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According to Hindu astrology the effects of stellar phenomena can be divided into two categories. The first is general, applicable broadly to all people universally and the second is particular, affecting only the individual.  The particular effects are determined on the basis of the individual’s horoscope ( more on this in a later post). The general effects for the entire populace are determined by the ascending and descending phases of the Moon, the nature of the Lunar Day ( Tithi ), the movement of the Sun on its northern and southern journeys, the movement of certain planets in certain constellations, the presence of the Moon in certain Asterisms ( Nakshatras ) on a particular day of the week, the passage of the eight sections of a day ( Chaughadias ) each of an hour and forty minutes duration, with different auspicious and inauspicious characteristics and effects.

SindhiTipno20121-248x300The general effects are annually made available in a traditional calendar ( Panchamg ) , which declares the effects for each day of the year.These effects also determine festivals, prohibitions and fasts and auspicious timings to undertake social, economic and personal activity and times and periods when certain activities are to be avoided.

Thus for instance the full-moon is auspicious, the no-moon is not. The Moon’s ascending phase is more auspicious than its descending phase. Certain Tithis ( days of the Lunar month ) are auspicious, others are not. Most of the months on the Sun’s northern journey are favourable whereas many months on its southern journey are not. The movement of certain planets in certain constellations are favourable while other movements are not. The presence of the Moon in certain Asterisms on certain days are auspicious while its presence in others are not. Some sections of the day are favourable for certain activities while others are not and so on.

Let us first look at one of the most important of the general effects which determine the festivals, which gladden the heart of the poorest and the richest equally throughout the year and become the heart, soul and inspiration for Indian culture, religious observances and joyous celebration, ones very raison d’etre.

HINDU DEVOTEES CROWD AROUND CHARIOTS IN PURI

juggannath festival for Krishna, Puri – Orissa

India is a land of numerous festivals – it is a wonder that any work ever gets done – if you are not careful more often than not you would arrive at a bank on a festive holiday about which you had no clue. There are festivals of colour, festivals of light, of prayers and processions, pilgrimages, holy dips and fasts. By and large this is a pious land immersed in faith. Processions of the goddess astride a lion slaying a demon in the east at Kolkata, of giant images of the elephant headed god Ganesh in the west at Mumbai, blessing the congregations as they are carried to the sea for immersion, of Shiva and Shakti ( creative force and its energy ), symbols of fertility at the Gangor festival as they are carried in palanquins preceded by musical bands and dancing worshippers in the north at Rajasthan and the great chariots of Krishna at Jaggannath ( from which the English word juggernaut is derived), lord of the universe, pulled by thousands of devotees at Puri in the east, to name only a few. Celebrations of the birth of Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh ( deemed astrologically rather than historically), Buddha, Mahavir (Jainism), Nanak (Sikhism) and a host of lessor known deities and saints fill the calendar with festivities and fasts. But behind this apparent diversity of celebrations is the unerring hidden pattern which is again determined by stellar configuration on the one hand and earthly seasons on the other. the two combine to provide relevance to seemingly unrelated celebrations of succeeding festivals. It is the lunar almanac that determines the day on which the festival arrives.

One of the most important festivals is the Navratra, the nine nights ( currently in progress). These ‘nine nights’ occur twice during the year. Basant Navratra, the nine nights of spring and Shardi Navratra, the nine nights of winter. It happens that every year as we look at the Gregorian calendar, unlike christmas arriving regularly on 25 december, Navratra commences on different days of the solar year as the timing is fixed from the lunar calendar on the basis of Tithis, lunar days. The lunar year commences on the first day of the lunar month of Chaitra, in the Shukla Paksh, the ascendant phase of the Moon. The month of Chaitra occurs in April. The month is named after the Asterism in which the Moon is located on Full Moon in any month.  In April on full moon day the Moon is located in the Asterism ( Nakshatra) Chitra and the month is christened Chaitra. Other months also likewise derive their names from the Asterisms. During that month the Hindu New Year begins on the first day after No-Moon or Amavasya, when the moon begins its journey of empowerment till the following full Moon. That first day , the New Year’s day is also the first day of Navratra, the nine nights of spring. This New Year Day celebrates the onset of spring and the empowerment of good through the worship of the nine goddesses of the nine nights. the devout engage in fasts. During his current official visit to the USA Prime minister Modi of India appears to be observing precisely such a fast.

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Credit: coastaldigest.com

When President Obama invited him to a private dinner at the White House, Modi accepted only hot water, enjoining all present to enjoy their dinner in his honour! Modi was observing the Navratra fast.President Obama however in deference to his Indian guest also chose not to eat.

The Navratra festival signifies the onset of the New Year, not just prayers to the goddesses. it is not surprising that the Government of India’s financial year begins not on the first of January but on the first of April, conforming to the arrival of the harvest and the commencement of the Indian lunar Year.

On the ninth day, furthermore, a major festival is celebrated, the astrologically determined birth of Lord Rama, Ram Navmi. The empowerment of the goodnesses bears fruit with an event which connects the spiritual world with the mortal one through the incarnation of the Formless Absolute ( Nirakar) into a mortal being, one with form ( Akar), in the person of one of India’s most popular spiritual personages, Rama, the human incarnation, the Avatar, the ideal man, the perfect husband, the exemplary King, the archetype of selflessness, sacrifice and morality and no less a god, visible and incarnate in flesh. Thus the lunar year begins with nine nights of empowerment of the forces of good culminating in the commemoration of the birth of the divine spirit into our imperfect world, the birth of Rama. Indeed an auspicious way to begin the year.

The second Navratra arrives after the passage of six months on the first day of the ascendant phase of the month of Ashwin called the Ashwin Shukla Pratipada, generally falling in September/October and culminating on the tenth day in the great festival of Dussehra, commemorating the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king of Sri Lanka, Ravana. Ravana is the archetype of vanity, hauteur, egotism, hedonism, arrogance, indiscretion, lust, immorality and disregard for righteousness. Rama’s ultimate victory and slaying of Ravana becomes the victory of good over evil. Ravana had abducted Rama’s consort Sita  confining her in Sri Lanka, enamoured by her beauty. Here again the process of empowerment of the forces of good through prayers and fasts to the nine goddesses culminates in the burning of giant effigies of Ravana and his two brothers amid much rejoicing the length and breadth of India. The Prime Minister of india stands by at a public celebration at  the Ramlila grounds in Delhi as Rama’s symbolic arrow is released by him piercing the giant image of Ravana which goes up in flames and fire crackers to general rejoicing. Astrology, mythology, spirituality and the seasons come together to define yet another landmark in India’s lunar calendar and national life.

1376755521-devotees-immerse-an-idol-of-goddess-durga-in-the-buriganga-river_1545636During Navratra in West Bengal, numerous prayer enclosures called Pandals are erected in cities, villages, hamlets and homes to worship the goddess Durga. Clay images of great artistry, clothed in brochades and adorned with ornaments show her riding a lion and slaying the demon Mahisasur ( the buffalo demon  who emerges from the head of a buffalo) a form assumed to dupe her. She holds a spear in one of her numerous hands carrying all manner of weapons and thrusts it into his muscular chest as her lion steed sinks its teeth into his buffalo form. Her face radiates extraordinary beauty and firm resolve to rid the world of evil. virtually every street and quarter vies with the other to erect a more magnificent tableau of the goddess. Every night worshippers congregate and make offerings amidst chanting, wafting incense and lighting lamps. The Shakti cult is strong here, the cult of pure female energy personified by the goddess, the active principle of the Universal absolute.

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immersion of the goddess

After nine days of intense worship during the ascendant phase of the Moon, on the ninth, the tableaus of the goddess are carried to the Ganges for immersion in great processions. In the North in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat and elsewhere likewise the goddess assumes great significance and daily prayers are performed in every home and temple.

b_id_417315_ganeshIn the west particularly in Mumbai, the Lord Ganesh who has a beatific, charming and endearing elephant head, is the principal deity and during the month of Bhadrapad on the fourth Tithi of the ascendant phase of the Moon, generally falling in September, the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated. Here again giant clay images with numerous others in all sizes are carried to the ocean for immersion. it is interesting that the festival is celebrated on a Chaturthi ( fourth Tithi ) which happens to be ‘Rikt’ or ’empty’ Tithi and therefore most inauspicious. however, being the lord of all things auspicious, his celebration on such a day is quite appropriate because he helps to dispel the negativity of the empty Tithi with his august presence.

Diwali-diyasThen arrives the festival of lights, Divali when Indian homes stir with a myriad earthen lamps lining wall after wall from mud huts to princely mansions and the night awakens with fire crackers which sound like guns and mortars being fired during a war throughout the night. If one did not know better one might think that war had been declared. That is the visible part of the festival. What is not so visible is the alter at the heart of every home, the hallowed temple corner. Laxmi the goddess of wealth and prosperity sits enthroned amidst flowers and incense, bejewelled and resplendent. This is the most holy of nights, a celebration which combines the spirit of Christmas and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. but strangely on this night the Moon is not auspicious at all being absent. Dipavali the festival of lights falls on an Amavasya. Generally Amavasyas ( No-Moon) are reserved for thoughts of departed ancestors and is a time when dark spirits are believed to roam the pitch black night. Why have the premier celebration of the year on such a night? Well, it is not because lighting lamps and flooding the place with lights would look good on a night that is really dark. Again one could argue that like Ganesh, the goddess Laxmi would dispel all dark forces with her enormous resources of positive energy. But that again is not the reason for the paradox.

VanvasiRam

Lord Rama sita and Laxman in exile

It is explained that this is because it commemorates the return of Lord Rama from exile, to his kingdom of Ayodhya, after slaying the demon king Ravana and gaining victory over the forces of darkness. But why should Rama decide to return at such an inauspicious time like No-Moon? The answer is simple. His first duty was to his deceased father who died of grief in his absence during his years in exile. An exile to which king Dashrath himself had sent his son, with anguish. It happened at the time when Rama was to be anointed heir to the throne and the kingdom and palace were preparing for the joyous event. The night before the grand ceremony for which the waters of all of India’s sacred rivers had been collected for the annointment, Manthara the evil maid of Dashrath’s youngest of three queens, Kaikeye  told her that she was being naive in showering so much love on Rama ( the son of the queen-mother Kaushalya and eldest son of Dashrath) and giving support to his succession, which she should try to wrest for her own son Bharat. This produced a change of heart and she finally sought the fulfilment of two boons  promised her by Dashrath in the past after she saved his life during a battle. The first boon was that Rama be exiled to the forests for fourteen years. The second that Bharat be declared the heir.  Incidentally this evil turning of the mind of the righteous and favourite  step-mother of Rama, on whom she had always doted, was not of her own doing but providentially ordained to unfold the legend of the Ramayana for the benefit of mankind. Dashrath was distraught, unable to retract his promises to his wife and unable to countenance the exile of his most beloved son. Rama refused any suggestion of opposing the unwarranted punishment and  to honour his father’s word prepared for exile shedding his princely robes for that of a monk and prepared to leave armed with a bow. The tragedy was compounded when Sita his bride, despite much persuasion, insisted on accompanying him barefooted into the forest. Sita, who had always enjoyed the comforts of a princess was ready to sacrifice all wordly comforts to be with her beloved spouse. To add to the gloom, Rama’s inseparable step-brother Laxman, always impetuous, furious with his father, decided to join the exile. The great tragedy of the Ramayana had begun.

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Credit: india-forums.com Dashrath inadvertently kills Shravan Kumar the ideal son

After their departure, Dashrath pined away for his son repeating the word Rama from morning to evening and hating himself for having sent his saintly son into exile. Ministers were later despatched  to trace them and enjoin them to return but Rama refused to dishonour his father’s word to Kaikeye. Dashrath died of grief and too late Kaykeye realized her fatal folly. Dahshrath’s death in fact fulfilled a curse placed upon him in his youth by an aggrieved blind sage. Then, on a hunting expedition he let fly an arrow towards a movement in the bush. Alas, it was no animal but a boy fetching water from a pond for his thirsty blind parents. In dying the boy Shravan Kumar ( an ideal son) reproached  the King and asked him to carry the water to his parents. When the boy’s father learnt of the tragedy he cursed Dashrath that he too would suffer separation from his son and die in anguish.

bharat-and-paduka1Bharat was away during these tragic developments, on return was anguished by what his mother had done, refused the throne and set off to find his brother and bring him back, adding ‘had Bharat never been born”. But Rama refused to return before the passage of the stipulated fourteen years of exile and Bharat returned to administer the kingdom carrying Rama’s footwear clasped to his breast and placed them on the throne of Ayodhya.

ram killing ravan

Rama slays the demon Ravana

It is to such an Ayodhya that Rama returned after the exile and slaying of Ravana on the No-Moon night, grieving over his father’s torment and wishing first and foremost to pray for his soul. This is the explanation for Divali occurring on an Amavasya, when prayers are offered for the dear departed. However, his return from exile and victory over Ravana is a cause for much celebration and India rejoices with lamps fire-works crackers and prayers.

The paradox is thus explained. Once again we have mythology, lunar configurations, religious ritual and festive celebration joining together in the formulation of a festival, holding multiple meanings and having many depths. and yes, Divali arrives every year precisely on the night of the No-Moon of the month of Kartik, generally in the month of November. Very precise timings are indicated for commencement of prayers to the goddess of wealth. Tradesmen open their new ledgers for the ensuing year. In many parts Divali also marks the commencement of the New Year for trade and commerce among traditional merchant communities. Prayers are held not only in homes but also at shops and factories where the picture of goddess Laxmi hang near the safe and at counters for receiving payments.

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Credit: sanatansociety.com LAXMI goddess of wealth

Things are never precisely what they seem in India. The goddess Laxmi is not merely the consort of Lord Vishnu, the maintainer of the universe but has a link to Lord Rama too. We must not forget that Lord Rama is in fact an incarnation ( Avatar ) of Lord Vishnu and Laxmi his consort is incarnated as his spouse, Sita. Many levels, many worlds, many meanings enrich the fabric of the celebrations. All these diverse impressions, stellar, mythological, religious, transcendental, ritualistic, commercial, sociocultural, stir constantly in the Indian psyche, whether rustic or elite, naive or sophisticated, traditional or modern, with equal viguor.

holi3_2518539kAnother seasonal festival is Holi. This festival of colour is celebrated at the end of March on the day after the full moon, the first day of the month of Chaitra. At Holi people dance in the streets throwing colour at one another, drink spicy milk laced with Marijuana and throw all inhibitions to the winds. You may well encounter rowdy youths moving around town in open trucks and wagons totally smeared in colour, dripping wet, occasionally stark nude and fully inebriated.

Holi-revelry-via-fotopedia.com_Disguised in vivid colours, groups of revellers lustily embrace all and sundry in anonymity.

No one really minds being thoroughly wet, coloured and high as they have the sanction of the festive season. At this time the winter harvest has been collected and there is time and reason for merriment.

A day before Holi at every street corner Holika fires are lit and residents circumambulate them placing ears of green corn and barley fresh from the harvest against the smouldering embers. The legend goes that the demonic king Harinyakashyap weary of his son Prahlad’s unrelenting devotion for Lord Vishnu, sought to destroy him. His sister Holika had the boon of being impervious to fire and so he asked Prahlad to sit in her lap in a ritual fire in the hope that Prahlad would perish – such was his hatred for his god fearing son. Prahlad an exemplary Bhakt ( loving devotee) in Hindu lore, remained untouched by the flames by divine grace whereas the aunt despite her boon, perished on account of her evil intentions. The ashes of Holika fires symbolize the purity of faith and are considered holy ( no pun intended).

teejprocession-4_080311042944With these ashes, prayers for the festival of Gangor commence. This is the worship of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati also known as Gan – Gor, the male and female creative principle, icons of productivity and fertility, conferring progeny on worshippers. The prayers conclude about a fortnight later on Chaitra Shukla Tritiya ( third Tithi of the month of Chaitra’s ascendant phase).  This is a festival mainly observed in Rajasthan with great processions of Shiv and his consort. In Jaipur capital of Rajasthan the procession carries a magnificent image of the goddess in a palanquin through the streets to the delight of tourists. Women fast to create love in the hearts of their husbands and to ensure that widowhood never befalls them, while unmarried girls fast to find the perfect spouse, much like Gauri’s spouse Lord Shiva.

These are some of India’s famous festivals in the North, though there are numerous other festivals the length and breadth of this holy land. If you are a tourist you would not want to miss joining in the amazing spirit and spectacle of the festivals.