This week the Jewish holiday of Purim and the Hindu holiday of Holi overlapped, as they sometimes do. I am not sure there is a more delightfully instructive contrast between two religious holidays on the calendar. There’s something about the way they’re celebrated that sheds some light on some oft-overlooked human spiritual needs.
Humans evolve spiritual practices over time according to what they need and what works for them. I always find it useful to look at a practice I didn’t grow up with and think “what need is that meeting for them? Is that need being met in my life?”
Both Purim and Holi celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Both feature power-hungry men bent on having people bow down to them, and, when they don’t get their way, on killing people. They also feature protagonists who advocate and protect their people, who refuse to bow down to megalomaniacs, and whose goodness and devotion wins out in the end. They choose to be steadfast in their soul commitments, rather than to be trampled by a tyrant. These are holidays about people with less power who, fuelled by devotion and integrity, will not relinquish their freedom. Their hearts are true and they will do as they please.
It’s instructive that in celebrating the good guys winning, Hindus and Jews over millennia have developed such similar ways of celebrating this triumph of good over evil. They include: anarchic partying. Flattening social hierarchy. Turning everything joyfully upside down.
Holi is famous for being the holiday when revellers spill out into the streets covering each other in bursts of coloured powder, dousing each other with water, all with zero regard for power or prestige. Everyone, no matter who they are, ends up unrecognizably colourful. On Purim, revellers loudly boo the bad guy and rattle noisemakers during the megillah reading (for non-Jews, note that we’re talking about wild noisemaking during a reading from scripture). There’s a long tradition of costumes at Purim parties, especially cross-dressing. And the instruction to drink until you can’t tell the good guys from the bad (a spiritual practice best left to very special occasions!).
Why would you celebrate the triumph of good over evil with a party so riotous that you can’t tell good from evil? Wouldn’t that defeat the point? That could get pretty dark, no? Except the whole point is that there’s a confidence that it won’t get dark. It will get colourful, and it will get messy, but risks can be taken because darkness is at bay.
These are the needs I see being met in these holidays, coloured by the perspective of my own heart. My heart rebels at megalomaniacs who demand allegiance and disrespect human freedom. My heart swells with devotion for my family, my God, my patients, my fellow subway passengers (ok, less consistency on that last one). We humans need to be recognized for the goodness of our hearts, and for the sacrifices we make for the good- that’s what we celebrate on holidays like Purim or Holi.
We need a break from everyday drudgery, that’s part of it. And we always, always need to feel less alone. But the human heart also needs to be recognized for its goodness, to be united to other good hearts, to be affirmed for standing steadfast in deeply held beliefs. We need the reminder that while power is a temptation, it will never satisfy the way we wish it could. And when we get the confirmation we need that virtue and love are worth it, it is time to PARTY.