Four years ago I had the opportunity to travel to India with a group of Ohio Wesleyan University students over spring break. We spent a week at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in New Delhi, joining students there in a study of the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi.
Additionally, our hosts at LSR arranged a variety of opportunities for us to experience the history and culture of India away from their campus.
Midway through our time at LSR, we traveled to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. While we traveled in a minibus, the traffic included large buses and trucks, small cars, motor scooters, horse drawn carts, camels and pedestrians. The roads, even major highways, were lined with people, some of whom were standing, some of whom were cooking over small fires and some of whom were sleeping. Traffic did not move easily and often did not move quickly.
On the return to New Delhi, we found ourselves in a small city where the traffic came almost to a halt. The streets were filled with people walking, dancing and chasing one another with carefree joy. The people in the street were sprinkling one another with brightly colored powdered paint. We learned that this was the festival of Holi, an ancient Hindu festival known as the festival of colors that marks the beginning of spring. Some of the members of our group joined the festivities and found themselves returning to the van covered in a brilliant array of colors.
India is a country with a history of rigid rules of social stratification that prohibit social interaction among individuals of different castes. However, during the festival of Holi, the playful dancing in the streets does not restrict participation by caste. The colors of Holi are thrust on all who choose to play, regardless of social position. For a moment, social barriers are removed.
We in the United States live in a time of deep social division. Some divisions grow out of historic structures and deeply held prejudices, whether in regard to race, human sexuality, religion, national origin or any of the other artificial ways in which human beings have chosen to segregate themselves and mistreat others. Some divisions grow out of fear and displacement in a time of extraordinary economic dislocation and global anxiety. These divisions seem tragically pronounced in this time in our history and in the conversations that mark much of our political landscape today.
The festival of Holi began not just as a ritual marking the arrival of spring, but as a time in which people prayed for the destruction of evil. A bonfire on the first night of Holi marks a time of prayer for purification, with the festival of colors commencing on the following day. In that festival, the social barriers disappear in what has been described as a day of equality and happy chaos.
As we find ourselves now in the season when spring is in full bloom, I reflect on Holi and on the similar customs in my own faith tradition as a Christian. The season of Lent is a time of repentance that prepares the way for Easter and the celebration of new life.
The promise of new life, reflected in many of the world’s great faith traditions, calls on a new order. It calls for removal of that which separates us, and reclamation of our essential unity as human beings. In the canon of the Christian tradition, it calls us to remember, “God shows no partiality.” (Romans 2:11) Imagine a society in which we consider not the artificial social barriers of human construction but the essential unity grounded in human dignity and human respect, in which there are no distinctions and in which we show no partiality. In this season of new life and new beginnings, might that be the best hope of all?
Rock Jones is president of Ohio Wesleyan University and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.