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Why this Utah priest wants to host a spring Hindu festival all year long

SALT LAKE CITY — Caru Das considers himself a guru of color festivals. So why limit his handiwork to one season?

He has spread his passion for Holi — the Hindu festival during which people welcome the arrival of spring by tossing colored powder — throughout the calendar year, only avoiding days when weather could stand in the way of the celebration.

"I try to avoid the summer. It's too hot for a lot of dancing," said Das, a temple priest for Utah's Hare Krishna community.

Revelers throw colored corn starch into the air as they celebrate the 2015 Holi (Festival of Colors) at the Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah on Saturday, March 28, 2015. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Das has captured national attention for hosting an annual, record-setting Holi festival in Spanish Fork, Utah, which takes place around the time when the holiday is being commemorated in Hindu temples across the globe. This year, more than 30,000 people gathered on the lawn of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple to chant along with an eclectic mix of musicians, dine on vegetarian foods and rub colored powder on friends and strangers.

As the event attracted more and more fans, so did Das and his team, who now lead or consult on dozens of color festivals each year. This weekend, they'll hold their sixth annual Holi event in Salt Lake City. In August, they'll be in Reno, Nevada, and then head to Sacramento in September.

Das believes the festivals have caught on because they speak to participants' souls — awakening people's spirits with chanting and empowering them to go out and make a difference in the world. He rejects the notion that he's diluting ancient religious traditions by removing Holi from the spring, arguing that bringing more spirituality into the world is always a good thing.

"Some people come to party, but they are going to be hearing the name of God the entire time they'll be here. That has a transformative effect," he said.

Events like Das' festivals can be a valuable way to raise the profile of the American Hindus, who represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. When hosted with education in mind, they can clear up confusion about a little-known faith, said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.

However, it's common for event hosts to avoid explaining Hindu practices such as Holi and just have a good time.

Indian girls take selfie as they celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, in Mumbai, India, Monday, March 13, 2017. The festival also heralds the arrival of spring. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) | Rafiq Maqbool, Associated Press

"Hundreds of thousands of people are participating in Holi or yoga" and other aspects of Hinduism, she said. "Oftentimes, organizers are very quick and willing to undermine the religious and spiritual premise or foundation of these things in order to welcome everyone."

Whether they take place in March or June or August, Holi celebrations should help participants understand Hinduism and the reasons for the festivities, Shukla added.

"I'm not going to be a party pooper. That's not the point," she said. "But if you're going to do color play, why not be an ambassador for the tradition and educate people?"

Color play's popularity

Holi is rooted in India, where it is both a religious and cultural celebration. It commemorates the triumph of good over evil, as well as the freshness and promise of spring, Shukla said.

"It's not a set day, because the Hindu calendar is a lunar calendar. Generally speaking, Holi occurs in February or March," she said.

Festival goers prepare for the final throwing of the colors on Saturday during the Holi Festival of Colors at the Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork on March 24, 2012. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In India, neighbors mark the holiday by lighting bonfires, a tradition that comes from the story of Prahlad, a follower of Lord Vishnu who was saved from being burned because of his great devotion. On the second day of Holi, revelers throw colored powder at one another, replicating the behavior of followers of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu.

Outside of India, Hindus celebrate Holi in different ways, participating in temple rituals on the actual holiday, but waiting for the weekend or better weather to have a public event with color play, Shukla said.

"When it's 20 degrees below zero, it's a little hard to play with colors," she said.

As Das has learned, Holi events are popular among non-Hindus because they're unique and make for great photos.

"Rarely do I get invited to a celebration at which I get to throw chalk at someone and not get in trouble for it," said Habid Madrid, a 21-year-old business marketing major at Utah Valley University. He's attended the Spanish Fork Holi festival three times.

Color play has mass appeal, especially in the age of Instagram and other photo-focused social media sites. It's increasingly featured at nonreligious events, Shukla said.

FILE - Visitors of the Holi Festival of Colours throw special colored powders in the air in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, April 6, 2014. The festival is fashioned after the Hindu spring festival Holi, which is mainly celebrated in the north and east of India. | AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File

"The Color Run is a perfect example of focusing just on the fun aspect and losing the spiritual aspect," she said. The Color Run hosts races across the country.

Hinduism isn't the only religion where spiritual meaning has been obscured by commercialization. Businesses sell Catholic rosaries as fashion jewelry and promote mindfulness meditation without mentioning Buddhism.

But such mixing of religious symbols with secular products can create confusion and miss an opportunity to improve religious literacy. U.S. adults got an average of 16 questions correct out of 32 on Pew Research Center's 2010 religious knowledge survey.

Religious misunderstanding leads to bullying and discrimination, and members of minority faith groups are more likely to be targeted than people who belong to better-known religions.

Visitors of the Holi Festival of Colors throw colored powders in the air in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Spain, Sunday, May 28, 2017. The festival is fashioned after the Hindu spring festival Holi, which is mainly celebrated in the north and east of India. | Manu Fernandez, Associated Press

Holi hosts can improve community relations by explaining the origins of color play and other Hindu traditions, Shukla said.

"That's not to say that you have to convert in order to benefit (from these traditions.) It's a matter of appreciating the contribution," she added.

Educating others

Das acknowledges the value of educating others, but also worries about limiting the reach of his events by making them about religious differences, rather than shared spirituality.

He tries to strike a balance between increasing understanding and meeting people where they are by focusing on the themes of Holi, instead of particular religious practices. This approach also explains how he justifies hosting color festivals in the summer and fall.

Hindu devotees throw colored powder on each other inside Banke Bihari temple during Holi festival celebrations in Vrindavan, India, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Holi, the festival of colors celebrates the arrival of spring among other things. | Manish Swarup, Associated Press

"Spring is a metaphor for renewal and change," he said. "Putting aside feelings that are keeping you from moving forward in your life can and should be done at all times of the year."

Das wants to honor Indian and Hindu tradition with his festivals, but he also explores ways to attract Western audiences. Rather than play traditional Indian music, he invites DJs and other performers to get people moving with hip hop, ska and reggae music.

The only requirement is that the DJs use a style called kirtan, which incorporates call-and-response into the performance, he said. In this way, Das integrates chanting into his events, a key form of worship for Hare Krishnas.

"My purpose above and beyond getting people to experience a different culture is to expose them to chanting the holy names of the Lord," Das said.

Indians dance as colors are sprayed during the Holi celebrations in Gauhati, India, Monday, March 13, 2017. The festival also heralds the arrival or spring. (AP Photo/ Anupam Nath) | Anupam Nath, Associated Press

However, this mash-up of popular music, a party atmosphere and chanting doesn't always send spiritual signals to participants, said Madrid, who first attended Holi as a high school senior.

"I knew that it was at a temple," he said. "As far as how it was ritualistic, I didn't know."

Madrid has learned more since then, mostly thanks to Utah Hindus who visited his campus to give talks about their faith. He encouraged people interested in the spectacle of color play and Holi to ask questions even as they party and have fun.

"If they understand what it's all about, that might even strengthen the reasons they come," he said.