Holi is popularly seen as that happy spring festival of colours but, interestingly, derives its name from Holika, a demoness who was burnt alive in her attempt to kill her nephew, the boy Pralhad, son of the Daitya King Hiranyakashipu. It is fire, not just colour which dominates this story and the festival. Holika’s immolation in the fire, meant for Pralhad is the prelude to the fourth incarnation of Vishnu -Narsimha to protect Pralhad and the world from the tyranny of the Asura emperor. And in doing so, illustrates the victory of good over evil, besides heralding spring and the formal end of winter.
It can well be called as a thanksgiving for a good harvest and the first evening is celebrated as the Holika Dahan (Chhoti Holi) in front of the bonfire, to drive out and destroy the evil within, the same way the wicked Holika, was killed in the fire.
Fire and sacrifice, with its subtext of immolation and self-immolation is a distinct theme running through the various stories in the epics and the Puranas. For instance, there are several spiritual and social connotations associated with Holika, but irrespective of the nature and characters of these stories, they all carry one comprehensive message – the triumph of good over evil.
Fire here is what engulfs her, immolating her and her wickedness forever.
To rewind, Holika, the sister of King Hiranyakashapu and the daughter of Rishi Kashyap was presented with a unique shawl by Lord Brahma which would protect her from the fire. The boon ironically turns on her and kills her instead when she displays her evil intent of murdering her nephew on her brother’s orders. Fire here is what engulfs her, immolating her and her wickedness forever.
Holi has another story of fire associated with it – that of Kaamdahan where Kaam was reduced to ashes on this day under the wrath of Lord Shiva. To awaken Shiva from his meditation and to awaken love for Parvati, Indra and the gods sought the help of Kamadev, the God of Love. He obliged reluctantly, and shot his fatal, floral love arrow. A furious Shiva, opened his third eye, his enraged gaze burning Kamadev alive.
Earlier, when Shiva opens his third eye was when he hears of his wife Sati‘s suicide who jumped into the yagna fire in protest against the insults heaped on her and her husband (Shiva) by her father King Daksha. As the story goes, Sati married Shiva against her father’s wishes and leaves the palace for the cold austerity of Kailash. Some time later, King Daksha holds a grand royal yagna, inviting all – every god and king – but Shiva and Sati. Against the advice of Shiva, Sati arrives at her father’s palace, imploring him, but is met by contempt and public reprimand. In hurt anger and humiliation, she self-immolates, ending her relationship with him and hoping she be reborn to a father whom she would respect.
This story, centuries later, in a more domineering patriarchal society, got horrifically twisted to be linked to the practice of sati, a social custom where a widow would burn herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.
Considered one of the first instances of self-immolation, it became an act of paramount personal protest, as a way to a transcendent peace from the terrible world she was living in, a path to honour from the dishonour she suffered. This story, centuries later, in a more domineering patriarchal society, got horrifically twisted to be linked to the practice of sati, a social custom where a widow would burn herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.
How did throwing oneself in flames become the pre-eminent act of dissent and defiance?
Coming out of moments of urgency and helplessness, it has its various reasons: not merely as an extreme, even desperate display of protest but also as a way of escape from sexual assault, the social ramifications which could be felt centuries later in jauhar, where mass suicide was committed by women whose husbands had been defeated and died at war, consequentially choosing death over capture, rape and slavery in the hands of the enemy. This was starkly unlike the practice of sati and tales in history of female spouses, consorts and concubines being consigned to the flames, sometimes voluntarily, but often against their will, to join their deceased husband be he the warrior or king, chieftain or a commoner.
In the epics, there are rare, even suspect mentions of sati, probably added in the later versions.
One is that of the Kuru queen Madri in the Mahabharata who goes sati out of guilt for being responsible for her husband, Pandu’s death. The first wife Kunti refrains and instead takes on the lifelong responsibility of looking after the orphaned Pandavas. Likewise, in the Ramayan, there is a story which claims that Sulochana, the young widow of Meghnad/Indrajit, (Ravan’s son) is so grief-stricken that she prefers to join him on his funeral pyre.
A story in the Ramayana stands out. That of the beautiful Vedavati who jumps in the fire when Ravan, the king of Lanka, tries to rape her, after she rejects his proposal citing her love for Lord Vishnu. She is said to be reborn as Sita, who was eventually responsible for Ravan’s death in the epic.
If self-immolation is seen as the ultimate act of both despair and defiance, a symbol at once of resignation and heroic self-sacrifice, it was the last resort to save oneself from rape and sexual assault. A story in the Ramayana stands out. That of the beautiful Vedavati who jumps in the fire when Ravan, the king of Lanka, tries to rape her, after she rejects his proposal citing her love for Lord Vishnu. She is said to be reborn as Sita, who was eventually responsible for Ravan’s death in the epic.
Fire is seen as a symbol of purity, of nourishment, of knowledge and of dispelling darkness. It is also the most dreaded of all forms of death.
Sita ironically follows the same footsteps through her agnipariksha, though for an entirely different reason. The trial by fire she performs is in defiant fury and humiliation of having to prove her chastity to the world. Curiously, there is a similar, though little-known story of Lakshman, too undergoing an agnipariksha to prove his loyal love for his absent wife Urmila. Once, during the exile in the forest, an angry Sita accuses her brother-in-law Lakshman of philandering with an apsara, whose strand of hair she spots on his shoulder. Previously, Indra had sent the apsara to seduce Lakshman to dilute his mighty powers of celibacy. Lakshman rejects the apsara, who, scorned and incensed, leaves, but not without playing mischief – she places a long length of her dark hair conspicuously on his shoulder, hoping to malign him in the eyes of his brother Ram and Sita. As reckoned, Sita is furious and accuses Lakshman of betraying her sister Urmila. Aghast at Sita’s accusation, Lakshman walks into a roaring blaze, declaring that he be reduced to ashes if he is guilty of betrayal and infidelity. He comes out unscathed.
Later, poignantly, it is to Lakshman that Sita commands that he build the bonfire for her agnipariksha from which she too comes out untouched and unharmed. For both, the fire decides and declares their innocence.
Fire is seen as a symbol of purity, of nourishment, of knowledge and of dispelling darkness. It is also the most dreaded of all forms of death. In Holika, it is the destruction of evil. In Kaam, it is an act of punishment, the retribution for his offence. In Sati and Vedavati and Sita, and even Lakshman, their self-immolation is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and of moral superiority. It becomes their last but terrible act of reason.
Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views are author’s own.