Studies from an eastern home
IT was dawn of the beautiful morning that ends the full-moon night of the month of Phalgun. In the sick room the light in the small earthen cup flickered and went out, and the cool wind that comes with the first light entered the chamber and fanned with its wings both the watcher and the sick. It was then, in those first rapt moments of sunrise, that there came, from far off by the Ganges side, the sound of the Indian flute, incredibly mysterious and remote, rising and falling in gentle cadences, pausing in sweetness, lingering in tenderness, dominated ever by its own pathos. The music was a hymn of worship, and the night just ended was the birthnight of Chaitanya--Chaitanya, the saint of Nuddea, the poet and emancipator of Bengal. Oh wonderful birth at Nuddea, of the Lover of the People, on the People's Feast! For this full-moon day of Phalgun is not only the birthday of Gauranga, but also the Holi Puja of the low castes and the Dol-jatra of the Hindu calendar.
Whatever else we do not know of the ancient countries, of one thing we may be sure, that in
every case they must have had a yearly feast of Eros. We may gather, moreover, from the climatic and geographical associations of each land, the very moon of the festival in every case. It must always have taken place in the spring-time. The memory of this left behind, here a carnival, there a battle of flowers, and somewhere else a May Day frolic, to tell a future age the path it went. Here in India, where all ages persist, like geological strata piled one upon another, it is kept to-day as it may have been in Assyria or Egypt, in early Greece or in the empire of the Hittites.
On full-moon of the beautiful month of Phalgun--that month when the asoka tree and the mango are in bloom, when the foliage buds of the leaf-almond are long and slender against the blue, and when the scarlet plumes of the palash stand out on its naked branches--occurs the Holi festival, or Dol-jatra of some long pre-Hindu people. Pre-Hindu they certainly were, although Hinduism has done its best to absorb and assimilate the poetry they brought to it. For the asoka tree, they say, only blooms when the footfall is heard by it of a beautiful woman, and the fragrance of mango-blossoms is one of the five arrows of Madan's bow--two morsels of the folk-lore that clearly belong to the spring and nature festival. Madan, the Indian Love, is always depicted as a young man, not as a child, who once upon a time
went clad in flowers--nay, his very weapon was made of them. And as he wore it loose and unstrung beside his quiver, the eager bees hanging above it gave it its proper form of the bow. So at least we are told in Kalidas's immortal fragment. Wherever Madan is mentioned amongst the educated, Kalidas must needs be remembered, for his was the brain that gave the beautiful young archer his life-myth, and to his poem must all go who would learn of the impious faring forth together of Love and his comrade Spring, to shoot at the heart of the Great God, and of the fate that befell their enterprise in the sacred grove of meditation. All the love of the Indian soil and Indian nature that must have spoken in the wild poetic souls of the earliest aborigines is here poured, together with his own thought and learning, into the crucible of a great Hindu poet, to form the poem of the birth of Kartik the War-Lord. But long before Kalidas took up his lute, the Indian feast of Eros had been Indianized, being interpreted as an incident in the idyll of the sporting of the child Krishna in the meadows of Brindaban. Nothing is so exquisite as this--the tale of the divine childhood as a cowherd amongst the herd-boys and herd-girls beside the Jumna. At the age of eleven Krishna passes off the peasant stage for ever, but years after, when his forest-friends visit him in his palace, they refuse to
recognise their old playmate whom they now see in kingly robes, and will not be satisfied till he has donned once more for them his childhood's crown of a peacock's feather, with flute and simple village garments, thus revealing himself again to their adoring love as the same Gopala they knew of old.
Everyone who knows anything of the village customs of the North-West has seen the place that swinging holds in the Indian peasant's conception of a festival. Boys and girls; young men and young women, like English rustics at a fair, swing and shout, applaud and deride each other, with never a suggestion of that dignity which we commonly associate with Oriental humanity. It is wonderful how easily, with a rope and a few bamboos and a wooden seat, a swing can be made for a frolic. But in the Himalayas, near every temple, we find swing-posts of deodar and stout iron chains. Clearly there was a time when the festival was celebrated everywhere, and since Brindaban must so obviously have known the giddy delight, it followed that a swinging ceremony became part of the religious ritual of the altar on the day of the Spring Feast. In other words, Hinduism, by means of the Krishna legend, had absorbed into itself, and in doing so, lent a greater dignity of interpretation to, the Festival of Love of the country folk.
Hinduism absorbed, Hinduism reinterpreted,
but she never criticised or discountenanced the gaiety of the child races. And still the lower castes maintained the old practices of the season. There are perhaps two essential elements characteristic of the festivals of Madan. One is the free mixing of men and women, with probably a certain element of rough buffoonery, something like the old St. Valentine's Day of Europe; and the other, the drawing together of all the classes, ignoring social differences of higher civilisations of later ages. These two characteristics have persisted to the present day in the Holi Puja observances of the Hindu lower classes, and Hindu gentlefolk of mature age will tell how in their childhood their mothers would bend the head to receive the red-powder tilaka at the hands of their Hindustani servants.
Out in the streets meanwhile the boys are at war with passing pedestrians, all of whom are bound on this privileged day to submit to being pelted with red powder. Yellow powders are sometimes used, but this, say the best judges, is a mistake. The red alone is correct, symbolising the sand of the Jumna, all stained with the blood of the demons, whom Krishna slew. The wild and boisterous, impatient of the priest's slow blessing, buy the powder straight from shops and throw it. But gentler spirits wait, playing only with that which is duly offered and sanctified in worship.
[paragraph continues] And great is the reward of their patience, for such is the virtue of the blest powder that it confers immunity, it is said, from all diseases of the season!
Here then in India to this day is played out every year the old-time drama of the peasant in the spring; played, too, in a fashion of which, however it may annoy the Philistine, neither the scholar nor the poet could bear to sacrifice a single point. The joy of simple peoples in the bridal of nature, and the festival of the great democracy of caste and sex--these are two impulses that have given birth to all carnivals and Holi Pujas that the world has ever known. And behind, watching over them, suggesting a thought of poetry here, a touch of sanctity there, and working to moderate possible excess only by her own benign presence and her kindly tolerance, stands the ancient Mother-Church of Hinduism. There was a wonderful dramatic fitness in the fact that in the fulness of time it was on the full-moon of Phalgun, the day of the Holi festival, that Chaitanya, apostle of rapture, lover of the poor and lowly, the national saint and the preacher of democracy, was born here in Bengal.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.