Hindu Festivals and
Sacraments in Ontario

By: T. Venkatacharya

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 99-102
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The celebration of yearly cycles of Hindu festivals in Ontario is convincing proof of the dynamism of Hinduism in the province. The extraordinary number of festivals, each with its regional variant, indicates the complexity of Hindu rituals and beliefs and is a microcosm of the pluralism of Hinduism in India. This essay describes Hindu worship and ritual through a South Indian perspective, but the pan-lndian aspects of Hindu festivals are also evident.

The rich diversity of Hindu religious life is represented by Hindu families living in Ontario in their mode of worship during festival times. The Hindus who have settled in Ontario are a nebulous group; they originate from different regions of India with distinct social, religious, and linguistic subcultures. For instance a Hindu from Bengal, with few exceptions, will not celebrate the same festivals as a Hindu from Tamilnadu.

Hindu immigrants to Canada earnestly perpetuate their regional religious traditions at home. They want their children to understand and experience the religious ceremonies and customs. For adult Hindus, the celebration of the festivities and the worship of the gods that takes place on that occasion, is very much a part of their heritage. Hindus sustain their cultural and religious needs by such celebrations.

In Toronto there are several associations based on Indian regional and linguistic affiliations. One of the functions of such associations is to assemble their members to celebrate religious festivals peculiar to their regions in India. The Bengali associations, for instance, will celebrate "Durga Puja," one of the main festivals of Bengal. The Maharashtrians emphasize the Ganesh festival, whereas the Hindus of Kerala celebrate the Onam. Thus, each regional unit has its preferences with regard to the type of festival it celebrates. Cutting across the regional boundaries are the "all-India" festivals, such as Divali, shared by all Hindus of India. Thus, Toronto Hindu religious activities are a microcosm of what takes place in India. However, as a result of Hindu immigrant settlement in Ontario, there is increasing "cross-pollination" of festivals; i.e. Hindus of different regions have begun to enjoy, celebrate, and participate in each other's festivals, which were unknown to them back home in India!

Hindus celebrate the festivals in Ontario in their home first amidst the family and relatives. Friends and neighbours may join in to witness the rituals and festivities. For groups larger than the family, such events are celebrated by congregating in community halls, school buildings, or more recently, in newly built Hindu temples. I describe below some of the festivals that are being celebrated with great vigour in Toronto.

The spring festival is observed chiefly by North Indians. By throwing coloured powders and water at each other, people re-enact Lord Krsna's youthful frolics.

The Tiru Onam festival belongs to Kerala and is not observed by the people of the Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu areas. By contrast, the Festival of Toys is celebrated only in the Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu areas; neither Keralites nor North Indians celebrate it. But Toronto Hindus from all parts of India join in the celebrations of both the festivals when given the opportunity.

Dipavali or Divali is an all-India festival of light. The festivities last for two to three days. It is the happiest occasion for Toronto Hindus, although its associations with particular gods and goddesses of Hinduism varies from region to region. Theologically, it represents the triumph of the gods in curbing evil. The goddess of wealth is worshipped for prosperity, and family ties are strengthened through various rituals during the Divali days.

According to the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, God periodically comes to earth and saves humanity from disaster. The epic hero and god Rama was such an incarnation. The festival known as "Sri Rama-Navami" commemorates the birth of Rama, and "Sri Krsnastami" or "Gokulastami": that of the god Krsna. The gods Rama and Krsna are represented symbolically in pictures or icons. The gods' "birthdays" are celebrated at home by South Indians who invite close friends with their families to participate in the event. Sanskrit prayers are recited on Sri Rama and on Sri Krsna. Women sing devotional poems in Sanskrit and Telugu by Sri Tyagaraja, Sri Muttu Swami Diksitar, and Sri Syama Sastrigal. Poems of Sri Purandara Dasa written in the language called Kannada and songs of medieval Tamil poets are recited on this occasion. Sri Tulasi Das' Hindi poems, too, are sung by some Hindi-speaking people. The singing of devotional poems is an integral part of the household festivities on the birthdays of the gods Rama and Krsna, especially among south Indian Hindu families in Toronto, Ottawa, and other parts of Ontario.

In Toronto there are other popular religious festivals that are performed by Hindus mostly at home. The Durga-Puja is an annual celebration of the goddess Durga who is the destroyer of the demon. This is the most flamboyant of all public Hindu festivals of Bengal.

In the Nava-Ratri-Puja, the worship of the deity is performed during either of two nine-night periods. The "Vijaya-Dasami", or "Dasara", which closely follows the "Nav-Rati", celebrates the victorious return of the epic hero and god Rama to Ayodhya after killing the demon Ravana. The "Sarasvati-Puja" is the worship of the goddess of learning and the fine arts, and the "Laksmi-Puja" is worship of the goddess of wealth.

The "Vinayaka-Caturthi" is the festival in honour of Ganesa/Vinayaka, the elephant-headed son of the divine couple Siva and Parvati. Other festivals are held in honour of Skanda, or Kartikeya, general of the gods and son of Siva; and to propitiate snakes. The "Siva-Ratri" is a major Hindu festival that celebrates the marriage of god Siva to the goddess Parvati. "Sankranti", the festival celebrating the beginning of the sun's northward movement, is considered the beginning of the more auspicious half of the year. The Hindu New Year's day celebration in April, is observed mostly in South Indian households in Toronto.

Offerings of flowers and fruits are part of the worship of the presiding god or goddess during his or her festival. A camphor flame is moved with reverence in front of the deity in a clockwise manner. This ritual, known as "arati" in the regional languages, is an act of adoration of the glory of the god almighty for his various deeds. Immediately after the performing of arati, the camphor flame is brought near the worshippers who one by one, bring their palms near the flame and then towards their eyes and forehead. This is symbolic of the partaking of the quintessence of divinity. The vegetarian food that is offered to the god on that occasion is later distributed to those present as a token of divine blessings.

A special ceremony known as "Satya-Narayana-Puja", that is, worship of the supreme deity (literally "truth-god"), is observed by some Toronto families in their homes. A Hindu priest is employed on this occasion for the puja. People recite prayers such as the "Visnu-Sahasra-Nama-Stotra." The priest recites some Vedic prayers connected with the "Ganesa-Puja," an act of homage to Ganesh, who is considered a remover of obstacles and is worshipped at the beginning of an elaborate ceremony. The priest also recites "Nava-Graha-Puja," or homage to the deities of the nine planets. The planets are thought to have influence over human events. All of this forms part of the "Satya-Narayana Puja." A guest speaker, chosen from among the members of the host family or a close friend, may give a brief talk about some aspect of the Hindu religion as illustrated in the stories linked with the Satya-Narayana Puja. This might be the story of Ajamila, or of Dhruva, a son of King Uttanapada of the Svayambhuva-Manu dynasty. Talks of this type are intended to inform the children about Hindu religious and traditional beliefs and customs.

Some Hindus perform in their homes such basic life-cycle sacramental rites as the "Upanayana," or investiture of a boy with sacred thread symbolizing his initiation into Vedic studies, or the marriage, "vivaha," of their sons or daughters. These sacramental rites need not be held in the temples, but can be performed at home with the fire god as a witness. On each such occasion a special fire is kindled. The entire ceremony is accompanied by the recitation of the Vedic verses by the priest.

The lively Hindu religious festivals and the sacraments are observed faithfully and enthusiastically by Hindu families in Ontario. This should not come as a surprise since all these festivals revitalize their associations with their homeland, their traditions and their culture. They also serve as social gatherings that help to preserve social ties among the members of the Hindu diaspora community.

"Subham Bhuyat," auspicious greetings to everyone.


1.The names of some of these are Bharatikalamanram, Kannada Samgha, Kerala Association, Maharashtra Bhashik Mandal, and Gujarati Association.

T. Venkatacharya is Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto.

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