Festivals in India reflect the customs and traditions of each religion. They include worship, Puja, rituals and pilgrimages which when practised after due contemplation of their mythological and philosophical basis helps mankind to evolve spiritually. The Sanskrit word for festival is ‘Utsav’ which comes from the word ‘Ut’ meaning removal and ‘Sava’ meaning grief or worldly sorrows. The festivals are usually celebrated according to lunar calendar. Most of the festivals generally celebrate events in the lives of Avatars, saints and Divine personages to mark the destruction of evil forces. Every event in a festival has great inner significance and they are times of remembrance and celebration. The special atmosphere created by festivals helps in diverting the mind from worldly pursuits to focus on spiritual well being. Some festivals celebrate the abundant gifts of nature and the auspiciousness of the five elements in the sustenance of man. Celebration of festivals includes glorifying God through Kirtans, bhajans, dance, dramas and story recitals. Distribution of Prasad, giving charity to the poor, offering prayers at temples, taking temple deities in procession, wearing new clothes and preparing sweets, decorating houses, temples and streets with banana leaves, fruits and flowers are all some of the main practices of festivals. There are also seasonal festivities like the advent of spring, harvesting season and so on. The Bhagavat Purana quotes festivals or Utsavas ‘as an expression of complete happiness which is ever present in Vaikuntaloka or the abode of the Lord’.
One of the Hindu festivals celebrated in India is Shani Jayanthi which marks the birthday of Shani as per Hindu mythology. Shani or Saturn is one of the nine planets or Navagrahas of Hindu astrology. The word ‘Shani’ is derived from ‘Shanaye Kramati Sah’ meaning ‘the one who moves slowly’. If Shani is favourably positioned in the birth chart then the person progresses in life and if not, the person suffers great harm. It is for this reason that devout Hindus propitiate Lord Shani in astrological charts.
Shani Dev is said to be the son of the Sun God Surya and his wife Chhaya and the elder brother of Yama, the God of death. The results of one’s actions throughout one’s life is said to be given by Shani Dev in the form of just rewards and punishments. He is generally depicted in black, mounted on a crow which is his vehicle or Vahana and holding two daggers, a sword and arrows. The crow is said to represent inauspiciousness in Hindu mythology and in local folk traditions, the worship of Shani includes exorcism and healing rituals to ward of supernatural beings and evil ghosts.
Shani in Astrology
Shani or the planet Saturn takes thirty years to complete its orbit around the sun. It spends two and a half years in every Zodiac sign. It has considerable impact on each sign on its journey around the moon. The cycle of ‘Sadhi Sati’ which is a cycle of seven and a half years affecting the Moon sign is the most dreaded time when the individual passes through great upheavals. At the end of the cycle the individual is freed from Shani’s bad effects. Saturday being the day of Lord Shani, people throng temples to perform Navagraha puja and secure his grace. The Shanivar Vrat is also observed as per strict procedure by many devotees. Shani Yagnas are also performed by learned priests for the good and well-being of the community and the world as a whole.
Most Hindu temples have a small shrine set apart for the Navagraha or the nine planets, Shani being one of them. Devotees circumambulate the Navagraha by making nine rounds for the nine planets in order to propitiate them and secure grace to ward off the evil effects of each of the planets. There are many famous Shani temples all over India like the Shani temple at Shingnapur in Maharashtra, the Shani Mahatma temple at Tumkur in Karnataka, in Uttaranchal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and in practically all the states of India. People tie sacred threads around the pillars in most of the temples which is said to confer blessings on the devotees and ward off evil. Lord Shani is offered oil, black cloth and black seeds which have originated from various legends in Hindu mythology. All the Shani temples have stories behind them to emphasise on the power of Shani and the ways to propitiate him. Thousands of devotees visit the Shani temples from all over the world to pray for grace and happiness.
This day is celebrated as the birth anniversary of Lord Shani and falls in the month of Jyeshta (May/June) on the Amavasya or new moon day. This is a very auspicious day and people read Shani Chalisa and place an idol or picture of Lord Shani and instal his Yantra alongside followed by traditional rituals. Lord Shani bestows on his devotees good fortune, wisdom and knowledge while reducing the effects of past negative actions. Shani mantras are chanted and fasts observed with many devotees wearing specific rudrakshas and gemstones ruled by him to attain his grace and ward off evil.
Festivals in India bring together individuals, families and communities forging a sense of unity and belonging in them. They are numerous and culturally diverse and their celebration and importance varies from region to region. Since most of the festivals are associated with legends from the Puranas which are part of common folklore, they appeal to the common masses who are unable to comprehend dry philosophical facts or indepth study of the scriptures. Thus saints and seers conceived these festivals to reach out to all sections of society to unite the mind and body and to seek the Divine in various simple ways which gave man the strength to tide over difficulties while spreading joy and cheer all around.