The must-know real colours of Holi || Acharya Prashant (2019)

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Isa (from Netherlands): It’s my first time in India and there are a lot of new things, lot of impressions and now that Holi is coming I really want to know what is it about? What does it mean?

Acharya Prashant: What have you seen so far regarding Holi?

Isa: It’s just that colours and the powders and everyone is dancing and singing, playing music

AP: So, Holi is a festival celebrated over a full day and the preceding night. It’s a very prominent Indian festival. Obviously with the spread of the Indian diaspora, it is now celebrated almost across the world. Of course in the Indian subcontinent, plus in the US, UK, Canada, Australia. Also, where there are pre-existing communities of Indian origin – places like Fiji, Trinidad, Tobago, Surinam, Mauritius, Maldives, Indonesia. So, that’s what the festival of colours is all about. People smear each other with colours and it could be powder colours or liquid colour which is thrown on people.

You will experience all of that. You are here on that day. I don’t think anybody is going to spare you. There is a lot of wild festivity. People go around beating drums with music and nobody is spared – men, women, young, kids, elderly. They say ‘bura na mano holi hai!’ and it is the day of colours and everybody has to participate and everybody must look very, very coloured. Not only one colour – green, yellow, red, blue…you name it. And you’ll see all these things going on and you also do not differentiate between friends and foes on these days. Even enemies are supposed to meet and hug each other and smear each others’ faces with a bit of colour and forget all the enmity and the bitterness.

As I said, in the preceding evening pile of woods that is lit up and that happens almost at every crossing in every village, every city in India, especially in north India. And that has its own significance, its own symbolism. You have seen that right? We are in Rishikesh right now, you’ve seen that wood pile? Where did you see it?

Isa: By the bridge.

AP: By the bridge, near the Laxman Jhula, the Ram Murti. Yes, it is there. So, they are going to ignite it.

Isa: But what’s the meaning of Holi? Are the colours just fun? What is behind it?

AP: Well, I’m so glad you are curious about that. It’s a very important thing to ask and in fact that is something that most Indians too, seem to often forget and therefore they must recall it, remember it once again.

You see there is this old fable, an old myth. It comes from the Vishnu Puran. There was this kind of a demon, his name was Hiranyakashyap and he prayed to Lord Brahma, a prominent God in the Indian trinity, the Hindu trinity. And he really prayed hard and performed austerities and he was very insistent, very determined and his prayers were answered. It is said that God appeared in front of him and asked him what do you want? And he said I want immortality. So, God said in what way? He said I should not be killed in day or in the night. I should not be killed indoors or outdoors. Neither hand held weapons nor projectiles should be able to kill me, neither astra nor shastra. Neither man nor an animal should be able to kill me and I should be killed not on land not in the sea and not in the air. So, practically, please bless me that I’d never be killed. And because Brahma ji had become satisfied with this king’s tapasya, his penance, so he gave him the boon he wanted.

Now this fellow turned very arrogant and in his kingdom he declared that God should not be worshipped. Only the king should be worshipped and if somebody dares to defy the king, he would be slaughtered. And everybody fell in line. Everybody did as the king commanded, except for the king’s own little son. And this little chap said, nothing doing. Truth is truth, God is God. You are just a mere mortal, I’ll not submit to you. If I have to bow down, I’ll bow down in front of God, not in front of you. You’re just an arrogant king who has attained a bit of power. I do not subscribe to all this.

The king got really furious. First of all he tempted the little chap, then he threatened him and then he did whatever could be done with a little boy. But he didn’t succeed. The boy was adamant, he had a lot of faith, a lot of stubbornness as well. So, the king called his sister by the name of Holika. You see how the names are related? Holi and Holika. So this sister comes over and she had an extra ordinary power that she could not be killed by fire. Fire could not burn her. That is the power she had. So, she too tried to tell a few things to this little chap but he didn’t listen. So, she created a huge pile of woods. What does that remind of?

Isa: The woods in the street.

AP: The woods in the street that you’ve seen. So, very similar pile was made by her and she knew that she can’t be burned. So, she called Prahlad, made him sit in her lap and she sat on the pile and she ordered that the woods be ignited. And what was the plan?

Isa: To threaten him.

AP: Not merely to threaten him, to actually kill him, burn him down. Such a vicious plan. So, everything seemed to be going as per the plan. The woods were set on fire. But something very unexpected happened. What? The little kid survived. The woman got burnt, reduced to ashes. It was a miracle. Just happened. In some descriptions it is said that there was a very special cloak that she was wearing that was fireproof, it was supposed to not catch fire. And she was wearing it and the kid was not wearing but right when the woods were being ignited, there blew a fierce wind and the cloak that the woman was wearing went to the kid. So, the woman got burned and the kid got saved. But these explanations or justifications are not important. What was important is that the innocent kid survived and the scheming woman got burned down. Now the king got really furious. Not only has he lost his sister but his ego too has been very badly hurt.

So, he got a really hot and burning column of iron. It had been heated to a really high temperature. And he told the kid, embrace it as you would embrace your God. And let me see how your God saves you now. Go and hug that column, that pole as you would hug your dear God and if there is God he would save you. So the kid said ‘fine, daddy!’ (smiles). I have just passed one test, I’m ready for the next one. If fire itself could not hurt me, what would a hot pole do to me. So, the kid goes to the pole and hugs it and from the pole emerges a very special creature – it was half lion, half man. It is called as Narsingh – ‘nar’ means man, ‘singh’ means lion. A creature that was half lion and half man. And what time was it of the day? Dusk. Neither day not night. Do you see where the plot is leading to?

Isa: The day and night…

AP: Yes, in the beginning of the story, we remember that the boon that the king had attained was that he can be killed neither in the day nor in the night. And what time is it of the day right now? Dusk. And the king can be killed neither by a beast nor by a man and what is the creature that emerges? A beast and a man, so neither a beast nor a man. And he had been blessed that he can be killed neither inside a building, a house or a palace nor outside. So, the beast goes to the king, picks him up and takes him to the threshold of the entrance of the palace. Neither inside nor outside, right at the entrance. And carrying the king in his lap, the beast sits down. It’s not a beast, it’s Narsingh. Narsingh Bhagwan. Narshingh is worshipped. So, the king is neither on land, nor is he in water or air. He is somewhere in between. He is in the lap of Narsingh. Now he can be killed neither by a hand held weapon, nor a missile, a projectile. So, how does the beast kill him? Using his sharp claws and this way the king got killed. The kid got blessed and this festival celebrates the innocent faith of Prahlad, the little kid. Faith that saved him from all the sinister plots and all the power of the mighty king and people rejoice, celebrate. Only a few people remember the central idea.

You’re asking me what’s the symbolism? You see, people work hard, the king worked really hard. And he kept austerities, he forced even God to come down and bless him so it would have required a very special effort, it was a mighty project. But then what did he want from God? Nothing but the extension and continuation of his own mortal self. And what is the lesson that we get from there? That even if the ego works hard, all it seeks is its own continuation. The fellow tells Brahma please ensure that my mortal self is never annihilated. I do not die. I should not die in the day, I should not die in the night, I should not die inside, nor outside. Personal gratification, continuation of the body, continuation of the ego. So even if the ego seems to work very hard, it is always for an unworthy purpose. So the message to all those who work very hard in their lives is, do not merely work hard also see why at all are you working so hard?

Second thing – even if the ego does get power, it utilizes it, rather mis-utilizes it for some nefarious end. So the king got power and that power could have been very well used for something constructive, something creative. But what did the king use it for?

Isa: For self.

AP: For self. And he became utterly demonic. And he became a tyrant and he declared that no God should be worshipped. Only the king should be worshipped and that’s what the ego does.

Isa: It only thinks about itself.

AP: Only thinks about itself and gathers power and mis-utilizes it. So, the lesson to all of us is before we go after power, we should ask – what do you want to do with that power? Being powerless is better than…

Isa: Having it in the wrong hands.

AP: Than having power in the wrong hands. Then something to learn from Prahlad. You see he had blood relations, very intimate relations with the king. The king was his father. But he kept the Truth and real Godliness above all relations of the body and blood. It’s a great learning in detachment, it’s a great learning in Truth. No relation of the body, no relation of the blood is higher than the one fundamental relation we have with the Truth. Look at Prahlad, he says ‘I do not care so much for my father, I’d rather care for the Truth’. And it’s such a great and difficult thing to say but Prahlad did that and that’s why you have this timeless festival now. It’s continuing since such a long time…centuries after centuries we see it. We have so many relationships.

No relationship should be kept higher than the one central relationship we have with our real father. Earthly relations are no comparison to our fundamental relation with the heart, with the Truth, with God. 

Yes, Holika. Not to miss out on Holika. Smart woman, hmm? Smart woman with extra ordinary powers and it’s the smartness that brought her to flames. It’s a very important message to be remembered.

Isa: She misused it.

AP: Yes. The more smart you are, the more clever you are, more are the chances that your own smartness will destroy you. It’s very important to see when cleverness turns into cunningness. And that happens very frequently, very easily, very unnoticeably. You do not even know when you’ve turned cunning. If you’re cunning, your own powers will destroy you. What turned Holika into ash? Her own plans, her own designs. She thought she was being smart. She thought she would succeed. She thought it’s Prahlad who’d be killed and see what happened.

Isa: She got killed.

AP: She got killed. Smartness got killed. Smartness turned out to be quite dumb. And one last thing about Narsingh. God is cleverer than the cleverest. You might think that you have nailed it. You might think that you know – neither day nor night. God says what about dawn and dusk. They are neither day nor night. So, you might be clever but God is cleverer than you. Do not use the powers you have from God against God himself. Remember that He is the one, He is the Father, He is the boss. You are not. Do not try to act too smart, too clever. Do not be ungrateful. You might be powerful. Remember that your powers are coming from Him. He is the source and the source would always be more abundant than the ones who are receiving from the source. So whatever you have, what so ever the ego has is nothing in comparison to the source from where the ego comes, from where the entire world comes. Hmm?

Such a nice thing to see. If we are clever then God is the cleverest. If we are smart then God is the smartest one. He can take any route. He’ll come up with any method but the ego would certainly be defeated. So, that’s the motive, that’s the theme behind Holi. Of course you’ll not see this central idea so much in action. Mostly what you would see is a lot of jubilant, even raucous celebration. Hmm? Loudness, garish movements and all that is quite enjoyable, quite fun. That’s the remarkable thing about Holi. That’s what makes Holi so similarly special but do remember that it’s not just about colours and having fun. The symbolism runs very, very deep and we would do well to remember what the whole thing is really about. So?

Isa: Thank you!

AP: Enjoy your Holi!


Excerpts from a ‘Shabd-Yoga’ session. Edited for clarity.

Watch the session: The must-know real colours of Holi || Acharya Prashant (2019)

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