In the collective unconscious of the Indian subcontinent, Holi is intertwined with the youthful, playful aspect of Krishna. I recently came across a myth about the genesis of the festival that I had never heard before. It has to do with a dark-skinned Krishna smearing the fair-skinned Radha with colour, thereby erasing the difference between their complexions. The colour of skin, that sharp and contentious dividing line between human beings that exists till today, is discarded and a step taken towards transcending outer form in favour of deeper truths.
In its erasure of all kinds of boundaries – of race, age, class, and even the otherwise immobile ones of caste and gender – Holi is somewhat akin to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, where slaves and masters exchanged places for a day. It led to a much-needed catharsis, a blowing off of steam, as well as a reminder to all of their essential humanity.
In mystical love poetry such as that associated with Radha and Krishna, being doused with the colour of human love is often used as a metaphor for absorption in the Divine. In this context, a poem by the thirteenth century Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau – Aaj rang hai – comes to mind. In it, he adopts the stance of a woman looking for her beloved, who appears in the form of his master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
His master’s rang, literally ‘colour’ but which might also mean his aura of spiritual attainment, is unique, says Khusrau. It exists nowhere else, not in Gokul or Mathura, and it is such that it lights up the whole world. ‘Mohe apne hi rang mein rang le Khwaja ji,’ prays the supplicant, begging his master to dye him, the disciple, in the same rang as himself. This could mean two things – the disciple’s desire to reach the same enlightened state as his master, his rang, so to speak, or the disciple’s wish to surrender his ego to the master and subsume a separate sense of self into his master’s rang, his field of consciousness. Either way, the master is the one who will show the way, who will impart the catalyzing rang to enable the seeker to discard his limited identity and become one with the Divine.
One of Kabir’s couplets expresses this beautifully: ‘Lali mere lal ki, jit dekhoon tit lal / lali dekhan main gayi, main bhi ho gayi lal’ – the crimson glow of my Beloved is everywhere, so much so that I am completely imbued with it. Here, too, the metaphor of colour is used to indicate the stages of spiritual seeking – as a supplicant, the seeker looks upon the beauty of the Divine and marvels at it. The more she becomes absorbed in her efforts to realize Truth, the closer she draws to the source of that beauty, until a point comes where there remains no separation. From a seeker and appreciator of beauty, she becomes beauty herself.