Why Hindus rush to temple to celebrate New Year?
(Discourse by N. R. Srinivasan, Nashville, T.N., USA. January 2014)
On this eventful day, December 31 and New Year’s Eve, I recall my first snow driving experience all night long from Albany to Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve night of 1984 to have the morning darsan (vision) of Lord Venkateswara during Abhisheka ceremony conducted for the devotees who throng the temple seeking prosperity and health throughout the year. I did not realize at that time that January 1, is not a religious sacred day for Hindus and it was worth taking that much trouble and risk in life driving through snow storm all night to have the glimpse of the Abhishekam and seek a personal favor from God. I was foolish then to join my crazy friends of engineers and doctors to take such a risk with life with my nascent experience to drive through Highway all night long through snow storm. I thanked Lord Venkateswara all through the way for saving my life and co-passengers and also for the help and excellent service rendered by efficient snow crew who cleared the snow as fast as they could to help crazy passengers like us moving at snail’s speed just to pray for personal prosperity in this land of opportunities where hard work matters. Such a help on such ghostly night was impossible to think of in India from the government staff. I was glad I could make my trip successful to witness the Abhishekam ritual and offer my prayers to seek personal favor from Lord Venkateswara which I needed badly at that time as I was just settling down with my family hoping to educate my children in USA. But Lord Venkateswara had his own plans. He just taught me a lesson for my selfishness seeking personal favor.
My chairman who was a crook and who sought my services from UNIDO panel of experts soon recovered from losses, built a fortune with my help, burnt the factory, claimed all inflated losses from insurance, built a mansion on Lake George and went under chapter 11 and threw me out of the job in March that year and settled happily retired to build fortune further from the ill earned money through stock market. All my prayers probably got diverted to my crooked boss to teach me a lesson. All I knew about him was that he was a pious catholic who regularly attended church and who believed in Jesus’s death for the sin of all. However while he blessed him for a while he led a miserable life living alone as his not well educated children fought with him and left him to lead a miserable life. I do not know whether the good Lord helped him further with his gamble with stock market.
I soon realized Lord Venkateswara taught me two lessons in life. He was punishing me for my greed to leave India to seek a sudden fortune when he had given me all the comforts in life in India with a coveted senior executive job in Tatas. He was also laughing at my foolish journey to Pittsburgh to seek a personal favor. He had a good look at my Karmaphala and made my mission complete in USA to educate my children well, get them married in our own community, settle comfortably in lucrative jobs and achieve my goal of rising from poor to upper middle class status. I did not become Bill Gates or Narayan Moorthy though I had the early indication. Somewhere in the middle I faltered.
I was wondering what made these affluent engineers and doctors to drive to Pittsburgh on that treacherous night? It is the blind belief not knowing that Gregorian New Year’s Day has no significance to Hindus and it was an ordinary day like any other day for us. You don’t run to temple on January 1 to worship in India but celebrate it as a National Holiday of secular India. It is the assumed eighth day of the birth of Jesus Christ and the day of his circumcision as a Jew and January 1 was forced on all humanity by Pope Gregory (a sort of proselytization) making it first of day Gregorian Calendar to make it ritualistic for all. Hindus believe on auspicious time called muhurtha for any such special ritual and not any day any time. These first generation Hindus were driven by the belief that Gregorian New Year is yet another Yugadi (Chandramana New Year) and Chitra Vishu(Sauramana New Year) when Samvatsara is meditated upon as Kaala (Time) or Samvatsara (Year), for Supreme Spirit Brahman is custodian of Time. Any worship without this thought and with the sole intention of seeking personal favor will not succeed in the long run though some may be tempted by momentary gains. I was foolish to join this materially educated crowd (para vidya) at that time as I was still immersed in my orthodox bringing up and influence from acquired blind belief from religious atmosphere.
When I retired I turned my attention to spiritually elevate myself and now I believe that my prayer should be without any self-motive and universal in appeal leaving the choice to Him for He knows what is best for me based on my balance sheet Karmaphala which I have the opportunity to amend by my own action. My prayer now is: Viswaani deva savitar duritaani paraasuva / Yad bhadram tanma aasuva // [Oh! Resplendent Lord Savitar, The cause of the universe! Do destroy all our sins; grant us that which is ultimately good to us! With this introduction let us examine why American Hindus rush to temple on New Year’s day to offer special prayers and ask for personal favors.
It is customary for Hindus to rush to temple on every January 1 and offer special prayers seeking peace and prosperity from their chosen deities and it is a natural and traditional Hindu instinct. Hindus worship the Supreme Being (Brahman in Sanskrit) through their chosen deities. It is difficult to find anywhere the mention of the word Brahman in Rigveda. He is addressed and worshiped as elements of Nature and as natural cyclic phenomena like Samvatsara or Year or Time (Kaala). Hindus name their week after the five moving planets, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and the Sun and the Moon known as grahas in Sanskrit. These are seven out of the nine grahas worshiped as Navagrahas in temples. We often hear from Upanishads that our ancient sages meditated upon these derived visible lights of planets and star from Brahman the Supreme Light, as Brahman alone.
The word Samvatsara (Year) stands for duration of Time which determines the origin, continuation and disappearance of the objects in the Universe. Time is measured by diurnal movement of the Sun and the seasons which makes the human year. Time is identified with the Sun because we become cognizant of Time by the change brought about in Nature through the influence of the Sun and by the demarcation made by his rising and setting. The Sun is celebrated as Supreme Principle in Vedas and Upanishads as his Vyaahriti (aggregate). The Sun is not merely the visible glow in the sky, but the divine manifestation or Person (Purusha) contemplated there in our prayers to Soorya (sun worship). Therefore He is the same as the Supreme in his transcendent and immanent aspects. The word Samvatsara is derived from “samyak vasanti sarvabhootaani asmin iti samvatsarah”—all entities exist in this and so it is Samvatsara. Taking this meaning Samvatsara is identified with the Sun because it is the Sun that gives light, clouds, rains, and help creatures to live. So Sun is worshiped on Makara sankranti Day on January 14 to celebrate the harvest season in India. To spiritual thinkers it is the dawn of Uttaraayana, the day on which the Sun starts his Northern journey through the Path of Divines.
Manrtrapushpas are Vedic Mantras. Supreme Principle called Brahman in Veda is prayed as Samvatsara or Kaala or Time (Kaalaaya Namah-MNU). Lord Krishna in Bhagavadgeetaa says that every-thing in the Universe is created by him with the Time and also destroyed in Time, and so He is Time. Lord Krishna while describing himself as Supreme Being to Arjuna in Geetaa says: “Aham eva Akshayah kaalah (10-33).”—I am the endless Time. Akshaya Kaala, the endless time is also called Akaala Purusha or Kaala Niranjana. It is the Time form of Supreme Being. Every devout Hindu who attends 16-step Pooja ritual in temples is well acquainted with the Vedic Mantrapushpa: “Aapo vai Samvatsarasya Aaayatanam”—Water comes from Samvatsara (Time).
We are familiar with the following Mantras of Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad: “Nyaasa ityaahur maneeshinoe brahmaanam brahmaa viswah I katamah swayambhooh prajaapatih samvatsara iti Samvatsaroe asaavaadityoe ya esha aadityoe purushah sa parameshthee brahmaatma ||
Pundits declare that Saranaagati (complete surrender at the feet of the Lord called Nyaasa or Prapatti) is the supreme ever existent means or supreme means of liberation, to attain Brahman; that Brahman who is the Universal Spirit, is supremely blissful, is self-born, is the protector of created beings, is the soul of Time (Samvatsara) and so forth. The Year is the yonder Sun. That Person (Purusha) who is in the Sun is Hiranyagarbha: He is Parameshthin (The protector of the Universe) and Brahmaatman—Supreme Reality that is the innermost Self of all creatures.
Rigveda says: “Ekam sad viprah bahudha vadanti agnim yamam maatarisvaanamaahuh” (The One Pundits call by many names as Agni (Fire God), Yama (God of Death) Maatarisva etc. Another Mantra in Rigveda says: “Tvamagne varunoe jaayace yattvam mitroe bhavaci yatsamiddhah | tve viswe sahasaasputra devaastvamindroe daasushe martyaaya|| [For one Supreme there are many names says this mantra emphatically. The one Fire God (Agni) is called Varuna at the time of birth: Since he is born during the last lap of night he is called Varuna. When Agni is friendly and prosperous he is called Mitra. All gods are present in Agni is evident by the fact all offerings to Gods are made to him. He is present in all creations. When one goes through a cross section of mantras in Rigveda, it is evident that nowhere the word Brahman occurs. All worships are directed towards forces of Nature and to the Time and Season. Hence Time is also an entity (vyaahriti) on which Brahman is meditated upon as Samvatsara or Year. Year is part of Time. Part can be represented by the whole grammatically. Hence Samvatsara (Year) is Brahman.
Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad (MNU) has the following mantra: “Samvatsaroe asaavaadityoe ya esha Purushah | bhootaanaam adhipatir brahmanah saayujyam samaanaatmam aapnoeti” [Samvatsara is verily this Aaditya (Sun).This Purusha is the overlord of all beings. One who meditates upon Him like this attains equality with Brahman and attains his very world]. This implies Brahman is meditated upon as Samvatsara. It includes other types of years also as mentioned in Vedas. The cycle of sixty years in Hindu calendar is divided into twelve units of five years (12x5=60). The five groups of years which make the yuga are called Samvatsara, Parivatsara, Iduvatsara, Idaavatsara and Idvatsara (Taitaareeya Brahmana III-10-3).
Vedic sages meditated upon Brahman through the medium of scheduled sacrifices called Pravargya, Dasapoornamaasa, Chaaturmaasya, Pasubandha and Ahargana. Ahargana yajna devatas (deities) are mentioned as Samvatsara and Parivatsara in MNU which is meant to include all other groups of years also.
Yet another Mantra of MNU says: “Sarve nimesha jagnire vidyutah purushaadadhi| kalaa muhoortaah kaashthaa ahoeraatraascha | ardhamaasaa maasaa rituvah samvatsaraascha kalpataam|| [From the Purusha of the golden hue all minute fractions of Time, time taken for winking of an eye (nimesha) were born. All classifications of Time, kalaa, muhoorta, kashta, ahoeraatra, fortnights, months, seasons, years are formed of the Nimesha. The nimeshas alone are caused by Brahman and those nimeshas yielded other divisions of time by multiplication ending in Samvatsara or Yuga. He is therefore called Yugapurusha or Kaalapurusha (Being of Times). Brahman is therefore meditated upon as Time or Samvatsara, which is the Vyahriti or attribute of Brahman.
Yugadi is a religious function of great spiritual significance. On this day every devout Hindu prays to Supreme Being as Akaala Purusha or Kaala Niranjana or Samvatsara who creates, sustains and dissolves the universe time after time. This in modern times Hindus have extended to Gregorian Year also and so rush to temple to celebrate its cyclic dawn on January 1. Starting period of twelve months or 356 days in a year vary based on different traditions of Hindus—Chaandramaana, Sauramaana, Deepaavali etc.
India has accepted Gregorian New Year as the official New Year and it is a National Holiday, following other Nations of the world after Independence. It has also adopted Chandramana Yugadi in March as its Spiritual Hindu New Year. Therefore Gregorian New Year is celebrated with all pomp and show by all Indians exchanging greetings with each other while Hindus rush to temples to offer special prayers. Life of a Hindu is so integrated with religion he cannot think of celebrating anything or any event without going to a temple. It is therefore no surprise Hindus rush to temple on January 1, to offer special worship like Christians who hold their New Year mass in churches on that day. It is therefore interesting to investigate origin of Gregorian New Year celebration and how it is celebrated with greater enthusiasm in Hindu American temples almost like any other Hindu festival.
New Year's Day is observed on January 1, the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar and adopted by all Nations of the world as their official New Year's Day though they celebrate their own religious New Year's Day independently. The Romans originally dedicated New Year's Day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings for whom the first month of the year (January) is named. Later, as a date in the Gregorian calendar of Christendom, New Year's Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and is still observed as such in the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church. January 1 as New Year's Day is probably the world's most celebrated public holiday, often observed with fire-works at the stroke of midnight as the New Year starts in each time zone. January 1 date was known as Circumcision Style because this was the date of the Feast of the Circumcision, considered to be the eighth day of Christ's life, counting from December 25 on which day his birth is believed to have taken place. This day was christened as the beginning of the New Year by Pope Gregory as he designed the Liturgical Calendar. It is hence called Gregorian Calendar after him.
Hinduism with its different regional cultures celebrates New Year at different times of the year. In Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, households celebrate the New Year when the Sun enters Aries on the Hindu calendar. This is normally on 14 April or 15 April, depending on the leap year. Elsewhere in northern/central India, the Vikram Samvat calendar is followed. According to that the New Year day is the first day of the Chaitra Month, also known as Chaitra Shukla Pratipada or Gudi Padwa. This basically is the first month of the Hindu calendar, the first shukla paksha (fortnight) and the first day. This normally comes around 23–24 March, mostly around the Spring Equinox in Gregorian calendar. The New Year is celebrated by paying respect to elders in the family and by seeking their blessings as well as by rushing to temples to offer special worship seeking prosperity and happiness. They also exchange tokens of good wishes for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Government of Tamil Nadu declared in 2008 that the Tamil New Year should be celebrated on the first day of Tamil month of Thai (14 January) coinciding with the harvest festival of Pongal. The 2008 legislation of the previous DMK-led administration has since been annulled by an act of the Tamil Nadu Assembly in August, 2011. January 14, is a very significant auspicious day for all Hindus in India called Makara Sankranti. Makara Sankranti is a major harvest festival celebrated in various parts of India. Many Indians also conflate this festival with the Winter Solstice, and believe that the sun ends its southward journey (Sanskrit: Dakshinayana) at the Tropic of Capricorn, and starts moving northward (Sanskrit: Uttarayaana) towards the Tropic of Cancer, in the month of Pausha on this day in mid-January.
Makara Sankranti commemorates the beginning of the harvest season and cessation of the northeast monsoon in South India. The movement of the Sun from one zodiac sign into another is called Sankranti and as the Sun moves into the Capricorn zodiac known as Makara in Sanskrit, this occasion is named as Makara Sankranti in the Indian context. It is one of the few Hindu Indian festivals which is celebrated on a fixed date of Gregorian Calendar i.e. 14 January every year (or may be sometimes on 15 January in leap year). It sounds logical to me that India could have adopted Makara Sankranti as their New Year's Day for the whole of India, agreeable to all traditions. My reasoning is as follows: 1. It is the holiest day in Hindu concept as Bheeshma waited for this day to give up his ghost to ascend to heaven; 2. It is the only Hindu festival that coincides with Gregorian Calendar falling on 14th of January every year; 3. It is closest to January 1, the official New Year Day of all Nations of the world; 4. It would suit all traditions of Hindus. All astrologers may not agree. But I believe it had the blessings of astrologers when Tamil Nadu changed its New Year to that date!
Hindu Americans cannot question the wisdom of Government of India which has declared Chaitra Sukla Pratipada for India's official calendar and will not revise its opinion on the basis of the unilateral decision and logic of DMK Government at one time. As Hindu Americans we rush to temples on January 1 to celebrate New Year to seek the favor of Almighty for our prosperity and happiness and conduct special worship. The temples are fully packed on this day as many Hindus are traditionally sentimental. We also notice that most of the national holidays in America but for a few are celebrated as per the convenience (not based on significant or auspicious days) of the people and generally planned for the weekend to have a long week end like President's Day, Labor day etc. Even January 1 which is actually a Christian religious day is a convenient date to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ after eight days of his birth. I wonder why they did not combine it with January 5 which would have been the 11th day of the birth of Jesus. In Hinduism naming of a child takes place on or after 11th day of birth. Perhaps that is why the Christmas tree and lights in America are taken out on the 11th day, the day significant for naming in ancient traditions as the child passes through early ten days of anxiety period after birth. I therefore feel there is nothing wrong in our celebrating New Year's Day on Makara Sankranti Day, after a fortnight, a day closest to January 1 and significant to Hindus instead of rushing on January 1, a day most auspicious to Christian Faith only. Our fortunes and luck will not fluctuate by this postponement date for seeking prosperity and happiness for the rest of 350 days from the almighty God since it is not any auspicious day from Hindu stand-point! The logic behind the religious significance of conducting special Pooja sponsored by temples on a day holy to Christian Faith is not understandable? Do they consider Jesus as an Avtar I can’t tell? Of course temples can be kept open for long hours on such days to facilitate visit by devotees from neighboring towns leaving the choice to them to conduct any kind of worship of their choice at individual level but not make it a significant day for Hindu religious worship sponsored by the temple.
Normally Hindus end their worship on such occasions with a concluding prayer invoking divine grace for all round happiness and universal peace:
Kaale varshatu par-jan-yaha
Braahmanaah santu nirbhayaah //
May the rains fall at the right time! May the crop-bearing land be fertile! May the country where I live, be free of famine! May the spiritual thinkers be fearless to practice their religion!
Sarve bhavantu sukhinah
Sarve santu niraa-mayah
Sarve bhadraani pasyantu
Maa kaschit dhukhinah bhavet //
May all beings be happy! May all beings be free of disease! May people learn to see good things in others! May none suffer!
It is worth recalling here the Christmas message of Pope Francis this year: “Let us all share the song of Christmas angels, ‘for every man or woman….who hopes for a better world, who cares for others’ humbly. Lord of life protects all who are persecuted in his name. True peace is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely façade which conceals conflicts and divisions; peace calls for daily commitment”. This year’s Christmas message is one of love and reconciliation.
Western style greeting cards for the New Year contain the usual messages wishing happiness and prosperity. Today the world seems to be decaying, degenerating and drifting towards destruction. The earth is being plundered, heritage is being ignored and culture is being eroded, all in the name of progress. Vast destruction is caused and enormous pain inflicted on humanity by natural causes like tsunami, floods and pollution and man-created internal strife, revolts and revolution. Therefore of late New Year Greeting Cards focus on Peace on Earth. But all such messages and beyond are contained in Hindu Universal Conclusion Prayers recited above which is focused on all beings including flora and fauna. Vedas proclaim ‘Vasudaiva kutumbakam’ whole world is one family and therefore Hindu prayers are for the whole humanity.
1) N.S. Anantarangacharya, Mahanarayana Upanishad, Bengaluru, India.
2) Swami Vimalananda, Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, India.
3) N.S. Anatarangacharya, Rigvedaratna Samputa, Bengaluru, DVK Murti Publishers, Mysore, India.
4) Srinivasn N.R., Memoirs of My Life from Narayanapura to Nashville (autobiography)