Aapravasi Ghat and Deepavali: Getting the Messages for Right Living

Today and on Thursday, yet again we will be given the opportunity to reflect, to take our life in our own hands

 By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Late Dr S. Radhakrishnan, philosopher-President of India, in an article on the purpose of education, lamented the fact that the best and the brightest of minds were ‘active in producing destructive and deadly weapons of war.’ Along the same lines is a quotation by physicist Albert Einstein, who wrote, ‘I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’ Presumably, by then mankind would have self-destructed into a nuclear winter, leaving us with sticks and stones only to fight for the meagre resources left.

Another philosopher bemoaned that the increase in mankind’s knowledge and power was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in wisdom. And that is how the world continues to harbour democratically elected dictators and autocrats who hold their people hostage in horrible living conditions while they themselves live luxuriously, served by sycophants and compliant nominal heads of institutions. As Dr Radhakrishnan went on to say, ‘this appalling condition of the contemporary world, this failure of man is not the decree of fate: it is the work of man. It is not destiny, but dastardly crime.’ (Italics added)

The majority of people want to live in peace, caring for family, having some friends, doing some service to the extent of their capacity and then, come the time, return to whence they came and give a good account of themselves to their ‘creator’ whoever or whatever that may be in their view. But there are also many people around who live mainly to do harm to others. Previously this used to be more in a covert form: increasingly, it is done openly and with impunity – protection from ‘on high’? This is the kind of society in which we are living these days, a society where the ‘politics of power’ allows the bad and the ugly to predominate to the detriment of the ‘gentle and the principled who are marginalized.’ Under such circumstances, we can only counter these harmful influences by falling back upon our own devices or resources.

It is here that the ideals which great thinkers like Radhakrishnan present before us become fundamental to our existence, and we can look up to those who have lived these ideals as examples and role models to emulate for our individual betterment as well as for the good of society in general. If every person strives to live a saner life, it goes without saying that this will lead to a general increase in saner living for all by a synergistic effect. It is a choice we can make, in doing which we take control rather than leave things to a nebulous ‘destiny.’

Bhagavan Sri Ram faced unparalleled adversity and Sita Mata was put under such pressure from Ravana that they both could have easily cracked. And yet they did not. They had steadfastness and perseverance, and eventually they overcame the adversary and returned in triumph to their kingdom of Ayodhya, where thousands of rows – avali — of earthenware lamps gave out the light – deep – that shone to welcome them back. Their story of courage in the face of adversity, told and recited in the baithkas where our immigrant forefathers congregated after their arduous and long hours in the fields, gave the latter hope that someday they would also overcome their situation.

And so Aapravasi Ghat, where on November 2, 1834 the first batch of recruits that would form part of the colonial ‘Great Experiment’ in Indenture from India climbed the steps to their life in a strange land to which they had been lured with promises of better working and living conditions. Their sufferings – beatings, poor living conditions, meagre rations, extreme punishments for minor matters, inadequate pay, restrictions which did not allow them to return after the termination of their contracts, and so on – have been detailed in several historical documents. Like the willow, they bent but did not break. It is thanks to their indomitable spirit that today we breathe the air of freedom.

We, their descendants, are today living in relative material comfort. We take for granted our situation and live our lives in ignorance of the values that gave our forefathers the strength to face their colonial masters and rise. We spend our time in endless sterile discussions where, often, it is the alcohol and not the mind that is doing the talking. Compared to our numbers, only a very few bother to get involved in improving the lot of others who are less fortunate. We allow those who manipulate, cringe and crawl only for their selfish interests to speak on our behalf. If we go on like this, it will not be long before there will be nothing left of either self-respect or dignity, the very values which gave our forefathers the determination to fight and improve their lot.

It is indeed a good coincidence that the Aapravasi Ghat day and Deepavali are to be celebrated within a day of each other – but it will be better still if we remind ourselves of the lessons and the messages that these two occasions convey and try to put them into practice in our daily life. In this way only can we forge a better future for our coming generations.  As we light the diyas on Thursday next, let us take a pledge to brighten our collective future. And for this, the perennial values found in our scriptures show us the way. They are:

* Quest for peace, Om Shanti Shanti
* Pursuit of a cooperative way of life – Om Sahanau Bhavatu, Sahanau Bhunaktu…
* Acceptance of diversity of views – Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti
* Doing good to others – Paropakaram Artham Idam Shareeram
* Compassion for the poor and oppressed – Je Ka Ranjale Ganjale Tyasi Jo Man He Apule (Tukaram)

* Love for and protection of nature
* Performance of one’s duty selflessly
* Equanimity in the face of success or failure, happiness and sorrow
* Spirit of sacrifice for family and society
* Respect for parents and elders

Constantly and regularly, we are shown the light and the way. We have only ourselves to blame if we prefer the dark alleys to the lit paths.

Today and on Thursday, yet again we will be given the opportunity to reflect, to take our life in our own hands instead of leaving it to forces that are trying to exert external control and make us deviate from the good path, that of Dharma.

There is everything in the Indic values to build up our inner strength, all that is required is that willingness and that little effort to seek them out. Developing that inner strength should be our one resolve for, as Swami Jitatmananda of the Ramakrishna Mission pointed out, translating the meaning of Atmana Vindate Viryam (Kena Upanishad), ‘each human being contains within himself the potentiality of infinite knowledge, infinite strength, infinite joy and eternal life.’

Following in the footsteps of Bhagavan Sri Ram, Sita Mata and the first faltering ones of our valiant ancestors, we can start afresh on a new voyage of discovery of ourselves through our Vedic heritage. Sahana Vavatu …

Deepavali abhinandan.


* Published in print edition on 2 November 2021

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