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The story of Holika dahan (Holika's death) signifies the triumph of good over evil. Holika is associated with the annual bonfire on the night before Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
- Holika and Prahlad
According to Bhagavat purana, there was a king named Hiranyakashipu who, like a lot of demons and Asuras, had the intense desire to be immortal. To fulfill this desire he performed the required Tapas (penance) until he was granted a boon by Brahma. Since the Gods do not usually grant the boon of immortality, he used his guile and cunning to get a boon which he thought made him immortal. The boon gave Hiranyakashyapu five special powers: he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (weapons that are launched) nor by any shastra (weapons that are hand held), and neither on land nor in water or air. As this wish was granted, Hiranyakashyapu felt he was invincible, which made him arrogant. Hiranyakashyapu decreed that only he be worshiped as a God, punished and killed anyone who did not accept his orders. His son Prahlad disagreed with his father, and refused to worship his father as a god. He continued believing and worshipping Lord Vishnu.
This made Hiranyakashipu very angry and he made various attempts to kill Prahlad. During a particular attempt on Prahlad's life, King Hiranyakashyapu called upon his sister Holika for help. Holika had a special cloak garment that prevented her from being harmed by fire. Hiranyakashyapu asked her to sit on a bonfire with Prahlad, by tricking the boy to sit on her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire. The legend has it that Holika had to pay the price of her sinister desire by her life. Holika was not aware that the boon worked only when she entered the fire alone. Prahlad, who kept chanting the name of Lord Naarayana all this while, came out unharmed, as the lord blessed him for his extreme devotion. Vishnu appeared in the form of Narasimha - half human and half lion, at dusk when it was neither day nor night yet, took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep which was neither indoors nor outdoors, placed him on his lap which was neither land, water nor air, and then used the lion claws to tear his belly which was neither a hand held weapon nor a launched weapon. In this form, the boon of five special powers granted to Hiranyakashyapu were no longer useful. Hiranyakashyapu was killed. Prahlad and the kingdom of human beings were thus free from the compulsion and fear of Hiranyakashyapu. The good was victorious over evil.
- Krishna and Radha
This symbolic myth is common in some parts of India, where Holi is also called Phagwah and Holika is instead called Pootna or Putna. Kansa, king and uncle of Krishna, sensed danger to his life from his infant nephew when he grows up. Kansa sends the demon Putna disguised as a woman to poison the infant under the guise of breast feeding. Baby Krishna sucks not only the poisonous milk but her blood too - forcing her to re-appear in her true form of a demon. She runs, and bursts into flames. Putna dies, while baby Krishna transitions into his characteristic dark blue skin color. The day before Phagwah is celebrated by burning Putna. According to the myth, in his youth, Krishna despairs about fair skinned Radha and whether she or other Gopis (girls) will like him because of his skin color. His mother tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and color her face in any color he wanted. This he does, and Krishna and Radha became a couple. The playful coloring of face of Radha has henceforth been celebrated as Holi.
Origin of Holika Dahan
For many traditions in Hinduism, Holi celebrates the death of Holika in order to save Prahlad and we see where Holi gets its name. The night before Holi pyres are burnt in North India in keeping with this tradition. It should also be noted that in some parts of India the day is actually called Holika. There are other activities associated with the story of Prahlad, but the burning of Holika is the one that we can most directly associate with Holi. Fire burnt on the eve of Holi (Holika Dahan) symbolizes the burning of Holika. The story as a whole is testament to the power of devotion (bhakta) over the evil represented by King Hiranyakashyapu, as Prahlad never lost his faith.
The burning of Holika is the most common mythological explanation for the celebration of Holi. In different parts of India varying reasons are given for Holika's death. Among those are:
- Vishnu stepped in and hence Holika burnt.
- Holika was given the power by Brahma on the understanding that it can never be used to bring harm to anyone,
- Holika was a good person and it was the clothes that she wore that gave her the power and knowing that what was happening was wrong, she gave them to Prahlad and hence died herself.
- Holika wore a shawl that would protect her from fire. So when she was asked to sit in the fire with Prahlad she put on the shawl and sat Prahlad down in her lap. When the fire was lit Prahlad began praying to Lord Vishnu. So Lord Vishnu summoned a gust of wind to blow the shawl off of Holika and on to Prahlad, saving him from the flames of the bonfire and burning Holika to her death.
- Holi: Splashed with colors of friendship Hinduism Today, Hawaii (2011)
- Constance Jones, Holi, in J Gordon Melton (Editor), Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays Festivals Solemn Observances and Spiritual Commemorations, ISBN 978-1598842067
- Wendy Doniger (Editor), Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions, January 2000, ISBN 978-0877790440, Merriam-Webster, page 455
- Kumar, V. (Ed.). (2004), 108 Names of Vishnu. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., ISBN 8120720237
- R Deepta, A.K. Ramanujan's ‘Mythologies’ Poems: An Analysis, Points of View, Volume XIV, Number 1, Summer 2007, pp 74-81
- The Legend of Radha-Krishna Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India (2009)
- Travel Guide - Holi Nepal Home Page Retrieved on 4 November 2007
- The Meaning of Holi Parmarth Retrieved on 26 October 2007