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Holika Dahan: The tale of the burning pyre in modern India

India's culture, art, music, and festivals have been a way to transmit ancient knowledge, philosophies, and science. Holi is one such festival that teaches certain values to society through the story of Prahlad and Hiranyakashyap. Hiranyakashyap was skilled at warfare and managed to have a large kingdom. The success he achieved led him to believe he was equal to God. Consumed by ego and pride, he ordered his subjects not to worship Vishnu. Despite this, his own son Prahlad was an ardent devotee, and continued worshipping the Lord. Enraged by Prahalad, Hiranyakashyap ordered his killing. The child was thrown down the mountain, poisoned, tramped on with an elephant but was immune to all the evils. The king ordered his sister Holika, who was immune to fire, to place the child on her lap and sit in the pyre. Vishnu saved the child but let Holilka burn to ashes.

This story teaches the virtue of being devoted and not being consumed by vices. The body is comprised of fire, so aarti, Havana (or pyre) is considered pertinent to spiritual healing. Modern science supports this tradition by suggesting that fire rituals may be effective for treating mental health issues.

Traditionally, communities used to celebrate this occasion by bringing dry wood from each household for a community fire. Idols of Holika and Prahlad are made with cow dung and lit in the pyre. Dry, seasoned wood generally produces the least harmful smoke and most heat. A lot of other things were also added which helped purify the air upon burning.

Today, the celebration has become symbolic and a matter of convenience. The pyre is burnt using healthy and green trees, along with plastics and other products that come from modern consumerism. These unnatural products release toxic gases like Dioxins, Furans, Mercury, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere. This is a blatant alteration of the traditional ritual that causes air pollution and also negatively impacts human health.

Our traditions are grounded in science and a love of nature. It is high time that we reconsider and revisit them.

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