Phagwah is a cultural rather than a religious celebration

Dear Editor,

I’ve appreciated the sentiments expressed by letter writers Sharma Solomon (‘Happy Holi’ in SN, March 6) and Shivanie Rampersaud (‘Holi – a reflection of harmony in Guyana,’ KN, March 6). However, their letters contain some glaring inaccuracies which need to be addressed.

With regard to Ms Rampersaud’s letter, it should be noted that ‘Phagwah’ is the name of the festival in the Bhojpuri districts in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In most of the remaining parts of India, it is known as ‘Holi.’

Holi is not a “Hindu festival,” as purported by the letter writers. All Indians generally take part in the festivities, though the celebrations are more restrained from those of different faiths. So you have Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and even non-believers joining in the fun.

Ms Rampersaud would have more accurately described the festival as ‘Hindustani,’ rather than ‘Hindu.’ Hindustani is the Hindi word that would be translated as Indian. The word Hindu, in today’s context, refers to a genre of Hindustani traditions, beliefs and culture. (It should be noted that the word Hindu is not found in any of the ‘Hindu’ scriptures or holy books. This was a word that was first coined by the Persians to describe the people (and their unique traditions) east of the Indus River, and later adapted into the English lexicon.

In a recent newspaper article, Dr Asha Goswami correctly used the word ‘Indians’ instead of ‘Hindus,’ in her article ‘Ancient Indians and their gods’ (Pioneer newspaper, March 8). It would have been misleading and erroneous to substitute the word ‘Hindus’ for ‘Indians,’ in that article. Similarly, Ms Rampersaud ought to have given the description ‘Indian festival,’ as opposed to “Hindu festival.”

Mr Solomon refers to Phagwah as “this sacred event in the Hindu calendar,” and Ms Rampersaud mentions that it is significant because it is the “beginning of the Hindu New Year.” Though there is the burning of the Holika on the night before the festivity, this festival could hardly be described as a “sacred event”, as in the case of the Hindu celebration of Shivratri. There is little religious significance in the celebration of Holi. In most places in India (especially in the northern areas of the country), the Holika is burned invariably by men (mostly in their 20s or 30s) who are either somewhat drunk or under the influence of ‘bhang’ (a derivative of marijuana); no woman are usually found at the scene for fear of being molested.

There is virtually no reference to the Hindu New Year by Hindus when they celebrate Holi in India (in the sense that Chinese acknowledge their New Year). The Holika story is only one of many that is associated with Phagwah (Holi) in India. And hardly anyone thinks about the “good over evil” notion when they participate in the festivity. Rather, it is a beautiful, spontaneous expression of a personal touch that does wonders for personal relationships and community.

Holi (Phagwah) is a cultural celebration, not a religious one. As Ms Rampersaud rightly stated, it is a celebration of the end of the cold winter season, and rejoicing at the advent of the warmer spring season. (Incidentally, this was one of the coldest days to celebrate Holi here in north India in recent years, as the colder season hung on longer than usual). It is also a time when people look forward to get on with their chores – especially those in the rural areas.

Because it is a cultural (rather than religious) celebration, all Guyanese could join in the frolic and fun of this amazing festival.

Yours faithfully,
Devanand Bhagwan
India

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