Starting with the month of July, households are abuzz with activity. The devout observe a series of fasts and feasts and festivals follow each other in quick succession. These entail a whole lot of things – rituals, both religious and social, fasting, not to speak of the offerings to God and then feasting! Each festival has a specific list of things to be done. It also means cleaning the house, decorating and other such related chores. The very orthodox and devout brook no arguments about the observance/celebration of these festivals, and go ahead full steam doing everything the way ‘they should be done’. This includes the religious rituals.
Such rituals were instituted by our forebears to instill discipline in our lives, think of God and thank Him. The social and cultural aspects were added to make them more enjoyable. For instance, many Hindu festivals, especially in the south, have the ritual of haldi-kumkum for married women. These were meant to allow womenfolk to mingle with their neighbours and relatives in days when they didn’t have any chance of such an outing. They wore festive clothes, decorated the homes with colourful rangoli and decked up the shrine with flowers and adorned the idols of the gods tastefully and of course cooked all those wonderful offerings. The navarathri kolu, likewise is a showcase of cultural and aesthetic sensibilities of the devotees and the entire household participates in them.
But with changing times, the methods of celebrations have changed too. We are going to two extremes while celebrating festivals – one of extravagant pomp and show and the other of simply ignoring them. The latter group justifies it saying that they abhor the rituals connected with the festvities.
Here, may I remind those who ‘abhor’ rituals, that we gladly observe many rituals – a family reunion every year, a ritual observed for freshers at college, a ritual at the workplace, a club ritual with specific things to make and do…. We not only follow them, but are proud of them. Don’t we all go through agonies to make the annual day at the school of our children a success? Isn’t that an annual ritual too? Then why this aversion to rituals related to festivals or religious ceremonies which showcase our culture and aesthetics and above all devotion?
While everyone loves the festive atmosphere, the eats and the festivities in general, not everyone enjoys making it all happen. These are the committed ones, those who actually love everything about a festival and also feel that it should be celebrated in its entirety. And the older generation, which does it diligently. The cleaning, the shopping, the rangoli, and the preparations for the offerings – the entire works. For the rest, it is an irritant, especially if the elders insist that certain rituals be done the exact way it has been done in the family all along. Many of the festivals being region specific, it is not always possible to get off from work or school and college when there is no holiday in that region. There is usually someone or the other in the family or neighbourhood comparing the rituals and finding fault with the way you are doing them. Then begins the one-upmanship and arguments over the merits of the respective rituals and by the time the festival actually rolls round there are a couple of long faces and a lot of bad vibes going around. Add to it, the attendant disruption of routine and the extra work load and the irritant-quotient is at its highest level.
Aren’t festivals and religious celebrations meant to give joy and peace to those who are celebrating them, to remember God and the significance of the festival? But when there is so much tension in the celebration, there is neither joy nor devotion and they end up being mere rituals, which are sometimes observed under duress.
Let me give an example: many south Indian festivals involve elaborate offerings. Just take a look at the list of offerings traditionally made for Janmashtami in a South Indian household: Murukku, seedai, sweet seedai, appam, sundry burfis including the famous Mysore pak, therattu paal, etc. etc. Earlier there were joint families and the work got divided between the many members. Each one did her or his bit and things got done. It is not possible in a nuclear family to make so many varieties of offering, just because ‘it needs to be traditionally done that way.’ Moreover, everyone is not an expert at making these items — the mysore pak might become hard as rock or the sweet seedai might disintegrate in the oil….Imagine going to all that trouble and finding that the offerings have become a mess. Besides, all can’t take things in their stride, so tempers get frayed especially on an empty stomach and the festive mood is spoilt. By the end of the day, you are so tired that you don’t find the energy to go through the pooja with the same enthusiasm had you just scaled down the preparations a bit and given some items a miss.
I used to wonder how a newborn Krishna could eat all those oil based hard namkeens and the sweets. Wouldn’t the other and easier to make offerings like butter, curd and milk flavoured with saffron and cardamoms, be good enough? Wouldn’t God be more pleased with you if you sang His praises with devotion instead of sweating over the smoking oil? Ditto for other festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi. The list of items is long and the preparations elaborate. Steamed rice modak is perhaps one of the most delicious but also most dicey offering to make. The pooja needs to be done in the mornings and so it is a race to complete the cooking and then sit for the pooja.
If you are the kind who loves to cook and also feed others, go right ahead and make all the eats, but with love and a prayer in the heart. And if at the end you don’t have the time or energy to do an elaborate pooja, never mind. By devoting your time and effort to making the offerings, you have already pleased God.
I follow a maximum and minimum rule when it comes to festivals and such. The maximum means that one does everything by the book including the offerings and the pooja rituals. The minimum is the bare essentials of offerings – some fruits, a coconut, flowers, lamp, incense and a lot of devotion even skipping the elaborate pooja. Anything in between is fine too, depending upon your time and inclination. A kheer, some vadas, puri and halwa – you decide what and how much you can do. If you want the children and family to enjoy the traditional prasadams, they are easily outsourced these days. Buy some modak, namkeens, sweets – whatever.
Karva Chauth, a fast observed by north Indian women is the subject of endless debates and arguments against it. This one, like many other such vrats, is observed for the good health and longevity of one’s husband. This is one festival that has been flogged to death and beyond by films and serials, glamourising it in the process. I know of many women who observe it only to please their in-laws or to allay the subconscious fear that something may happen to their husbands if they don’t do it. Some women are unable to fast but still observe the fast. There are other festivals/fasts in the south that are observed for the same reason. Why not make them symbolic instead? Being one of those who doesn’t fast due to health reasons, I find it hard to accept that one’s love or devotion can be expressed only on an empty stomach.
Better still, why not customize them to make them more enjoyable and meaningful, or even observe them symbolically? I know of many who distribute food to orphans or the homeless on festivals instead of conducting elaborate poojas. Aren’t they more wonderful? Do I sound blasphemous?
Sometimes we go through the motions of celebrating certain festivals for fear of making God angry with us, were we to stop them. We fear that some calamity might befall us or the calamity facing us is the cause of our not doing that particular pooja or vrat. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you do feel that you should not discontinue some religious ritual — don’t. But scale it down and concentrate on the prayers and pooja instead of the other related preparations and rituals.
But whatever you do, don’t let festivals become a chore, an empty ritual or a tension-filled routine and please don’t skip them completely either. Instead, customize them according to your convenience and time that you have at your disposal, teach your kids about them and also make it an enjoyable family activity which would please God more than all the serial lights, pomp and grandeur and of course the plethora of offerings. Don’t we know that God expects only humility, faith and compassion from His devotees more than anything else?
So how are you planning to celebrate the festivals this year?