Divali beyond Politics and Vice-Versa

When commitment to the universal common good becomes the norm, voting takes on a profound moral significance and becomes a moral choice and obligation

We have been witnessing functions held by various Hindu socio-cultural associations on the occasion of Divali. These have been widely reported given that the Prime Minister and other political leaders of the country have been invited, and have been present, on these occasions. As on previous such events in the past, it has become customary for those heading these organizations and the main political leaders to address the audience. All of a sudden around this time, we have a proliferation of lay experts on various aspects of Divali, all of them professing to be faithful adherents to the profound messages that the festival of lights conveys, and emphasizing that they all live by the values that it enshrines.

But the people are never beguiled by these high-falutin declarations of fidelity and purity. Come the day of election, they give the lesson that they think is deserved, which is reflected in the result of the election. Unfortunately, as an article in this paper pointed out some time ago, there is no constitutional mechanism in the country to vote out an unpopular government before the conventional five years (approximately). But if thatwere the case, the people would have had an occasion to ‘tell the truth to power’ earlier, hopeful of a salutary course correction in the affairs of the country, even if that were to be temporary. But at least the possibility would exist to exercise that option.

Given, however, that this ideal situation does not exist, our fallback position is to regularly remind à qui de droit the real purport of this sublime festival that Divali is, and how it can guide the actions and choices of the various stakeholders in matters of both individual and national interest. Since we have a by-election coming in December, we could do no better than to heed the wise words coming from a real expert, Anantanand Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, where he has been teaching since 1985. He holds a PhD and MA (Distinction) from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, and is the author of several scholarly publications. His books include ‘Accomplishing the Accomplished’, ‘The Limits of Scripture’, ‘The Advaita Worldview: God, World and Humanity’, ‘The Hindu Vision’, ‘Gitamrtam: The Essential Teachings of the Bhagavadgita’, and ‘A Hindu Theology of Liberation’.

As coincidence would have it, he wrote an article in the Huffington Post of October 25, 2016 as the electoral campaign in the US was heating up and that was to lead to the election of Donald Trump as President of that country. The article was aptly titled Truth, Light, and Meaning in the Voting Booth: Diwali and the US Elections’, and I thought it would be both instructive and useful to share some excerpts form that article for the benefit of the voters of the No. 18 constituency, who will shortly be called upon to cast the vote if not the die – since the result of the election is being widely viewed as a possible indicator of the direction in which future political winds may blow at national level. No comment will be necessary as these extracts will be self-explanatory to the discerning. In particular, it is the politicians who should take serious note of them, as their decisions have a larger impact. Here goes:

Divali provides illumination and discernment

‘To reflect on Diwali this year, while disregarding the elections that are only days away, is irresponsible. It makes a major Hindu festival irrelevant to one of the most important choices that we must make as citizens of a democratic nation. How may this Hindu festival provide illumination for us in what is an especially turbulent time when we yearn for light and wisdom?’

‘An election should be a time when a nation engages in a process of deep discernment… that discernment must be guided by the light of knowledge (jyotih) and not ignorance, by a passionate concern for seeking truth (sat) and not falsehood, and by a commitment to what ultimately matters (amrta) and not the trivial. Sadly, what we see today is a reckless indifference to truth and an appeal to narrow self-interest. Untruths that demean others, and that stir hate and fears are peddled daily. The attainment of power, and not truth and wisdom, has become the object of ultimate value. Truth is equated with expediency and convenience and redefined as that which ensures electoral victory; the means justifies the end.’

Loksangraha: the universal common good

‘More specifically, what is the truth that matters in the voting booth? The Hindu tradition answers with an explicit moral criterion. The Bhagavadgita advises us, twice, that all choices must be exercised with a concern for the universal common good. Consideration for the universal common good is equated with wisdom and virtue; it is what distinguishes the unselfish and wise person from the one who is selfish and unwise. The Hindu tradition requires that we make the public good the purpose of public policy.’

‘The Sanskrit expression, lokasangraha, which I translate here, as “universal common good,” is inclusive. It includes all human beings, but also the world of nature. One who is concerned about the universal common good values and respects all beings and is devoted to their flourishing. Such a person does not privilege unjustly the interests of a particular race, religion, nation, or gender. Concern for lokasangraha does not exclude the pursuit of personal or national interests. What it does exclude is the pursuit of such interests in ways that impede the flourishing of other beings or nations. It excludes trying to lift oneself or one’s nation by crushing others.’

‘Policies and actions that aim to overcome suffering are a necessary concomitant to a commitment to lokasangraha. Human beings do not flourish when they are the victims of injustice and violence and when they lack opportunities to attain life’s necessities that include health care, housing, education, good work and leisure. Women do not flourish when they are denigrated, and disrespected and reduced to sexual objects. No one flourishes in a culture that is obsessed with national greatness and not the overcoming of suffering.’

Lokasangraha requires thoughtful and compassionate consideration about the implications of our choices for the interrelated fabric of life. The ripple effects of our actions go deep and far. The Hindu teaching on karma reminds us that the consequences of our actions reach into the future and even beyond the span of our own lives. Through our choices today, we are shaping the world for future generations, and determining the quality of their lives. Our freedom to choose comes with a profound responsibility, but this must not deter us from exercising it.’

The moral demand on leaders

‘The Hindu tradition also makes a very specific moral demand on those who aspire to leadership. The Bhagavadgita (3:21) reminds us that leaders significantly influence the moral character of a society by their words and actions. The text repeats the word, “whatsoever,” to emphasize that everything a leader says and does is important. The moral significance of words should never be trivialized, especially when words demean and strip others of dignity. The Hindu tradition does not sanction moral compartmentalization in a leader’s life to permit double standards and hypocrisy. It demands sincerity and moral consistency for the sake of a nation’s moral health. Regard for the universal common good requires that we carefully examine the morality of a leader’s words and actions in evaluating competency for office.’

‘The prevailing rhetoric arrogantly champions narrowly construed national interests, divides communities… Our political discourse is not grounded in an understanding of the unity of life and of the flourishing of the whole. It is fragmented, fractured and partisan. Sadly, even the religious voices that we hear most at this time do not rise above the fray to offer us an alternative vision of the good life for all. These voices show little concern for justice and moral values in public life.’

Voting as moral choice, responsibility and obligation

‘The lights of Diwali… are meant to remind us of our responsibility to transform our world by a passionate commitment to the overcoming of suffering and to truth and knowledge. Diwali is traditionally celebrated on the darkest night of the year to show us that even a tiny flame in a small clay vessel can dispel the gloom. Every additional flame widens the circle of light. Placing lokasangraha at the center of our political life will not happen overnight, but every compassionate moral choice for truth, wisdom and the overcoming of suffering makes a difference.

‘When commitment to the universal common good becomes the norm by which we measure the meaning of all that we do, voting takes on a profound moral significance and becomes a moral choice and obligation. No choice is perfect and no outcome can be guaranteed. Inaction, however, as the Bhagavdgita teaches, is never an option. We align ourselves with the highest truth when we make a choice in the voting booth for lokasangraha.

May the light of Divali ever illumine our thoughts and choices.


*  Published in print edition on 19 October 2017

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