Friday, April 24, 2009

Holi!  Coming to a University Near You

Hannah Ford

24 April 2009

For the second year in a row, American University is joining in with thousands of people around the world in celebrating the Hindu Festival of Colors, Holi, with Holi on the Quad. 

With the help of Student Activities, the South Asian Student Association is sponsoring AU’s own Holi, as a way to bring more South Asian culture to the campus.  “Holi on the Quad is a way for South Asians and non-South Asians to celebrate Holi together,” said the Publicist for S.A.S.A., Ishani Desai.  “It’s a way for us [S.A.S.A.] to spread our culture to this school.”

“I hadn’t heard of Holi until this year.  I’m still not sure what it’s about, but I’m excited to see it first hand,” said Graduate student A.J. Berna.  

Another student, Zach Drescher, understood that Holi was related to the springtime, but other than that, he wasn’t really informed on the holiday.  “I once saw a Bollywood movie where there was a Holi scene,” he said.  “I thought it was awesome in the movie, so when I heard about it happening at AU, I had to go.”

Holi is a day of Hindu celebrations where people gather [in the U.S.] to throw colored powder and water at one another to welcome Spring.  Bonfires are lit in as a tradition to show commemoration of the “escape that young Prahlad had when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a resilient devotee of Lord Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion.”

Holi also celebrates the legend of Radha and Krishna which describes the extreme delight Krishna took in applying color on Radha and other gopis (cow-herd girl). This prank of Krishna later becomes a trend and a part of the Holi festivities. 

“Mythology also states that Holi is the celebration of death of Ogress Pootana who tried to kill infant, Krishna by feeding poisonous milk to it. (Holi Festival)”

Another legend of Holi which is extremely popular in Southern India is that of Lord Shiva and Kaamadeva. According to the legend, people in south celebrate the sacrifice of Lord of Passion Kaamadeva who risked his life to revoke Lord Shiva from meditation and save the world.

But, to many, Holi means much more than that.  It’s also a method of community bonding, something Desai hopes to bring to AU again.  She isn’t the only person hoping to use Holi as a way to unite people. 

Indian Catholic Bishop Victor Thakur is leading an interreligious program to help unify Christians, Hindus, and Muslims claimed that Holi “has nothing to do with any religion,” but is a “human festival,” reported U.C.A. News.   He believes Holi creates a spirit of “rainbow-like solidarity” between people.  Celebrating other’s faiths help “strengthen one’s own faith,” he said, so everyone is welcome.  Even though Holi is a Hindu religious holiday, Bishop Thakur blurs the lines between culture and religion in order to make it more accepting of everyone.

Typically, Holi is celebrated half way through the month of March, when the last full moon day of the lunar month occurs.  However, due to the cooler climate of Washington, D.C., S.A.S.A. decided to have it a month later, when there will hopefully be better weather.

“It is often celebrated in North India, and usually features people dressed up in clothes they don’t mind ruining,” explained Professor Shubha Pathak, Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religion at AU.  She went on to describe how people will buy a set of cheap white cotton clothes just for Holi so they can essentially go wild throwing the color powder on everyone (which stains horribly).  “After one day of this, everyone is drenched in color and there’s a sort of satirical feeling in the atmosphere,” she said.

In India, people are not required to go to work or school because everybody is running around the streets throwing colored powder at each other.  But, at AU, things are different since there isn’t that large group celebrating Holi.  Instead, AU uses a policy where if the student will be excused from classes depending on the religion they practice.   Class and work are given off for Jewish, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Hindu/Vedic, Islamic, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Protestant holy days.  

When the Kay Spiritual Life Center was called for more information on why certain holidays are automatic excused absences and some have different policies, the only response was, “What we have online are our policies.”  However, their website does not explain why certain holidays were counted here; it just lists when they occur and if they are celebrated at AU.

But, there still is a large amount of religious tolerance at AU which isn’t a surprise due to the way the university prides itself on the diverse campus it manages. 

There are many other universities around the United States who take the same stance as AU.  This year there were Holi celebrations at an array of campuses.  Fliers and event websites were available for schools like Cornell University in New York to Arkansas State University.  Texas Tech University was on that list as well, in addition to George Washington University of D.C.  They have been celebrating since at least 2000.  None of the schools mention the whole campus being relieved from scholarly responsibilities, but many are open to the public and one, Standford University in California, turned it into a fundraiser for literacy projects in India.  That one is said to turn out college students and families by the hundreds. 

AU loses no money through Holi festivals because the whole thing is sponsored by Student Activities.  All of their money comes from the fundraising they do for their group.  It was a very simple process the second year, Desai said.  However, the year before S.A.S.A.’s E-board was said to have difficulties pitching the idea to Student Activities.  However, “this is a religious event so they couldn’t turn us down,” Desai explained.

Holi on the Quad at AU

            It was ten minutes before Holi was scheduled to begin, on April 11th, and there were exactly zero students standing ready to engage in Holi.  The event had been advertised and organized through facebook, and there it was written that everyone needed to meet in front the Kay Spiritual Center.  It took a few minutes before the S.A.S.A. members called attention to themselves; hidden inside a nearby building.  It had been raining fairly steadily, but S.A.S.A. had the special colored powder specifically for Holi flown in from Atlanta, and they were going to use it.

            About 1:10 people finally started trickling in.  Everyone waited in anticipation in the Ward Lobby for the go-ahead from anyone who would offer one.

            “A word to the wise, last year it took three showers to wash all the dye off,” cautioned Divya Narayanan, treasurer on the S.A.S.A.’s E-board.  She also explained some new “rules” that had to be considered because of the stain that’s left over from the colored powder and the strict rules of the Student Association.  Apparently, staining any section of the sidewalk would result in imminent doom.  Once you had engaged in Holi

activities, you were no longer permitted anywhere near any buildings.  That was really the biggest rule.

            Soon after, AU’s finest were running amuck in Kay Spiritual Center’s yard, throwing handfuls of purple and green at one another, using water balloons as weapons.  People who had been previously complaining about the cold were now more concerned with getting more red on each other.

After the festivities had ceased, and people began to clean up, Desai commented about how it was another successful Holi, but the turn out was definitely affected by the weather.  “I could just kick myself!” Narayanan responded.  “It was originally planned to have Holi this past weekend when the weather was perfect, but for some reason I thought it would be better to change it!” 

            A student, Beth Allard, confirmed what Desai had just said.  She was watching from a nearby building, “My friend and I were going to go because it sounded really fun, but it’s been raining all morning…” 

            Regardless of the weather, many can agree that Holi provided a stress reliever and helped unite another group of AU students.

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