Hindus celebrate their religious occasions with great enthusiasm and revelry. True to the liberal style of their functioning, these religious festivals have much variation. Hindus count the historical events by the traditional calendar, Vikram Samvat, which is fifty-seven years before the Common Era.
Common Hindu festivals celebrated all over India:
Diwali, or Deepawali, as it is often called, is the festival of light. Undoubtedly, it is the most popular festival of Hindus. One billion Hindus celebrate this auspicious event with gusto and religious sentiment in all parts of world. Diwali signifies the return of Lord Rama, after completing his fourteen years of exile in the forest and winning victory over the wicked King Ravana. In South India, Deepavali marks the victory of Lord Krishna over the mighty asura, the demon Narakasura.
Holi is the festival of colors, which Hindus celebrate as an event of divine incarnation of their most cherished god, Lord Krishna. The gaiety and mirth of this festivity is unique, as no other ethnic group in the world has anything similar to this event. It is a celebration signifying the joy and mirth of the community. Holi is also celebrated to mark the day when the infant Lord Krishna killed the demoness Putana and as a symbolic day when the demons were destroyed by the Lord anywhere. Bonfires Hola are organized on the eve of Holi to celebrate the death of the demons.
Mahashivratri is the great celebration of one of the three most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva. Many fast for the whole day and in the night they line up to bathe the Lord with milk. The chanting and worship continues for most of the night, as devotees herald the happy advent of their most adored Lord.
Shri Krishna Janamasthmi, the birthday celebration of Lord Krishna, is a festival of great revelry. In some places, especially in Maharashtra, the occasion is marked by processions of youngsters, dancing and singing their way in the neighborhoods and breaking the pot containing butter, reminiscent of the Lord’s style in his childhood.
Raksha Bandhan is a special day for sisters to tie colorful cotton bands on their brothers’ wrists. The brothers, in return, give a gift and token money to their sisters, but also it signifies a spiritual pledge that a brother gives to his sister for protecting her from any harm at any time.
Ram Navami is Lord Rama’s birthday. The festival is marked mainly with fasting and worship in the temples. Many fast on this auspicious day as a mark of reverence for the Lord.
Dussehra Vijaydashtmi is one of the most important Hindu festivals; it celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over wicked Ravana. In many places large effigies of Ravana are burned to symbolize the ultimate victory of goodness over evil. It follows another festival of nine nights of worship of goddess Navratri, culminating in victory on the tenth day. (Vijay means victory, and dashtmi is tenth day.)
Kumbh Mela is associated with a fascinating spiritual legend. Kumbh (literally, pot) is the pot of eternal nectar, promising immortality. Lord Vishnu announced that the nectar would be given away to the winner between the gods and the demons, after the nectar is derived from the ocean. In the struggle, part of the nectar of immortality was spilled onto four different corners: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. The Kumbh Mela takes place once every three years; in rotation in these four places, so that each place celebrates it once in twelve years. Allahabad, where there is a confluence of three rivers—Ganges, Jamuna, and the deep, invisible Saraswati—is considered the most auspicious. Over thirty million pilgrims attend the festival in one season of forty-one days, making the world’s largest assemblage of mankind. Many visitors also come from foreign countries to witness this mega-religious fair.
Ekadasi is the eleventh day after every new moon (amavasi) and also after every full moon (poornima). Thus, there are twenty-four Ekadasi days in every year. This day is considered auspicious, and fasting on this day brings many boons. The Vaikuntha Ekadasi, which falls in November or December, is most sacred, and many Hindus all over the world fast on this day.
Guru Purnima is celebrated on the full-moon day in July to honor the Hindus spiritual preceptor. The gurus are garlanded and showered with many gifts, almost all of which are utilized for spiritual causes.
Regional festivals are many in the Hindu culture. In addition to the common national festivals, Hindus have many festivals that are unique to their own regions. These regional celebrations are often associated with the harvest season and also mark the beginning of the New Year.
Onam, Pongal, Makar Sankrati, and Baisakhi are regional festivals, mainly associated with their respective harvest season, and are marked as New Year’s Day, which may vary from one place to another. Onam is the most important festival of Kerala. It is celebrated every year to honor the mythological god Mahabali. Homes are decorated with floral designs, boat races are organized, and family gatherings are held with festive dinners. Pongal is celebrated with much fanfare in Tamil Nadu. It is held in the month of January or February to coincide with the harvest of rice. Baisakhi in the northern state of Punjab is its equivalent. Makar Sankrati, Gudi Padva, and Cheti Chand are the New Year’s days in some other regions.
Navaratri is a nine-day festival, followed by the tenth day of victory, vijayadasmi. This festival is celebrated in honor of three most important Hindu goddesses. Only the combined force of all three divine deities, manifested as the female form Mahishasura Mardini, was able to destroy the powerful demon Mahishasura. During the first three days, goddess Shakti, in her aspect as Parvati, is worshipped as the personification of power and vanquisher of evil. During the next three days, she is worshipped in the form of Lakshmi, signifying wealth and beauty. In the last three days, she is worshipped as Saraswati, signifying knowledge. The festival is celebrated with many regional variations; most prominent among these are the Durga Puja in Bengal and worship of goddess Amba in Gujarat, where the Navaratri is celebrated with the worship of goddess Amba, who is the mythological goddess representing the union of the three goddesses described earlier. The worship ceremony is followed by great tuneful dances of Garba and Dandia. Men and women, young and old, dance, accompanied by loud folk music and singing, until dawn, for the ten days before the Dussehra.96
Ganesh Chaturthi It is an important Hindu festival but especially so in Maharashtra. It was national leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak who first conceived the idea of celebrating this festival on a mass scale, just like Durga Pooja is celebrated in Bengal. Large idols of Lord Ganesh are worshipped in thousands of places. Weeklong celebrations finally culminate in huge processions of taking out the Ganpati idols, singing and dancing all the way, for immersion or visarjana in the sea or other water ponds.
Rath Yatra is the festival that is celebrated in the eastern state of Orissa; it has attracted world attention by its most vigorous and colorful Rath Yatra, the journey of the Lord’s chariot. In the Jagannath Temple, massive floats of the temple carts are hand-drawn by more than four thousand persons over a distance of half a mile, accompanied by very rhythmic singing and dancing. Many tourists come from all over the world to witness this inspiring festival.
Chhat Puja is celebrated mainly in Bihar and Uttar Pardesh. Women of the town or village worship the sun as God. This worship is performed in winter, when the women take baths in the cold water, looking at the sun for protection. Similar festivals are also celebrated in different seasons as Bahag Bihu, Kati Bihu, and Magh Bihu in Assam.
Durga Puja is the biggest Hindu festival in Bengal. Goddess Durga is worshipped with pomp and dedication throughout this celebration. Large edifices and idols of the goddess are made, with artistic designs and ingenious craftsmanship. On the final day, the goddess is given a most affectionate farewell by immersion in the holy river. The festival coincides with the Dussehra celebration.
Kali Puja is also popular in Bengal. Kali Puja is performed on the night of Diwali. Kali, the black, four-armed goddess, is the symbol of Mother Nature.
Saraswati Puja is the celebration of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, who grants boons in regard to education, music, and other fine arts.
Thaipusam is celebrated in the month of January and commemorates the immortal dance of Lord Shiva. This festival is especially important for Hindus settled in Malaysia.
Thiruvembavai is celebrated in the month of December and marks the arrival of Tamil saint Manikavasagar in Thiruvennamalai. He sang twenty soul-stirring hymns, calling on the maidens to rise early for a bath in the river and then worship Shiva, so as to be blessed with good husbands.
Hindu religious festivals are now celebrated across the globe, wherever Hindus have settled. With new technologies and an improvement in the financial status, many of these functions, both in India and abroad, are very huge and stunning. Bollywood and other entertaining programs are often mixed up with religious and spiritual elements; these then turn out to be gala events. Many programs are free for public, albeit some outside the temple area also ticketed presentations that demand fat fees for the entrance. Hindus have no inhibition of such fraternization of the spiritual with secular; an individual may opt according to one’s personal choice.
Many highly reputed saints and spiritual leaders participate in these mammoth gatherings, delivering most worthy divine talks and rendering bhajans and kirtans. Hindus are generally very liberal in sponsoring such religious occasions at huge costs, often spending millions of dollars. For many common people these religious festivals provide the best opportunity of their life to revere God and also enjoy at the same time.
Occasionally there may be some elements who exploit these spiritual festivals also for their selfish purpose. Human nature has shortcomings; there is no substitute for vigilance at all times.