The Chhath Festival is one of the most important festivals of Bihar. It is devoted to the Sun God and its rituals entail a rigorous regimen. As it is celebrated over a period of four days around Kaartik Shukla Paksha Shashthi (the sixth day of the waxing moon fortnight during the lunar month Kaartik), it is also known as Surya Shashthi. Though it originated from Bihar, but now it is a national phenomenon and even beyond the borders of India, as it has closely followed the Bihari Diaspora in every corner of the world. The next Chhath is scheduled 6-8 November 2013.
There are various legends associated with this festival. It is widely believed that observing the Chhath Puja rituals with utter devotion helps the person to surmount even fatal and chronic ailments and it helps the person to overcome even grinding poverty. Those who have been cured of their afflictions, offer their thanks to the Sun God for its blessings and for its bounties on earth, which literally sustains all life on this planet.
The Chhath rituals primarily relate to paying obeisance to the Sun God. It is believed that this festival was started by Karna, who was the son of Surya by Kunti, but his mother had discarded him apprehending social stigma. People commonly believe that the Sun’s healing ‘Power’ (Shakti) has an independent identity, which is known as Chhath Maiya (Chhath Mother), who in reality is worshipped during the Chhath rituals. Some schools of thought relate Chhath Maiya to the Usha who is described in Vedas as a faint light (twilight) at the crack of the dawn, but in popular perception, she is considered to be the consort of Surya. Another school believes that an unwavering devotion to Chhath Maiya affords one to be blessed by divine consciousness, which substantially helps one in overcoming the travails of this material life on earth, towards the final goal of achieving moksha.
The arduous rituals of Chhath are observed over a period of four days. The regimen consists of ritual bathing, fasting and refraining even from drinking water continuously for 36 hours (Vrata), remaining in waist-deep water for extended periods, and offering the prayer offerings and ‘aragh’ to the setting and rising sun. During this period, the devout observe ritual purity, and lead a spartan lifestyle.
The puja offerings (prasad) include ethnic sweets, fruit, and fresh vegetables offered in soop (small bamboo winnows). The devotees maintain a strict vegetarian diet devoid of salt, onions, or garlic. Emphasis is put on maintaining the purity of the food.
It is a widespread belief that the desires of the devotees are always fulfilled during Chhath. Because of an abiding faith in the Sun God, the regions celebrating Chhath generally remain safe and tranquil during this period. The sort of ethos generated by the awe inspiring rituals of this festival helps in inspiring an environment of compassion, fortitude, mercy, truth, and serenity among the faithful and their family members.