the closest thing to kind of Christmas in terms of how it's regarded. A lot of gift-giving, visiting homes, and all that.
The other big part of it. The word Devali refers to the festival of lights and so they will buy lights and lamps and put them in their homes. I have some pictures here of ... this is an ancient picture of a Hindu woman bringing lights to the gods, putting lights in her homes. Here is a modern day picture in north India. It's not a great picture, but I think it's rather typical. This is a typical marketplace in India and people are all gathered around. They come on their scooters. This is very typical modern site. And they're buying these lanterns. This is definitely Devali time. They buy these lanterns and they take them and they put them up in their homes. Kind of like people here decorate Christmas trees and all that. Here's another example of this ... a nearby market. Same thing. Plenty of lights. People come and they buy these lamps and they decorate their homes in a beautiful way.
It's almost the end of the monsoon period. O you notice also the mask where they had the demons. They'll re-enact the Ramayana as well and they'll sell these masks and they'll re-enact various plays and all that – various sort of the epics.
The next one is the Mahashivaratri which is actually the great Siva austerity. This is a day of fasting and a night of keeping vigil to earn the merits of Siva. They will usually follow this with a great festival, eating, celebration, all of this. People go and dip in the Ganges. This is very, very popular as you might imagine in north India.
And they will celebrate all the things connected with Siva. And you can see here ... you can barely see, but this is the snake around Siva's neck. So you definitely recognise this is a Siva. You can see that it's a spot, not an arc. That's definitely a sign of Siva. But it's a close-up shot so you don't see the damaru and other things. So you'll see pilgrims going everywhere to dip in the Ganges. You'll see Siva Lingums sold in the marketplace, in the shops.
We'll talk a little bit more about the pilgrimage here in a minute. But the ... if you live anywhere near the Ganges – and where I teach is right at ... very. very close to the Ganges River – you'll just see thousands of pilgrims on the streets. And they typically will come. They'll have these long banners on their shoulders with all kinds of decorations on it and that tells people we're on our way to the Ganges. And you'll see a thousand people going.
But especially in the Kumba Mela period, which is the last one. The Kumbla Mela is the great festival. Now this does not occur every year. It technically occurs once every twelve years. But, there are ... again back to Hindu mythology. In Hindu mythology there was a great fight between the gods and the demons over the stuff called amrith – which gives you immortality. And, in the process of this battle, there were several drops that were dropped out. There were actually seven drops, but four are the most important drops. Three are actually other ... a whole other kind of tradition. But the four drops that come out and fall on four sacred places along the Ganges River, they believe that those spots immortality can be achieved. Of course, this is a great tragedy that people believe this. But people believe that, at this time, at certain auspicious times, then the gods or goddesses will especially come down to provide this immortality.
So the result is you have massive migrations to the Ganges River during this time. But what they've done is, they have taken the four sites and they have divided into every three years they'll go to one of ... one of these will be the main place you go. So there's always one of these Kumba Melas occurs every three years, but on every twelfth year they'll have a Maha Kumba Mela – a great Kumba Mela – which represents the real twelve year cycle period.
And we had one a few years ago. I'll show you some pictures of it actually – that are absolutely amazing the number of people that come to these things. They believe that Saraswati mystically turns into a river at that time. Saraswati, of course, is the goddess of knowledge. And right where the Ganges and the Yamuna River meets – these are two very famous rivers in India – where they meet is an especially auspicious period. People will come and they'll dip into the river. Look at the number of people here. This is not a small gathering. I mean, it's just as far as the eye can see, you have people coming to dip in the Ganges River.
This man here is facing the sun, most likely there's a certain prayer that you pray ??? the Vedas when you face the sun like this, dipping in Ganges. A lot of people will come. This was actually at Allahabad. This is the Maha Kumba Mela. They say it's the largest gathering in the entire history of the human race. Millions and millions of people gathered in one city. It's unbelievable. You have to see it to believe it.
Here's a picture, again, you see these people here have on their birthday suits. I mean, it's a very dramatic sight. They have maybe nothing on but a snake and holding a sword. I mean, it's quite a dramatic festival. And they believe, intently believe ... You can see the banners I was telling you about. They're holding up. These banners tell people that we're on our way to pilgrimage. So now they've all arrived and there are millions of people here. to dip in Ganges. And they believe by doing this they'll receive salvation. This is a great tragedy of the whole Hindu religion. This is the ... because this is as great as it gets. I mean, this is the climax of your faith – is at one of these auspicious times coming and receiving salvation. All the puja and all that is culminating in this kind of event and this is what they can offer you. We'll dip in the Ganges.
And it's not just, you know, when we see crowds, it maybe it doesn't have the personal face, but this is one – I got this off the internet – this is some much better shots of a woman up close who is dipping in ... this is actually taken during a Kumba Mela, not the Maha Kumba Mela – but she's dipping in Ganges River. And she believes by having this experience that she'll be saved. That's what she's been told. This man here, coming to the Ganges to die or to make his final puja to the river god, believed by coming this way he will be saved. Yes.
Question: ??? immortality or being saved ??? that they die ??? moksa.
Question: Where does ???
Where does it come from? It came from a turtle shell that was holding this milky amrith substance and they believe that some drops fell out and this substance they believe is immortality. So it's part of their mythology.
Yes, it was. It was actually a fight between the Nag, part of the Nag ... snake comes into this one as well because one of the parts of the battle you have the big demon figure, I can't think of their names, but they're fighting Vishnu. And in the course of this fight, the Nag, which would be a Siva part of the mythology later, comes and the demon tries to drink it all. And he wraps himself around the demon's neck with a snake so that he can't get the ... he can't swallow it. And it comes out, you know, and they catch it. There's this huge epic battle. And so it's all very high in mythology. It's not like reading the gospel of Mark.
Question: Do they do this more than once in their life?
They will. Yeah, they'll do this repeatedly if they can.
Question: Then they don't have faith that it worked the first time.
No, they have no assurance of this. Absolutely not. If they have the ability to go to Ganges, they'll go there as many times as they can. This is not like the ... going to Mecca, you know, for once in your lifetime. No, there's absolutely no assurance in Hinduism. When have you done enough? So you're doing this hoping that you'll be saved. Look at the crowds. Yes.
Question: It's kind of along the lines where I was going to ask: How does this ??? function ???
It is unbelievable. I mean, I don't know how they function. I know when they claimed ... when the crowd came to Allahabad for the Maha Kumba Mela that there were satellite pictures taken from space that could see the movement of people. There's no other human gathering. I've always heard the only thing that could be seen from space, man-made, is the Great Wall of China, right? You've always heard that at least. But they saw the movement of pilgrims in Allahabad from space. That's how many people ... you talk millions. It's unbelievable. I have no idea how they're dealt with. Because there's people who, of course, get killed and I'm sure there's a lot of problems that occur with this but just the sheer mass .... I mean, you can look at this. This is just a little thumbnail of a massive, massive ... It kind of goes on for weeks and weeks and weeks.
And these people here, you'll notice they're carrying food with them – offerings that they'll throw into the Ganges River. She's got this little vessel to bring water home with her from Ganges.
There are other important rites of passage which are not really part of the festivals. I just mention here in passing. You do not need to know these.
Samskaras which is the ritual of naming a child – a very big part of the Hindu. It's actually where you enter into the ... into life as a part of the Hindu community.
Later on, Upanayana, which is where an upper caste boy is started out in the student stage of his ... the four stages of life. And you're invested with the sacred thread. I meant to bring a sacred thread to show you. It's in my office, but I'll do it next time. But all it is, is just a little cotton piece of cloth. They'll invest this on the boy at this stage.
Vivaha which, of course, is second stage – the household stage at marriage. Marriage is very important. One of the things culturally in traditional times, the purpose of marriage according to traditional Hindu writings is to produce a son that will continue the Vedic sacrificial fire. Not for love, emotional satisfaction, on and on, all those things. The epics bring out all kinds of emotion and love and satisfaction and all the rest. So India, like everything else, has these kind of twin ideals that is always pressing people regarding what marriage is. I think for most people marriage is ... means all the things that we would say it means. But I think that there's other kinds of religious ??? that comes into it.
And then Antyesti, which is the funeral service where the deceased is cremated – called the shraddha – where you are then ... your ashes are cast into the Ganges River.
Other sights of the Kumba Mela. You have all these gurus that are gathered ... that gather followings and people come and ??? these are all Brahmins here. A Brahmint here giving you his blessing. Yes.
Question: These guys are ???
They do use drugs. I don't know how widespread it is, because I've never read anything about that, but I know in Haridwar, which is near where we are, which is one of these auspicious sites, the men will sit down in circles like this and they will have these huge water pipes where they have like multiple … what do you call it? Stems, yeah. I'm not experienced with all this. So they will smoke the water pipes. And in part of this burning that they suck through the water and all is hashish, which is the ... much stronger than marijuana. It's like the active ingredient of marijuana. So they will ... they're smoking hashish very regularly. Whether there's other drugs involved, I don't know, but these guys definitely like to smoke those water pipes. Yes.
No, you ... there's no particular time to die other than when your time comes. But there are people who make a long journey to Ganges in order to die when they get to the end of their life. So there are places that you can stay along the Ganges River while you're awaiting your death. I don't know that anybody hurries it along. You know, people's lifespan in India is a bit shorter anyway. And so a lot of these people come when they're very old. And you can see some extremely old men that have made their way to the Ganges. They probably took a bus to get there. But once they get there, they put their saffron robe on. They have their little cane. And they'll be there for months and months until they die. And then they're cremated and their ashes are scattered in the Ganges River and usually what they'll do. right, they just dump their ashes in.
They take the bodies, whether it be a man or a woman, if they're doing the cremation. And what they'll do is you'll take the body and you'll wrap the body. And, if it's a woman, like a sari, head to foot. So you can't actually see the person's face or any part of them actually. It's like a mummy. And similarly with the men, they have cloths they wrap the man around ... wrap around the man. So then they take the body and you lay it out on the bank. And they have these bodies just laid out there. You can just see they're obviously bodies.
And then the family goes to this special place. Now they say this family is the richest family in India. They're only job is to keep the fire going. And they claim this is Vedic – the original Vedic fire that has never gone out. Again, this whole thing about sons keeping the fire going. It's all part of the whole Vedic mythology. You can't just go down there and put your family ??? and you strike a match. You've got to go and get the fire. It's on a like a little a high place in Varanasi and there's a little structure there and inside it is completely dark. But there's a man there, usually like in the lotus position, that represents the family. Maybe he's part of the family, I don't know. And they have this fire going there inside this like tube. And so you go there and you pay money and you have like a torch or something that you light off of that fire. So now you have the fire. So then you take that fire down to the bank.
Meanwhile, either before or after this, depending on your situation or if your other family members have done it – they go down to the banks and there's like I showed you a picture of this where you have these big tent things – these big like circular basket umbrellas basically. And underneath all these umbrellas are Brahmins. And they will teach you some mantra. So they'll say, you know ... you know satchagamahicha or whatever. And you say satchagamahicha. You pronounce this. You get the whole thing just perfect.
And then finally you go down to the banks ... there is, of course, officials do all these things for you, but they take the body ... they'll take the fire from you and they'll light the body with the fire. And then they burn them. I have stood, I mean, from here to you, from these bodies being burned. I mean, they let you get close up. I've heard now that they no longer permit people to go and ... They won't let us take a picture, but I've observed it. They have like six or eight bodies at a time on this fire. And they'll just throw the body on the fire. And after a while, you know, this stuff burns off and you see like burning flesh. I mean, it's just really ... really shocking.
But meanwhile, they're taking the ashes and they're kind of separating the ashes out. There's no way you can actually determine which ashes are yours because they have multiple bodies. Now, maybe if you're somebody special, like Gandhi – I'm sure they didn't throw him on pile with everybody else. But ordinary people they just throw on the fire. And so eventually they take what's basically wherever your ashes were, they take them off and they shovel them into this basket – a big weaved basket. And so they will say: "Here they are. Here she is or here he is." All right. So you essentially have a basket with a mound of ashes on it.
And then they will have ... while you're there they'll sell you flowers, like flower petals, and you'll cover the whole thing with beautiful flowers and coconuts and various things, but you'll ... and food, some people put food on there. But mainly, I've seen flowers. So you basically have a big mound of flowers on this basket. And this basket is made of fairly heavy reeds and stuff because it can float – at least for a short period – like a small boat, a little boat thing. So you to the Ganges. They go down to the ??? whatever ghat or steps that you think are the most auspicious and you have the money to pay for it and you're allowed to enter the ashes into the Ganges.
So this little thing goes out into the Ganges, in the water – depends on what time of year it is, but it can be you know really, really high during monsoon periods, fast-moving water or it can be low slow-moving water. But you put it out there and the river takes it away. So you look on the river and you'll see dozens of these things floating along. And then, after just a little bit of time, maybe from the width of this room or less, the rapids will grab the edge of it and it'll flip it over and it'll be scattered into the Ganges.
Seems to be a break in the recording.
Paul Hiebert is a professor of missions at Trinity. He spent many years in India. This is not really what I'd call a true case study in the technical sense, but these are called case studies. They're meant for classes like this or any class where you raise questions. And he asks the question that you raised earlier about what do Christians do about this? And essentially during Devali, the whole thing is steeped in various stories related to Hinduism. And yet, it's become very much a culture event. It's just a lot like asking: Why do people who don't ... aren't Christians, why do they celebrate Christmas or put the lights on their house or Christmas trees and visit their families and exchange gifts when they're not Christians? Why do they do that? It's stupid. Many people do it. And it's because it's been a cultural thing. This has happened with all the festivals in India, especially festivals like Devali, because this is probably the most widely practised one.
If you look at the story, it kind of gives a background about the family – Mr & Mrs Pakraj had come from Tamil Nadu – kind of gives their little story. This is all based ... These are true stories. If you go down to the third paragraph. They got there just a few months before the annual Hindu festival Devali – which celebrates the victory of the god lord Krishna over the evil Nakasura, the demon. The missionaries were encouraged by the Prasads conversion and did their best to strengthen them in their faith. They visited and so forth.
OK, next paragraph. As Devali approached the villagers began to decorate their homes, preparing all the lamps they would place around them. To celebrate the festival, many of them thatched their huts with new grass and bought new clothing. I mentioned this as well when I talked about. As this particular festival approached, however, the Prasads were depressed. For the first time they could remember at Devali time their home was dark and undecorated. It didn't help their mood that Mr and Mrs Pakraj were away visiting a neighbouring village.
Finally, the evening before Devali was to begin, the missionaries returned. The Prasad family had immediately gone over to welcome them back. It was while they were sitting together and Mrs Pakraj was preparing the evening meal that Dewarik asked his disturbing question. Mr Pakraj had said he needed a little time to think and pray about his response. So he invited the Prasad family to come again the following evening and when they would discuss it some more.
As Mr Pakraj neared his own home the next evening, he still was not sure exactly what he would say to Prasads. The question is: Can we celebrate Devali? He did remember hearing that the first Christians in Europe had begun to celebrate the birth of Christ in a pagan winter festival. They had picked that time because they were servants and their masters gave them holidays during that festival. It was his understanding that Christians had taken the pagan symbol of an evergreen tree decorated with light and turned it into a symbol of their own – evergreen hope for eternal life because of Jesus coming into the world. Could a similar reinterpretation be applied to the Hindu festival of Devali which also celebrates the victory of good over evil? Perhaps. Vikta Pakraj felt it was important for new converts to make a clean break with Hinduism. If they did not keep clear distinctions between Hinduism and Christianity, the Christian community could wind up being absorbed under Hinduism's inclusive umbrella. If that began to happen, Christianity's distinctiveness and its evangelical witness would be quickly blurred and lost.
On the other hand, Mr Pakraj also knew that he must help the Prasad family find a way to restore the joy of their salvation. He wondered how he could do that. Finally, he decided dot dot dot. Don't turn your page because there's no other. That's the way all of these end. He has a whole book of these things. They all end dot dot dot. I got this off the internet – just get me from typing it. But it's right out of his book.
So what do you say? I mean, this is not ??? theology class, so we don't really have the background to talk about it, but I just thought it'd be worth putting out there on the table. What do you think about this? Should Christians from Hindu background celebrate Devali?
The other one is as just as big issue about eating the prasad – the food sacrificed to idols. I mentioned that this is one of the top fifteen questions that Hindus ask Christians. I think I mentioned that to you that I'm doing this work on. It's impossible to do church planting in north India without somebody asking you: "Why do you not take prasad?" So this is not like a theoretical question in a classroom. This is a actual question. And even more so, they would ask if you didn't practise Devali.
I was in India during Devali a year ago last December – and a year and a half ago now. And I was there and one of the questions that was asked ... we were going to meet these Hindus in their homes during Devali. And so one of the students said to me: "How are you going to greet them?" Because, see, they knew that it's like when you meet somebody at Christmas time you say, you know, "Merry Christmas." That's how you greet ??? in Devali. You say, you know, "Happy Devali." So this student asked me: "Are you going to say Happy Devali to them?" And I said: dot dot dot. I'll tell you what I said, but I want to get your own feedback. What do you think about Devali?
It's a similar thing. Some Christians celebrate it. Some Christians provide alternatives. Some Christians will say it's wrong to celebrate it. The only difference with that is that's a Christian holiday that's become pagan rather than a ... I mean Halloween was Hallowed Eve – the evening before All Saints Day. It's ??? become associated with all this other stuff and so you might have a stronger argument for saying: "Well wait a minute. This is our holiday still and …" – which you could argue happened to Christmas too. Now it's become like a big orgy of materialism or something. How do you redeem national holidays whatever their origin is? Or can they be redeemed? Should they be redirected? Do you say "Happy Devali" when you meet someone on the road?
Anybody have any thoughts on that? I don't think there's like some super-right answer and super-wrong answer. I'm just curious your thoughts. You'll find Christians in India that all on the spectrum on this point.
Response: It seems that a healthy alternative can be provided if the heart of the festival is good over evil then there could be a Christian alternative. However, the question remains though: "Would it cause new converts to stumble under ??? new converts need ??? a complete break with it. It's incorporating ??? with the three principles that we talked about in the History of Mission class, you know, you can adapt the forms, you know, that are already there or you can just provide the alternative or gradually, you know, inform them the younger generation.
OK. Anybody have ... want to echo that or provide an alternative. Someone say: "No way Hose." You know, somebody that would provide a different perspective. Yes ???
Response: Like especially in this story, there's ???
You mean decide it on an emotional issue rather than on a theological principle.
Response: It's like we want to feel happy and good or this might be heretical ...
OK, so you're saying you'd be more open to receiving prasad than you would celebrating Devali. Is that what you're saying?
Response: No, I just think the question is ...
Clearer. OK. Meredith. Yeah, I understand now. Other thoughts. Rachel.
Response: I was just going to say that I think the ??? imagery about Scripture ??? feast imagery that we celebrate ??? something that Christians have lots it's important to provide a contact ???
OK. Yes, ???
Response: ??? you're a family, had children ???
OK. That's fair enough. Nobody doubts that that would … may be hard on a family to convince their children, but I think talking about the point that she made ... even if you should do Devali or should not do Devali should be decided on theological grounds first. Those considerations may be there, but I think it would be worthwhile to at least explore ... which I think you were basically doing Rachel ... what ... are there Biblical grounds or historical grounds for Christians participating in or redirecting or declining to participate in pagan festivals quite apart from whether or not it may be hard to ... there's a lot of things your kids ... your kids ... you'll find out if you don't already have kids – things your kids would like to do that you have to say: "I'm sorry, you just can't do it because I'm in charge of the household." And your kids will scream to get it. But then eventually they get over it.
Response: Festival ??? because India ??? festival in ??? we have a lot of festivals, ancient festivals, and we are now 98% Christian but we still celebrate ??? festivals in order to preserve the culture. What we do is ??? what we have done in the past but we Christianised those festivals and we remember our Creator, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we ??? and more Christian way. So I think that Hindu if they just avoid contact with all those festivals I think they will be very different and ??? again see ??? So I think that if a Christian also celebrate but in the Christian way.
Well, that's essentially what we do. I think it may be a little different in your case where you have such a high percentage of Christians that they can more or less they can collectively Christianise it. But what we do is we make a distinction between Devali as a cultural ... preserving the culture. Because in India everything is steeped in Hinduism. You can't buy land ... I mean, if you were to take that principle and say: "OK, Christians cannot have any contact with anything that has to do with demonology or Hindu mythology" – then you can't do anything. You can't even accept your own name, because most of the Christians are named after Hindu gods. So you have to change their name to Ezekiel or something. It is just unworkable, so I think that what you have to do is to acknowledge that this culture has its roots in Hinduism – but we're Christians, we're Moslems, we're whatever, in it.
And what we do is we say: "OK, Devali is a essentially a cultural event of India. There's nothing wrong with lighting lamps in your house. There's nothing wrong with eating and sending gifts or fireworks. None of that is a problem. But if they're having a special re-enactment of some Hindu mythology, Christians won't go. Because they just won't affirm that part of the whole thing. So they make a distinction between a cultural event which affirms our Indian-ness and the religious aspects of it – if you like, someone who celebrated Christmas but didn't do to the Christmas Eve service because they were not a believer but they celebrated Christmas as a general holiday with family, goodwill, whatever else. That's basically the kind of thing in reverse that takes place.
So when I greet a Hindu during Devali I say: "Happy Devali." I mean, I don't have that kind of fearful attitude about culture. I believe the gospel is so much greater than the culture. We don't need to live in fear about culture, demons, ???. I took my daughter, for example, up to ... and my son too actually – up to a Buddhist temple one time – a Tibetan temple – and we sat there in the main hallway while these Buddhist monks were going through their morning puja. I wanted my children just to see it. And they sat there and watched the whole thing. They couldn't believe it. They never seen ??? somebody like Tibetan boys, twelve years old, you know, in the lotus position chanting. All right, so we're right there in this temple, right, ??? then you went next door and you've seen the ...
Did you ever see the puja? Have you been to the temple next door? No. Well, anyway it's there. You know where it is of course. Right next door.
So anyway, so I took them up there. There are a number of our family in our community that would see no problem with that. There were others that thought that absolutely horrible – because you go up there and the demons will jump into your children. They believe that. And your children will be plagued with demons forever. I don't believe that. I told them: "We're going to be prayed up. We're going to be praying in the Spirit. And the whole way through, you just say, well they're doing their mantra, and you do 'Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord'. But you don't have any fear." There's no fear in the Christian faith.
And so they were there, and my daughter went away with a deep burden for the lost in India. And one of the ways ??? Bethany, Jonathan hasn't, Bethany's been to Haridwar. She's seen all this pilgrimage. And she came back home and she wrote a beautiful essay on the lost-ness of India that you could never have gotten through books. You never get it in a course like this. You have to go and see it. And when you see it, you realise it in a way you haven't realised it before.
So participating in these things, seeing these things as an observer, participating the culture I think is fine because it gives ... it reassures us of what it means to be a Christian proactively in the world. But we don't participate in it ourselves. We don't, you know, because I don't go to these re-enactments and all that. I might go see Krishna and the Butter-thief because I like that. But everything else … No, I'm kidding. OK.
Let's now turn ... if you have your chart, because we're now going to finally blitz our way to the end of this chart and then we'll be doing the rest of the course focused on the Christian response to Hinduism. But we do need to come back to this chart a little bit. Because now at this point – it's taken us quite a while to work our way down the right hand side of the chart. But we have finally essentially covered this entire chart, though I want to come back to the six schools of philosophy and say a little more about Sankara and Ramanuja on the very bottom left-hand side of the chart.
What we have looked at, up to this point, is three basic pathways to moksa: jnana marga, karma marga, bhakti marga – the way of knowledge, the way of works, the way of devotion. We did the first two before mid-term and the rest of the time we've been spending on bhakti marga and looking at the kind of the popular ... that version of the popular Hinduism which includes the epics and puja and so forth and devotion to a particular god or goddess.
At this point, we're going to go back, though we've already done a little bit of this, but we want to go back to the left-hand side of the chart because we've already begun to see glimmers of this through the guruism how the Brahmins have ... they don't like this wall that I've drawn here that separates philosophical and popular. They don't like that because they want to demonstrate their control over the entire Hindu marga system. So it's always a struggle in India between the Brahmins and everyone else in terms of who's going to control this.
So I showed you ... I'm not sure if I have this. I guess it's from much later on in my overheads here but I've shown you before the kind of the three tension points in India about knowledge, works and devotion. So essentially the standard Brahminical approach is going to put knowledge first, at the apex, and devotion and works lead ... should lead to knowledge. This is very narrow because this means that the only way to have true knowledge is to be a Brahmin. And therefore, if you're not a Brahmin, all you can hope for is to do ... produce good karmic acts, reduce your karmic debt and be reborn a Brahmin. That's your only hope.
That's going to change because the philosophers ultimately realise that that is an alienating thing. It's not a very empowering thing. And there's a limit to what 8% of the people can do – 8% of the Hindus can do. So, we're going to look at some of the ways the philosophers kind of nuanced this and eventually break out to seek to undergird the whole system by the Brahmins.
But are we clear at this point in the course about the three-vehicle structure and the two basic divisions of philosophical and popular and kind of the overall structure of modern Hinduism – the third, of course, mainly in response to Buddhism but nevertheless today this is very much a big part of modern day Hindu life and activity.
Comments, thoughts or questions about this chart?
Because this chart is critical to kind of having a structure in your minds to understand a lot of what we're saying in the days to come. Next week we'll be dealing with a particular Ramanuja. I want you to be able to be clear about where Ramanuja falls on this and how he responds to this whole chart. What we're going to do briefly, just to give you a little heads up. We don't have time to really start it today. But we're going to jump into a brief, and I hope it's very brief, overview of Sankara. I don't think we'll need a lot of time because Sankara is someone you already know about – essentially because that is the basic Upanishadic vision I've laid out for you is kind of Sankara's take on it.
But just to put it in context, Sankara does not come along until the eighth century. So long after Bhaktism has arisen, long after all the other things, you still do not have the philosophical articulation like you have since the Middle Ages. Sankara's been called one of the great magnitudes of philosophical and theological history, representing one of the great metaphysical tendencies in the history of human thought – that's Rudolph Otto who says that. Yeah, the guy who wrote Idea of the Holy. He's been called India's greatest philosopher, the pinnacle of India's philosophical contribution to the world.
If you think about our society or our culture, you think about the role of the, all right, the three bigs – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates we have nothing about him written, so it all comes through Plato. So essentially, Plato and Aristotle represent the philosophical worldview tendencies in the West. Aristotle pointing to particulars. Plato pointing to universals. Essentially, that is the history of Western philosophy. And if you've seen that wonderful picture by Raphael called Plato's Academy. I have in my house – if you've been to my house – but it shows Plato and Aristotle walking out onto the verandah there and Plato has his finger up pointing to the universals. Aristotle has a hand like that, representing the particulars, you know, the scientific analysis, study, division of human thought, all of that. And Raphael is trying to say through the finger up and the hand down – it's like our own mudras, you know, our own hand signals – that represents the whole of Western philosophy is represented in Plato and Aristotle.
You have the same exact thing in India. Sankara is like Plato. Sankara is going to emphasise the universals – Brahman, nirguna Brahman – you know, you cannot know, I'm speaking ... this is the ultimate kind of universal vision. Ramanuja is going to be focused on the particulars. So Ramauja is going to have the kind of philosophical challenge to Sankara that you find in Aristotle against Platonic thought. The same kind of philosophical revolution occurs in India as happened in the West.
And Ramanuja calls Sankara – the guy who we have here the greatest magnitude, the great philosopher – calls him one who is darkened in his understanding and has no light and insight into truth. I mean, nothing but pejorative things does Ramanuja say about Sankara – because he has a very different idea. He's going to reject nirguna/saguna distinction. He's going to reject all this. And yet he's still trying to explain the Upanishadic vision. So he explains it differently and it affects the whole history of India.
In fact, in my view, even though Sankara is almost routinely presented in the West as Hinduism. Philosophical Hinduism is almost always Sankara's Advaitism. Ramanuja actually represents more profound influence on the ground in India in terms of actually how it's shaped how people think. So Ramanuja may not have the status of Sankara as a philosopher – though they are both ... you know, it's like Plato and Aristotle – but I think influence-wise, it's very, very great. So we're going to kind of spin our way through Sankara briefly to remind you of the basic paradigm. And mainly launch into Ramanuja to show you how that basic paradigm is challenged. We'll do that next week.