Phagwa is a celebration of victory over religious bigotry
Phagwa is a celebration of victory over religious bigotry. It is a reminder that we must destroy religious fundamentalism that strive to rob us of our philosophy of diversity of views and opinions on any single subject.
The red liquid (abir) that is smeared on the celebrants is symbolic of the blood of Hirankashipu, the evil king that that was killed by Bhagwan Narasingh, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu appeared as half lion half man and killed the evil king who was attempting to rudely impose his beliefs on others. Worst was the punishment by death of anyone who did not comply with his dictates.
Hirankashipu had worshiped Bhagavan Vishnu and after his long penance Bhagwan granted him his desires. He asked that would be killed by neither man nor beast; neither inside nor outside a building; neither during the day nor night and neither in the ground nor air. God granted him those boons and with those powers Hiranyakashipu declared to his subjects that he should be worshipped and not Bhagavan Vishnu.
All the priests complied with the instructions of King Hirankashipu - all the intellectuals renounced their beliefs and out of fear never questioned the policies of this dictator. Through his ministers, the media and the institutions of learning the dictator propagated his philosophy of hate, bigotry and fanaticism.
The dictator had no room for other belief system. All previous beliefs were outlawed and no one resisted because all were fearful for their lives. A decree was announced banning women from attending school. Women were directed to carry out the biddings of their husbands who was given full rights over their bodies and minds.
Everyone complied with the new religion. All the icons of the previous gods were removed and destroyed and replaced with statues of Hirankashipu. He was declared the One True God worthy of worship. Worshipping Lord Vishnu was declared blasphemy. There were public trials and punishments for anyone found guilty. Strict laws were passed to behead anyone critical of the new policies. Thousands were languishing in prison for committing the slightest wrong.
Resistance came from where everyone least expected- the king’s eight-year old son whose name was Prahalad. Prahalad was returning from school when he came upon an old woman who was in difficulties. Upon enquiring he learned that the woman had lit the oven to bake her clay pots and that inside one of the pots were three kittens. Knowing that the kittens would be killed she began praying to Lord Vishnu for a miracle. The youth was shocked. “Who is Vishnu?” The old lady responded: “Vishnu is God and runs the world and look over his creation.”
When the fire subsided, the lady hurriedly looked through the pot and to her joy, the three kittens were alive. Returning home he related his adventure to the King and Queen.
‘Pa, Vishnu is God,” said Prahalad.
The king was angry but concealed it. It was his son and he was a mere 8 year old. He could have applied the blasphemy law and had him put to death but he did not because he felt that it would not be difficult for the King to have the learned priests and his teachers teach him the One Truth.
The King tolerated Prahalad and called upon his Dharmacharya to teach Prahalad the Truth. The head priest failed to convince Prahalad that his father was the only true way of worship. Frustrated and embarrassed, his father employed a mad elephant to trample on Prahalad. Seeing the mad elephant charging against him, Prahalad clasped his hand together and began imploring Vishnu to protect him and He did.
Desperate, the king turned to his sister Holika to destroy Prahalad. Holika had a boon to sit on fire with her head covered with a scarf that made her immune to fire. Holika went to work and was soon destroyed after the headscarf was gently blown off her head unknowingly.
Desperate, the King took the challenge to put his son to death. Confronting Prahalad he asked: “I hope your Lord Vishnu can save you from death.” With his sword he struck a pillar asking Prahalad: “Is your God in this pillar?” Beaming with confidence Prahalad said “Yes.”
Suddenly, emerging from within the pillar was a ferocious being- half-lion and half-man- that proceeded to kill the evil king.
It is that small victory of Prahalad that millions around the world celebrate year after years reminding dictators that their reign of terror would come to a sudden end. The abir is symbolic of the blood of the evil king. It is this abir that celebrants bathe each other with as they celebrate with gusto and merriment.