Durga Puja – Bengal

Durga Puja is the largest celebration of Bengal and Bangladesh, and is also celebrated throughout Bhutan, and Nepal. It worships the mother goddess Durga, who was called into existence by the trinity of Hindu gods, Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, to defeat the demon Mahishasura.

According to legend, Shiva gave the once-loyal Mahishasura a power that he would later regret: that Mahishasura would not be killed by any man.

Confident he could never be stopped, Mahishasura went all maniacal on the lesser gods (Devtas) and plunged the Universe into havoc.  The gods pleaded with Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. The three created the only thing that could stop Mahishasura: an all-powerful goddess.

Durga was made from the best of all gods:

Her face reflected the light of Shiva,
her ten arms were from Lord Vishnu,
her feet were from Lord Brahma,
the tresses were formed from the light of Yama, the god of death
and the two breasts were formed from the light of Somanath, the Moon God,
the waist from the light of Indra, the king of gods,
the legs and thighs from the light of Varun, the god of oceans
and hips from the light of Bhoodev (Earth),
the toes from the light of Surya (Sun God),
fingers of the hand from the light of the Vasus, the children of Goddess river Ganga
and nose from the light of Kuber, the keeper of wealth for the Gods.
The teeth were formed from the light of Prajapati, the lord of creatures,
the Triad of her eyes was born from the light of Agni, the Fire God,
the eyebrows from the two Sandhyas,ie, sunrise and sunset,
the ears from the light of Vayu, the god of Wind.


The gods then armed her to the teeth (which as we know, were Prajapati’s) and she proceeded to kick the surprised Mahishasura’s butt. Since that day, Durga has symbolized the unity of the forces of good over those of wickedness.

Durga Puja lasts almost a fortnight, beginning on the 12th of Aashin in the Bengla calendar (September 29 in 2008), but doesn’t really get kicking until the 18th of Aashin (October 5 this year) and lasts four or five days:

October 2008 (Aashin 1415)

October 3 (evening) to October 4: Maha Panchami

October 4/5: Maha Shashti

October 5/6: Maha Saptami

October 6/7: Maha Ashtami

October 8: Maha Navami

October 9: Dashami

Today’s Maha Shashti is “the sixth day of the moon when Goddess Durga is welcomed with much fanfare and gusto. Look for the ‘Bodhon’ rituals when Goddess Durga is unveiled.” –http://www.durgapujagreetings.com/nirghonto.html

Though the religious aspects of the festival are still strong, Durga Puja has become a cultural and community celebration in recent decades.

Gandhi Jayanti

October 2

It is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1940

India, a land overflowing with the holy days of its many religions, has only three official national holidays of its own: Republic Day, Independence Day, and Gandhi Jayanti.

The first two celebrate the power and the freedom of the state and its people. The third celebrates the power and humbleness of a man, the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on this day in 1869 in Porbander, Gujarat. He was influenced by his mother’s Jainism, and its concept of Ahimsa, but he was not particularly religious, or even spiritual as a child.

His father died when he was 15, and at 18 he left India to study law at University College London. It was there, when faced with the different lifestyles of Westerners, he reflected on his own beliefs. As a vegetarian, he joined the Vegetarian Society, and began reading in earnest the scriptures of Hinduism, including the Bhagavad Gita, as well as doctrines on Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

After returning briefly to India, he took a position at an Indian firm in South Africa. The post was supposed to be for a year, but Gandhi stayed for twelve. First he worked with Indians to oppose a bill denying Indians the right to vote. The bill passed despite his efforts. In 1897, he was nearly lynched by an angry white mob, but Gandhi refused to prosecute his assailants.

Then Gandhi led the Indian resistance against forced registration in South Africa. It was during this time Gandhi solidified his theories of peaceful resistance through civil disobedience, eventually forcing the government to agree to a compromise.

In 1915, at age 45, Gandhi returned to his homeland. He would spend the remaining 30+ years of his life fighting–through nonviolence–for the independence of his country, for the rights of his countrymen, and for peace between his brothers. It was this last cause for which he would give his life.

Gandhi’s weapons included strikes, protests, and boycotts of British goods. He encouraged Indians to spin their own cloth and renounce British titles of nobility.

Following a mass protest that ended in violence in 1922, Gandhi served two years in prison for sedition. Afterward, Gandhi worked to bridge the gap between the Indian political divisions that had intensified during his imprisonment.

In the Spring of 1930, Gandhi led the 400 kilometer Salt March, in which thousands of Indians journeyed to the sea to make their own salt, in protest of the Salt Tax. The British arrested tens of thousands of Indians in the wake of the campaign.

Gandhi continued his opposition to British rule throughout World War II. In 1947, India finally won its long awaited independence. To avoid an impending civil war between India’s Muslims and Hindus, Gandhi reluctantly agreed to support the partition of the country into two republics, India and Pakistan.

Just as Gandhi feared, the partitioning was accompanied by mass bloodshed.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was taking his nightly walk through the garden of the Birla Bhavan house in New Dehli when he was shot and killed by a radical Hindu, angry at Gandhi’s support of payment to country of Pakistan.

At his request, his ashes were spread throughout India.

“It is a superstition and an ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority. Many examples can be given in which acts of majorities will be found to have been wrong, and those of minorities to have been right. All reforms owe their origin to the initiation of minorities in opposition to majorities…

Democracy cannot be evolved by forcible methods. The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within…

Liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands dyed red with innocent blood.”

Gandhi on Democracy

Gandhi was instrumental in civil rights movements on two continents, Asia and Africa. His teachings inspired leaders of the civil rights movement on a third continent, North America, after Gandhi’s death.

For these reasons and more, in 2007 the United Nations declared October 2 “International Day of Non-Violence.” The Dalai Lama once said of Gandhi:

His life has inspired me ever since I was a small boy. Ahimsa or nonviolence the powerful idea that Mahatma Gandhi made familiar throughout the world. Nonviolence does not mean the absence of violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful than that, for it depends on wholly on the power of truth.

See also: School Day of Peace and Non-Violence

Teachers Day – India

September 5

True seekers are those who never end their quest.

–Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

All across India hundreds of millions of schoolchildren celebrate Teachers’ Day. In many schools, children dress up like their teachers. Teachers meanwhile, sit in the back of the room, like students, as the students lead class, and roles are reversed for a day. Students have a chance to see from their mentors’ eyes, and teachers remember what is was like to be a student, to have the one other job as important as teaching: learning.

The lesson plan may include a look at the man behind Teachers Day, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Born on this day in 1888 in Tamil Nadu, India, Radhakrishnan became one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century. According to George Conger:

“…Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of India … William James was influential in religion, and John Dewey has been a force in politics. One or two American philosophers have been legislators. Jacques Maritain has been an ambassador. Radhakrishnan, in a little more than thirty years of work, has done all these things and more… Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure…. like a weaver’s shuttle, he has gone to and fro between the East and West, carrying a thread of understanding, weaving it into the fabric of civilization.”

Radhakrishnan taught subjects including philosophy, ethics and comparative religion at the Universities of Calcutta, Oxford, and Ahndra.

In 1952 he was elected the first Vice-President of India. Ten years later the philosopher became India’s second President.

When his friends and former students wished to make his birthday a holiday, Radhakrishnan did not forget his first calling. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if 5 September is observed as Teachers’ Day.

Throughout the rest of his life, Radhakrishnan went on learning and teaching, holding true to his most firmly held belief:

“The true seekers are those who never end their quest. Even at the termination of one’s life one is still searching. Fulfillment is a distant goal.”

Ganesh Chaturthi

September 1, 2011
September 19, 2012
September 9, 2013

Today Hindus celebrate the birthday of the Colossus with the Proboscis, Lord Ganesh, aka Gajanana (Elephant-Faced Lord), aka Devendrashika (Protector of All Gods), aka Kaveesha (Master of Poets), aka Lambodara (Huge Bellied Lord) aka Vignavinashanaya (Destroyer of All Obstacles and Impediments) aka Akhurath (One who has Mouse as His Charioteer) or any of the other 101 names he goes by.

Ganesh: Colossus with the Proboscis

Ganesh is perhaps the most distinctive-looking deity of the Hindu pantheon. His birth was as unconventional as his profile.

While Lord Shiva was away at war, his wife Parvati sought to bathe herself, but feared someone might enter while she was vulnerable. To guard her door, she fashioned the model of a son out of clay or sandalwood paste, breathed life into him, and placed him outside with instructions not to let anyone in.

It just so happened that Lord Shiva came back from the battlefront while Pavarti was bathing. Ganesh didn’t know who he was and prevented Shiva from entering. Shiva, after a hard day of battling demons, was not in the mood to be stopped in his own house. With his sword he sliced Ganesh’s head clean off.

Needless to say, when Parvati came out of the bath to find her new son decapitated, she was quite perturbed with Shiva, and threatened to destroy the three worlds of Earth, Heaven, and Hell.

Like any good husband, Shiva instructed his men to go out and bring back the head of the first living creature they found. They came back with the head of an elephant, which Shiva placed atop Ganesh’s decapitated body and with a sacred breath, made him whole.

Ganesh became the great Protector, and also the bringer of good fortune and prosperity.

People celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with a festival lasting ten to twelve days. Large and small clay and metal models of Genash are created for the festival, sometimes 20 feet tall. Sacred traditional foods are offered to the god, including lotus flowers, fruits, sweets, and prasadam. At the end of the ten days, Ganesh’s likenesses are taken in a procession to the nearest body of water and submerged.

Submersion of Lord Ganesh
Submersion of Lord Ganesh

These days most idols of Lord Ganesh are made with Plaster of Paris rather than clay. Unfortunately, this  creates a toxic hazard when thousands of idols are submerged in local rivers and lakes on the final day of celebration. Indian activists try to combat, or at least mitigate the pollution by encouraging observers to perform short, symbolic submersions, or to return to tradition, natural materials like clay.

Paryushana – Jainism

August 26-September 1, 2011

Talk to the hand.

But not just any hand. The hand above symbolizes the concept of Ahimsa, the central component of the Jain religion. It means the practice of non-violence, but far beyond our common perception of it. Ahimsa is the absence of harm toward any living being, human or animal. For this reason vegetarianism is a essential part of Jainism. In fact, during special festivals, such as Paryushana, some Jains restrict themselves to eating those parts of plants that do not endanger the plant itself. (However, “fruitarian” diets are not necessarily practiced throughout the year.)

Ahimsa also means practicing the self-discipline not to cause harm to one’s own soul. And that means no sin. States the Puruṣārthasiddhyupāya 4.42:

All sins like falsehood, theft, attachment and immorality are forms of violence which destroy the purity of the soul. They have been separately enumerated only to facilitate their understanding.

The circle in the palm of the Jain hand represents the cycle of reincarnation, and the 24 spokes are the 24 Tirthankars, great prophets of Jain, the last of whom, Mahavira, lived over 2500 years ago.

The name of this week’s festivities, Paryushana, literally means to close in, to remain near to one’s self and soul. Paryushana stems from the tradition of monks to stay in one place, in the towns, during the rainy season. The rainy season could last four months, but the minimum duration for Paryushana was 70 days.

The period of Paryushana commences by Bhadrapada Shukla panchami, the fifth day (panchami) of the bright/full moon (Shukla) of the month of Bhadrapada (August/September).

During this time people replenish their faith through meditation, self-control, and through the wisdom of the Dharma.

There are two sects of Jainism. Digambara and Svwetambara (pardon my pronunciation.)

The Digambaras observe a 10-day festival starting on today (although the date can vary slightly by sect and location). Digambara Jains use this time to focus upon the Dashalakshana vrata—the 10 components of the Dharma:

Forbearance – Kshama
Gentleness – Mardava
Uprightness – Arjava
Purity – Shaucha
Truth – Satya
Restraint – Sanyam
Austerity – Tapa
Renunciation – Tyaga
Lack of possession – Akinchanya
and Chastity – Brahmcharya

The Svwetambara Jains celebrate an 8-day festival which ends today. During this time the Kalpa Sutra is recited. The Kalpa Sutra recalls the birth, life, and journey toward Nirvana of Mahariva.

The holy festival closes with participants seeking forgiveness for their sins of the last year.

I grant forgiveness to all living beings
May all living beings grant me forgiveness
My friendship is with all living beings
My enmity is totally non-existent
Let there be peace, harmony, and prosperity for all

Living Jain: Daily

Pluralism.org – Jain

The Significance of Paryushana Mahaparva

The Paryushana Parva

Krishna Janmashtami

August 21-22, 2011

In the house of Vasudeva will the Supreme Lord, the original transcendental person, personally appear…

Bhagavata Purana, 1:23

After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down.

Eric Clapton, After Midnight

Though worshipped differently across many Hindu sects, Krishna is one of the holiest figures–if not the holiest–in the Hindu religion. He was born at midnight on this, the eighth day after the full moon of Bhadrapada/Shravan, in the year–well, before you were born.

In 2010 Sri Krishna Jayanti, or Krishna Janmashtami, falls on September 1 or 2, depending on location.

Krishna is considered the eighth and greatest incarnation of the god Vishnu. In art, he’s commonly pictured as a baby or as a youngster playing the flute. Krishna means “black”, but he’s more often depicted as blue.

Before Krishna was born, a prophecy was told to the King Kamsa. That he–the king–would be killed by his cousin’s son. Kamsa placed his cousin Devaki and her husband Vasudeva in prison. Every son that Devaki bore, Kamsa had killed. Six children in all. The seventh boy, Balarama, was magically transfered to the womb of another woman. The eighth child Vasudeva managed to sneak out of the prison. The boy was Krishna. Vasudeva encountered a cow-herding couple who had just given birth to a daughter. They switched babies and Vasudeva returned to the prison, showing Kamsa that the child was a girl, not a boy.

Krishna grew up with the humble cow-herding family. He was a mischievous kid, known for playing pranks and for seducing women with the romantic music of his flute.

When the King heard of Krishna’s existence he invited Krishna to a wrestling match, set up to trap and kill Krishna and his elder brother Balarama. The brothers foiled King Kamsa’s plans, defeating first a mighty demon elephant and the King’s best wrestlers.

When the King drew his sword, Krishna grabbed him by the hair and crushed him to death, fulfilling the prophecy.

The holiday comes to a climax at midnight tonight, when Krishna was said to have been born. Krishna is worshipped through the chanting of Vedic hymns, and mantapam structures built in his honor are decorated with thindis snacks and fruits…

After midnight, it’s all gonna be peaches and cream.

— Eric Clapton

Indian Independence

August 15

The Twentieth Century witnessed over 140 countries gain independence. [35 of them in the years 1960 and 1991 alone]. But few, if any, stirred such emotion, involved so much conflict, changed and disrupted so many lives, inspired so many future leaders, and so fundamentally altered the world we live in, both politically and philosophically, as the independence of India.

A hundred-year struggle against imperialism and colonization came to a climax as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his people on the eve of India’s long-awaited independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long surpressed, finds utterance.

Nehru during his Tryst with Destiny speech
Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech

India found that, like so many other countries, while freedom and self-determination solved some ills, other problems were exacerbated. The partition of India into two separate, independent nations disrupted millions of lives and led to a bloody conflict that has not healed to this day.

Less than six months after independence, the Pakistani-Indian conflict would take the life of Mohandas Gandhi himself, the Indian former-lawyer who used civil disobedience to combat racial injustice in South Africa and who raised peaceful resistance to a new level to free his own countrymen in India. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu radical, who was angry at Gandhi’s cooperation with Muslim Indians and Pakistanis.

Indian flag rises above Red Fort, Delhi

Despite the death of its greatest leader, the story of Indian independence showed the world that the principles Gandhi preached, concepts of non-violence and the power of peace, were not mere religious dogma, not words spouted by the powerful to keep the powerless meek and compliant, but were weapons capable of ending an Empire.

Swami Vivekananda was once asked by an Englishwoman, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” To which the Swami replied…

That is true from the point of view of the Englishman…but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered.

The gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies…but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.

Swami Vivekananda Vedanta Lecture – Spirituality, the Gift of India

Melon Day – Turkmenistan

2nd Sunday in August

All right you cucurbitaceans, you’ve waited all year for this!

Today, the second Sunday of August, the country of Turkmenistan celebrates, not independence, not victory or freedom or liberty, but the glorious, almighty melon.

Yes, melons.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Melon Day? Shouldn’t we honor the melon, the noblest of fruits, every day?”

Yes we should. But in Turkmenistan they have taken melon worship to a new level, dedicating one of the country’s 19 national holidays to the fruit.

All Turkmens celebrate this holiday. The Turkmen melon is the source of our pride, its taste has no equal in the world, the smell makes your head spin,” proclaimed Turkmenistan’s former leader, the late President Niyazov, who created the holiday in 1994.

Turkmenistan grows over 200 types of melon, ranging in size from a potato-sized melon to 18kg monsters. The national melon is the muskmelon.

So celebrate Melon Day by partaking in one of your favorite muskmelon recipes and don’t miss this clip of the Melon Day festivities!

Melon Days are here again!

Whether the knife falls on the mellon or the melon on the knife, the melon suffers.

African proverb

Many wagon-loads of enormous water-melons were brought to market every day, and I was sure to see groups of men, women, and children seated on the pavement round the spot where they were sold, sucking in prodigious quantites of this water fruit. Their manner of devouring them is extremely unpleasant; the huge fruit is cut into half a dozen sections, of about a foot long, and then, dripping as it is with water, applied to the mouth, from either side of which pour copious streams of the fluid, while, ever and anon, a mouthful of the hard black seeds are shot out in all directions, to the great annoyance of all within reach. When I first tasted this fruit I thought it very vile stuff indeed, but before the end of the season we all learned to like it.

Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832