The Burning of Holika

This is a very famous account in deed and the one that is most often recounted when people are asked about Holi.

The story is part of the bigger story about King Hiranyakashyapu (or Hiranyakashyap or Hiranya Kashipu) and his desire to be seen as a great man. To fulfill his desire he did the required tup (penance) and was asked what he wanted. He asked that it would not be possible for him to die as a result of a human or animal, that he would not die either in his home or outside and that he would not die in the day or at night. He was granted his wish and so felt invincible and told his people to worship him as a god. Everyone did with the exception of his son Prahlad. Prahlad refused to see his father as a god and stayed devoted to Vishnu.

This made Prahlad's father very angry so he made various attempts to have Prahlad killed. These attempts included telling Prahlad to hold a red-hot pole, telling him to jump off a steep cliff and even getting an elephant to walk over Prahlad. Each time Prahlad did as he was told but he also chanted Vishnu's name and was saved. 

 It is from one of these attempts that we find the most probable origin of Holi and why the festival is called Holi. In this particular attempt on Prahlad's life King Hiranyakashyapu called upon his sister Holika for help. Holika had a special gift that prevented her from being harmed by fire. So King Hiranyakashyapu asked her to sit on a bonfire with Prahlad on her lap in the hope that this would kill Prahlad. But as before Prahlad was not worried and chanted Vishnu's name and was not hurt, but Holika burnt to her death .

 It should be noted that in different parts of India different reasons are given for Holika's death. The different reasons are;

  • Vishnu stepped in and hence Holika burnt,
  • Holika was given the power by Vishnu on the understanding that it can never be used to bring harm to anyone,
  • Holika was a good person and it was the clothes that she wore that gave her the power and knowing that what was happening was wrong, she gave them to Prahlad and hence died herself
  • she was in fact a she-demon and so good won against evil.

But no matter which of those reasons they take it to mean, for all of them the fire burnt on the eve of Holi symbolizes the burning of Holika. 

The story as a whole is testament to the power of devotions (bhakta) over the evils represented by King Hiranyakashyapu, as Prahlad never lost his faith. It teaches people that there may be people that are very powerful in the world, but no matter how powerful, they will succumb to God, making the only true source of power devotion to God.

So we can see that for many people, Holi celebrates the death of Holika in order to save Prahlad and we see where Holi gets its name. The night before Holi pyres are burnt in North India in keeping with this tradition. It should also be noted that in some parts of India the day is actually called Holika. There are other activities associated with the story of Prahlad, but the burning of Holika is the one that we can most directly associate with Holi.



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