By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
There are many festivals in the Hindu calendar, but perhaps none is as filled with joy and expectations as Divali is. That it has assumed national dimensions should not surprise – for it is about light, light without which there would be nothing at all, no existence, not to speak of life as we know it. Can one imagine a world without light? Truly, light is life itself.
The festival originates from India, where it is celebrated at the beginning of winter. Let us hear from Indian journalist Sagarika Ghose on this: ‘When winter begins in India, the dawn becomes lightly touched with frost, the trees straighten up and a soft new light appears. The summer’s harrowing heat and its thundering monsoon give way to Kartik, the golden season of October and November. It is a season of silky sunlight and blossoming trees, when the subcontinent bursts into flaming flower and the gods prepare the earth so they may descend to it in relative comfort. When the chrysanthemums erupt, it is the time of festival.’
I have felt that silky sunlight years ago, and many memories flash in my mind’s eye…
‘Diwali is the festival of light. Celebrated at the end of the dark fortnight of the Amavasya or the waning moon, it is usually held at the end of October or beginning of November. Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning “row of lamps”; it is a time of remembrance, feasts, fireworks, forgiveness and a renewal of life. Life takes on a delicious newness; as the sun turns honey-gold, there is the shivering anticipation on the edges of every starlit evening of winter waiting to return.’
Here in Mauritius of course it is the opposite, namely winter giving way to summer. But somehow it is never hot on Divali day, as I recall about all the Divalis that I have celebrated. If at all, quite often Divali evenings have been a little windy, especially in Curepipe, so that the diyas have to laid out in protected places, such as the low-lying junctions of house walls and the ground, or window sills and nooks and corners sought out where the lamps can be laid. Which is also part of the fun, for there’s no point celebrating without fun, even if it is loud on this occasion! Another possibility is to make ‘lanterns’ by sitting the diyas in the centre of a well made by wrapping coloured translucent paper around bamboo sticks sunk in the ground – and pray that a drizzle does not come uninvited to play spoilsport!
Although we do not do so strictly in Mauritius, the festival begins with Dhanteras (dhan = wealth; teras = 13th), which falls on the 13th day of the second half of the lunar month, and a special puja is done before the festival of lights, to mark the wealth and prosperity that is associated with Divali. It is considered to be an auspicious day for shopping of utensils and gold. There is thus an economic aspect of the festival too: in ancient days when the festival originated, people may not have been well-off enough to be able to make major purchases all the year round, and as Divali was an occasion for renewal, the opportunity was taken to discard not only old utensils, but also clothes for example, and buying new ones. Thus, businesses also prospered. In fact, it is the practice for businesses to close their books, and open new ones with a special puja.
The rich symbolism of Divali extends to the consumption and sharing of sweets. It is a truism that as we go about our lives, whether at work or at the individual, family and social levels, we undergo experiences of various types, some of which can be bitter, and leave a lingering aftertaste – albeit a mental one — that disturbs us. Eating sweets is therefore symbolical of neutralising such internal bitterness. By extension, when we share sweets with everyone, family, friends, neighbours, we are sending a message: let us forget about any past strains and renew relationships on a sweet footing. As we give sweets especially to close ones with whom we may have been alienated, or expressed anger, we are also forgiving and asking for forgiveness if they are our elders. It is customary on Divali day to touch their feet as a mark of our humility and respect towards them.
Light is universally a symbol of knowledge, as it is the opposite of darkness which denotes ignorance. In Hinduism, everything finally resolves into the most important knowledge of all, namely knowledge of the Self which is subjective, as opposed to knowledge of the external world which is objective (the external world is made of objects).
Central to Hindu tradition is the affirmation, based on the profound experience of our rishis – and which we can discover individually for ourselves — that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman. Just as we celebrate the birth of our physical being, Divali is the celebration of this Inner Light, in particular the logical understanding of which and its contemplation outshine all darkness (remove all obstacles and dispel all ignorance), awakening the individual to one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality.
With the realization of the Atman comes universal compassion, love, and the awareness of the oneness of all things (Higher Knowledge). This brings Ananda (inner joy or peace).
There is a certain magic in the air, and this is particularly so in India, where ‘small quiet flames gleam under giant trees. Along wayside shrines, candles flicker amid bunches of marigolds. People bring offerings of flowers, rice grains and candles, and leave them on bridges, by the sides of lakes and in front of their homes. While people sleep, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, god of well-being, might emerge from the candle-lit darkness.’
Nowadays the bright electric lights which have become commonplace steal a good bit of the magical glow of softer lamps of oil and wick, but never mind, the spirit prevails. Let us pray therefore for the continual expansion of that circle of magical light, that we may all wish each other well, and live in the soft glow of the light that unites us in our common humanity.
* Published in print edition on 9 November 2012