This festive day has been celebrated from ancient times as a day of fulfillment and joy. Every festival is a social occasion, arising in society, flourishing in society, and promoting the well being of society. Every festival has been designed to promote the welfare of society. With social changes, festivals also have undergone changes.
Today's festival is an extremely important one for Bharatiyas (Indians). It is a festival to celebrate the glory of the Sun God.
The Sun moves every month from one sign of Zodiac to the next.
Sankranthi, meaning 'sacred change', occurs every month as the Sun moves from one house of the Zodiac to another. But special sacredness attaches to the movement of the Sun to Capricorn (Makara-Sankranthi).
The day gets shortened
And is made pleasant by chill wind
On the fields lit by moonlight
The crows caw over the grain heaps
While the farmers sing in joy
Over the golden harvest
The flowers express their joy
By putting forth their petals
While in every home, filled with grain,
The people welcome the advent of Sankranthi
On Sankranthi, day the farmers rejoice over the fullness of the granaries in their homes with the newly harvested crop.
When the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn, he begins his northward motion. The sun shines in every human body illuminating the six chakras (spiritual centres in the body). Of these chakras, two are most important: the heart (hridaya) chakra and the crown chakra (sahasrara chakra). The heart chakra has eight petals. God is the Lord of the eight-petaled heart chakra. These eight petals are regarded as eight consorts of the Lord. In this context, the Lord is adored in the form of the Sun. The world cannot survive without the Sun. The solar system is derived from the Sun. Hence, the Sun is worshipped as divine.
The ancient sages adored the eight-petaled divine centre in the heart and thereby reached the crown chakra and enjoyed supreme bliss.
Today's holy festival is related to the beginning of the apparent northward movement of the sun (uttarayana). The sun moves every month from one house of the zodiac to the next. Today, the sun enters the house of Capricorn (Makara), so it is known as Makara Sankranthi. This auspicious day heralds the conferment of many worldly and spiritual blessings on man. The Sankranthi day is a witness to the prospective successes of man in many fields.
Sankranthi day marks the arrival in the farmers' houses of the grains that are the fruit of their labors. Sankranthi is a holy festival for a worldly achievement. It is also a cherished day of rest in the cool atmosphere. Man needs days of rest after a period of hard work. Only then he can enjoy peace of mind. "Samyak kranthi iti Sankranthi." Sankranthi confers peace and heralds a welcome change. It brings out the inner joy in people. It effects a change in life-style. It generates sacred thoughts.
Sankramana is the time when the inward journey toward a pure and unsullied heart is made. Just as the sun embarks on his northward journey, Sankranthi is the day on which the intellect should be turned toward the Atma for Self-realization.
The Vedas declare that the period when the Sun takes its northward path (uttarayana) is sacred. The great warrior Bhishma, lying on a bed of arrows, waited for 56 days for the advent of uUttarayana to end his life. The ancient legends (Puranas) have stated that whoever passes away in Uttarayana will attain liberation.
In the movement of the sun from house to house in the Zodiac, the entry into Capricorn is most important. Capricorn is a sign of peace and contentment. According to the Gregorian calendar, Sankranthi begins on January 13 or 14. This confers a kind of mental and physical peace.
Few people understand the true significance of festivals like Sankranthi. Man cannot secure enduring bliss through physical pleasures. He has to discover that the source of this bliss is within himself. Sankranthi enables man to make this discovery, like a man who, carrying his spectacles on his forehead, searches everywhere for them and discovers to his joy that they have been with him all along.
The Divine is not anywhere else. It is enshrined in one's heart. Hence, the man who seeks the Divine within his heart redeems himself. He then attains liberation. All external spiritual exercises are of temporary value. They should be internalized to experience lasting bliss. All mental exercises also leave the heart unaffected. In the nine paths of devotion, beginning with listening to sacred things and ending with total surrender of the self (Atma-nivedanam), the last is the most important. After total surrender (Atma-nivedanam), there is no need for any other effort.
Sankranthi gives the call for this total surrender. Sankranthi is a kind of family festival. Yes. This is so. But the whole world is one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). The festival relates to the entire world. It is not confined to one's kith and kin. Sankranthi is related to the entire mankind. Whether people realize it or not, Sankranthi promotes a feeling of happiness in one and all.
Sankranthi promotes mental transformation. It illumines the minds of people. It induces the unfoldment of inner feelings. It brings about the manifestation of the invisible Atma within everyone. Sankranthi is pregnant with such immense significance. It influences not only the mind but also the powers of nature. Nature is a projection of the mind. The world is rooted in the mind (Manomoolam idam jagath). When the mind is turned toward the heart and the heart is filled with the Divine, the mind will cease to be a source of trouble. The mind is the master of the senses. When the senses are controlled, the mind is under control. Only the master of the mind can attain Madhava (the Divine, another name for Krishna).
In the Dwapara Yuga (the previous era), the cowherds and cowherdesses used to experience boundless joy in Krishna's presence, forgetting themselves in their devotion to the Lord. On Sankranthi Day, they used to employ cow dung as a sacred means of cleansing purposes. They demonstrated also the inner significance of the Sankranthi celebration. They placed three balls of cow dung in front of their houses, fixing three pumpkin flowers on their top, and went round singing and dancing in adoration of Krishna.
What is the significance of these three balls of cow dung? In olden days, people used to sprinkle water mixed with cow dung in front of their houses. The cow dung helped to destroy the bacteria in the atmosphere. The cow dung was considered a symbol of health and happiness. The first cow dung ball represented Krishna, who was worshipped as Gopala (the protector of cows). Krishna was adored as the bestower of joy and health. The second cow dung ball was placed as a symbol of the Govardhana Hill, which Krishna lifted and thereby demonstrated his divinity. The third cow dung ball symbolised the cow, which, as the giver of milk, is the source of health and joy for the people. Gopala, Govardhana, and Go (the cow) were worshipped in this manner.
Among vegetables the pumpkin has a place of honour as the largest in size. The cowherd maids (gopikas) looked upon the pumpkin as a symbol of large heartedness. Hence, pumpkins were offered as fitting gifts on Sankranthi Day. What is the gain from this offering? The pumpkin does not rot quickly. It can be preserved for a long period. Any number of edible preparations can be made from it. It can also be used in combination with many other vegetables. Because of its distinct qualities, the offer of a pumpkin also meant making an offer of one's virtues.
The Sankranthi festival should be regarded as the day on which man turns his vision toward God. Man's life may be compared to a stalk of sugar cane. Like the cane, which is hard and has many knots, life is full of difficulties. But these difficulties have to be overcome to enjoy the bliss of the Divine, just as the sugar cane has to be crushed and its juice converted into jaggery to enjoy the permanent sweetness of jaggery. Enduring bliss can be obtained only by overcoming trials and tribulations. Gold cannot be made into an attractive jewel without subjecting to the process of melting in a crucible and beating it into the required shape.