Hinduism is the predominant religion practiced on the Indian subcontinent, a region including the nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is the world’s third largest religion, with approximately one billion followers, 960 million of whom (according to 2011’s census) live in India. As in India’s cuisine, Hinduism does not refer to a rigid doctrine, but a collection of affiliated regional belief systems and ritual practices.
A good way to familiarize oneself with a new belief system is through an overview of its major holidays, which open a window on its major tenets, characters, and history. Below, we’ve provided a synopsis of Hinduism’s major holidays. These take myriad forms: from national parties to subdued gatherings, huge celebratory events to quiet functions.
Hinduism is widely considered the world’s oldest extant religion, coming long before Judaism. Like most ancient belief systems, many of Hinduism’s celebrations honor the cycles of nature, the passing of seasons and accompanying crop cycles.
Hinduism is based on the lunar calendar, rather than the solar calendar like Western societies. Because of this, the dates on which Hindu holidays are celebrated “move around,” falling on different days of the Gregorian calendar each year.
Being polytheistic, having many deities, Hindus celebrate a lot of birthdays. The most widely observed are:
Rama Navami can occur in February or March, and celebrates the birthday of Lord Rama. In many sects of Hinduism, Vishnu (meaning “the Omnipresent One”) is considered the main deity, the God from which all others are born. Occasionally, Vishnu descends to earth, taking material form as an “avatar.” Lord Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu to enter the material world.
According to Hindu scripture, Rama was born in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, the site of India’s largest Rama Navami celebration. The festival there can last for seven days, and culminates in a ceremonial dip in the sacred river Sarayu. In terms of food, Panakam, a sweet drink prepared from jaggery, a form of unrefined cane sugar, and pepper is made to honor Lord Rama.
Krishna is the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and his birth is celebrated in August or September.
Observant Hindus celebrate the birth of Krishna by fasting until midnight, the time at which he is believed to have been born. The night is consumed essentially by one big party, during which songs are sung and gifts are exchanged.
In the western Indian state of Maharashtra, observers play a game called Dahi Handi on Krishna Jayanti. Handi, small earthenware jars filled with buttermilk, are placed out of reach all over town. Groups of players must form human pyramids to reach the handi and break them with a mallet. The buttermilk cascades over the group, symbolizing their achievement through teamwork.
Mahashivaratri is celebrated every year in January or February, a day of festivities in honor of the Lord Shiva. Shiva, like Vishnu, is a primary deity within Hinduism and, in the denomination called Shaivism, is considered more powerful than Vishnu.
Like most Hindu festivals, Mahashivaratri begins with a ritual purification in a sacred water source, like the River Ganges.
The actual eating of food isn’t particularly important during Mahashivaratri, but food ingredients are used in several rituals. There is an offering of fruits to Vishnu, which is supposed to benefit longevity, and a statue representing Vishnu, called a linga, is bathed in water, milk, and honey.
Falling between October and November, Diwali is a five-night celebration asserting the victory of good over evil. The main deity associated with Diwali is Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Unlike many Hindu holidays, Diwali is not a time of solemnity, but more like an all-out party.
The gathering of families is paramount during Diwali. Families clean and decorate their homes to welcome the presence of Lakshmi, who is said to walk the earth on the festival’s third day. Fireworks are set off, and everyone returns to their homes at the end of the night to feast. Mithai, various sweets like Gulab Jamun, are a special treat during Diwali.