Ahoi Aṣtamī – How Hindu Dharma Teaches Deep Ecology Through Festivals
The festival of Ahoi Aṣṭamī instills the deep sense in Hindus that our actions have consequences; that human civilization destroys Nature by the sheer act of living in great groups and thus has to make extra efforts to respect and protect Nature; and that we have to give back to Nature as we take much from it.

Today is a festival most of us barely even know about. Some would be familiar with a faint memory of their childhood, when after Barsātein (another almost forgotten festival) and one week before Diwali, married women with children would keep nirjala vṛta (without food and water) for a day and worship Ahoi Mātā. Ahoi Mātā has various different depictions and appearances but she is often imagined in the form of a porcupine. Women cook festive food and most impoṛtantly ‘Gadkore’ which are like chickpea fritters.

In the morning the worship is done on a platform created by making svastika with rice paste or haldi paste. A kalaśa with water and coconut is also placed. The story of Ahoi Mātā is narrated and then the Gadkore are distributed to the children. In various homes these Gadkore are thrown in the air and the children are free to grab as many as they can. The Vṛta is broken in the evening by looking at the first stars and not the moon. As the stars appear first in the sky before the moon on this day so it is considered a somewhat easier vṛta than the more popular Karvācauṭha.

It is a festival basically by mothers for children. That we all know about Mother’s Day today and barely a few know about Ahoi Aṣtamī tells much about the cultural colonialism of Christianity that we suffer from in electoral democracy. While Mother’s Day is just a day of commemoration assigned by secular governments, the festival of Ahoi Aṣtamī has many cosmic truths hidden in it. Hindu Dharma imparts these cosmic truths to everyone regardless of their educational status through these rituals, customs and festivals.

The most interesting thing about Ahoi Aṣtamī is the Kathā that is narrated on this day when women worship Ahoi Mātā. Or rather I should say many Kathās, for there are many variants of the same Kathā.

The story goes like this. A family has seven sons and one daughter. All of them are married. Once during the festival of Diwali, the daughter is visiting her mother’s house too and they are all together. They are cleaning the house and the surroundings for the festive season. While cleaning the garden with a spade they unknowingly hit the burrow of a porcupine and kill the newly born pups of the porcupine. They are much in sorrow for this unfortunate misdeed but the pups are already dead. When the porcupine mother comes home, she is oveṛtaken with grief and curses the killers of her children that just like her pups were killed so the children of the killer will also not survive.

Incidentally it is the spade of the visiting daughter which kills the pups. The daughter is taken with much grief as she is still childless. She then requests all her sister-in-laws to undergo the curse in her place as all of them already have at least one child and she does not even have one. All of them deny except the youngest one who agrees to take the curse upon her.

Though she undeṛtakes the harsh curse she is also taken with grief as she wants more children. She does beget children but seven of them die one after another just after the birth. She then goes to a learned Brahmin to know how to break the curse. The Brahmin tells her that she has to serve the holy cow, with whole of heart and then the curse will break. But it is a special kind of cow called Surahi cow and the sister-in-law has to go find her.

She sets out to find the cow. On her way she finds that a snake is about to eat the child of Garuḍa, (eagle). She intervenes, kills the snake and releases the child. Garuḍa becomes happy upon seeing this and takes her to the Surahi cow. She then sets about serving the cow with all her heart and after the passage of some time, the cow becomes happy with her service, and breaks the curse on her womb.

She gets home and finds that all her dead children are back home. She then starts the worship of Ahoi Mātā and makes it a tradition every year. This is how the tradition starts and the festival becomes celebrated by other women too.

You might laugh at the ‘superstitious magic’ that is involved in the story but sacred cosmologies have a way of communicating to us in myths and legends. These myths and stories talk in the language of symbols and sacred metaphors. These metaphors and symbols work on a much higher plane of consciousness than the rational, logical one. The metaphors embedded in sacred stories and enacted through rituals are not unlike mantras.

If you practice these rituals over a long period of time, the metaphors open their meaning to you; meanings which are cosmic; which are impossible for the rational, logical mind to grasp; meanings which reveal the hidden connections of the cosmos to the individual; meanings which tell about cosmic rhythms which are invisible and yet omnipresent.

To flow with these rhythms (ṛta) is dharma. To struggle against them is adharma. Whole of Sanātana Hindu dharma with all its traditions, rituals and customs is a way to make individuals flow with these cosmic rhythms even when they don’t intellectually grasp them. The intent of Sanātana dharma is to make people follow deep ecological rules, to preserve ecosystem, Nature and also culture even if they don’t directly comprehend the immensity of the data and logic involved.

The story of Ahoi Aṣtamī is particularly intent upon instilling a deep ecological sense in those who follow it.

To start with, the goddess is a porcupine, not generally an animal you associate with divinity. It is to show that divinity lies everywhere. It shows that our actions have implications and that if you hurt someone you cannot forgo its consequences.

Human civilization is violence against Nature. Hindu dharma through its various rituals recognizes this fact deeply. The starting point of Vāstu Śāstra is to appease the disturbance in Nature that human building activity creates. Similarly, agriculture is violence against the earth. To make up for that disturbance there are various rituals which instill the sense in us that we have to give back to Nature as we take from it.

Ahoi Aṣtamī shows this dilemma. It is basically an activity of human civilization which kills the wild animals and there are serious consequences of that. The curse is shifted from one person to other but it remains until the sister-in-law saves another child from death and thus restores the balance of Nature back. It is only then that the curse is lifted.

The story instills deep sense in the Hindus that our actions have consequences; that human civilization destroys Nature by the sheer act of living in great groups and thus has to make extra efforts to respect and protect Nature; and that we have to give back to Nature as we take much from it, if we want to maintain the ecosystem and restore the balance of Nature, ecology and dharma. It is a deep ecological sense which these small festivals instilled in their followers and worshippers.

On this day the worshippers are encouraged not to use any sharp object or man-made weapon to signal the intent to not harm Nature. On Daśaharā we celebrate the weapons for cultural reasons: to destroy adharma. On Ahoi Aṣtamī we steer clear from them and any sharp object so that we restore the balance of Nature and dharma. This is how deep the Hindu sense of ecology now.

It was these festivals and their ‘stupid superstitions’ which managed to instill this deep sense of ecology in its inhabitants without elaborate research or studies, and without the help of the State, colleges and universities. Even the illiterate had that sense of ecology and it was not enforced by the State or by the rule of law, but in a bottom-up manner by dharma itself, and through its much maligned rituals, customs and traditions.

Contemporary Hindus need to celebrate every such small Hindu festival to celebrate the greatness that is the Hindu dharma, the greatness that is Sanātana dharma, and to continue the greatest way to instill a deep sense of ecology in our future generations.

Śubha Ahoi Aṣtamī!

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