It is as if a massive color palette fell on earth from the hand of the Almighty. The whole atmosphere is painted with bright colors—red, pink, yellow, blue, green, and purple. Young and old, men and women—all are soaked in colored water, running around, laughing loudly, shouting, and throwing mud on each other. It is a war where a water gun is your weapon, colored water is your bullet, and colored powder is your smoke screen. If you are a foreigner, locals tell you not to go out on this day. If you are unable to control your curiosity, they will have no mercy on you.
This is the festival of Holi, known for its colorfulness, joy, and frivolity. It celebrates the arrival of spring and the romantic love associated with the season. Holi is celebrated on the full-moon day during the month of Phalguna (February-March) and this year it falls on 6 March. Holi, which was also called Holikā or Holākā, is a well-established tradition in South Asia and originally seems to have been a festival of fertility. One of the earliest references is found in Śabara’s commentary (2nd to 4th century) on Mīmāṃsāsūtras 1.3.15-23. There the festival is mentioned as one of the local customs observed by people in the eastern region. Nowadays, however, it is celebrated widely throughout the subcontinent. Typically, bonfires are set up on the night before the festival and people throw colored powder and colored water at each other.
There are several popular legends associated with this festival. A demoness called Ḍhoṇḍhā used to eat a child from a village every year. Once, a holy man advised that all children gather and verbally abuse her. When they did this, the demonness died. Her nature was such that she was vulnerable to children’s insults. According to another legend, there was once a prince called Prahlāda who was a devotee of Viṣṇu. Being envious of his devotion to God, Prahlāda’s father Hiraṇyakaśipu plotted to kill his son. Hiraṇyakaśipu’s sister Holikā had immunity against fire. Thus he ordered Holikā to put Prahlāda on her lap and then enter into fire with him. When she did this, however, Prahlāda got immunity against fire while she lost hers due to Viṣṇu’s arrangement . Thus he survived and she was burnt. Yet another legend says that on this day Śiva burnt into ashes the god of love Kāma.
In north India however, people typically understand the Holi festival, especially the throwing of colored water, as an enactment of ‘love battles’ between God Kṛṣṇa and his village girlfriends. Kṛṣṇa is one of the most popular deities in the subcontinent. According to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, or The Ancient Tales of God, he descended on earth some five thousand years ago and spent his childhood in Vrindavan, a town located south of Delhi. Although Kṛṣṇa as the speaker of the Bhagavad Gītā or The Song of God is known for his wisdom, Kṛṣṇa as a village cowherd boy is known for his mischief and frivolity.
While the association of Holi with Kṛṣṇa is very popular, this particular understanding seems to be a relatively new development in the long history of this festival. In the sixteenth century, a group of mendicants moved from Bengal to Vrindavan to spread the teaching of devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Their leaders Rūpa and Sanātana produced theological texts that promoted the ancient depiction of Vrindavan’s village girls’ passionate love toward Kṛṣṇa as the ideal model for human beings’ devotion to God. Both Mughal emperors and Hindu kings supported their movement and Kṛṣṇa devotionalism became very popular, especially in north India during the pre-colonial period.
According to Rūpa, this devotional love is associated with colors such as indigo (blue), mugwort (green), saffron (yellow-orange), and madder (red). For example, indigo is a color that does not fade, is not very bright, and conceals other colors that come into contact with it. Thus, by analogy, a woman who has devotional love of the indigo type does not change her mind even if adversity happens, does not express her passion explicitly, and her love conceals other emotions such as anger, envy, and jealousy. In contrast, a woman who has the saffron type of love is expressive of her emotion, and her passion enters into her mind quickly, just like saffron color is very bright and sticks to a cloth quickly.
Rūpa’s colorful analysis of emotion is based on Viśvanātha Kavirāja’s Sāhityadarpaṇa, or The Mirror of Literary Composition, written in the fourteenth century. In many ways, Rūpa inherits a long tradition of Sanskrit literary criticism that goes back to Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra or The Treatise on Dramaturgy written in the fourth century. One of the major topics in this tradition is rasa or aesthetic sentiment that one experiences in any kind of art, be it watching a drama or reading beautiful poetry. Rūpa takes this concept of rasa and applies it to the context of Kṛṣṇa devotionalism.
Many South Asian intellectual traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and various schools within Hinduism consider emotions negatively. Thus Joerg Tuske says: ‘One common theme in classical Indian philosophy is that the phenomena that would be labelled as “emotions” in Western philosophy are to be eradicated because they prevent liberation.’ The school of Kṛṣṇa devotionalism, however, argues that emotions can be a powerful tool for salvation if they are directed towards God.
It is also curious that the philosophy of emotion, a nascent academic field, deals only with thinkers in the Western tradition and modern academic disciplines such as anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology, neglecting classical thinkers outside the West. As far as South Asia is concerned, however, not only has the topic of emotion had a long intellectual history, but its culture remains expressive of emotions as in the case of the Holi celebration. Moreover, in recent years not only Hindus in Diaspora, but also tens of thousands non-Hindu Westerners celebrate the festival in Europe and in the United States. Scholars too might benefit from taking seriously South Asia’s insights into colorful emotions that form the background of the Holi festival.
Image Credit: “The Holi Festival” by onthego tours. CC by NC 2.0 via Flickr.