Holi–also called Phagwa, Dhulandi or Dhulendi–is a popular Hindu festival celebrated usually in March, sometimes in late February when it is the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalgun or Phalgun Purnima. Outside India, it is celebrated by the Indian diaspora populations of Surinam, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Fiji. The festival was brought to these countries mainly by the indentured laborers from India. In the diaspora countries the festival is still celebrated with some traditional rituals, feelings of love and togetherness. In Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, people celebrate with singing of chowal and visit friends and relatives to play Phagwa.
Like all Indian festivals, Holi has a deeper spiritual meaning than the mere rituals, customs and celebrations of today which itself has undergone changes with time. According to legend, there lived a demon-king named Hiranyakashyapu. He was very proud of himself. He had received a boon that no human being would be able to kill him and that he would die neither in the night nor in the day. This inflated his ego. He thought that no one would be able to do him any physical harm and that he was immortal and was, therefore, himself Supreme God.
The arrogance and self-conceit of Hiranyakashyapu made him treat others cruelly and persecute those who do not consider him to be God but professed their faith in God the Supreme Soul who, to them, was eternally beyond birth and death and was transcendental in His nature. Hiranyakashyapu’s own son, Prahlad, also did not regard him as God. Hiranyakashyapu told Prahlad that there was no God except him. But Prahlad did not deviate from his deep convictions. Hiranyakashyapu first threatened and then persecuted Prahlad very cruelly. The legend says that he had him thrown from a hilltop but Prahlad was not harmed.
Frustrated with the results of his nefarious plans of torture, Hiranyakashyapu, one day, asked his sister Holika to take Prahlad in her lap and set fire to herself. The story says that Holika herself had a divine boon that fire would not burn her. Hiranyakashyapu had, therefore, conspired with Holika to set herself aflame hoping that Prahlad would be burnt to death and Holika would survive. The reverse happened. Holika was eaten up by the flames of fire whereas Prahlad was left untouched. As a commemoration of this event, people burn Holika every year.
The story of Prahlad’s persecution did not end with Holika’s demise. Hiranyakashyapu ordered that an iron pillar be heated red-hot. He then said challengingly to Prahlad, “If there is a God as you say, go and embrace this pillar. Let me see if your God comes to your rescue. I am sure that there is no other God except me and I wish you to learn this lesson or be burnt to death.” It was a test for Prahlad. The story says that Prahlad saw an ant going up that red-hot pillar in quite a normal way. He, therefore, thought that if an ant could walk on that pillar without getting burnt, he also could embrace it. Accordingly, he walked towards the pillar and, without any fear, embraced it. He was unburnt. In fact, he did not even have any sensation of heat from the pillar.
According to the legend, it is said that God came out of that pillar in the form of a half-man-half-lion named Nar-Simha (nara-man, simha-lion) who killed Hiranyakashyapu . At that time of this episode, it was neither morning nor night but twilight, and God did not have the form of a man, and so the boon of Hiranyakashyapu was not violated. The story implies that Prahlad had unmitigable faith in God due to which he was saved despite persecution and acts of torture inflicted by Hiranyakashyapu.
The story of the bonfire of Holika should remind one of the moral lesson that even a small boy emerges safe and victorious surmounting all hurdles with the help of unflinching faith in God whereas a person feeling vainly proud of some occult power faces untimely death and unhappy consequences.