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Mahamastak Abhishek festival at Shravanabelgola
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With the panoply of gods, goddesses, saints, prophets, and gurus who are venerated by India's six major religions, it's not surprising that the subcontinent is awash with festivals. Hinduism's vast canon of myth and history is the wellspring for the majority of these celebrations. Diwali (the Festival of Lights), the five-day festival marking the triumph of good over evil, and Holi, North India's springtime festival, where revelers douse each other with colored powder, are among the most popular. But the Hindu calendar is brimming with festivals for specific gods and those held at individual temples as well as pilgrimages to holy sites, such as the Magh Mela.
The more than 150 million-strong Muslim community holds celebrations for Id-ul-Fitr, the feast that ends the 28-day Ramadan fast; Muharram, which honors the martyrdom of the prophet's grandson; and the Urs, at Ajmer, Rajasthan, marking the death of a Sufi saint. Each year Buddhists honor the birth of the Buddha and Sikhs hold festivals related to the lives of their gurus. Jains celebrate the birth of Mahavira and, every 12 years, mark the life of one of their saints, Bahubali, with the Mahamastak Abhishek at Shravanabelgola. Festival participants are shown here next to the Chauri Bearer sculpture at the bottom of the 57 foot tall statue.
Taking place every 12 years, this Jain festival celebrates the life of saint Bahubali. Millions of devotees travel to Shravana Belagola in the Indian state of Karnataka, in South India, for the ritual anointing of a 57 foot statue of Bahubali, also known as Gomateshwara. The gigantic statue of the nude saint was carved out of a single piece of granite from the hill, known as Vindhyagiri or Indragiri, where it's located.
The festival has been regularly observed since 981 CE, when the statue was completed, and involves the anointing of the colossal figure with a multitude of substances beginning with sanctified water from 1,008 small metal vessels. Then it is showered with a series of other libations, such as milk, sugarcane juice, pastes of saffron and sandalwood, as well as powders of coconut, turmeric, saffron, and vermilion. These are followed by offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, petals, and coins, culminating with a cascade of flowers.
Priests and select devotees ascend 700 stairs to reach the top of the statue in order to conduct the ceremony, while masses of pilgrims watch from the foot of the colossus and are drenched by the materials being showered on the figure.
Jains revere Bahubali, who, according to legend, renounced his kingdom after winning a battle with his brother Bharata because he was disillusioned by the desire for power that set him against a family member. Bahubali decided to seek spiritual enlightenment and stood meditating for so long that vines began to grow on his legs and spread to his arms, which is how he is represented in the statue at Shravana Belagola.
According to Jain scripture, Bahubali was the second-born of the one hundred sons of the first tirthankar (Jain teacher) Adinatha (also known as Rishabhadeva). When Adinatha renounced his kingdom, he divided it between his sons, Bharata, the eldest, and Bahubali. Bharata’s ambition to become the supreme ruler of his age led him to capture neighboring kingdoms, but Bahubali would not cede his territory. To avoid unnecessary bloodshed, the two brothers decided to fight each other in three separate contests—of sight, water, and physical strength (wrestling)—each of which Bahubali won. After the last contest, Bahubali became disillusioned by the quest for power that set him against a family member, and he renounced his kingdom to seek spiritual enlightenment. Bahubali became an ascetic and stood meditating for so long that anthills formed on the ground near his feet and vines grew on his legs and spread to his arms. Enlightenment still eluded Bahubali because he could not free his mind from the thought that he was standing on his brother’s land. When Bharata came and prayed at his feet, Bahubali was able to free his mind and achieve enlightenment and salvation.
In the 10th century CE, Chamundrai, a general and chief minister to a Ganga dynasty king, had a statue built of Bahubali on a hilltop in Shravana Belagola. It has become a revered Jain pilgrimage site that draws millions of followers every 12 years for a spectacle, the Mahamastak Abhishek, during which a 57 foot tall statue of Bahubali is anointed with saffron, milk, flowers and numerous other symbolic items.
A chauri bearer is a roughly six-foot tall highly carved and ornamented statue of a male figure carrying a fly whisk (or "chauri") at the foot of the statue of Bahubali. A matching female figure is found on the other side of the statue. These statues are often found in pairs at the foot of larger statues, as attendants.
The festival's name comes from the Sanskrit word "Deepavali," which means "row of lights," and during the five-day celebrations, Hindus decorate their homes and businesses with oil lamps (diyas), candles, or strings of electric lights. The festival commemorates an episode in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, when Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshman make their triumphal return from a 14-year exile to the city of Ayodhya after defeating the demon-king Ravana. Ayodhya was illuminated to mark their return, which is replicated during Diwali with the lighting of lamps and firework displays that also symbolize the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.
In addition, the lamps are intended to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, who is the focus of religious worship during the festival. Hindus pray to her, at temples and home altars, in the hopes that she will bring happiness and success in the coming year as Diwali also marks the start of the Hindu New Year. Gifts and boxes of Indian sweets are exchanged between family, friends, and business associates. Homes are cleaned and their entrances adorned with decorative motifs (rangoli) made of colored chalk, rice or flour, which usually include a lotus flower, a symbol of Lakshmi.
Holi is the joyous and colorful Hindu festival that ushers in spring and takes place each year in February or March, predominantly in North India. It originally began as a farmer's festival to mark the first wheat harvest, but is now linked to several Hindu legends, two of which provide the inspiration for key elements of the festivities—the lighting of bonfires and throwing of colored powders.
The demon king Hiranyakashipu ordered his subjects to worship him instead of God. His son Prahalad, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused, so the king ordered his death. After several attempts to kill Prahalad failed, the king sought his sister Holika's help. She, thought to be immune to fire, sat in a huge blaze with the boy on her lap, but through divine intervention Prahalad was saved and Holika burnt to death. To commemorate this triumph of good over evil, huge bonfires are lit during Holi, which also derives its name from Holika.
In another legend, a young Krishna, the blue or dark-skinned Hindu god, jealous of his consort Radha's fair complexion, complained to his mother Yashoda. She suggested he apply different colors to Radha's face in order to change her appearance, which he did. Holi, dubbed the "festival of colors," reenacts this playful prank as throngs of people douse and smear each other with colored powders (gulal) sold at street stalls. Sometimes the powders are mixed with water and sprayed from water pistols and plastic bottles.
The annual festival held in Allahabad, formerly called Prayag, where three sacred rivers meet: the physical Ganges and Yamuna rivers are said to be joined here by the invisible, heavenly Saraswati River. This confluence is known as the Triveni Sangam and it is where, according to Hindu legend, Lord Brahma (the God of creation) performed the first fire sacrifice.
The location is considered especially auspicious during the Hindu month of Magha (January to February) on the day of the full moon and the new moon. Each year during this time, thousands of pilgrims travel to the city to take a ritual bath in the confluence to wash away their sins and increase their chances for salvation. In addition, they perform pujas (religious rituals), meditate, and mingle and listen to the addresses of Hindu holy men. A temporary tent city emerges on the river's banks to accommodate the faithful.
Allahabad (Prayag) is also believed to be one of four holy sites where a few drops of immortal nectar fell to Earth from a jar (kumbh) being fought over by the gods and demons. Every 12 years, millions of pilgrims converge on the city for the Maha Kumbh Mela, the world's largest religious gathering—with 25 million on the chief bathing day in 2001.
The Buddha is the title given to the founder of Buddhism, and means "enlightened one." He was born Siddharta Gautama, a prince of the Shakya clan whose small kingdom was located on the border between India and Nepal. Although exact dates for key events of his life are still in dispute, most scholars believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century CE.
Siddharta grew up in luxury in the palace of his father, Suddhodhana, a warrior-caste king, and in his late teens married the princess Yasodhara. On venturing outside of the palace, he was shocked by the misery he witnessed—of an old man, a sick man, a dying man, and a corpse—and began to contemplate renouncing his princely life.
When Siddharta was about 29 years old, he left his wife and young son to seek religious enlightenment. He spent the next six years in his quest to understand and break free of temporal suffering. He studied under a number of teachers and lived as a wandering, religious ascetic, practicing extreme forms of self-deprivation. He eventually decided to abandon such austere practices and resolved to sit in meditation until gaining enlightenment. One day when he was mediating under a pipal tree in the village of Gaya, later known as Bodhgaya, he reached enlightenment and came to be called the Buddha.
For the next 45 years, the Buddha spent his life preaching his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths throughout northern India and attracted disciples and converts. The Buddha died, achieving parinirvana (final nirvana), at the age of 80 in the town of Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh.
A contemporary of the Buddha, Mahavira (meaning "Great Hero") Vardhamana established the central tenets of the Jain religion in India during the 6th century BCE. Accounts of Mahavira's life differ, particularly between Jainism's two sects, but he was born a prince in Patna as early as 599 or as late as 548 BCE and died of starvation brought on by fasting as early as 527 or as late as 468 BCE. Renouncing his secular life at the age of 30, Mahavira became an ascetic and through fasting, a vow of silence, and meditation, obtained perfection (keval-jnana) 12 years later.
Through the principle of ahimsa, non-injury, Jainism teaches that souls can break out of the cycle of reincarnation or the cycle of constant rebirth. Considered the last of Jainism's 24 great saints (tirthankaras), Mahavira taught throughout India for 30 years after achieving keval-jnana and organized Jain adherents into monk, nun, and layman and laywoman orders.
- How do Indians exhibit their very diverse religious devotions? Do we see equivalent celebrations outside of India?
- What are the natures of these ceremonies? Compare and contrast the ceremonies from the different religions.