Divali: Of Symbolism, Light, and Understanding

When we become parents and grandparents, we delight in telling our little ones – even after they have become bigger, because in our hearts they ever remain little (don’t they?) – about the olden days when we were small and not so small too, about how we used to enjoy and celebrate festivals.

All festivals and celebrations that touch us very deeply have in one way or another got to do with light in all its various forms of manifestation, towards which we contribute too. There is an absolute dimension of light, its brightness which is an expression of the dance of energy that is its source, most visibly to us as the sun. Without it there simply would not be anything: no existence as we know it. And the sun is itself part of and identical in essence with the initial cosmic source so far known to man, the ‘Big Bang’.

There is the relative or manifested dimension of light, as it transforms into shapes and colours, some of it natural, for example the rainbow or the aurora borealis. But we also create artificial representations such as when we play sparklers, light up earthenware lamps or candles, ignite firecrackers that create patterns in space, or use electronics to generate kaleidoscopic displays (on the dance floor etc) among so many other such means.

As we gradually matured as human beings, we sought not only to survive by exploiting whatever was available in our surroundings, but also began a larger quest of trying to understand the world and our place in it. We came to realise that there is our star the sun with its planets, our solar system, and then that there are galaxies made of solar systems too. As our powers of observation increased, it became clear that there were hundreds of billions of galaxies that make up a larger entity called the universe or cosmos (the latest thinking is about multiverses, but we will not go into that).

When we analysed our thinking process, we found that we always proceeded from the known to the unknown, from the observable to the unobservable but perceivable (e.g. thoughts, emotions), from the gross (matter) to the subtle (energy), from the manifested (visible) to the unmanifested (invisible). To put all this together coherently, we needed languages that articulated the ideas and concepts formulated as theories, and used tools such as mathematics which only could give sense to abstract ideas.

We found that the cosmos which we are exploring had an intrinsic cosmic order, what in Hinduism is known as Rta (Sanskrit: rtam ‘that which is properly joined; order, rule; truth’). It is the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. This cosmic order is in turn made up of a physical order, which is the domain of science, and a moral order. The latter is the domain of philosophers who approach it with an open mind, men of religion whose minds are closed, and spiritual people who go beyond the mind and take an all-encompassing or holistic view.

In the latter view, the fundamental pursuit is to understand and explain the origin of the world (the universe, existence) and of where man fits into the picture. About man, the following needed to be explored and understood: his origin and essential nature, his physical evolution, his mind, the basis of his actions, his relationship with others at individual and collective level, his relationship with plants, animals and inanimate or non-living objects, his larger purpose and goal as part of the cosmos.

This followed from an understanding, upon analysis, that the cosmos is made up of the living and the non-living. The non-living is understandable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry, but the living is only partially explicable by them. There are two major features of ‘higher living’ which science is attempting to apprehend in physicochemical terms, happiness or bliss and conscious self-awareness which are not of material nature.

We already know from the science perspective that all that exists, both living and non-living, finally resolves into atoms which are themselves but energy, and when released in its purest and visible form that energy is light – of the sun, of the nuclear bomb. By no means are we walking or ticking nuclear bombs! – but from a fundamental point of view we are creatures of light.

Long ago Hindu sages or vedic rishis as they are known came to the conclusion that all of existence (universe and multiverse, living and non-living) is but an emanation of that One and Only Reality (sat) whose essential nature is bliss or ananda and self-aware consciousness or chit: satchitananda. The constituent parts of the universe are therefore all linked, interconnected by virtue of their having emanated from that single source, which is the Light Divine, and man is its highest embodiment.

Discovering this Divine Light within is the Supreme Knowledge of Oneness and interconnectedness with all that is, and living in the world by founding one’s actions in the world upon this Supreme Knowledge is the highest purpose of the human being, what can be called his true spiritual quest. Through rational understanding, meditation and prayer, man can pierce though the layers of matter in which he is wrapped to reach and tap the Divine Light within, and live an enlightened life accordingly.

Beyond everything else, this is what the lights of Divali are meant to convey, and the lives of the persona (Rama and Sita, Krishna) and physical objects such as diyas lit along rows or avalis are illustrations and symbols of that Divine Light. As Dr Rabin Das put it in the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ column once, ‘Spiritually, the rows of lights are meant to create awareness about the Light within, the eternal, infinite atman which is beyond the transient physical body and mind. In the material world the celebration symbolizes, as mentioned previously, the victory of good over evil, as well as the light of higher knowledge dispelling the darkness of ignorance, which masks one’s true nature, the transcendent and immanent reality, atman. With this awakening comes the awareness of the oneness of all things in the universe, arousing compassion towards all and a feeling of all-pervasive bliss or ananda. Hence the sharing of sweets and gifts and forgiving rifts and wrongs done in the year gone by.’

We may also note that the flame of a lamp has two significant qualities. One is to banish darkness; the other is a continuous upward movement. Even if a lamp is kept in a pit, the flame is directed upwards. The ancients have taught that the upward movement of the flame denotes the path to wisdom and the path to divinity. However, the external light can dispel only the external darkness, but not the darkness of ignorance in man.

Further, there is a significance in lighting lamps. The flame of one lamp can light the whole array of lamps. That one lamp symbolizes the Paramjyoti (supreme effulgence). The others symbolize the Jeevan Jyotis (light in individual selves). Deepavali teaches this truth to the world.

The world would certainly be a happier and more peaceful place if as human beings we lived by and lived out this truth. Swami Vivekananda lived and died exhorting his country, India, and his countrymen to do so and lift the world to the higher planes. Only time will tell whether they will rise to this challenge and awesome but so much needed responsibility for the sak e of humanity, given the present state of mankind, starting with India itself.

All the same, Divali abhinanandan to all.

* Published in print edition on 17 October 2014

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