Last Tuesday, January 14, was the date of this year’s Mawlid, the Islamic celebration of Muhammad’s birth. It was also Makar Sankranti, a Hindu harvest festival that joyfully honors the start of spring, the beginning of an auspicious/favorable time, the start of a new year, and in some places, the end of the monsoons.
As with all celebratory holidays, friends and family members gather for special food and fun activities, but Hindu holidays are notoriously heterogeneous as celebrations take on the characteristics and customs of the surrounding culture. In some places, milk is boiled in new clay pots until it bubbles over. In other places, people ritually bathe in the local river. Festival-goers might exchange small gifts or sweets, wear new clothes, make offerings to ancestors, fly kites, or build bonfires. I celebrated in my own way by attending a kirtan event here in Asheville on Saturday evening. The holiday doesn’t even have a single name. In much of India, it is called Makar Sankranti, but in southern India (Tamil Nadu) and Sri Lanka, it’s called Pongal.
In some places, rangolis are made to welcome Hindu deities and/or to bring good luck to the home. Rangolis (also called kolam) are decorative, colorful designs constructed on the floor or in a courtyard. The designs, which can be simple or amazingly complex, consist of geometric shapes, Hindu symbols, or images from nature. The outline is then filled in with flower petals or colored grains (e.g., sand, rice, flour). Rangolis make great kid-friendly craft projects, and several age-appropriate patterns can be found on the internet. (Simply search for “rangoli templates.”) We have made both individual and group rangolis in our Sunday school classes when we talk about Makar Sankranti, filling them in with colored sand, colored spices (e.g., paprika, mustard), and flower petals.
Despite wide variations in how the holiday is celebrated, the astrological event underlying Makar Sankranti is highly regular, almost always occurring on January 14. It is based on the movement of the sun, so it matches our Gregorian calendar and does not appear to move around the way Islamic holidays do. (Next year, the Hindu holiday, Makar Sankranti, will still be on January 14, but the Muslim holiday, Mawlid, will not.) On Makar Sankranti, the sun enters the zodiac constellation of Capricorn. In Sanskrit, “makar” means “Capricorn,” and “sankranti” means “movement into a new zodiac constellation,” which may or may not help you remember the holiday’s name.
Makar Sankranti is also associated with Uttarayana the start of an auspicious/favorable time that begins when the apparent motion of the sun shifts. Instead of appearing to move south of the equator, the sun now appears to move north of the equator. Uttarayana is mentioned in the Mahabharata, one of two ancient Sanskrit epics that probably originated around 800 BCE. And when I say “epic,” I mean EPIC. The Mahabharata is four times longer than the Bible and is arguably the longest piece of literature in the world. Book 6 contains a very long conversation between Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna, known as the Bhaghavad Gita. It also contains the death of Bhishma. Both sections refer to Uttarayana and the beginning of the auspicious time.
There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation.
The six months of the northern path of the sun, the path of light, of fire, of day, of the bright fortnight, leads knowers of Brahman to the supreme goal. The six months of the southern path of the sun, the path of smoke, of night, of the dark fortnight, leads other soul to the light of the moon and to rebirth. (Bhagavad Gita, 8:23-25)
The death of Bhishma occurs after his body is riddled with arrows from Arjuna’s bow. Bhishma was a powerful and beloved heroic figure, and even the heavenly beings looked on as Bhishma postponed his death until the auspicious time. This excerpt hardly does the tale justice, but it will have to do for now.
I will never pass out (of the world) as long as the Sun is in the southern solstice. Even this is my resolve. I will proceed to my own ancient abode when the Sun reacheth the northern solstice. (Mahabharata, Book 6, Section 120).
As you may have guessed by now, Uttayana refers to our winter solstice, which marks the beginning of longer days and warming temperatures. Hundreds of years ago, Makar Sankranti and Uttarayana occurred at the same time. However, very slight changes in the earth’s rotational axis, have caused the two astronomical events to become separated over the last two centuries. Nowadays, Uttarayana occurs around Dec. 21 and Makar Sankranti happens a few weeks later. But few Hindus seem to care. After all, it’s much more fun to eat vada and throw water on one another as you share in the merry-making and welcome in good fortune.
Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Eknath Easwaran. CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. Print.
Mahabharata. Trans. K.M. Ganguli (1896). Aryabharati International Society for Hindu Veda Vignan & Atmic Research, 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. <http://www.aryabharati.org/mahabharat/index.asp>