01/14/2012 06:39 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2012

Makar Sankranti: An Opportunity to Serve Mother Earth

Today, more than ever, we need to come together to understand the interconnectedness of people, faith and, of course, nature in our lives. It is only by recognizing the sacredness of all creation can we honor and protect it. Climate change calls for us to serve Mother Earth (Bhumi Seva) which sustains us. (Note: Hindu American Seva Charities launched its Bhumi Seva initiative at the historic White House conference in July 29 and, with our esteemed partners, is working to promote greening in our contemporary faith lives). This weekend, as we celebrate MLK Day of Service in America, let us go green.

As my learning of the Hindu traditions deepens I am most grateful, for my inheritance, to the Rishis, who left behind a culture that integrated spirituality and science, and with such pageantry. As I peel back to understand the core essence based on the existential belief that divinity is within -- Sat-Chit-Anand (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss) -- I find each of our traditions show every activity in human life is meant to lead the individual to that One goal of existential realization. I am fascinated how our customs, our traditions, our very way of life is meant to help the individual coexist with the family and the environment harmoniously and realize the yogic goal in every step of the journey, from birth to death, regardless of the socio-economic strata of life.

It is exciting to see we have a reason to celebrate every season with friends and family. Today's celebration of Makar Sankranti is a Hindu celebration of science and spirituality. Science was not relegated to just the textbooks, it was brought into the daily life through the celebratory festivals. The Hindu calendar itself names each day based on the waning and waxing of the moon, which symbolizes the ebb and flow of life. It prescribes activities integrating holistic living aligned with nature. And now, in our contemporary lives, we need to bring it back from our ancient memory to our contemporary lives.

For millennium, my ancestors have celebrated major cosmic changes, such as the transmigration of the sun from one zodiac sign (Rashi) as Sankranti. Of the 12 sankrantis, Makara Sankranti on Jan. 14 is the most significant; the sun passes through the winter solstice, from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn (Makar). We witness cosmic, astronomical harmony and prayerfully honor this scientific Truth. The six months of northern movement of the sun is followed by six months of southern movement.

As the earth starts its northward part of the rotation it brings the promise of a harvest of abundance and happiness in many parts of India and the northern hemisphere around the world. The sowing season starts. Along the river Ganga in places like Ganga Sagar (where the river Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal) and Prayag/Allahabad, millions of people bathe to honor the co-mingling of one life force (Sun) with another (water).

Makar Sankranti is celebrated in myriad ways across India and across the globe. Starting from ancient times, the Hindu festivals (utsav) spread throughout the Indian-subcontinent and in the east as far as Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and in the west as far as America, as recorded by Mayans in South America. These festivals took on local hues depending on the climate, agricultural environment, evolving cultural landscape and location. Though somewhat modified over the millenia, many still retain their core essence and spirit.
  • During the festival, there is usually an exchange of gifts with relatives. The festival reminds us to thank all who have contributed to our well being and of the world around us. An exuberant celebration of peace and harmony! Prayers of thanks and gratitude are offered to the Sun for a good harvest.
  • On this day, many pray to the deity of education (Saraswati) for clarity of mind. The festival highlights the importance of withdrawing from unethical and disturbing behavior. Students are encouraged to study science, maths, astrology and astronomy emphasizing the astronomical basis of the festival.
  • Kites are flown in many parts of the subcontinent. Kite flying while lot of fun to young at heart, conveys a deeper message that God is the Sutradhara -- holding the string of man. Tensions of push and pull (of life) allow the kite to fly higher. If He lets it loose, the kite cannot fly.
  • No festival is complete without sweets. Sankranti sweets are made of sesame seed and sugar. They represent affection and sweetness.
In India and around the world, Makar Sankranti is also known as Gupi, Lohri, Pongal, Thaipusam and by other names.

In my own journey to America, I am witnessing how this ancient tradition, Makar Sankranti, is evolving to meet our needs as we the New Americans weave our traditions and culture in the pluralistic tapestry of America.

Here at home, we, the Hindu Americans, see the strength of the Dharmic culture (Hindu and other eastern faiths) through the many ways in which the ancient traditional (Puranic) allegorical stories and epics are brought to life through festivals. In America, we recognize that the many festivals (utsav) play an important role in expressing the spiritual significance in celebratory, joyous ways while bringing people together. And we have developed our own ways to celebrate this expression of science and spirituality.

We pray in our home or temple, exchange gifts with our loved ones, observe aspects of the tradition that the climate will allow, create new ones and celebrate a meal with our friends and family.

During this time, our tradition encourages seva or service. And we are expanding this aspect creatively. For example, we are linking it to the MLK Day of Service, a national American holiday and to the first Hindu monk to come to America with his message of vedanta and seva.

This week, on Jan. 12, as we honored Swami Vivekananda on his 149th birth anniversary, we reminded ourselves he was a vociferous proponent of seva: "Arise, awake, sleep no more; within each of you there is the power to remove all wants and all miseries. Believe this and that power will be manifested." He was a proponent of pluralistic seva: "Condemn none: if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers, and let them go their own way."

Swami Vivekanada's teachings and his focus on seva to uplift the poor are guiding principles for us, at HASC as we leverage the best from both traditions. Priyanka Srinivasa, a youth leader at the White House conference highlighted "Vivekananda and the Allegory of Pluralism in a Globalizing World and Me."

FestivalSeva (UtsavSeva) is community service augmenting the spirit of Hindu festivals through seva events organized during this time and connecting them with the cultural heritage. In keeping with the spirit of the festival, our theme for January is ShantiSeva: honoring the bounty of Mother Earth while advancing peace and harmony through service.

Hinduism's underlying core belief is that there is only God and everything emanates from that One. All forms are an expression of the divine (divya), each representing and showcasing one or many aspects of the divine qualities. The multi-faceted Vedic Hinduism's original name is Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Order).

Let us honor the essence of the festival which calls for withdrawing from unethical and disturbing behavior and making a commitment to uphold universal values (Sanatana Dharma) that promote harmony and mutual respect. Let us thank Mother Earth for all Her Gifts and pledge to protect our environment by small or large acts. Let us invoke Bhumi Seva and the legacies of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.