Thursday, 27 October 2011

What is so special about Diwali festival?

A dazzling display of light and colours; loud noises, new clothes and exquisite delicacies just cheer up the festive mood. When millions of oil lamps, candles and colourful electric lights blink and firecrackers light up the sky for many nights in a row you know that Indians are celebrating Diwali. 

In 2009, US President Barack Obama also attended Diwali in the White House.

Every sixth person on the planet celebrates Diwali somehow and it is an official holiday in 10 countries outside India.

  • In Malayasia Diwali is celebrated as Hari Deepawali
  • In Singapore, it is Deepawali
  • In the USA, Diwali has been given official holiday status by the congress in 2007 and San Antonio in Texas was the first US city in 2009, to sponsor a fireworks display
  • In the UK, it is a grand excuse for anyone loving fireworks, light and partying
  • In Australia and New Zealand, Diwali is a festival of light as also all things Indian

So what is Diwali?

As a five-day event, Diwali or deepavali or Kali Puja or festival of lights is one of the most important festivals of India and not only for Indians but also for many people in other countries as well.

Significance of Diwali for different religious traditions

As with all things Indian, Diwali has multiple layers of meanings and different significance for different religions.

  • For the Jains, Diwali is the day when their 24th and last tīrthaṅkara (prophet) attained Nirvana around 527 BC.
  • For the Sikhs, Diwali celebrates Bandi Chhorh Diwas or day of freedom, when their sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji was released from imprisonment by the Muslim emperor Jahangir in 1619.
  • Buddhists also celebrate Diwali as the day the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism around 265 BC.
  • Hindus celebrate Diwali for many reasons. 

The significance of Diwali can be interpreted through three themes in Hinduism:
  • The victory of light over darkness/evil theme - Narakasura, a big baddie, goes on a rampage. He conquers almost everything on Earth (literally meaning a large chunk of the Indian sub-continent) as also the heavens. In one version eventually a woman, Krishna’s wife Satyabhama kills this personification of evil and the rule of evil gives place to the rule of light.
  • The return of the rightful ruler theme - Rama one of the central figures of the Indian epic Ramayana returns home after 14 years of Vanbas or banishment. He is welcomed by diyas (ghee/oil lamps) lit in rows of 20. The Pandavas of the other Indian epic, the Mahabharata also return after 12 years of exile and 1 year of agyatavas on this day.
  • Correct aspiration over formal practice in religion theme – Krishna (who represents the highest level in Hinduism and an incarnation of Vishnu) discovers farmers about to offer their annual offering to Indra, who is a sort of prime minister of heaven (also deity of thunder and rain). Krishna questions the farmers' fuss about this ritualistic offering and expectations of being able to influence natural phenomena. He teaches them that being farmers, their efforts should be better directed at farming. So they neglect Indra’s offering. This annoys Indra and being a touchy god, he promptly floods the villages. Krishna (as he emanates from a higher plane of being then Indra) lifts the gigantic Mount Govardhan and holds it to shield the people and their cattle from rain. Finally Indra gets the message and stops persecuting the villages. This story elucidates the foundation of the Karma philosophy so very central to Indian thought.

What is The Esoteric Significance of Diwali?

All things spiritual and religious have two aspects, the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric is all about details and form of rituals, sacrifice, observance of rules and who does what and who shouldn’t do what. Almost all of the quarrels, fights and wars concerning religions stem from this aspect.

The esoteric aspect is an entirely different affair. It refers to things beyond representation. This is done through allegories, myths and symbolism. Often the esoteric employs mundane and very familiar everyday symbols to hint at hidden truths. So, what is the esoteric significance of Diwali?

Why should we celebrate after four thousand years a certain king coming back from exile and being welcomed? Does it really teach us something if a divine being is said to have being going around teaching deeper truths about life? Yes and no. It depends, on the eyes of the beholder.

Narakasura is the Asura or demon son of the earth goddess Bhudevi or Bhumi and Vishnu (from the highest levels of the Indian pantheon). So, he is pretty much indestructible, unavoidable and quasi eternal. The Narakasura story tries to tell us of a recurring condition of life. "Baddies" or bad events happen every now and then. There cannot be life totally without them. So we should learn to accept them as recurring challenges with equanimity and nothing more. This teaches the idea of equanimity. Equanimity or upekkhā (in Buddhism) is not indifference.

Photo source

In Hinduism it is an active principle of functioning with full attention to phenomena without attachment to negative factors. The path to equanimity is very difficult in real life as we have to fight our "demons" inside us. This struggle on the way to equanimity is the real Jihad (and not killing people who don't agree with us).

The desperate people going to seek help from Krishna shows that we need to achieve humility and ask for help. Then if these attitude factors are in place, we always get help, though from unexpected sources and in unexpected manner. We should also be perceptive enough to recognize this help as it may be different from what we expected.

Now Krishna is omnipotent. So he could just as well undo or delete the demon. But he doesn't and goes to fight a bloody battle. Why does he then bring his wife Satyabhama into the deadly battle with the demon Narakasura? It is not very usual that big strong men going to battle take their wives to be beside them in battle. In one version, at some point in the struggle Krishna pretends that he is mortally hurt and his wife Satyabhama promptly takes the opportunity to kill the demon.

How should we interpret this? We can go utterly wrong if we choose to interpret these events historically or literally. Does this contain a hidden feminist agenda or should we understand that even women could be strong when standing in a chariot next to a god? Hardly.

What about a symbolic interpretation? Should we interpret this so that Krishna symbolises our intellect and Satyabhama the emotions? Only by combining intellect and emotions and using them together skilfully can we defeat demons (i.e., solve recurring problems). In order to succeed we need intent, motivation and then skilful application of right effort in the desired direction. Then and then only success is achieved.

So, by switching our perspective away from the literal and historical interpretation to a symbolic approach we learn deep truths about how we can live our lives better no matter where we live and in whatever age. Reading this ancient story on an iPhone, iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab in 2012 would still bring you gems of life lessons only if you have got the right mindset to grasp them.

Photo source

Happy Diwali!