Festival Meanings & Significance

Festival Meanings & Significance

Deepavali (Diwali)

Maha Shivaratri

[The 14th day of the dark half of every month- Krsna Chaturdasi- is called ‘Sivaratri’ or ‘Maha-Sivaratri’. The one in the month of Magha (February-March) is ‘Mahasivaratri’, since it is the greatest of all.]

Of all the major Hindu festivals, Mahasivaratri is the only one wherein the austerity part (as signified by the very word ‘vrata’) is predominant. There is practically no festivity, revelry or gaiety in its observance, the whole thing being one of continuous solemnity. This is but natural since Siva is the god of the ascetics, the very incarnation of vairagya or renunciation!

This vrata is open to all human beings. The basic disciplines to be kept up on this day are ahimsa (non-injury), satya (speaking the truth), Brahmacharya (continence), daya (compassion), Ksama (forgiveness) and anasuyata (absence of jealousy).

Fasting is one of the most essential aspects of this vrata. So also jagarana or keeping vigil in the night. Worship of Siva throughout the night, bathing the Sivalinga with panchamrta (five tasty things- milk, curds, ghee, sugar and honey), homa, japa of the mulamantra (basic mantra, viz., Om Namas Sivaya) and prayer for forgiveness- are the other items involved in its observance.

“Melt ye in praise of this secret word of God, It is the touchstone of Truth, in all the four Vedas, The Name of the Lord – Namasivaya.”

Durga Ashtami

Ram Navami

Eight days after Yugadi or on the ninth day of the bright half of the month of Chaitra, falls the birthday of Sri Rama, one of the two most popular and highly revered incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Rama is said to have been born (manifested) at noon.

The Ramanavami vrata is nitya or compulsory for the devotees of Rama. One of the highly eulogized vrata in the Hindu calendar, it can destroy one’s sins and also confer even mukti or liberation.

Actually the vrata commences from the previous night with fasting. On the Navami day also the votary has to continue fasting, perform worship and homa to Rama in an diety installed in a specially prepared shrine, do japa (repeated recitations) of Ramamantra and keep vigil in the night.

People assemble in very large numbers in Rama temples and enthusiastically participate in the Ramanavami festivities. Parayana or ceremonial recitation of the Ramayana (usually spread over the nine days from Yugadi), arranging religio-cultural programmes like Hari-katha (discourse on the epic stories accompanied with music) and classical music or devotional songs are quite common.

Celebrations at places associated with Sri Rama, like Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and Ramesvaram in Tamil Nadu attract thousands of devotees.

Krishna Janmashthami

King Kansa was the most absolute and tyrannical monarch of the period; the bare mention of whose name was sufficient to send fear through the hearts of all good and peace-loving people. His sister’s name was Devaki upon whom his brother Kansa showered brotherly love. And that is the reason why, on the day of Devaki’s marriage to Vasudev, when the time came for Devaki to travel to her husband’s house, that king Kansa wanted to drive the carriage himself as a token of his brotherly love.

The newly married couple were simple and beautiful, yet noble and majestic to look at. They were really very happy. The royal carriage richly decorated with precious gems and ornaments, was being followed by a large retinue of people wearing colourful gala dresses. Everything was pleasant all round.

Suddenly the face of nature changed. The birds stopped singing; the sun was obscured by a cloud; the soft breeze became a howling wind creating dust storms. Ill omens were pointing to imminent danger. An unaccountable fear suddenly gripped the minds of all in the procession. At such a time, an unseen voice, an oracle, was heard from above, which said:

“Oh you foolish one, whom are you driving so merrily? Would you not know that the eighth issue of her womb shall be the cause of your death?”

On hearing this, the terrible Kansa sprang up from his seat, drew his sword, and was about to kill his sister on the spot, had not Vasudev intervened. Falling upon his feet, on behalf of his newly married wife, reminding Kansa that not Devaki but her eighth child would be the cause of his death. So he requested Kansa most humbly, to spare her life, she being fully innocent, and promised, since he had fear from her children, that each and everyone of them would be given over to him. Kansa felt the force of the reason and agreed to the proposal of Vasudev.

In the course of time, the first male child was born to Devaki. Vasudev, true to his word, sent the news to King Kansa, who sent his servants to fetch the child whom he instantly killed with his own hands. Six children were thus killed by the cruel king, who foolishly wanted to avert the course of fate

In the case of the seventh child, somehow or other the womb appeared to be fruitless.

Now when the time for the birth of her eighth child was approaching, Kansa ordered Vasudeva and Devaki to be cast into his prison, bound with the same chain. Both the wife and husband did not know what to do. Every minute of their lives they called upon their only hope, their only deliverance, God. The solace of the unhappy, ardent prayers proceeding from the very bottom of their souls, incessantly flowed out of their hearts; and the almighty Lord of the universe, in His own mysterious ways, was infilling their souls with infinite power of endurance which kept the fragile vessels of their delicate frames steady and safe in that gloomy period.

There is a lesson to be derived from this. We can draw great comfort from the Gita where the Lord tells us: Ch.8,verse 58-“Fixing your mind on Me, you shall by my grace, overcome all obstacles…”

Devaki was about to usher into the world its saviour, and she along with her husband, bewailed her lot. And with this, both Devaki and Vasudeva fell into a swoon. In the gloom of that unconsciousness, suddenly a light flashed, and a beautiful youth, holding mace and discus, conch shell and lotus in his four hands, rose above the horizon of their mental firmament, healing all their mental wounds, cheering and exhilarating them with his sweet smile.”Father and mother, weep no more. I have come at last to your rescue and to the rescue of all the good people. Open your eyes and see me as your child. Carry me father to the house of your friend Nanda in Gokula. His wife Yashoda has given birth to a daughter just now. Exchange me for that daughter. Bring her back to this prison leaving me on the lap of Yashoda who will be sleeping at the time. Nothing shall bar your path”.

With these words, the soul-solacing charming youth vanished.

When Devaki and Vasudeva opened their eyes, they saw the most charming and beautiful baby ever a parent was blessed with. That was at midnight of Ashtami-Rohini day, the divine baby was born in Prison. The earth and the heavens were filled with joy. Flowers blossomed, rains fell from the sky, peacocks danced, the gods rained flowers, and divine music was heard. Devaki and Vasudeva forgot their miserable condition for a while, looking at the smiling baby playing with its tiny limbs. The mother kissed the sweet face and forgot her danger. Then after a while, they realised the real state of affairs and both the husband and wife shuddered. Then the sweet instructions of the fascinating youth in the vision flashed into their minds. Vasudeva clasped the child at once in his bosom to start for Gokula, but found that his legs were in chains. He did not know what to do. In his haste he gave a jerk, and his legs were released! He sprang upon his feet and ran towards the door of his dungeon. The massive iron-barred doors were locked with three fold locks; but the guards were all asleep, and therefore fearlessly he gave a push forward and the gates were unlocked and flew open of their own accord. The crossing over the river Yamuna was just as miraculous. Vasudeva reached Gokula and to his astonishment found the door of Nanda’s house open. He exchanged the babies and hurried back to the prison of Kansa. Early in the morning, all the people at Gokula came to know that a beautiful male child, a prince had been born the previous night at midnight to Nanda’s wife, and their simple hearts were filled with unbounded joy.

Raksha Bandhan

Shrava purnima’s second festival is Raksha Bandhan. This is an ancient tradition. Bhavishya Purana refers to a battle between gods and demons, and Indra (the king of the demi-gods) was feeling depressed. At that time Indra’s wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses or Mantras for protection and tied it on Indra’s hand. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies. Since then till today this festival is celebrated.

Through the passage of time festivals are undergoing modifications. Raksha Bandhan is also known as Rakhi. Rakhi has become a sacred festival for sisters and brothers. Sisters tie them to brothers. Priests tie them to people of his congregation. During the middle ages, if a woman tied a Rakhi on the hand of any man, then it became imperative for him, as his religious duty of the highest order, to protect that woman. That man would put his life at stake to protect the honour of that woman

In those days, many Rajputs sacrificed their lives to protect their spiritual sisters. Humayun the 2nd Mughal emperor received a Rakhi from the queen Karmavati of Chittor and for that, Humayun carried out his sacred brotherly duty and protected her by opposing his own soldiers.

According to ancient traditions, it is customary to have protection threads that are charged with sacred verses (Mantras) and sanctified with rice; to have these tied by people who know the Vedas or by near and dear ones. This protection thread saves from sins on the one hand and removes diseases on the other hand. By tying this thread, protection is afforded for a full one year and all kinds of fears are removed.

Nowadays Rakhis are decorated with soft silky threads of various colours, and also with ornaments, pictures, gold and silver threads etc. These Rakhis enhance the artistry of the people. Within these Rakhis reside sacred feelings and well wishes. It is also a great sacred verse of unity. Acting as a symbol of life’s advancement and a leading messenger of togetherness.

Each person should celebrate with enthusiasm this sacred festival of Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan. (Raksha = protection. Bandhan = tie).


he Indian sky is changing – the March winds are coming in and winter begins to bow out. Holi is the festival that carries the country into the bright days of summer. A feeling of plenty is in the air – the crops have been cut, threshed and stored or sold. The farmer is at rest and money is at hand. ‘Holi’ falls on the full moon, in the month of Phalgun, which spans the end of Februry and the beginning of March on the Gregorian calendar. A time when Spring is in the air.

The legend of King Hiranyakashipu is associated with the festival of Holi. This legend signifies the victory of good over evil, of devotion surpassing ambition. King Hiranyakashipu was an ambitious ruler, one who wanted absolute power so that he would be worshipped as God. When this wish was made known, the King’s own son, Prahlad, refused to obey his father. Prahlad was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, and it was only to his Lord that he gave allegiance. The proud King was enraged by Prahlad’s disobedience and decided to punish him severely. He asked his sister Holika for help. It was believed that Holika was immune to fire and would never be burnt, so the King asked Holika to sit in the centre of a bonfire with Prahlad on her lap.The bonfire was lit, and young Prahlad sat in Holika’s lap, in its centre, praying to Lord Vishnu. His devotion saved him, leaving him untouched by the flames, but Holika was burnt to ashes. To mark this legend, huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Holi.

Vrindavan and Lord Krishna’s legend of courting Radha and playing pranks on the Gopis are also the essence of Holi. Krishna and Radha are depicted celebrating Holi in the Hamlet of Gokul, Barsana and Vrindavan, bringing them alive with mischief and youthful pranks.

Holi was Krishna and Radha’s celebration of affectionate panorama of feeling and colour. These scenes have been captured and immortalised in the songs of Holi. The festival that is also the harbinger of the light, warm, beautiful days of Spring..

Vijay Dashmi (Dashera)

Ganesh Chaturthi

The spiritual parallels of GANAPATI and `MAKKHAN-CHOR’ GOPALNANDA

In Sanskrit language, there are more than one meaning attached to a word. For example, the word GO means cow as well as sense organs.Gopal means cowherd. Gopal also means a yogi whose sense organs are completely under his control. This dual meaning enables poets to bring out their best on the physical plane as well as on the spiritual plane.

We have Krishna the cowherd boy in Vraj and Vrindavan, and we have Gopalnanda Krishna, the yogeshwar, milking the Upanishads, and the milk is the great nectar of the Bhagavad Gita.(Gita Dhyanam, verse 4, usually found at the beginning of Bhagavad Gita books). The maakhan (cream) or the gist or essence of the Upanishads is presented in the Bhagavad Gita. This is what the `makkhan chor’ took from the Upanishads and distributed for the benefit of mankind.

Similarly, a common Sanskrit word to denote elephant is GAJA. Here Gajanan means elephant faced – a name for Ganapati. But the word Gaja has a much deeper connotation. GA indicates gati, the final goal towards which the entire creation is moving, whether knowingly or unknowingly. JA stands for janma, birth or origin. Hence GAJA signifies GOD from whom worlds have come out and towards whom they are progressing, to be ultimately dissolved in Him.

We observe creation in its two fold manifestation as the microcosm (sukshmanda) and the macrocosm (brahmanda). Each is a replica of the other. They are one in two and two in one. The elephant head stands for the macrocosm (representing vastness or bigness), and the human body for the microcosm. The two form one unit.

The Chandogya Upanishad has pronounced a philisophical truth as TAT-TVAM-ASI, THAT- THOU -ART. It simply means “You, the apparently limited individual, are in essence, the cosmic Truth, the Absolute”.

Vedanta is the synthesis of the `within’ and the `without’; the macrocosm and the microcosm. The study of this `within’ of nature through an inquiry into the `within’ of man, who is the unique product of nature`s evolution, is religion according to Indian thought. The synthesis of the knowledge of the `without’ , which the physical sciences give, and the `within’ which religion gives, is what India achieved in her Vedanta. This she calls BRAHMA – VIDYA or philosophy; God or Brahmm(`BRAHMM’ is the Upanishdic term for the Supreme Reality, God) standing for the totality of reality, physical and non-physical. Brahma – vidya is Sarva – vidya- pratishtha (philosophy is the basis and support of all knowledge) says the Mundaka Upanishad (i.i.i.).

The Ganapati Upanishad identifies Lord Ganesh with the Supreme Self. Lord Ganesh represents the Pranava (AUM) which is the symbol of the Supreme Self. Taitiriya Upanishad (1.8.1.) states: “AUM ITI BRAHMAN -AUM is Brahman (GOD). AUM is all this . Nothing can be done without uttering it. This explains the practice of invokong Lord Ganesh before beginning any rite or undertaking any project.

Lord Ganesh removes all obstacles on the path of the spiritual aspirant, and bestows upon him worldly as well as spiritual success.

A brief synopsis of main Hindu festivals as celebrated in the UK.