Reflecting on The Festival of Colors, Diversity and Universalism

“I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Terence 195-159 BC

For a long time, for some reason, I thought Terence’s quote was actually Walt Whitman.  It seems like something Whitman would have written.  And its relevant.

I spent a most of my waking hours the weekend of the 24th either getting ready for, driving to, attending, driving from and showering after the 2012 Festival of Colors at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork.  Reports say 80,000+ people attended this year and I’m not surprised.  The crowd was huge all day Saturday.  I don’t think I’ve seen that many people in one place in Utah outside of a Utah BYU game.  And it was amazing.  Live music, lots of happy people.  Lots of color.  Oh my god was there color. 

I’m going to be all over the map in this post.  You may want to buckle your seatbelt.

Last year, 50,000 people attended so this year marked a 60% increase (accurate numbers are hard to come by – one report claims last year 20,000 attended and this year 60,o00 attended – a 200% increase).  Anyone who went last year and this year could see the difference in the crowds.  Crowds this size are both a good thing (popular events keep going0 and a not good thing.  The size of the crowd overwhelmed Spanish Fork.  The town simply cannot handle an influx of that many people on one day.  According to the Census Bureau, Spanish Fork is home to approximately 35,000 people.  The influx of people – tens of thousands in a single day – would overwhelm most small cities.  Which means the Festival of Colors is creating concern in Utah County:

Utah County Commissioner Doug Witney says his office has received more than a dozen complaints from business owners, property owners and parents.

“One of the complaints was a school teacher saying half her class was out on Monday for asthma-related issues,” Witney said. “Property owners have complained of people tearing down fences and urinating or defecating on their property.”

Each year the Krishna temple applies for a mass gathering permit, which requires it to show it has adequate facilities to handle the crowd it is expecting. According to Terry Beebe, environmental health director, this year’s application said organizers expected 3,000 people at any given time to be at the temple. Festival coordinator Caru Das said that at peak times on Saturday there were between 5,000 and 6,000 people gathered. The temple’s application for a mass gathering permit said there was access to 19 restroom facilities, including 15 portable toilets. Beebe says that number of toilets would sustain 3,000 people for five hours.

I think six thousand under-estimates the number at the 3 and 5 o’clock throwings by a sizable amount.  At the 3 o’clock throwing the area in front of the temple was jam packed – you almost couldn’t move there were so many people.  It was massive.  5 o’clock was even bigger.  At any given point, there were thousands of people at the temple property.  I-15 was bumper to bumper from Spanish Fork to north of Provo all day with tens of thousands coming and going.

Festival goers are not all there at once.  While the Temple property was crowded, it was never overwhelmed.  The surrounding roads had a constant stream of thousands of cars coming and going.  At any given time after about 10:30 there was a line of people waiting to enter while an equally large line of people were leaving.  Unlike a sporting event where most folks arrive at start time and most folks leave at the end, the Festival is a constant churn.  As a result, there’s day long traffic. 

Festival organizers stated they underestimated attendance.  Will it keep growing?  I’m not sure.  My gut tells me they’ve reached almost everyone in Utah who wants to go.  In a surpringly negative article, the Daily Herald reported attendance of 80,000:

Stelter, who attended with her two boys, ages 7 and 5, said the Festival of Colors is not the ideal place for small children.

“If you didn’t want to mosh around in the pit of people by the stage, there wasn’t much else to do,” Stelter said. “We looked at the llamas, and the kids threw colors at each other. But after that it was just hot and dirty. It reminded me a lot of Woodstock ’94. I wouldn’t have taken my kids if I had known it was comparable to Woodstock.” [snip]

“When we tried to catch the shuttle back from the temple, we waited for close to an hour before our turn. When the bus finally came, teens or college-aged kids shoved their way to the front of the line, filling the entire bus and leaving no room for the families,” Stelter said. “Mine weren’t even the smallest kids there. Some mothers had infants and toddlers. My boys and I ended up having to walk several miles back to our car because of the teens’ disrespectful behavior. It was appalling!”

Read more:

Which reminds me of a discussion in last year’s Trib about the Festival in which a commenter complained that they were horribly inconvenienced at the local Wendy’s by festival goers – in fact by four teens who had been to the festival – and who therefore determined the festival was a giant fiasco and should be ended forthwith.  Anytime you get that many people, there’s gonna be some buttheads.  Interestingly since the festival takes place at the Krishna temple, at least some Utahns distrust it immediately and are prepared to see it in the worst possible light; these folks see the crowds, the inevitable traffic jam, a few incidents of misbehavior on the part of participants and conclude the festival itself is the problem and look for excuses and ways to shut it down.

It’s also hard to miss the Puritanical response to the Festival of Colors.  It’s too much fun.  Something has to be done about it. 

Throughout the day, Caru Das got the opportunity to deliver sermons before the throwings.  Any preacher worth his or her salt is going to do that.  Give them a crowd of thousands and a microphone? Yeah they’ll preach.  Das’ sermons were about diversity, about self acceptance, about the way in which Festival of Colors brings together thousands of people who are there with one purpose and who aren’t in competition with one another.  In another message, he pointed out that each of us is born to be ourselves and our challenge in life is to be the best self we can be.  If the messages sound anodyne, that’s okay; they’re also important.  At one point, he said something like “I used to try to be really good at things I was no good at.  Then I figured out I was supposed to be the best me I could be – and I learned to be a better father and husband and I learned to throw a really good party of Lord Krishna.”  That got a massive cheer.

Das designed his message to be universal in appeal but he also talked about diversity – that the crowd at the festival represented the full diversity of humanity.  That got me thinking about diveristy and universalism.

Fundamentalism seems to rest on claims of exclusivism.  That there is only one right way to be a Christian or one right wya to be an American.  Recognizing the diversity of our society is a direct threat to fundamentalism.  Claiming that there isn’t a single correct Christianity or single correct way of being American is direct repudiation of fundamentalism. 

But, diversity is often paired with universalism.  Rather than there being a contradiction, the two seem to go together.  Diversity – in race, religion, ideology – doesn’t negate the deeper things that connect us as humans.  Recognizing that race, gender and sexual orientation all influence how we live in the world is important; recognizing that those differences in experience and outlook are nonetheless part and parcel of our shared humanity is equally important.  Like Terence, I feel that nothing human is alien to me.  I understand, for example, why parents in many places want to ban or censor certain books – the emotions fueling that desire are normal. 

Diversity and pluralism are simply the ability to recognize multiple ways of being in the world without the need to make everyone pick one.  The paradox of living in a pluralistic society is that there will be people – i.e. the religious right which seems to wish to make everyone live according to their rules – who will attempt to force everyone to agree with them.  As time goes on, they will claim societal expectation of tolerance and diversity are wrong – attempting to force them to accept what they do not accept.  I’m not sure if the conflict is inevitable, but . . .

To take one example, the US is becoming increasingly open to same sex marriage.  For people who believe their religion absolutely forbids it, the experience is shocking; they feel increasingly unable to openly oppose gay marrige and so argue their religious freedom is being abridged. Many religious conservatives seems to believe the law exists to teach and enforce a particular morality (Paul Mero’s claim of the law being educative, for example).  In light of that view, if the law permits something they believe is immoral (i.e. same sex marriage) they will react as if the law is demanding the accept it as moral.  Therein lies the real conflict.  In a diverse society we may permit same sex marriage and most people adopt a live and let live attitude.  It’s legal to drink alcohol, that doesn’t mean I have to drink alcohol.  It’s legal for two people of the same gender to marry , that doesn’t mean I have to marry someone of the same gender.  But if I believe the law exists to educate people into correct morals, I won’t adopt a live and let live attitude with regard to such things. 

Trying to look at it from the perspective of someone who believes their moral system is the only right one and who believes that one role of the law is educative, it’s easy to see why appeals to both diversity and universalism can feel hollow and/or threatening.  If you truly believe legalizing same sex will condemn America and Americans to hell, arguments grounded in human rights and civil liberties are excessively trivial.  If you believe that being a good American is about embracing a highly specific set of beliefs and actions (it’s not hard to see that for many conservatives American-ness is identified with being an evanglical/fundamentalist Christian, being anti-communist, against gay marriage, opposed to abortion and premarital sex, belief in America’s inherent goodness), then anyone who doesn’t share those beliefs is a bad and has possibly illegitimate claim to being an American.  If protecting American depends on transmitting a specific type of American identity (evangelical, straight, rural/suburban), then appeals to both diversity and universalism are an attack on America.  When these socially conservative folks hear people talk about diversity, they hear code for undermining our shared values.  When they hear arguments for same sex marriage or reproductive freedoms, they hear attacks on our shared moral values.  When liberals look at the world and say, “You know there are reasons that people in say the Arab world resent the United States” they hear an attack our inherent goodness as a nation.  If you believe in a morally black and white world, people who call attention to shades of gray are easily understood as sullying the white.  If you believe “you’re with us or you’re against us” someone who tries to understand the motives of “them” is easily understood as siding with “them” against “us.” 

An event like the Festival of Colors is inconceivable in 1950s America. A religiously diverse America once meant different types of Christians with some Jews thrown in; now it means an America in which in a Krishna temple exists in 90% Mormon Spanish Fork, UT, in which a sizable mosque is in West Valley City, UT, in which 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all.  Religiously pluralistic America in 2012 is a nation in which 80,000 people can attend a Hindu festival in a small town, hear a message about diversity and univeralism.  Religiously pluralistic America is a nation in which appeals to religious authority carry far less weight than they used to and in which religious people get frustrated as their appeals to religious authority sway fewer and fewer Americans. 

America in  2012 is a nation in which the formerly exotic is now the every day.  In the book The United States of Arugula, the author quotes from a newspaper article from the 1930s (IIRC) which explained how to pronounce pizza to readers.  It seems incredibly to think there was a time that was necessary.  The real revolution started in the 1960s wasn’t a sexual revolution per se, although that was part of it; it was a revolution from a society that kept its diversity hidden to a society that put its diveristy on display.  I read that 60% of couples live together before marriage.  Majorities of people under 50 favor same sex marriage.  50% of more of people under 18 identify as non-white (including Latino, African American, Asian, Native American).  20% of Americans have no religious affiliation.  Attendance at church is declining for almost all denominations.  There are some gay teens who have never been in the closet.  America has experienced a revolution from homogeneity to diversity and it has rocked our world.  And lots of Americans aren’t sure they like the new America all that much.


  1. #1 by Sergio Bernabeu on April 8, 2012 - 9:40 pm

    Read the article, I enjoyed as much as Holi 2012 who was my second year as a pilimigrage and found what expected no more no less. This year insteat of taking myself and nieces my kids also came and enjoyed.The issue about the concepts and comodities that people are “expecting” are base to their concept of open minds and reality. I was born and raise in Europe and being living in the States for last 20. I do not have a single concept as I’ve seen many gatherings thru the years. The Krishna community delivered and lets be realistic. If the number or people are increasing.. why is that? We can’t relay in one statement or opinion but the proven participation of the masses. It is imperative that room for growth, improvement and future planning must be done. However to my personal view.. I got what I wanted more no less.
    The Utah media surprises me as I was a weekend Salt Lake Tribune reader. They did lack of coverage for a 60k participants in Utah. Why?.. Be you the judge on it.. but.. made my own opinion and yes.. I was a weekend news paper reader.
    The Temple the staff and people were oustanding. Pilimigrage is understood by Utahns as attending to a General Conference which needs to be respected. Something new is clicking and not sure if the “locals” would agree to a different way of thinking or acting. This gives more room for equality and social awareness for everyone..
    Great experience..we’ll be there next year.

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