Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Positive Spiral – Benefits of Collective Celebration of Festivals

This is the third part of my triology on celebration of festivals in India.

We have a long history of collective celebration of various festivals. This formed the basis of social bonding and a way of expressing gratefulness to the elements. Every element of Nature was taken as a manifestation of the Divine.

Over the years one witnessed many changes. People’s perception changed, their preferences changed, they now had a different approach to religion and spirituality. A significant change in the last century has been the development of large urban agglomerations. Urbanisation, brought in its wake a different set of all-round changes.

Here, we will look at the positive spin-offs of collective celebrations of festivals. I had listed three, viz., Janmashtami, Ganpati and Navaratri celebrations which witness large and spontaneous celebrations.

I would begin by looking at some tangible benefits that have accrued to society

Keeping traditional arts alive due to patronage of these festive groups. Artisans from far and wide make their annual pilgrimage to these places and get value for their skills. Traditional arts are kept alive and more importantly these artisans absorb the latest and assimilate them in their working.

Judicious use of surplus financial resources to run many services as

- Education - Schools, Vocational training institutes,
- Health – Clinics, Ambulance services,
- Social – Aligning with civic authorities and NGOs for work on various issues like river cleaning in Pune, use of eco-friendly material, socially responsible celebrations, post-visarjan cleaning activities.
- Cultural activities covering art, music and sports
- Religious activities like bhajan groups, religion awareness classes.
- Charitable activities – assistance to school going children, shelters for the homeless,

I now turn my attention to some of the intangible benefits. These are important because many do not appreciate these at the first instance but play a very crucial role in our society.

• In today’s stressful times, involvement in organizing and managing is a great cathartic experience. Youthful energies are channeled into something constructive for almost two – three weeks before the actual festival and during the festival itself.

• Experts who have tracked this social phenomenon confirm an appreciable fall in levels of violence and stress. Mental problems also show significant regression.

Religion is still a powerful motivating factor. Sending social messages intertwined with religion are an excellent way of attempting social change. Firstly, it spreads awareness and if there is a follow-up under a respectable banner, this can be used as a potent instrument of social reformation. One such group had successfully run a “Vyasana Mukti Abhiyan” (Programme to reduce / eliminate addictions) focusing on tobacco, pan masala and alcohol addictions.

Involvement of local groups – A group festivity celebration puts the onus of good planning and execution on the organizers. This involves large groups of people in what is essentially voluntary work. This is a sort of forced team work and with a dash of devotion thrown in does a lot to promote social harmony. I have seen this especially, during Ganpati celebrations. Over the years, volunteers develop a sense of strong loyalty to group activity, and this becomes an annual pilgrimage of sorts.

• Participation by people in these festivals is an occasion for social interaction and bonding. It is also used by groups which move from one location to another for the “darshan”. In fact, there is a custom that one should see “Eleven Ganpatis”. This is a joyous group activity and increases the “feel good” factor in us.

• Beneficial vibes from participation in “Aarti” (ritual in which light either from lamps or camphor is offered to the deity) and “Bhajan” (collectively singing praises of God) sessions. It is widely accepted that collective prayer and singing has profound healing effects on the whole group.

I have listed some of the main positive spin-offs from our tradition of collective celebration of festivals. I am sure, if one were to study this subject in detail, it could form the basis of a doctoral thesis. I wonder if any one in India has chosen to study this.

It would be very illuminating to share experiences and view points from others – not only from India but across the whole wide world.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Celebrating Festivals – Beyond the Obvious

Change is the only certain and constant process in our lives.

True to this “eternal wisdom”, there have been dramatic changes in our lives. Religion, its relevance, its observance and many other related aspects have not only changed but also accepted as natural. Consequently, festivals have begun to assume newer meanings, and logically, therefore, the way festivals are celebrated has also undergone a sea change.

A great many of these changes have been positive but the dark shadow always lurks around the corner. I prefer to be an optimist but would like to keep my feet grounded in the reality.

Let me attempt to examine a few changes that seem to have robbed our festivals of their innocence and where devotion seems to have taken a back seat.

Invasion of Corporate Sponsorship

No celebration is complete without the “Corporate Sponsorship”. Vast sums of money are flowing in these celebrations and each succeeding year the scale gets grander.

Simplicity, elegance and creativity have been sacrificed at the altar of standardized publicity material.

Political patronage has crept in

Shadowy political figures at every street corner seem to have re-discovered these festive occasions as reminding people of their presence. Their patronage is becoming ever-more visible and combined with money power are slowly edging out the non-political groups.

Declaration of large prize amounts and a host of awards has become the rallying point for such politically tinged celebrations.

This is leading to a game of one-upmanship and we have the spectacle of each group trying to outdo each other.

Money power – coercion to contribute

Life can be quite a nightmare for the residents, shops and other commercial establishments in any area.

Monetary contributions are aggressively solicited and the quantum is pre-decided. One needs to be really tough or rank foolish to pay anything lesser.

Lack of accountability:

With money comes the temptation of misuse and this is a self feeding vicious cycle. Proper accounting, of all funds collected and spent, is a problem area.

This incentive of making “easy money” is dangerous and fuels ambitions of grander efforts the following year.

Another disturbing feature is the “paid darshan” which is slowly taking root. I thought God is freely available to everyone. Probably, not anymore.

Brazen violation of all rules

No one dare show the rule book. It will be quickly twisted out of context and you would be painted “prime villain” of the piece.

Nearly every rule is broken. You have unauthorized hoardings, unauthorized “pandal” construction, illegal occupation of public spaces, roads, private spaces…, flouting time limits and probably many more.


It is alarming to count the hazards such festivities pose. Fire and safety hazards, health and noise hazards and environment degradation (recent addition) are some of the issues that do not attract any attention.

Some Pertinent Questions

Are things really so bad???

Is this another lost case where the very purpose of collective celebrations has been hijacked by a more nefarious agenda or is one reading too much in all this???

Has it become fashionable to lament on any such evolution as destructive or have we become purists and status-quo ists???

Still worse, are we being elitist by being overly critical when the vast majority of the people seem to have no problem and participation in these festivals is a matter of joy and social bonding???

In my next post, I will look for the tremendous positive impact that such collective celebrations have on our lives.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

This Festival Season – The Obvious is what we see.

The Indian Calendar has two broad streams – Shalivahan Shaka and the Vikram Samvat. Both these calendars have the same months in the same order.

If you observe carefully, you have a long festival season that begins around mid-July and extends right up to Diwali around October – November.

This is followed by a break of a couple of months till around mid-February. The next two months mid-April, that is the period between Mahashivratri thru to the harvest festival season covering Holi in between is the busy season again. This is followed by a lull from mid-April through to mid-July.

The most intense festive period according to me and the focus of this post is the period between mid-July through mid-November. The festive atmosphere is amazing with very high energy levels prevailing all around.

During this period we have at least three festivals which witness spontaneous and large participation from the masses. We have the Janmashtami (or Gokul Ashtami) celebrations, Ganapati celebrations and lastly Navaratri festivities.

It is my attempt to see these festivities from a different perspective. The first would be to see and appreciate what is visible and, therefore, obvious. Going further, it would be very interesting to examine what is beyond the obvious. To be fair, it is imperative to look at the seemingly dark side and what I consider the brightest aspect of these festivities.

The obvious that one sees, as part of these celebrations, is

a. Plenty of glitter and elaborate arrangements
b. High levels of devotion
c. Strong interest from the people to participate in such festivities as evidenced by large crowds and long serpentine queues,
d. Participation of many people in the organizing efforts,
e. Popularity of thematic presentations like Environment, Pollution Control, Peaceful co-existence, anti-terrorism themes…..
f. Competitive spirit amongst various groups,
g. Cultural programmes, various competitions and sports events for the residents of that area.

There is no limit to what else can be added as part of these festivities. All creative juices are in full flow.

In the next post, I will examine What is beyond the obvious?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ganesh Chaturthi Celebrations – It’s meaning to me

Today is the fourth day (Chaturthi) of the first half (Shukla paksh) of Bhadrapad month as per the Hindu calendar. This is day of Ganesha or Ganapati and celebrated with great devotion in Maharashtra and rest of the country.

Literally, every household is a picture of devotion, excitement, energy and supreme happiness. I have friends who tell me that they feel so energetic and fresh in spite of being on their feet the day long and sleeping so little. They also feel the vacuum and loss of energy when the Lord departs at the end of ten days of festivity.

I have always marveled at this total change in the atmosphere for ten days. Maybe, I should also add the twenty days preceding this day too.

Every year, we go to the GSB – Wadala Math for our poojas and this year is no different. I pondered on what Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations meant to me. This led me to a fascinating journey inwards, almost like meditation and I felt blessed at the end of it. Let me share the quintessence of what I understood.

Life is a gift from the divine and we have come here to achieve something in our lives. It is up to us to find our true calling and it is our duty to make a difference where it is required.

That - this divine force is always by our side and we are blessed and taken care of. In fact, I am told that all our needs have been taken care of, some even before we have realized them as our need.

That – we are solely responsible and have that infinite power to write our own destiny.

That – festivals are an occasion to express our undying gratitude for all blessings in our life and also an occasion to celebrate life itself.

At the end of this, I was in total awe, experienced complete devotion and absolute surrender and bliss.

We bow down at the divine feet of Lord Ganesha and seek His Grace in all aspects of our life.

May each one of you have a great festival ahead. Let us all thank Lord Ganesha for all the blessings he has bestowed on us and our family members.