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Op-Ed | On Holi and the Color Run

Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 01:10


Being born and raised in the Hindu tradition, all the stories I have learned growing up are very different from western fairytales. A lot of the cultural traditions are fiercely integral to the religion itself, and instead of first hearing the story of Rapunzel’s very long hair, I learned about how a young boy managed to survive being burned alive. It’s some heavy stuff. But, like any good story, it operates within the culture it is written or spoken in. We see how these kinds of parables shape everyday thinking in many ways. David and Goliath, for example, is an Abrahamic story that doesn’t just make us feel good about the underdog, but it shows us that greater intellect and technology (in the form of a slingshot) can triumph over brute force alone. It also shows us that, with faith, one can overcome monstrous adversity. The story of Prahlada, and subsequently, the story of Holi, is very similar.

We are first introduced to Prahlada’s father, a vain king named Hiranyakashipu, who has been, through many turns of a longer story, granted what he believes is immortality (though by poor word choice, it really isn’t), and his sister Holika is invulnerable to fire. Hiranyakashipu thinks that he is the only one who should be worshipped as a god in his kingdom and mandates it to be so. His subjects, fearing for their lives, abandon their Hinduism, but his son keeps praying to Vishnu.

Hiranyakashipu is so infuriated with this that he attempts to kill his son three times. Each time, Prahlada begins to pray, and the attempt fails. The third and final time, the king asks his sister to burn his son to death. Holi lures the young boy to the fire and believes herself to be safe. But Prahlada survives the fire, while Holika does not.

Holi is a celebration of relief, and you can see it in the colors and the music — but it is also a triumph over the obstacles any person with faith has to overcome. In India, Holi is named for Holika’s death, but it is a celebration of Prahlada’s life — of his remaining steadfast even though his own family would persecute him for believing in what he does.

It is probably very natural for me to remember that story well. When I moved to the states, I was the only Hindu in my class. My beliefs were “weird,” and the fact that I didn’t celebrate Christmas was “weird.” I distinctly remember being seven and telling a family friend that I didn’t go to church. Her horrified reaction made me almost feel ashamed. Even now, I feel lucky to have been raised Hindu. But I shouldn’t have been called on to defend anything. It’s easy for Hindu kids here to see themselves as Prahlada, where Holika is, quite honestly, everyone else.

As I’ve grown older, though, my culture is becoming less laughable and more “trendy.” It is an interesting phenomenon to witness, when aspects of your deeply religious heritage are washed and wrung dry and become squeaky clean, context free, secular things. A good example: After some controversy of yoga being a form of witchcraft, a panel of judges declared yoga to be absolutely American and nonreligious. That is patently false, though the claim that it is witchcraft is also absurd. Yoga is one of the six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy, and I think that everyone should know that.

The truth is, I can point these things out, but I also do want to share my culture with you. Yoga is great for your health, and you probably have better core strength than I do. There are many who don’t share my opinion, but it’s impossible to please everyone, and if your calling is to do something related to my culture, I don’t really mind, as long as you acknowledge where it comes from. 

The Color Run is a different story, though. I feel quietly ripped apart — as if I were dissected for the things that the American kids would find cool, and then they were taken from me. I don’t mind sharing Holi with others, but words cannot describe what it feels like to have Holi taken from me. So I at first didn’t talk about it.

I didn’t know that I wanted to. Some of my friends probably did the run, and some more of my friends, whom I do love very much, worked on hosting it. I know that the Tufts Association of South Asians sponsored it, but I don’t feel like that’s enough of a green light. I wish this didn’t have to happen at Tufts. I wish, at least, that Tufts’ Hindu community had had a chance to talk about this. I wish that any of the people I knew went, “Hey, you’re Hindu, is this okay?” Mostly, I wish that I said something earlier, but honestly, I feel as though the Hindu voice is only welcome when it is there to give goofy yet sage advice to the wandering and lost Judeo-Christian kid. I have to spout koans such as “we are all connected” or “we are all one” when not all Hindus believe that. There are as many variations in Hinduism as there are in Christianity, and more than a few would find this Color Run to be deeply hurtful.

I honestly believe the silly “we are all connected and of the same cloth” business, but I am not going to cut down an evergreen tree, decorate it tonight with a bunch of “holiday” ornaments and dance around it singing “holiday” songs. Because I am not Christian, I do not have that right. Because Christmas is about far more than the tree, and my taking of that symbol and forcing it into secularism is harming Christianity.

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