Holi, Yamas, and Freedom

By  Vanessa Webb | 


Let the colours fly!  It’s India’s Holi festival!  Aside from Diwali, Holi is one of my favourite Hindu festivals….but, I’m a “foreigner”, so what do I really know…they’re probably all wonderful.  Holi always arrives with the fullness of the March moon which tonight, is hanging like a silver dollar in the sky….a clear sky, so black it’s the colour of Midnight Blue.  And a light so soft and full, everything stands out as if on the Moon itself.  

image credit: demotivateur

Holi, like other Indian festivals, symbolises the triumph of good over evil, or light over dark.  Its significance is shared in a couple of ways, I learned of one on my friend’s front porch while in India. He freely shares the beliefs of Hinduism with me when I have a well-full of questions.  So, one day after his rooftop yoga class, we sat on his front porch and he told me the story of Holi.  He told me of the sister who lured her brother to play, as a means for him to die in a fire. Story goes, their father who was king, was jealous of his son’s love of Lord Vishnu.  The daughter had been blessed with the boon of being immune to fire. But, in the end the tables turned and her deception led the daughter to ash, yet the brother remained unscathed.

To fill out this legend, we could equate the lessons we learn from the Yamas, and their prompt toward overcoming our lower selves.  Yama means “restraint”, and Holi stems from the word which means “sacrifice”.  Though it’s a total mind flip for most people, freedom is gained through restraint, and it does this through refinement of our awareness, which comes through knowledge of self. In this case, the father, if he’d had the restraint of his jealousy, his beloved (and beautiful) daughter wouldn’t have turned to ash.  The lesson he would have learned, had he chosen instead to overcome his jealousy, wouldn’t have felt so good (as none of our lower tendencies do), but the self-restraint would have led him to the freedom gained through self- understanding.  This self-knowledge would have liberated him in a way he never could have known…nor would he ever find out, having acted on his jealousy rather than restraining it. He assumed that wielding his power to do what he wanted when he wanted, meant he would get what he wanted…but alas, he found out that Life plays the final hand. 

Had the father been willing to restrain himself, he would have known more deeply what was appropriate and what wasn’t, through discerning one thing from another.  He would have gained the confidence to be a stronger king, which again brings another mind flip:  Once he would have gained that confidence, he wouldn’t need to take himself so seriously anymore….his discipline would have led him to know that his “right” isn’t necessarily a universal, all encompassing “right”…he’d have a lot of elbow room to laugh at himself then…to soften those edges around “my way or the highway”, to know he’s done his best, so when “the chips fall where they may” they might not land so hard…he would be better equipped to discern the situation and what it required.  It’s a more pleasant life experience all round.

image credit: design.junkie

The carefree colours of Holi represent that tuning in to the joy of life, the free expression of the unexpected moments it brings, and living those moments for all they’re worth.  We can’t have an awareness of these moments when we’re so caught up in control that we do whatever it takes, at all cost, to be in control.  The mirror gets flipped in Holi…having our faces and bodies smeared in colours brings our beauty to a new form…one of freedom.  From that particular situation, that first choice of restraint, our freedom grows, it expands into a way of approaching life, which means we meet our life from our own decisions…and this is freedom.