Festivals are to time, what temples are to space. They are gradients of divinity.
The day or muhūrta on which a festival is celebrated is a particularly auspicious time to access the divine through meditation, pūjā and arcanā. While anytime is good for meditation, some time periods are much better, just like any place is good for pūjā but some kṣetras have special power in them. Similarly, though all language ultimately originates in Śabda Brahma, Saṃskṛta holds the keys to the divine and the scriptures written in Saṃskṛta on the subject take the gradient even higher.
The reason behind this leads us to one of the most beautiful aspects of Sanātana dharma which is easily illustrated by the darśana of Kaśmīra Śaivism. This darśana tells us that Parama Śiva, the One Undivided Supreme Principle, after the initial creative moment, differentiates into Śiva and Śakti. Duality appears. Śakti is nothing but the creative aspect of Śiva. And Śakti wants to play. The saṃsāra, according to Kaśmīr Śaivism, is a play of consciousness – citta śakti vilāsa. Universe and all life is the result of Śaktī playing with herself.
This process of the One Undifferentiated Consciousness becoming many is called saṇkoca in Kaśmīra Śaivism. The word saṇkoca means ‘descent or coming down of consciousness’. As the Supreme Principle becomes many from one, it is considered as ‘coming down’, as the limitless nature of the supreme principle is limited with every successive step of ‘descent’ or ‘coming down’. With every such step, the consciousness contracts more and becomes more localized or individualized. All the elements in the universe, all the species and all the individuals are the result of successive differentiation of the Śakti.
As we become individuals after multiple steps of saṇkoca, we forget our true nature, which is Parama Śiva. But it is not something to be dejected at. While the true nature is lost under the layers of illusions and egos that we develop, our link to the divine, to Śiva, is never completely broken. Even while the Supreme Principle is inexpressible, all expressions originate from it. Even when the Supreme Principle is formless, all forms flow from it. That is why no matter where you are, who you are, it is possible to create a connection with the divine and progress in sādhanā from there itself. It is possible to ‘ascend in consciousness’ because there is a real and unbreakable link between all of us and the divine.
Just as the Śakti becomes many when it descends, so can the differentiated individuals ascend in their consciousness and realize the unity of it all. It is the fact that everyone and everything is a reflection of the supreme reality which makes it possible for everyone to realize their true nature. But for achieving the ultimate, a correct assessment of the starting position has to be made. And as the ultimate does not become so easily graspable so there have to be wayside milestones which keep reminding us that there are higher planes of consciousness than ours, but which are also within graspable distance.
And that is where the importance of muhūrta, kṣetra and utsava comes from. On certain days across the year, during the utsavas, when the nakṣatras are more aligned, the divine is more palpable, more approachable, and more accessible to anyone who has the will and desire to approach it. Similarly at certain sacred kṣetras the presence of the divine is deeper and more easily accessible.
The divine is more palpable in some places, times and manners than others. It is not absent from anywhere. Just more present at some places and times. By creating a distinction between sacred and profane; śubha and aśubha; divine and human, Sanātana dharma constantly makes us feel the gradients of divinity. The very gravity of an Utsava comes from the special muhūrta in which the designated rituals take place. It is the particular time in a particular place which is important to perform a certain kind of ritual.
This urgency of time, made evident through the shortness of the muhūrta, helps us realize that time is not limitless and we have to hurry to achieve the divine. The sheer existence of muhūrta makes us appreciate that some time periods are more important than others and that we cannot just do whatever we want, at any time we want to do it, especially the celebration of utsavas.
Because when we can do it anytime, we don’t do it at all. It is only when a certain ritual has to be done in a certain period of time, in a certain kind of manner, that we habituate our mind, body, and routine, to it. And that is the entire purpose of utsava and muhūrta.
In an utsava, the approaching of the śubha muhūrta makes our individual consciousness more aligned with and more focused on the deity we are invoking. While on other days, the devotee takes many steps to attain a certain progress in sādhanā, on the day of an utsava, the deity takes many more steps to help the devotee in the devotee’s upward journey.
This is the reason why the year of a Hindu is punctuated with so many festivals. We are led from one gradient to another. While these utsavas constantly make the devotee feel that the devotee has to elevate oneself to a higher level, the frequency and regularity of these festivals also provide solace to those who miss one festival, for another is just around the corner!
The year, in this way, for a Hindu, breathes in and out with the gradient of divinity rising and falling with each utsava. Thus the whole year is not seen as a period of hardship punctuated by difficult labor, but it is rather seen as celebration of the cosmic and the divine punctuated by dull periods when you prepare for the next festival. The Hindu psyche in this way is reversed.
If we are not a jīvanamukta, wherever and whoever we are, these gradients of divinity make us feel an urge to elevate ourselves to higher planes of consciousness. The tension in the rubric of time, place and language is made to be felt through these gradients of divinity. This tension warns us not to fall downwards, and exhorts us to raise ourselves to higher and elevated planes of consciousness. The divine beckons us to elevate ourselves on the gradient of divinity, literally so in a kṣetra, as most of them are created on an elevated piece of land.
In kṣetras it is the devotee who goes to tīrtha kṣetras like the Char Dhams to have darśana of the deity and to meet the guru, but in case of Kuṃbha Mela it is the divine gurus who travel and gather together at one place for the convenience of the śiṣya. Bhāratavarṣa is punctuated with millions of such kṣetras. And it is these sacred kṣetras which keep the soul of Sanātana alive.
The kṣetra has three integral components: a great temple, a sacred grove, and a water body, or a flowing river. This is not an exception but a norm. Since in modern times, so many temples exist without a sacred grove of trees, it might seem like an exception. A temple never existed without a sacred grove and a water body. There was always a lake, a pond, a river, a well, or an ocean beach alongside it.
The Hindu Temple never existed without a sacred grove. Just like the sacred pond, the sacred garden and the sacred inner precincts, the sacred grove was also an inseparable part of the temple complex. Sanātana Dharma does not just stop at worshipping Nature but extends its worship to divine beings on higher planes of consciousness too, mirroring realities on other planes of existence, yet this does not mean that it neglects Nature or goes against it.
As the kṣetra is a higher point in the gradient of divinity, this gradient is felt even inside the kṣetra as the devotee proceeds from outside towards the garbha-gṛha.
As a devotee enters a Hindu temple, such as the Kandariya Mahadev temple of Khajuraho, and as he proceeds through the various parts of the temple, from mukha maṇḍapa, to maṇḍapa, to mahā maṇḍapa, and then finally to garbha-gṛha, the devotee symbolically climbs the Mount Meru, leaving the world, its multiplicity and ignorance behind, and proceeds towards the pinnacle of knowledge, that is self-realization; he proceeds to have darśana of the deity in the garbha-gṛha, where he realizes his oneness with the deity or the Supreme consciousness.
This symbolism of the devotee’s journey from the outer world to the inner world is heightened by the decorative sculpture or the absence of it in various parts of the temple. The outermost walls of the maṇḍapa and the adhiṣṭhāna is where the scenes from the world are described in which the devotee sees every kind of activity that takes places in this world.
As he proceeds inwards he witnesses scenes that are less worldly and have a sacred flavor to it; like gaṇdharva playing divine instruments or apsarā playing in divine gardens and minor deities in different poses; as he proceeds further inwards, he sees major attendant deities like Sūrya, Varuṇa, Agni etc. and other sages along with the different forms of the primary deity.
As he proceeds further inside, only deities like Śiva, Viṣṇu, Gaṇapatī and Śakti are to be seen along with their consorts and in the garbha-gṛha there is no other mūrtī, deity, or decoration, other than the principal deity. The temple thus is a representation of the entire cosmos, reflecting everything that takes place in this world.
This symbolism is replicated in the play of light and darkness in various parts of the temple. The outer walls and the adhiṣṭhāna are naturally fully lit and as the devotee proceeds inwards from the scenes of the outer world to the scenes of the inner sacred world, the light decreases and in the garbha-gṛha, it is almost non-existent, where the world completely disappears and there is only the Supreme Consciousness and there is oneness of the devotee with his deity. Here there is no light of the world, good or bad, just the deep calm that is characteristic of Brahma, the Supreme Consciousness, which is without any attributes. The gradient is acutely felt compared to the outside, in the garbha-gṛha, where it is at its highest.
In language too this gradient is quite palpable. All language has its origin in Śabda Brahma, and Saṃskṛta holds the keys to the divine and the scriptures written in Saṃskṛta on the subject, which takes the gradient even higher. Shri Ram Swarup spoke on this aspect while talking about where do sounds reside:
Where do the sounds reside before they acquire audibility and amplitude through the larynx and articulation through the cavity of the mouth, and become modified into guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial sounds? The only valid assumption is that they exist as incipient speech, as prefiguration of speech and not the actual speech as we know it. In this state, speech is probably held in an undifferentiated form; at least, it cannot have the kind of differences that we know and infer from ordinary speech-sounds. At this stage, speech and words must reside in the mind as inclinations or intentions.
– (Swarup 15)
Grounding this in the language of the śāstra, he comments further on the entire gradient of language and how even the most mundane words have a connection to the most divine of words, roots and ultimately to the ultimate reality. As soon as heights are achieved in any sphere, time, place or language, the same reality is encountered again and again. Shri Swarup says:
But the Indian sages go further and enumerate four levels of speech of increasing subtlety – vaikharī, madhyamā, paśyantī and parā. The vaikharī level is the level that we ordinarily know, where the sound is formed, śabda niṣpattī happens. Its seat is the throat. Behind it, and supporting it, is the madhyamā vāk with its seat in the heart region. It cannot be heard by all but the more attentive can hear it by closing their ears. It can always be heard by the inner ear, śrutigocara. Here the sequence and form, kṛma-rūpa, are not the same as we see them in ordinary speech. Beyond this lie two other levels, paśyantī and parā, with their seats at the navel, nābhī, and the solar plexus, respectively. They are beyond the ken of the ordinary mind and they can be seen only by Yogis in states of deep trance. In paśyantī, there is no sound but only meaning, dyotitārtha. In this state, the speech is indivisible, avibhāga, and the forms and sequence are fused or concentrated, sarvatah saṃhṛta-kṛama, as in a seed. In parā the speech is established in its own luminous form, svarūpajyotiha, and in its original, primal form before any modifications start. Here sound becomes silence, aśabda, and only a potentiality, avyakta.
– (Swarup 16-17)
These gradients make us realize how much we need to elevate ourselves. And that is the beauty of Sanātana dharma as it also gives us the means to do so. It does not just give us the promise but also the know-how to raise ourselves. By creating a distinction between a sacred kṣetra and a profane place; by creating a distinction between a divine festival and an ordinary day it exhorts us to rise above our petty selves. In the absence of these gradients the world will become an undifferentiated sphere of secular activity. Left to us to access it anytime and anywhere, we will never do it. So that this does not happen, exist the Kṣetra, Śāstra and Utsava.
On certain days, at certain places, certain scriptures are read where these three gradients come together; where Kṣetra, Śāstra and Utsava come together.
Today is Śri Kṛṣṇa Janmāṣtamī. At various places in India, like Mathura, Vrindavan, Gokul, at Dwarka and lakhs of Kṛṣṇa temples all across India this divine trinity will take place: at a certain muhūrta of an utsava, at a certain temple (kṣetra), divine songs will be sung to Kṛṣṇa and that is an opportunity no Hindu can miss.
It is these festivals, temples and scriptures which keep the Hindu alive in public space. The Hindu responsibility is to recognize this and transfer this festive fervour to the next generation. For this is the importance of festivals, temples, and scriptures, in Hindu life.