Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism. Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.” Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura). He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed. The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats. In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar. Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry. After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre. In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames. However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.
Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha. Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap. The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling. However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians
These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals. So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments. Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.