Hinduism Festivals
by
Amanda Lucia
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0175

Introduction

The annual calendar for Hindus is punctuated with festivals; it is often said, “twelve months, thirteen festivals” or similarly “eight days, nine festivals.” Festivals, including public ceremonial and celebratory events, are documented in some of India’s most ancient texts. Whether their current expressions are modern inventions or not, many of these festivals often aim to conjure the aura, and the accompanying authority, of religious antiquity. Historically, festivals have been means to celebrate special occasions, markers of sacred time and space, means to consolidate political power and reify community identity, ways to invoke the divine or nature in daily life, methods of marking the passage of time, and releases for social unrest and discord. They can also be connected to life-cycle rituals performed to sanctify social bonds and transitions. For believers, Hindu festivals designate moments of divine intercession into the mundane realities of daily living wherein everyday occurrences become sacralized and life takes on symbolic meaning. Here the gods become present, are made manifest, and intervene on behalf of humanity. Festivals include some combination of sacrifice, absolutions, offerings, and a wide variety of ritual practices and prayerful recitations. In some festivals, these actions are symbolic and in others, they are palpably material. Witnesses have often become captivated by the extraordinary sensorium of Hindu festivals, which are replete with music, art, drama, food, smells, crowds, and general exuberance. They are also inherently public, usually occurring simultaneously in domestic, temple, and public spheres. The combination of their public expression and their multisensory nature has drawn the attention of outsiders in both positive and negative ways. During the Colonial Period, the British viewed Hindu festivals as spectacular but dangerous social extravagances that needed to be curtailed and controlled, lest the Hindus proceed with hook-swinging and public drownings for the sake of ritual fulfillment. The colonial government took careful notice of Hindu public festivals because they were also important times for the populace to gather together and these crowds could engage in political agitation or nationalist organizing. After the demise of colonialism, festivals remained important sociopolitical events that had the potential to incite communal violence. Today, in the Hindu Diaspora, festivals have become important moments that express communal solidarity in the presence of daily experiences of cultural dislocation among minority Hindu communities. From ancient accounts to modern expressions, the celebrations of Hindu festivals continue to define and unite Hindus worldwide, setting them apart as a distinctive religious community operating within intricate symbolic systems during these moments of heightened access to divinity.

General Overviews

Hindu festivals are numerous, exceptionally diverse, and often regionally specific. For this reason, there are relatively few examples of recent scholarship that attempt to tackle the topic as a whole, in the sense of a general overview or introduction. However, confining its analysis to South India, Younger 2002 offers an effective fieldwork-based study of fourteen different festivals. Otherwise, the topic has been addressed in both its multiplicity and particularity, through edited volumes and special issues of journals. Sax 1995 confines his study to an analysis of the Indic term līlā (play) and its theological and practical implications; his edited volume includes rich analyses of festivals as theatres of divine play. The compilations Welbon and Yocum 1982 and Toffin 1982 provide useful, theoretically engaged introductions and allow for each of the individual articles to delve into particularities and regional distinctions. The remainder of the references in this section are valuable Indic sources that may not have followed contemporary developments in western scholarship, but contain rich treasures of textual citations and astrological information that may not be available elsewhere.

  • Hüsken, Ute, and Axel Michaels, eds. South Asian Festivals on the Move. Weisbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2013.

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    This edited volume focuses on public festivals with an emphasis on bodily and spatial movement as they are affected by and products of globalization. The essays are theoretically rich and demonstrate anthropological attention to the local. Many of the articles focus on South India and Sri Lanka, with some attention to Diaspora. Includes illustrations.

  • Lall, R. Manohar. Among the Hindus: A Study of Hindu Festivals. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2004.

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    First published in 1933 (Cawnpore, India: Minvera), this overview provides a detailed account of a variety of Hindu festivals, including details of common practices, numerology, astrological analysis, and mythology. Its judgmental authorial tone is emblematic of the period, but it contains useful information based in the author’s experience and personal inquiries.

  • Raghavan, Venkatarama. Festivals, Sports and Pastimes of India. Ahmedabad, India: Institute of Learning and Research, 1979.

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    A sweeping study of the festivals of India revealing textual references to festivals in the Vedas, the Artharva Pariśiṣṭas, the Epics, Nibandhas and Dharmaśāstras, Kāma Sūtras, Purāṇās, and others. The author argues that many of the most famous festivals of India emerge from ancient origins. Includes references to Indic sports.

  • Satprakashananda, Swami. “Folk Festivals of India.” Midwest Folklore 6.4 (1956): 221–227.

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    This brief article gives an introductory descriptive account of the multiple facets of religious festivals of South Asia. The author, a Vedanta Society swami, focuses primarily on Hindu festivals, but includes some Muslim festivals and articulates the differences between secular and devout participants. The conclusion includes an unusually placed rationalization of caste, but the piece is generally helpful.

  • Sax, William S., ed. The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    This edited volume focuses specifically on līlā, with the first half dedicated to theological discussion and the second to its practical enactments. It is a valuable resource for analyzing the textual sources that elucidate the metaphysics of play and the contemporary ritual theaters in which various līlās converge with religious festivals.

  • Toffin, Gérard. “Les Fêtes dans le monde hindoue.” L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie 22.3 (1982): 5–119.

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    Includes articles on Nepalese variations on Hindu festivals, including analyses of space and time (in Nepal), the relationship of particular festivals to caste (in Andhra Pradhesh), structural analysis of Newar communal festivals, and the roles of high-caste women (Nepal). These articles aim to interrogate Hindu festivals within the sociological analysis of festivals initiated by Durkheim, Van Gennep, and Caillois.

  • Welbon, Guy R., and Glenn E. Yocum, eds. Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Manohar, 1982.

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    An edited volume that analyzes the “special time” demarcated by Hindu festivals. The collected essays address the annual Hindu festival calendar, historical and textual accounts of festivals, and ethnographic accounts that situate contemporary festival enactments within their sociohistorical contexts. All essays focus on South India and Sri Lanka, spanning both village and urban contexts.

  • Younger, Paul. Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    A detailed ethnographic account of a wide variety of religious festivals of South India, including Sri Lankan and diasporic examples. This well-researched text includes details about each festival’s mythical roots, sociopolitical context, and contemporary enactment. While some Christian festivals are included, the majority of festivals discussed are of Hindu origin.

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