Holi Festival: History, Story, & Facts

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History of Holi Festival

Holi Festival
The laws prohibit the intentional slaughter of cows – luckily, it does make an exemption for accidents or self-defense.

Holi Festival: It is illegal to kill cows in many Indian states; jail time often awaits the cow criminal! It may seem strange to Western tastes, but there is an abundance of cows in India who live without any danger of being eaten.

The laws prohibit the intentional slaughter of cows – luckily, it does make an exemption for accidents or self-defense.  Still, even with a few exceptions and veterinary certificates to put down old cows, there is a  serious overpopulation problem in some parts of India.

This situation has come about due to the  Hindu belief that all living things are sacred, including cows. However, their milk and other dairy products feature prominently in Indian cuisine, showing that the cows are more than just a herd of large, wandering vagabonds.

Their religious designation is woven deep into India’s history, going back to the prehistoric people. They are still a uniting factor in Hinduism today. What are the historical reasons that cows are considered holy?

Indus Valley Civilization

main article – Indus Valley Civilization

in hindi – सिंधु घाटी सभ्यता

Indus Valley Civilization
The first people in India were the Harappans and the Sarasvati, who lived there from about 7000 to 3300 BCE.

The first people in India were the Harappans and the Sarasvati, who lived there from about 7000 to 3300 BCE. They mostly lived in family groups, but the river valley allowed them to form an agrarian society and possibly the world’s oldest cities. 

The drivers were reliable and flooded twice a year, allowing the Harappans to have two growing seasons; they could grow enough food to feed their families and have a respectable stockpile.  Some families even kept animals like sheep, goats, and cows, but most Harappans and Sarasvati were vegetarians. Domesticated animals were not common, and crops were plentiful. If they ate meat,  they tended to eat chicken or junglefowl.

The revolution for the Indus Valley people was moving from a nomadic lifestyle to building cities, which Victorian archeologists later discovered. These cities were carefully planned into rows and squares, and they even had a  city-wide drainage system that surpassed the sewage systems the Victorian archeologists were using at home.

The cities were also filled with artwork, trade relics, and religious documents.  Historians are still working to decipher the ancient Harappan writings, which include drawings of elephants, rhinoceros, and lions. 

Their civilization appears to be more complex than just city planning; they also built ships and established trade routes to places like Mesopotamia and Egypt. They would trade precious items like gold, ivory,  and cotton for bronze, tin, silver, and soapstone.  

The Harappans and the Sarasvati had strong links to the world outside of India, but archeologists are most intrigued that they do not appear to have had a lot of weaponry. It’s typical for ancient civilizations to have many swords, spears, and arrowheads, but the Indus Valley civilizations do not appear to have been involved in much war. It wasn’t completely peaceful – some copper spears and clay balls have been discovered – but this seems to have been a  largely peaceful time in India’s history. 

This first Indian civilization eventually faded away – historians aren’t quite sure why their civilization died, but they were most likely not forced out by war. There appear to have been natural disasters,  like earthquakes and unusual flooding, which caused these first people to abandon their cities; in their place, the Aryan people moved in. 

The Aryans were a nomadic group called Vedic  Aryans or Indo-Europeans. After the Harappan civilization had faded, this new group crossed over the mountains with their herds of cattle, looking for grazing land. They bonded with the local people who remained, and their cultures mingled – the dominant language became Aryan, but the prevailing agricultural practices resembled the Sarasvati tradition, even though the Indo-Europeans built their own cities.  

Historians even believe that the Aryan people –  not the indigenous ones – wrote the famous Vedic texts – even though some Vedic artifacts appear to predate the arrival of these Indo-Europeans.  

Hinduism’s Holy Books: the Vedas

The Vedas are important in the Hindu religion;  they give many of its fundamental teachings. It is possible that the Vedas show collaboration between the first people of India and the Aryans. When the Vedic Aryans moved their cattle across the mountains into the Indian subcontinent, they believed cows were a sacred and respected part of life.  

They used their cows for milk, not meat.  While these people were not vegetarians, the belief that cows are holy has persisted in many Hindu sects today. What are the religious reasons that  Hindus consider cows to be holy? Although there are many deities in Hinduism, cows are not gods; their holy status comes more from what they represent than what they actually are. All life is valuable in Hindu belief,  and the cow symbolizes other creatures and Mother Earth.

The cow represents life,  goodness, and nourishment. Even though beef is usually not consumed by Hindus, cows still provide many essential things to life, like milk, ghee, and fertilizer. The cow is often revered for her generosity because of her milk production; milk is used in Indian cuisine today and would have been important to the survival of the Vedic Aryans. 

The cow also symbolized a nonviolent lifestyle that conforms to ahimsa – a Hindu ideal of noninjury to all living creatures. Although Hindus respect and honor the cow, not all sects worship it, even though the cow can play an important role in religious festivals and ceremonies. Cow-themed jewelry and clothing are sold at fairs across India, showing the Hindu adoration of these holy creatures in vivid color.

One of the most important festivals involving cows is the annual Gopashtami festival; it celebrates the cow and its significance in Hindu culture. On the appointed day, everyone visits the cows and bathes them before decorating them with clothes and jewelry.

The calf is particularly important on this day, so calves are treated with the same respect that their mothers are. Hindu believers then offer respect – or in some sects, worship – to the cow using water, rice,  fragrance, flowers, and incense sticks.  The cows also receive special food to help with good health. After the cows are fed, the people also have a feast to remember this special day and the blessings that the cow generously gives.

Gopastami Festival

The Gopashtami festival comes from a Hindu myth where Lord Krishna, one of the central Hindu gods, spent time as a cowherd. Back in those days,  children from about the ages of six to ten were expected to tend the cows, so as Krishna reached that age, his father – Nanda Maharaj – gave the care of the herd to him and Balarama, Krishna’s older brother. In remembrance of this special day, Nanda Maharaj organized a special ceremony to send the boys off; Radha, Lord Krishna’s divine consort, was not allowed to go because she was a  girl, but she dressed up as a boy and went anyway. 

Gopastami Festival
The Gopashtami festival comes from a Hindu myth where Lord Krishna, one of the central Hindu gods, spent time as a cowherd.

This is also the day that Hindus believe Lord Krishna defeated Lord Indra, who was trying to flood the region of Vraja. Lord Indra is the Hindu god of storms; he is also a warrior deity. Early in Hinduism, Indra was one of the most important gods – he delivered the rains for harvest, helped protect the people, and even fought demons on their behalf.

The most famous demon Indra defeated was Vritra, who hid all the water on a mountain. The people were suffering from the drought, but Indra killed the demon and released the water back to the people. As time passed, though, Indra was not held in as high regard; in fact, the worship of Indra faded, and he became more of a mythological figure.

In one version of the story celebrated during the Gopashtami festival, Krishna convinces some of the cowherds in Vraja to stop worshipping Indra. Enraged, Indra sends rain to flood the region to showcase his prowess and ego.

The people would have suffered and could have drowned, but Krishna refused to leave them in danger – he lifted Mount Govardhan with his little finger and allowed all creatures to take shelter underneath it for seven days. Finally, Indra realized his mistake,  and he paid homage to Krishna.

The festival celebrates the end of the rain and how Krishna saved the people from the storm god’s wrath. Lord Krishna is not the only link to cows in Hindu mythology. Although cows, in general, are not divine, there is a sacred, bovine-goddess in Hindu legend named Kamadhenu. She represents abundance and is used across the Hindu sects. There are multiple conflicting versions of Kamadhenu’s origin story.

One version says that she emerged from the cosmic ocean as it churned; she was then ordered to give milk and ghee for ritual sacrifice by Brahma, the creator god. Another version says that she was born from Daksha’s burp  –another creator god. Some say she was born of the vomit from a very drunk Brahma, and yet another version says that Krishna created the divine cow.  

One day, when he and his lover, Radha, were in the middle of dalliance, they decided they wanted some milk. Krishna created a cow and was amazed as more cows emerged from her pores. They became part of the herd that Krishna and his companions watched. After realizing that the cow he created was also divine, Krishna worshiped her and commanded that others do so as well.

There are many versions of Kamadhenu’s myth;  one thing the stories do generally agree on is that she is the mother of all cows. Out of respect for her, Hindus honor all cows, but she has not developed a worship cult following  – although she is depicted in some Hindu temples. 

Devout Hindus sometimes have her idol in the house; Kamadhenu grants wish and bring wealth and happiness to the home. For this reason, Hindus will often seek her blessings, even though they do not offer worship. Instead, most of the adoration goes to the cows on Earth today, which are fed outside of temples and regularly honored. How does the exalted status of cows affect India today? 

Today, around eighty percent of the Indian population is Hindu, and there are laws that prohibit the slaughtering of cows. This stance has raised concerns from the secularists and the people who are not Hindu – it has been seen as discrimination to ban the slaughter or consumption of beef.

India is still working through all the implications of this; in the meantime,  they also have to work through the consequences of having so many holy creatures across the country. India has more cows than any other country in the world, and these are not limited to the countryside. In 2008, there were about 40,000  cows in Delhi – and they can cause serious traffic issues. Delhi is currently trying to rehome the cows, but catching an urban street cow is harder than you think – especially because you cannot harm the cow while moving it.

They are only allowed to use a tranquilizer or a stun gun when a veterinarian is present, which is not often the case. These urban cowboys have to rely on a rope and brute strength to safely remove the cows from the streets. When caught, though, the cows are moved to special reserves to live their lives in peace, representing generosity and life. Today, there are over 305 million cows in India, a little less than one-third of the global bovine population.

The cow is intended to represent abundance and life, and for a variety of historical and religious reasons, the Hindu people continue to honor the cow as holy. They run shelters for abandoned cows and have passed laws that prohibit the slaughter of beef. Although not all cows in India today are wish-fulfillers, Hindus believe them all to be connected to the gods – and that’s enough to make anything holy. 


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