Holi Celebrations have a number of legends related to it. The most popular is the story of Holika and her nephew Prahlad.
Once upon a time, there was a King called Hiranyakashap. This is a story from the Puranas. Hiranyakashyap’s brother was killed by Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap was very angry at this. He wanted to take revenge. Lord Vishnu is the preserver of the Universe in the Trilogy of Gods. Lord Brahma is the Creator. So Hiranyakashyap decided to pray, live like an ascetic, meditate and perform rituals to please Lord Brahma. Brahma on seeing his devotion and austerities appeared before Hiranyakashyap and told him to ask for whatever he wished.
Hiranyakashyap was very happy on the appearance of Lord Brahma and Hiranyakashyap asked him –
‘ Oh Lord Brahma!, the Creator of the Universe, my devotion and austerities have pleased you, please grant me the gift of immortality.”
On hearing this Brahma said
“ Hiranyakashap I am unable to grant you this wish. But I have promised you a boon so, ask for something else. Now I have to grant you a wish as I have already promised ’.
Knowing that Brahma is honor-bound to grant him a wish the wily Hiranyakashyap, with great humility said :
‘ Oh Lord of the universe! please grant that no creature created by you can kill me. I cannot be killed in or out of my house, on earth or the sky, at day or night. Please also grant that any creature not created by you, any living creature, non-living creature, demon, non- demon, planetary demi-God or from the lower realms, or Patal Lok cannot kill me. Oh Lord grant that I should be unrivaled in all three realms have absolute power over all living, nonliving beings and also over the presiding deities. Do allow all the glory accompanied by such a position to be mine. Also, grant me the powers of mysticism that I have gained due to my penance.”
Brahma had already refused him once so he told Hiranyakashyap “ Tathastu” or “so be it”.
This is the backdrop to the story of Holika. Hiranyakasyap was a pleasure-loving King. His name means one who is fond of the pleasures of life and wealth. When Hiranyakashyap had left his Kingdom, to perform austerities, Lord Indra with the other Devta’s raided his kingdom. While Indra took over and punished Hiranyakasyaps’ nobles, Sage Narada saved Queen Kayadhu, wife of King Hiranyakashyap. Narada told Indra that she was innocent and took her under his protection. The Queen now spent her time listening to Sage Narad’s discourse on Lord Vishnu, as did her unborn child Prahlad. By the time his father returned to take over his Kingdom Prahlad had become an ardent devotee of Vishnu.
King Hiranyakashyap returned to his kingdom all-powerful and full of himself. He was now invincible. After Lord Brahma’s boon, he defeated Indra and his fellow Devta’s. Hiranyakashyap now declared himself God of the three worlds. He announced
“from now on I am supreme, I am God and everybody has to worship me. I am supreme, more powerful than the Gods and all the demons. I have the boon of invincibility. I am the ruler of all living and non-living things. I am the supreme being”.
He became very important in his own eyes and started torturing people according to his own whims and fancies. His word was absolute law to be followed without any questions. All this self-importance made him very arrogant and unbearable. The only person who defied him was his own son Prahlad, who continued to worship Lord Vishnu and also preach about Vishnu’s greatness and power. This unwavering devotion greatly annoyed Hiranyakshyap. Prahlad became his sworn enemy and he plotted and tried to kill Prahlad many times. Prahlad was thrown off a cliff which he survived because Vishnu saved him. Hiranyakashyap threw him in a pit full of snakes, into a well, tortured him as well as tried to poison him. Prahlad’s unshaken faith and trust in Vishnu saved him every time much to his father’s anger. Every attempt on Prahlad resulting in failure angered Hiranyakashyup more and more. Prahlad’s devotion to Vishnu, his preachings about Vishnu in the palace right under the nose of the King was even a greater source of embarrassment.
On the other hand, the Gods were defeated, oppressed, and demoralized by Hiranyakashyap’s power and attitude. He was behaving like a mad elephant trampling all in his path. They had lost all their power and decided to visit Brahmaji to ask for a solution. They said
“Oh Brahmaji, you are the creator of the Universe. You know how helpless we are in front of the might of Hiranyakashyap. You have granted him such divine powers, that we are unable to defeat and control him. Please take back your boon so we can defeat him.”
Brahmaji replied ” Dear Indra and Devtas, I am unable to help you out. I can see that he is misusing his powers. He is also not following the right path. The way he is behaving is wrong but I cannot take the boon back once I have granted it. I am very sad but it is against the law of Dharma. You should ask Vishnu’s help as he is the preserver of the universe. He may be able to help you.”
The Devtas with Indra as their leader were very disheartened and went to Vishnu’s abode. They requested an audience and said
“Oh Vishnuji, you are the preserver of the Universe. You know how helpless we are in front of the might of Hiranyakashyap. You are aware that Brahmaji has granted him extraordinary powers, that we are unable to defeat and control. Please help us and suggest how we can defeat him.”
Vishnu told them ” I will solve this problem which Brahma has created. Just wait and watch the events unfolding.” How Hiranyakashyap met his end is another interesting story to be told later.
In the meantime, Hiranyakasyap was becoming very angry with his son and as his anger increased so did his tyranny. Hiranyakashyap had a sister named Holika who loved her brother very much. Holika was blessed with a boon also. Her boon was that she is immune to fire and even if she is engulfed with fire she cannot die. On her brother’s instigation, Holika took young Prahlad on her lap and sat on a pile of wood. When the fire was lit she thought that Prahlad would burn to death and she would be safe because of her boon. To everybody’s surprise, she was burnt to death and Prahlad emerged absolutely unscathed. She died as the boon was only effective if she had entered the fire alone. Apparently, she was not aware of this clause. Evil was burnt on the Holika fire and Good prevailed.
So Holi is derived from her name and is celebrated as the victory of good over evil and also the importance of true devotion.
Thus, in different parts of the country, this same story is enacted a little differently. But Holika is burnt every year on Holi and the fire is taken to the house to make it free of disease and bad omens.