Hindu spring festivals increase in popularity and welcome non-Hindus

April 5, 2013

It’s not every day that a stranger says you’d look good in pink and douses you in colored powder. But at last Saturday’s Holi celebration at the Hare Krishna temple in Potomac, this spontaneous act was in no short supply.

It was the temple’s fourth annual Holi festival, a Hindu celebration of spring’s arrival primarily recognized in India and Nepal. But Holi festivals are also held worldwide, as Hindus and non-Hindus gather every year to hold the boisterous, family-friendly celebrations.

Dancing, snacks and juices, bonfires, and colored powder tosses are staples at Holi festivals and were all highlights of the five-hour celebration, sponsored by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Holi festivals are also known to attract large crowds; this year, almost 3,000 people attended the society’s festival.

“It’s a wild and fun cultural event that’s focused on spiritually uplifting themes, amazing colors, exotic music and some of the best food you’ve ever tasted,” said Anuttama Dasa, 58, who has been attending since the temple opened in 1975. “And it’s literally for people of all ages.”

As throngs of color-streaked friends clasped hands and danced through purple and green clouds in the temple’s public square, stage performers sang in kirtan — a call-and-response chanting of hymns and mantras to music — and kept feet moving. Mothers and children reclined on grassy hillsides and watched as lines formed for almond milk, cakes and platefuls of Indian vegetarian snacks.

“All of this is related to our culture — our Krishna consciousness. This is a very fun lifestyle, it’s a very vibrant lifestyle,” said Ramdas Shingdia, 25, moments before Chaitanya Prakash, 25, ambushed him with a smear of green powder to the cheeks. “And love!” he added. “This is love.”

For almost 40 years, the society has offered patrons daily prayer sessions based in Vaishnava Hinduism, which emphasizes bhakti devotion, an active involvement of devotees in worship through practices such as yoga and chanting. On Sundays, these sessions bring an average of 500 patrons to the temple.

But Holi festivals are a more overt expression of this type of worship, rooted not only in Hindu prayer, but also in folklore. The color throws and bonfires, for example, are mentioned in the earliest records of Holi festivals in seventh-century Sanskrit texts, and in tales of the deities Rama and Krishna.

“For some people, Holi is a simple spring festival,” said Ananda Vrindavan, 52, who helps manage temple operations as part of a nearly 20-person group that includes kitchen workers and gardeners. “But all celebrations start with stories,” she added. “And those stories change over the years, and those stories vary from place to place.”

In recent years, as social media and colorful fanfare have helped Holi festivals gain traction in the United States, some say American Holi festivals are downplaying Holi’s religious and spiritual history, putting more emphasis on its allure as a lively social event.

An increasing number of Holi-inspired color throws on American college campuses is also seen as a sign that Holi may be adopting more of a secular tone.

On Sunday, American University’s School of International Service will be hosting a Holi festival on the Quad from 2 to 4 p.m. as part of its South Asian Arts Festival. And on April 14, George Washington University will celebrate Holi at University Yard from 1 to 4 pm.

“Sometimes, the Holi festival gets watered down to just a fun activity,” Shingdia said. “But it actually has a very deep spiritual meaning also.”

Despite what some call the reinvention of Holi, the simple fact that the festival has transcended cultures and brings people together is enough of a reason to embrace the change, others say. In fact, it seems to be in line with many of the teachings behind Holi festivals.

“Different areas will have a different flavor,” Vrindavan said. And colleges, she adds, might well just have Bollywood music or a color toss at their Holi festival. “But everybody welcomes spring, and everybody wants to express happiness and love and joy,” she says. “And what’s more universal than that?”

The color throws, said kirtan musician Gaura Vani, also show cross-cultural bonding in action.

“It’s like a great equalizer,” said Vani, 36. “Because everyone comes together, whether they’re rich or poor, white or black, and everyone just colors each other. The old identities, the old stories that we’ve told each other and told ourselves — they’re all stripped away, and we’re all just one big family.”

Vani, who said his background is European, and whose wife, Vrinda, is Indian, has been attending the society’s temple services since 1997. He says he believes his three children — Revati, 8, Kairava, 6, and Kirtan, 4 — also come away with broader perspectives from their exposure to the society and its teachings.

“I try to help my children see themselves as citizens of the world, not only as citizens of the U.S.,” he said. And Holi, he added, “is one of the festivals that’s really accessible for non-Hindus. A good way for folks to experience another culture.”

Toward the end of the festival, Vani and the other performers took the stage.

“There’s a big Holi circle starting!” they yelled out. “Anyone who wants to dance, come to the middle of the crowd!”

Before the powder and the sun settled over the temple, a cluster of dancers stepped forward and left inhibitions behind.

For information about Holi and the society, visit iskconofdc.org.

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