Faith & Reason: This is as far from a Holi war as it is possible to imagine

The Hindu tradition has some intriguing insights on the idea of a war for peace ? and on issues of nationhood, power economics, ideology and pride
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Some 20 years ago, on my first visit to India, I happened to find myself in Vrindavan – a village unchanged since medieval times which is the centre of Krishna worship – for the festival of Holi, which Hindus in Britain will celebrate in the coming days. Traditionally this festival takes place just after the crops have been harvested and the rural community becomes ecstatically jolly. But the festival was unknown to the party of Irish Hare Krishnas to which I belonged as we toured on pilgrimage to places associated with Krishna's birth and life.

Some 20 years ago, on my first visit to India, I happened to find myself in Vrindavan – a village unchanged since medieval times which is the centre of Krishna worship – for the festival of Holi, which Hindus in Britain will celebrate in the coming days. Traditionally this festival takes place just after the crops have been harvested and the rural community becomes ecstatically jolly. But the festival was unknown to the party of Irish Hare Krishnas to which I belonged as we toured on pilgrimage to places associated with Krishna's birth and life.

When we arrived, as soon as our bus stopped, one of our party opened a side window of our battered old coach to a little child who was waving from below. As he opened the window, a multitude of children appeared, throwing gulal – coloured powder, greens and blues, yellows, reds and purples – some of it in bags that burst on impact. They then squirted us with water from syringes. My fellow pilgrims near the window were inundated. The children, thrilled, were soon joined by all kinds of people including the middle-aged, professional people and elderly. We told the driver to drive away at high speed; we had no idea what was happening. We thought they had gone mad. But when we parked elsewhere and disembarked, within 15 minutes every single member of the party was smothered in coloured dyes. Our pious pilgrimage turned to mayhem.

At Holi all social convention breaks down, all barriers are pulled away. Everyone is covered in powder, their clothes permanently stained when the water is added. All are fair game. Yellow-coloured people approach you with broad smiles, and smear your forehead and cheeks with red powder. And in the evening there are tremendous bonfires.

One of the stories most closely associated with Holi is that of the great devotee Prince Prahlad whose evil father tried to force Prahlad to renounce his great love for God. Frustrated with his son's refusal to do so, he eventually decided to kill him. He employed his sister, Holika – who had been blessed with a yogic boon, whereby she would remain unscathed by flames – to carry Prahlad into a blazing fire. However, in agreeing to act against the Lord's devotee – and against the greater good – she forfeited her benediction, and in the end Holika was burned to ashes, while Prahlad inherited her power and survived. The story celebrates the victory of love, devotion, compassion, tolerance, and integrity over hatred, selfishness, conceit, greed, and untruthfulness.

This year the festival takes place against the threat of war on Iraq and leads Hindus to ask – if you will pardon the pun – whether this might be considered a Holi war? That is to say, are those set on waging it conforming to the principles of Prince Prahlad or those of Holika? This is more than a rhetorical question. The looming conflict is being labelled a war for peace – a notion which has been heard many times in the last hundred years. But if we are going to use the word peace we need to examine it from a universal perspective, not from a culturally specific one.

The Hindu perspective on peace is fairly different than that being bandied about by the belligerents in the threatened conflict. In Hindu culture it is recognised that we are not in control of the polarities of nature and that there will always be those passing through this world who are willing to cause suffering. Our happiness in this world will always be tempered with misery. Peace is a gift from God. In trying to be peaceful our intense desire must be for a peace which is internal as well as external. That means if our dedication to peace is real we must be seen to use every means to avoid violence – and that must be reflected in everything we say and do. If we are not dealing with our selfish desires of anger, deceit, lust and greed, we are not peaceful people. As long as we are driven by these base desires we will be drawn to conflict and we can never credibly promote peace.

World peace requires us to ask questions about these same selfish desires at a societal level. Hindu culture is not a pacifist one. It recognises that in extreme cases violence may be necessary. But when we consider the example of Holika we see someone who was privileged and gifted, but she lost it all because she became conceited and adopted violence. The start of the fight against this lies in our being truthful with ourselves, acknowledging our weaknesses and being honest about whether it is our principles or just our desires which drive our actions.

Today, when war seems closer than ever, is the time to be truthful about the motives for war which are about nationhood, power, economics, ideologies, culture, personalities and about pride. To use peace as an excuse for war is a great violence and a deceit. It defines peace in political terms. But peace is an internal experience which grows from honesty and humility and is then reflected in all our thoughts, words and deeds. It begins with ourselves, extends to the Supreme and then all of creation. Unless we acknowledge that, whatever the outcome of this war, peace will not be the result.

Shaunaka Rishi Das is Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

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