Little kids are good at it, dogs are too, in fact all animals are, but most adult human beings are pretty lousy at it. Can you guess what I am talking about? I am referring to the activity of play. Play was our second nature as children. As I see in my little nieces and nephews now, there was a time in our lives when we used to squeal in delight while playing. There was a time when our parents had to literally threaten us with punishments for us stop playing and get busy with work (studies). But somehow as we grew up, we became very serious creatures and lost something that was second nature to us. Now all we do is work, work and work. We think of play as a waste of time, unless it is of a competitive nature (as in competitive sports). Play for play sake is a lost art for most adults, that ironically we need to revive by taking it seriously.
|Goofing around with my niece (Year 2011)|
Today is the Hindu festival of Holi--the festival of playing with colors. Many of us celebrate the festival without really understanding the significance of it. That's fine in some respects, because the beauty of such traditions is that you reap their benefits when you engage in them, irrespective of whether you actually know their psychological and spiritual significance. However, it is also true that we are likely to do things the right way and in a more committed fashion if we understand the scientific basis of our festivals. So my post today is to very briefly explain the psychological basis of Holi. The post is not just for my readers. As is usually the case, through the process of writing my posts, I also try to remind myself of the things that are truly important in life.
As most Hindus know, the Holi festival has two main parts: 1) Holika Dahan, which involves lighting a bonfire the evening before the day of playing with colors, and 2) Holi, which involves playing with colors with your family, acquaintances, and even strangers. Most Hindus will also know that the Holika Dahan bonfire tradition is related to the story of Bhakt Prahalad, and the Holi playing with color festival is related to the leelas of Radha and Krishna. The Holika Dahan story is typically referred to as a story of good over evil, but it is much more than that. To me, the story of Prahalada is also a victory of the power of innocence (depicted through Prahalada's innocent love towards Vishnu) over mindless competitiveness (depicted through Hiranyakashipu, the ambitious demon who at one point of time controlled Indrapuri). You will appreciate this interpretation, especially when you put it in context of the tradition of playing with colors the day after the Holika Dahan. Holi is the celebration of the joyful play of Krishna with Radha and the Gopis. Krishna is of course the most playful avataars of Vishnu. Holi, where people become carefree and play with colors, is again a celebration of unadulterated play that unfortunately we only see in innocent children.
There is a kind of abandonment in real play. When you are engaged in real play, you lose all self-consciousness, a mindset that most of us adults are plagued with. The times when we succeed in living our life with a complete sense of abandonment--where there are no worries about winning or losing, no worries about what others will think of us--are the happiest times of our life. Such states have been described in the psychological literature as flow or being in the zone. Naturally, we continue to strive for those moments.
Sadly, having become too serious, most of us adults cannot get over our self-consciousness without the aid of substances such as alcohol and bhaang. Bhaang, as most Indians know, is very popular during times of Holi. This is a truly a sad degradation of ourselves, where we cannot even play with abandon without the help of substances. Now, lest I be accused of preaching morality, I should say that I don't see anything immoral in use of substances. I just find them to be inefficient means of experiencing bliss, because along with the momentary bliss comes terrible hangovers. And worse they are unhealthy, addictive, and potentially dangerous for self and others (as happens during drunken driving or alcohol inebriated rapes).
The point is that we adults have a need to experience the sense of self-abandonment that we could so easily access when we were children. That's why we gravitate towards substances. However, children don't need alcohol or bhaang to experience joy and bliss. They simply play. Holi is a festival that reminds us to loosen up and play without purpose. And this is also the spiritual significance of Holi. It prompts us in the direction of taking ourselves less seriously. It leads us in the direction of Ananda, which essentially means joy/bliss and is one of the three chief characteristics of the Brahman and our real selves.
Lastly, for those who only believe in science, there is quite a bit of research that has been done on the power of play. Play has been found to make people more happy, optimistic, creative, compassionate, physically healthy, productive. It has also been found to deepen our relationships. In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, author Stuart Brown shares his research on murderers, and finds that one common link among the killers was that they lacked play during their childhood. Most of us probably played a lot during our childhood days, and have only lost the art as adults. So let's take up play, so that we don't end up killing ourselves through our mindless lifestyles. There is also strong positive correlation between play and success. So, if the external manifestation of success is all you want in your life, it still makes to take play seriously.